*** (out of four)
The Smashing Pumpkins are back. Well, Billy Corgan and his latest version of the band, at least.
But don't let that turn you off.
"Oceania," the first full-length Pumpkins album since 2007's "Zeitgeist," is the best thing Corgan and Co. have produced in quite some time. Longtime fans will hear hints of the grungy, vicious band of the "Gish" era and also the mellow, almost pop "Adore" era. It's a mix that works.
Album opener "Quasar," driven by Mike Byrne's thunderous drums, kicks off "Oceania," and it's the perfect introduction to the latest in the Pumpkins' "Teargarden By Kaleidyscope" project. It eases the listener in with simple guitar plucking and bass before the full band tears into the cut full force. The guitar riffs have that traditional screechy Pumpkins sound, and Corgan's unmistakable vocals, while perhaps not as shrill as in years past, hold their own among the sonic assault.
It should be noted that bassist Nicole Fiorentino and guitarist Jeff Schroeder, the other new members of the band, are not given a back seat. That reinforces Corgan's pre-release interview assertions that this version of Smashing Pumpkins is a true band.
"I've been adamant in stressing that, as a group, first and foremost, we are here to make new music together," Corgan told NME this week. "Jeff, Mike, and Nicole have all made significant contributions to the tone and texture of 'Oceania,' which is an album that is unlike any I've ever made. Yet at the same time I believe it upholds the same musical values I've always pushed for with the Pumpkins, be they progressive, emotional, epic or restless."
"The Celestials," a ballad, is another nod to the Pumpkins' past. Its acoustic guitar and orchestration make it, if not a sibling, then a distant cousin to the classic "Disarm" from "Siamese Dream."
Littered throughout "Oceania" are keyboards, post-rock-style instrumentation and prog-like complexities, and they all collide on perhaps the album's strongest track, "My Love is Winter." The slick mid-tempo rocker might not have been completely at home on "Gish" or "Siamese Dream," but it's a modern-era highlight.
If there's a complaint to be had with "Oceania," it's that there's a similar sound running throughout the album. Many of the songs segue right into the next seamlessly. In that regard, it's similar to a concept album. Again, that almost sounds like Corgan's intent.
"I was dead set on making an album where every song was just as valuable as any other, ignoring the typical claptrap you hear about needing a single. The only way to make the case that every song on 'Oceania' is worth hearing is to put your heart into the sequence as a cohesive whole. Once we felt we'd achieved that balance, only then did we let anyone outside our world hear the record we'd made."
Good to hear Corgan recognize a world outside himself, one that will likely be reasonably, pleasantly surprised by what the Pumpkin has sprouted this time.