Replacing original Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin mustn’t have been easy for Mike Byrne, but leader Billy Corgan clearly made a good choice with the newbie. Similar to the way that Zak Starkey is in some ways the best possible drummer to cover Keith Moon’s inimitable role in the Who, Byrne’s playing features a number of elements that strongly recall his predecessor, yet it doesn’t seem unnatural, like he’s trying to force the issue. Mike’s super-active but distinctly centered approach will satisfy listeners who enjoyed Jimmy’s muscular yet nimble commentary, but Byrne wisely doesn’t fall victim to the urge to replicate Chamberlin’s approach at every turn.
Oceania is being called an album within an album, the forty-four-song Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, which itself was designed as a collection of individually released tracks that were also due to be grouped together into EPs. Even Corgan seems a bit confused by his own attempt to reimagine the way bands release music in this decade of radically changing listening habits, but in the end what we have with Oceania is a good-old-fashioned hour-long album that works as such, and it’s our first chance to see how the twenty-two-year-old drummer fares across the long haul. Quiet well, it turns out.
The Pumpkins’ relatively consistent approach to mixing grand electric rockers with lush acoustic numbers and more electronic-leaning cuts remains, and Byrne chooses his weapons smartly in each scenario. The drummer comes out of the gate charging, peppering the 12/8 opener, “Quasar,” with the type of grinding hand-foot combos and snare buildups that will put a smile of recognition on the faces of longtime Pumpkins fans, while the following song, “Panopticon,” largely follows the same path—the man clearly enjoys keeping all four limbs pumping whenever possible, and the songs nearly always benefit.
The opening one-two punch will do nothing to dispel opinions that Corgan, who lost a bit of his creative edge in the last decade, is somehow retreating to past glories like 1993’s Siamese Dream, and track three, “The Celestials,” reprises another proven Pumpkins mechanism, the Mellotron-laced acoustic love song, famously established with Siamese Dream’s “Disarm.” It’s all good, though; the new song takes a turn away from that classic’s arrangement (wisely they kept the timpani and orchestral bells in storage this time—though they both do show up on track nine, “Pale Horse”), and Byrne provides just enough notes to bring life to the track without wearing us out with ideas.
Corgan really does seem reenergized here as well, relying less on his sometimes monotonous voyages into angsty head-banging and focusing more on developing strong melodies and letting some air into the arrangements. Many people feel this is the band’s strongest album in quite a while, and that seems like a fair assessment. Hopefully as time goes on Byrne will find more and more ways to establish as unique a style as Chamberlin did, and help take the band itself into fresher territory. He’s certainly got the skills to do it. It will be interesting to see if Corgan and company can stay on the good path they’ve established with Oceania.
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