Tom Shear has never had a problem growing his sound. Where many of his peers from the post-millenial futurepop era have found themselves musically stuck in place or diverted into creative dead-ends, Shear has quietly and confidently been evolving the sound of Assemblage 23, to the point where his particular stripe of accessible and melodic EBM is a brand unto itself. Knowing that certainly makes his new side-project Surveillance an interesting quantity; an artist separating themselves from their own carefully cultivated identity to do something different can go either way, but with Shear it’s safe to assume that it’s not done as a whim or without just cause.
In the case of Oceania the conceit appears to be two-fold, containing both a thematic and sonic element. On the latter front the songs on the LP possess a distinctly classic body music flavour, based heavily around the kind of riffy basslines that form the basis of the genre. The other face of the record is a specific lyrical concern with personal liberty and the encroaching specter of an increasingly dystopian society where a government spies on it’s own people. Like the name of the projects suggests, it’s a record that is broadly about surveillance, both literal and metaphorical.
Musically these tracks feel very natural coming from Shear. While some of the palettes and toolsets tapped for Oceania are a bit different than usual, these still feel like the sort of songs he writes, with all the emphasis on melody that implies. Early on the banging “Thoughtcrime” marries a punchy 16th note bass sound straight from the Nitzer Ebb playbook to a distinctly a A23-styled chorus, the fusion highlighted by chanting that punctuates its nimbly sung couplets . “Eye to Eye” takes the same route to success, all muscly bassline on the verse and chiming pianos and shimmery synths on the hook. The balance occasionally favours one side over the other, like “Husk”, a slow-paced synth ballad that could have easily slotted into any of Shear’s recent records without skipping a tastefully programmed beat, or “Homeland Security” that goes full on into a classic sample-based instrumental style reminiscent of selected highlights from the Wax Trax and early Nettwerk catalogues.
Shear has long been one of Our Thing’s most consistent lyricists, and while he generally excels with well developed themes based around the personal, he’s no slouch on this foray into the political end of things. “Voyeur” handily draws a line connecting the unsettling idea of being observed in one’s private moments by a peeping tom with state sponsored information-gathering in the name of security, where opener “I Was There” makes Shear himself the dispassionate observer in a not-so theoretical police state scenario. Oceania has more than a few ways to attack the same themes across its ten tracks, and while it stumbles a bit when advocating open revolution on “Rise” (“If we fail/At least we tried” isn’t exactly the most inspiring battlecry) it’s all done with the same kind of nuance and aplomb Shear typically brings to his Asemblage 23 material.
It’s an odd habit of record critics to demand justification for a side-project: after all, no music of any kind has to have a reason to exist. Oceania makes its own case really, regardless of what name is on the tin it’s distinctly the work of a singular artist. Tom Shear doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone: if he continues to make records as strong as Surveillance’s debut it doesn’t much matter what name he releases them under, their quality will speak for them.