Review Summary: Shooting two for two from the charity stripe.Tilt: High
Context: Kezia is a 4/5
Standards can be a bitch, and it only gets worse when you put them in context. All conditions aside, Protest the Hero's Kezia
was a pretty outstanding album. Yes, its reception was black and white with little to no grey area, but a little polarization never hurt anyone. In context, however, Kezia
suffered from a lot of amateur mistakes; acceptable given that it was mostly written while the band was still in high school but noticeable nonetheless. Of these issues, some reach back to Juice, a producer more suited to the Alexisonfires of the world than a band with more of a metal edge. But Juice's ticky-tacky missteps aside –the over-layering of the vocals, inaudible bass and clickity drums- the band still fell into a comfort zone. Yes, that comfort zone was entertaining, catchy and arguably amazing, but it still felt like the band started to force melodies and riffs, somewhat forgivable given Kezia
's prolonged process.
The approach taken with Fortress
was not forced. They worked with Juice again, but he heeded complaints, fixing more or less all of Kezia
's little quips, but most importantly, they (being Protest the Hero) didn't write and record this album while trying to balance 11th Grade History and a rigorous touring schedule. This time, context is doing them all the favours.
marches to a much deeper tune than its predecessors. A result of a conglomerating prominent low-end, unrelenting harsh vocals (we'll get there) and more aggressive songwriting, Fortress
is head and shoulders above Kezia
in terms of sheer heaviness. It also refines the band's sound into one that is irrefutably metal. While there's no shortage of punk and (post)hardcore, calling this metalcore is to ignorantly shove aside all of the other non-metal influences. Fortress
runs up, down and around the gamut, incorporating encompassing influences subtly into a progressive metal setting, one thankfully lacking in James LaBrie and 'it was all a dream' epiphanies.
"Bloodmeat" is not only the single, but easily the safest track on the album, however it is not to say it doesn't stand out. It is a failsafe, blending an improved Kezia
formula with a "Saddest Day", "Sugar Coated Sour" sense of dissonance. But as soon as "Bloodmeat" ends after a brief "you think it's over but it ain't" fakeout, "The Dissentience" kicks in and you're off to the races. While "The Dissentience" is perhaps a little fragmented and awkward on its own, it introduces listeners to Rody's newly embraced bag of vocal trickery. This is where I change the subject and get to one of those things I said I'd get to.
The vocals, unrelentingly executed by Rody (with some help from the rest of the band, the producer and Ceci the studio cat) deserve their own paragraph. And before I go for the gusto, I'll say it now and get it out of the way: the 11-second scream at the end of "The Dissentience", the guttural "royalty must die"
growl on "Bone Marrow" and the seamless high scream to mid-growls placed throughout the album are Rody. Arif, who was previously believed to have performed the majority of the growls, has only one actual recorded line, a brief growl (that's underneath Rody's scream) on "Wretch". This is not as trivial as you'd initially assume, for my point is not that Rody pulls out all the stops (he does) or that he's expanded his repertoire ten-fold (he has), but rather that Rody was given the freedom to do as he saw fit on Fortress
. He is the vocalist and it's made abundantly clear, and luckily this time around he's shown not only extensive improvement in his myriad of styles, but in his ability to show restraint and maturely appropriate harsh and clean vocals where they fit. Rody has matured over the course of the band's young career and this is no different, as he vies to keep the harmonies natural this time around and limits the layering that hindered his performance on Kezia
. Of course, the freedom does get a little over-exemplified in some instances, mostly in the occasional "fuck
yeaaaaah" ad lib or in the girlish, Vince Neil inspired falsettos in "Wretch", which thankfully lasts all of three seconds. His sometimes whiny intonation is almost completely absent without the overly harmonised cleans, and he's expanded his range far beyond his newly honed harsh vocals, pushing out higher notes than you'd expect as effortlessly as you would hope. Oh, and if you're wondering about Ceci the cat, you'll hear her on "Wretch" (and this is
purely trivial), as she meowed while being held by Rody as he tracked vocals and they decided to keep it in the final song. It doesn't make sense in the context of the track, but it's a fitting cue (of which there are many) and certainly lightens the load.
When I say the cat lightens the load, here's why: "Wretch" is an intense track. It not only features the band's most explicit [Ron] Jarzombek influence in its circular 12-tone riffery, but it features many prominent lyrical cuts that effectively outline much of the album's sometimes overbearing concept. To make it clear, Fortress
is not the kind of concept album that revolves around a strict narrative. To make it clearer, Fortress
does not concern itself with characters; yes, Genghis Khan and Flidais (among others) are mentioned by name, but the album more closely revolves around ideas. "Wretch" perhaps best outlines these ideas with some of the album's stronger lyrics, with lines such as "Suppressed and unaddressed the simple fact remains unspoken, in silence left unbroken, on a bed bound and gagged with culture, language, myth and law: our goddess gave birth to your god -From a wounded womb where her flesh scarred and raw -
Our goddess gave birth to your god." and "as they barter their boulders and martyr their soldiers; teach a man to tear her fucking head from her goddamn shoulders"
, but it's "Goddess Gagged" that tosses out, "the goddess abhors us for what we have done -- bury your daughter and pray for a son,"
a personal favourite. Basically, Fortress
carries along many intense concepts based in both poetic theory (Robert Graves) and historical occurrences, lending itself to far less cryptic interpretations and more ideological appreciation.
"Wretch" is one of three main standouts, the other two being "Palms Read" and "Bone Marrow". "Palms Read" is worth noting for several reasons: its arpeggios and musical theatre-like melodies instantly herald reminiscence of "Turn Soonest…", just more concise and a lot cooler, but it also makes "Limb from Limb" much better, a necessary feat because "Limb from Limb" is grossly hindered by a guest keyboard solo done by Vadim of Dragonforce. As you've probably imagined, the solo sounds more akin to what you'd hear during Contra 3 than on an album that takes its ideas pretty seriously (barring the aforementioned Ceci the cat cameo). In short (long), Vadim's solo is ridiculous, unnecessary and while his name brings a lot to the table, it may do more harm than good, because while the majority of it (it's in two, and still relatively succinct) appears over a portion of the track where more or less nothing happens, it sounds (and I can't say this enough) fuck
ing ridiculous. Seriously, we're talking Atari 2600 noises here. Luckily the track does redeem itself with a dry, sickeningly filthy groove, an obvious band-aid solution to them not being able to say no to a buddy whose intentions were almost definitely good.
To backtrack, "Palms Read" is important because it highlights one of the albums strongest positives as well as some of its negatives. There's a soundclip that comes in at the end of the track (or the beginning of "Limb from Limb") that says "two minutes and y'lads are in for a surprise", followed by an implosion of the song that had (seemingly) just finished. The song spirals out into a flurry of technicality, aggression and even features a carnival-type riff. But, if you're listening to the album on shuffle, that 1:22 clip will sound completely random, totally meaningless and kind of stupid. Listen to the album as intended, however, and you'll hear that the [supposedly] random, context-less ending of "Palms Read" is actually just the beginning of "Limb from Limb". There are actually a few soundclips on the album, and most of them don't really make sense. "Wretch" ends (or "Goddess Bound" begins) with "you wanted to see the galaxy", and while the lead that begins the track is a little Trekian, it still doesn't make sense in context of the lyrics. "Sequoia Throne" ends with some unnecessary and distorted pop- track, and then there's the aforementioned meowing.
I'll forgive and forget the album's occasional faults, as they're seemingly more reliant on over-enthusiastic post-production than actual songwriting. And while the clips may be contextually random, they're significant to the music because they act as cues and place-markers, two things found aplenty on the disc. "Palms Read", for example, features the one and only solo on the album, though it's a somewhat underwhelming pop-and-slap bass lead that serves as more of a "something is happening" than a "check me out". And, in terms of it being underwhelming, I mean merely in context of the basswork Arif lays down throughout the rest of the album, which is funky and pummelling, thunderous and groovy.
I'll also forgive these flaws because they're grossly outweighed by perks. Musically, Protest almost sound like a totally different band. It's not to say they've done a complete 180°, but rather like the band finally made the album they wanted to. While "Bone Marrow" places more emphasis on the underpinning sythns of the first two tracks, its heavy orchestration still takes a backseat to its varying structure, which fluidly transits from hyper-melodic up-tempo to ball-crushing gutturals and chugged syncopation, all of which are made twice as effective by the interwoven bass slapping. "Spoils" takes its abstract lyrical concepts (dealing with the point between anima/animus) for a ride alongside a mostly thrash inspired tune, while "Goddess Gagged" crosses the bridge from Bay Area [thrash] to So-Cal [punk] hinting at the sound a young Protest exhibited on the now ancient "Silent Genocide". Each sound, influence and idea is worth noting and separating because of how cohesive the band makes it sound, shoving it into their distinguished style and making it blend together naturally.
also effectively masters a balance between technicality, shred, melody and songwriting, since none of the tracks rely on a singular lead or solo (since there really aren't any), and the leads and shred serve more as emphasis than excess. The drums no longer resonate with an overly-clicky sound and while the bass does still occasionally fade as a result of meticulous guitar dubbing and non-stop guitar leads, Arif's work is finally pushed far enough into the forefront for fans to actually hear him for once. Fortress
also embraces the band's clear cut affinity for musical theatre (cheese to the layman), something undisputedly present in the innumerable epic vocal crescendos that carry along with a sense of melody that would perhaps inspire Vanessa Hudgens to send Mr. Walker some raunchy photos sometime in the next year. What I'm trying to say is that the hooks are insanely melodic and alarmingly catchy.
In short, Fortress
is far better than fans could expect, but it's also not what they're expecting. The two tracks heard prior to release give a skewed idea of what's to come, since Bloodmeat plays it safe and Sequoia Throne is not only sort of obnoxious, but it is one of the few tracks that doesn't sound better when put in a complete tracklist. The album improves on everything established on Kezia
(right down to the much more natural sounding piano codas), and it does so without the sometimes blatant repetition of its predecessor.
It isn't perfect, as for some it may be a tad excessive, but I'll be damned if it doesn't start '08 off with a bang. It's a scarily mature album for a bunch of 21 year olds to have recorded, and the pairing of its ambitious lyrical concepts and motivated songwriting is something to be admired. Much like the album closer "Goddess Gagged", Fortress
leaves the listener wanting more. Sadly, it's a parallel that's there for a reason: while "Goddess Gagged" restarts a presumed cycle, Protest the Hero are avidly against encores, so use your imagination and react to the silence inside you when the music has stopped.