Review Summary: Both a fresh start and a culmination.
Protest the Hero became a stronger band once Arif Mirabdolbaghi stopped writing lyrics. That might sound like a statement designed to court controversy, and I don’t mean to disparage the work that he did on Kezia
, and Scurrilous
(where, lest we forget, he penned “Sex Tapes”, a song often misattributed to frontman Rody Walker). Mirabdolbaghi set the tone for the band’s music on those records, a tone that persists even years after he left. However, Walker was never truly able to come into his own in the early years despite the continued popularity of Protest the Hero’s first few albums. Trying to fit another author’s lyrics into music he did not write nor play, Walker repeated words nonsensically, crammed phrases together, and separated clauses into different sections of songs. That the results were as reliably great as they were is a testament to his ear for melody. However, now that many have decided that the band’s best years are behind them, Walker and the rest of the group have finally come into their own.
After several years of turmoil – the lack of a record label, the departure of founding members Mirabdolbaghi and Moe Carlson, vocal troubles for Walker – Palimpsest
feels like both a fresh start and a culmination. After surgery and extensive re-training, Walker’s voice is fuller and more resonant, and he is now capable of hitting higher notes without sounding strained. No longer reliant on constant overdubs, his performance is more consistent throughout and full of a confidence that sees his voice sounding nakedly vulnerable one moment and explosively soaring in the next. He has proven himself to be an able lyricist, less prone to the dense allusions of Mirabdolbaghi and more willing to be open and at times even obvious. He expounded on his approach to writing with the closing track of Pacific Myth
, saying that so-called “concept albums,” purported to be about something
, are often meaningless. Some may not appreciate that Walker’s “write what you mean” method has led to songs about Newfoundland and pit bulls rather than fully-formed records like Kezia
, but it is undeniable that he sounds far more comfortable singing his own words.
The rest of the band are still technical but less prone to flashiness. The music is not as outwardly complex as it sometimes was on previous records, and the riffs are chunkier than their typical lead-heavy approach. While Palimpsest
takes the piano interlude approach of Fortress
and expands on it, turning the interludes into named tracks, the band also finally found a way to implement Luke Hoskin’s skillful playing within the songs, making for a more varied listen that breaks up the potential monotony of constant guitar assaults. Orchestration abounds on many tracks, and the expansive production makes room for it alongside the typically packed songwriting of the band. Songs rarely tread the same ground twice, and Walker’s lyrics – about the early 20th century that supposedly made America “great” – are perfectly complemented by the alternatively chaotic and restrained music.
Though the title of Palimpsest
is intended to describe the way Americans rewrite their history in favorable ways, it can be applied to the history of Protest the Hero as well. They have consistently reinvented themselves from seemingly blank slates on which the past is faintly visible. Mirabdolbaghi is gone, but his progressive politics have echoes in Walker’s writing. The breakneck leads and spastic riffing of Kezia
have been refined and molded to better suit an older, wiser band. Whatever comes next, traces of Palimpsest
will hopefully remain.