PROTEST THE HERO’S FORTRESS IS AN EARLY CONTENDER FOR BEST ALBUM OF 2008
This review has been incredibly hard for me to sit down and write. Finally forcing myself to do so, I sat my ass down, pressed play on Protest the Hero’s latest album Fortress, and just sat listening without typing a word until halfway through the second song. Oh, I’ve listened to the whole album at least 10 times, probably more, all the way through. But Fortress is just so genre-defying, so outside the box, so off the wall, so virtuosic, progressive, heavy and melodic… us journalist types get all in a tizzy because we don’t know how to describe what Protest the Hero do. So let me start by describing it this way; fucking awesome. Protest the Hero incorporate every element of heavy music that I look for in a band while forging ahead in a direction completely their own, and Fortress is the strongest work to date of their young career making it an easy early contender for best metal album of 2008.
Of course the sounds that the Ontario-based 5-piece have laid down on Fortress aren’t completely without description, but it’s the combination thereof that makes the music so interesting. The band no doubt smoked quite a few doobs in their youth while listening to their prog rock favorites, but somewhere along the way an older brother played them a Metallica or Slayer album and it was all over. It’d be easy to put Protest the Hero in a box with similar bands like Between the Buried and Me (who lean more hardcore), Fall of Troy (who lean more screamo), Dillinger Escape Plan (who lean more spazz / what-the-fuck), and yes, even MetalSucks faves Sikth. The latter would probably be the closest match to the sound Protest the Hero achieve on Fortress, but to compare them to any of the above bands would be a disservice to their originality.
The prog-metal influences is the most present; Dream Theater and Rush influences rear their head more than a few times. Neo-classical rhythm and lead passages and polyrhythmic metallic breakdowns and instrumental passages as in “Limb from Limb” and “Goddess Bound” come to mind, as do countless other moments. But to classify the band as prog-metal would again sell them short; in addition to the cited prog-metal influences, classic rock, hardcore, metal and straight rock references pop up all over the place.
Protest the Hero’s unique combination of metal and hardcore brutality with constant guitar fretboard-tapping wizardly isn’t new, but guitarists Tim Millar and Luke Hoskin always manage to maintain an artistic sensibility while keeping their prowess in check — the shred never sounds forced or corny. The guys are almost always playing lead guitar underneath whatever else is going on, but it never gets in the way of the vocals or melodies. Though every member is pretty much playing “lead” all the time, nothing ever sounds muddled or confusing. The band chugs along like the well-oiled machine that it is, seamlessly moving in and out of odd time meters all the while retaining an uncanny sense of melody. Vocalist Rody Walker doesn’t subscribe to the “my balls are bigger than yours so I have to growl all the time” school of metal, either; his singing is melodic, on point, and articulate, though he isn’t afraid to let a gut-wrenching scream rip when it’s called for.
Just as the band isn’t about playing for the sake of playing or screaming for the sake of screaming, they aren’t about speed for the sake of speed. They aren’t afraid to slow it down for a moment and let things groove with big, monstrously heavy riffs doing the speaking for themselves. They also bring in a number of other instruments, but again the key word is taste, using them sparsely. The Metroid-esque keyboard opening of “Spoils” and the horn spurts in “The Dissentience” come to mind.
The songs on Fortress go from one section to the next and warp your mind in true prog-metal fashion, but never do you feel lost they way you might with, say, Meshuggah. Though what the band is playing is unbelievably complex, there’s always something for your ear to grab onto, allowing you to get it right away. Though Fortress is complex as fuck, it’s instantly accessible, though layers continue to unfold upon repeated listens making it a rewarding and challenging listen. The fact that Protest the Hero have made music so stunningly complex seem so melodious and palatable is perhaps the most amazing thing about them. Ultimately, this is what defines Protest the Hero; their sense of melody feels so remarkably at home within a framework of brutal, aggressive music, but not in any way resembling the cheesy metalcore you might expect from a young metal band in today’s scene. Their unique combination of influences strikes the perfect balance for this band, and in general.
If you’re a lyric-whore there’s probably something for you here too, though frankly I haven’t the energy to delve into it. The album is broken up into two acts, “On Conquest & Capture” and “Isosceles,” the former of which is in itself broken into two section. With names like those and song titles such as “Sequoia Throne” accompanying the sci-fi esque album artwork… there’s those vintage Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer LPs rearing their heads again. What’s odd is that bassist Arif Mirabdolbagi actually writes the artfully poetic lyrics for Walker to sing; but hey, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Fortress is an absolutely stunning album on all levels, from the music to the concept to the artwork to the execution of all of the above. Protest the Hero have quickly become one of my favorite bands — and one that people across the metal scene are buzzing about — and Fortress is a captivating work of art, a masterpiece that undoubtedly will serve to further the band’s career exponentially. Don’t be a dumbass and miss out the way we did with The Ocean; Fortress is not an album you can afford to let pass you by. If this album ain’t as good as it gets, I don’t know what is.
(five out of five horns)