January 29th, 2008.
I’m pretty sure that was the day I started year 7 at Thornbury High School in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. A nerdy, just-hit-puberty-kid who listened to nothing but Iron Maiden, Parkway Drive and Whitechapel. A kid that was just trying to make it into the “cool groups” in school but also just wanted to listen to metal, two things that didn’t mix in 2008. Yet little did young Owen Jones know that on the other side of the world in Canada, on that very same day, there was an album released that was absolutely blowing people’s goddamn minds; one that a few years later would change his outlook on music forever.
Protest The Hero, formed in Ontario, Canada back in 2001. The band were slowly but surely building a reputation as the new, young upstarts in the prog/technical metal world after their (still kickass) debut album ‘Kezia‘ was released to fan-praise and highly favourable reviews in 2005 due to their impeccable musicianship and the intellectual way they brought back the “concept album”. All of which would be pushed even further on their mammoth follow-up: 2008’s ‘Fortress‘.
As I hinted, I didn’t actually hear ‘Fortress‘ until a few years after its release – 2010 to be exact. One of my best mates in high school wasn’t quite as vocal of his love of technical metal as I was (15-year-old Owen was a bit of an elitist if you couldn’t already tell) and he introduced them to me as a trade-off for me showing him Meshuggah. And I could not believe my ears! As a guitarist at that point in my life, I wasn’t completely shit at the instrument either, but the very moment that album opener ‘Bloodmeat‘ was pounding straight into my ears I had no fucking idea what was going on.
These heavy, dissonant chords cutting through like knives, being accompanied by these jagged drum hits that were playing the exact same rhythm and notes as the guitars (something I really hadn’t heard before at the time). And that was just the first 10 seconds of the first song of this incredible album. What was I in for next?! As the bewildering track kept going I knew that this band was something very special, something I had never heard in my life, and to this day no band really comes close to Protest The Hero in terms of songwriting and song structure. Likewise, while Protest The Hero do not have a bad album to their name, very few records of theirs or any other band for that matter comes close to ‘Fortress‘.
I think the real beauty of ‘Fortress‘ is that you often forget that it’s intended as a concept album; meant to be consumed in one hit. But you can get so immersed in the performances and songwriting of each song, that you just sit there, taking it all in and appreciating what you’re gifting your ears with.
Rounding out the first “chapter” of the album is ‘The Dissentience‘ and ‘Bone Marrow‘, bringing an equally as fast-paced, technical riff extravaganza like ‘Bloodmeat‘ did. Every bar of music in each song here means something, but in ‘The Dissentience‘ this is clearer than ever, with each music break from the vocals – be it three notes of three bars or the drums, bass and guitars all playing and crashing in unison – bringing an element of surprise to the listener. It’s also here that you get the Genghis Khan/Old Irish mythological theme of the record; the degendering of faith, goddess worship, human rage, undenied strength of the feminine, and the horrors that are put upon women in various countries and certain cultures. (“Somebody’s somebody’s little girl/Dreams of the things she’s read/Or the monsters in her bed/Who hacked her to blood-meat“).
The album’s hectic fourth track, ‘Sequoia Throne‘, comes along with a flurry of guitar tapping, massive sweeps and huge rhythm displacements that still hurt my head and as soon as you’ve recovered from those outbursts, vocalist Rody Walker steps in and shows off the complete contrast to his angelic, high vocal register with demonic high screams that sound like a banshee murdering another banshee. Looking further into this song, so many people still herald this as one of, if not Protest’s greatest song and it’s pretty clear to see why: the transitions between the “metal” verses, Walker’s piercing screams and the spacier, progressive build-ups to the chorus and next verse are seamless. It’s classic Protest The Hero through and through and it will be remembered as such forever.
I’ve always viewed ‘Palms Read‘ and ‘Limb From Limb‘ as one piece (which is weird, as every song on ‘Fortress‘ runs smoothly into the next) but these two tracks complement each other so well. Again, the listener is transported right into the music. What with the underlying guitars from powerhouse duo Luke Hoskin and Tim Millar providing the turning point of the album, as it shifts into the next “chapter”, with the guitar melodies going from fast metal shredding to a melodic, Steve Vai-esque powerful countermelody against Walker’s clean vocals during that huge chorus of “For a million years, raise your glass”. It’s top shit!
‘Limb From Limb‘ is a guitar tone nerd’s wettest dream, with the chordal guitars having a nice chunky, heavy tone, whereas insane chip-tune-like is bright and attention-grabbing, with the thick and warm melodic guitar tones glueing these sections together. That beautiful tone and musical layering of heavy chords and lighter, prettier melodies are once again used to a real advantage during the intro of my favourite song, ‘Spoils‘. That particular song is a real showcase of every member of Protest. Now, I’d argue that all the ten songs on this masterpiece are also great examples, this song is where you really notice each member and their importance in building up this record.
The rhythm section in Protest The Hero, especially during this earlier era of the band, has always been what keeps them amongst the highest ranks of technical/prog metal bands. The unison that bassist Arif Mirabdolbaghi and drummer Moe Carlson had and display on the albums they played together on is quite similar to that of Geezer Butler and Bill Ward of Black Sabbath or Nico McBrain and Steve Harris of Iron Maiden. It’s like these two were born to play together. Carlson’s bass drum work perfectly complements Mirabdolbaghi’s exceptional bass playing in ‘Spoils‘, to even just the whole 41-minute and 10-second long album too. You can see and hear all of this instrumental proficiency in the flesh on the band’s impressive live CD/DVD, ‘Gallop Meets The Earth‘.
As ‘Wretch‘ rages through my ears I realise that I never really truly appreciated this album when I was younger. Well, I did, for different reasons, but not fully. At the time I was jamming this album literally every day for six months, I was 16 and playing guitar and at the time had the ability to play these songs. So I was looking at it as a guitarist and a young kid that just wanted to play really hard songs on guitar for street cred and cause he could. But listening to this master class of musicianship, writing and execution of one’s craft as a 22-year-old musician who now appreciates much more music and styles than I ever did back in 2011, I see and hear so much more. The way that Protest The Hero combined several genres, technical metal, hardcore punk, jazz, Middle-Eastern timbres, and even some new wave into ten musically coherent songs is just fucking beyond me. Ten songs that don’t = sound like the previous one, a feat that plenty of bands try aim for but fail miserably at doing. Among many other examples on the record, ‘Wretch‘ is solid proof of that.
Rounding out this nostalgia trip (one that I take quite frequently too) is what I think is one of the most creative ways to finish off an album: two contrasting songs that also finish off the story being told: ‘Goddess Bound‘ and ‘Goddess Gagged‘.
‘Goddess Bound‘ starts off with a massive kick to the gut, with the descending lick down the guitar neck setting up a very creative call and response style for the verse. It also shows another way that Walker made himself different from many others vocalists at the time. Each verse following the pattern of; one line is sung clean, melodically, almost operatic at points, with the next being screamed like Walker’s voice was filled with razor blades. I could nerd out about the rhythms, time signatures and song structure on this album for days, especially in the closing song/story finisher, ‘Goddess Gagged‘. This song spices things up too, with the main heavy riffs adopting a groove metal vibe, the heavy chords pumping out a very mid-90s Pantera vibe, then its all completely flipped on its head with the crazy shredded melodies that are prominent throughout the entire record. And let’s face it, Protest’s entire discography. After 41 minutes of musical pleasure and an absolute whirlwind of emotions (well, for me that is – you guys probably aren’t as emotionally unstable as me when it comes to listening to Protest The Hero). By this stage, the album is simmering out with one last attack of pummeling drums and huge groovy riffs and with the very clever lyrics of “The silence inside you when the music has stopped” when the song finishing abruptly and drawing the album to a climactic close.
So many memories came flooding back to me when I writing this piece up, and as I said, I didn’t hear this album until two years after it was initially released. So that’s, for me, eight years of learning these songs on guitar and performing them at my school talent show in 2011 to a sea of shocked faces. Eight years of listening to the instrumental release of the album as I would fall asleep. And eight years of holding this record so dearly to my heart as it shaped me as a musician and as an appreciator of music too. But for a release to turn 10 years and still be held so highly in the opinions of critics, fans and fellow musicians alike, then Protest must have done something right.
So, to Protest The Hero I can only say thank you. Thank you for giving me and us one of the greatest metal albums of all time. And no, I don’t think that’s too far of a stretch to say either.