Protest The Hero- Volition

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It’s a sad indictment of a dying music industry that even musicians in moderately popular metal bands are quitting the game, unable to continue performing on the increasingly meagre returns available. It’s not entirely clear if monetary concerns led Protest the Hero drummer Moe Carlson to leave the band, or if he simply felt an education and eventual career in tool and die making was closer to his heart than touring and recording. It’s hard to imagine that the financial pros and cons of a musician’s life were far from his mind, though.

Thankfully, in the wake of this potential setback Protest have surged ahead, and made full use of the opportunities the internet offers for creating new funding and distribution methods. Shunning record labels, the band’s funding campaign for their latest release, launched via crowdfunding website Indiegogo, was extremely successful, meeting its target in just over a day and raising nearly three times its initial goal. This model might well come to define how bands operate in the future- instead of relying on monolithic, out of touch industry backers, it’s possible to forge a direct connection with the fans, giving them a sense of involvement and investment in their heroes’ work. As important as fan support will undoubtedly prove to be, though, having friends in high places never hurts. The band were able to hire Lamb of God’s Chris Adler to fill in on drums for the recording session, which may well end up attracting curious fans of more mainstream metal fare. So too might the creative method by which the album was funded.

But concentrating too much on the birthing method of Volition, Protest’s resulting fourth album, would detract attention from what a beautiful baby it is.  Although the band haven’t fundamentally altered their signature mix of technical theatrics and catchy hooks and vocal melodies, it’s definitely a cut above 2011’s Scurrilous– a perfectly fine album that was merely slightly lacking compared to the masterwork that was Fortress. Perhaps the shake up in the wake of Carlson’s departure was what the band needed, a creative rejuvenation. They sound as confident as ever: Luke Hoskin and Tim Millar’s guitar leads are still histrionically widdly-diddly at times, soaringly melodic at other. Arif Mirabdolbaghi’s bass lines remain flowing and technical, but never showy outside of some showcase soloing. Adler proves a worthy successor behind the kit, adapting his style capably to recall Carlson’s while still making his own individual flourishes. And Rody Walker’s formidable voice remains on top form. While the contrast between his low growls and soaring highs still draws the most attention, it’s in the catchy vocal melodies he’s able to layer on top of complex, technical musical backing that he shows his real chops.

The lyrical focus remains, as ever, on societal and political themes- still somewhat obliquely, but definitely more directly than on previous releases. “A Life Embossed” is probably the song most explicitly focused on contemporary concerns, railing against legislation against certain dog breeds in the band’s native Canada. But it’s not hard to detect distaste at an increasingly vitriolic, polarised political climate, and the bigotry it engenders, throughout the album. The targets vary, from religiously motivated “anti-deviancy” demagogues (“Tilting At Windmills”), to the plutocratic elites growing ever richer off of financial ruin (“Without Prejudice”). Rody Walker’s vocals are imbued throughout with righteous fury, perhaps most so on “Plato’s Tripartite”, a stinging rebuke to the victim-blaming mentality displayed so crassly in the recent spate of high-profile rape cases in the US. The band have their eye on the here and now, even as they continue to pay homage to their roots. When Walker quotes the Fortress single “Sequoia Throne” in the “we are still life” refrain of “Animal Bones”, it comes off as a fun nod to their past, rather than nostalgia or a lack of ideas.

As sharp as things are, musically and lyrically, it’s a slight shame that the band don’t seem to have an overarching concept informing Volition, as on their first two albums. While it’s easy to overreach for a narrative backing and end up with cringeworthy pomposity, Protest have been better than most at this- Fortress gained immeasurably from its background theme of the birth of patriarchal societies and cultures from older, goddess-worshipping ones. And while their debut Kezia suffered somewhat from concentrating more on screamo influences than progressive ones, it was redeemed at least in part by its conceptual complexity. (A discussion of the underlying critique of patriarchy in the band’s lyrics could very easily form the basis for an entire blog post in the near future.) The disparate songs on Protest’s latest release are very often politically driven, so it’s not entirely fair to fault them here. It might have been nice if that political awareness had been deployed in service of a discrete, unifying theme, is all.

But that’s a minor concern, one that concentrates too much on the potential album we might have got, rather than the one we did. As it stands, Volition represents not just an artistic high point for the band, but a ringing endorsement of the internet’s potential to sustain networks of support for fresh, exciting music.

Volition comes out on October 29th.

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