Music that challenged me in 2015, part two
As part of my reflection on the music that inspired me in 2015, I started writing a bit about those albums and songs that will largely be overlooked by Big Music – but are still ambitious, challenging and exceedingly interesting. In this post, I’ll discuss the first progressive metal album I’ve listened to in years, Earthside’s A Dream In Static, and why this album is particularly important to me.
Why do you listen to music? Most people seem to just to get through their sad, meaningless existence – whether that means mellowing out to a pleasant acoustic ditty or raging to a club banger or some good punk rock. But regardless of what genre or why, you put music on in the background to feel something.
TLDR: If you want to not just feel something, but feel it with a level of intensity you might not have before while listening to music, you should listen to A Dream in Static by Earthside.
I grew up listening to mostly angry music. My parents didn’t push this upon me – in fact, they didn’t really make me angry at all or neglect me or listen to any angry music themselves – all I had was radio and my MTV. I distinctly remember the first time I saw the video for Eve 6’s “Inside Out” and having the silly cathartic moment that every young boy feels when he first witnesses ANGST. I started headbanging. I was then running around my parents’ living room, not dancing, but slamming my feet into the ground, punching the air in miserable joy. I wasn’t a sad or angry kid, but I think this (and a few other songs) stuck with me in such a way that dark and angry music resonated with me more so than any other.
When I first heard Tool’s “Schism” in 2001, I had a similar standout moment – the video, but more importantly the music, shocked me. Rock music could not only let me express my (misplaced) anger, but also make me feel awe, dread, all those existential feelings I had never experienced to that point at the ripe young age of 12. It was shortly after this that I learned that Tool was of a group of largely uncategorizable heavy bands, but usually pigeonholed into the genre of “progressive metal” – an overly generalized term for bands who skirt the norms of time & key signature, focus on big topics & bigger sound, and have small but extremely rabid fanbases. I became one of those rabid fans – first of Tool, then of Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Ayreon, Opeth and various others. I shared this with my dad who then exposed me to Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, and I became obsessed. I HAD to learn everything about every song, how they all connected, what bizarre alternate realities the songs existed within, how the time signatures within a song related to the purpose of the song itself.
In 2004 I picked up bass guitar and, shortly thereafter, joined a band in high school bent on making powerfully emotive and complex music to try and channel this fascination into something productive. But because we were nerdy teens from suburban Connecticut, we didn’t have a whole lot of actual hardship to channel into powerfully emotive music. Plus, none of us were confident in our ability to write lyrics – so we made dark, edgy, self-indulgent instrumentals with silly names like “Mariachi Massacre” and “The Greatest Wall.” But it was a hell of a lot of fun – and we made some fairly cool music for a bunch of weird teenagers from Connecticut.
Then I went to college, started drinking, got a girlfriend, and landed my first internship – which happened to be in both the music & tech industry. I was around tons of other musical tastes and quickly got tired of the pretentiousness of prog metal. It just wasn’t vibing anymore, man. So I quit that band in late 2008 and tried my hand at some other stuff: a Talking Heads cover band, playing lead guitar in a stoner rock band, trying my hand at writing alone and with other people. To my old band, I said that I didn’t want to write music like that anymore and could not endure the impossible uphill battle that is trying to achieve noteworthiness as a prog metal musician. My tech career was more lucrative and important.
In 2014, that band publicly became Earthside.
I remember a few years earlier when Jamie (Earthside guitarist and one of my closest friends to this day) sent me a rough cut of “The Closest I’ve Come,” a sprawling instrumental track that I had learned a few years prior when they asked me to fill in on bass for a show. They had finally locked down a permanent bassist in Ryan Griffin and tightened up the composition to the point where it was release-ready. I remember being impressed by my former comrades – an appropriate development of the initial sound we had established as Bushwhack, more focused, “cinematic” and, most importantly, nuanced. There is a specific breakdown roughly 6 minutes into the song in which all instruments abruptly pause – except for a quiet, ominous arpeggiating keyboard line that wisps you out of riffs and into a floating sensation. The guitar levitates with you, occasionally supplementing the keyboards with subtle harmonic feedback. It’s as if you’re being slowly pulled upward toward the cosmos – until drums, bass and guitars suddenly shatter a glass ceiling above you and push you back down to the ground with the most brutal rhythm of the song thus far.
To say that this was representative of the scope of the album they were working on is a gross understatement. Jamie had mentioned they were toying with the idea of guest vocalists, researching string quartets and small orchestras to record with and some producer in Sweden I hadn’t heard of. I largely disregarded all of this – where did they have the money to pull all that off? I certainly didn’t, and I was the one with the lucrative tech career.
But after over almost 7 years of hard work, Earthside finally released a true debut – an 8-track, hour-plus-long catharsis of a debut. It’s sometimes a difficult listen: it’s brutal, it’s morose, it’s jagged and it’s exceedingly triumphant, sometimes all in one track. It begins with the aforementioned “The Closest I’ve Come” as a hint of the journey this album takes, which in the band’s words encapsulates “everything we are as human beings” – which isn’t wrong.
See, the thing with A Dream in Static is that, while it occasionally uses prog-metal clichés in its song titles and lyrics (eg. all the self-actualization stuff, the song title “Entering the Light”), it makes the rare achievement of actually embodying those emotions and ideas in full. “Entering the Light” makes you feel like you’re actually marching toward said light, and then when all instruments are distant except for a quiet string harmony, you feel as if you’ve finally made it – only to discover you’re back where you started, marching again. I haven’t heard another rock song (let alone an instrumental!) that made me contemplate my own mortality like this in years. The scale of this album is enormous, and that’s ignoring the fact that these are still my nerdy friends from high school. Every single performance of every single idea is executed flawlessly – technically near-perfect but still human at its core.
Let’s talk about the 10-minute “single,” “Mob Mentality” – if any song attempts to represent the absurd mess of the state of our country right now, this could be the song that does it. (Ironically, it was recorded in Sweden.) I know this song is deeply personal to Jamie, as he wrote it both as a senior college thesis and as a means to deal with his own confusion of his life’s next steps, in a world where influencers are complicating your own worldview more than ever. Who has any idea what the hell is going on in their own lives and what’s going to happen next? And better yet, how is the persistent influence of others making that anxiety any less overwhelming? The sheer scale that the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Lajon Witherspoon’s performances bring to this workout of a piece is daunting, but also intensely relatable and satisfying.
There are three key breaks in the piece that make the song work. The first, a deliberate breath of curious air; the second, a sudden dip into playful terror as Lajon sings “and I pray for you to see / I’ve been sheltered by my bliss”. The last break of note occurs with only about 40 seconds remaining, after the song’s final climax has already been hit – it’s the song’s “Oh shit!” moment as the band takes you back to the original melodic idea that began this ride.
Oh, and this is the second track on the album.
There is no particular secret sauce to a progressive rock or metal record; some songwriters devise a complex storyline or overarching concept which may be explored lyrically or within the musical structure itself. However, much of “prog” has fallen into one of two traps: it either falls back on past tropes and stereotypes and, in the process, loses originality and/or emotional weight; or it gets so tightly fused into other genres of music that it’s barely noticeable (read: the first two Coheed & Cambria albums, which I still find excellent). When I was playing prog metal in Bushwhack, we were intensely aware of those tropes – as well as tropes in other styles of music – and tried to turn them upside down and meld them together into odd results. Over time it became less about fun genre-shifting for our own amusement and more about actively trying to bring complex (yet sometimes competing) ideas and finding some kind of emotional synergy. I’m happy that this band continued down this path.
“Skyline” (track 5) probably contains this year’s most awe-inspiring musical idea. As the band explains, about seven minutes in, the song follows 3 rhythmically competing lines (on piano, drums and lead guitar) for nearly a minute, winding around each other like synchronized birds in flight. Then suddenly they all meet and come into rhythmic unison in one of the most joyful, cathartic, nearly orgasmic musical expressions of cosmic scale I’ve heard. Even before this moment, this song dazzles: the song begins with a sudden thud after the quiet march of previous track “Entering the Light” and, after a brief introductory theme, breaks into my 2nd favorite bass line of the year (sorry guys – “King Kunta” wins this one).
Structurally, this album is half vocal tracks and half instrumentals, but each track contains at least one satisfying surprise. The title track, which features Tesseract’s Daniel Tompkins on lead vocals, seems unassuming at first – until its first chorus. I have not heard a more intensely joyful vocal performance in prog than Daniel’s in this song. “Ungrounding” is the one instrumental I haven’t mentioned yet, and while it seems fairly straightforward technical metal at first, there are two elements of this track that once again demonstrate the mastery of composition this band has. First: Frank (keyboardist)’s melodic line – out of context, it honestly sounds like it was lifted from a trance or hip hop track. It’s this fast-moving airy synth that almost works an attempted homage to Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop”. But once placed against the rhythmic complexity of “Ungrounding”, it takes on a whole new character that embraces chaos – what was once intended to put its listeners into a trance has now run amok.
Second: What the first half of “Ungrounding” does to inspire chaos, the second half does to make sense of it. There are feelings of grief, rage and outright fatigue (paired with a downtempo, down-octave version of the original synth melody). I remember first listening to this song and not expecting much beyond the first minute or two, but the second half pulls you back in with force – a testament to Earthside’s ability to truly capture attention and tap into the deepest reaches of your psyche.
The album closes with “Contemplation of the Beautiful,” a nearly-12-minute brooding funeral march; one could argue that it refers to the previous 7 tracks just as much as its subject’s waning sense of self. A Dream in Static does encompass everything we are as human, from the wonder of birth to inevitable death. Its ability to traverse tough, complex emotional ground with focus & grace, and it’s affected the music I find inspiring and even how I approach writing music. It tells a story through music more vividly than most concept albums I’ve heard and has reinvigorated my interest in metal & prog, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who genuinely wants to feel their emotions heightened by sound.
But more importantly, my friends made this record. Friends whom I have a history with making music and I left to pursue my own path. Part of me wants to be jealous, to question my decisions to pursue tech and solo songwriting; but a much bigger part of me is proud and amazed at these guys. They gave me a reason to once again appreciate my musical foundations and our time together as a band. If anyone reads this and happens to have a friend in a band, I encourage you to give that band an honest listen – they might just surprise you with something great.