As time goes on, music inevitably multiplies and fractures. It’s interesting to consider that modern music as we know has existed for maybe sixty years; we are still very much in the infancy of how we listen and understand music in the modern age. That isn’t to say that the music being made now days is in anyway inferior to that of the future but rather that as times goes by, reconfigurations of how things work and are understood must and will grow more complex. Therefore, even the basic elements of how an album is made deserve to be scrutinized and looked at.
Earthside have performed this sort of examination in their incredibly brave debut release, A Dream In Static. The band have peered into the basis of what progressive metal is made of and decided to move some things around. But, is the end result pleasing? Has such experimentation led to something enjoyable or simply to a new form, strange and unfamiliar? The answer is a bit of both, although the former far outweighs the latter, creating an album that both fascinates but is accessible, challenges us but offers respite in the form of beautiful and approachable musical segments.
The main element we must look at, and indeed where most innovation on the album takes place, are the vocal guest spots. Usually, such guests appear once or twice on an album and perform the role of the novel: a track with an outside guest spot is an interesting take off, a change or departure from what an album or band have done so far. Not so here; the guest spots number four and they’re an intrinsic part of what this album is trying to tell us.
The idea is this: Earthside refuse to bind and confine themselves to one sub-genre of progressive metal. Instead, they embrace both the contemplative, ethereal and technical elements of the genre and the bombastic, melodramatic antics that have always been its staple. In order to pull this off, they build four of the tracks around their distinct guest vocalists. First we have Lajon Witherspoon (Sevendust) in “Mob Mentality”. In true keeping with the strengths of the vocalist, this track is over the top, backed by an orchestra and melodrama: epic guitars clash with strings, massive drums accentuate Witherspoon’s mighty voice and the whole track just screams drama and passion.
Right after it comes the self titled track, featuring none other than Dan Tompkins (TesseracT, ex-Skyharbor). In contrast with “Mob Mentality”, this track is much more ethereal and technical, utilizing odder time signatures and a much more complex track structure. All of this of course is centered around Tompkins, giving his vocals the background they need to do their magic. This track also serves as a good reminder that Tompkins is one of the best singers operating in metal today, as the fitting composition works perfectly with his unique style and delivery.
However, we’re not quite done; we’re only at the half point. Up next is none other than Björn Strid (Soilwork) on the explosive “Crater”. Here, Earthside swing back to the melodrama of “Mob Mentality” but with a sharper edge, an abrasive and heavier timbre accentuating the guitars and bass. Again, this is all in service to Strid’s iconic voice, making sure that his impressive ability for emotional delivery finds kin and hearth in the composition that works around him. When we remember that other tracks exist on the album, for example the eerie opening track “The Closest I’ve Come” or the excellent “Entering the Light”, we realize that A Dream In Static has sent back and forth across the different poles of the genre several times, effortlessly.
This perhaps becomes the main weak point of the album; there’s a lot going on and it often becomes overbearing. There are many parts during the process where one fills short of breath, close to falling and losing one’s place. It takes several listens to separate the album and fathom its different parts and how they work together. However, there is still one stop left and it is what ultimately saves this album from a fatal unravelling. The last track, “Contemplation of the Beautiful”, perhaps best exemplifies, and thus exonerates, the audacity and scope of the entire album.
It’s the longest track of the album, clocking in at almost twelve minutes, and features a lesser known vocalist, Eric Zirlinger (Face the King, ex-Seer). If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll understand why this is so daring: other bands would have chosen the biggest name they had for an anchor track. And an anchor it is: it contains countless elements already explored in the album and takes them to eleven, displaying the full map of what has come before us in one glorious, explosive display. None of this would have worked if Zirlinger hadn’t been masterful and masterful he is. Zirlinger displays insanely rich range and depth, carrying this mighty and complicated track on his shoulders.
And that’s when the album sells itself to you. There’s pay off at the end of the tunnel, a reward for those who brave the intricate and complex by-roads that all the earlier tracks had explored. At the end lies a progressive metal epos that encompasses the polarities we mentioned earlier; both contemplative, quiet, ethereal parts and over the top, larger than life, emotional orchestrations. If it hadn’t been for this keystone, the entire arch would have fallen and “A Dream In Static” would have floundered, a victim to its own ambition. As it stands, the arch stands complete and magnificent, a monument to the different voices, tones and efforts that were poured into this creation. It’s hard not to be moved by such a collaboration and move us it does.