The Canadian legends that are Protest the Hero have easily become one of the most recognizable names in progressive metal, from their humble beginnings as a teenage punk band to their current status as one of the forerunners of a highly technical and eclectic form of modern prog. Their universally acclaimed music aside, they famously made some waves in a broader sense with the crowdfunding campaign for their independently-released fourth album Volition, in what set a precedent that hundreds of bands all across metal have copied since to great success. Indeed, it’s hardly been three years since Volition‘s release, and crowdfunding has since become part and parcel with today’s metal scene, and for good reason; namely that it makes sense for fans to give money directly to their artists of choice for whatever reason, and be rewarded with artist-specific perks in return. Everyone wins: bands get the funding they need to make the most of their creative potential, and fans get exclusive rewards such as merch and personalized items all while directly supporting the bands they love.
After successfully reinventing the wheel with Volition‘s successful campaign — with the enormous surplus of crowdfunded money only going directly towards funding more touring — Protest decided last October to try something radical once more. Pacific Myth, a subscription service that involved the release of a brand new, freshly written and recorded song from the band each month (optionally along with an extensive documentary about the making of Volition), was unveiled to the world: hundreds of fans signed up immediately, making a one-time payment of either $12 or $25 in order to get exclusive access to all of the band’s promised upcoming content. Pacific Myth’s success in that regard is no secret. The current tally, at the time of writing, stands at 7,668 individual subscriptions, and the number only seems to increase with each passing day.
Six months after the “Ragged Tooth” kicked off Pacific Myth, March 15th marked the release of the EP’s final song, “Caravan”, and thus the ambitious project came to a close as far as new material went (the band have promised more exclusive content over the coming six months, even though the EP has officially come to a close). In today’s piece, I’m joined by fellow staffers Spencer Snitil and Simon Handmaker, as we talk about our shifting impressions at each individual song release across the gradual 6-month-long release of Pacific Myth, and then we round it out with a brief discussion of what this could mean in terms of changing how bands release music and how we, as listeners, perceive it.
1. Ragged Tooth
Ahmed Hasan: I argue that “Ragged Tooth” was (and still is) certainly a fine song, albeit a cut-and-dry Protest tune that followed their established formula fairly well — but to the point where it might as well have simply been something written and recorded in 2013 that just didn’t make the final cut on Volition. Perhaps it made sense for Protest to have the novelty of Pacific Myth’s release format as a whole be the main draw for subscribers as opposed to putting out some sort of must-have song. That being said, the song did do a solid job of setting the stage logistically, considering the vastly improved production, the inclusion of an instrumental track and guitar tablature (a big thing for Protest, considering their ownership of Sheet Happens Publishing) in addition to the excellent artwork.
Spencer Snitil: First impressions are extremely important, and with Protest The Hero, we already know what they are capable of. The first song from this project, however, would need to make a very good impression. Once again, people paid money before there was a full final project for them to hear. The song is pretty cool, and has some interesting parts in it, but it definitely felt like the band played it safe. Part of me is glad they did, but another part of me wanted them to experiment, to go outside of the box and try some new stuff. This song feels like it was written more as a job and not as a passion. It’s still good, don’t get me wrong, but it feels lacking as a whole. Perhaps this is simply because the band was nervous about whether or not this subscription service would work for them, but you can definitely tell that this song is the most “business” one they have ever written.
Simon Handmaker: For me, Pacific Myth definitely didn’t begin on a high note. “Ragged Tooth” didn’t really offer anything we hadn’t already heard better on Volition, and the combination of speedy, off-kilter grooves and Rody Walker’s soaring vocals has been beaten to death by the band at this point. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy either of those aspects – those have been the main draw of Protest as a band for their entire career – but, at this point, if that’s all the song’s gonna consist of, there’s really no point to it for me. I’ve already heard four full-lengths of this stuff; I came into Pacific Myth expected a new and rejuvenated take on the band’s signature sound, but this just seems like a slapdash Volition b-side. I’d be lying if I said I was still looking forward to what came next after hearing this track.
AH: Despite being just the second release, “Tidal” was particularly crucial to the overarching development of Pacific Myth, most prominently introducing something “Ragged Tooth” lacked: very obvious instances of sonic evolution. After a fairly Protest-standard minute and a half, “Tidal” introduces darker progressions and extended guitar jams, the likes of which the band hadn’t displayed since perhaps the outro of “Palms Read” on 2008’s Fortress, and finally a massively climactic outro. That being said, it seemed like perhaps too extreme a jump in experimentation from “Ragged Tooth”, and while social media reactions on Protest’s Facebook page were overwhelmingly positive, I couldn’t help but consider whether the disconnect would make the Pacific Myth listening experience seem almost uneven had the songs not been released a month apart.
SS: Things begin to pick up with this song. It’s faster, more intense and erratic than the first song. It has some extremely difficult guitar work that sounds like some of their earlier works, but combines the harmonies they used on more recent works. This song is an example of a band in flux, however. After “Ragged Tooth”, the band wanted to make sure to be different and release a different song with different tempos, themes, and so on. It shows in the song, which has some super great riffs, but once again, it feels like the band kind of went through the motions. Perhaps this song had bits and pieces already written, but it feels like a lost cut from Volition. This isn’t a bad thing, but I want something that feels fresh. It’s a better song than the first, however, which makes the future look promising.
SH: “Tidal” continues down the same path as “Ragged Tooth,” but also has a lot stronger songwriting going for it. Certainly capitalizing on the Volition sound in the same manner as its immediate predecessor, Protest sounds like they’re a lot more into the writing and performance of this track, which makes it exponentially more enjoyable. Although I could never see myself seeking out “Tidal” to listen to it, it did raise my expectations for the rest of the EP and give me hope for the next song. After trying to stand on their sea legs with the opening single, it’s here that the band feels confident and ready to tackle the admittedly odd challenge they’ve given themselves here.
3. Cold Water
AH: “Cold Water” was masterfully executed, both musically and in terms of its release’s timing. It’s plainly apparent both the fans and Protest alike were fairly comfortable with the somewhat experimental tone that had been established in the EP thus far, right down to the artwork (a large frog perched atop the town of Cinque Terre in Italy) partially breaking from the theme to be found even in the prior two releases. The music followed suit, with twisting riffs and a borderline salsa-sounding bridge in a level of songwriting Protest had never quite reached before. And thus is the magic of how the listener’s brain establishes patterns: in being that different from the previous tracks, “Cold Water” was released at the exact point across Pacific Myth that decidedly established eclecticism as a theme to be found and even actively expected across the remainder of the EP in listeners’ minds. It was therefore no longer premature to declare the project a success, but the fact that half of the entire EP had yet to be released meant that Protest had established a framework that allowed them that much more free reign in experimenting further — since they now had an almost guaranteed positive response in store. Fans’ impressions (and expectations) followed suit, and many took to social media in order to sing the praises of having a new surprise-filled track on the 15th of every month.
SS: I have very mixed feelings about this song for a number of reasons, but I’ll begin with the fact that it sounds like a combination of the first two songs. Bits and pieces could be picked from the song and put in either of the first two tracks and it would make sense. It still feels like the band was nervous more than anything, and while it has some cool music going on, it’s more reserved for them than anything before. However, this song feels less about business and more about the final product, and it shows more promise than the prior two songs. At this point, I was hopeful that whatever came out next would just blow my mind and finally let the band enjoy themselves a bit more. It feels like they were just beginning to let themselves have fun, and once they just let go and have fun with zero inhibitions, they’ll shine brighter than before.
SH: This is definitely where things started to pick up in my eyes. The instantly memorable lead line is catchy, fun, and great, and the playful counterpoint of the two guitars throughout the track adds a sense of bombastic energy to the whole runtime. Rody is allowed to just go full-on Bruce Dickinson worship here and blasts his way through one of his best vocal performances in recent memory, replete with evocative and intriguing lyrics and an earworm hook in the chorus. I certainly didn’t expect to find one of my favorite Protest songs since Fortress on here, but with “Cold Water,” I got what is one of the best tracks this band has released since I got into them back when Scurrilous was released a half-decade ago. The overarching narrative of the EP up to this point shows a band becoming more and more comfortable heading into deeper – and uncharted – waters, and this is where they really start to reap the rewards of their explorations.
AH: “Cataract” seemed a bit of an odd follow up after “Cold Water” — it’s not all that experimental at all, but somehow feels very comfortable with itself in its energetic quality. A short-but-sweet banger of a song, it kicked off the 2016 leg and second half of Pacific Myth with a bang, albeit not being particularly significant in terms of the overarching evolution of the EP. By this point, new songs dropping on the 15th of each month had become a deeply rooted thing, and it was consistently exciting to have that to look forward to even when my listening habits largely strayed elsewhere.
SS: This is where the tide begins to turn (pun very much intended). After giving us some pretty decent, but relatively “safe” songs, the band throws this song at us. From the onset of the song, it already seems leaps above the first three tracks, in both quality and catchiness. Displaying some of the best songwriting the band has ever demonstrated, this is where they finally started to feel comfortable with this whole project. After a few successful months, they decided to focus more on the actual songwriting as opposed to wondering if the reception to this subscription would pan out. The band finally let themselves have a good time with this song, and it shows in the final result. It’s been on constant rotation since they released it, and I think it’s one of the best songs they have ever written.
SH: Easily the highest point on the EP for me. “Cataract” is a banger the likes of which these guys haven’t written since 2008; the speedy, energizing intro quickly turns into a soulful verse with some of the band’s best lyrics – I’d be hard-pressed to find a better opening line than “Death is callous, strange and sudden / A pious, indignant, drooling glutton”, Protest or otherwise – and an outstanding vocal performance from Rody. Across this entire EP, it’s hard to shake the feeling that all of the wails that are highly typical of Protest’s vocals are strained and nigh-unnatural, but here, they set a great stride and allow Rody to drop down into a slightly lower register that feels much, much more fitting of his voice. This is probably my favorite Protest song since “Limb From Limb” for a whole host of reasons, from the excellent and compelling songwriting to the stellar performance by every member of the band.
AH: “Harbinger” was a sharp left turn, and not one a lot of people saw coming. Comparisons to the technical sound on Fortress were immediately made left and right, but I would argue “Harbinger” often goes above and beyond that album in its technicality and chaotic nature. That being said, this doesn’t necessarily work to the overall EP’s benefit, in that it seems to be a particularly breakneck track following “Cataract”, which had a different approach to the same overall effect. If anything, the fifth track in the six song series was doomed to occupy the odd spot between the meat of the EP and the (then presumably) grandiose closing track, and so “Harbinger”, like “Animal Bones” before it, did suffer a bit from its unfortunate position within the release. It bears mentioning that this can be enough of a problem on regular albums, and having a month’s wait between this and the next song certainly did not help matters, as mind-blowing as that entire sequence one minute into the song was.
SS: Starting off with an epic piano intro, the song brings back memories from 2008 when their iconic Fortress was released. The song feels like a lost recording from that era, and that’s not a dig at it in the slightest. It still sounds fresh, inspired, and heavy. It sounds like this was a really fun song to write and record, and it makes me smile throughout the entire song. It’s got the stuff that made the band a household name in the prog metal community, but also experiments with some of the new ideas they did with Volition. As with the previous song, it really feels like the band hit their stride. You can definitely tell that this song has more heart and soul in it than the first three songs, and it really captures what the band is all about in one song.
SH: It’s worth noting that this is the song that came out after they asked for fan feedback and that it’s a noted departure from the relatively modern Protest sound the band has been going for on the first four tracks of Pacific Myth. Consequently, it’s also the song that throws off the groove they had set up for the EP thus far and, in some ways, dashes hopes of the amazing and original music that could have followed up “Cataract” had they continued with the trend that the last two tracks established. The Fortress influence is undeniably strong on “Harbinger,” but at what cost? One of the biggest problems I tend to have with bands doing ‘throwback’ tracks like this is that they rarely feel natural, and this is definitely a song that suffers under the weight of that issue. Not a bad track by any means, but it’s hard to shake the thought that Protest sat down and decided to write “a Fortress track,” and the result feels disingenuous to their evolution as a band since then. Sure, “Harbinger” is definitely enjoyable, but after the past two tracks, it was pretty disappointing to hear something that just aped the sounds of their earlier records. If I wanted to hear Fortress, I’d go listen to Fortress.
AH: Remember when the 6-minute “Skies” seemed to be the apex of Protest’s ability to write a longer and more intricate piece of music? I’m not sure any of us saw a 9 minute track coming, and regardless of one might think of the track itself, it’s doubtless a magnificent achievement and a sufficiently dramatic note to end Pacific Myth on. Peppered with brief references to each of their earlier records, “Caravan” itself starts off in fairly traditional fashion before all sorts of experimentation occurs in the second half, making for a fitting combination between Protest’s established sound and the kinds of things they explored across the EP. There’s no denying that “Caravan” felt somewhat bittersweet, but it’s also interesting to think about how the timeframe of a month to absorb the song in preparation for the next no longer applies in judging the song’s quality. That being said, it’s worth mentioning that after some pretty solid lyric work across the first five songs, those on “Caravan” sort of fall flat in trying to make some kind of meta point about the nature of consuming uninspired music, which is ultimately a bit of a shame.
SS: At the end of this whole journey, I’d have expected the band to relax on the last song. Instead, they wrote an almost 9 minute piece that combines themes from past and present (and even some riffs too!), and pushed the envelope further than they had previously. This is the epic end to an experiment that many were unsure of when it was announced. It feels like a celebration from the band, like they’re stating “We can do this and do it well, and here’s proof”. This song feels more like a message about the last year’s journey, from their idea to host a subscription service to its actual debut and end result. It’s fitting that the band titled the song “Caravan”, because I’m sure they all feel like they went on a long journey themselves. I can only hope they use this energy to write more music in the near future.
SH: Man, as average as this track is, I gotta admit, it’s pretty sick that they ended Pacific Myth with the longest track they recorded. Incorporating sonic elements from across their discography thus far, it’s plain to see that with “Caravan,” they wanted to take a look back at their evolution as a band. The scope is huge on this, and the musical swells across the track are certainly fun, but again, this is a throwback track in the same vein as “Harbinger,” and it just isn’t the sort of thing that sits well with me. It’s hard to listen to this without thinking about what could have been if the band wasn’t so preoccupied with providing some sort of retrospective of their career in the latter half of Pacific Myth. As with its predecessor, it’s not a bad track, and it’s cool to hear Protest tackle a longer, more suite-like piece – something they’ve avoided, deliberately or not, up until this point – but in the end, I just can’t relate to this.
AH: Coming out of the other end of this, I’m very happy with Pacific Myth on the whole. It’s not perfect, but one has to consider the constraints the band put themselves through in writing and recording a new song every month — though on that note, it might have been nice to have been exposed to some of how that process went for them, given that some band announcements did give the impression that they were rather pressed for time. The project certainly felt like a long-form experience rather than a single piece of music, and it’s very interesting having a release whose individual songs are now mentally associated with different chunks of my life months apart from one another. I admire Protest for trying to do something different, and I think Pacific Myth has been a treat in terms of its overall presentation, between the artwork, production, and general sense of interaction with the band themselves.
SH: I’m a mixed bag on Pacific Myth. On the one hand, I walked away from this EP with two of my favorite post-Fortress Protest the Hero tracks, but on the other hand, is two great tracks enough to save a release? I don’t feel like I’ll ever return to anything besides “Cold Water” or “Cataract” except if I decide to listen to the entirety of the EP in one sitting, and given the lackluster nature of the other songs, I can’t really see that happening either. As a whole release, I was pleasantly surprised at how cohesive this feels, but again, wasn’t the point of this so that each song is judged individually, not in terms of how they work together? Although my final impression is certainly more positive than my initial thoughts, if I had known that this is how I would feel coming out of the 6-month cycle, I wouldn’t have subscribed, but isn’t that journey – even if it means disappointment – part of the ‘gamble’ one takes on this? In the end, my relation with Pacific Myth is defined by contradictions and extreme emotions on both sides of the spectrum. Overall, I hope they venture further into the intriguing waters of “Cold Water” and “Cataract,” but if they go in the direction of “Caravan” – or worse, “Ragged Tooth” – then I’m probably not going to be too excited about their future output.
Did it work?
AH: There’s several levels to consider when asking whether Pacific Myth “worked”. In terms of finances and the viability of the means of release, whether it worked is a massive debate in itself, and beyond the scope of this individual piece. But as a piece of music, I believe it was a great success. Having songs released months apart meant that each given tune could be enjoyed, examined, and dissected on an individual basis, and while that obvious difference from listening to something like this in an album format from the get-go does have its disadvantages in getting rid of a sense of context, it felt like each song was given its own amount of focused work before the band moved on to the next. But in terms of ultimately reinventing the wheel, I don’t think Protest have done that to nearly the extent they did with the crowdfunding campaign — Pacific Myth doubtless had to have led to some converts, but its overall exclusivity meant that it limited itself largely towards those who were already sold on the band’s obvious talent and did not need any further convincing. That kind of model may work for a band as established as Protest, and made for an extra special treat for fans from a band that truly does seem to care about them, but it definitely does not have the overarching appeal that something as comparatively straightforward as a crowdfunding campaign would, and will likely not have the same impact even years down the road.
SH: Something like this “working” is a very nebulous concept: what quantifies this working or failing? I think it was a good business decision for the band, as it allowed them to drum up a lot of hype in a relatively short amount of time, and this made Pacific Myth stay on people’s’ tongues and minds for a lot longer than most new releases do, especially EPs. It also allowed them to gauge how much of an active, participatory fanbase they have. The reward they got for this risk was certainly worth it in my opinion. As for other bands adopting this, I think this takes a special relationship with fans that many bands don’t cultivate in the way Protest does, and I can’t really see anybody else achieving this level of success with this sort of model. The disadvantage of crowdfunding services like Kickstarter or Patreon is that a band needs to have an incredibly active and close-knit fan group, in the manner of Protest or Ne Obliviscaris, or it’s just not worth the time it takes to set up. So, yeah, it worked for Protest the Hero, but I just can’t see anybody else reaching the same level of success with this sort of service at this time.