The genesis and purpose of this post is quite simple: it feeds off of our re-occurring “Hey! Listen to This!” segment in which we tell you, quite emphatically, to listen to this band or that. Often, those posts are an outlet for a wide variety of ideas: albums that aren’t substantial enough or recent enough to enjoy a full review, a discovery we’ve made or a band we want to shine a broader light on rather than on a specific track or album. However, I’ve personally found myself utilizing that segment to also discuss bands that don’t exist anymore or albums that have long faded from the public eye but which I feel are still influential, important and, most of all, excellent. To be honest though, that’s not really what those posts are about. And so was born Heavy Rewind, where we will look back at bands or albums that are defunct or forgotten and see what’s life to gain from them.
The idea is not to write a nostalgia post about “the good ol’ days” where metal was superior or just to reflect on old, classic albums. The idea instead is to shine a light on a somewhat forgotten band, album, song or event and see what can be learned from it. The purpose of these posts is to perhaps add more depth and complexity to the narratives of how metal has grown, changed and mutated over the years. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a band better suited for a first post in this series than Deadsoul Tribe.
The roots of this progressive band go way back, as far as the 80’s, but it has been mentioned only twice on the blog (and that’s by me). In general, I have seen very little of mention it, whether by listeners or reviewers. And yet, I believe that it played an integral part in the birth of a now popular genre, namely that of dark, alt progressive metal. Along with bands like Katatonia, Pain of Salvation and, later, Karnivool, Deadsoul Tribe created music that was complex, thematic and conceptual while also drawing heavily on psychological, political and philosophical concepts of a darker tinge. For that, and the popularity that that genre now enjoys, it’s worth rewinding and looking back at their career, now over.
The heart and mind behind Deadsoul Tribe is a name perhaps a bit more familiar: Devon Graves. The man has bought his name by appearing on Ayreon‘s The Human Equation as Pain, harking back to Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) with his combination of flute and vocals and in general for being a charismatic and moving front-man. Graves however is also an influential and important artist. His band, Psychotic Waltz, operated as early as the late 80’s and created a bewildering, maddening breed of metal that was unheard of in the day. It blended the crazier elements of King Crimson with the then prevalent grunge, thrash metal and a bit of the grandiose of the birthing power metal scene of the early 90’s. This band, heralded by aficionados as one of the earlier progressive metal bands, died in 1996. It had three full releases, with their debut release, A Social Grace, being the most important.
It took a while until Graves emerged again with Deadsoul Tribe. His new band, much more his own creation than a collaboration, released their debut, self titled album in 2002. To be quite honest, that album is a flop; it’s a hybrid of the crazier, distorted elements of Psychotic Waltz, somehow reined back and sterilized. It took a second release to allow Graves to find his pace and, luckily for us, it came quickly. In 2003, Murder of Crows was released into the world and something truly grand was created. Gone was much of the insanity and theatrics that had dominated the earlier releases; in its stead, some sort of maturity and intelligence had seeped into both Graves’ composition and his performance. The album is still a masterpiece of lurking bass lines, expressive guitars and, most of all, amazingly powerful vocals from Graves himself, blending a traditional, progressive role with the strength of power metal. The album featured longer tracks, two part pieces and, although it’s not a concept album, some sort of motif or expressive background that ties the whole thing together.
When I say it’s still a masterpiece today, I mean it. Since then, very few albums (with Sound Awake being one of the only exceptions, an album highly influenced by this one) have managed to so effortlessly blend all the elements present here: complex track structures that still find a way to leave us connected, intricate drums that still provide a solid backbone for everything, a present bass that knows its place. And over all is crowned Graves, his vocals by far the most convincing and powerful instrument. This would be the case for the next album, The January Tree, as well. In many respects, the two albums can be seen as one creation. The language that they use among themselves is unique. Perhaps I’m biased a bit, since after hearing Murder of Crows for the first time, I immediately bought The January Tree and consumed them together. But there’s an objective point to be made here: Devon had found his new vector, the new purpose behind his music and it created two albums which reiterated and revisited common elements in interesting and similar ways.
The album which followed would be their darkest and heaviest creation yet. The Dead Word reeks of later iterations, of the artists that would follow in its wake: Riverside, the later work of The Pineapple Thief and many more, find a welcoming mirror here. The whispered vocals that dominate throughout, the bass that screams behind, the Pink Floyd like guitars which mark the more aggressive and uptempo tracks, are all elements that are now used extensively within the dark progressive sub-genre. Can we claim with absolute certainty that they were born here? No, because a single birth for a musical element is ridiculous. But it is without a doubt that we say that The Dead Word was groundbreaking in re-arranging the common elements of the progressive metal genre and making something new. In blending the synths, guitar and bass already present in their earlier works, Deadsoul Tribe gave their music new edge and new anger, building on their previous steps something new and authentic.
Nor are we done. The final Deadsoul Tribe album, A Lullaby for the Devil, marks a journey completed and a circle drawn. In that sense, it’s awe-inspiring that Devon decided to end the project there. It features a return to Murder of Crows but with a new perspective and perhaps a chip on the shoulder born from The Dead Word. It features the heavier sensation of the latter but with the flute of the former blended in. It features the harsher vocals of the latter but with the calm, soothing passages of the former, passages that only set the stage for the eventual cataclysm. In a sense, we can also point to a return to the themes and ideas present in Psychotic Waltz, with some of the passages mirroring that scattered, fractured, experimental feeling that the earlier project had held.
So, why listen to Deadsoul Tribe, a band now gone, with its latest release eight years in the past? This is where I could pontificate about the history of the sub-genre, the importance of knowing the past to pave the future and so on. But instead, my message here is very simple and clear: we should listen to Deadsoul Tribe because they were, and still are, an excellent band. Because in the never-ending progression that has characterized metal in the last twenty years or so, it would do us good and give us joy to reflect on the less well known names. Because there are a lot of bands out there but only some of them manage to capture an idea, crystallize a time and mutate with it as well as Deadsoul Tribe have.