Canadian darlings of metal. From rebellious teens skipping school to do interviews on Much Music, to the trailblazers of monetization and fan service, Protest the Hero are one of the most celebrated bands here at Heavy Blog. Ever since the blog has been founded, we’ve been following their history, progression and growth. It’s safe to say that of the latter, they’ve had more than many other bands in the scene; constantly wrong-footing their audience and themselves, indulging in new directions and approaches, Protest the Hero are one of the most varied bands in metal today.
That being said, a bird’s eye overview of their career might garner us more insight than living their twists and turns in the day to day. By zooming out of the nitty gritty, we might be able to trace a path, an intention or a trajectory from what might, otherwise, be construed as “simple” experimentation. Will we be able to do that or shall the evolution of Protest the Hero remain helter skelter? Join us below and let’s find out!
A Calculated Use of Sound
They started angry and ambitious; filled with political angst and a hardcore punk background. Their first commercial release, A Calculated Use of Sound, was indicating the band was already a cut above bands like AFI and Alexisonfire. The compositions were sweeping and ambitious, with acoustic guitar parts, syncopation, tapping and weird time signatures. The EP reached beyond the scope of its genre. Even more impressive, they weren’t even sixteen when they put this EP out! Being such a young band, it seemed they were destined for greatness. The EP isn’t perfect, but it’s indicative of where the band started out. The ultimate stepping stone. It raised the question, was this just another semi-commercial post hardcore band that would dumb things down? Would they garner a polarized fan base who would muck up their MySpace page with “Their early stuff was better!” or were they going to take the most interesting parts of their sound and rise to the occasion? The answer is simple: Protest had something to prove.
Their next album Kezia was to be one of the most daring albums the band could write. A by-product of kids melding their love for music, endless hours of practice and the rise of the internet giving way to a plethora of influences, this was lightning in a bottle. Kezia is unquestionably a timeless classic.
When Protest the Hero wrote Kezia, they were aiming for something that was too hard for them to play at first. You can hear the noodling guitars they slaved over. The rhythms they spent hours internalizing. Rody Walker pouring his heart into singing on-key.The end goal is masterfully achieved, and you can sense the ambition through the cracks. It’s a conglomeration of the metalcore that was emerging around 2005 and their post-hardcore upbringing. Arguably the only successful band to transition from a hardcore project into a strictly metal future, but we’ll get back to that.
Beyond the ambitious music, they transitioned from brute protest to allegory in their lyricism. Opting to talk about a decline in society through a mythological tale of a God, prison guards and executioners, and a young girl sentenced to death. It’s astonishing in scope and incredibly poetic. Kezia conveys themes of feminism, war and religion in an inspiring way.
Having toured Kezia extensively and broken into the mainstream to some degree, Protest had big shoes to fill on their sophomore album.
Fortress saw them stepping up to the plate in a big way. Everything was more fantastical and mythical. Raw ambition was replaced by grandiosity and confidence. Guitars dueling each other. The songs littered with epic sweeps, dissonant tapping sections and chunky riffs spaced between tons of melodic technical parts. Drawing from their punk roots, the drums are unparalleled in their flavor and attitude. The bass is punchy and fills the negative space with tapping and intricate slapping. The addition of keys also contribute to their grander sound with the exception of a crazy keyboard solo on “Limb for Limb”, they subtly sprinkle the backdrop of Fortress with an extra dynamic. Rody peaks on this record as a vocalist, too. With a huge range in both his clean and harsh vocals, he is able to twist his voice to do anything the songs demand. His timbre and emotion no longer strained by the technical effort on their previous release, Rody shows full command over his voice.
Having proven themselves on Kezia, you can also see their personalities start to shine through on this record. The keys lending themselves to themes of science fiction, mythology and goddess worship. As well, spacing the tracks with interludes, samples and outros, giving the album some breathing room and letting the dense compositions breathe, Protest even mitigate a fatigue on their sound.
You can break down every aspect of the music and find mastery. As a cohesive unit, Protest have proven that they were prodigies of their sound. Where Kezia was raw and less tactical in execution, Fortress feels fully realized and delivered on everything the band was capable of. Abandoning their hardcore influences almost completely aside from the rhythms and drums, Protest have really come into their own.
With their third album Scurrilous, Protest find themselves at the top of their game, with few places left to go. Here we see Arif Mirabdolbaghi taking the back seat on lyrics save for a few tracks. The reins being handed off to Rody. Conceptual lyricism being shelved, for more tongue-in-cheek and emotionally driven songs.
Not straying too far from their achievements on Fortress, Scurrilous is more of an experiment in dynamics. Guitar tones and effects are more relevant here. Rody forgoes harsh vocals almost completely. This is conjecture, but I think the reason for this is to control his emotional delivery with his singing voice, without using the inherent aggression of screaming to convey an aggressive dynamic. To his credit, he can sound just sinister without harsh vocals. I’d also argue that this gave more space for the guitarists Tim and Luke, to be more aggressive too. And the drums and bass are sheer perfection as expected at this point.
It’s also more of an album in the traditional sense. It’s easier to digest track by track. The lack of harsh vocals making it a bit more accessible. Tongue in cheek lyrics and reliance on wordplay over mythology and concepts make it easier to latch onto. Ultimately, Scurrilous is the first time Protest have pumped the brakes. There’s pros and cons for Protest fans, but it’s so chock full of hooks and riffs that it can’t be dismissed.
With the incentive to push themselves completely giving way to being masters of their craft. Most of the interesting aspects of this album come from the change in responsibility. Not being the most ambitious album using Kezia and Fortress as a metric would be unfair, because it’s so unique and peerless. Nobody else could ever write Scurrilous and that’s why it’s exceptional.
The next stage of Protest is one of the hardest ones to evaluate. Exhausted by label obligations and the lack of incentive to push themselves musically; Protest had to seek out new solutions to both their creative process, and how they were going to manage their career. So, their solution was to autonomize their creative process and forgo any label dictation. The next problem: how would they fund the record?.
The elegant solution, of course is the famous Volition crowdfunding effort on IndieGoGo. Beyond the business side of things, the expectations changed in a way I don’t think they could have anticipated. Now instead of answering to deadlines and checking off boxes for a label, they found themselves accountable to thousands of people who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into an album that wasn’t even made yet. The obligation to cater to them must have been astronomical. There’s guest stars on their album that literally bought their way onto the tracks. There’s motifs that throwback to Fortress and Kezia. There’s some added star power with Lamb of God’s Chris Adler handling the kit after Moe Carlson’s departure from the band. The task would have been intimidating to anyone. Luckily, they were cut out for it.
Protest the Hero had to find new motivations to appease their fans. The pressure only managed by a promise of delivery and some transparency. Volition ended up straddling their desire to push a political agenda and create challenging music with a passion project meant to reward the listener. The record sways effortlessly between being a celebration of themselves and doubling down on what their music does best.
Did they deliver on every front? It’s impossible to say with Volition. Did Protest fulfill your expectations? That’s up to you. What you can say however, is that Volition is a dynamic and important album. It displays what a capable band can do when the expectations are raised. It’s the benchmark for crowdfunding. It has something for everyone, even if there’s less conceptual work than what’s to be desired.
Pushing the envelope even further, we see Protest trying to pioneer monetization of music in new and interesting ways. Their latest effort, Pacific Myth is an EP that was released track-by-track over the course of six months. Every month the fans only get a single track to sink their teeth into. What’s questionable is why did Protest put themselves in a position where they had to put out songs that were, at worst, short of being masterpieces. There’s something to be said about recording an entire album in the same session. Being in that mindspace until the album is done.
Obviously, as their career progressed, the emphasis on an album being a singular cohesive work has withered. With Scurrilous foregoing the “suites” of their first two albums, and Volition having tracks written solely to feature a guest and to throwback to their old material. Protest has unintentionally broken down the concept of an album as a collection of music into tracks that are more relevant than the sum of a full release.
Pacific Myth is their weakest work to date. When you’re at the top for so long, you’re destined to stumble. There’s plenty to digest on this EP. It’s more experimental in its compositions, but it’s weaker in it’s musicianship and executions. The songs are missing some of the magic they had on their previous releases, in part due to the departure of Arif Mirabdolbaghi, whose contributions had a large impact on their earlier works. With Pacific Myth, they lost the ebb and flow of recording a multitude of tracks. They could have owned that and given each song a unique identity, but by streamlining the themes and production, it became convoluted.
If there’s anything the band proves, it’s that they will never lose their charm. They will always have a sound that’s untouchable. Even as the “die-hard” quality of their work deteriorates, they have never lost confidence. They are unquestionably one of the most remarkable acts of our time. Eventually they might corner themselves, with no trails left to blaze, but when that time comes, here’s hoping they struggle with an album one more time before they call it quits. We all want nothing more than to see them set out to achieve something like that. The last time they did, we got Kezia. Challenges are what breeds change, are what makes evolution go all that faster. Perhaps what Protest the Hero need now, in the wake of their journey so far, is to dig back into their roots and tear them part, doing more than just pushing boundaries to upset their own complacency.