A few weeks ago, I finally got my hands on the much anticipated, sophomore album from Oddland, Origin. While I’ve already reviewed it with the help of Noyan, there’s a particular track on it that we didn’t mention. “Skylines” is the sixth track on the album and, in my eyes, represents everything that needs to be a part of a progressive metal track in 2016. Why is such an example even necessary? The answer should be pretty clear: progressive metal is in a rut and has been for years. Bowing under the weight of cliches, tired structure and a penchant for bloated composition, progressive metal still makes exciting albums but also a massive amount of mediocre material. Nowadays, for many a music journalist, getting a new album/band with the progressive metal moniker is a worrisome prospect. However, there’s of course no sense in writing off a whole swathe of metal; interesting and moving music is still made within the genre.
So, what exactly do we look for in 2016 when we try and ascertain whether a progressive metal is worthy? We can gather up a list by seeing how “Skylines” avoids the most common pitfalls. While the album isn’t out yet, that happens next week, we can still investigate the elements that around found within it. Any long time fan of progressive metal should be able to relate to these even without the music and hey, what’s our job if not to get you hyped for music you can’t quite listen to yet? We’ll dive in and see what we glean from this track on the theoretical level, even though our last point might contradict that approach. You can then give those thoughts some time to stew and revisit them when the album drops!
First and foremost then is that bloated tendency I mentioned above. Too many tracks within progressive metal are simply further iterations on what we already know of a band’s sound. Unisons are arranged a bit differently but are still heavily relied on, ad infinitum, for example. However, perhaps the most egregious examples of this lie with vocalists; in progressive metal albums, the vocal variety which characterized earlier phases of the genre has all but disappeared. This is perhaps the fault of the great (yes, the great) James LaBrie and his somewhat monotone (yet still brilliant) work with Dream Theater. His cohesive style, which favors a certain emotional range over diversity, is everywhere.
“Skylines” in contrast, introduces vocal styles that are found nowhere else on Origin. The most obvious example of this variety can be found along the two minutes and thirteen seconds mark. A soaring string of modulations chases the key ever upwards before immediately crashing into the most aggressive and heartfelt scream on the album. This contrast is not really utilized anywhere else on the album; harsh vocals can be found but this kind of melodic cat and mouse can’t be. This creates an immense, unique moment which anchors the track to the rest of the album and to itself. You wait for this moment with baited breath after a few listens, waiting for that heart-wrenching twist. This anticipation amplifies the rest of the instruments, shedding its light backwards and forwards on the entire breadth and length of the track.
Of course, this is a good moment to take a look at the instruments themselves. All across Origin, the Nordic Progressive style is used expertly alongside other, modern influences. First, the chugging base of course calls to mind djent but the bass composition is interesting enough to avoid the simplicity of that sound. On top of this is overlaid a nu-prog guitar lead, sweet and hopeful. This lead returns throughout the track and, joined by backing synths, gives it a decidedly bright feeling. This also ties in to our point about diversity; no other track on the album on this album is this bright and wide eyed. You can check out “Thanatos” below to hear those darker influences. The drums and the vocals are what brings the Nordic influences to bear. You can’t but hear the Leprous influences on the way those progress, right until the variation on the vocal style we had mentioned above.
In general, Oddland eschew the pretentious complexity of many progressive bands on “Skylines”, understanding that interest lies in the interaction between the different elements rather than the elaborate nature of any one of them. This also serves to create a further effect which sets them apart from the scene: you can listen to this track many times. Let me explain. A lot of progressive music relies on technicality and the weirdness of odd time signatures. It’s like a math problem or a puzzle; your ears race as they try to pick apart everything that’s going on. It appeals to the intellect, to the ability to parse information and understand its codification. However, often times, emotion gets lost in the way. Mathematical ratios and clever time signatures are of course important in music; there probably wouldn’t be modern music without them. But they are no substitute for melodic delivery and emotional capacity.
That’s why Falling Into Infinity is my favorite Dream Theater album and why “Skylines” is so great. Parsing information gets boring; once you have that information, once you’ve cracked the code, nothing much remains. You translate the whole thing into an understandable track but that track is…lackluster. Here, parsing the track is easy to begin with but in the interactions between the instruments, vocals and the lyrics lies a great, emotional payoff. This payoff, unlike an intellectual one, keeps going. Like an old game, it gets better with every play-through, as your memories and experiences with it get overlaid on top of the actual track. This is possible with mostly technical tracks but is much harder; even then, I would argue, the connection is emotional.
By doing away with needless elaboration and focusing on the basics of their sound, Oddland are able to keep the bridge between listener and music clean. “Skylines” shows that you don’t need countless vocal, keyboard and guitar tracks to make something sound large. By using your instruments, in this case vocals, in a varied and interested way, you can create a larger than life sensation. By keeping the listener guessing across the album, you can make tracks engaging. And, most importantly, by connecting to the track emotionally first, you can generate greater potential for future listens. All of these elements are crucial for anyone out there making progressive metal. We’ve heard all (almost all) of the licks, chord progressions, odd time signatures and other shenanigans that you can throw at us. You probably won’t be the fastest, most elaborate, most weird player we’ve ever heard and, even if you are, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll capture our hearts. And, to create long standing and memorable music, this is what you must do, as Oddland well understand. Just listen to “Skylines” and they’ll show you how.