Some post titles just write themselves; these rare beasts combine the explanatory and provocative nature that a good title must have. The title to this article is one of those: you know who I’m going to talk about, you know what I’m going to say and you’ve been just a little bit provoked by “nu-prog”. Why? That depends on who you are. If you’re a detractor or fan of nu-metal, you probably want to know what prog has to do with being “nu” (hint: nothing at all). If you already know what nu-prog and hate the phenomena (like many do), you’re here to see what exactly could be good about this genre. Finally, if you have no idea what nu-prog is, you’re either tantalized by the idea of a new sound or outraged at those music journos with their genre inventing thing once again.
Regardless, nu-prog is a fairly recent phenomena. It has been named by various fans and music journalists with the “nu” label to depict a certain mode of approach to progressive metal. The music is almost always instrumental (baring brief sojourns from vocalists, like Mike Semesky on Intervals). It features a heavy focus on leads depicted with extra sweet effects, extensive use of whammy bars and an overall mood that is just “nu”: fresh, wide-eyed, hopeful, childish, naive. The sub-genre has recently drawn plenty of attention (some of it negative) with the outburst of music from bands like Polyphia, the aforementioned Intervals, CHON and more. As more and more bands latch on to the genre’s sonic tropes and ideas, the need for a clearer classification of what it exactly entails grows larger.
However, we’re not here for that. We’re here to talk about Plini and why his music should be the blueprint for this growing genre. The reasons are many and, while chronology isn’t that good of a reason, it might do to first mention that he’s had his name on releases going as far back as 2011. His own releases, along 2013-2015, were tasteful, imaginative sojourns into well defined and enticing musical places. These set some of the main tropes of the genre, including the overall sleek yet colorful aesthetic surrounding the music. But what is it about Plini that makes him rise above the rest? In a growing genre that’s already often sounding stale and repetitive, how does he manage to make music which is distinctly his and is interesting to boot? That’s the purpose of this article, to examine Plini’s appeal and strength of delivery and perhaps, along the way, take a good, hard look at nu-prog and all it has yet to learn.
Cascade – Plini’s Structure and What It Means to Flow
The main issue that all progressive metal suffers from, and which is exacerbated bu nu-prog’s passion for the epic, is structure. When piling on technical sections, chord progressions and multiple, instrumental effects, one tends to generate many joining points. These “hinges” between the more elaborate parts are often neglected leading to a work that, while perhaps technically impressive, lacks the structure of an actual album or track. Leads upon leads are stacked up on each other, ultimately leading to the music losing cohesion in the listener’s ears. Thus, everything blends together and entire discographies lose distinction.
This is doubly the case for nu-prog because of the lack of variety in its style. When all you have is one or two basic, thematic ideas, you can’t afford to ditch structure. The curves and dips between parts in the track are what enables listeners to latch on to your work and understand it. Plini realizes this, almost innately; just listen to “Electric Sunrise”, the first track off of his latest album, Handmade Cities. It’s obvious which parts bear the most emotional weight, namely the huge lead which runs right through the track and the articulate solo. But in between these elements there are interesting, intricate and well composed interludes. These are made up of dynamic drums, something which is almost unheard of within the genre, and a great guitar/bass combination. These three elements create a main riff which runs through the track and echo-locates the listener, even when Plini is going all out.
The album is these ideas writ large. Bombastic tracks are stitched together by more humble creations, like “Inhale”‘s soft opening and outro in the light of the two preceding tracks. These subtle changes, always hanging on the main style of the album (as we’ll discuss later in depth) are what makes Handmade Cities (and the rest of Plini’s discography) so memorable. Yes, this might come as a shock to you but the insanely large leads aren’t exactly material for lasting memories. Instead, it’s often the steady, stable parts of tracks that got stuck in our head, as many pop songs recognize. If you have those built well, a firm scaffolding which allows the music to climb into your brain, then you’re set on a path into memory and a lasting experience for the listener. Plini has that scaffolding in droves, resulting in music which is both accessible and possessed of an impressive longevity.
Here We Are, Again – Plini’s Aesthetics and a Sense of Home
This feeling of return brings us to our second point. Unlike many of nu-prog’s releases (Polyphia is especially to blame for this, but so is the infinitely more talented CHON), Plini’s artwork comes with specific and well made art. Eschewing the usual plethora of sleek fonts, glistening lens flares or generically trippy colors, Plini instead digs back (and forward) into your imagination. With the help of the fantastic Alex Pryle (who else designed some of Intervals’ art), Plini doesn’t concern himself much with his self-image or marketing. Instead, his covers are there to evoke the right sensation from the listener, setting them up for the album itself. It hints at a wild cornucopia of ideas and sensations, accurately referencing the music which is to come.
Just check out the cover to Handmade Cities right below. Beyond the obvious fantastical elements of the cover, the art is also rich in different types of imagery. Instead of bludgeoning the listener above the head with its message, it invites exploration and meditation. Things lie in the background, details reward the careful onlooker and single releases and other tracks are referenced everywhere. This establishes a different sort of relationship with the listener than most nu-prog bands aspire to; this isn’t here to wow you or convince you that the artist is bleeding cool, a part of a well designed brand or team. No, it instead calls to you to come and play, come and journey through the album.
Since this art, and the sublime artistry of Pryle, continue throughout most of the albums, a different kind of cohesion is achieved. In this type of blanket statement, the listener is welcomed back rather than carefully packaged and sold to. Plini’s artwork conjures a sense of return, a sense of coming back to a place you like. A place where you feel loved. It always changes but remains the same in enough ways as to create a language which both the artist, the musician and the listener share.
Sweet Nothings – Plini’s Phrasing and the Power of Varied Repetition
This sort of varied repetition is also our final point for this article. It, fittingly, brings us somewhat back to our original statement about the cohesion of Plini’s albums but sheds light rather on the different which makes them work. Take “Pastures” and “Here We Are, Again” for example. The first channels the main backing line that runs throughout the album in its outro, splicing it with erratic drums and a slight, ambient edge that transforms it into something new. But again, we know it; the ear immediately picks it up amidst the changes. That’s the power of varied repetition: it enables both innovation and accessibility, new messages and old words at the same time.
“Here We Are, Again” doubles down on that promise. It’s the shortest track on the album but it also contains one of the largest catharsis infused moments on it. Most of the track is dominantly electronic, with synths taking the role that might have been filled by guitar leads in other tracks. Just when you think you’ve figured out where the track is going, that you’ve spotted the pattern in the repetition, a variation on the main line of the album appears, resplendent. It explodes, albeit shortly, accompanied by massive drums and heights of passion that set everything ablaze in your mind. It douses quickly, fading away into an outro which returns to the beginning of the track, even though it now feels completely different, a respite rather than an introduction. Varied repetition.
By the time the final track hits, with its larger than life bass and John Petrucci like builds ups, you’re sold. It doesn’t really matter what comes next (or in future releases). You’ve learned to trust that no matter where Plini goes, it will be both interesting and familiar. This is perhaps what all of these points come up to when summed up: Plini has direction. There is a constant vibe or vector to his work which feels like his own, made up of the three branches we had described above. By giving his album structure, dressing it with engaging aesthetics and finally introducing just the right amount of chaos through variation, Plini has smashed apart the nu-prog formula. This breakthrough enables him to evoke all the emotions needed and sought after by the sub-genre. He calls forth innocence, hope and adventure with a gesture, the mountains of far-away-yet-somehow-here with a single chord.