Protest the Hero – Palimpsest

In prog metal circles, Protest the Hero are held in high regard as being incredibly influential, with at least two albums comfortably sitting in the rank of being outright masterpieces. 2005’s full length debut Kezia was a compelling conceptual record telling the story of the eponymous protagonist being tried and executed for an unknown crime (presumably sex work), and is overtly feminist in its narrative. The record was intensely melodic, and saw the band matching highly technical guitar virtuosity with hardcore punk in a way that set them apart from their contemporaries in the then-burgeoning mathcore and prog metalcore scenes. The fact that the boys in Protest were teenagers at the time makes this album all the more incredible. 

Then, in 2008, the band reveled in the technical and melodic excesses of their sound for Fortress, a loose concept album about “goddess worship and the suppressed feminine,” per then-bassist and lyricist Arif Mirabdolbaghi, which again speaks to the band’s seemingly guiding principles of social justice and feminism. Fortress was stunning and haunting, with symphonic elements that elevated the band’s sound to new heights, from which it seemed (or at least we hoped) the band would never come down. 

The band’s discography following Fortress, while still exceptional compared to many of their contemporaries, couldn’t live up to the impossible expectations set by the band’s first two records. The core Protest sound was settled in and becoming comfortable, and there were few surprises left out of the prog-power-by-way-of-mathcore type of sound employed by the band. Between Scurrilous in 2011 and 2016’s Pacific Myth, the band lost Mirabdolbaghi and drummer Moe Carlson and had to explore ways to prevent the well from running dry, including a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign and a subscription service. Additional growing pains in this time included Walker taking over lyrical duties, and while the change in voice was noticeable, Walker soon soared on his own, and things began to look up for Protest.

But following Pacific Myth’s physical release window and touring cycle, life circumstances got in the way. Walker blew out his voice, putting one of the defining factors of Protest at risk. Between building families and blown out vocal chords, the four years since Pacific Myth have felt like an eternity. By the band’s account, this time wasn’t wasted; while the band teamed up with producer Derya Nagle of Good Tiger to work obsessively on their most ambitious album in a decade, Walker had to recover. 

From the Palimpsest press release:

“This record was extremely difficult for me personally,” shares frontman Rody Walker. “With my first child on the way, I built a studio in my basement to ensure I wasn’t leaving my wife alone with a new child for weeks on end. I haven’t left my house since. What made it most difficult was the change in my voice. During our final tour, just before we were set to start recording, I blew my voice out, and it didn’t come back. I spent a long time fighting with it trying to bounce back and failing. Finally, through coaching and rehearsal, I got it back into shape. For the first time in my life, singing felt like an actual job and I’m still pissed about it. I have never worked harder to put out music in my life and I am extremely proud of the product.”

The hard work has paid off, because Walker’s efforts absolutely shine on Palimpsest, and his performance carries conviction and confidence. There are moments where strain can be heard out of Walker, and it’s often used to great effect, particularly on the exhausted snarls in a pivotal moment in “Reverie”. In pre-release single “From The Sky,” Walker really goes for gusto at the end with an impassioned high falsetto. He also gives his lungs a workout with the rapidfire crossover punk delivery on “The Fireside.” Walker truly is the MVP of Palimpsest, especially considering the band’s return to making concept records, but more on that in a moment.

The rest of Protest aren’t slacking either, and deserve praise. The hallmarks of a classic Protest record are present: proggy twists and turns through dazzling guitar virtuosity and intense hooks, both vocally and instrumentally, are available at every turn. Piano interludes litter the album with melodic themes that come and go throughout, just as they did with the aforementioned classics, further fueling the comparisons. The songwriting is razor-sharp, and accentuated by a grandiose orchestral section that is omnipresent across Palimpsest. Highlights include: The cinematic opening overture of “The Migrant Mother”, with its epic and evocative string section;  “All Hands,” which pairs Walker’s vocals with a legato guitar melody for one of the most powerful moments on the album; the flirtation with brutality on “Soliloquy,” which briefly features death growls and blastbeats; the drum and bass interplay in the creeping build of “Reverie”; and the clever interpolation of the Bing Crosby’s Depression-era anthem “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” on final track “Rivet.”

Without confirmation from the band prior to the release of Palimpsest, it appears that the record is a satirical take on the concept of American Exceptionalism and Western Imperialism at large. It would be easy to take many of the lyrics at face value, and given the triumphant nature of the songs, Palimpsest may give off the first impression of earnest appreciation of patriotism and the pursuit of the American dream, but repeat listens uncover a bitter criticism of America.

The band takes us from the Westward expansion of the US (“The Migrant Mother”) and the subsequent mistreatment of First Nation Peoples and the taking of their land (“Little Snakes”), on through hitting topics including but not limited to sexism and misogyny (“The Canary”), the dangers of propaganda and the whitewashing of history (“From The Sky”), the Great Depression (“The Fireside”), the prison industrial complex and the neglect of veterans (“Soliloquy” and “Reverie”) , and yes, the circumstances that lead us to Donald Trump himself. The finale “Rivet” sports the lyrics, “all praise be to the new God who speaks so elegantly, who says America is not great, but it can be!” with the chorus “Let’s Make America Great Again!” in case the message wasn’t obvious. Walker offers a succinct thesis for the album late in the track, shouting, “no country’s history is free from bullshit, but everyone seems so fucking proud.” 

Of course they could never have predicted the sweeping civil rights movement and global pandemic occurring during the album’s release cycle when it was written and recorded, but Palimpsest is an album absolutely necessary for this current political climate. It’s a timely disavowal of blind patriotism and nationalism, and it’s delivered with absolute passion and conviction. Fortunately, it also happens to be one of the best records in their discography to date, and certainly their most ambitious and cohesive record since Fortress. Palimpsest feels like a comeback record of sorts, and it’s exciting to hear Protest the Hero with so much life and energy this far into their career with yet another (potentially) legendary record under their belts.

Palimpsest is out July 18 via Sheet Happens.

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