To anyone that says progressive music is dying: Sorry, you’re just not paying close enough attention. Perhaps you’ve faulted the outcast subgenre for becoming too dependent on technical flash and instrumental wankery – and I could see where you were coming from with that – but the fact of the matter is, there are still artists out there capable of becoming the torchbearers for ‘true blue’ prog. You just have to be willing to get a sifter out and dig deep. Enter Ireland’s The Vicious Head Society, a progressive metal band masterminded by one man: Graham Keane.
Keane is a guitarist first, capable of creating rhythms that carry entire tracks, shredding through lightning-fast arpeggios and weaving an atmosphere of audible unease and tension. Several guest musicians help round out the remainder of the band. Kevin Talley (formerly of Suffocation and Dååth, among several others) and Klemen Markelj (Obidil) contribute drums, using a pummeling double-bass and fill-heavy technique to build one of the year’s best rhythm sections on an album. Singer Wilmer Waarbroek (Ayreon) is the vocalist on all but the title track (that one is sung by Nathan Pickering). Waarbroek’s high notes beg comparison to early Dream Theater or even some symphonic power metal bands, but his growled vocals sound like Sean Farber (also of Dååth fame) or Kobi Farhi (Orphaned Land). Bass is mostly handled by Keane himself, but there’s room for a couple guest spots by Pat Byrne (Hedfuzy). A very noteworthy synthesizer guest spot belongs to Derek Sherinian (formerly of Dream Theater) on the instrumental burner “Psychedelic Torture Trip”.
You might think it disingenuous of me to refer to this band as a one-man band, considering that there are a number of guest musicians that helped Keane out. This outsourcing is one of his strengths; it shows not only that is he self-aware enough to know that he cannot literally be a one-man band and do everything, but also that he has a great ear for talent that can help him realize his artistic vision. Keane is the ringleader of a circus of his own making. Every musical element was heavily considered and thought out, and this comes across in the quality of music we get in the form of the band’s first (and so far only) album, Abject Tomorrow.
Abject Tomorrow is a concept album, connecting themes of transhumanism, dystopian surveillance and the suppression of human emotion and thought in a story that follows a set of characters. The first track, “The Sycophants”, sets the stage early on with the lyrics ‘human clay is what they see/just cogs in the machine/a life without a template/just dogs kept on a leash.‘ Not exactly fertile ground for an album’s concept, but it does give enough context for the music to flourish. Progressive music lends itself very well to the tenants and tropes of science-fiction, and The Vicious Head Society is case in point of that. Sonically speaking, the music actually sounds like its thematic concept. The instrumentation is precise and mechanical at times, though never enough to show an organism truly devoid of humanity, just like the primary character of the story.
I can’t begin to tell you how many days I’ve woken up to these songs stuck in my head. Whether it’s a guitar riff, a standout vocal melody or bridge between two of a longer track’s segments, they are branded my memory and echo between my ears as I get ready for work several times a month. This is a strong testament to Keane’s sharp writing; every song is memorable for one reason or another. Oh, and if you listen to nothing else, check out the album’s title track (embedded above). The opening guitar riff is one of the grooviest, filthiest heavy riffs I’ve ever heard.
I recognize that this is all simply my opinion; that realization comes with the territory of being a music writer. You may very well not enjoy the ten-plus-minute, classical prog/Rush-influenced song structures, or the crispy clean operatic vocals as much as me or the next person. What I hope to impress on you today is that Keane is one hell of an artist, in nearly every sense of the word. I wasn’t lucky enough to follow his journey through getting this album produced and released, but I’ve heard enough from the man himself to recognize it was an arduous task, years in the making. He himself was unsure if Abject Tomorrow would ever see the light of day at times. Obstacle upon obstacle seemed to appear, but such is the plight of an independent artist. Still, he persevered, believing in his craft enough to see it to the end.
He’s also very vocal and interactive with his growing fanbase, being willing to answer questions directly from fans, get feedback, create opportunities for fans to win prizes, or even just show us some noodling he’s doing on his guitar. His music might deal with themes of technology’s troubling merge with humanity, but Keane himself is all flesh and blood. This type of artist is a rarity, and I commend him for using such a human approach to his art and all it encompasses.
Although Keane has already started early development and writing for a new album, nothing is known yet on what the concept – if any – for it will be. I implore you to check out Abject Tomorrow and tell us what you think. The Vicious Head Society is without a doubt one of the artists you should keep an eye on, if only for their potential in the future. They have produced not only one of my favorite albums of the year, but one of the most memorable pieces of music in recent years. Mark my words: They are going places. Don’t miss your chance to hop on the hype train and support one of the most promising progressive musicians in the game!