Welcome to the twentieth episode of A Scene In Retrospect! Attentive readers of It Djents might have seen this article coming a while ago; it’s not often that we get to discuss important records of our scene so close to their anniversary, after all. That’s right, mere nine days away from its thenth anniversary, we’ll be talking about Protest The Hero‘s Fortress! If you haven’t already, check out some info about the band’s plans for celebrating this momentous event by following the links here and here.
Anyhow, please indulge us (in this case meaning our Editor-in-Chief Landon, senior writer Rodney, and staff writers Pete and Tom) as we give some belated praise to this band and album. Enjoy!
Fortress was one of those records that I was jamming since starting to listen to progressive heavy metal music. They caught my attention because a friend sent me a video of Rody Walker performing “The Dissentience” in a shark costume, which is somehow stuck in my mind forever now. Songs like “Bloodmeat” are still on my all-time-fav playlist. Once I downloaded the tabs to encourage myself getting better on guitar, I started realizing the immense level of musicality at play in their composition. Now, more than eight years later, I still love Protest The Hero for being so progressive and forging a path full of unconventional yet easy-listening songwriting abilities.
The fascinating mixture of complex rhythms, melodic virtuosity and Rody Walker’s angelic voice still blows me away. While Protest The Hero managed to give each and every song its own momentum and raising them to epic climaxes in short runtimes. Just listening to “Sequoia Throne“ or “The Dissentience“ will give you an impression of what I’m talking about. It’s also the lovely piano sections on “Bone Marrow“ and “Spoils“ that make Fortress as diverse as it is.
For me personally, the selling point is the artistic guitar work that is apparent all over the record; without unnecessarily obtrusive soloing, the whole riffing is just beyond almost every other metal record of 2008. Protest The Hero managed to step up from their also brilliant record Kezia to an even more diverse, unique and overwhelming work of music. Catchy, proggy and unconventional at the same time. What a record!
Occasionally bands completely change the way you hear music with just one album – Fortress is one such record. My only exposure to progressive metal before putting on Protest The Hero’s sophomore LP was Dream Theater. The frenetic riffs, unpredictable arrangements and Jekyll/Hyde vocal transitions managed to both scare and captivate me.
“Bloodmeat” is a quintessential opening statement from PTH, introducing Fortress’ loose concept and step away from Kezia in less than four minutes. Despite its intricacy and ambition, the youthful energy that writhes up from the album’s opening purveys the entire record; this is a technical progressive metal album made by teenagers, and it sounds like it. With the downright fun bluesy breakdown at the end of the opening track, Rody Walker’s screams of ‘We will crush them all like vermin’ manages to be just as much theatrical oddball antics as it is unpretentious and honest.
Some of the reviews I read of the album at the time it came out called Fortress cluttered and unfocused. Perhaps it is; horns and strings are stuffed into fast, punky technical metal tracks that are shoehorned around instrumental interludes all in the space of 42 minutes. And yet, I struggle to find fault here. Perhaps because of its naïve ambitiousness, Fortress feels cohesive in all of its multi-faceted inattentiveness.
Though I know many prefer Kezia to Fortress, I would argue that the latter takes the former’s punky energy and conceptual narrative to new levels of melody, energy, technicality and songwriting. Rody Walker’s vocals are perhaps the most varied here of any PTH release, and convey former bassist/lyricist Arif Mirabdolbaghi’s explorations of colonization and goddess worship in a way that feels impassioned and human.
It’s not too debatable in my eyes that Fortress has had an indelible impact on much of the technical/progressive music that has followed it, and I certainly can’t deny the impact this music has had on me. This album was an easy outlet for a lot of my teenage frustration, and the record’s iconic sleeve occupied a permanent spot in my car until the CD player stopped working. Even now, songs like “Sequoia Throne” inform my outlook on my work and my life; with lines like ‘They’re not the ones who’ve come cause us harm/We are’, I’ve come to realize that we as people cannot project responsibility for our realities onto some abstract concept, and must instead actively challenge injustice where we can.
I tend to take breaks from Protest The Hero because during university I rinsed “No Stars Over Bethlehem”, Fortress and “C’est La Vie” on repeat for weeks at a time. The awe-inspiring sweeps, frenetic drums and catchy as fuck vocals from Rody cemented them as one of my favourite bands during this period, and won them critical acclaim throughout the blooming progressive metal scene in England. Admittedly, I preferred Kezia for a long time over Fortress, but over the last few times I’ve caught Protest live, I’ve fallen more and more in love with the latter. The energy the band put in live is something to behold and they love playing songs from this album live, which only makes it better on record.
One of the reasons I probably didn’t get into it too much was because I DID try and tackle “Bloodmeat” on Guitar Hero during my ‘studies’, with attempts reaching triple figures. To put it lightly, I was fucking terrible at GH, and could rarely make it past the mental tapping sections before crashing out on hard difficulty. But alas, seeing some of the anthems like “Sequoia Throne” and “Palms Read” live awoke in me a love for this album which had been hindered by my repetition of the first track.
The album has so many hidden gems within, like the brilliant interlude between “Bone Marrow” and “Sequoia Throne”, the reggae bass section used in “Bone Marrow”, the obscene time signatures in “Limb From Limb”, and the intense classical-influenced sections in “Spoils”. It’s full of classic moments, and I still can’t believe it’s ten years old, because it still feels so current and fresh. Has anyone bettered it? Maybe Protest themselves, with their six-track album Pacific Myth in my opinion, but I’ll let our readers decide on which was their favourite.
I have drunkenly shouted ‘Split the sky asunder’ to an embarrassing number of confused friends. I also have the distinct memory of, at 14, confidently declaring to the rest of our band that of course James and I could play the guitar lines to “Sequoia Throne”, and yes a cover of it will go down well at our school’s (largely classical) music night. And no, our garbled attempts at it did not sound good through a cranked DS-1.
Fortress is one of the first albums I really loved, and so I’m glad it’s the first album I’m writing about for this feature. I’d moved on from the glory days of Linkin Park, had gotten over the novelty of Steel Panther, and was looking for something technically interesting that wasn’t quite as twee and 80s as Steve Vai. The copy of Fortress passed from my friend’s older brother to him to me crashed like a leviathan into my iPod.
There’s so much gushing to be done about this album! The different voices echoing ‘must die’ in “Bone Marrow”, the almost Super Mario-esque synths in “Limb From Limb”, and the meowing in “Wretch” stunned me. I could listen to the melodic vocal hooks against ripping guitars for days, and will never get sick of listening to the technical skill shown by each member of the band. I just love the feeling of starting to listen to this album, and how disappointed I still get at the silence when the music has stopped.
For all its heaviness, Fortress stays in my mind for being optimistic, and that tendency to be happy scratches all itches. When you’re in the mood for something intense, with frantic shredding and screaming, go listen to Fortress. When you’re in the mood for bouncing hooks and humour, go listen to Fortress. For the few of you that haven’t already, go listen to Fortress.
That’s all for now, I’m afraid. Waht are your thoughts on this album? Did you realize it was to turn ten years old this year? Are there any records you would like to see receive the A Scene In Retrospect treatment? Leave it all in the comments!
See y’all back here in a fortnight for another ASIR review. Until then, stay safe, and as always…
…thanks for reading!