Right off the cuff, I want to delve into what I mean by ‘storyless narrative’. Music often has an idea or plot it puts forth in each song/album, usually presented through lyrics or other audio cues (including spoken dialogue or audio clips of specific objects – eg. a television or a car), and while prog metal veterans Protest the Hero have effectively implemented this form within their music and continue to do so, this is not what I’m referring to. Rather, it’s the way in which a lyrical or thematic concept is reflected in the presentation of the sonic experience itself, eliciting a stronger connection to the messages being put forth. From this point, I will refer to this as ‘audio-narrative consonance’, with ‘audio-narrative dissonance’ being the logical antithesis.
The Canadian group has received a fair amount of positive reception in their tenure as a band. To this day, Kezia is still considered a well crafted-display of the former category, being a thoughtfully explored story from varying perspectives and deeper reflections on society as a whole (if you’re unfamiliar, it’s worth your time to look into it more). However, I would also argue that throughout their entire career the band effectively encapsulated the concept of ‘audio-narrative consonance’ in ways that are often overlooked. Moreover, these examples can be used as a template or guide to explore further integrations of these ideas meaningfully.
In analyzing these ideas, I’ve come across three distinct approaches of this aforementioned integration. The first, and most common, is the way in which the music is used as a tool to drive a very literal story – i.e. to reflect the emotions/struggles of a character or frame the context of the plot. Let’s call this direct audio-narrative consonance. The second is how the music reinforces a thematic idea/concept, or thematic audio-narrative consonance. Finally, we have the idea of using the music in a way that explores external thoughts, including subversions and deconstructions, which I will refer to as meta audio-narrative consonance. Each has its own place and use, but all three effectively improve the engagement of the listener, and reward them for investing into the music. Let’s dig into some examples to clarify their meaning and impact.
Direct Audio-Narrative Consonance
As stated before, this type of consonance is the most common, and as such, there is a deep pool of examples to draw from. One early example of this in Protest the Hero‘s career is during the third act of Kezia on “Turn Soonest to the Sea”. Despite much of the lyrical content discussing the idea of female subjugation, it also attempts to frame the fear and resolution of a woman about to be martyred in a very non-metaphorical sense. Lyrics such as ‘so when you bled on the bed as you fed those expectations, as a whore and not a human‘ build into a oppressive, borderline apathetic sounding speech, ending assertively on a line with a group screaming ‘your flesh means more than you‘.
Up until this point, the music has a strange set of guitar melodies and a stepping pattern that effectively conveys Kezia’s (the character, not the album) panicked and uneven mental state; the more aggressive it becomes, the more egregious the suggestions being made. The turning point in which the scream is made is not only one of the heavier moments from the band in general, but it also represents a breaking point in Kezia’s thought process. The pieces that make up the second half of the track that follows contains a distinctly uplifting and straightforward chant. A clear direction in sound showing unclouded thoughts, and positive lyrics matching the major chord progressions. It’s a powerful way to portray this character in her final moments of life as she comes to terms with the situation she is in.
Later, with Scurrilous, the band made a distinct switch to a more personal approach in writing lyrics, and the song “Tapestry” continues the idea of direct audio-narrative consonance, albeit in a much less dramatic way. The lyrics play a double role of showing a bar or taphouse as a haven of sorts – quite literally calling it ‘Versailles’ multiple times – while also slowly showing the progress of the night from arriving at the location to the following dawn. The music begins with a frustrated but clear tone as Rody complains about the day, and as things move on, both the music and singing join melodic phrases that become progressively more scattered and less about specifics. By the time a proclamation (‘I’m so drunk I can’t feel a thing’) comes, the music is all over the place and phrasing is highly sporadic. This builds until a point in which the lyrics suggest an altercation and the singing is at its least comprehensible, potentially signalling a fight.
The following musical shift is rather drastic, becoming dazed and almost serene; the lyrics then become reflective as thoughts wander from a serious wake up call to trying to hold on to the comfort of this sacred place. Swelling music brings about the final moments that usher in a triumphant and sober reclamation of the local as a haven, their ‘palace of the swamps’. An extended bridge that leads out the song shares a similar progression as the intro, with a final echoed rephrasing of the ending lines suggesting that this is a cycle that will continue going forward.
On top of examples such as these, there are also many smaller pieces of musically reflective moments that don’t quite encompass the entire song. Scurrilous touched on this in the duet portion of “Hair Trigger”, and “Dunsel”’s reflective assertions. There are frequent examples of this in Fortress as well. You can see it in the crushing violence that closes out “Bloodmeat”, when talking of slaughtering families on the morrow, or in the gallop that follows thoughts of regicide in “Bone Marrow”, preceding a vainly hopeful future in it’s short-lived uplifting reprieve. The latter is also followed by a clever moment in which our expectations of a vocal rebuttal (where the usurpers are stricken down) brings silence and an ironically beautiful piano melody. Here the music ends up telling as much of the story as the singer does.
Thematic Audio-Narrative Consonance
The thematic approach takes the conceptual idea that lies behind the surface-level narrative, and attempts to evoke a response that forces the listener to understand the underlying meaning of the words. A thoughtful example is in the line ’Every word ever written will fall short of its intent/Even sung or spoke or screamed they will betray what they have meant’ from “Spoils“. Between vague themes of nihilism and deriving meaning, this line is sung clean before being screamed multiple times. This not only works as a play on the literal meaning of the words, but also as a way to reinforce the idea that we as humans arrogantly place our own meanings in places where there either was none or in spite of another’s true intention. The scream pushes this idea that the meaning will be lost, as most who listen at first (and likely many times after that) will likely not take the lyric in.
One less humanistic, but equally powerful moment in which the music conveys an underlying lyrical meaning is in the track the closes off the album. “Goddess Gagged” touches on the empty space left by unanswered prayers, but the idea of a silence that exists where you expect or hope for more goes beyond the story itself. ‘To hear the song without verse, the sound of the sound of the sound/Utter first, the burst into nothing so sudden and soft‘: here we have a lead into the idea of silence as a sudden inevitability. This is followed by the final line, ‘The silence inside you when the music has stopped’, which brings an unexpected and equally unannounced end to the entire album – forcing you to sit in the silence and reflect. Even if it is a bit on the nose, this combination of the music and lyrics only works in the presence of each other, and they would be much less effective if not paired together. Moreover, these musical moments are divorced from the narrative of the song itself, more focused on pushing a thematic idea that goes beyond a simple story.
Meta Audio-Narrative Consonance
The first piece of the meta puzzle is how the use of musical familiarity influences interpretations of inherent meaning, or in noticing how the band is reusing (or actively not using) familiar sounds to reinforce these moments. You can see this in a track like “Underbite”, a song that frames itself as a criticism of other musicians in a mocking light. It starts with a cynical perspective, ironically played in a straight manner for the first half of the song, belittling fans and playing music that just sounds a bit…off for the band. More punk-like, with a vocal tone that is not usually present in their music. The second half sheds this farce, and the music reflects the more honest discussion by shifting to a more typical-sounding progression from the band. They used the listener’s familiarity with their music as narrative tool to reinforce the themes of the song. This isn’t the only time they use familiarity with their older material in this way either.
In the track “Animal Bones”, there is a point at which ‘We are, we are, we are still life‘ is chanted several times, a line that may be familiar to fans of Fortress. The lyrics preceding this moment elude to the band reflecting on their past, stating ‘If I could live another day over again, I’d choose not to/The successes and failures of days passed are constant/The horizon promises days ahead/If you won’t quit, then I won’t‘. The actual allusions to the song that chant comes from, “Sequoia Throne”, are minimal at best (moreover, the meaning of this is incredible vague, making this particular analysis little more than conjecture), but the fact that the phrase is lifted nearly identically implies distinct intent. This rewards the careful listener, and even subconsciously elicits an emotional response from those not paying close attention, reinforcing the connection in a way simple words cannot.
The other side of the coin is in the way music is used to guide thought. In particular, “Caravan” uses its medium to deconstruct the idea of meaning by attempting to craft meaning in its deconstruction – bear with me. The band uses the subversion of musical and thematic ideas to reinforce the meaning of their lyrics in a way that challenges the listener. The latter portions of final track work so well not because the integration of the two is complex, but rather because they take a singular idea and make it as relatable as possible.
Starting off with a standard fare – and quite flowery – use of metaphors and intentionally hollow imagery, the song moves on by commenting on its own direction: ‘A catchy way of saying nothing/But a narrative seems to allude to something more’. Musically speaking, this tonal shift of the song similarly goes from a very standard sounding Protest the Hero song to a very quiet, near-whisper affair, forcing the listener to take what is being said more carefully. The frustration that follows where Rody proclaims ‘I can’t relate to this’ is complemented with an equal release of frustration from the music; a breaking point in thought. Finally, the earnestness in which the chanting (that just begs to be sung along with) is delivered, and the euphoric resolution that brings the lengthy song to a close work well at evoking a feeling of resolute dissention.
All of the above moments fit more comfortably in the ‘direct’ section, but it’s this last part that pushes things into the ‘meta’ category. While chanting in unison among the many voices (what feels most natural and satisfying as a listener), the truth of the matter is that we are being tricked to chant along with the masses against the points the band is trying to fight for. We shout ‘Where is the problem? We’re entertained‘, as Rody fires off the reason why we should be more critical; this makes his words feel stronger, and makes us question not only what meaning those words carry, but also our own stance in the matter. The use of this near-counter-chant is clever, but the integration of emotion and lyrics itself is fairly simple. This simplicity does not belie its efficacy though, with it standing as one of the more powerful moments in the band’s catalogue.
I have spoken about the topic at hand to the point of borderline redundancy, and by now you surely understand the ways in which lyrics and audio can work together to create a stronger narrative not wholly dependant on superfluous audio cues and spoken passages. None of these three categories are inherently more valuable than the other, and simply using any of them can elevate the presentation of a narrative concept. By thoughtfully integrating the sonic experience in a way that reflects and reinforces the ideas the lyrics or themes present, you can craft music with more depth, which not only makes the music more engaging, but – as stated before – rewards you, the listener.
Protest the Hero are far from being the only band that attempts this kind of integration; you can see it in many places if you just put the effort into looking. Moreover, some might see this as ‘searching too deeply’ for something where there was no purposeful intent, but that possibility doesn’t change how these examples can be used to positively influence a more thoughtful approach to writing music. At the end of the day, we all just want to listen to something good. So ask for more from your music and pay attention to the small things – it might just help you enjoy it that little bit more.