The Con­tor­tion­ist___

Prog - - Contents -

US sex­tet shift ever fur­ther into prog ter­ri­tory with new al­bum.

ince emerg­ing with their ex­treme metal de­but Ex­o­planet in 2010,

The Con­tor­tion­ist have never stood still. Los­ing two found­ing mem­bers af­ter 2012’s In­trin­sic, the ad­di­tion of Jordan Eber­hardt on bass, Eric Guen­ther on key­boards and the prodi­gious vo­cal tal­ent of Mike Les­sard ul­ti­mately proved rein­vig­o­rat­ing for the group. Their next al­bum, 2014’s Lan­guage, saw the band step­ping back from ex­treme metal and mov­ing to­wards the main­stream of pro­gres­sive metal, while also mak­ing over­tures to pro­gres­sive rock, at­mo­spheric al­ter­na­tive rock and even post-rock.

Their new LP Clair­voy­ant is very much a pro­gres­sion on the di­rec­tion first charted by the band on Lan­guage. As gui­tarist Robby Baca says, “We did it with the same pro­ducer and pretty much the same group of dudes, so in a way it’s kind of a con­tin­u­a­tion of Lan­guage. It was more of a fo­cused ef­fort, I sup­pose. We made an ef­fort to not get too ‘out there’ with wild, crazy song ar­range­ments and I think it fits with the discog­ra­phy as a whole. It’s def­i­nitely the most con­cise, to-the-point, fo­cused record we’ve ever done.”

Eschew­ing many of the trap­pings of pro­gres­sive metal for a tighter, more melodic sound, there’s nev­er­the­less a the­matic heav­i­ness and a dra­matic ten­sion as pow­er­ful as any of the drop-tuned chugs found on their pre­vi­ous ma­te­rial.

“When we do some­thing melodic, whether it’s a more melan­choly melody or an up­lift­ing melody, when you get a part that re­ally hits home, to me it feels way bet­ter than any heavy part could ever feel,” says Les­sard. “I’ve never got the sen­sa­tion from writ­ing a metal song that I get from writ­ing a part that res­onates har­mon­i­cally, so that’s usu­ally why my vote goes to­wards the more rock-ori­ented songs.”

How­ever, he stresses that this wasn’t a de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion at the writ­ing stage: “It wasn’t con­scious in the sense that we sat down and went, ‘No metal.’ We sat down when we started writ­ing and re­ally, no metal came out. There was a track or two that were heav­ier, and ob­vi­ously the ti­tle track on the al­bum is a bit heav­ier, but y’know, it just wasn’t what made the pick.”

The dark at­mos­phere of the al­bum hints at a con­sis­tent theme, and Les­sard is can­did about it be­ing an arc.

“I think with every al­bum we try to take that ap­proach [of hav­ing a con­cept] lyri­cally, and the over­all vo­cal vibe is com­ing from the an­gle that it’s the op­po­site of Lan­guage in the sense that if Lan­guage is life, Clair­voy­ant is death.

It’s the op­po­site of that. That’s why Lan­guage’s art­work is colour­ful – it’s this up­lift­ing piece of art­work, whereas the new al­bum, it’s just black and white. There’s no colour to be found, it’s all been sucked out.”

Lyrics like ‘You were so sick, you were skin and bones/so you fed your­self ex­cuses just to

keep it go­ing’ and ‘If the re­lapse hap­pens to­day/ then let to­mor­row be re­cov­ery’ strongly hint at cy­cles of ad­dic­tion, re­gres­sion and death, though Les­sard is rel­a­tively coy about the ex­act mean­ings of the songs and what in­spired them.

“There’s def­i­nitely a lin­ear story,” he al­lows. “Now, for me to give that away, I feel that it takes away from the lis­tener a lit­tle bit. I don’t re­lease lyrics with our al­bums and stuff of that na­ture be­cause I’m a strong be­liever in let­ting the lis­tener cre­ate their own story and not putting their imag­i­na­tion in a box, or spell­ing it out for them. I like ac­tive lis­ten­ing. For me, my favourite al­bums have al­ways been where I don’t know what the song is about, and I don’t have the lyrics, so I have to do re­search with one of my friends or who­ever, or spec­u­late with other peo­ple, and it cre­ates con­ver­sa­tion. So I try to keep it open-ended.”

On the in­stru­men­tal side, while they’ve stepped fur­ther from their tech­ni­cal and pro­gres­sive roots, there’s still a level of sub­tle com­plex­ity to the in­di­vid­ual parts, rhythms and tim­ings, and com­po­si­tion­ally, there are plenty of Easter eggs for the care­ful lis­tener, as Baca ex­plains.

“There are mu­si­cal themes. I don’t be­lieve any of the ac­tual mu­sic, in­stru­ment-wise, got car­ried over from Lan­guage, as far as

I can re­mem­ber, but there are def­i­nitely mo­ments that hap­pen in dif­fer­ent ways across dif­fer­ent songs on the record. It’s kinda sub­tle for some of them, but there’s a cou­ple that are kind of ob­vi­ous.

“Y’know, bands like Dream The­ater did this back in the day,

“When we were writ­ing, no metal came out – the heav­ier songs just didn’t make the pick.”

Mike Les­sard Back with genre-strad­dling al­bum Clair­voy­ant, The Con­tor­tion­ist share their creative vi­sion with Prog, and tell us how they’re twist­ing their metal sound in whole new ways.

Words: Alex Lyn­ham Images: Gobinder Jhitta

and when I was younger, I picked up on that stuff. I thought it was so cool that they would take this chunk of mu­sic and re­ar­range it, put it in a dif­fer­ent song, and it would be in a dif­fer­ent key or a dif­fer­ent time sig­na­ture or some­thing when you heard it again later. I al­ways wanted to do some­thing like that and I think this is the first time we’ve ever done it, so I’m stoked about that.”

This abil­ity to shape-shift while in­ject­ing new depth into their mu­sic is also partly down to how Clair­voy­ant was con­ceived. Nor­mally, Les­sard says, the writ­ing process takes a very dif­fer­ent form.

“I think in terms of fo­cus on past al­bums it has been in some ways just to do with the dead­lines, to get the al­bum done in time,” the singer re­veals.

With the new al­bum, the band gave them­selves more breath­ing room. “We made sure we had a year,” Les­sard says. “We did a lit­tle bit of tour­ing in the mid­dle just to

break up the monotony of it all, but with this al­bum we had a chance to fo­cus on it so you don’t get any through-com­posed songs, you don’t get the thing where we’re like, ‘Well, you know, this is what we have, this is what we have to do, and we’ve got to make the best of it.’ With this al­bum we were able to be like, ‘Well, we have all these songs – which ones do we think are the best? Which feel the strong­est?’”

To break the back of the writ­ing, the band de­camped to Maine in the north-east of the US for a month-long writ­ing sum­mit with Evan Sam­mons, Les­sard’s band­mate from side project Last Chance To Rea­son.

“We spent about a month in Maine sort of around where Mike grew up, writ­ing a good chunk of the record,” Baca re­calls. “It was pretty iso­lated so it was easy to just get lost in the song­writ­ing and not get dis­tracted.”

At this point the songs came to­gether quickly, thanks to the time that had al­ready been spent on gen­er­at­ing ideas in­di­vid­u­ally. The band are spread across the United States, so hav­ing done some prep work be­fore go­ing into the stu­dio was nec­es­sary.

“We used to live in the same place,” ex­plains Les­sard. “Now Robby lives to­wards the mid­dle of the US [In­di­ana] and I live in the south-east [North Carolina].”

Other mem­bers are just as spread out – Guen­ther lives in At­lanta, and

Eber­hardt in Den­ver.

De­scrib­ing how the ini­tial ideas for the songs came to­gether, Les­sard says: “We had spent the sum­mer be­fore [Maine] with every­body on their own, writ­ing their own stuff and sift­ing through their own ideas, so that when we got to Maine, there was a lit­tle bit of a launch point.”

De­spite all the pre-pro­duc­tion time given to Clair­voy­ant, it was also the case that less was set in stone than ever be­fore once track­ing com­menced. Record­ing with long­time friend Jamie King in Win­ston-Salem, North Carolina, the band felt free to ex­per­i­ment.

“Jamie is very easy to work with – he’s like the sev­enth mem­ber of the band when we’re in there, and he’s got a guid­ing hand on all the in­stru­ments, so it’s a re­ally smooth process,” Baca re­veals.

Les­sard de­scribes the ori­gins of the sin­gle Reimag­ined as be­ing an ex­am­ple of this rules-free ap­proach. “Some of the songs started from parts. Reimag­ined was a song I started dur­ing the Lan­guage process, so that had been sit­ting around for­ever be­fore it set­tled on what it was.

“Some of the songs got done in the stu­dio, so some of them didn’t even hap­pen when they were sup­posed to be writ­ten in the writ­ing process – they kind of formed in the stu­dio af­ter we’d had all that time to be in that mind­set. When we were sup­posed to shut that mind­set off, it stuck around and I think some of the strong­est songs came from when every­body was in the stu­dio work­ing on stuff.”

Baca adds: “That’s some­thing we’ve never done be­fore. Pre­vi­ous records, we’ve gone in with every sin­gle note and beat com­pletely set in stone and we’ve recorded it that way. This way it was a lot more fluid and to me, that was a much more en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence.”

As for what mo­ti­vates them to con­tinue, and what they love about mu­sic, the two are in ac­cord, as they have been through­out the con­ver­sa­tion.

“For me, it’s the process of hav­ing an idea and mak­ing it some­thing that other peo­ple can ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Les­sard.

“And then the process of not even hav­ing an idea and hav­ing some­thing just start to come to life with­out you even think­ing about it, so re­ally the cre­ation process is the most fas­ci­nat­ing thing about mu­sic – the ini­tial idea be­com­ing a tan­gi­ble thing.”

Baca agrees, be­fore adding: “The cre­ation of mu­sic is sort of… a thing where you’re al­most like a kid again, you’re just play­ing with mu­sic, and if you can get to that state, there’s noth­ing like it.”

Clair­voy­ant is out now via eOne Mu­sic. See www.face­book.com/the­con­tor­tion­ist for de­tails.

“The cre­ation of mu­sic is sort of where you’re al­most like a kid again, you’re just play­ing with mu­sic, and if you can get to that state, there’s noth­ing like it.”

Robby Baca

THE CON­TOR­TION­IST: MAK­ING METAL WITH A THRILLING PROG TWIST.

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