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.”
THE CONTORTIONIST: MAKING METAL WITH A THRILLING PROG TWIST.