In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past handful of years, progressive metal has been having a bit of a modern Renaissance lately. The old guard of Dream Theater, Symphony X, and Queensryche are certainly still alive and well, but they have since left the spotlight to a new generation of heavy music innovators in the likes of Between the Buried and Me, Periphery, Opeth, and others. (I won’t mention Devin Townsend because the man is an institution unto himself by now.) One of the newest of the newcomers to the burgeoning scene is A Sense of Gravity out of Seattle, a city long associated with the genre. Following their excellent debut in 2014 with Travail, the band is set to independently release their sophomore effort, Atrament, on Nov. 18th. The music, as evidenced by the recent video single “Echo Chasers“, is manic, brutal, intricate, and at the same time somehow extremely melodic; all qualities that define the band as a whole.
They were kind enough to take some time ahead of the album’s release for a short interview.
There’s a really interesting new generation of progressive metal bands out there right now with Leprous, Haken, and certainly you guys. Everyone seems to have their own direction and identity; do you see yourselves as part of that progressive ‘family tree’, or are you only concerned with your corner of the prog metal world?
Morgan: I think we are part of the progressive ‘family tree’ but we’re not concerned with trying to fit into a specific style or sound. We make the music we want to make, no matter what that ends up being. Also, Leprous and Haken are two of my favorite bands so thank you for including us in the same sentence as them.
Brendon: We’re big fans of Leprous and Haken, so that’s quite the compliment! I think we’re definitely a part of the progressive ‘family tree’. But as you mentioned, the exciting thing about modern prog metal is that there are so many different takes on it these days, and so many bands with their own unique sounds. There was a time when progressive metal had a specific sound, but today the branches on the progressive family tree have gone in so many different directions that all you can really count on is that the band will have some interesting, creative, or unusual elements to their approach. Overall, modern progressive metal bands have some common influences, but we each have our own unique combinations of other influences.
The band is, of course, from the city of Queensryche and Nevermore, two cornerstones of progressive metal. Does that have any bearing on where you guys are coming from musically?
M: Not really. Brendon and I didn’t grow up in Seattle and we wrote all the music on Atrament. Though I was a huge fan of Nevermore when they were around.
B: I like Queensryche and Nevermore, but wouldn’t consider either of them to be significant influences on our sound. Since we’re from a generation that grew up with internet, location has very little to do with the kind of music we make.
C.J.: Nevermore is actually a huge influence on me, and I learned to sing with many of their songs. Having Warrel Dane’s unique voice as a role model really helped me build confidence in developing my singing ability despite me feeling like my voice has an unusual timbre. I also slipped in some Nevermore-ish guitar riffs into “Echo Chasers”, which I co-wrote with Brendon.
With the exception of a few ‘breather’ moments on Atrament along with the atmospherics and instrumental parts, it seems to be a more consistently heavy album than Travail. Was there a focus to hone in on that in-your-face attack that you had developed on the debut?
M: I think that just happened to be the kind of music we were writing at the time. For myself I’ve been really into heavier music lately and that just naturally worked it’s way into the music. I like that we have that super aggressive side of us. It helps to add dynamics and make the softer sections more impactful. That death metal influence is something that a lot of modern prog bands don’t have. I think it’s one of those elements that help us stand out, and it blends well with the more progressive sound we have.
Along with that, was there a specific direction for the writing of the album as a whole? It sounds like a much more cohesive front-to-back composition that the last album.
M: That’s great to hear you say. We didn’t really have a specific direction in mind but we did take our time to make sure the songs we had worked well together. We also spent a while figuring out the best order for the tracks. That along with some repeating melodies and a loose lyrical theme helped to make an album that we think flows really well.
How is the writing process handled between the principal songwriters? There’s a lot of complexity to each track and it would be interesting to know how the parts are developed and jigsawed together when composing and arranging them.
M: Brendon and I wrote all the music on Atrament and it was handled in a couple of different ways. Firstly, both of us would bring in completed songs and we would get together and make small fixes and changes until we had what we wanted. Other songs were half Brendon and half me, where one of us would start it and the other would take and add to it and then we would arrange the parts together. “Promised None” we wrote completely together in the same room. That was really fun and we are planning on doing more of that in the future. After we have a song finished we make a really high quality mockup version with good virtual instruments so the rest of the band can hear the song and make suggestions if they have any.
For vocals, Brendon, CJ and I would get together at CJ’s place. We would all bring in our own ideas, try them out and work out and record the parts as we went along. CJ would also record things on his own and we would provide feedback. The whole process worked really well and felt very natural.
B: We love taking small ideas (melodies, rhythms, chord progressions, riffs, etc.) and then developing and reinterpreting those to create the rest of the music for a song, and in some cases music for other songs as well. For example, “Promised None” was based on one rhythmic idea I’d written, and then Morgan and I got together and wrote the rest of the song based on that one small idea. None of the parts in the song deviate from that one kernel, despite the wide variety of sounds found in the track. This process was used to some degree in all of our songs for Atrament. So even though there’s a lot going on in each track, many the parts were developed by reworking a few main ideas. This helps keep things cohesive despite the complexity.
You’re a prog band with decidedly complex songs and yet not one of them are over the 9-minute mark, in fact the average is probably around 5 or 6. Self-editing seems to be in short supply these days, and people almost expect a 12-minute wankfest for any music that isn’t an ABAB affair. Is it a conscious effort for you guys to keep structures trimmed to only what is needed?
M: It’s not something we did on purpose. I personally love long tracks, it’s one of the main things that made me fall in love with progressive music. My main goal as a writer is to create the best, most cohesive music I can. A lot of times that means trimming the fat from a song. Lots of prog bands feel they have to prove how progressive they are with long songs and crazy instrumental sections but often times those moments feel forced into the music. While there is craziness in our music it’s important that all the parts of the song feel like they belong there. Sometimes that means a 4 minute song and sometimes that means a 20 minute song. I have no doubt we will have songs over 10 minutes at some point in our future. That’s just not what happened this time around.
B: Morgan was actually disappointed that we didn’t have any extra long songs this time around. It’s something we want to do, but it’s not something we have any interest in forcing – the most important thing is to have the song feel right and stay interesting all the way through. It’s definitely a conscious effort to keep things trimmed to only what is needed.
There’s quite a lot of vocal gymnastics happening not just track to track but within each song by themselves, and while many bands with multiple vocal styles let the dynamics determine the vocals (clean vocals for clean instrument parts, harsh vocals for heavy parts, etc.) you seem to fit the style to the structure of the song itself rather than the sonics. Is that accurate?
M: That’s accurate. When you have a vocalist like CJ who can do lots of stuff really well you want to utilize that. The variety of vocals is one of my favorite things about Atrament. It helps to add variety, especially on longer heavier sections where one type of vocal delivery can get old really quickly. We wanted to avoid the metal cliche of ‘sing on the chorus, harsh vocals everywhere else’. Songs like “Guise of Complacency” have way more clean vocals than you would expect from such a crazy, heavy song. Like everything else we want the vocals to help us create the best song we can. The vocals should be an integral part of the song, not just something thrown on top of the music.
B: CJ actually surprised us multiple times during the vocal writing process with his timbral choices. Though some songs had vocal melodies written prior to his involvement, there were a number of occasions where we thought, “Obviously there will be growls/harsh vocals here,” and then he’d come in with soaring cleans, and vice versa. It helps keep things interesting! It’s also worth mentioning that there isn’t simply a single clean and harsh vocal style that CJ uses – there are several, totally different timbres for each that are used at different points. We love the variety of vocal styles on this release – CJ really took it to the next level this time around!
C: Yeah, variety in the vocals is something to which I’m naturally drawn. It makes singing the songs infinitely more fun in the long run, it helps develop my voice in multiple styles so that I gain flexibility as a vocalist, and it makes the albums much more interesting to listen to front to back in my opinion. I’m fortunate to have bandmates as interested in variety as I am, as it allows me to really be a ‘kid in a candy store’ when writing and singing the vocal lines. Fortunately, I think we also all have good intuition as to what the music calls for in each moment, such that we apply the variety tastefully.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that Atrament is going to be a pretty strong release, and you’ve already opened for none other than Leprous recently, what are plans looking like for the band going forward?
M: Our current plan is to support the release of Atrament as much as we can. We have some more videos planned and we are working on a tour. Beyond that we are always thinking about what we can do differently musically for the next album. We are really excited about the future of the band.
You can pre-order Atrament here, and follow the band on Facebook and Twitter.