Sunday, May 8, 2011

Protest The Hero

Ok, first of all, I would just like to make it clear that I still think blogs are stupid, and this isn't one. Ignore all that stuff that seems indicative of the fact that this is a blog, because it isn't. Understood? Fantastic. Moving on.

The reason I believe blogs to be stupid is the same reason that I've never started one: nothing worth writing about ever happens to anyone. That was the case for me as well, until last week, when I had a better-than-expected experience with some Canadian folks. I realize that the events I am to recount below will not be nearly as interesting or significant to anyone else as they are to me. I simply need a place to put my thoughts together coherently, lest I forget exactly how great an evening it was.

About two years ago I was reading an interview with Mike Portnoy, recently-ousted drummer for eccentric progressive metal legends Dream Theater. I don't recall the source of the interview or even the occasion for it, but one of the questions put to Mike was about the best new metal albums he had heard recently. One of them happened to be the album Fortress by a band called Protest The Hero, not an act with whom I was even slightly familiar. Through the magic of bit torrents I shortly thereafter had in my digital possession that album, as well as their debut Kezia (pronounced kuh-ZY-uh). I was absolutely floored by what I heard. At the time I had been going through a bit of an awkward musical period, a time when I'd have had no idea what to say if someone had asked me who my favorite band was. Dream Theater held that title for a very long time, but honestly nothing of theirs since Scenes From A Memory, which was released over 10 years ago now, has been all that great, and some of the more recent stuff has been downright unlistenable (see Wither, The Best of Times, I Walk Beside You, et cetera). Rush has always been a staple of my auditory diet, but their "modern" era work (everything since Test For Echo) has been alright, not great. To summarize, I hadn't been excited about a band, an album, a song, in a very, very long time. That all changed in the time it took to listen to Fortress and Kezia.

If you haven't heard of Protest The Hero, you can certainly be forgiven. They're a quintet of twenty-something Canadian fellows who haven't been on the scene that long. Like many bands these days, they defy classification. I suppose the most generic label for their music would be "metal," but they certainly don't look like a metal band, and depending on what you think "metal" sounds like, they don't always sound like a metal band either. Their music combines very obvious elements of punk, hardcore, progressive rock, and several different flavors of metal, and usually all of these things are evident in every song. Their music is only progressive insomuch as they are very talented, very skilled musicians, and the riffs tend to be very technical. Other aspects of progressive music are not embodied so much, like epically-long compositions (most of their tunes are a radio-friendly 3-5 minutes), over-the-top solos, and lyrics about esoteric and overly-intellectual subjects. Perhaps most telling is their fan-base; the crowds they draw are mixed gender (in stark contrast to the usual sausage-fests that are Rush and Dream Theater shows), and most patrons are shoving each other around and screaming along to every word, not standing intently and playing air guitar. Obviously the best way to judge is to listen for yourself. Here are the two best tracks from Fortress, Sequoia Throne and Bloodmeat.

The first time I saw Protest was last year in Pittsburgh at Mr. Small's Theater. It was a great show at a pretty cool venue, and I stayed around after the show in the hopes of meeting the band. Eventually they did show up out back, and I had the pleasure of talking at least a little bit with most of them. They were very affable chaps who were happily willing to talk to anyone about anything, which was a pleasant surprise. They all seemed genuinely appreciative of their fans and everyone who came out and stuck around to hang out afterwards. It was refreshing, really.

Protest The Hero's latest album, Scurrilous.
Protest's third album, Scurrilous, came out in late March and prompted their most recent tour. I picked the April 30th date at the Ottobar in Baltimore, since it was a Saturday night and geographically convenient. I had never been to the venue before, but it turned out to be a great place to see a show. I got there only about a half hour after the first band (of 3 opening acts, one of the annoyances at these sorts of shows) went on, and the place was already packed. The show was actually sold out, and there was scarcely any breathing room on the floor in front of the stage. Luckily there was a balcony, so I didn't need to fear for my corporal well-being in the writhing unwashed mass collected in front of me. I had brought the 5D mk II with me in the hopes of getting some photographic evidence of the show, and lady luck really did smile on me this day. The bouncer didn't even ask me to open my camera bag, let alone evaluate if any of my equipment was permissible inside. All I had with me was my 17-40mm and 100mm f/2.0 prime, since I had no idea what the place looked like on the inside. I finally found a little nook on the balcony, which runs the length of the left side (house left, anyway) of the venue. I shuffled my way into a small pocket basically over top of the stage. I was contending with an ill-placed I-beam all night, but I was almost unbelievably close to the band the entire evening. The photos you see henceforth are all from the Ottobar show.

The show really seriously kicked ass. The place was full of fired-up, energetic Protest fans, and the set-list was great. I really don't think there was a song that I would have added. It was loud, hot, and by the end I was sweaty and exhausted, even though I had been mostly sitting or crouching up in the balcony the entire time. Some guy down in the pit got a tooth knocked out, and by the end of the show he was bleeding fairly alarmingly from a head wound. Clearly a good time was had by all.

The place cleared out pretty quickly after Protest's set, so I stopped by the bar on the way out in an ill-conceived attempt to hydrate myself with a $3 Natty-Boh (National Bohemian, to the uninitiated) draft. From there I was going to shack up outside and wait for the band, but then I spotted Luke, the lead guitarist (in pictures 2 and 3 above). He was, of all things, manning the merchandise table. That's a microcosm of how completely unpretentious these guys are; they're not above hawking their own t-shirts and CDs after they've just played a show. I wasn't really in the market for any new gear or music, but I did have Luke sign my Scurrilous CD, and I asked him what their plans were for the evening. He said they were stuck there until the bus leaves at 3 am, but they didn't have a ride to anywhere, so they'd just be hanging around. I thanked him for his time and walked outside, since apparently some of the other guys were already out hobnobbing.

Outside I found that Arif, the bassist, was chatting with fans and posing for pictures, so I got in a rather short line and waited my turn. I expressed my satisfaction with the show, he very kindly signed my Scurrilous liner notes, and posed for the obligatory goofy picture. I resisted the temptation to chat him up much more, since there were a few others waiting for his attention and I didn't want to seem annoying. I leaned against a wall and started to go through my shots from the show.

After a while Luke closed up shop and came outside too. I didn't get a goofy picture with him, but I did spend a fairly considerable amount of time listening to him talk to an extremely eager and wide-eyed teenage fan who had brought his guitar along for the band to sign. This was definitely one of the more surreal moments of the night; this kid had a million questions for Luke about his guitar parts in so many songs. Not only was Luke kind enough to be completely indulging and polite to this kid, but I'm pretty sure he was genuinely interested in having this conversation. When words weren't sufficient to explain, he just took the kid's guitar and showed him how to play the riffs in question, explaining technique and practice tips (see below). This went on for probably 15 or 20 minutes until the kid left with his father, and I don't think Luke was even tired of him at that point.

After the kid left, Luke retreated to the tour bus, but the drummer Moe and lead singer Rody had both come out to where I was, so I took the opportunity to get autographs and goofy photos with each of them too.

Then, when I could have happily called it a night and driven home content with the evening, I noticed that Arif was still hanging around outside the bus and wasn't particularly engaged with anyone, so I decided to chat him up about being a bassist (as I at one point fancied myself, ah memories). It was almost like talking to an old friend, effortless and without pause for what seemed like forever. He was genuinely interested in my musical interests and why I wasn't actively playing anywhere anymore, suggesting ways I could get back into it. We talked about how we both hate Billy Sheehan and Stu Hamm, but guitarists think they're amazing and wonderful bassists for some ridiculous reason. We talked about the new album and how it's different from Fortress, how Arif has more slap parts on the new record and almost none of the two-handed tapping riffs that are all over Fortress. After a while he says "hey, do you want a beer or something?" Yes, yes I do. Now I'm having a Red Stripe with Arif outside the tour bus, talking about being a bassist. Then somebody from the bar staff comes outside and says put the beer away or get on the bus, open containers blah blah blah and all that. Very well. Door opens, in we go. Now I'm on Protest The Hero's tour bus, drinking with Arif. Eventually Rody comes aboard too and we're all sitting there, chatting about everything and nothing. It felt strangely comfortable, and nobody asked "hey who's this guy?"

After a while the decision was made to go out somewhere, but it had to be within walking distance, so another friend of the band, a Baltimore native, suggested a little dive bar around the corner called The Rendezvous Lounge. We make the short journey to the bar, and  one of Arif's friends buys everyone a shot of Jameson's, and now I'm officially out drinking with Arif and Rody after the show. Revelation of the night: everybody in the band listens to country music. I almost didn't believe Arif when he told me, but there was Garth Brooks playing from someone's iPod on the tour bus, and at this little bar Arif and Rody were playing obscure country tracks on the jukebox (to the palpable chagrin of the local patrons). Other notable sight: guy who was so drunk that he couldn't even feed his belt through the loops again after he went to the bathroom.

We were probably at the bar for an hour or so, and then it was time for the rockstars to head back to the bus. On the way back I checked my phone for subsequent show dates, and noticed that they were playing in Philadelphia on Wednesday. I told Arif that I might go to that show, at which point he offered to put me on the guest list. He called my phone so that I had his number (no you can't have it, it only works when he's in the US anyway) and told me to text him my full name, and he'd take care of it. We got back to the bus, I thanked him for his supreme niceness and free beer, and I drove home. One of the better nights I've had.

*A note about the conspicuous lack of photographic evidence of the events described immediately above: I do have a photo of Arif that I took with my phone on the tour bus, but in general I didn't want to be the spaz pointing his paparazzo camera around everywhere, especially since they were nice enough to let me tag along that night. For photos of inside the bus, see subsequent post about the Philly show.

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