If the 2016 EP Pacific Myth proved anything, it’s that a less nitpicky Protest The Hero is still a larger-than-life Protest The Hero. This goes to show the Canadian prog-metal heroes uncompromising chops. The band’s Queensrÿche-meets-BTBAM approach makes albums like 2013’s Volition indispensable amalgamations of conceptual grandiosity and technicality. Numerous roadblocks hindered the release of Protest The Hero's 5th album—including frontman Rod Walker blowing out his voice right before recording started. Perhaps because these guys had to recover, hunker down and hammer this thing out against the odds, Palimpsest contains some of Protest The Hero’s most potent music to date.
A “palimpsest” is defined by Oxford dictionary as “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.” It’s an apt description of the proceedings. “The Migrant Mother,” charges out the gate with a galloping drums and a power metal-ish vocal cadence. Walker has clearly overcome his difficulties in the voice department, as his powerful performance weaves stories of disillusioned workers in the farmlands of California amid sweeping instrumental dynamics. Protest The Hero is certainly a special band to have the first half of a song hark to the likes of Blind Guardian and the second dropping into the heavy syncopation of left-field metalcore.
The two singles “The Canary” and “From the Sky” break off from metal’s personal, brooding trend, presenting compelling narratives about interesting people and events. The former song centers on Amelia Earhart, and the latter on the Hindenburg disaster. In both cases, Protest The Hero chops up its triumphant progressions with what can best be described as synchronized shredding. Instead of soloing over a more basic rhythm section, guitarists Luke Hoskin and Tim MacMillar lock into nasty grooves with bassist Cam McLellan and drummer Mike Ieradi—like a prog-metal take on Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. Amazingly, Walker works sticky hooks into this sonic environment, but he truly takes over during the outro of “From the Sky.”
A two-minute crescendo ends the song in inexorable ecstasy, with Walker pushing his vocal range to the limit. The escalating drama of rapturous melodies and cinematic modulations paints a vivid picture of Hindenburg going down in flames. Such tremendous displays give a lot of merit to “Harborside,” one of three delicate interludes. Along with “Mountainside” and “Hillside,” they use piano and strings to both reinterpret the aura of the preceding track and set up the next journey. Having some time to relax is welcomed, considering exuberant romps like “The Fireside.” The song becomes an absolute mind-freak when Walker’s rapid-fire singing goes neck-and-neck with the speed metal riffs.
From anthemic choruses and face-melting melodic lines to orchestral buildups, these guys know exactly when to spotlight certain instruments and when to pour everything into a dexterous wall sound. This is also true with regard to harsh vocals, which have reached an all-time low on Palimpsest. When they do turn up, most notably on “All Hands” and “Soliloquy,” they effortlessly transcend the good-cop-bad-cop trope. This album’s clean singing is unbelievably intense in its own right, which allows the growls to become more of an accentuating texture than a grab for extreme metal credibility. It's a way to give Protest The Hero’s hard-hitting side an extra push, just like his silky singing gives ballady passages that much more emotion.
One of Palimpsest’s most pleasant surprises is some of its lyricism. Every song sports a gripping narrative, like the dreams of revolutionary grandeur found in “Reverie:” “My legend will grow as my story gives birth/ To a new generation of violent offenders/ Who worship my memory/ Hyperbolize my splendor.” It’s hard not to feel motivated to join ranks amid the bombastic leads and the sticky breakdown at its finish. Protest The Hero’s fire really starts roaring during “Little Snakes,” which sites a particularly damning quote from Theodore Roosevelt in a scathing takedown of the genocidal toll of colonialism on Native Americans. The album provides both engrossing storytelling and dazzling arrangements to chew on.
“Gardenias” captures the constant rhythm changes, unorthodox melodicism, sing-screamed vocals and jazzy interludes that make Protest The Hero indispensable. It takes multiple listens to fully appreciate the intricacies, but the hooks immediately make themselves at home and never leave. Maybe that’s why closing cut “Rivet” works so well as a hopeful, yet bodacious appraisal of modern America. You can spend hours picking apart the musical acrobatics, sneaking in unforgettable lines like, “No country’s history is free from bullshit/ But everyone just seems so fucking proud.”
Protest The Hero is the kind of band that doesn’t need to change its sound to bring something interesting to the table. The band’s modus operandi remains taking their style as far as possible, and that’s still the case here. Add to that the relevant, riveting lyricisms, and Palimpsest becomes the gift prog-metal needs going into the new decade.