Everyone loves a concept album, right? They’re a quintessential element of what makes prog great. They’ve got the ambition, the ingenuity, the storytelling, the grandiosity… So it’s pretty darn exciting that Periphery have gone and birthed one, and not just on one disc, either, but over two separate yet overlapping releases unleashed simultaneously.
The US prog metallers’ new records – Juggernaut: Alpha and Juggernaut: Omega – are rambunctious, white-knuckle journeys through spider-fingered fretwork, melodic sheen and free-flowing fantasy. It’s impressive stuff, and another example of how prog continues to manifest itself so effortlessly in the 21st century.
“When we were writing it, we weren’t really thinking about how we were going to deliver it,” says guitar dynamo Misha Mansoor down the phone from his Washington DC studio when asked why the work was chopped in two. “It was really about the music and the story. We had free rein to do whatever we wanted, but it ended up being so much. We’re honestly really lucky to have labels and management that will work with us and give us free artistic control. I think one of the big questions was why we didn’t do a double album. But the truth is, I always feel like one of the sides gets a little bit undermined and it kind of loses impact.”
It’s fair to say the Juggernaut couplet most certainly does not lose any impact over its accumulated 17 songs, with Periphery – who are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year – doing a stellar job of keeping things consistent and fresh throughout.
Arcing like a technicolour rainbow over the slickly produced melee of downtuned TesseracT-in-bed-with-Sikth riffola and mathematical rhythms is a good-versus-evil storyline penned by vocalist Spencer Sotelo. “I can give you a brief overview of the story – if I walked you through each step I’d go on for hours,” Sotelo jokes from his home in DC. “It’s the main character who you reach through the whole story with. The albums start out with him being born into a sadistic cult and the whole story is kind of him battling between good and evil and right or wrong, and whether he wants to be out of that and live in the real world.
“It’s completely fictional. I think what happened is that I was watching too many movies and TV shows based on the same kind of thing – the dark cult aspect. Movies like [1968 horror flick] Rosemary’s Baby or the TV show True Detective. I’d literally just finished watching the first season of that when I started writing, so it greatly inspired me.”
The group’s previous two albums – 2010’s self-titled debut effort and Periphery II – This Time It’s Personal, which was released in 2012 and nearly breached the US Top 40 – were anchored to the then burgeoning djent scene by virtue of the band’s penchant for guttural distortion and proggy tech beats. But the new records evoke something greater, something grander. This is a group who have now perfected the art of dynamics, with jazzy interludes and reflective detours providing the zingy dressing that glazes the staunch salad.
Perhaps it’s down to the six-piece using the spacious double-album terrain to their advantage, or maybe it’s the fact that for the first time, every member sat around the songwriting table – something the band openly admit made them ultimately stronger and tighter as a unit.
“It was our first really collaborative effort,” says Mansoor, who historically has played a pivotal role in penning Periphery’s prolific output. He reveals that the writing for the new albums took about two months: “We worked on it as a group so we could meet this goal. It was a challenge, but I’m really glad we rose to it.”
So were there any obstacles in the writing process? “Sure,” he readily concedes, “but nothing super serious. Something I’m really happy about is that any stumbling blocks have been resolved in a way that made us closer or made us learn something about how to communicate or where other people are coming from.
“I think one thing to remember is that it can be very hard when you’re dealing with material which is emotional and which you’re attached to, especially when your friends’ opinions are the only ones you care about. I don’t care what random people along the line or whatever say about my music or my band. I think the big thing was to learn how to detach ourselves emotionally from what we were putting in. That was probably the tough part, but it was the healthiest thing that we could do. It was a very therapeutic exercise for everyone.”
Periphery have maintained their recognisable sound on the Juggernaut albums, with cuts like Stranger Things and Alpha purveying their cocktail of serious groove and hook. One influence they particularly honoured during their writing sessions, however, was the use of recurring motifs, so aptly exhibited in the past by the likes of prog metal godfathers Dream Theater.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve taken inspiration from [other concept albums] in any direct way,” Mansoor says. “I love Scenes From A Memory by Dream Theater, but the influence is more in how they used the concept to their advantage – returning themes and motifs and having all the songs as part of a whole, rather than individual songs. And a lot of the stuff Devin Townsend does, where you get a lot of these themes coming back with a twist. I’ve always liked that, and this is an opportunity to explore those things.”
So are Periphery happy with the prog tag? “I mean, that’s what we’ve always identified with and that’s kind of in our approach,” Mansoor says. “For me, at least, prog is a licence to do what you want. There are no expectations – you can go in any direction. It’s prog.”
When quizzed on the progressive bands currently floating his boat, Mansoor rattles off the aforementioned Dream Theater, as well as trailblazers Opeth, Between The Buried And Me and Porcupine Tree. “But I really don’t listen to a lot of music,” he concedes. “I’m the world’s worst music fan. A lot of people will not relate to this, but for me, I live and breathe music. I’m surrounded by it and it’s my job. But I’d usually opt for silence over music [outside of work], because sometimes it’s just like a break. But that’s just me – there are people who are the opposite and can’t have enough. But hey, I’m just a shitty music fan and I apologise.”
Singer Sotelo – who gives Periphery an at times radio-friendly veneer with his melodic vocals amid the growls – is also a self-confessed prog-ite. But he reckons the experimental nature of releasing a concept album via two separate products in a download-happy era does come with some uncertainty.
Sotelo, who also fronts Skrillex’s former outfit From First To Last, says: “I would say it’s a huge risk – if the two records had nothing to do with each other. But these tie into the same concept and the same story. People are going to want to hear them at around the same time. A lot of the themes on the first half of the record come back on the second half, so if you’re not getting both albums and listening to them back to back, you’re cheating yourself out of the concept and the experience you’re supposed to have when listening to it.”
And it’s not just the music that runs with the grand theme – the Alpha and Omega releases feature their own detailed artwork to mould things into an immersive, aesthetic package.
“Go out and buy the albums, or if you’re not sure, download them first and if you like it, buy it later,” says Sotelo. “But the lyric book in each album has different artwork and each page is of what’s happening in the story at that point. We spent a lot of time figuring that out, choosing different artists to get the vibe of the visuals the way we wanted them. We’re really happy with how it has turned out.”
Just how Periphery can top this expansive, 80-minute-plus double record, however, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Just don’t count on a triple album next. “I think if there’s one thing that we all probably agree on, it’s that our next album should probably be a lot shorter!” Mansoor laughs. “The things we could do? Maybe like a 15-minute album of 10 or 11 songs. That could be kinda fun.”
Juggernaut: Alpha and Omega are out now on Century Media. For more information, see www.facebook.com/PeripheryBand.