“I’m not going to lie to you. I never say never, but I don’t think we’ll ever be that metal band again…”
If it’s progress you crave, then the djent phenomenon of the last decade must surely rank as one of the most striking and innovative developments in guitar-based music. Thanks to the sterling efforts of TesseracT, Periphery and numerous others, this new style has redefined the term ‘prog metal’, perhaps forevermore. But like any young scene, the djent (or ‘tech metal’) fraternity seem to have reached a creative impasse in recent times. As a result, the new album from Poland’s Disperse deserves to be regarded as a major milestone. Having grabbed people’s attention with their plainly djent-inspired 2013 second album Living Mirrors, the band formed by guitarist wunderkind Jakub Zytecki and vocalist/keyboard maestro Rafał Biernacki nearly a decade ago are about to hurl themselves into pure prog waters with a new album, Foreword, that eschews the post-Meshuggah riffing of the Poles’ peers in favour of an extraordinarily rich and wildly imaginative new sound. As Zytecki explains, Foreword represents a total rebirth for Disperse.
“I suppose we just got tired of mainly playing that kind of sound,” he shrugs with a wry grin. “I won’t lie, we were really influenced by the whole djent thing, so we tried to do something similar, maybe unconsciously. But it got to the point where we were desperate to try something else. In the end we didn’t want to be more technical or purely instrumental but more focused on songwriting and the possibilities of production. It was all about the songs. That was the inspiration for this record, really.”
One other major factor in Disperse’s evolution from tech metal triers to purveyors of mind-bending, idiosyncratic prog was the assimilation of former Monuments drummer Mike Malyan into the ranks. Widely regarded as the drummer of the djent generation, not least due to stints with Chimp Spanner and The Algorithm, Malyan once feared that his musical career was over thanks to a major, recurring injury, but having returned to good health, the chance to hook up with Zytecki was both too good an opportunity to resist and a stroke of sublime synchronisation. The rhythm section that recorded Living Mirrors jumped ship as the writing process for Foreword began in 2015, leaving Zytecki and Biernacki to ponder a new masterplan.
“The other guys decided that they couldn’t put their energies into it anymore,” the guitarist recalls. “I guess they realised how much effort it takes to sit and write! [Laughs] That year, Mikey and I had seen each other from time to time and we were working on one of his side projects. In 2015 we were driving back in Mikey’s car to Poland with a hangover, and Mike suggested that maybe he could join us. I hadn’t been thinking about it. That was too much, you know? I was a big fan of him but I didn’t think about asking him. But we had this great chemistry and we just decided to do it together. Since then, it’s been amazing.”
“I fell in love with a girl in Poland that I’d met loads of times, and I was travelling to Poland a lot back then,” Malyan grins. “So I felt like, ‘Well, if I’m going to Poland anyway, I might as well hook up with Jakub…’ I’d had a breakup with my old band Monuments, because of my health problems, and I just wanted something new and wonderful and inspiring. Jakub was always my favourite guitarist from this scene and he had all of that oozing out of him from the beginning.”
Chatting with these two mercurial musicians, it’s obvious how much deep affection they have for each other and, significantly, for their new music. That sense of interpersonal chemistry is more than evident throughout Foreword, an album that manages to cram in everything from bowel-rattling riffs and skittering electronics through to shimmering jazz rock grooves and even a burst of African funk on the infectious and exploratory Does It Matter How Far?. Above all else, Foreword sounds joyful: the results of a new and exciting musical relationship.
“One of the biggest things for me was when Jakub said, ‘You can make this whatever you want!’” Malyan beams. “There was no running ideas past anyone. I can’t tell you how special I felt during the writing process. I’ve been in lots of bands and never had any real creative control before. This was, ‘It’s you, it’s me, it’s all of us’, and that just activated my soul and made me want to aim even higher for everyone else.”
“It was just a mutual thing,” adds Zytecki. “It’s really difficult to achieve anything on your own, without that bond.”
There is no denying that both Zytecki and Malyan put in extraordinary performances on the new Disperse album, but it is perhaps frontman Rafał Biernacki who truly steals the show. A world away from the overwrought bleating and growling of many contemporary prog metal vocalists, his understated and intricately layered performance gives Foreword a huge sense of intimacy and humanity. It’s obvious that his bandmates are similarly impressed with his efforts.
“Even before we started properly writing, we wanted the vocal to be at the forefront,” Zytecki states. “I didn’t want my guitar parts to be the focus. I want to do some solos, of course, but it’s all about the vocals and the lyrics, so what Rafał was doing was hugely important. We spent a lot of time working on every single line on every song. The vocals were the one thing we sacrificed the most time for, to figure out how to make it sound just right.”
“Rafał has his own style, particularly because he’s singing and playing keys at the same time,” Malyan continues. “I remember hearing vocal ideas early on, and they weren’t just vocal lines, they were like big block piano chords with these thick harmonies. Rafał approaches it from a very instrumental viewpoint, and when it comes to the lyrics he’s been seriously honest. When we first played Stay [Foreword’s opening track] live, he thought he’d written it about some girl that he’d lost, but he sang it and suddenly he was like ‘Holy fuck, guys… I wrote this about my mum!’ I said from the start, if you can work with emotions and make them work with the music, it can be such an amazing way for him to heal. That intimate sound he created gives it such an emotional background, I think. But you ought to know that a couple of tracks have Jakub singing too. It’s the first time he’s ever sung!”
“I felt comfortable at the time because I was just in my room, recording the vocals,” Zytecki says of these particular songs. “But when it’s time to play those songs live, I think I will shit myself! [Laughs]”
With its title making no bones about how Disperse regard their new album – “It’s a cliché,” says Zytecki, “but this is a rebirth. It’s not a new chapter, it’s a new book!” – Foreword is clearly not a record made with a particular audience in mind. Both Zytecki and Malyan speak very positively about the djent scene that gave them their entry point into a life of creativity, but it’s obvious from listening to the box-fresh eccentricities of new songs like Sleeping Ivy and Does It Matter How Far? that Disperse are now a prog band to their very bones. As a result, they are determined to make the most of their refreshed identity.
“It would be amazing if the prog scene embraced us,” says Malyan. “I remember driving for [iamthemorning] when they toured with Gazpacho. It was a perfect opportunity to come to Poland, for one, but I just remember seeing the crowds that enjoyed those shows, watching Gazpacho for two hours of pure music, standing in pure appreciation and pure love, and that inspired the crap out of me. It’s so positive and it’s quite different from the metal world in many ways. I think from now, this band will be all about the music. I’d like to stick with that prog crowd, because the mutual respect between bands and audience is so ridiculously uplifting. It’s emotionally positive and powerful and we’d love to ride off that as much as possible.”
A band reborn, Disperse have transformed themselves into one of the most vital forces in modern prog and Foreword is the first true masterpiece of 2017. As humble as they are, Zytecki and Malyan wear facial expressions that suggest they know they have something genuinely special in their hands. Sometimes all the pieces of the puzzle just fall into place, and that’s when the progress, and the magic, really happens.
“One of our main goals was that we wanted that magical vibe – that uplifting feeling,” Zytecki surmises. “It was a really inspiring experience and we’re excited about making music together. This was the most special period of working on music that I’ve ever had. It’s the start of something new, something weird. I think it’s going to get weirder in the future, too. The weirder, the better!”
Foreward is out now on Season Of Mist. See www.facebook.com/disperseofficial for more.