Thanks to the achievements and fame of prog luminaries too ubiquitous and legendary to require naming here, supergroups have long been an important part of our world’s intricate framework. But in normal circumstances, revered protagonists that join forces on some haughty creative endeavour tend to already have obvious links, whether through geographical proximity or as a result of paths crossing over the course of time.
For Peter G. Shallmin, Russian bassist and mastermind behind Escapethecult, the process of piecing together his latest project, and recruiting suitable musicians to make his ideas a reality, hinged far more on hopes and dreams than industry networking. A cursory listen to debut album All You Want To suggests that some intuitive, febrile chemistry has been fizzing merrily away in the studio, but Shallmin’s quest to assemble a band worthy of his musical imagination began with the sending of a single email to a long-standing hero.
“Tim Alexander was and is my favourite drummer,” he says, referring to the man most famous for his work with Primus and A Perfect Circle. “In my early days as a drummer, his exceptional technique was my guide and I tried to copy some of his impossible-to-understand tricks! I really wanted to collaborate with him one day, so I was really happy to get a prompt reply to my email request. You can imagine my feeling when I saw his words regarding the demo: ‘This is cool!’ The story begins there…”
Previously best known for his other international project, Kalmath, Shallmin has form when it comes to hand-picking elite foot soldiers for his musical adventures. Escapethecult sees him again relying on the extraordinary six-string talents of King Diamond henchman Mike Wead, who shrugs off expectations with remarkable dexterity on All You Want To, stepping stylishly away from traditional metal and entering the prog realm with the strident grace of a skilled veteran.
Completing the band’s line-up is Matthieu Romarin, singer with French djent champions Uneven Structure, and one of the modern scene’s most versatile vocal talents.
This meeting of four minds from seemingly disparate musical dimensions and from different countries was never going to produce anything bog-standard or predictable, but even with those heady expectations, _All You Want To _stands out as a distinctly idiosyncratic voyage to the untapped fringes of its creators’ abilities. Although there are occasional bursts of familiarity lurking within fluid, sprawling exercises in introspective disquiet like I’m Absolute and This Time Will Come, the end result of Shallmin’s recruitment drive sounds unlike anything else you’ll hear this year, not least due to the bassist’s own wonderfully inventive performance.
“Every band has its own core. To copy or mimic something else would be absolutely pointless in a new project,” he argues. “I’m pretty sure that new alliances offer a ray of light, an opportunity to find a new way to develop our musical ideas. It’s a dialogue between creative people. Listeners might believe that this will repeat the musicians’ most popular tricks, but my initiative was to give the others the impetus to try a completely new philosophy from what they would normally play or listen to. Once the ideas found a place in their hearts, they got the inspiration, and that’s how Escapethecult happened.”
The most remarkable thing about Shallmin’s music is how little it resembles anything else in progressive rock or metal today. Admittedly, there are brief glimpses of A Perfect Circle’s robust serenity, and Mike Wead’s playing style is still recognisable within such an alien sound, but _All You Want To _never strays into a comfort zone. It eschews the obvious in favour of a sparse, elegant and hazily brooding sonic flow that seems to evolve in real time as it surges gracefully forward.
Melodies are insidious rather than direct, rhythms are subtly amorphous, and Shallmin’s eccentric bass parts underpin the whole thing like the unsettling clicks and rumbles of some perverse hybrid engine. Throw in the fact that the album is a gently expressed concept piece that focuses on notions of freedom, non-conformity and the rejection of religious dogma and it’s clear that Shallmin is operating on an artistic plane that only the brave would even consider.
“I like music that breaks borders and exists on the edge,” he muses. “Throughout my life I’ve never played covers. I have absolutely no interest in playing music composed by other artists. It’s always about the expression of my personal ideas, thoughts and emotions. The bass parts on this album were influenced by bossa nova, samba and funk. I’m a bit outdated because my taste was formed in the early 90s and it’s been there forever.
“I get inspiration from Mussorgsky, Stravinsky and Schnittke, and bands like Mekong Delta, Voivod and Cynic. So what we do isn’t standard metal, and sometimes it isn’t metal at all. It’s avant-garde music on the crossover of many styles. This is a unique band.”
With such a dizzying array of source material, Escapethecult’s unprecedented sound makes a certain peculiar sense and, in turn, fits perfectly with the album’s overriding concept of freedom from oppression and limitations of all kinds. Very much a complete package, with music, lyrics and artwork all conspiring to conjure an abstruse but compelling vision that arguably poses more questions than it answers, All You Need To presents Escapethecult as both an original rock band and as a holistic work of art in their own right.
Music is so often an art form that nudges people towards a kind of accidental conformity, regardless of any loftier intentions, but Shallmin appears to have nimbly sidestepped the usual pitfalls to create something that simultaneously suggests and provides an escape route from cerebral captivity.
“The name of the band speaks for itself,” says Shallmin. “There are lots of rules, but the lyrics offer lots of clues: ‘Stay out of any cults and religions’, ‘Go your own way’, ‘Be and stay always yourself’ and so on. There are orthodox, occult and esoteric features throughout our imagery. Everyone will find something in our conceptual art, but every element says that we must be free from all religious, political and social restrictions and chains. The song Where No Grown Up Grapes is a metaphor for a place where nothing ever grows. Grapes are one of the oldest symbols of fertility, abundance and vitality, so a place where grapes don’t grow is a dead place where it isn’t possible to create or build or to breathe. The same happens in our lives and relationships, when sometimes it’s not possible to reinvent the wheel.”
There are moments on All You Want To that sound so liberated and unencumbered by traditional methodology that they could easily have been improvised in the studio, but it’s plain from speaking to Shallmin that while spontaneity is one of the project’s cherished components, there’s very little on the record that hasn’t been deliberately and carefully crafted.
“It wasn’t just a jam,” Shallmin says. “It was a picky and detailed job that required full concentration and commitment. My main aim was to create a comfortable atmosphere during the process of composing, sharing and discussing ideas. There were tons of detailed briefs, sketches, messages and files. This project is a child, a human being we carefully nurse, educate and send into life with our parting words. The listener must accept this world as it is. You can support or ignore, love or hate.”
It seems unlikely that Shallmin’s vision will enrapture everyone who comes into contact with it. Responses to Escapethecult’s music so far range from ecstasy to confusion, these meticulously crafted but oddly hazy songs’ inherent strangeness demanding a level of immersion that precludes more conservative listeners from fully embracing and exploring Shallmin’s sonic world.
However, with delicious irony, Escapethecult exude a mystique and allure that will surely draw many in for the long haul, much like some mysterious religious cult that promises all the answers, but only in exchange for our total devotion. If you want an alternative to standard notions of what a progressive rock band should be, then there are great secrets to be unearthed here. If not, it seems probable that Peter Shallmin will continue to plough his own arcane furrow, assisted by some of the brightest talents the rock firmament has to offer.
“More or less, I consider Escapethecult as a family. I’m really proud of our family. Every single note contributed to the album is very personal and honest. You can hear the souls of Tim, Mike and Matthieu on there. But it’s a much bigger crew than just four people, and the list of contributors is much wider than you might expect. There are musicians, artists, designers, photographers, video editors, producers, manufacturers… even one professional fashion model!
“And we already have a plan to record a second album by the end of the year. The songs I’ve written need to be completely investigated, re-worked and uplifted by the other members, all together in one place and in real time. As we say in Escapethecult, this time will come…”
_All You Want To is self-released and out now. See www.facebook.com/EscapeTheCvlt for more information. _