Ambition is not a dirty word. In fact, as any discerning prog fan will tell you, ambition is utterly essential if music is to move forward, rather than in ever decreasing circles of self-referential befuddlement.
There is a degree of irony, therefore, in the way that advances in music technology have enabled progressive metal bands to start making fully realised albums on laptops and in bedrooms, the extravagant conceits of prog’s first wave of bands often reduced to mouse clicks and clinical precision. This may explain why there is still a significant spiritual divide between fans of, say, Dream Theater and the burgeoning tech‑metal hordes raised on Periphery and TesseracT.
Fortunately for all concerned, Earthside have arrived, seemingly custom-built to bridge that divide with a sound and approach that marry the best of both worlds into a sublime and, yes, extremely ambitious whole. The band’s debut album, A Dream In Static, was more than two years in the making and, in the best possible way, you can hear every gruelling late night and dollar spent emanating from its often breathtaking scope and grandeur.
There does seem to be a rising movement of bands that care deeply about making adventurous, emotional music with real instruments and intelligent songwriting.
Mixed and mastered by the esteemed Jens Bogren and produced by David Castillo (both with credits including Opeth and Katatonia to their names), it’s a beautifully crafted opening statement. As keyboard player Frank Sacramone explains, Earthside have always had lofty aspirations.
“When we started playing music together 10 years ago, it was more of an outlet to express ourselves and to experiment,” he recalls. “We wanted to do something different and push the limits of what we were capable of writing. For example, there would be random mariachi band breakdowns that would then morph into a huge rock section with epic strings! As we got older and matured with our songwriting, we were able to hone in on those crazy ideas and use them with purpose, and I think our ambitions started to grow exponentially once we started planning this band. Some people call what we do ambitious, but I just call it necessary.”
“Any music we’ve made together was never for the purpose of fitting within any explicit sound or style,” adds drummer Ben Shanbrom. “We just play the music we love. We’ve never really fit with any movement or regional scene, but we’ve always viewed that as a strength. Vernon Reid of Living Colour had a line decades ago in regards to their music and their status among their peers, something like: ‘You fit with no one, you fit with everyone.’ I think the same sentiment applies to us. There does seem to be a rising movement of bands like Karnivool, Leprous, TesseracT and The Contortionist that care deeply about making adventurous, emotional music with real instruments and intelligent songwriting. I think we share a similar desire to reclaim a sense of soul in modern music.”
It’s not hard to see why Earthside’s music is seemingly destined to resonate throughout the progressive realm. One listen to the extraordinary Mob Mentality, a 10-minute epic that features a stirring collective turn from the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra, should confirm that we’re a long way from the bedrooms of the djent generation, or the monochrome melancholy of the post‑Katatonia set here. Mob Mentality is best witnessed with its accompanying promo video, which somehow enhances the experience even further. It has had a huge impact online, ensuring that Earthside are a band with the potential to unite generations of forward-thinking metal fans and curious prog folk of all stripes. Most importantly, perhaps, the song proclaims the full extent of Earthside’s blue-sky thinking and raises the immediate question: who the hell hires an orchestra for their debut album in this day and age?
“Well, the MSSO was one of various studio orchestras across Europe who had an all-inclusive package for performance and recording,” Sacramone explains. “We were doing research about studio orchestras in Europe and came across the MSSO. Their services were in line with what we were looking for and the MSSO producer, Yuri Sazonoff, was very enthusiastic about the project. He helped us work out all the logistics and it felt like a really good fit. Jamie [van Dyck, Earthside guitarist] and I went to the session and it was very rewarding. Learning all of the nuances of working with a session orchestra will definitely help us on future projects.”
A Dream In Static is a record that thrums and crackles with the electricity generated by real musicianship while exhibiting a textural warmth and joyous sense of sonic opulence that set it volubly apart from the narrow, compressed bluster of most tech-metal records. It’s particularly audacious when you consider it’s Earthside’s debut – a gleeful dive into the musical deep end that sets a startling precedent for everyone involved. Topping this achievement next time round is going to require even more fearlessness and confidence.
“Well, doing things the ‘real way’ is now super ambitious,” says Sacramone. “We just want soul in our music. When we started planning A Dream In Static, it was a tolerable ambition. However, as we were recording, we realised it was turning into something much more ambitious than we’d originally planned. It seemed like the minute we crossed something off the list, another 10 things had to be completed.”
Given that it took roughly two-and-a-half years to complete – and in fairness to Earthside, that clearly was time well spent – would it be reasonable to assume that some obstacles have been dodged along the way?
“Nothing in my life has been as stressful as completing this record, but nothing else I’ve worked on in my life has reached the calibre of this record,” Sacramone states. “I’m not sure it was completely necessary for it to take that long. There’s always a learning curve the first time around. The hardest part had been not being able to release any of our music for three years! [Laughs] I honestly didn’t even feel like a musician. Now the record has been released and we’re playing on tour, I’m starting to see a reward from our efforts when people tell us they’ve made a connection with our music. That really means a lot.”
Some people call what we do ambitious, but I just call it necessary.
While many new bands are content to revisit the past, with infrequent flashes of originality to denote some kind of creative effort, Earthside have harnessed the old school prog ethos and used it to create something entirely fresh and absorbing. Even the band’s choice of guest vocalists goes against the contemporary prog grain to some degree (see sidebar). It points to a willingness to engage with other forms of modern music and, by extension, the wider world beyond the prog scene itself.
Like a lot of modern prog albums, A Dream In Static covers a vast amount of musical ground, from those bombastic orchestral salvos and pounding post-djent riffing through to the wooziest of atmospherics and moments of unsettling instrumental menace. However, it does so with a haughty, fervently artistic flourish that suggests Earthside regard their future as utterly limitless.
“We’re musicians at heart and we can’t imagine a world where we don’t pursue our individual musical aspirations to the fullest degree possible,” says Shanbrom. “As far as Earthside is concerned, we want to take this as far as we possibly can. We want to challenge people’s assumptions and ruffle the feathers of all the ‘We’ve done it this way for 30 years!’ hotshots who can’t conceive of anything new or original. So be afraid. Be very afraid!”
A Dream Of Static is available now (self-released). See www.earthsideband.com for more information or to order the album.
The Guesting Game
Meet the four modern rock guest stars who are lending their vocal talents to Earthside’s debut.
A Dream In Static’s sprawling enormity would be striking enough without any guest musicians, but Earthside somehow managed to crowbar in contributions from several modern rock notables. Lajon Witherspoon, frontman with US grunge-metal crew Sevendust, features on the orchestral eruption of Mob Mentality, while the UK’s very own Daniel Tompkins of TesseracT and many other projects sings on the towering title track.
“Let me begin by saying that all of our guest vocalists are phenomenal!” says Frank Sacramone. “Our music and writing demanded a lot from them, and they delivered. Most importantly, they nailed the emotions we were trying to convey in each song. Lajon and Daniel were the trickiest to enlist because we had no direct connection to them. Honestly, we didn’t think they were even going to reply to our emails, let alone sing on our songs!”
Also letting rip on Earthside’s debut are Eric Zirlinger from NYC alt-rockers Face The King and, in a move sure to delight those at the metal end of the prog spectrum, the hugely versatile Björn Strid of Swedish melodic death metallers Soilwork.
“Björn came into the mix when our producer David Castillo offered to get us in touch with him,” says Sacramone. “We sent him a demo and he really liked it. He was around in Sweden when we were recording so he was able to come into the studio and bang out his parts. Eric is someone we knew personally from going to shows and seeing his band play. He was an obvious contender for us given his immense vocal talent!”