There are two guitarists in Behold...the Arctopus. Appropriately enough for a band defined by its intricate, interlocking guitar parts and its labyrinthine song structures, though, it’s not just hard for the listener to tell who’s playing which parts on the new album Skullgrid. Even Colin Marston, one of those guitarists (he plays a 12-string Warr guitar, a space-age hybrid that includes both bass strings and guitar strings on a single neck) finds it difficult to untangle the parts.
“It’s kind of hard to describe,” he says. “It’s complicated. The Warr guitar has two halves, a bass half and a guitar half. On mine, the bass half is tuned in such a way it goes almost as high as a guitar. It has a bass register and a guitar register. The main difference is in the tone. Mike plays a more typical metal, heavy, distorted sound, and I’m playing with a lighter, overdrive-type sound that’s clearer and crisper. That’s when I’m using the bass half. When I use the guitar side it sounds more like his guitar. The majority of what you hear [on Skullgrid] that sounds like guitar is him, but it does get switched up a lot.”
Skullgrid is 33 minutes of tweedly, high-pitched, dissonant guitar lines, Les Claypool-like slap bass, and abrupt, jarring key and time changes. It’s part music-school showmanship and part mind-bending sci-fi progressive rock (Behold...the Arctopus’ previous release, an EP combined with demos and live songs, was called Nano-Nucleonic Cyborg Summoning). Compared to other bands credited with reviving the spirit of ’70s prog rock like Coheed and Cambria and Battles, though, Behold...the Arctopus is light-years ahead in its vision as well as its chops. Aside from a brief keyboard solo by former Dixie Dregs member Jordan Rudess on the song “Transient Exuberance,” there are very few moments on Skullgrid that are conventionally pretty—melody seems like the least of the band’s concerns—but dozens of passages of jaw-dropping musicianship. Which doesn’t mean they’re simply noodling—Skullgrid demonstrates a growing sense of song craft and dynamics underneath the squealing guitars. And there’s nothing accidental anywhere on the album; almost every single note, no matter how far-out it sounds, was planned in advance.
“Very, very little of it is improvisational, especially on the new album,” Marston says. “It used to be that the guitar solos were improvised. I think on Skullgrid two or three of the solos are improvised and the rest are all composed. Every single note is written down on a piece of paper, and that’s before we even start to rehearse.”
Marston and Lerner played together in Brooklyn for a couple of years before they finally hooked up with drummer Charlie Zeleny in time for their 2003 debut EP, Arctopocalypse Now...Warrmageddon Later. Four years later, Behold...the Arctopus fits in broadly with the technical math-metal of Meshuggah, Dillinger Escape Plan and Between the Buried and Me, bands that are hardly mainstream but still have significant cult followings. More precisely, the band is part of an underground community of bands like Orthrelm, PsyOpus, and Dysrhythmia (in which Marston also plays), all of which perform similarly complicated, technically adept and academically advanced instrumental metal. Insulated at home and on the road by like-minded musicians, sometimes Marston forgets just how crazy Behold...the Arctopus can sound.
“Sometimes, for me, I get locked in this small musical bubble,” he says. “Just because that’s my taste and a lot of my friends are in bands that are doing stuff that’s similar. Even the bands we’ve toured with in the last two years have all been pretty progressive, intense, dense, and complex. So sometimes I lose sight of the fact that a lot of people have never heard anything like this.”