Chris Letchford doesn’t fit the stereotype for a metal guitarist. A Houston native who grew up listening to his parents’ Yes records, the 29-year-old Letchford spent his formative years studying musical theory and guitar craft at both the storied Berklee College of Music and the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles before forming instrumental quartet Scale the Summit with a group of like-minded virtuosos.
From the very beginning, it was clear these guys were up to way more than double-bass pedal runs and finger-tapped solos: “Crossing the Ocean,” the third track on the band’s debut album, 2007’s Monument, opens with a rippling post-rock riff and jazz-fusion rhythm section; the shape-shifting “Rode in on Horseback” morphs halfway through into a hooky math-rock groove. Intrigued by the promise of that self-released album, prog-metal mainstays Dream Theater recruited the band as openers for a 2009 tour, which led to a spree of opening dates for math-core and tech-metal acts (including Letchford’s beloved Between the Buried and Me). Good company, for sure, but Letchford doesn’t feel comfortable with those genre labels.
“Marketing a band as ‘instrumental metal’ can be somewhat misleading since I don’t really consider ourselves a metal band,” the guitarist writes in an e-mail interview while his band is deep into a headlining Canadian tour. “We were just classified that based on the bands we tour with. As far as I’m concerned, just saying ‘instrumental’ is good enough, but even that doesn’t really give someone an idea of what we sound like.”
Scale the Summit’s fourth album, 2013’s The Migration, finds the band combining their disparate influences into a style even harder to classify. It’s a highly melodic and dynamic collection of songs, drawing even more liberally from jazz, psychedelic ambience, and the ’70s progressive rock Letchford absorbed as a teenager. “The Olive Tree” is five minutes of arpeggiated scales and headbanging distortion, but the serene delay pedal intro conjures the mysticism of Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett; “Atlas Novus” is a spacey epic defined by the deft, jazzy runs of new bassist Mark Michell. (“100 percent not metal; that’s obvious to anyone,” Letchford says of the latter track.)
The Migration is also a step forward in terms of production, offering a warmer sonic palette that showcases the band’s diverse arrangements. “We told [producer] Jamie King that we wanted a natural, organic-sounding record, which, to be honest, is what we have told the engineers on the last three albums we had done before it,” Letchford writes. “I love the sound of the past records, but this is exactly what we have always wanted for our band. He really nailed it.”
The album has opened a number of doors for the band. They’re now mostly headlining tours instead of opening them, including one that landed them in Knoxville in November, and they’re finally earning national media exposure. In addition to profiles in an array of tech mags like Guitar World, Letchford was recently featured in Rolling Stone’s guitar-centric Young Guns series. Scale the Summit has even been championed by Letchford’s childhood favorites, Yes, earning spots at the band’s 2013 fest Yestival and this year’s floating prog excursion Cruise to the Edge.
“Their manager is a fan and now supposedly the band,” Letchford says. “They reached out for the Yestival event they did, and then we were offered the Cruise, which was incredible. I grew up listening to Yes, so anytime they ask us to be a part of something they are doing, we’re going to 100 percent do it.”
Letchford says building a name and making a career out of music has been “a slow process,” but he adds that “slow is good,” noting that shows have been growing steadily over the last couple of years. Being prolific is certainly a strength as they work toward that goal—as the band’s chief composer, Letchford is usually busy working on a new album as they’re touring. He even had enough material for a solo album, the jazz-leaning Lightbox, which came out in July.
“It’s material that I have been working on for two years separate from the band, and it has zero distortion on it,” he says. “It’s most definitely a different vibe from the band but still sounds like me. I really just wanted to collaborate with different guys and see what happened.”
Letchford’s already finished seven songs for the next Scale the Summit album. One of those songs, “Soria Moria,” is being played on their current tour. “Hoping to get into the studio early next year to start recording the next record,” he says. “That’s the plan, at least, as long as touring chills out after this run.”
As legend has it, one of Letchford’s classmates once dubbed the band’s music “adventure metal.” Semantics aside, it’s a good place to start.