Canada's Protest the Hero carry the baggage that comes with being saddled with tags like "prog" and "mathcore," but don't be put off by those too-easy labels.
The band has the earmarks of a first-rate prog-metal outfit, to be sure, the baroque riffs and whiplash time changes, carried off by a group of players with chops sharper than a freshly stropped straight razor. But beyond the obvious technical brilliance—and occasional profligacy—of the band's music, there's an impassioned quality to Protest's performance, particularly the unfettered vocals of frontman Rody Walker. That, and an indelible sense of melody, set the band apart from so many of the suffocatingly regimented, melodically challenged outfits who share similarly virtuosic inclinations.
"I think prog-metal is an interesting thing," Walker says. "I love some bands that are considered prog-metal, but I don't think we would ever write a record where we would say, oh, let's be more prog this time. We keep our songs short and sweet. There's actual songwriting involved. You don't have to write these 10-minute opuses that go f--king nowhere."
Walker says some of the music's melodic sensibilities are a holdover from the band's earliest days, in 1999, when the five-piece first started rocking Whitby, Ontario, garages with a sound that heavily mined from the vein of melodic hardcore brandished by California outfits like NOFX and Lagwagon. Elements of sunny SoCal's insistent tunefulness and reliance on strong vocal melodies remained, even as the band went through the torturous evolutions that wrought its present-day sound.
"As much as I love metal music, some of the bands this day and age—especially vocal-wise—get kind of boring to me," Walker says. "So I try my best to bring some element of catchy melodies.
"That comes off to some people as quite annoying," he says with a wry chortle. "But my favorite metal bands, like Iron Maiden or Pantera or Judas Priest, had great riffs, and a vocalist that was doing something that was interesting to me. It's more difficult to write interesting hooks, but it's worth it. And it satisfies my ADD."
It's been a long, fraught road for this quintet from the frozen North, evolving from a gang of punkish junior high school rockers to a commodity on the Canadian metal circuit to a continent-traversing outfit with international metal cachet. According to Walker, the struggle is a mighty one for ambitious young bands facing up to the sprawl and isolation of Canada; it's only so much more so when they consider the new world of challenges and opportunities presented by the lower 48.
"Touring is certainly quite different in Canada, because the drives are long and barren, and the markets are pretty far spread out," Walker says. "In the states, the markets are so close. Last night we drove three hours, and were in a whole new market. In Canada, you'd have to drive at least twice that.
"We started touring the States in 2006," he continues. "And it wasn't like we were an overnight success. We had to bust our asses, but it's been beneficial. The U.S. is one of the biggest markets in the world for music, and unfortunately it's one that many Canadian bands look past, because it seems like an almost insurmountable obstacle."
If nothing else, he says, touring both countries will shatter all stereotypes about Canadian politesse. "For some reason, the States get a bad rap, and Canada is considered very polite," he says, laughing again. "But it's not true. Some of the biggest dickheads I've met in my life have been in my own home country. There's dickheads—and nice people—everywhere you go."
The band is currently touring behind only their third studio album, Scurrilous, released in March on the Underground Operations label and on Vagrant in the United States. (The band's first disc, Kezia, was released in 2005.) But if they're not prolific, they are consistent, with each of their three releases receiving high marks from the metal and alt-rock press.
Walker says they've benefited from plenty of hard work, but also from the fact that they've maintained continuity of membership—the same five guys slogging it out since those early days of basement practices and neighborhood house parties in Whitby.
"I think a lot of bands start out and they're just looking for guys—putting up a poster at a local music store, looking for a bass player," he says. "I've always known these guys, met them all in first grade. We were friends before we started a band, which is where I think some bands go wrong. I mean, we have our problems, like everybody, but we get past them because ultimately we're just five dudes hanging out. As lame as that sounds."