Album review: Dream the Electric Sleep – Heretics

An interesting article today – rather a few moons ago (due to my incredible knack for time mismanagement), a band who are apparently actually quite well-known and well-regarded in the metalsphere actually e-mailed me asking for a review of their sophomore album. Let me just say that I was pleasantly surprised to receive this e-mail and that I’ll be happy to do any further reviews by request like this – time permitting, of course. I have been very preoccupied with various projects and commitments lately, which I will be sure to post about in the near future.

Vocals and Guitars: Matt Page
Bass: Chris Tackett
Drums: Joey Waters

Website: http://www.dreamtheelectricsleep.com/
Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/DTESBAND

I also listened to their earlier work, “Lost and Gone Forever”. They’re a progressive band, for sure – they’re a group with points to make and stories to tell, and they do so through the medium of thought-provoking, lovingly and elaborately constructed music. There’s a great deal of emotion on display at every turn, every chord carrying the appropriate weight to it, major or minor (and these two opposites are utilised excellently in the compositions themselves), and singer Matt Page’s voice complimenting the music brilliantly. If you’d like to take a look at a review for that you can find one here – a seemingly well-received release – it was named Album of the Year 2011 by this blogger!

The band has published a guide to today’s album, their second release, on their website. To summate its artistic purpose, it draws inspiration from the ideals of women over the ages who have sought to improve the world, in spite of adversities or social stigmas. This is cemented by the album’s cover artwork:

History buffs will notice that all these women are signficant – Virginia Woolf, Faith Wilding, Emily Dickinson, Faith Ringgold, Dame Ethel Mary Smith, Helga Birgitta, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Christine de Pisan.

The album, having 11 songs, but boasting a running time of 73 minutes – is divided into five segments, which make up two songs each, apart from the final segment which makes up three. “Heresies”, “Introductions”, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, “Cornered”, and “Waiting”. The lyrical themes across the tracks, backed by the instrumentation, seem to start off jolly and upbeat, but soon progress into despondency and despair, before becoming strong and empowering again by the time the album is over.

It’s an album that doesn’t pull any punches, and is a pretty epic journey of heart and mind. Let’s venture forth then.

1. Heretics (4:50)

The album begins by thrusting us unyieldingly into the powerful guitar-driven title track, with some pounding drums from Joey, which are undoubtedly the driving force behind this song’s raw power, even though the guitar line is also nicely varied and is kept melodically interesting, and not to mention backed up by some subtle orchestral strings. A nice high-power harmony comes in on the guitar just before the 2:00 mark, which then leads us into a pleasant acoustic section. Halfway through the track we get introduced to Matt Page’s vocals. Here they’re distorted and pushed into the back of the mix, which I have to say I’m personally not a huge fan of, as it doesn’t quite call him to the forefront or hit you full-on in the face with his vocal power – which you will soon discover on listening to the rest of this album is a very real thing. Perhaps they’re teasing us in a way.

A heavy start – this track is deliberately jarring and schizophrenic, as it can’t seem to make its mind up whether to be minor or major. It closes with a demonic-sounding chord which eventually fades serenely into the next:

2. Elizabeth (8:22)

This is the second “part” of the first track which is together called “Heresies” – the use of a shuffled beat at the same tempo as before, but things build up much more gradually this time, with a simple strummy acoustic intro that makes the song sound somewhat like an Irish jig. It actually really helps to establish the theme and setting of this entire album.

Matt comes in almost immediately with some delay-heavy harmonized vocals, which here sound much clearer, and demonstrate his clean, melodic tones much better. His performance here reminds me of Karnivool’s Ian Kenny on their “Sound Awake” album, in a very cool way. He sings of a woman living in the early 20th century at the beginning of the Suffragette movement, striving to make the world a better place for herself, her daughter and other women like her.

The chords used here are pleasant and catchy, like it was written with a folk dance in mind, though it stays hard and rocky in the latter parts of the song. The chorus is a soaring wave of sound from all sides as the musicians seem to be pouring as much as they can into it already. The drumming is kept solid and varied throughout – damn, Joey has some power in those arms. About 4½ minutes in we get some cool layered vocals, after which the latter half of this track is purely instrumental, and the vocals lead us with a cool drum roll into a lengthy guitar solo. Some very cool musicianship on show here (including a reprise of that very first riff in Heretics, a very well-placed callback), with a creepily ambient and slightly orchestral minute-long outro which fades into silence and brings us into the next “part” of the album: “Introduction”.

3. Utopic (6:38)

This song is perhaps the highlight of the album for me, but we’ll see as we continue through the tracks – there’s a lot of great and admirable stuff still to come.

We start this number with a mellow acoustic intro in D minor – undoubtedly one of the coolest keys for melodic metal music. The guitar work here is pretty stellar, with cleverly-arranged 16th notes all combining into an excellent and persistently interesting melody. The song progresses into a sombre-sounding yet major chorus, and this is where Matt Page first really shines. His harmonies throughout that wonderful chorus are spot-on as always, but he demonstrates a much higher vocal range this time around come the latter half of the song, turning his falsettos into powerful belts.

The song finally explodes into a soaring final verse, which uses a simple but appropriate duo of chords, while Matt repeats the word “utopic” in what might be a vague callback to Dream Theater’s “Forsaken” (probably not, the similarity is kind of uncanny, I think). We get treated to an interesting screeching solo in which the drums pick up a great deal of speed. The outro repeats those same two chords with many overlaid guitars in a chaotic climax of music and rockin’ noise working together in equal harmony.

4. To Love is to Leave (8:01)

We open with a sad and slow almost lullaby-like acoustic guitar line. Matt sings in a soft but powerful tone, before his vocals again swell into another big harmonic chorus.

We get an extensive solo on Matt’s guitar, followed by a pleasant guitar melody interspersed with further powerful hits from Joey’s drums.

Matt then employs some strange distorted wailing during the ensuing breakdown, which is rather unlike anything I’ve heard a vocalist do. It is in equal parts joy and despair, power and weakness, melody and discord.

The music fades out with still a minute to go, so we get treated to another cool atmospheric outro of subtle guitar effects and feedback overlaid by what sounds sort of like a downpour of rain and wind chimes.

5. The Name You Fear (6:09)

This track opens with a cool bassline in A minor courtesy of Chris. The verse we enter could barely be simpler, musically speaking, but it works surprisingly well, especially thanks to the powerful on-beat drumming from Joey, which by this point seems effortless.

Halfway through, there are some cool rhythmic change-ups which lead into the song changing from 4/4 to 3/4. The middle section is a series of sombre but immensely satisfying harmonized vocals from Matt, and it leads us into an equally powerful guitar solo and back again. The outro is an ostinato played on Matt’s guitar, with Chris’s underpinning bass keeping things moving and interesting. Quite an explosive song and another serious highlight for me.

6. It Must Taste Good (8:31)

We’re greeted by a peculiar intro that sounds more like a retro arcade machine, like a game of Galaxia or something, than an actual guitar, though the latter becomes more obvious as the music mounts. A powerful bassline in E minor sets us off, marching steadily into a heavier verse.

Matt’s voice has a surprising amount of grit this time around. He alternates between this tone and the softer head-voice register for his pleasant harmonized vocals again, all in just the right spots to keep the music’s dynamics nicely mixed up.

The song remains heavy and hard-hitting all throughout until about 6½ minutes in, when things settle down a bit. Joey’s drumming throughout this part, with the plodding four-on-the-floor kick, is pretty damned cool, and Matt’s various guitars provide a decent atmospheric backing to this as it fades out into a soft A major chord. We get one final flourish from Matt’s lead guitar played completely solo, before the next track starts.

7. I Know What You Are (6:42)

An incredible track right here, another in my highlight reel. We start with another acoustic intro in D minor, multi-layered this time. After that, there’s quite an explosive interlude, but after that it paces itself very slowly, and only gets going again about 4½ minutes in.

Over the top of some extremely minimalist guitar work (though pay attention, there’s a repeated melody in here that will haunt you later on), Matt begins singing in a shaky falsetto, gradually intensifying back into a harmonic belt.

After this intermission of relative calm and quiet, the guitars suddenly come screaming back in a looong multi-layered outro, where a series of clever chords are repeated by Matt’s guitar and Chris’s bass, with Joey’s steady-but-heavy drums serving as a very strong underpinning. Very Muse indeed. That one melody returns at this point, and there’s just something about that wailing guitar tone that gives my ears the shivers.

The spoken phrase “it is not art, it’s pornography” segues into next track. Given the concept of the album, it seems a fitting quote, although I don’t know whom it is attributed to.

8. Fist to Face (4:15)

Things get less complicated now, with the tempo picking back up but the key staying minor.

I’ve gotta say I love all the melodies in this one, especially in that heavy chorus. The drums are kept relatively simple to call attention to what’s going on with the guitar and bass. Some seriously heavy drumming does kicks in at about 2½ minutes in, but that really only seems to help the whole band come together.

The song opts for a very simple chord progression to lead things out, overlaid by some cool “whoa”s from Matt. A single E chord fade out crossfades us cleanly into the next track.

9. Lost Our Faith (2:05)

A short and simple track to break up the rampant emotional chaos that’s been thrown at us for the last 49 minutes. Two guitars play concurrently (along with what sound to be some pizzicato strings in the background) while Matt sings over the top of them. The song seems to be structured like some sort of folk song, in its clever and memorable use of chords and the vocal melody.

About halfway, Matt returns to more emotional note belting combined with some interspersed falsetto, and the drums kick in rather unexpectedly. This is a very short track, so immediately after the drums are done, we’re greeted with the intro to the next track.

10. How Long We Wait (9:28)

The longest track on the album, and the band waste no time in making as much good out of those 9½ minutes as humanly possible. Great intro, guys. Some very cool-sounding drums kick in almost instantly, along with the guitars and bass playing off each other perfectly. Another mega-cool highlight.

This is the fastest track on the album by a long shot, and perhaps the most musically diverse – the melodies from Matt’s voice twist and turn expertly, gracefully dipping and diving into low and high, while the bass line keeps things switching between major and minor at a constant rate.

A gradual dynamic change-up occurs about 3 minutes in, and we get a purely instrumental section of cool solos with nice bass and keyboard accompaniment. This gradually builds over several minutes, during which there’s a very subtle tempo change which you might even miss out on on the first listen. Matt’s voice returns promptly again to quieten things down, only to have them pick up again immediately after as the thumping kick drums brings the percussion crashing back in.

Boy oh boy are the next few minutes something. The chords explode in as Joey hammers his drums with all his might, and the guitar and bass return with flying colors. And HOLY SHIT THAT G#5. Wowzers, Matt.

As if all that weren’t awesome enough, there’s a very cool orchestral section towards the end with some almost celebratory french horns playing the chords from “Lost Our Faith” over strings and guitar feedback in a climactic wall of sound. This track has to be the most epic in scale on the album.

11. Ashes Fall (8:07)

But wait, there’s more!

By far this song has the heaviest intro on the album. A very cool B minor phrygian riff which returns at a couple of points in the song and gives the whole thing a distinctly evil tone. The chorus is soaring and powerful and features exciting, unexpected chords.

There’s an awful lot going on, vocally. Matt’s voice seems to cover almost every register known to man in this song, and two strange filtered voices overlay the instrumental middle section, both speakers coming through, er, both speakers. A rather chilling  guitar line plays over the top of these. Then Matt fills in for them, imparting what I assume is more or less the same message except in one of his more haunting sung registers. With another powerful wail, he brings the guitars crashing back in, in a dazzling solo section interspersed with some expert fills from Joey’s drums.

The creepy voices return in the outro, leading us out of the album with mourn-filled talk of “waiting”. I assume the female of them is Faith Wilding in her 1972 speech “Waiting”. An interesting choice of thing to close the album with, seeing as it ends right there and then.

With all that said, let’s sum things up.

The album takes pride in pacing itself and using the chords to their fullest potential, never straying too far into uber-prog territory, but remaining interesting and diverse all the same. The melodies are constructed carefully and placed precisely, and the dynamics are given a good deal of thought too – there are certainly heavy moments, but they’re not overblown and in your face like a lot of deadly progressive metal bands. I would almost not call Dream The Electric Sleep a progressive band, if it weren’t for some of the more involved elements of their songwriting which include the tempo and meter changes, occasionally odd song structures, long instrumental sections and solos, and extensive use of an overarching concept.

The production is pretty damn good, although I do feel as though Matt’s singing could be shinier, as he definitely is a seriously good singer. I detected not a note out of place or inappropriately sung, he’s got the chops on all the right registers, he just isn’t done justice because his own guitar seems to occasionally drown him out. It’s not within my nature as a lover of music to go into a huge whining spree about how imperfect the mix of a metal album is, so I’ll chalk it up as only a minor concern.

This is overall a pretty damn solid album. I never found myself bored, unlike my experience with Affector, nor did I feel the songs were unnecessary filler as I did for a couple of the Adrenaline Mob songs.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10

Certainly worth a look!

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