Protest the Hero Give American History a Scathing Rewrite on 'Palimpsest'
Published Jun 18, 2020Whether leaning into punk or progressive metal, compositional proficiency has remained a core tenet of Protest the Hero becoming one of the most compelling heavy bands Canada has ever produced. Beyond the immediate grip of their instrumental skill lays an approach to songcraft that has evolved over each of their releases; experimentation that neither detracts nor distracts from their aggressive roots. It's an element they have honed from the start: not only do the band still write music using trusty tablature software Guitar Pro, their guitarists also built a business with it.
One of the closest encounters listeners have with this attention to detail is the instrumental version of 2008's Fortress, which the band celebrated with an anniversary tour in 2018. It was after the North American leg had ended that Protest the Hero cancelled future dates around the globe, and recording sessions for what would become Palimpsest, due to serious issues with singer Rody Walker's vocal health.
For all the waxing above, it's quite difficult to imagine Protest the Hero achieving all they have without Walker's soaring cleans, scraping screams and all the good humour in between. Completed following his recovery and vocal retraining, Palimpsest finds him turning in one of the most demanding performances of his career as both singer and primary lyricist.
These developments dovetail with the band's greatest broadening of their sonic scope to date. Musically, Protest the Hero's goal was to create their "biggest sounding record yet," and they have succeeded.
Thematically, Palimpsest is a record that grapples with the "greatness" of the United States of America through a set of songs highlighting select figures and events on the country's historical timeline. Subjects from the dusty pages include Amelia Earhart, Migrant Mother Florence Owens Thompson, the Hindenburg disaster, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Lakota, and the Great Depression.
Despite some time travelling, each bit of history Walker's pen observes is connected by a throughline of unsavoury qualities the country's current leadership continues to prop up and openly engage with: fascism, racism, misogyny, violence, white supremacy, to name a few. It isn't all doom and gloom, with Walker at times juxtaposing these ills against the strength and resolve his subjects also exhibit.
"The Migrant Mother" opens Palimpsest with bold, uplifting blend of strings and band instruments before Walker writes from the perspective of two female migrant farmers. His first four lines are a passage from "Sunny California," a Depression-era song written and recorded by farmer Mary Sullivan in a California work camp. From there, he subtly interpolates the Mamas and the Papas while describing a much different California dream through the eyes of Dorothea Lange's iconic subject: "California promised heaven / A heaven we could not deny / But the dust we're running from still stalks us in the night / And all we've found is a bitter lie."
Named after her bright yellow airplane, "The Canary" chronicles Amelia Earhart's achievements in aviation and independence in the face of misogyny before Walker works feminist themes into a dour outro. "Women must pay for everything," he sings, adding, "They do get more glory than men for comparable tasks / But they also get more notoriety when they crash."
Another crash Walker weaves into a powerful condemnation is that of the Hindenburg airship on "From the Sky." The song not only centres on the fiery technological failure, but also points out how the well-known photograph of its explosion conceals the swastikas prominently displayed on its tailfins.
"Little Snakes," meanwhile, addresses the violent colonial history involved in the sculpting of Mount Rushmore, an event Walker calls "a typical story…with treaties broken, the same sad token / Torn and repaired it with paraffin." He spares little in indicting the "monolith of our bloated, bunk self-worth" before writing from the view of the colonizer, "armed to the teeth" at the Wounded Knee Massacre: "The rights they have, we gave to them / And we can take 'em away without giving a damn."
On Palimpsest, Protest the Hero's continued embrace of orchestral instruments and arrangements is crucial in giving Walker's pressing poetics the music to match. Here, the band's work with friend and composer Milen Petzelt-Sorace remains complimentary of their metal-minded instrumentation — and the return of more elaborate piano interludes — in spite of its larger musical presence when compared to part efforts. Unlike some full-blown symphonic metal bands or their technical counterparts that struggle with genre fusion, PTH's approach to joining these two musical worlds rarely feels contrived or overwrought.
On the soaring outro of "From the Sky," the orchestra scores Walker's initial lull of the listener before he leaps to some of the highest notes of his recording career. At the album's midway point, "Soliloquy"'s emotional conclusion finds strings mirroring Walker's vocal melody, before raising the musical stakes even more through the propulsive rhythm of "Reverie."
Strings also bring a dynamic element to Walker's aforementioned takedown of Rushmore, softening his singing of the site's current form as tourist attraction before he forcefully screams, "colonialism by all definitions is the father of the genocide" atop orchestral hits, an expectedly dazzling lead guitar and a challenging rhythm section.
For all his writing of America, as a citizen of a country that has done little to engage with its own history of racial and social injustice, Walker breaks the fourth wall on closer "Rivet" to acknowledge that he's "not the first to have these thoughts out loud." He sings, "No country's history is free from bullshit / But everyone just seems so fucking proud."
The song finds him pushing his vocals even higher to interpolate another Depression-era song in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," while wondering, "why does this all feel so damn cyclical?" in the midst of staring down another recession.
Palimpsest's reminders of how long this moral rot has really been around could apply to a number of countries, no matter which flag blinds the bull charging headstrong into the unknown on its cover. Not unlike Protest the Hero's musical approach on album five, the continued push towards a "greatness" that truly benefits every one of us will require even bigger, bolder solutions.