Review: Protest the Hero progressing of their own ‘Volition’

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Shortly before Protest the Hero released their new album, Arif Mirabdolbaghi – the only bassist the band has ever known – announced his departure from the group. It’s only temporary: Mirabdolbaghi is sitting out of PTH’s upcoming headlining tour in order to helm a string of performances of his stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double. But it’s no surprise that he has other engagements aside from Protest, considering that on Volition, his playing is the most simplistic and rhythmic it’s been in years and – for the first time in the band’s history – none of the lyrics are his. With the man they call Riff’s presence kept to a minimum on Volition, Rody Walker is more of a clearly defined bandleader than ever.

What’s most worth noting about the transition from Mirabdolbaghi to Walker as the band’s primary lyricist, though, is the palpable anger and frustration that lends a sense of irony to the title Volition. Most of Walker’s seething here isn’t personal, but there’s no questioning his irritation with a handful of institutions. The album’s first single, “Clarity,” hinted at the belligerent tone, but its subject matter, Walker’s apparent beef with J.J. Abrams’ take on Star Trek, is on Volition’s more trivial side, and between the nerd-approved references and turn-of-phrases, it most recalls the writing on 2008’s Fortress and 2011’s Scurrilous. The rest of the album is more concerned with more serious issues, from religious bigotry and greed to the criminal justice system and, in the only truly cringe-worthy moment here, Canadian legislation banning pit bulls.  Especially effective is the beratement of rape culture – a topic that, in the 2010s, bands in the increasingly female-impacted hardcore/metalcore world have noted as much as ever – on “Plato’s Tripartite,” where Walker opens with a bitter snarl of “I forgot to thank you for the blood you shed and your obligatory contribution to the community.” This is a man who needs no convincing that some parts of society are seriously messed up.

At the same time, Walker doesn’t just survey the big picture but also his personal environment. Volition has its share of moments pointing to Walker’s disillusion with the music industry. “Underbite” could fit on The Wall if Roger Waters’ alienated rock star had been able to see himself on stage, and the jabs at critics on “Yellow Teeth” are as smooth and sharp as Luke Hoskin and Tim Millar’s guitar riffs. The ticked-off intensity of the lyrics pairs well with the fact that on Volition, Protest the Hero is the punk-est they’ve been since their masterwork, 2005’s Kezia. The departure of longtime drummer Moe Carlson and his subsequent replacement by Lamb of God’s Chris Adler was one of the biggest question marks on Volition pre-release. Adler’s drumming is about what you’d expect from a metal drummer learning to play punk, and his inexperience in progressive music may have contributed in taking some of the mathcore flair out of the rhythm section, but he more than makes up for it in the solidity and punch provided by his notoriously massive style.

In contrast to all that is the fact that Volition is Protest the Hero’s most musically uplifting and poppiest release, as well as their most experimental. “Mist,” Walker’s ode to Newfoundland, is the closest the band has ever come to full-on positive post-hardcore; “Without Prejudice” sounds like Hoskin blended 80s pop swells and 90s pop-punk, then decided to shred all over it. Some of that could have to do with the band’s financing strategy: their IndieGogo campaign was one of the highest-profile crowdfunding projects to date, with perks including guest-vocalist opportunities for high-paying contributors, several of whom show up on Volition. Frequent contributor Jadea Kelly also appears on four tracks, and one of her peers in the Ontario country scene, Kayla Howran, lends her voice to the mountainous build of “Drumhead Trial.”

“Skies” is the albums closer and an appropriate coalescence of all those diverse styles and contributing voices, from math-pop bookends to Between the Buried and Me-esque metal riffing to raw, throaty guest screams to not one but two astronomical climaxes. When Protest the Hero announced Volition, fans disappointed by Scurrilous raised noise for a throwback to the proggy but soulful Fortress. PTH may have turned to its dedicated fanbase for funding and even inspiration in the process of making Volition, but the album is decidedly something all its own, an ambitious progression that honors the band’s past. It’s true that, with the departures of Mirabdolbaghi and Carlson, Protest the Hero isn’t the same band they were when they formed as teenagers or when they became a big name in the progressive music market or even when they went independent less than a year ago. But Rody Walker already knows this, and he knows that change leads to growth; he even sings it on “Drumhead Trial,” his voice intertwining with Howran’s smoky cries: “We come anew.”

Overall Rating: 9/10