There has been a great deal of jockeying for position in the absence of two large presences in the progressive metal subgenre. While neither Tool nor Porcupine Tree have formally announced a retirement, it is easy to see the members of each entity finding both success and contentment outside of those trappings. That leaves Dream Theater as the standard-bearer in many ways, although it can be argued that their musical identity is fractured, split between being 90% a metal band and 90% being a prog rock band, with the two sides seldom cohering as that final ten percent.
What is left are a lot of bands that claim to be prog, but often are just metal with weird drumming times and keyboard fills. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly has a dishonesty about itself. This schism is something I worried about when I went into the new album A Dream In Static by Earthside. I preface all of this by saying that — not to worry — Earthside is definitely soundly in the prog metal category.
You can hardly blame me for getting the false impression. The band, at heart an instrumental group, have surrounded themselves with metal luminary producer-engineers David Castillo and Jens Bogren. They’ve enlisted guest vocalists like Bjorn “Speed” Strid from Soilwork and Lajon Witherspoon from Sevendust, and so you must walk through this door with a degree of expectation.
The best part of all this is how expectation is subverted. Witherspoon runs the vocal gamut on “Mob Mentality,” showing sides of his skill that one feels doesn’t get used nearly enough in his main gig. Songs can move from placid, folkish, new age tones to something akin to math rock, and it can be challenging at times. “Skyline” for example comes in like an icebreaker, but steers into a calmer, precise midsection. Don’t worry. It gets back into crush-mode before the end. Earthside is not shrinking from the goal of impressing, or occasionally going over the top. That is best illustrated by the closing “Contemplation of the Beautiful” which, at times, is kind of terrifying.
If I have an issue with Earthside it would be that a band-specific identity hasn’t been locked in yet. That’s not a deal-breaker, and this is, after all, a debut effort. You can’t fairly expect the group to arrive fully formed. Yet there is so much obvious potential and talent on display, I wanted to hear those moments that caused me to think I could not get this from anyone other than this band. I think they’re very close. It took years and a lot of experiments for the bands mentioned earlier to lock in and “find themselves.” Earthside is one of the very few bands in recent memory that causes me to think they can get there. As such, A Dream In Static is a fine starting point to something bigger, unique, and more individual.