Review : Contortionist @ Deaf Institute + Interview with Robby Baca

 

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With their last two appearances in Manchester having been support slots for the likes of prog heavyweights Tesseract and Periphery, tonight sees The Contortionist return, but as top of the bill at one of Manchester’s favourite gig venues, Deaf Institute.

They emerge from backstage to loud cheers, having already set the scene with Vangelis’ infamous Blade Runner soundtrack playing loudly over the venue’s sound system. Instruments on, and little time is wasted as gentle and ominous synth preludes the titular track off their latest album ‘Clairvoyant’. It immediately demonstrates the talent and prowess the band and their vocalist Mike Lessard have behind them. Taking you on moments of heaviness and instrumental euphoric bridges that overwhelm with an enormous emotional weight behind them.

Switching straight from new to old, the second song of the setlist is Exoplanet’s ‘Flourish’. Hitting hard and ferocious, Lessard’s vocals bellow out with harsh powerful screams further displaying his magnitude of vocal range. The voice of a man possessed one moment, to that of an angel next. The song hits with its polyrhythmic hooks in all the right places, escalating before suddenly hitting it’s stunning and breathtaking instrumental mid section. It’s here that Robby Baca and Cameron Maynard take centre stage demonstrating their guitar dexterity. The backlighting working impeccably through moments such as this, often silhouetting the band on stage and vastly elevating the stage presence.

Moving between songs, no silence is offered at all, the setlist softly blended with keys and synth from Eric Guenther seamlessly concluding one song into the next. Vocalist Lessard moves around the stage in an almost trance like meditative state echoing and repeating moments and lyrics from earlier, creating an almost hypnotic presence. The aim here clearly to create pure immersion. Allowing little time for the audience to interrupt the band’s flow.

A trio of songs from ‘Clairvoyant’ follows with ‘Reimagined’, ‘Godspeed’ and ‘Absolve’ on offer. All three giving Lessard opportunity to demonstrate the power of his clean vocals. The new tracks are delivered with precision and finesse and highlight some of the excellent musicianship available from the band’s latest album. Whether it’s bassist Jordan Eberhardt’s playing on ‘Reimagined’ or Joey Baca’s incredible percussion on ‘Absolve’.

Following the small showreel of new songs, the setlist continues with ‘Thrive’, one of the stand out tracks from the album ‘Language’. It moves with fast and intricate playing building throughout and fusing into the one ‘Intrinsic’ song of the night, ‘Solipsis’. Short and sweet, and straight into ‘Oscillator’, a fan favourite once again from the first album, ‘Exoplanet’. It’s one of the heaviest of the evening, with Lessard moving around the stage and leaning as far into the audience as possible. The song evolves through intensity towards beauty. It’s ethereal instrumentals are awe inspiring and stunning but never disjointed. The small inclusion of moments of ‘Language’ being interwoven within are a welcome addition, allowing Lessard to then take his signature crouched position in front of the drumkit, and allow his fellow bandmates to take centre stage for its epic climax. It’s completely understandable why it’s remained a fan favourite for so long.

It’s at this stage of the evening that the last song is announced, the one and only time the audience has been addressed between. ‘Return to Earth’ begins with it’s gentle and soothing introduction, and not unlike any other song of the evening, another wonderful demonstration of song writing and narrative structure on display. It’s an absolute emotional powerhouse of a song, the emoting throughout the vocals and the harmonies are a masterclass in modern progressive music. The members of the band exit the stage, but the lights stay dim for an obvious encore.

The true finish to the evening arrives in the form of both volumes of Language played as one singular piece. It’s instantly recognisable chorus effect riff begins, to enormous crowd cheer. The performance is excellent, and the only negative as a show conclusion that can be found by this reviewer, is the want to hear ‘Clairvoyant’ album close ‘Monochrome (Pensive)’ live. But that’s a very minor quibble on an incredible performance.

The performance showcased succinctly the enormity of the spectrum of sounds available by this five piece. Their evolution worn on its sleeve, and available to see and hear. It’s with great expectation and excitement to see where their sound evolves too next.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Robby Baca of The Contortionist pre show for an interview, which can be found below.

Atom Smasher: It’s been about 11 months since you’ve released Clairvoyant. How has the reception of the album been for yourselves?

 Robby Baca: It’s been good, we’ve done a headlining leg in the States earlier this year that went really well. The band has been on an upward trajectory since the first record. So, it’s been cool to see the next jump up for this record. We did our first bus tour and we had the biggest stage production we’ve ever done on a headliner. There was a handful of sold out shows that in general were just awesome. So far it’s been good.

AS: There’s been a lot of solid reviews for the album, from everyone including Prog Magazine to other substantial media coverage that has all been pretty positive.

Robby Baca: The reviews that came in after the release were awesome. We were a little apprehensive at first, because we knew we were taking such a left hand turn with the sound. It was cool to see the Prog review and all the positive reviews.

 AS: I recall meeting your keyboardist Eric at one of your Periphery support dates last year. We chatted casually for a few minutes about the new album (pre-release). At the time he said it was a continuation, but a small evolution of what fans had heard on Language. He was hesitant as to what some of your longer-term fans would think, that it may be too much of a departure from earlier records and there being somewhat of an Exoplanet tunnel vision with them. How is that in the wake of the release?

 Robby Baca: I don’t really know. Every once in a while I read comments online about stuff. I’ve seen some comments that were saying “When I first heard this record, I didn’t get it. As time went on something about it clicked.” So, I don’t know. Our first record was such a specific sound we were into back then, I wouldn’t be surprised if a big chunk of people out there just love that one sound, and just couldn’t follow whatever crazy path we went down.

But it’s like I said before, I see more people being positive about the new music than hating on it. I guess that’s at least been my perspective on it.

 AS: Were there any fundamental differences in the album writing this time around. With it being several members’ second album, was it a different experience to Language in any way?

 Robby Baca: Yeah. I mean, This was the first record Jordan’s played on so that was cool, getting his bass player perspective on bass parts. Eric, by the time we did ‘Clairvoyant’, was officially in the band. When we did ‘Language’ he was in the band, but he didn’t have as big of a writing role as he did on ‘Clairvoyant’. It was really cool working on stuff with Eric. He and I got into a really good flow of working on parts and refining sections, and stuff like that.

Making a record is a struggle, at least certain aspects of it. There were positive aspects and negative aspects to the whole project, but it definitely turned out pretty sick I think.

 AS: Mike (Lessard, Vocalist) has gone on record and said he experimented with the use of psychedelics during the writing process to discover and thematically find new wavelengths of experience in the creation of his contribution to the album. Did any of the rest of the members try anything a little bit different, experimental or perhaps even a little unorthodox when writing?

 Robby Baca: Well, when we did Clairvoyant we spent about a month and a half or so up in Maine, which is where Mike (Vocalist) lives. It’s the furthest North East in the United States, so we were pretty cut off. To be fair, we were maybe 30 minutes from the nearest Walmart or something like that. We were pretty isolated and were staying in a cabin on a lake. So just that in itself was kind of a way to separate ourselves from our everyday lives, and focus on the record, which was really cool as we’d never done that before.

AS: So, quite immersed in nature too.

 Robby Baca: Yeah, definitely.

AS: The lyrics are always incredibly evocative, emotive and often intimate, particularly with songs such as ‘Monochrome (Pensive)’ or ‘Return to Earth’, is that a difficult place for the band to enter every night on tour considering the subject matter of the album, or is it more of a cathartic experience?

 Robby Baca: The story behind the lyrics is, well, a lot of it was based on a friend of Mike’s, so I’d imagine he sort of has to relive his experiences every night, when he performs ‘Return to Earth’, and stuff like that. For us, we didn’t know the guy, so when I heard some of these lyrics for the first time I was like “woah”, I got choked up about some of the stuff. So, sometimes it’s an emotional experience playing the songs live, but most of us, we’re far enough removed from the story of the lyrics for it to be totally emotional for us.

 AS: With your last album Language, you went on to later rework several of the songs, under the title of Rediscovered. Is there any plan currently to apply the same ideas and revisit any of Clairvoyant?

 Robby Baca: We have plans on doing something at some point this year. We’re still kinda working it out, but I’m not entirely sure if we’ll do anything with Clairvoyant. But we’ll see what happens, we definitely have plans of doing something this year. In a similar vein as Rediscovered, but definitely not the same.

 AS: You’ve found yourself on tour with many of the big names with the modern prog movement, Tesseract, Skyharbor, Between the Buried and Me, Periphery. Has touring with any of these bands had any later influence in your writing style too?

 Robby Baca: I think every band we tour with ends up seeping into our music somehow. It’s just a thing that happens. Even with the band we’re on tour with now, Palm Reader, we’ve toured with them twice now and we all love their music. Some of that aggression and sort of raw energy I think seeped into some elements of our music and future music as well. Definitely bands like Between the Buried and Me and Periphery. Those bands are the titans of progressive metal at the moment. For me, Between the Buried and Me was a big one when I was younger, to be honest with you, they’re one of the reasons I wanted to do this in the first place. It’s been cool to meet them, and become friends with them, see how they do certain aspects of touring in general and putting on a show. We’re definitely hugely influenced by all the bands we support, so it’s been really cool.

 AS: Your live performances happen to be incredibly immersive, powerful, and a seamlessly put together experience, trance-like almost. Are there any actions you take specifically to obtain the sort of show narrative that plays out? Is there a premeditated design or is this something that’s evolved organically of years playing together?

 Robby Baca: There’s definitely a lot of design that goes on there. We use four or five different guitar tunings, so the set is usually built around grouping songs into their respective tunings so we don’t have a guitar change after every song. Sometimes that just happens with the way the set ends up. But we usually spend about a week before the tour just rehearsing the songs and getting the transitions down. This tour has been especially challenging because we’re doing different sets. Obviously we’re doing festivals, headlining shows and a couple of support shows in there as well. So, we have different set lengths every night so we chop two songs, three songs, or one song. So we’ve had to try and adapt to that, it can be a little awkward.

AS: Do you have a preference in the type of show you prefer to play whether it be one of your own shows, with more creative control and with your own dedicated fans, or a festival show, in which you get a chance to win over new fans?

Robby Baca: Yeah, you kinda said it. There’s positive aspects to both. I would probably lean more towards doing a support tour, because there’s a lot less responsibility, you’re learning more things, at least in my perspective. There’s always something to be learned in any situation. Usually if we do a support tour it’s with a band that we really love and have been listening to for years too.

 AS: Your songs always have this huge grandiose orchestral feel to them, the layering, and narrative truly tells a story culminating in a crescendo and finale that makes them feel almost akin to a film score. Do you tend to use anything musically outside of the expectant influences to help drive you forward?

 Robby Baca: Absolutely. Some of my favourite records and the guys’ favourite records are movie soundtracks. I’ve been way into this guy Cliff Martinez. He did the music for a film called ‘Contagion’ that came out a couple of years ago.

 AS: The Steven Soderbergh film?

Robby Baca: I think so, yeah. Then there was a TV show called ‘The Knick’, he did that one too. He’s done a few video games and they’re all super synth based. It’s weird because a specific example of the show ‘The Knick’ is based in 1920’s New York City and all the music is synthesizers so it’s this weird tone, like it doesn’t fit with the show, but it creates this whole vibe. That’s what I love about this stuff, is that he has this certain vibe, he adds to the movies. You can separate the two, but when they’re together they’re one. If you were to watch the movie with someone else having done the soundtrack, it would not be the same at all.

We’re definitely really influenced by that whole world, thematic soundtracks and such. Video and audio when done together correctly can be just hugely profound. That’s what we love.

 AS: The complexity of the song writing is really something to behold with your albums. How does the typical song come to be in the creation process? Is it instrumental first, or is there a discussion on the subject matter, mood and the desired sound, or is it just a natural layering progression?

 Robby Baca: It’s different for each song, but you kind of said it. We start with a riff or sometimes it’s an entire song that’s already pretty much structured, then we’ll send it to Mike and get some vocal demos. That’s usually where the magic starts happening. When you send a demo out to the dude and he does some stuff to it, it always sparks something. It’s generally a process of shooting back and forth and other times it is like sitting at a table.

Language I & II, those two tracks, Joe, Cam, Mike and I, just wrote those in a room together. Just hashed it out, over a two days or something like that. I think that’s the harder way to do it, but generally the more rewarding.

 AS: A little trial by fire?

 Robby Baca: Yeah, there’s more battle involved with that kind of arrangement. You get stuff in there that you like, and you compromise some stuff. In the end you end up loving it because of all the push and pull you had to deal with.

AS: Who are the bands or musicians currently working, that you think are making a noticeable impression on the prog scene or their other respective genres?

 Robby Baca: I can tell you about some of the stuff I’ve been jamming lately. I don’t know if these guys are necessarily in the prog world at all, but there’s this band called Nothing But Thieves, they’ve got a record called ‘Broken Machine’ that’s got just really great song writing, the singer reminds me a little of Dallas Green from Alexisonfire. He’s just got a really great voice and the song writing is super cool.

I’ve also been jamming this band called End. Super heavy, this is the first heavy stuff I’ve gotten super stoked on in a long time. The record’s called ‘The Unforgiving arms of God’. With that title, you already know, it’s heavy.

Sikth too, I must have been 14 when ‘Death of a Dead Day’ came out, and that record just rewired my brain. We actually got to support them, and then they supported us about 2 months ago in Australia. Then we supported them a couple of days ago at Techfest. Phenomenal band.

I feel like I’ve been finding new music less and less since I’ve gotten older. I’ve been listening to a lot of Failure. They’ve been around since the 90’s. Maynard from Tool is always talking about them, and how they’re his favourite band. But they recently put out a couple of EP’s I think. I would categorise them as a little bit progressive. They’ve got this sort of grunge sound, but with killer song writing.

 AS: Despite it being very early days yet, and the touring looking to continue for some time yet, are there ideas of what’s next directionally for The Contortionist? Or is this something you won’t see unravel itself until you next hit the studio?

 Robby Baca: We’ve talked about it a lot, and there’s so many different ideas of which direction to take. We’ve even talked about splitting those ideas into different records, or Ep’s or something. We’re taking baby steps into formulating the baby steps if you know what I mean? We’re talking about it every day. We’ve got a few demos going at the moment and it’s gonna be cool. I’m excited for it.

AS: Quickly back to Language, one of my favourite things about the album was the close of the track Parable, you conclude the song with an ethereal moment with an Alan Watts quote layed over it. What was the decision or discussion to include that, as it seems a near perfect piece of text to end the album on? And was there ever a discussion to conclude Clairvoyant with another philosophical quote?

 Robby Baca: I personally was listening to a bunch of Alan Watts a lot at the time. I had a handful of clips I’d cut out of different lectures I’d been throwing into that section at the end of Parable. That one fit what was already there pretty well. I think that’s how that got chosen. It seemed that it worked pretty well. It’s not entirely related to the lyrics, but it seemed to fit.

I was actually in contact with Alan Watts’ son who owns the right to all his lectures and stuff. He gave us permission to put it on the record. I think we sent him a t-shirt and a vinyl or something like that. So that was cool to actually talk to him.

AS: Did you ever follow it up to gauge his opinion on the usage and context to which you applied it?

 Robby Baca: Actually, no. That’s the last time I spoke with him. But we’re all really into Alan Watts. The guy had all kinds of great things to say. When you listen to his stuff, it’s just so simple. Sort of “Duh, why didn’t I think of this?”.

 AS: And before you go on stage later this evening, what is you pre-show ritual if you have any outside of basic warm ups etc?

 Robby Baca: Nobody actually really warms up anymore. I used to have to warm up for an hour. I think there was a handful of shows where I wasn’t able to, and eventually I just realised I don’t need to do this. I think it made me more anxious to be honest with you. So for me the best pre show ritual is if you find yourself in a shit headspace, just to try and get out of that. That’s been the best ritual for me. If you bring baggage on to the stage then you’re gonna have a bad show. Other than that, just hanging out with the guys and whatever stupid activities we’re getting up to.

 

 

 

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