September 22, 2015 Scale the Summit – V (Album Review)
Houston, Texans Scale the Summit have been around since 2004 and really began maturing into their sound with their second album in 2009, Carving Desert Canyons. It was their first on Prosthetic Records, and the label they have been with ever since. Consisting of six-string bassist Mark Michell, new drummer J.C. Bryant, along with founding guitarists Chris Letchford and Travis Levrier, Scale the Summit creates open worlds for their listeners while sometimes telling more specific stories through music alone. Some tend to find the lack of vocals boring, but to those with a critical ear and an imagination to match, the interpretations of these songs are wonders for the mind’s eye. Their technical proficiency and songwriting ability are what help separate them, but also what help tie them to their peers in Animals as Leaders. Now two years after the success of The Migration, they return with their latest album, simply titled V, which seems to take place in many ancient myths and places. Featuring album artwork by Duncan Storr, it could be the busiest album art to date and the pieces of said album art tie directly into each song.
Clearly Scale the Summit have decided to leave the stratosphere with this album. That much is clear with the album art alone. One of the many fantastical creatures gracing the artwork “The Winged Bull,” which happens to be the name of the first track as well. The guitar seems to float on the breeze and the drums feels like something preparing to take off. The rhythm guitar and bass kick in and are rife with determination. Once the band is all accounted for and they have successfully taken flight, a coziness settles in with some classic Letchford riffs. He runs through arpeggios, initiating a call and response between the guitar and bass as well as tremolo picks his way into the bridge of the song. The bridge is where they reveal how ancient and powerful this winged bull, perhaps referring to the ancient Lamassu, is. A deity of protection, the song aptly ends with strength to drive this point home.
To match the strong ending of the previous song, “Soria Moria,” the castle which the winged bull is flying away from in the album art, starts off very independent of the last track. The harmonies in the beginning are a call to adventure, and when Letchford comes in on lead, the adventure starts in earnest. After that, it is like an onslaught of a multi-headed beast. When one part drops out it is replaced by another that is part of the same, yet different. The band does a lot of back and forth, a lot of call and response in this album, and here it is likely to emulate the multi-headed troll that resides in the castle according to the Norwegian fairy tale by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. This is probably where the imagery in the bottom left of the album art comes from. When the ‘home’ motif reappears and our hero is back where he came from, the song fades as the hero sets out to return to his princesses back in Soria Moria Castle.
Presumably the “Pontus Euxinus,” the title of this track and the ancient, Latinized name for what is now known as the Black Sea, is one of the more difficult parts of the album art to pick out. It sits in the bottom left under the three-headed monstrosity. The song is as violent as the sea itself. The cymbals crash like waves and the guitar sings like the wind. The lead guitar really moves through the song like it is fighting against the ferocity of the other instruments. Everything only gets more and more fierce until around the three-minute marker, at which point there seems to be a break, like the eye of the storm; a place of calm. This lasts a relatively short time as the ship plows through the remainder of the storm with the lead guitar triumphantly working more in tandem with the swell of other instruments.
One sound leaving only its echo in the wake. Perhaps represented by the small mountain of ice, or even the ice around the Golden Bird, it seems to be the only track without any direct ties to a specific story, myth, or place. “Trapped in Ice.” A stirring and the ice shatters into shards, shards in the form of Bryant’s kick, snare, and hi hat. Being new, Bryant brings a really fresh and dynamically explosive to the table and it is tracks like this where he goes between accentuating the other instruments and breaking out on his own to break up the dynamic that really show what he can do. The whole song feels like an ice wrought cavern falling down around a hapless hero. Musically, Chris always seems to play the hero. The guitar is almost like the hero’s heartbeat- translating to the audience when he is in danger and when he is calm. A little over halfway through, the song opens up and an even wider reverberation inspires the imagination towards something larger- a much more wide open space.
The music fades into a subterranean realm below the ice, where “Stolas,” a Great Prince of Hell, who not only commands twenty-six leagues of demons, but is also an astronomy teacher, according to the Ars Goetia, is met. On the cover he is the owl with the crown on his head. The song begins in earnest with a rowdy class of demons that is quickly settled down as he begins his lesson. From there, a bird’s eye view of the galaxy is observed. Beautiful planets spinning and orbiting, but also violent crashes of meteors and comets, supernovas and blackholes. The song shifts from traveling through a peaceful solar system to stopping and observing some of the intense beauty that are planets crumbling and stars exploding, something felt with the transitions from staccato style playing to a more legato style. The climax of the song is particularly violent. Despite the fact that Stolas is a demon, everything seems to be carefree and jolly until right around the 3:10 marker. It is almost like he is having a falling out with one of his students- perhaps the price one pays for summoning this demon and taking advantage of his knowledge. It ends on an exploratory note with the guitar practically talking and slowly fades.
It is still night along the shores of “The Isle of Mull.” Steady waves beat upon its shores, brought to the listener, once again, as on “Pontus Euxis,” by Bryant. Of course one can assume that the isle that the castle Soria Moria sits on in the album cover is the Isle of Mull itself. In the legends, Soria Moria’s location is unknown, but it is not too far of a stretch that it could be hidden on the Isle of Mull, considering the legend is Norwegian and Scottland sits right across the North Sea. The isle is home to over 250 species of birds, which fits with the lofty theme of the album. First just close ups of locales, eventually the music becomes a sweeping shot of the island, with Michell and Levrier bringing the ecosystem to life, Bryant controlling the waters and Letchford giving more detailed looks at the individual variants of life on the isle. The song is as varied as the birds on the actual Isle of Mull. At times, it seems like birds on the hunt, other times it is more of a free-wheeling survey from the sky and at other times it takes to the ground and races through the underbrush. The outro is like the king of the sky’s last word, which fades nicely from something regal into what is perhaps the most common subject matter for a song title on the whole album. A “Kestrel” is a type of falcon and are fairly common on the Isle of Mull. On the album cover it can be seen in the top right. The song paints a more intimate picture of this particular bird and its hunting behavior. The song is peaceful like the way a kestrel will hover on the wind, but the song also swoops down into action much like the kestrel when it spots its prey. At the 3:52 mark, each instrument gets their chance to interpret the action before everyone goes all out for the epically explosive ending.
The next song starts on its own. This makes sense because to travel from the Isle of Mull to the “Oort Cloud” would take even light over three years. So in fast forward fashion the intro quickly travels to the edges of the solar system to the Oort Cloud, a nebula of ice chunks as old as the Milky Way itself, likely represented by the circle of ice that frames the scene on the album cover. Peaceful chunks of ice floating around in what seems like an endless amount of time until something moving at a quicker pace is noticed and suddenly it breaks through the cloud. Now trailing a meteor as the ever more hectic guitar riff accompanies it through space. Its trajectory is altered by the planets as it continues its almost straight shot for the sun. Chris and Travis are the gravitational pull and are excellent at these great tapping conversations back and forth; it almost sounds like a strange delay effect. As it moves on, Michell has a chance to create his own gravitational pull and it sounds- Country. With the help of Bryant, Michell breaks things up with a little Country influenced interlude. Bryant breaks up the rhythm and picks up the pace and one can practically see Michell dancing a jig. It seems odd, but it sounds great before the song returns to form and heads straight into the center of the sun, melting up before it can quite make contact, disappearing slowly, just like the song’s slow fade out.
In the album cover it sits in the top left, it is a “Blue Sun” radiating out a light up to a million times brighter than the Sun. The rarest of all stars, it also burns the hottest- over 30,000K. The song is indicative of that from the beginning. More than just the crashing waves and brutal storm of earlier tracks, this one really shines with a fierce intensity. The intricate lines flaring up on the sun are not only well documented on the cover, but in the song as well. Around the 4:06 marker, a nice flighty and flaring riff repeats itself in variations- this seems to be the violent death throes of the sun, as one this hot usually ends in a supernova that leaves behind a black hole. The longest song on the album, “Blue Sun” uses the space it has to play freely, once again exploring thoroughly with just instrumentation and no voice. In the end, it just sounds like a burned out Sun fading out of existence.
The final song is about a hunt for “The Golden Bird.” The song, like the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, is full of stubbornness. The guitar pushes the hard way against the grain and the drums try to march it on. Just like the princes in the story refuse to listen to the foxes advice, and it makes everything harder than it needs to be, the song is constantly working harder than it has to until it catches a break around the 4:00 marker. After that, it seems to fade in a happy ending kind of way. Sort of a simple way to end such an epic song- and the closer at that, but it is what it is.
One of the first things to notice is the grungier side of the mix the band has adopted with this album. Jamie King, who did the mixing, has worked with Between the Buried and Me since Alaska (2005) and on Dan Briggs’ Trioscapes and Tommy Rogers’ Thomas Giles side projects has also worked with countless other bands including The Contortionist and Last Chance To Reason. It is really something quite different; at times sounding like an older Mastodon and at other times sounding like epic parts of a Between the Buried and Me song. On the other hand, the cleans are significantly clearer and ring with greater space. The effortless and butter smooth transitions between the two is simply stunning. This new grunge brings the band’s uniquely styled and aptly named sub-genre of Adventure Metal to a whole new level, adding what feels like an era to the music while maintaining their Progressive virtuosity. CrypticRock gives V 4 out of 5 stars.