By Weeping Elvis
I am sitting at a table in the storeroom of a machine shop that, for the lateness of the hour, is suspiciously and fully operational. Beyond the storeroom door, lathes are spinning, torches are welding, sparks are flying. If this weren’t Weeping Elvis, you’d be excused for assuming that I am about to be tortured by a drug cartel.
But this is a rehearsal space, carved out of a mountain of ancient desktop computers and electrical components, and I am here to meet Goliathon – an unsigned Indianapolis quintet that has just released one of the best albums of the year.
Goliathon exists in a very specific and difficult “now.” A now in which the conventional Sirius XMU wisdom dictates that all music is made on laptops and iPads in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But this group of twenty-something life-long friends are challenging that wisdom with power, volume and a collective love for vintage gear and classic prog.
Pretend It’s Not Happening, the band’s second album, comes from a specific rock and roll moment: when guitars ruled the world (Goliathon has three); when drums and bass were physical instruments that people actually played; when vocals tore at the throat; when bands played together. “No one wanted to record the band live,” says manager Sherry Cole. Eventually, they found a sympathetic producer in Ryan Koch, who recorded Pretend… in his converted horse barn known as The Arkbarn.
And it doesn’t take much of a listen to opening track “Diogenes,” to decipher this band’s lineage. From the Buck Dharma-style opening figure that yields to some major Alex-and-Geddy-style riffage, you’re more than a minute into a mini-overture before vocalist Chris Probasco finally escorts you into Goliathon’s world:
“I’m eating my hair up here/It’s in my mouth and my throat
I might be looking you square in the eyes/But I think I might choke”
Yes, this is prog. A new type of accelerated, intense, emotional prog. For the next 36 minutes, Probasco and his bandmates, guitarists Christian Wren and Derek Kendall, bassist/keyboardist Colby Holmes and drummer Matthew Allan Fields, grab you by the collar and weave you at high speed through a frenzied and chaotic open air bazaar of progressive hard rock. There is a riotous element to much of their music. At specific moments in songs like “White Frozen Wasteland” or “Make Tracks” — when they are in full roar — it feels like they have turned on each other…like they are pummeling each other. Wren says that the chaos is an unexpected by-product of a compositional formula, one that marries well-rehearsed interplay to an improvisational spirit. Indeed, the three guitars are in a kind of independent lock-step at times, while the bass and drums – those wonderfully organic bass and drums – tether them, so even if they were to leave the atmosphere they would still be bound together.
Things are difficult for this band. They are a progressive-hard rock band in a city that barely recognizes either genre. What’s more, they have arrived at a time when the new creation and distribution models have reached a nadir, and the prospect of “making it” seems to be right back where it was 30 years ago. Which means that Goliathon — despite the accomplishment of this album that is wise beyond its years — is mostly on their own. And their struggle is indicative of how things haven’t changed much in this increasingly crowded market. As recently as a few years ago, the Internet was seen as the hammer that broke down the walls to previously unreachable fan bases. Now, the sad reality is as it’s always been – dynamic and exciting young bands like Goliathon are getting lost in the static created by “Gangnam Style.”
But, the group sticks to a loose plan for their immediate and long term future. Colby Holmes recalls seeing Baroness on three successive tours as they climbed up the bill each time. Probasco cites Porcupine Tree, a legendary band with a small but sustainable following as another business role model. It’s not about living in a mansion, says Probasco, it’s about achieving “recognition and acknowledgement.”
With that also comes the challenge of how they are perceived. Early on, “we were wrapped up with metal bands,” says Fields. Probasco then recalls their very first write-up in which the reviewer altogether dismissed the metal tag. So, there is a concern that the band could again get cloistered into a genre that doesn’t fit them. A mention of the “p” word gets immediate nods all around, albeit with a humble disclaimer. “Cinematic Rock” is the term they all agree on. But their overt influences – Rush, Opeth, King Crimson, to name a few – are openly revealed.
Goliathon knows they’re good, but they are cautiously realistic about it. Even when prodded about how Pretend It’s Not Happening betrays how confident they might be in secret, Christian Wren offers that “as soon as you think you’re good enough, you’re done.” Probasco completes the statement, “Everybody hits plateaus…none of us want to plateau.”
Whatever brashness this band has earned, they save it for the stage and the recording studio. Where so many albums have their moments,Pretend… is a 37-minute moment. It’s a rich tapestry of scenes where classic 70s rock meets its progressive predilections head-on. There is no sprawling 17-minute track (they already did that on their first album). It’s mostly four-to-six-minute mini-epics that you wish wouldn’t end. And when they do end, you can’t believe how much has happened in such a short time. And its not all rocket-propelled flights of prog. While the chops are on full display in the break-neck gymnastics of “Frozen White Wasteland” and “Riot In Cairo” – on other songs the band allows their more complex guitar inter-twinning’s to evolve into balls-out, riff-driven rock assaults punctuated by Wren’s multi-influenced guitar solos and Probasco’s sax. Derek Kendall brings a Marr-Frusciante punctuation to the mix, giving the guitars a very pronounced third dimension. Fields and Holmes push the other three through the roof and into space — their influences proudly bubbling in a thick stew of ever-shifting rhythms, galloping bass and playful keyboards. On the album’s gentler tracks, Goliathon reveals some closer-to-home aspirations in the funereal closer “Sing” and the Zeppy blues workout “One Way In One Way Out.”
Within all of that, Probasco’s vocals — born of an affection for James Brown — shine through the prism of the great hard-rock vocalists. He rises above, but never overpowers. His delivery is so sincerely urgent you want to reach out your hand, but at the same time you want to see if he can wriggle himself free. He says his lyrics come from an open mind, not so much a dark and brooding one. Lyrics like “Claw at the pipe/Claw at the gutter” from “Make Tracks” or “Let the needle grind me into long black shiny slivers” from “Frozen White Wasteland” speak to a societal dysfunction that Probasco doesn’t believe to be his own. He admits that the lyrics take on different meanings even to him.
One particularly telling lyric from “Jettison” — “I’m on the torn and ragged edge of some black and bitter feelings/But things are coming ’round” — reveals an optimism shared by the entire band about their future, despite their current situation and some recent setbacks. At the moment, all of Goliathon have day jobs. Pretend Its Not Happening was partially funded via a Kickstarter campaign. They came back from their self-booked and self-financed tour completely broke. They have amassed some great stories about sleeping in vans, lack of funds at a toll booth and an acrimonious split with a founding member. “He took the band’s money, but we took the songs,” says Holmes.
And those songs…
There’s a moment near the end of “Howl,” the album’s most dizzying song, where the band is in full scream as if being dangled over a jagged and boiling precipice. Probasco, barely above the controlled madness, screams “Is this what you need?”
Yes. It is.
Pretend It’s Not Happening is available now via CD Baby, ITunes and Spotify.