Protest the Hero – Palimpsest Review

Protest the Hero couldn’t have known everything that’s happened since their last EP, Pacific Myth, in 2016. Since Rody Walker’s vocal cord scare last year. Hell, since announcing their fifth full-length in April. Protest the Hero couldn’t have known, and yet Palimpsest couldn’t be timelier. Though centering on key events in America’s early 20th century, the record reads so close to our current, woeful zeitgeist that my apophenia is still hovering at Threat Level QAnon. Though a gaze through Palimpsest’s looking glass might be less than savory, Protest the Hero guide you through the subject matter in their most refined, efficient, and mature manner to date.

PtH’s issues never centered on staying fresh. The leap from the post-melodic hardcore of 2008’s Fortress to the accessible arpeggiated assault of 2011’s Scurrilous ushered in new successes for the Canadians. Instead, an untamed wildness subsumed the songwriting on both Scurrilous and 2013’s Volition. Frantic riffing and harried compositions ping-ponging between highs and lows felt like atoms ripping apart than anything cohesive. Palimpsest finally finds PtH willing to breathe. The most obvious mark of this is the introduction of orchestration to the proceedings: well-defined, charismatic, and essential to adding space that the band’s monoriffic sound lacked ten years prior. Songs tighten up from Pacific Myth’s expanded lengths but retain their focus on builds and melodic through-lines. The results play like “Mist” on steroids, with distinct identities and memorable choruses. The most effective of these hearkens back to the Boston Molassacre on “All Hands.” Its swelling orchestra and bombastic melody make it an early Singalong of the Year favorite, with closer “Rivet” not far behind.

This diversity of sound is for the best, as the same old PtH hallmarks don’t go as far as they used to, particularly the vocal melodies and riff progressions in the verses. Whether to mitigate Walker’s vocal cord issues, stretch a short stock of fresh riffs, or explore new territory, the kinetic, go-big-or-go-home interplay between Walker’s versatile cleans and Luke Hoskins and Tim MacMillar’s trademark arpeggios takes a step back. Certain directions might risk growing stale were they to stick to PtH’s tried-and-true formula. Almost every one of Palimpsest’s laggards rescues itself with back-half breaks that flourish in an abundance of influences. No two of these moments⁠—usually of solemn and quiet⁠—sound alike. On “The Canary” and “From the Sky,” the break plays better than the main direction, especially as thematic subtext comes into focus. Don’t take that to mean PtH lost their fastball though⁠—far from it. “The Fireside” and “Soliloquy” would fit in anywhere on the last two albums, and my god do “Little Snakes” and “Reverie” smoke.

Walker doesn’t sound inhibited in the slightest. His highs on “From the Sky” leave you wondering if he somehow came back stronger from his vocal cord problems, and his growls are shockingly cavernous.1 Above all, his lyrics remain the best in the business⁠—well-crafted, well-thought-out, and, well, catchy. As Palimpsest carves its way through the illusion of onward and upwards (“Migrant Mother”2); sexism and Amelia Earhart (“The Canary”3); Mount Rushmore and the cultural disemboweling of Native Americans (“Little Snakes”45); tales of the underbelly of the American dream (“Soliloquy,”6 “The Fireside”7); or the disillusioned aftermath (“Reverie”8), it’s hard not to be swept under by the cyclical relevance of each entry. To his credit, Walker never sacrifices efficacy to make his point; narrative, not preachiness, takes center stage. “Little Snakes” may be on the nose, but if anything, his personal vitriol unleashes one of his best performances. His swings between mocking sanctimony, incredulity, and anger feel organic rather than forced, and the finished product tops a high bar set on Volition.

At the end of it all waits “Rivet.” This natural endpoint, both of story and sound, reflects all the glory,9 pain,10 and hope11⁠—past, present, and future⁠—incumbent in the American experience. Like everything else in “full collapse” today, the takeaways from Palimpsest are impossible to ignore and nearly too repugnant to reckon with. And yet there is potential. If time is cyclical, then as we revisit the struggles of the past, so too can we move on, improve. The “land of innovation, land of common sense” is out there, and “America”⁠—and the world⁠—”is not great, but it can be.” “Rivet” may be the band’s finest song, on their finest record, in their finest hour. Protest the Hero could probably do without 2020, but I couldn’t do 2020 without Palimpsest.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: FLAC
Label: Self-Released
Websites: | |
Releases Worldwide: June 18th, 2020

Show 11 footnotes

  1. To the point that I’m not ruling out a guest spot. I couldn’t confirm if Walker performed these, but I can’t find anything that says he didn’t.
  2. “California promised heaven/(All the leaves are brown)/A heaven we could not deny/(And the sky is grey)/But the dust we’re running from still stalks us in the night/And all we’ve found is a bitter lie”
  3. “Women must pay for everything/They do get more glory than men for comparable tasks/But they also get more notoriety when they crash”, an actual Earhart quote.
  4. “Armed to the teeth/We can make an example of every one of these savages/Because the rights they have we gave to them/And we can take them away without giving a damn”
  5. “Impoverished and broken sings the songs of their defeat/But it’s your vacation, your holiday/It’s a reminder every story gets sculpted and decayed/You may feel cheated by its honesty/Just pack the car and drive away”
  6. “Reformed or refined, as if by design/By a prison system that’s all but resigned/When the ideal prisoner should spend his life drifting back and forth”
  7. “And when they came for the crib/They came for the table and the drapes on the walls/They came for the clothes from the backs of my kids/My god, they came for it all”
  8. “Son, do you dream the American dream?/Oh no, not me/Not on your life”
  9. “Once I built a railroad, I made it run/I made it race against time”
  10. “No country’s history is free from bullshit/But everyone just seems so fucking proud”
  11. “What separates us now is off by less than six degrees/It’s not necessarily character, it’s opportunity”
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