At its best, prog can be a safe haven from the storm outside, a soothing experience with healing and escapist qualities. Genuine musicianship, pure emotion and a penchant for supreme melody make this music a journey, an experience for which records and headphones were invented in the first place. At the forefront of prog music stands Richard West, renowned keyboard wizard and songwriter for British prog metal pioneers Threshold for over 30 years. Six years after their epic masterpiece ‘Legends of the Shires’, West returns to these shores to deliver a long-awaited sequel. Not under the Threshold moniker, mind you. But with a brand new supergroup. Prog fans far and wide, rejoice: Oblivion Protocol are here. And they bring us “The Fall of the Shires”.
“When my Threshold bandmates decided not to record a sequel to the ‘Legends of the Shires’ story,” explains Richard West, “I knew I wanted to stay in that world a little longer, so I wrote my own sequel called ‘The Fall of the Shires’.”
“I just did it for myself at first, but when it was finished I started to wonder about releasing it.” We can be very thankful for that: Oblivion Protocol will immediately claim a place in the hearts of every prog connoisseur, delivering a dense, climactic sound somewhere between Rush, Steven Wilson, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ era Pink Floyd and hard rock masters Ghost. “My voice is lower and less heavy than Glynn’s, so I knew the music would have to support the vocals in a different way,” says Richard of his Threshold bandmate. “I opted for lower tunings on the guitar and bass, and relied more on atmospheric keyboards and orchestral elements to define the sound. But of course it’s a sequel to ‘Legends of the Shires’, so it still had to have a close connection to the sound of that album.”
Fans of the first part will gleefully hunt for Easter eggs, clever little nods, bows and references to the first instalment, all the while marvelling at these cathedrals of sound that Oblivion Protocol erect with their soaring, epic tales. With vocals and keyboards coming from yours truly, Richard is backed by a fellowship of renowned musicians: Guitarist Ruud Jolie (Within Temptation), bassist Simon Andersson (Darkwater) and drummer Darby Todd (Devin Townsend).
“It was really easy, I chose three good friends I’ve known for years and whose styles I really admire. Luckily they all said yes.”
To round things off, Threshold’s Karl Groom has also contributed some truly enthralling guitar solos.
Everyone on board is genuinely excited to continue the saga, to return to these shores – even if events have taken a decidedly darker turn since our last visit: Whereas “Legends of the Shires” told the story of a nation trying to find itself, Richard is now weaving the future of the main protagonist into the world. “At the end of ‘Legends’, the protagonist considers a number of possible futures – ‘maybe a painter, a guide, a clerk, a maker, or maybe a writer, a king, a star, a fighter’,” as the lyrics to ‘Lost in Translation’ say. “The sequel tells the story of him becoming king and the consequences of that choice. In the opening song he decides that the only way to control the population is to oppress them, so the shires become a much darker place.”
With allusions to real-life events, “The Fall of the Shires” is reminiscent of the legendary prog concept albums of yesteryear – “The Wall”, “Misplaced Childhood”, “Operation:Mindcrime”, all dystopian at heart.
“Progressive rock has always been a natural genre for concept albums,” nods Richard. “Once you get away from the 3 minute pop song structure and start writing longer songs, you give yourself more freedom to explore different ideas and bigger themes. When you add the extra power and darker sounds of metal into the mix, you create the perfect backdrop for telling darker stories”.
Needless to say, he is somewhat obsessed with the art form. “I’ve loved concept albums since I was young,” Richard beams. “I remember wanting to make one when I was in bands at school. So I found making ‘Legends’ very fulfilling and was immediately drawn to the idea of making another one.”
With depth, scope and a knack for unusual storytelling, we’re immediately drawn back into a world we never wanted to leave in the first place. Oblivion Protocol is something of a missing link between the grandeur (and sometimes megalomania) of seventies prog and the zeitgeisty sensibilities of pop. It’s all there – the epic songs, the orchestral grandezza, the skill, but paired with catchy songwriting and songs you could imagine in big arenas. Of course, all this doesn’t mean that Richard is unhappy with his role in Threshold. On the contrary: “I love working with Threshold, they’re wonderful guys, I’ve been doing it for 30 years now and it’s in my blood. But sometimes it’s easier to realise a certain vision on your own when you have a strong idea and the passion to see it through.”
Written and produced by Richard at his studio in the UK, this record was his playground, his Neverland, his Middle Earth.
“There were no outside influences or compromises,” he says. “And because I thought no one would ever hear it, I didn’t care what anyone thought, I just made something I loved.”
That the result would be an album was never in doubt. “I love the album format and that’s never wavered,” he remarks. “Singles are wonderful, but albums take you on a journey, they allow you to immerse yourself in another world for a while. They’re one of the most beautiful expressions of art and the world would be a lot poorer without them.” Nothing to add here.