Let’s ruminate on thrash-prog, prog-thrash(?): Watchtower and DBC

Considering these two artists approach technical thrash from very different backgrounds, they ended up playing a remarkably similar style by 1989. Montreal’s DBC were a thrash/crossover band, who only managed to release two albums in their career, but still left a lasting impression on the scene. After releasing their self-titled ‘Dead Brain Cells’ of 1987, it was apparent that these musicians felt they were meant for more than aggressive crossover, even if this album was a well put together take on the form. A concept album about the history of the universe may have been a slight misstep in vaulting ambition for a second full length however.

But in 1989 that is what we got with the release of ‘Universe’. If I were to describe an album as a progressive thrash concept album about the dawn and history of the universe and all of time, one might expect a two hour double length album complete with symphonic orchestra, operatic backing vocalists, samples ripped from Carl Sagan’s cosmos and endless self-indulgent prog riffs. You may be relieved to discover that this is not the case with DBC’s ‘Universe’. No, instead we are given just over half an hour of competent progressive thrash riffs, neatly tied together by leads, solos, and tempo changes sometimes calling to mind Voivod of the same era. The vocals, crafted to fit the sci-fi theme and imagery of this album, are essentially a set of robotic spoken word passages describing the development of our universe to the rise of humanity. The unusual keys and time signatures are a challenge for any vocalist, and they must have decided that a punky shout would not do justice to this music. Phil Dakin was clearly not up to the task of singing tunes to this complex music, so a compromise was reached in the form of talking.

The problem with this album, is that when these musicians were playing fast, aggressive crossover, their precision and competence led an urgency and undeniable lure to their take on this otherwise primitive music. For crossover, it was extremely well written, and yes, even proggy at times, something of a milestone considering that crossover sits well within the group of subcultures noted for their anti-prog sensibilities. So when they turned their attention to prog proper, the music falls short of what other artists were achieving in the late 1980s. It is not so much that if you treat this album as a crossover album it suddenly becomes good, the music does not let you.

One cannot deny their ambition, and their competence does carry them a long way to achieving what they set out to do. But concept albums are a risky game. They tend to set the artists up for failure before the writing process has even begun. DBC did not need to double the length of this album , embellish the complexity, and indulge in neoclassical flourishes in order to do justice to their subject matter. Rather, the fact that these musicians decided to turn their attentions to writing about the history of all of space and time may have distracted them from creating well-crafted prog-thrash, which is what their first album hinted at. Despite all this criticism, DBC’s two offerings remain forgotten classics that are well worth the time of any fan of 1980s thrash, or heavy metal in general for that matter.

Texan foursome Watchtower seem to suffer from the opposite problem. Since its inception, metal has always had a problem with over indulgent virtuosity. Watchtower approach progressive metal from the opposite end of the spectrum to DBC. Clearly incredibly competent musicians, having grown up on a diet of King Crimson and Yes, they produced two now seminal albums in the 1980s, ‘Energetic Disassembly’ and 1989’s ‘Control and Resistance’. On the second of these releases, this highly technical music reached its fruition. Metal historians have logged it as a technical thrash metal affair, but this music has more in common with power metal and heavy metal than it does thrash, despite the odd punk riff here and there.

One reason for this is superficial. The production has much more in common with heavy metal of the time. The guitars are thin and crisp to ensure that all their complexity is brought forth. The drums are almost completely lacking in low end, so the listener is fully aware of what the bass drum and tom work are doing. Rather than adding atmosphere and depth, the listener’s attention must be completely focused on the rhythms and time signatures lest we forget how competent these musicians are. And lastly, the vocals. Unlike DBC, Alan Tecchio did attempt to navigate these complex time signatures and ever changing keys with a falsetto metal wail. Think Cirith Ungol meets Rush via Voivod. In the absence of conventional keys held in a conventional four bar structure a-la Iron Maiden, the metal crooner style sounds a bit bizarre to say the least.

So it probably sounds like I hate this music based on that description. But there is something compelling about technical metal, even if the writing is not that interesting one cannot help but be carried along by the energy, the constantly shifting tempo and mood, ‘Control and Resistance’ provides constant stimulation. There are pitfalls to technical music, and one is that the music’s appeal is limited to other musicians who can fully appreciate the ability of the playing, because engaging writing has been forgotten about. Watchtower teeter on the edge of this line. For fans of heavy metal in general there is just about enough going on here for the casual listener. The lyrics are also intelligent and well thought out. But the progressive metal movement that followed in Watchtower’s wake produced some of the most complex contemporary music has to offer, yet it said very little artistically (Dream Theatre).

Thank god both these artists knew the value of brevity and kept these albums short. Modern artists, able to store their musically digitally, have forgotten this virtue. By that I do not mean I was relieved when these albums had run their course, rather I was left wanting more, which is always a positive. In terms of the preferred of the two, I simply have to side with ‘Universe’. DBC probably released this album prematurely, and it is a shame they split up shortly after its release, I would be curious to see how this music would have developed. It remains a fun outing in imaginative thrash metal that is well worth your time. The reason for choosing this over Watchtower is simply that ‘Control and Resistance’, despite its entertainment value, comes across as musicians making music for the sake of it, because they can, not because they must. Some intelligent lyrics and engaging riffs will not save it from these shortcomings. It is an affliction of musicians once they reach a certain level of competency, when it morphs into virtuosity, they occasionally forget to write the music. The result is music for musicians, an exploration in talent and mathematics, rather than artistic depth and intellectualism.

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