An overriding tension throbs in the heart of the Gorge's fine new album, Thousand Year Fire, and there's a fertile patch of dissonance that the progressive metal quartet mines and refines throughout the LP. The dichotomy between precise control and utter abandon guides many of these tracks: The instrumentalists approach each tune with dexterous guitar lines, oft-punishing rhythms and a laser-focused intuition. The Gorge's music has some of the earmarks of traditional metal — squalling guitars, chugging riffs and a pneumatic approach to the double-bass drum — but its deployment of its arsenal is often as metered and measured as any math-rock outfit.
For singer, songwriter and guitarist Phil Ring, the new album gives him space to define his role in the group. He became the group's frontman after original vocalist Greg Davis left the band, and 2013's three-song, self-titled EP was Ring's official debut as lead singer.
"I've always viewed it as an outlet for aggression, for me personally," says Ring says of his singing. "But it's always been a cathartic experience to play a song or play a show. Performance-wise, I'm trying to leave it all out there and get that aggression out that builds throughout the day.
"I think our songs are more focused now," Ring says of the new material. "I was still super fresh to doing vocals on that [EP]. It was going in there and yelling without much control."
Control is the key word for many of these compositions, which ride on tricky time signatures and hairpin riffs as much as aggression and volume.
"I think one belief that we've held is that we've all enjoyed technical music but not for its own sake," says Ring. "I'd rather have the songs communicate something to a listener that can get the central groove or theme to the song, but I can still identify with it in the same way you would a three-chord heavy riff."
Clocking in at more than ten minutes, "Pedestals" occupies pride of place in the middle of this seven-track album. The song cycles through a few different modes and, according to Ring, its structure was solidified through both rigorous rehearsal and carefree jams.
"That one was one of the more organic songs that came together. We would play around with it at practice and it kept permutating from there," says Ring. "Most of it came from writing riffs together, then playing at practice and building each week. The slow, droning riff came from a jam — we were playing the chords and somewhere those notes came out."
As vocalist and lyricist, Ring is tasked with supplying the part of the song that's most often overlooked in heavy music: the words.
"I would try to make it more than just a side note," he says of the song's lyrics. "When I do read lyrics of bands I like, I think that's more insightful than I had given it credit for. For me, I'm not always confident in what I write, and being new as a lyricist and vocalist in this — if it can serve as insight into who we are as a band, that's great. If people just want to listen to the riffs, that's cool too."
For the lyrics to "Pedestals," Ring used his own political frustration as inspiration for the multi-part track. "It kind of spans a couple things; it started form my own political frustration, a direct allusion to holding elected officials or people that you look up to in higher regard," explains Ring. "Sometimes people are elevated to positions of power and they fail; we act surprised but forget the general humanity of that person."
Along with Ring's continued comfort as the band's lead singer, Thousand Year Fire marks another change for the band, as Chris Turnbaugh takes over on bass (he replaces Ryan Thompson, who left to focus on his work with Black Fast, according to Ring). But despite the bassist's short time in the Gorge, Turnbaugh and drummer Jerry Mazzuca know when to keep pressure on the fulcrum of these songs, using an intuition honed in years of jazz scholarship but communicating through what at times seems like a Vulcan mind meld.
There's more than mere time-signature trickery at play with the Gorge; it's as if some elemental force compels the movement of these songs as the players lock into that groove. But progressive metal is still metal at its core, and the band's two-guitar attack, care of Ring and Joe Bowers, is crucial for much more than mere volume. On a track like "False Progress," swelling slashes appear like an angry swarm of violins as counterpoint to the methodical, math-rock precision of the main riff. Later in the track, the guitars join forces in harmonic flight for a brief but crystalline solo.
The Gorge is perhaps at its most progressive when it momentarily drops its emphasis on heaviness and metal signifiers, and embraces its other influences in the jazz and classical realms. "Return to Earth" opens with a delicate, crunch-free guitar passage that seems to reference jazz fusion as much as anything else. The roar of guitars is gradually reintroduced, but its intro serves as a nice palate cleanser.
"We still have a lot of roots in heavy music," says Ring, "but when those songs take shape, I try to latch onto the vibe of the songs. It starts off with this singular idea and without a traditional arc — it's always rising, amping up the intensity of the songs."
"Air Grows Thin" goes in the opposite direction, closing the album with the force of a greatest-hits medley — powerhouse drum hits, chunky riffs, full-bore vocal excoriations — and ending with a whisper. That the song, and album, closes with a delicately played acoustic guitar over what sounds like the gentle susurration of airplane travel, serves as a come-down from the vigor of what came before.
For Ring, the album's final moments are emblematic of the Gorge's approach, which thrives on the twin engines of catharsis and restraint.
"I really like the contrast of having something super-heavy, super-intense and then switching gears," he says.
Stream the new album in full below: