Experimental prog lords Therein have been a mainstay within Brisbane’s local metal scene for some years now, so it’s fitting that on this warm Friday night, I’m heading up the steps to one of Brisbane’s oldest and most beloved gig venues The Zoo for their belated album launch. The band released their sophomore album ‘Aramitama’ on Halloween last year, and with COVID restrictions forcing the delay of their launch show, I’m walking into what the band have fondly called their “album party”. Joined by jazz metal favourites Weightless in Orbit and “brutal jazz orchestra” Valtozash, tonight promises to be a jubilant celebration of the more irreverent and avant-garde bands in the Brisbane scene who truly march to the beat of their own drum.
Before I know it, it’s nearly 8pm and a decent crowd has gathered to see Valtozash kick things off for the night. The band shuffle onto the stage – well, with no fewer than 16 members, the more accurate term is probably “squeezed” themselves onto the Zoo stage into two tight rows. This stage is a very reasonable size, so I shudder to imagine how the band manage with any of the stages at the much smaller gig venues in Brisbane! In this big jazz metal band, I count 4 trombonists, 3 trumpeters, 3 saxophonists and a bass saxophone, a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and a vibraphonist/conductor. It is an impressive collection of musicians we have here. Launching straight into the first number in their set, I am immediately struck by how remarkably balanced the live mix is – you would think with the sheer number of inputs, many of which are big, bold brass instruments, that the mix might be deafening, but happily, this is not the case.
As a band, Valtozash are the embodiment of the notion that more is indeed more. From the getgo, they deliver a very polished, effortlessly confident performance of their signature sound that blends everything from smooth jazz, big band pizzazz and opulent cinematic orchestration, to grungey rock and even brutal death metal complete with blast beats. It’s an utterly chaotic cacophony, yet there’s method to the madness, with flashes of every style and influence under the sun bursting through the intricate soundscape in a manner that fans of true avant-garde music would adore.
This is no more evident than in the performance of the band’s latest single Boiled Solitude, featuring harsh vocals from Therein’s Cameron Whelan, which we are advised is lyrically about taking a bath. This memorable number starts off with a brutal bass groove underscoring a chromatically descending triplet hook from the brass section, like Rage Against the Machine meets Henry Mancini, which then crashes abruptly into a ferocious blast beat-driven section, bringing Cannibal Corpse meets The Cat Empire vibes. And yes, these are all influences that I never thought I would reference together in the same sentence. Sure enough, the crowd begins to amass at the foot of the stage during the band’s set, and just when you think it can’t get any better, they wrap up their performance with an unforgettable cover of Dragonforce’s Through The Fire and Flames featuring one of Herman Li’s legendary guitar solos played on the saxophone. Truly god-tier stuff.
Next up are Weightless in Orbit, who are a little hesitant on stage at first as they half-heartedly engage with the crowd, but then some sci-fi synths break through and fill the room, slowly building the tension. Layers of shoegaze reverberations and fleeting sonic glimpses bleed in, creating a spacey, auditory equivalent of an Impressionist painting. The band take their time easing into a gentle, ambient prog groove that captures the crowd’s attention, though I do notice a drop in the quality of the live mix since the previous band – bass and synths reign supreme while the guitars and vocals fight to cut through. Nevertheless, when the five-piece rips into a heavy section driven by a determined 7/8 groove, it’s a strong musical assertion demonstrating the immense technical capability and talent of this band and its members. Each gets completely lost in the music as they seamlessly convey their quintessential early Opeth meets Animals as Leaders sound.
Halfway through Weightless in Orbit’s set, I glance behind me and observe a significantly more populated room. It’s so reassuring to see such wonderful support of quality local bands, and many punters drift towards the foot of the stage to join the enthusiastic mosh for this well-loved band. I am lamenting the less-than-ideal mix that means the glorious shreds I’m witnessing from frontman Brandon are simply not cutting through. However, the complexity of the music is still very apparent, and I’m actually grateful for the seated arrangement at the venue – it feels appropriate and affords the opportunity to really appreciate the skill and talent that is on display tonight. Overall, with their remarkably unique sound, unbelievable technical ability and highly innovative songwriting, it’s once again clear to me that Weightless in Orbit are such an underrated band. I can’t wait to see more of these guys in 2021.
Now it’s time for the headlining act, and theirs is a signature sound and style that really cannot be replicated. The influence of Frank Zappa is strong with Therein, and their new album is a testament to this. When guitarist Ryan Boyd, kitted out in full Scottish kilt and cap, leads the band onto the stage and curious Highland folk music fills the room, I know we’re in for a very atypical metal headliner experience. This is followed by sci-fi soundbites, in a rather absurdist turn, and then out of nowhere, the band rips into a classic prog riff navigating uneven time signatures. Happily, the quality of the mix has improved again to restore the balance of the instruments. Then a catchy slapped bass line gives way to none other than the humble jazz flute! It’s a quirky addition to the funky groove that I enjoy very much, and the band’s inherent experimentalism is in full swing. If you like Doctor Who, but you’ve always yearned for a metal version of the theme tune, Therein is definitely your jam.
Therein’s creativity, and willingness to literally try anything in music, knows no limits. The jazz flute morphs into a strange whine that sounds like a kazoo, while the guitars and bass riff and groove away in the background. It’s an unusual effect, and the overall abruptness of their compositional style as they jump through seemingly unrelated musical ideas takes some getting used to. However, the crowd are clearly loving it as the mosh grows in energy and intensity throughout Therein’s set. Strange sound effects applied to instruments seems to be a running theme – in one number, a kind of psychedelic distortion is applied to the bass, and the resulting effect sounds something like if Rush performed to stoned people at Woodstock.
Whoever is in charge of the lighting for the headlining set deserves a gold star, as it accentuates the fast, ferocious riff-driven passages in particular, which really brings the heavies, and soon I’m joining in the headbanging.
Speaking of Rush, a bass and guitar riff-off reminiscent of Tool meets Rush really gets the crowd going, combined with the funny, easy Aussie banter the band maintains with their audience. The standout track for me is their single Through the Threshold, which sees the return of the flute and a melancholy intro that is suddenly engulfed by a chaotic heavy section, then back again, with a solid breakdown section in the middle for added intensity. This is overall a more cohesive track than others performed tonight, and it’s easy to see why this was chosen as the single. A rather unexpected special guest appearance occurs, in the form of a female singer with whom Therein drummer Ned performs an interesting acoustic duet titled Piece of Shit, but the randomness of the evening is such that it kind of fits in. Then one final proggy hurrah sees the band through to the end of a crazy and totally original set.
Prog heads in Brisbane, if you missed this gig, then you missed out. Don’t sleep on the incredible talent we have right here in this amazing local prog scene of ours!
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