Wheel – Vulnerable Prog

Sunday, 21st March 2021

In the ever-expanding genre of prog metal, there’s lots of room to explore and do your own thing. Finland’s Wheel captures that groove-heavy modern prog feeling but with an increasingly human side to the act, instead of the more usual overtly technical atmosphere that many bands strive for. Bringing in a more urgent message with the lyrics also gives Wheel an added depth to them that makes the music more relevant. We spoke with vocalist James Lascelles about their approach to the new album [Resident Human], as well as the importance of the lyrics, what makes something prog, and more.

Dead Rhetoric: Was there anything specific that you had set out to do with Resident Human, as your second album?

James Lascelles: I guess so, though it took a bit to work out what that was. I had started writing the instrumentals at the end of 2019. I had the meat of the five biggest tracks done by the time we went on tour in February. We didn’t really have a theme that tied it all together until we started tracking bass and drums in the studio. We tried some things we hadn’t done before, like turning the click-track off completely on “Hyperion.” We tried different approaches with the click before, but in layman’s terms, it means that rather than having the computer tell us what the bpm of the track is, we just did it organically by ourselves. You can hear it pretty obviously in “Hyperion” where the tent pole really pushes and pulls in a more organic way than we did with the previous record.

It’s not about right or wrong, it’s about how it fits the material. It was during that process, before we had any of the lyrics written, that we realized that this material really benefited from an extra layer of vulnerability and humanity, which wasn’t really a good fit for Moving Backwards, which was more punchy and more aggressive overall. We still have some aggression in the tracks, but its sort of a different aggression than what we did previously. I think from that process in the studio was where I came up with the idea for the last track, this piano outro that we went for. That very strongly dictated what the lyrics would be, in terms of theme and structure. The idea of a real exposition of what it is to be human. Individual, communal, the good, and the bad sense.

Dead Rhetoric: You just touched on this, but outside of the aggression factor, how else do you compare Resident Human to Moving Backwards?

Lascelles: I think it has to do with the word vulnerable again. What I mean by that specifically is that we were very cautious in the past to make things sound really correct and certain sounds really big – that’s what really fit the songs. Like in “Vultures,” for example, the chorus just kind of explodes at you. Where as in this one, we didn’t do things like triggering for the snare drum, which essentially means that when you hit the snare, a lot of records do this thing like we did on Moving Backwards, where it triggers additional snare hits in the mix, so it sounds much bigger than a single hit. With the guitars, if they were a little bit out of timing, or if the vocals were a little out of tune, we were cautious not to overedit. I think that process was the biggest difference. It was about the approach and to show the scars within the playing itself.

I have to say, it is terrifying. We felt extremely naked and had a few months of thinking if we had made a horrible mistake before we heard the final mixes. We are really happy with how it turned out, but it was a very daunting experience.

Dead Rhetoric: With that in mind, moving ahead, would that be the way that you will approach new material, with that vulnerable type of feel?

Lascelles: I think it will. There’s lots of different ways to make modern music. Especially in a time that you can correct everything rhythmically – be it a click track, or even without one, you can still drag each beat to be exactly where you want it to be. You can correct every pitch and remove every noise or breath that is in the wrong place. I think we really tried to steer away from it, because a lot of what we do with the sound is quite modern, but we really like the vintage feel of tracks like “Since I’ve Been Loving You” by Led Zeppelin. From the first snare drum hit, the bpm drops by about 20 – it’s almost laughably much, but I think that humanity makes it play much more exciting. You feel more of a connection with the players. You want to avoid this mesh of sound that so much [music] falls into these days. One of the things I’ve been saying a lot this interview cycle is that if you try and make everything in track sound like a 10, it all ends up sounding like a 6. It’s dynamics, and its pauses that make the more dramatic insertions sound more dramatic. So I feel this is a great fit for us and I’m sure we will do it again.

Dead Rhetoric: Could you talk about the influence of last year, 2020, as well as Dan Simms’ Hyperion Cantos on the album?

Lascelles: First up, March 12 was the day that everything changed in Finland last year. We had just started touring with Apocalyptica here and it was a really amazing gig we played with them. I had actually been practicing with them too, and I got up and sang a few songs with them, and it was a great experience. We had 7 days planned, as well as a big tour in autumn. Literally overnight, everything was cancelled for the foreseeable future. First up, we had a lot of time to sit and listen to the record. We had already started working on the music, as I mentioned previously, so it wasn’t like we just decided to make an album since we couldn’t tour. We had plans to do so already, but we could dive into it further than we may have had the luxury to do otherwise. I think the state of the world, and that of impending doom, which we all felt last year, it bleed into a lot of the meat and character of the album.

When we tracked all the instruments, and I had to write the vocals next, I had complete burnout. I think it had been a really stressful end to 2019, which two changes in the band and I had been pushing really hard to make music before the touring schedule started. That was the first point I could really take a step back and look at the vocals again, so I was sleeping 14 hours a day and wasn’t very inspired. Around this time, by chance, I stumbled upon Hyperion Cantos. I don’t believe in fate, but the timing in finding this was wonderfully cathartic considering how I was feeling. Some of the things in the book corresponded really well with how last year was. We were all sort of forced to take a step back from our day to day lives, and question the ‘why’ more than we had previously. The ‘what am I doing with my life?’ ‘Am I happy?’ ‘Is this what I want to do for the next 10 years?’ and try to come to terms with some of the big existential crises that all of us face sooner or later.

Things like our relationship with mortality, life & death, which we covered in “Hyperion” – this train journey we are all on from birth to death – it’s one directional and we can’t change the speed of it. We just passively experience it. We are so focused on our own position in this journey, and our own experience and understanding of it, we forget that other people, and I certainly forget, that other people are going through the same thing. The whole metaphor in the song, which we drag out for 12 minutes, is that I want to be more empathetic to other people on the same path. When you think about teenagers dealing with life & death, they are quite disconnected from the end part because they are so close to the beginning, but I imagine that continues as we get older. The consequences, empathy, and significance once you start thinking so much about the hyperbole of what came before and what happens after, and we think about what we have now, that just might be it. So you better make it count.

We also ended up with this track called “Dissipated,” the first track on the record. It discusses another theme of the Hyperion Cantos. This feeling of an indifferent universe. This seemingly hostile thing that is doing everything it can to kill us as soon as you leave the safety of Earth’s atmosphere. Actually, it’s completely indifferent to our suffering or success – it doesn’t care. Although that might make some people nervous, I think there’s something liberating about absolving ourselves of any responsibility. Much like with “Hyperion,” the consequence is a greater appreciation for what we have. Every good thing that happens to us, every choice we make, everyone who cares about us. I don’t think I get it right every day, but I try to be more mindful of these discoveries. I think it really is the closest to an objective truth we have – to be grateful for what we have and be empathic to others.

Dead Rhetoric: With the lyrics, do you feel that they are as important is the music is?

Lascelles: Yes, massively! I feel like we would only be doing half a job if we didn’t do it that way. Especially when we finished the instrumentals for “Dissipated” and “Hyperion.” I thought we had these really big and exciting journeys, and they sounded great instrumentally. In a way, that was terrible, because it really brought up the pressure of having to deliver on the lyrics and find a subject that was big enough to fit the drama of the music itself. I think the nice thing about writing this way around – where the music comes first – is that mood of the track and the playing of the instrumental tracks gets to dictate what sort of subjects that end up in the songs.

I absolutely think that, since most people aren’t just music people and they just want to be entertained, the lyrics serve a really important role to just connect people who really enjoy art. With this often obtuse genre called prog, understandably there are a lot of really brilliant and great technical bands and they want to show off some of the chops and skills they have, but one of our ethos from the start is to never do complexity for complexity’s sake. It’s got to be communicative and hopefully say something thought-provoking or at least interesting about the state of things. This album, I feel like we have done that on every track, which feels great!

Dead Rhetoric: Looking through the songs released as singles and the content that has been released, it seems like Wheel is a band that has something to say, both with the music and the lyrical aspects.

Lascelles: Absolutely, and I’ve spoken with a number of journalists this time around about the idea of politics in music. It’s an unattractive topic because of the state of things. The fear of being called out for it, and just how radicalized we have become with this binary stratification of popular opinion. Isn’t it convenient that in major countries like the US, Britain, and France, we have two main political parties and we seemed to have developed to particular strands of opinion? Any nuance between the two is really lost in this miasma of noise. I try to be mindful of that too.

In the song “Movement,” I think that there was a really great example of that after George Floyd’s murder last year. You saw how quickly this whole thing escalated beyond something that I think most people agreed upon – police brutality is bad and this man should not have lost his life as a consequence of police behavior. But it became this giant event, which alluded to so many facets of society, which had nothing to do with the original event itself. I think it comes back down to an essential question, which I think that nearly everyone agrees upon: is it sensible for a tax-funded group of people, whose job it is to protect individuals in the society – is it ever appropriate for them to use deadly force on an innocent, unarmed person. My answer to this is a unanimous no, heard round the world. Once we agree to that, then we get into the difficult question of ‘how do you fix it?’ and honestly, I’ve got no idea. I think it’s extremely complicated, and every country has their own issues with police and racism. It’s not really my job to try and fix that stuff. But we are trying to be sincere and authentic. We were moved by the footage and found the whole ordeal fucking awful – we just want to be a part of the discussion about what comes next.

Dead Rhetoric: You got a new guitarist, Jussi Turunen. What do you feel he brings to the band?

Lascelles: First a bit of preamble. Our guitarist who played on Moving Backwards, Roni Seppanen, wanted to leave in 2019. Frankly, he was never a big fan of touring. He loves the shows, but hates everything else about it. So we weren’t that surprised. Also, he’s got a young daughter and a teaching career, so he decided to focus on that instead. We completely understand. It was a just a bit of a blow because he is a friend and a great musician. Quickly after that, we found JC and he joined the band. He did the headline tour with us in February. But he wasn’t the right fit for the group. He’s a really nice guy and good musician, but he was more of an improv player. I think the guitars in Wheel have been more of a sound design and structure, and the drums do the crazy improvisation stuff. So we parted ways just before the recording for Resident Human.

I ended up playing basically the guitar, the exception being the solo on “Hyperion,” where Roni came back to do it for us. So we figured it was good for now, and we would figure out the guitarist stuff later. Our drummer actually suggested Jussi Turunen to try out with us. The circle here in Finland is small, and everyone knows everyone so I had heard of the guy and had seen him play. He’s a great player, but I didn’t know he was so interested in some of the things we care about. So we have been rehearsing like crazy since last summer. The sound design he does on guitar is absolutely sensational. He’s a great lead player, he’s got the chops and groove as well, which is a big part of our music. He’s bringing stuff to the table that I’ve never tried before with effects. It’s making me really excited to get onto the live setting and see how he does on stage. Right off the bat, he’s incredibly laid back. He’s definitely added to the sound of Wheel.

Dead Rhetoric: When the band approaches longer tracks versus shorter ones, is there a difference or is it just a matter of letting the songs write themselves and then determining the length?

Lascelles: It’s definitely more the second thing – it’s what the idea dictates. Also, when we started making this kind of music, one of the attractions, to me at least, was that I thought you could do what you want. There’s no stylistic limitations that some other genres have. Because of that, when you are making bigger songs, that’s something more unique to prog. When other bands make songs like that in other genres, they tend to be looked at as more progressive songs. But when you make a shorter song, the difference is that there are so many other shorter songs out there. So when we make a song like that, we really want to subvert the expectations a bit and turn it on its head. Not to be facetious or anything, but we want to have fun with it.

There are all of these arbitrary rules that go into creating music, and I’d argue that we can shake things up once in a while. It’s really fun – when we put a ridiculous drum solo in “Movement” towards the end of the track and trying to make the flow work so that it doesn’t feel stuck on. I think just changing things up, it keeps us interested. It’s also just in challenging norms of the genre. There’s a really strong argument to be made that progressive doesn’t mean what it does at all, and it is just a series of stylistic tropes – like what happened with alternative or indie. I think it’s fun to play with that and mess with it a bit.

Dead Rhetoric: Prog is kind of a catch-all description at times. From your perspective, what do you feel makes something fall into the genre?

Lascelles: I think there’s definitely a sound design and series of tropes. Bands like Sikth and Periphery have pioneered this subcategory of djent, which is basically modern prog metal. Elements of metalcore have come into it too and these very intense riff-driven verses and clean/pop choruses. That’s definitely a thing that I think is synonymous with prog metal. But then you look at bands like Opeth or Tool. They also have a prog metal description but are very different beasts. As are Karnikool. So there’s a degree of subjectivity, but I think it’s normally longer compositions, the degree of musicianship is part of it. Honestly, we haven’t thought about it that much. We just try to mix up the things we enjoy. We always have it in our minds that this is supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to feel like taking an exam. As long as we hit those goals, we are happy to let people figure out what genre exactly we are playing.

Dead Rhetoric: Yeah, it’s a good point noting that its supposed to be fun. Sometimes with the more technical aspects of metal, people get hung up on showing that off and they lose the piece where it becomes accessible to a wider crowd and turns it into a technical showcase.

Lascelles: I completely agree. It’s not all a bad thing. There’s a lot of bands like that which I really enjoy listening to. I think Neil Young said back in the day that really great art isn’t afraid to be simple. I’m paraphrasing it, but those words are something that we have been trying to be really mindful of. How much can we strip out of our complex parts so that it can speak for itself rather than trying to mask things for complexity’s sake? If you think about heaviness too – Nirvana’s first album Bleach is very simple. It’s not layered up with 16 multi-track guitars and a wall of drums but it still sounds really big and heavy. A riff like “School” isn’t a complicated riff, it’s basically two or two and a half notes, but I think that’s something we try to keep in the songs as well. Not to be afraid to just put in a really good riff even if it feel basic. Sometimes it’s those basic parts that are more memorable.

Dead Rhetoric: To wrap up, do you have any plans outside of the album release right now?

Lascelles: We are starting to make some, but there’s nothing we can talk about too openly because we haven’t committed to any of them. What I can say is that we are rehearsing like crazy and we have been for months and months. The new album is sounding really good live. We have been asking ourselves how we can differentiate the live album from the recording and we have started to add in new bits and elements to make it stand out from the recording. That has been really fun. Also, we are doing live stuff on Instagram on the weekends. We have conversations with other bands. We recently spoke with Caligula’s Horse and have some great plans with that over the next few months. We are also keen to make some new music, and I’m starting to assemble some riffs but its really early on. It will be at least a year before we release anything else but don’t hold me to that [laughs] anything can happen.

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