Periphery - III: Select Difficulty
Modern prog flag bearers build a Frankenstein with a spine
Words: Ben Armstrong & Phil Weller
“Give me a spine to work it out” sings Spencer Sotelo on Marigold. Intentionally or not, the Washington sextet find themselves hitting the nail on the head here. Since 2012 the band have been moving further away from the fruits of Mansoor’s pure vision and subsequent experimentation with friend and fellow guitarist Mark Holcomb, towards a more collective, jumbled melting pot of ideas. 2015’s Juggernaut was a masterfully produced but overwrought and bland journey through every misstep the band could have made. Spencer’s call for structure, then, feels apt when considering P:III’s approach; a healthy return to simplicity (albeit at its most progressive) and a repositioning of the hook as the heart of what makes a good song.
The interesting thing is that, thematically, P:III doesn’t stray too far from its lacklustre predecessor. The record still reverberates with the yin and yang of algebraic heavy djent and light, airy pop-punk vocals and sugary choruses. Yet, while Alpha and Omega found Periphery unsure of their musical direction, lost in the thralls of so many burgeoning ideas and possibilities, here the band feel more focused, their execution concentrated and polished.
Take Catch Fire, which is, at its core, an 80’s pop song – plain and simple; a few tweaks could take it bang into Jamiroquai territory. But it’s what the band does within these confines – the Mike Patton-esque rappity-rap cadences or the thinking-man’s off-time, extended chorus – which make it so fascinating and enjoyable. Single Flatline is similarly straight-forward, utilising a recurring bouncy riff and sticky vocal lines to anchor a sea of floating, changing instrumentation. It’s musical, it’s fun and it breaks up the longer cuts on P:III brilliantly. It’s worth noting that neither of these are all-encompassing prog-metal epics and neither should they be – by this point in the record, you’ve already heard several.
It is songs like these, and particularly Prayer Position which are wholly representative of the diverse and oft overbearing Periphery sound. Here however is a lean cut, precise and effective. From its looping, convulsing main riff and the chaos of its warfare verses to its gigantean, infectious chorus, this sees all the positive aspects of the band rolled into one killer package.
Marigold, Remain Outdoors and Absolomb are P:III’s real long distance runners, covering a whole lot of ground across a total of 21 minutes and giving the record its progressive edge. This is the time for the totality of what makes Periphery tick to shine, and each track is memorable in its own right. Like The Sword Trilogy before them, Misha and co stitch together many threads to create one singular image: each riff falling into place and every production choice complimenting, rather than killing, the song. Absolomb is a special triumph, though, and a wish come true for many old fans that first heard the raw instrumental around eight years ago. Starting out with a polyrhythmic bass line, the track evolves and morphs into one of Periphery’s very best epics. Special credit must be given to Sotelo, whose improvement during the last five years is felt more than ever as he delivers a career best performance, and whichever of Mansoor, Holcomb or Bowen plays the guitar solo – because it’s bloody good.
And it’s not just Sotelo producing his finest work you feel. The entire album is lifted by a fiery confidence, the band’s self-belief at an all-time high. Every musical moment feels necessary as it further colours the bigger picture. We are witnessing a real team effort here.
Whether it’s the raw aggression of The Price is Wrong, Motormouth or Prayer Position, the more conservative, overt musical stylings of The Way the News Goes or closer Lune, each track on the record has a specific purpose and executes it with deadly precision and grace. In crafting a journey that glides along through virtue of its strong songwriting, Periphery have actually created a more effective, coherent and listenable album than Juggernaut and one which has a stronger musical and emotional unity, too. You could argue that they’ve actually overshadowed a lot of their previous works in this respect, just don’t let the purists hear you.
Where Alpha and Omega were rich in clever, self-referential moments and easter eggs, P:III puts the heart above the head and is better for it, each solid song bolstering the next and growing with the listener. Periphery have once again built a Frankenstein with a spine.