Diving into ten years of Level 2 with the Maine man behind the kit.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):
The surge to create and transform the sound of classic heavy metal into technical, deliberate, multiphasic compositions took flight in the late 2000's with several groups leading the progressive charge into bold, hardly familiar territories of genre fusion, and collaboration. All of a sudden, the genre came to embrace the electronic, the ambient, the odd. The result was a post-millennium renaissance of technical core metal that exploded into a staple of the genre that has bred new festivals, sound signatures, and entirely new methods of playing.
Combining the lore of classic science-fiction with a soundscape of asymmetrical, thoroughly written, purposeful chapters, Last Chance To Reason's Level 2 (2011) features many of the traits of a progressive masterpiece that people have come to desire. Continual time signature changes, multiple instrumental solos singled out to expose the musicianship behind each individual, chant-worthy lyrics that are crowd pleasing, fan-teasing anthems of delivery and declaration, all in a tidy package of just below forty-four minutes. A sound cascade that builds and recedes like the ebbing tides, drum fills that are condensed into impossibly tight spaces, and an organic sound that is augmented by synthetic poly-rhythms, many of which take on a life of their own. It's a tale of life and death told through the eyes of a nameless protagonist. His fight for survival in a machine whose fate is bound to his own takes center-stage, as he risks life and limb to scale through a digital hell, fighting against the corruption that threatens to rot it from the inside.
This year, Level 2 celebrates ten years of existence. In a world that celebrates such titanic progressive releases such as The Great Misdirect (2009), Nothing (2002), and Miss Machine (2004) — Last Chance To Reason is the diamond in the rough that has put out three monumental albums in a notably short timespan. Once featuring a full team of six, the group consisted of AJ Harvey, Brian Palmer, Chris Corey, Evan Haines, Evan Sammons, and Michael Lessard, a troupe from Maine who more recently have shared an overlap with the group, The Contortionist. Taking a break from his time behind the console, Evan Sammons sat down with me to talk lore, life, and the genre limitations that LCTR broke through to produce their technical metal masterpiece:
[Foreword, and interview dedicated to Gabe Verjano.]
Jake: Let's go ahead and get this started here!
Right off the bat, the pandemic is winding down, it's obvious that the past year has not really been easy for touring musicians, and the reality is that a lot of those projects, and tours, the ambitions people had for 2019 into 2020 came to a crashing halt for nearly fifteen months. But for people who are typically involved in the studio process — it was harvest season. How did the pandemic affect you, and your bandmates, personally?
Evan: Obviously Mike and The Contortionist, they've been touring almost nonstop for almost five or six years — I guess even more than that now... seven or eight! *laugh* — So from what I heard from him and the other guys, they were happy to have a year off from that. They did all right, and they put a lot of work into those livestream events that they recently had. One of 'em, they even did a lot of EXOPLANET stuff, which I'm sure some people were pumped about.
As for me and the other guys, honestly, I know that if people have still following us closely, we kind of only took a couple of years off from writing music at all, and we've still continued to write music, but at a snail's pace. We continued to work on that.
J: I get that a lot lately. Artists are like, "it's weird being able to pace ourselves how we want, and people are still happy to see us. *chuckle*." That's how it should've been all along. People should just be like *clutches imaginary pearls* "YOU'RE BAAAACK!"
E: One thing that happened that was kind of a bummer in a way, but it finally seems like things have been getting back to normal — have you heard of the band, Kaonashi?
J: I have not, actually.
E: Okay, so they're a band that I've produced a couple of their records; one just came out within the last month, if not the last couple weeks — and that came out on Equal Vision Records. That record had actually been done for a year and a half, and it just got pushed back because there was no touring for them to do, and they're an odd band. If you like LCTR, you might really like them, because they do have the progressive rock and metal elements, but there may be more hardcore influence, and kind of a mathcore/emo influence, which I like all that stuff, so it was really cool to work with a band like that. But yeah, that record finally came out and it seems like it's getting a really good response so far, so that was one where it was like... I felt bad for those guys, cause they were raring to go, and to sit on a record for that long is a bummer.
J: Feels like a lot of people got screwed that way. Especially last March, there were so many people who dropped an album, and all of a sudden the "panic saving" started, and they [the fans] wanted to buy music, but what happens six months down the road, you know?
Are they out of Maine, like yourself?
E: Uh, no — they're kind of spread around, but their home base is Philadelphia.
J: Very cool. I'm starting to get that any of these crust punks, or up and coming and technical groups... if you were not part of that early Philly scene, you're part of the second generation now.
E: It's really interesting to work with those guys, because a lot of their influences are early 2000's stuff. That's actually when I was starting to really play live shows, so some of the bands they look at as these "legendary underground bands," were maybe LCTR played at, at some shitty show. But, I wouldn't call them a throwback band, at the same time. They're influenced by all that stuff, but they've got something new and unique happening.
J: A lot of groups are starting to develop that, even regionally, you hear these new sounds sort of coming out. Whether it's black metal like Panopticon, or even — more from Maine — Falls of Rauros, they've developed their own sort of sound identity. You can sort of see the space start to spread between all these different areas.
E: Ooooh yeah!
J: So, ‘Level 2’ has just clocked ten years in, and as an album it is a concrete, fleshed out benchmark in conceptual storytelling that both commits to its task at hand, and doesn't overstay its welcome. It's very much like 'Reign in Blood' (1986) that way. Did you storyboard this album initially to decide where the different tracks would cleanly break away from one another to become a new chapter, or did that just happen where it fell that way in studio, and you said, "that's where it should be."
E: That's a good question, and thanks for saying all that... that's high praise. 'Reign In Blood' is one of my favorite albums of that type — and just a note — how you said it doesn't wear out its welcome: that was VERY intentional, especially for that kind of album. To not let it get too long, and have kind of the ‘Return of the King’ effect, where there's like five endings, you're all like "I THOUGHT THIS WAS OVER FORTY-FIVE MINUTES AGO!!!"
So, you asked me if I had any old stuff kickin' around, and I DO. I have this old notebook, and since we were doing the tie-in with the videogame, we had a lot of this kind of thing, which is kind of a storyboard, so there were a lot of drawings that went along with the lyrics, and we had visual ideas to go along with every song, including color schemes that we were thinking of, for what it might look like as a videogame.
Obviously that whole thing didn't come to fruition, but we did get a couple of songs into a videogame form. Those two things were so interlocked, that it was a combination of like, "Okay, we wrote this piece of music. It seems like it'd be good for this thematic device," or what have you. Some of it, we did think, "we need to write something like this," and some of it was just as simple as a ‘dissonance versus consonance’ thing in the music. This one was really atonal, and spastic sounding, and this other stuff was more melodic, that plays into themes of melancholy, and and even triumph! Maybe even both at the same time?
J: You can get both! Especially in tracks like ‘The Prototype’, you hear it all the way through to that atmospheric break before,
*attempts to growl the vocal break line*
"DEEEEEVAAASTAAAAAAAAAAATION", it's just like... SO GOOD. It's somewhere between Opeth's ‘Still Life’ (1999), and the nastiest Morbid Angel openings. I love it.
Sticking behind that theme there, the pacing of the album again; not many concept albums tend to run that fluidly from one track to the next. Yours feels much akin to the other benchmark albums that have managed that, that you could remember off that top of your head. It's Rivers of Nihil's "Where Owls Know My Name" (2018), Between the Buried and Me's "The Great Misdirect" and Mastodon's "Leviathan" (2004). It just sort of flows like water, and y'all have that charm. But yours is notably more seamless than the rest of those on the list, and just to double down on this point and underline it: Were unnoticeable transitions just a goal, or did someone play around with some electronic equipment and decide, "we can scale from one track to the next easily without having to worry about what it's gonna sound like when the rest of the band breaks away?"
E: It was definitely a goal. I think those albums you mentioned to some degree might have been an influence, and a big benchmark for us, in terms of concept albums, was 'Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory', the Dream Theater album.
J: Good choice!
E: That was a big one for us. It was definitely always a goal, and those kinds of things work themselves out. I guess you could say there was a skeleton of the album. Actually, let's use this metaphor. It was like a sculpture. Once you knew this song would go into THIS song, you could sculpt it into the next thing better.
J: The Michelangelo effect, eh?
E: Maybe that metaphor doesn't work that well. *laugh*
J: You say that — but it worked beautifully. It's very much Michelangelo. You take away the beginning and the end of each track, and there's still four-second snippets that if I showed it to fans, they'd immediately go, "I KNOW WHERE THAT'S AT." You don't have to guess, that's something that you've imbued in listeners, that many people can't do with BTBAM. They can get tired halfway through that massive album. They don't do that with yours, though.
E: Thanks. Like I said, it was a goal to make you not wanna stop listening to it. You can see the trend more nowadays where bands are doing more singles, and there are fewer albums. Even if there are albums, fewer concept albums, maybe. Honestly, there's kind of everything nowadays, so I'm sure there's big bands doing concept albums. But, we just didn't want it to lose steam, and at the same time — you don't want it to just pummel you over the head the whole time, where you'll get sick of it that way. If you're just ‘on 11’ the whole time, eventually you'll tune out too, so that pacing is important.
J: That's ‘Battles in the North’ (1995) for me. I can only hear up to track six before my Tinnitus gets started. *laughs*
E: *snort* yeeeeeeah.
J: At the time of release for ‘Level 2’, I went back and decided to dig through, and amazingly, not everyone had the same opinion I did about it. It was a well-loved album, but several reviews took to nitpicking what they felt were repetitive aspects about the album. For example, AngryMetalGuy once said unobjectively for him, he "could not take parts of the album, since there were words that were constantly repeating."
As an active listener myself, I can't help but feel that many of them missed the point of that, that there's a simple premise to the repetition; it's on/off, activated/deactivated, alive/dead, zeroes, and ones. That's a sort of Boolean algebraic thinking that goes along with the conceptual theme, and the motif of the album. Especially considering the system's existence is tied in a dance of death with the protagonist with the album itself. It's "to be, or not to be."
Am I right on the money thinking that this is deliberately repetitive because of binary thinking, or is it just a young album, and I'm overthinking the lyrics that are designed to be minimalistic?
E: No, I think you're right — I don't know if we thought we were being as deep as we maybe were, or the way some people took it, but we were definitely intentionally repeating aspects, and a lot of times when those lyrics repeat, the actual core progressions and thematic musical motifs are the same as well, on purpose. Every times there's one of those "ERASE" kind of choruses, you know — ‘Upload Complete’ has that "erase, or you will be erased," line, and the midpoint of the album, ‘Programmed for Battle’, has "I have seen myself erased," and at the end of that song, it has "I can not be erased." At the very end of the album, it's "erasing this world, that I am nothing without."
Every single one of those times, it's playing on the same musical motif, as well, it's not even just the lyrics. It's core progression, and variations of the core progression, and there's rhythmic variations. It's not exactly the same thing, but it's all playing off a similar motif, and that just goes back to classic concept albums that we love.
Dream Theater, and even Pink Floyd had recurring themes — that was a big idea for us. We wanted to do those kinds of classic concept album things. Have... "through-lines," throughout the whole album.
J: It's incredibly effective; not to mention, I can almost benchmark exactly where I am in the album, just by hearing those single four-second partitions, like most fans. You catch the beginning of ‘Programmed For Battle’, and it's like "All right — I'm this far into it." It's the same 'Reign In Blood' effect; When you start to hear ‘Jesus Saves’, you know you're halfway done with the experience, but you can't just listen to one part of it. It doesn't work that way .
E: Yes — even a lot of rock operas! When you just brought up the ‘Jesus Saves’ thing for Slayer, I was thinking of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. I love that album, you know? It rocks.
J: I kind of figured you had some prog influence behind you. Maybe not as far back as some of the Motown, and like — Tommy James and the Shondells, but definitely digging back into some of those early harmonic vocals.
E: Yeah, and Mike loves that stuff. Honestly — Mike's kind of a soulful singer, and he likes a lot of soul, and R&B. I think in a way, that comes out in his approach to vocals, and how much harmonizing he does. Even though a lot of times, they're very odd harmonies!
J: Very much so. Sometimes it's easy to tell where those circles of influence connect and overlap. LCTR is not really an exception to that rule. There's moments where some of those vocal harmonics slide from a disharmonic, to almost barbershop quartet-adjacency. One such clear instance where you can find with that same consistency and timbre, is Queen's ‘A Night At the Opera’ (1975), which segues smoothly using the same vocal style that Mike sort of earmarked into the passages to progress that story. Am I falsely conflating the two sounds as similar out of nostalgia, or is Freddie Mercury kind of along for the ride on this one?
E: I think Mike really likes Freddie Mercury. I'm not sure how much we were necessarily thinking that, but again — that consonance versus dissonance thing played into the vocal harmonies too, where we wanted it to sound like it was a relief, and that it's a release when you've just gone through all these changing time signatures every two seconds, and they're very atonal and dissonant. We really wanted to play this ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing. We've got this crazy dissonant, technical stuff, and somehow you can make that flow into something that's kind of melodic and dare I say... catchy. Something you can sink your teeth into.
J: So talking about pacing — for most people, drum kits are just a metronome. They're specifically trying to get fills to back up a guitar, and tragically, in-studio, sometimes it reflects it. Whether it's Grieghallen performances such as Emperor where drums are tucked away into the back even though there's something nice there, or in contrast, something like Fit For An Autopsy where the drums are up-front, and in your face, and you always hear it.
Somewhere in between there, there's a balance for you guys. Drums are sporadic and oftentimes syncopated to either an electronic foreground, or you make up your own rhythm, which is phenomenal. That drum fill on ‘Temp Files’, (3:27) just works as its own transition to the next track. I look forward to that. Not a lot of bands have that. Not many can sort of just sit their mic down on the drum and walk away from it.
Did you develop that confidence as a drummer to say, "let me take the wheel from here", or was that just a spur of the moment decision?
E: I think in that particular instance between the two tracks... to put it bluntly; I don't think anybody was being bashful on that album. We were trying to show off. We were trying to make it obvious that this was great... I don't know how else to say it. We were trying to make the best thing we could, and show our musicianship, and have little moments like that. There's a bass solo on the record, and it's fairly unaccompanied. Parts where the guitar lick are by itself, and crazy things in unison, and stuff where we're kind of in our own zones. It's like this patchwork thing — we always called it a ‘King Crimson’ part — which is another huge influence for us. It's this interweaving of rhythms; everyone is in their own time signatures, but eventually you all end up in the same place.
It was really just a bunch of early twenties guys, and we've got something prove.
J: It has the ‘Revolver’ (1966) effect on the album. When the Beatles started out, no one knew where to find their voice. As you come closer to 'Revolver' though, everyone is competing for their own sound. You can tell there's no more shyness behind, no early sixties energy. These are all guys who're about to become their own project.
E: Is that... post-LSD Beatles? *laugh*
J: It is! It was right when that phase started up. Paul had just invented heavy metal and was about shoot that in a projectile forward in time into Ozzy's brain. *poor English accent* "There it is, mate."
There is a lore behind your album that remains a powerful tool to inspire and breed creativity in others, much like many albums. But, the examples are virtually endless. Whether that's the group Hoth, who takes writing lyrics and tailors them to Star Wars — specifically, Darth Vader's story — but, then there's more well-known examples like Cirith Ungol who has taken lines verbatim from Michael Moorcock's 'Elric' saga, and those examples are countless. Literature, movies, even Slayer and Iron Maiden are guilty of the same thing.
Music is being used a springboard to create an all-new story; oftentimes, these are compelling ones that can come to eclipse the source material. What were the stories that gave birth to ‘Level 2?’ Were they videogame based? If so, what stories should people go back and visit even decades later?
E: That's a good question. I don't think there was something specific. There was the idea of a videogame, in general. What is kind of the existential crisis of a videogame character? Actually, I would say there was some stuff back then that was maybe playing with us, but in videogames now, especially with roguelike, and rogue-lite genre becoming very popular. I don't know if you're familiar with that, but a game like Returnal that is a play on that genre, I would say plays on the certain themes we were on, honestly.
What if you were in a hostile world? You don't know how you'd find yourself there, and every time the world gets the best of you, everything is trying to kill you, and every time you die... you just come back. What would that be like? What would you make of it? On the root level, that was the idea that started the ball rolling on that. In retrospect now, especially as we see how ingrained the internet is in our lives now. The lines have blurred. To younger people even, maybe the reality of the internet seems more real than the "meatspace". There's a permanence to it, that doesn't exist in everyday reality.
There's a lot of things now where I look at the lyrics, and I think you could look at them with a lot more depth than we were necessarily thinking at the time.
J: I'm guilty of that.
E: I think that's cool, man. I don't think that means it's not there; the fact that maybe I wasn't thinking that when I wrote the lyrics — once it's out there in the world, it's a different story to everybody who's gonna look at it, and I think that's beautiful. Me saying that I "wasn't conscious" of it when I was doing it, doesn't take anything away from anybody that has a different interpretation. I would say experientially, when you're making music, you don't really know why you're making the decisions you're making. It's something that comes through you; it's not like my ego is up there dictating every decision, and if it was — the music would suck.
You're trying to let stuff be what it is, and then there's maybe an editing process after. I tend to write a lot of lyrics, and then go through 'em with Mike and be like, "What can we use? What jumps out at you as good?" A lot of times I'll go through pages of stuff and I'll just pick out a few lines, and the rest of it is embarrassing to me. There's always a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor, and I think that's how it should be.
J: In terms of your ‘internet permanence’ comment, I think Bo Burnham's 'Inside' (2021) touched really hard on that, too. I don't think anybody really recognized how much we take for granted what our online experience is, until it's something you're introducing to children. It's gotta be the weirdest concept possible to try and explain when you just learned it for yourself, and before, there was no frame of reference.
It's just you, the world of information, and trying to distribute that in a responsible manner to people just becoming consciously aware of what's going on. They may even find YOU on there, and it's hard to ask, "What are they going to see? What are they going to think? How will this affect them when they get a little bit of everything, all of the time?"
E: TOTALLY. Even stuff like the Kurzweil idea of uploading consciousness — that just seems like some weird futuristic thing. The way it's described, a lot of the time, I'm just like "that's never gonna happen." The best you're gonna have is a copy of yourself, like the old Star Trek teleportation. You're really just making a copy, and the other one is just dying! *laugh*
So, despite that — I'd say things like YouTube, where people are uploading all these podcasts, and lectures. So in a way there is a weird version of a person's consciousness that is there, and will continue to be there as long as the institution of Google exists and keeps those servers up. It's almost like it's just a metaphor for what Kurzweil was talking about, and that's already happening.
J: Not to mention, I've found decades I made from a decade ago that are still up. Stuff that are just cringeworthy and embarrassing, but for posterity's sake, I almost don't wanna get rid of it now. It's out there.
E: Yeah, I can totally get that. I don't know if you're a fan of Terence McKenna, but he was a big influence on ‘Level 3’, but he died in 2000. He made this kind of resurgence through the internet because people just recorded all these talks he used to do... about psychedelics mostly. But he talked about all kinds of wild stuff, and especially around 2012, there was a big internet presence he had, and continues to have.
These things kind of are, saved. In the past it was books. Now, it's all kinds of media.
J: You can't get away from it.
There's a lot of synth in the world of metal, but it tends to be taboo. People don't really like their electronic with their doodley-doos, and chug-chugs. For some reason, there's a schism that still exists there. The instances where it's executed well are pretty timeless, but they're unchallenged in sound diversity. It's kind of hard to break in unless you start from an electronic background. You see Joe Rowland from Pallbearer, he's making his way into the electronic field in America, where people see him and go "You do DOOM METAL." Sometimes it just sticks. Some people just have that mentality where they can go both ways, and they're both effective sounds. One's not a hobby, they're both valid works.
That's unquestioningly the case with your catalogue, and years later I find the electronic elements inseparable from by comparison to others in the genre. Whether that's the opening for ‘Programmed For Battle’, or the 8-bit background that gets tucked into ‘The Linear’, I believe. Those aren't just added sounds that are a trace element of the environment itself, they're a timestamp, and another layer to be looked forward to, and embraced as part of the whole. The decision to incorporate it, without your ego being on top of there — was that videogame element a before-production sound, or did that get added in post-production and it was just something bold that someone stuck to their guns on?
E: I think it was both. Sometimes there are parts where it started with keyboard. When we did ‘Level 2’ we actually did have a keyboardist. We were writing as a band, but with a keyboardist. Like you said — it's hard to do it in metal, and do it right. We were very picky about what the keyboard parts would be, and we didn't want stuff that sounded cheesy. Or... at least that it had the right amount of cheese.
It was a process of making sure we got it right. It was a part of the sound of the band. Sometimes it's taking the back seat, and it's a support instrument. Sometimes it's a lead role, being in the forefront, and playing a melody or lead-line that jumps out at you, while the guitarists are doing more of a rhythm thing. Again, I'd say stuff like Dream Theater, and Planet X were probably an influence there. But at the same time, what would work for them... would NOT work for what we were doing.
I'm probably the only guy in the band really into stuff like Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Squarepusher, and that really crazy, experimental electronic music. A lot of those synth sounds really inspire me, and also just crazy drum loops. There's some of that stuff on the record, but some of the drum parts that I play sometimes are inspired by stuff that a drummer didn't actually play. They're chopped up loops, or programmed beats. Things like that.
J: That's too cool. Have you ever looked yourself up on certain apps? There are keyboard elements, riffs, drum fills, and they've been snipped into tiny text-tones that you can clip to a notification on your phone. That's not something you have to upload yourself, other people have done this. It's so cool that someone else said "I need to hear this," and they took a passage, or a part of a solo, and that's just validation that there's more fans out there searching for that same feeling you are, where a goosebumps line will run up your arm, and you'll stop and hear it, and say, "I'm gonna whistle that all day long."
E: Thanks man! I like that you touched on that — it's our philosophy that we're not trying to predict what somebody else would like. We just went until we were satisfied, and we thought it was great. We had faith that other people would like if we liked it. It's not like we became a massive band, but people still talk to us about this album. Honestly, ‘Level 3’ as well; there's people who really loved that album too, and they'll reach out and talk to me about it. It's really cool. It's really cool to have done something like that.