Progspot #3: Dreadnought, Intrepid Alchemy on the Front Range
What is it that makes progressive metal so fascinating yet so contentious? Perhaps its inclination toward conceptual grandiosity and meticulously structured compositions turn some off from the style, but it is for these very same reasons that its disciples are so obsessive and meticulous in their understanding of its compositions. Maneuvering its way into every subgenre, it emerges through myriad guises across the globe and across time yet maintains no definite image or form; a creative force that is constantly focused on forward evolution inevitably transcends these boundaries.
Thus, the goal of Progressive Spotlight (or just Progspot) is to examine prog not as any concrete pre-existing category, subgenre, or style, but rather as an inventive, forward-thinking attitude toward the creation and presentation of music as art. Taking this more holistic approach, Progspot seeks to thoroughly analyze and dissect the cutting edge of innovative modern metal one specimen at a time, shedding light into their enigmatic corridors in order to understand their continued evolution.
Throughout the last two decades, the dauntingly arid and often desolate landscape of Colorado’s front range has become a veritable mecca for music, art, and culture, a melting pot of wayfarers from across America (and the globe) seeking the novelty and adventure of the Wild West. Centered around Denver, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins, this ongoing boom in population has resulted in a massive upwelling of creativity within the Colorado metal arena which has recently burgeoned into one of the nation’s most rapidly proliferating regional scenes.
And though it has gained notoriety for its active death metal community, Colorado has risen to prominence more definitively as a major pioneer in the nuanced realms of epic doom and blackened sludge, its most celebrated outfits spearheading a movement of increasingly depressive and dirge-like aural despair. Dozens of now-renowned metal groups have found success in emulating this sound, and it has thus expanded into a full-fledged trend in the local scene and beyond. While this new amalgamation is indeed innovative, its sudden popularity has resulted in a community already oversaturated and desperately in need of an outlier.
Peering over the horizon, however, a bright and daring contender is now beginning to fully emerge and spread its fiery wings.
Offering an invigorating interpretation of the passionately forlorn brand of metal favored by their countrymen is Dreadnought, an outfit seemingly unbound by mortal limitations. With one foot firmly rooted in the distinctly Coloradan sensibilities of melancholic doom and another stepping out into the cosmic unknown, Dreadnought has worked ceaselessly to carve out their niche since the release of their debut full-length Lifewoven, a record that saw the often brusque and unrestrained harshness of doom and black metal blossoming into luminescent new forms.
From their earliest origins, the essential character of the group’s music has been imbued with a sense of whimsy and hopeful determination that evokes scenes of ancient lore and timeless legend, lighting fires of wanderlust within listeners’ yearning hearts. Keeping to alchemy’s central tenet of “as above, so below,” Dreadnought’s compositions match sensitivity with ferocity, pattern with unpredictability, and spontaneity with consistency, striking a perfect balance between polarized dualities. Their material is never in the least bit derivative, but rather a constant synthesis of invaluable materials -- so named for the imposing ironclad battleships of an era long past, Dreadnought is thus aptly titled, their moniker evoking agelessness, everlasting might, and unstoppable forward progress.
My first encounter with Dreadnought’s enchanting sonic odysseys occurred last August at Psycho Las Vegas. Resisting the urge to subject myself to Zakk Sabbath’s tired, endless noodling on a Sunday evening, I elected to remain at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino’s Vinyl Stage, where Dreadnought was set to perform at 7 p.m. Cemented into my spot on the front rail, I watched in bewilderment as the group began to soundcheck flute, saxophone, and keyboards. Ten minutes into their set, I found myself enraptured in a trance-like state, totally absorbed in the journey on which we had collectively embarked: Dreadnought's performance was completely liberated and free-flowing, yet juxtapositionally precise. Their on-stage communication was telepathic, with the ensemble moving together through lithe transitions into heartfelt climaxes like a single organism. Having witnessed such rich and complex music delivered with the virtuosic passion that Dreadnought had presented that night, I knew that I had my work cut out for me exploring their material in a greater capacity.
The first aspect I began to understand about Dreadnought was that their courageously progressive energy is generated through the unconventionality in which they are rooted. Each of Dreadnought’s four members brings something equally fascinating to their auditory concoction; with guitarist/vocalist/flutist Kelly Schilling and keyboardist/vocalist Lauren Vieira approaching composition from a classical background, and bassist Kevin Handlon and drummer/saxophonist Jordan Clancy reared in the jazz tradition, it comes as no surprise that nothing about the group’s instrumentation or songwriting approach is at all predictable. Borrowing elements from several contrasting musical realms, the outfit’s song structures are also unconventional, with gargantuan compositions often laid out more like an expressionistic soundtrack than a traditional metal record.
Although they have drawn comparisons to impressive groups such as Agalloch, Ne Obliviscaris, and Nightbringer, Dreadnought’s sound has already achieved something idiosyncratic: weaving in motifs from a broad range of genres including black metal, doom, folk, prog, and even jazz without ever sounding contrived. They draw power from the synergy of these influences -- as well as the strength of their interconnectedness as musicians -- to create something far more virtuosic and gripping than the sum of those constituent parts.
I met with Schilling in Denver to glean valuable morsels of information from her mysterious mind. I began our discussion by inquiring about the band’s origins, their earliest inspirations, and the strategies they implement within the compositional process. More than anything, I wanted to understand how the quartet had become so effective at channeling such a diverse range of textures and emotions.
When Dreadnought was first founded, what were your main artistic endeavors and goals? Was it originally conceived as a prog band?
It wasn’t originally conceived to be a prog band; before that we played in a band called Castigation, it was Kevin and Jordan and I, and that was like a blackened death metal band of sorts. Then we lost the guitarist and got Lauren, who played keys -- which kind of automatically made it a little more proggy -- and decided we wanted to start bringing in a little more of the woodwind elements, because why not? So I guess when I’m trying to think and remember it, I don’t think we were going for that right away, it’s just kind of what it formulated to be. We knew that we all liked different elements of metal, and we all liked melodic music so we just started writing towards the things we really liked.
How has your understanding of your own creative process evolved in the time since Dreadnought’s formation? What experiences and challenges have changed your creative approach?
A lot of just writing music together, and we’ve definitely grown. I would say now we’re at a really good place; we’re our most matured selves now, musically and compositionally. We kind of know how to attack an album now, and how we want to write it, and what elements we want to bring in right away. And that evolved through practicing writing music -- it took a while to really hone in and get to where we wanted to be. And on every album we really wanted to be where we were, but still it’s been a big, long process.
How do you break up songwriting duties between the four of you when you write an album? Do you all collaborate or do you each write individual compositions?
We all collaborate. It usually starts with a riff or a skeleton, a general idea, and everyone will kind of add parts to it, and we’ll hear where it’s moving and where it’s going, how the drums make it sound, et cetera. And then as it starts to move we usually find a stopping point. We’re like, “okay, let’s take this home and think about where we want to go next.” Then we’ll come back and usually bring another riff or idea and work from there, so it is very collaborative.
When you added flute and saxophone to your sound, are those instruments that you and Jordan have always had experience with, or did you pick them up for Dreadnought?
Flute was actually my first instrument, so I was a little Elementary school kid when I started. Same with Jordan, he played saxophone and drums in school as well. So it’s one of those things where we had the skills to play it, and then we were like, “what if we try this in here and see if it makes sense.”
Dreadnought’s music is extremely eclectic, incorporating influences from a wide range of genres: what are some of your biggest inspirations for exploring these different directions in your sound?
When we were young, like 16, Opeth was definitely a really big influence on us -- I think that’s pretty obvious [laughs]. We all loved that band, and they were definitely really big for me when I was younger. Same with Moonsorrow as well, that was a big influence on us when we were younger. I was always drawn to the fact that they had metal with different elements to them. I remember when I first heard folk metal, for example, and I was like “woah, there are woodwinds in this!?” Not that I ever really wanted to be in a folk metal band, I just thought it was cool that there was something different with it. So yeah, I think those were our main influences when we were young, and they’ve just expanded since then.
Speaking more recently, who are some contemporary groups you’ve been listening to, music that’s fresh in your mind and perhaps inspirational to your current direction?
Schilling: Ulver is probably my all-time biggest influence right now. I love everything they do, and I love that they have so many different albums with different kinds of music, yet it is still their sound. I just think they’re really smart composers. Recently too, Oranssi Pazuzu. I love them. Virus has been a big influence on me recently, and Krallice as well.
One of the essential features distinguishing Dreadnought from their progressive peers is the fantastical, nature-oriented aesthetic they have chosen to emphasize in their work, both musically and thematically. With a nod to the folk-tinged stylings of vintage prog-rock groups such as Gentle Giant, Camel, and Genesis, Dreadnought has ventured into sonic territory very rarely occupied by extreme metal bands, one that juxtaposes themes of antiquity and primordiality with futuristic, otherworldly innovation. They are also one of the few modern bands to thoroughly commit themselves to the celebration of Mother Earth and her most essential elements rather than forcing their sound to be overtly technical, quirky, or intricate. As Schilling stated, Dreadnought’s initial focus was not explicitly centered upon avant-garde or progressive endeavors but rather upon the authentic emulation of the themes and concepts that personally inspired them to create music as art.
Drawing heavily upon the ambient influence of Colorado’s stark and stoic mountain wilderness, Dreadnought has also harnessed the severity of this rocky landscape within their mournfully lyrical melodies and walls of lush, organic emotion that heftily crash and collide.i With sage-like understanding of the front range’s capricious (and often dubious) atmospheric pressures, the band’s compositions move with swiftness and volatility, often cresting to a stormy fervor before suddenly dropping into verdant valleys of lavish acoustics. This whirlwind of warring emotions channeled through Dreadnought’s sound showcases a deeply humanistic and organic side to their music, a side that functions as one of the group’s central ideological pillars.
Philosophically, Dreadnought has arrived at an essential realization: the human individual functions as a microcosm for the whole planet, and you can draw infinite parallels between the human experience and the experience of the Earth itself.
The four studio albums Dreadnought has crafted to date have each been dedicated to one of the classical elements; despite the many overarching conceptual themes and cohesiveness between these works, each exudes a recognizable flavor to set it apart as individual consummation. Lifewoven represented Earth and the endless virility of Gaia’s life force -- and while definitely much rawer and less technical than later efforts, Lifewoven was vital in establishing the versatility and savagery that continue to define their sound. It also introduced the world to the hyper-potent vocal combination of Schilling's harrowing shrieks and the more melodic moments created as she and Vieira execute haunting harmonies.
It was their meditative yet funky sophomore record Bridging Realms, representing the element of ether, which made a massive impact in the progressive and doom metal scenes, lifting the group up from obscurity into the light of worldwide recognition. Then in 2017, the group arrived at a style and timbre more patently recognizable with A Wake in Sacred Waves, a record that flowed through its four monolithic tracks with seamless force and prodigious aptitude.
Staying faithful to their untarnished release schedule of one studio full-length every two years, the outfit has now crossed into the impulsive realm of fire with their fourth studio album Emergence. Taking fire’s erratic character into consideration, combined with Dreadnought’s unpredictably innovative tendencies, the only expectation I held diving into this album was that I should not know what to expect. With each record, Dreadnought's music has grown more direct and more potent, ever-changing yet ever truer to the core essence of their identity -- hoping to gain a more thorough understanding of the psychological groundwork upon which Dreadnought’s elemental album cycle was built, as well as Emergence’s context within that cycle, I asked Schilling about how she and her bandmates initially arrived at the election of these themes, and what drew them so readily to their naturalistic, earth-forward aesthetic. In short, to what extent does the natural world define the meaning behind Dreadnought's music?
Moving into the themes of your material, how did you collectively decide to create an album cycle that was thematically based on the four elements?
Schilling: When we came to that… well, we’re all kind of Zelda nerds, and we had this idea to hone in on temples. I think the reason we did that is because we’re already a very nature-based band, we all connect with that, so we thought elements could give us a nice framework of emotions. It’s broad enough that you can dive in to a lot of different directions, but it also gives you enough to work with on a sonic realm, so that’s kinda why we went that way.
To what extent do those naturalistic inspirations influence your songwriting and compositional processes? Are those themes communicated directly in the lyrics?
A lot of the lyrics are nature-based -- Kevin writes from a standpoint that’s very much describing nature itself, and Lauren takes the emotion out of it. Nature’s a very beautiful, very complex thing, and you can reference it to life and various emotions.
Dreadnought’s music has maintained an extremely personal and organic quality that’s now become deeply imbued into your sound: what’s your main strategy for keeping that sentiment so essential and consistent within your material?
I think we just kinda do what feels right to us. We’re not trying to force anything, we just hear what something’s supposed to sound like, and we want to create it in that way. So I think it’s a very natural process for us, we just want to be true to ourselves.
True to the techniques Dreadnought has utilized thus far to communicate the essence of each respective element, Emergence conveys vastly heightened levels of angst and turmoil compared with previous releases, evoking a much more blackened, searing atmosphere than any of their past material. Faster and more streamlined throughout its five tracks, the record’s pacing is its most immediately distinguishing factor, with the record standing as Dreadnought’s shortest yet by a notable margin. However, the same quantity and caliber of musical exploration is present here as in their previous works -- this time, it has simply been packed into much tighter and more claustrophobic spaces in order to evoke the capricious, immediate, and destructive nature of fire.
In fact, Emergence is arguably the most well-rounded of Dreadnought’s career thus far: many ideas only suggested on their first three albums have been greatly expanded within its framework. For example, its massively epic orchestral passages are more dexterous and spiritually stirring yet more deftly intertwined than ever before; its brutal moments are more raw and gut-wrenching, its softer moments are more conscientious, new organ/keyboard textures have been introduced, and the contrasting textures of flute and saxophone have been blended together with the group’s overall sound so masterfully that the album's compositions often sound more like the score from a nature documentary like than tracks on a progressive doom metal record.
Sensing that the broad elemental themes infused into the record hinted at the subtle presence of more personal perspectives and experiences, I began to shift the focus of my discussion with Schilling into the specifics of Dreadnought’s mindset while working on the new album. I wanted to gain some knowledge of the individual obstacles faced by the group’s members during the record’s creative process, the personal issues and struggles that inspired the hugely effective aura of anguish and emotional chaos in which Emergence is steeped. Furthermore, Schilling took the liberty of giving me a full explanation of the meaning and intention behind the album’s themes and lyrics, providing an invaluable glimpse into the meticulous layers of its narrative.
Eventually, I began to understand the record’s context not only within Dreadnought’s album cycle, but also within their own lives.
The pacing and length of Emergence are significantly different than your previous albums; how did you arrive at this?
Mostly it was a goal to get it on one LP instead of two LPs. All the others have been doubles, so we wanted to try and keep the song length shorter while also not forcing it as well, because we’re always in the mindset of “write the song.” We never give ourselves a time length of how long our songs have to be, so we kinda just wrote it. And with “Besieged” being a faster-paced song, it just ended up being seven minutes, and we were like, “cool, we did a seven-minute song!” [laughs].
Beyond the elemental themes, what are some of the philosophical or existential themes in Emergence, and how are they different from your previous releases?
So what we wanted to do with flame: it’s really dramatic, it’s smoldering, unpredictable, and devastating but also desolate and necessary for growing life. So with that, we wanted to get into the emotions of anxiety and shock and anger, resentment, but also determination and forward motion. It’s basically a story of transformation where you’re on the brink of a catastrophic event, and you’re feeling all this anxiety and the shock from it. Then it goes to the interlude, which is kind of a numbness looking at what just happened and not really being able to process it quite yet. And I’m reading from some notes on Lauren’s lyrics, because she wrote a lot of the lyrics for it. I wrote some, but it was mostly her and Kevin. In “Pestilent,” it’s acknowledging and coming to terms with the fact that the thing happened even though you kind of resent that it did; you’re not fully accepting of it yet, but you are at least acknowledging the fact that it’s there. And then with “Tempered” you finally start to gain determination to make it work. You’re like, “okay, I gotta move forward, I have to make this happen.” So instead of sitting back and brooding, it’s like, “let’s move forward.” And it can be analogous to a lot of things in life, the whole theme can. Then “The Waking Realm” is kind of looking back in awe and wonder, and also realizing the strength that you can move forward.
In creating Emergence, what personal considerations, issues, or emotions were being channeled into your music?
I know Lauren was going through a lot of change and transformation, so that’s kind of where she funneled her music. And we all were -- it’s just life, you know? We’re all trying to figure it out as we go, and we’ve all grown a lot, I would say, within the last few years. We’ve been able to take on better perspectives in life.
With their fourth record, Dreadnought has struck a very real and relevant pressure point within metal’s ever-shifting nervous system, making a statement that will be heard across its diverse spectrum of acolytes. From their earliest sonic adventures through their latest release, the band has defied all odds by remaining artistically fresh and virtually unparalleled: though their sound is now instantly recognizable, it is harder than ever to label or neatly categorize. Emergence also commemorates the band’s first album cycle with a major record label, an incredible new opportunity that will undoubtedly launch the outfit into levels of renown. With such a bright future ahead of them, I wanted to ask Schilling how Dreadnought had managed to retain their sense of novelty throughout an already prolific career, and how they intended to maintain this impeccable trend into the future.
With creating progressive music, it’s easy to fall into the trap of getting too comfortable with one sound and losing your innovative edge. Dreadnought has managed to avoid this pitfall thus far: how do you keep yourselves fresh and keep your sound from becoming repetitive?
I think it is really honing in on a certain theme, and trying to really encapsulate that idea. By making every album a slightly different theme, we’re able to musically do something slightly different. And as we grow we have different influences, and like I said we have gotten better at writing where now we think more with the vocals in mind, so that helps formulate cadences and such.
Now that your sound has matured through four albums, how do you see your thematic and stylistic evolution progressing from here?
Well, we do have an idea for the next album. We’re gonna stick with our Zelda temple bases, our Ocarina of Time worship. I’m really excited about it, it might even be darker… so we’ll see where that goes.
When you embark on extensive tours across the country, often with vastly different lineups, do you find your music connects universally with metal crowds? Does the crowd really get into it, or do they step back and observe?
I do see a lot of acceptance. You can put us on any bill and we will grab people , which is exciting. It’s definitely a lot of standing, watching, taking it in. People who know our music get into it, but people who haven’t seen us before kind of take it all in as they’re watching. Sometimes I’m looking out into the crowd like “do you like this?” [laughs]. But yeah, it’s always been a really good response, which is exciting for us. We want to have people be able to experience music for music’s sake and not genres for genre’s sake.
I think that’s the real essence of prog; when something’s really progressive and exciting, it appeals to people because the music is at the core. There’s no label or anything, just the spirit.
Yeah, the emotion and the connection you’re having with the people that are watching, or the people that are playing, just experiencing that separate way of communicating with one another.
I just have one more question for you, and I ask that you really use your imagination here: what are some of your loftiest musical goals, things you hope to achieve someday that you’ve only dreamed of? Dream collaborations, special locations in which you want to perform, experimental projects?
Of course I’d love to collaborate with Ulver one day, that would be amazing. I just really respect the way they compose; I think we could do something really cool. For short-term goals, I mean, we were hoping to make it to Europe next year. It’s always been my goal since I was a kid to go perform in Europe by the time I’m thirty, and I’ll be thirty in 2020. But for big goals, of course we want to play any beautiful castles, or anything outdoors. Playing in the mountains was amazing, and we’d love to do more festivals like that.
We really just wanna see the world, and we love meeting people, especially people who connect with our music, because I think the point is to communicate and connect on that existential level. We love doing that.
Emergence released last Friday via Profound Lore.