[Cover art by Masiha Fattahi]
It’s cliche by now, the uncertainty of our time. It’s pervasive, coloring every aspect of popular culture from social media to TV and movies and maybe especially music. Entertainment certainly isn’t the most important thing but, over time, it’s been at least a relatively accurate reflection of an era’s cultural milieu. Even people on opposite sides of whatever fence readily agree at least that the world is in a frighteningly chaotic state, the points of disagreement coming down to who’s impacted and how and who’s to blame. Of course, the pendulum is expected to swing but, come on man, its currently erratic behavior is some seriously dicey bullshit, psychologically speaking. All animals struggle in such circumstances, humans perhaps the most. That’s why it’s so important for us to have some sort of anchor and that’s where entertainment earns its stripes. A reliable escape from the virtually constant tension is critical to the emotional homeostasis that allows for rebalance and restoration. For so many of us, music is the medium that makes it happen and around here that music is most often heavy metal.
If you’re already familiar with Surrey, England’s Threshold, you know exactly why a review of their new album, Dividing Lines, would open with that kind of paragraph. Since 1988, this band has produced what might well be Prog Metal’s most consistently awesome catalog. Sure other prog metal bands have made records with greater individual impact, but those same bands have made some unbelievably bad music, too, and Threshold has never done that, not even close. So, knowing Threshold, you knew you’d get more of the same with Dividing Lines, the twelfth album in a line of reliably great prog metal built with the stuff that makes you feel energized, strong, and maybe even heard, understood, while listening to it.
If you’re not already familiar with Threshold, you might be asking why the heck you’d want more of the same of anything, much less from a prog metal band. Well, for the same reason we want more time with our friends, especially in uncertain times. Friends are great because you know them and have decided you like who they are, and great friends be who they are in ways that make you feel good while you’re around them and this is that.
Threshold’s consistent quality owes much to a consistent lineup. With the exception of the vocalist and rhythm guitar, the band’s roster has been the same for almost 20 years: founder Karl Groom on guitars, Richard West, who’s been on keyboards since the first LP, and Johann James on drums. Dividing Lines brings back Glynn Morgan, who sang on their last record, Legends of the Shires, as well as their amazing second album, Psychedelicatessen, way back in 1994 (and this time he even lends his skills on rhythm guitar, at least in the studio). He sounds wonderful here, as before, because he fits so well with the band not just in terms of his voice, but the particular energy he brings. His melodies are unique even as they feel familiar, strong and dark or gentle and warm as the song demands. It’s wonderful on this new album hearing the echoes of past albums in Glynn’s inimitable approach to choruses colored so dynamically with radiant harmonized backing, from “Silenced” here to “Trust the Process” on Legends to the title track of March of Progress (even if those are Damian Wilson’s choruses) and even all the way back to “Will to Give” on Psychedelicatessen.
As always, the songwriting on Dividing Lines is excellent. Guitarist Karl Groom and keyboardist Richard West have essentially perfected their formula, building structure that optimizes the pacing and maximizes the impact of the ear candy – the melodies and harmonies and leads and solos – and all of it in service of the larger song. Formula, of course, is all but anathema in light of the progressive genre’s spirit, but it also doesn’t have to equate to a formulaic outcome. The strategy at work here adds up to songs that feel both fresh and familiar and that breeze by even when they approach epic proportions. In fact, the longest songs on Dividing Lines, “The Domino Effect” and “Defence Condition,” are proof positive of the math, as each exceeds ten minutes while maintaining its vibrancy and allure throughout.
At a runtime of over an hour, any formula’s going to be taxed to its limits but on Dividing Lines (again: as usual for Threshold) this one proves robust, keeping things interesting and engaging across all ten songs. This comes down to Threshold’s tripartite technique of songcraft: riff, dynamic tension, and hook.
Groom’s riffs are as understated as they are powerful and compelling. This is because the goal of a Threshold guitar riff is always to bolster melody, to provide the scaffolding between the foundational rhythm section and the ornamental shapes and colors of the lead guitar and keyboards, to facilitate transition between sections, rather than to shine a light on itself. Groom’s mastery of this brand of riffcraft, on full display throughout the new record, might only be matched by the likes of Jim Matheos and Nick van Dyk.
There’s an awful lot that goes into generating tension, mostly attributable to the songwriting, but at least as much to the execution of the ideas. Overall, the tone of Dividing Lines is darker and more cynical than past albums, again reflecting the climate since Legends was released five years ago. Lyrical themes center, at least loosely, on the impact of recent political and cultural phenomena (you know the ones) and the music carries the weight of those, conveying the tension inherent in them. West’s keyboards play a major role in this regard, adding emotional color to the background and around the edges of verses and choruses, but also in the bridges where transitions shift the tone from bleak to bright and back. Groom’s leads play a similar role and, when in concert with the keys, make the most dramatic impact. Morgan has even expanded his approach, judiciously splicing in a layer of extreme vocals to emphasize the mood underlying the subject matter and, more meaningfully, the severity of its impact on so many of us.
And at the core of it all lies Threshold’s defining and most enduring strength, the almighty hook. Groom and West have prioritized the catchy tune above all else but with the critical understanding that it’s meaningless without a strong song around it. This means that after a few listens, the listener is sure to wake up with choruses and ascendant harmonies already worming around in their ears only to also recall it’s song; they’re inseparable. It begins from the gate with the impossibly infectious pre-chorus of opening track, “Haunted,” and continues unabated through the anxious bravery of “Defence Condition” to close things out.
History and lore abound with real and metaphorical lights in the darkness, from the North Star to the power of goodness and love, stable and reliable sources of strength and calm in the midst of uncertainty. It’s such a small thing, really, when you think about it, but the light that music can provide is real, so fundamentally restorative for so many of us. We’re incredibly fortunate to have bands like Threshold who understand the role of their music so fully in that regard. The times will continue to change, of course, and sources of anxiety and stress will shift and morph and, if we’re lucky, Threshold will continue to be there, nearly invisible in the grand scheme and yet so essential in their way.