A Long Strange Trek
"Have you seen the Futurama episode where they posit that in the future, Star Trek will be a religion?," asks Arif Mirabdolbaghi, bassist for Canadian math-metal outfit Protest the Hero. "It's probably true. I mean, there's such a volume of text there that you can make a pretty epic series of myths."
Mirabdolbaghi should know. Not only do he and his bandmates enjoy their fair share of sci-fi but the concept of mysticism runs central to their latest album, Fortress. An intellectually daring work, the album explores the bassist's musings on the reemergence of feminine goddess energy in the collective human consciousness, delving further into the thematic realm the band explored on its debut LP, Kezia. A scan of the lyric sheet makes it immediately clear that these guys are interested in history and its sociological implications. Mirabdolbaghi, 21, who writes all of the lyrics, concurs but explains that his choice of subject matter goes beyond your typical history buff's curiosity and was, in fact, primarily inspired by hallucinogen-fueled contemplation of the metaphysical.
Mirabdolbaghi doesn't hide his love for what he considers to be man's most loyal fungus ally.
"I've had a few, uh... harrowing tours of the bright lights of mushroom consciousness," he says sheepishly, coming off rather like a younger, thinking-man's version of Tommy Chong. "I've always had a very harmonious relationship with mushrooms and psilocybin and the psychedelic experience. It's certainly a ripe time to explore some of those ideas. You'll meet someone who had their heyday in the '60s, and they'll say, 'Oh yeah, I took LSD once, and all the walls began to melt and I saw all these colors.' They'll describe in very picturesque language the things that they saw, yet there doesn't appear to be any form of reflection on why this happened. Your consciousness went there, yet you have no self-reflection about it?"
Mirabdolbaghi, a "lapsed Muslim" of Iranian descent, says that his parents support his tripping and that he relates his experiences to a centuries-old Persian/Iranian mystic tradition.
"The album," he continues, "to sum it up, is a discussion on the history of mushrooms, following it from its Siberian past to its celestial future."
He also explains that, in the music, the concept of femininity equates to a move away from the rigid codes of scientific thought into realms of reasoning where science and mysticism converge. If that all sounds like an artistic morass dense enough to overburden the music, it isn't. With their affinity for kitsch, Mirabdolbaghi and company know how to lighten the mood. For one thing, PTH juxtaposes its cerebral side with obvious pockets of humor. On opening number "Bloodmeat," for example, Mirabdolbaghi delves into ancient Mongolian battle imagery that verges on parody.
"I mean, Genghis Khan burning people in vats of oil and breaking his enemies' backs and stringing them up on hooks," he chuckles. "That's all pretty metal."
The band maintains a healthy sense of self-deprecation. An avid reader who's barely old enough to drink (in the States or Canada), Mirabdolbaghi professes to a burning contempt for teenagers — nerds in particular — with tongue firmly in cheek.
"There are those kids," he says, "who got so engrossed in the Kezia story who would ask us again and again and again, 'Like in the fourth song, when you said blah blah, did you mean this?' There are some people who maybe look a little too deeply into it. By 'some people,' I mean 'entirely too many.' But if they come up to me with like a printed sheet of, like, Bible verses that they've found referenced in the fuck, I'm not going to tell them to fuck off or eat a dick or anything."
His dislike for teens dates back to when the band was first venturing away from its suburban Toronto home base of Whitby, Ontario, while still in high school. Choosing to forgo higher education, Mirabdolbaghi and his fellow bookworms in PTH embarked on a full-fledged Canadian tour the same day they graduated. Despite their age, playing heavy metal went from being a cool hobby to a profession not long after.
"There were people who were enthusiastic about the fact that we were a young band," Mirabdolbaghi recalls. "And there were other people who absolutely didn't take us seriously because, you know, we were a bunch of unprofessional little twerps. I mean, I hate kids that age. They drive me bonkers, and I'm sure we did that to a whole lot of people."
But there must be tons of teenagers in the band's audience, right?
"Yeah," he laughs. "I'm just talking about the pimple-faced, pizza-eating little dweebs. You know, nobody really likes teenagers. But that was all of us. Maybe we don't like them because in every obnoxious teenager, we sort of see our past selves and all the pathetic things we've done in life."
If the band's disdain for geeks seems a little odd, the bassist doesn't disagree.
"It's just a kind of self-loathing," he continues. "Our drummer is the biggest Stargate nerd ever, and the rest of us are Trekkers, I guess.
Isn't the term "Trekkie?"
"No," he corrects with mock earnestness. " Trekkie is derogatory. Trekker is the respectful one. The word Trekkie has this horrible history and totally negative connotation — we're actually involved in applying Star Trek to our lives."
Perhaps that's the glue that helps the rest of the band stand behind and relate to Mirabdolbaghi's lyrics?
"Even if I were to write or say something that someone doesn't fully agree with," he explains, "it's not because they don't understand it, and it's not because they haven't considered it."
Or maybe they're too busy having fun flexing their musical muscles and running roughshod all over the music. PTH's sound draws on several familiar heavy-metal hallmarks — tech-metal, prog, the operatic vocals and squealing guitar leads of the new wave of British heavy metal, speeding riffs, etc. — and sometimes it sounds as if the band is going over the top on purpose. Yet it's not like you can call the music ironic; the band isn't making fun of metal, just having fun with it while managing to steer clear of clichés. It's a hell of a balancing act.
"It's a paradox," Mirabdolbaghi says. "If you fall too hard into a cliché, you in fact are not cliché at all. It's as though you're going into the darkness of novelty and picking out one object of light and using it to illuminate that cliché. We've always been obsessed with things that are kind of kitschy."
Be that as it may, the band takes its technical precision — and the headbanging, rhythmically challenged spazzout body slamming it wants you to do — as seriously as cancer.
"We take our craft very seriously," Mirabdolbaghi stresses, dropping the comic demeanor for a moment. "We just don't necessarily take ourselves seriously."
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