Periphery (the band) is an almost quintessentially 21st-century success story. In the mid-2000s, head honcho guitarist/producer Misha Mansoor began self-producing instrumental demos under the moniker “Bulb” using little more than his home computer. He built a sizeable following amongst other like-minded musicians, both for the excellent production and musicianship in his demos as well as for his gregarious and outspoken personality on numerous online forums. He eventually managed to put together a line-up to perform the music as Periphery and in 2010, after numerous lineup changes—including a split with their then-vocalist during the recording process—produced and released Periphery (the album) in 2010 to much critical acclaim and mixed reactions amongst metal elitists.
You see, heavy metal is a venerable art-form. The fact that it can be unironically referred to as an “art-form”, without being summarily dismissed as incoherent noise generated by degenerates bent on scrambling the minds, corrupting the souls, and degrading the bodies of impressionable adolescents, should attest to its age and how far it has come since its inception. As with any art-form, innovation in heavy metal became increasingly hard to come by as the decades passed. Where artists once stood on the shoulders of giants to push the genre forward, the 21st century mostly saw them get stuck in the shadows of their predecessors. And when innovation did occur, purist gatekeepers criticized and dismissed what they found unfamiliar.
So it was with Periphery’s debut album. To some it sounded like it came from the future, in much the same way Hendrix’s or Van Halen’s debut albums must have sounded to prior generations. Others shallowly dismissed it as a blatant Meshuggah rip-off because of the characteristic guitar tones, almost inhumanly precise staccato riffing, and jazz-inspired soloing. Indeed, Meshuggah’s influence was writ large on the genre of “djent”, but Periphery perfected the template by contrasting their churning guitar riffs with delicate melodic lines, ambient layers and production aesthetics that drew as much from pop, r&b, dubstep and glitchy electronica as it did from metal.
These forays into electronica, such as on the intro to “Jetpacks Was Yes” and the bridge section of “Letter Experiment”, aren’t just random insertions either. Guitarists Misha Mansoor and Jake Bowen have a clear affinity for dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass, as evidenced by their electronica side-project Four Seconds Ago, and it shows in the way the songs seamlessly segue from aggressive groovy metal sections into these electronica breaks and back.
This is one of the most characteristic aspects of the album, and the band. Despite the obvious virtuosity of the instrumentalists—which includes no less than three excellent guitarists and a drummer widely considered to be one of the best in the genre—they never sacrifice the grooves that they build together in order to showboat. Make no mistake; there is plenty of ridiculously technical musicianship on display, but it never comes off as ostentatious. Even when one of the guitarists does break into a guitar solo, their melodic inventiveness brings to mind jazz fusion luminaries such as Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin rather than the clichéd wankery of Yngwie Malmsteen.
But despite all of its incredible instrumental, compositional and production aspects, Periphery’s real breakthrough in style came in the form of vocalist Spencer Sotelo. Sotelo joined the band as a replacement for their original vocalist, Chris Barretto, midway through the recording of the album with all of the music and most of the lyrics having already been written. This is a tough position for any vocalist to be put in, let alone the vocalist of a band as musically dense and complex as Periphery. However, despite having to learn the arrangements and devise melodies for them on the fly, Sotelo put in a valiant performance that ended up being the thing that made Periphery truly accessible to a wider audience than just bedroom guitarists.
There’s a short comedic skit on the album that describes his voice as “going up like an angel and down like a wounded ox” and it proves to be both funny and accurate. He showcases seemingly limitless vocal range while singing sky-scraping hooks that are unabashedly poppy, and contrasts it with convincingly brutal harsh vocals. This isn’t to say that Sotelo’s performance is flawless. He was young and still quite raw on Periphery, particularly as a harsh vocalist, and would continue to improve by leaps and bounds throughout the decade. However, the fact that he held his own on the album while consistently raising it from esoteric guitar-porn to genuine ear-worm material speaks volumes.
And that’s all of what made Periphery’s self-titled debut album so special. Not only did it revitalize the genre of heavy metal through sonic innovativeness, it also helped provide a template for how independent DIY musicians can thrive in the 21st century’s music climate, even while playing decidedly un-commercial music, by embracing technology and the internet. In the process, the band and Mansoor became synonymous with the sound of modern metal and have left their fingerprints all over the world of guitar music, even though the average non-metalhead has, in all likelihood, never heard of them.
- Band Practice The Walk
- Letter Experiment
- Jetpacks Was Yes
- All New Materials