Sunday, May 29, 2011

Banging Beats from a Not-Too-Distant Future: Protocol

Protocol - Self-Titled

Soulful, instrumental performances and exacted, hip-hop production come together in the self-titled debut album from Kansas-based producer duo, Protocol. Riding the wave of the livetronica movement, DVST8 and Smalls have created a sound akin to that of Theivery Corporation, RJD2, and DJ Shadow. A concept album based 200 years in the future, this is the soundtrack to the adventures of one man in an intergalactic society plagued by authoritarianism. The details of this concept are slightly foggy, but the sound of the album could be straight out of a feature film based on a Philip K. Dick story. Blade Runner, anyone?

Austin "Smalls" Hanson is the mind behind the multi-textured guitar performances that give Protocol its leanings toward a post-apocalyptic, science fiction film score. Dark and calculated, Hanson's guitar licks evoke the spaghetti-western-in-space motif that carries the concept through the entirety of the album. Sometimes slowly building and sometimes immediately dominating, the guitar textures are varied but exactly what each beat needs to become elevated to more than a hip-hop composition. Smalls is also accompanied by the guitar work of guest performers Matt Stewart and Adam Stuber.

The tracks are all grounded by DVST8's beat programming and sample selections. The hip-hop beats bring a succinct finesse that emulates a soulful drummer. The atmosphere of this record benefits from the electronic production because it helps lend the overall sound to the futuristic vision of the Protocol concept. Further grounding this album in the hip-hop realm, DVST8 brings solid turntablism and scratching to the forefront of many of the guitar laden compositions.

The album opens with "pro_log," a groovy guitar progression that immediately reminds the listener of the world inspired tracks of Thievery Corporation. The beat drops as sampled saxophone rides in and creates a laid-back cut that will continue the narrative for the rest of the album. "Time_to_leave" begins to really tell the futuristic story of a space traveler. This is the track where our minds begin to go elsewhere and the artists invite us to escape our reality. The sound of Protocol really begins to shine. More than any other track on the album, "time_to_leave" sticks in your mind. This is the stand-out track of this self-titled debut.

"travel_money" carries the idea of a narrative, but it begins to show the weaknesses of a cinematic composition. The passiveness of this track makes one feel like they are watching a dialogue scene with no dialogue. Thankfully, "high_roller" picks the pace back up with a bass line worthy of Digital Underground and a chugging organ rhythm. Although, not the strongest songs, "travel_money" and "high_roller" offer the listener the first traces of a continuum amongst each of these tracks as chapters of a story. The titles are not explicitly linked, but the fact that they both play off of money as a theme give the listener a chance to fill in the details with their own imagination. I begin to imagine a Harrison Ford-esque character scrounging his way across the galaxy and getting mixed up in something much bigger than himself.

The space-western feel of this album really begins to take place in "a_fallen_country." One can easily imagine the character on the cover of the album traversing the red deserts of Mars to this track. Another one of the standout tracks on the album, the synth patches used here evoke the sound of Pretty Lights. The scratching and sampling of guitar licks keep this track fresh until the end. The title hints at a desolate home world ravaged by war. It feels like our character has been marooned without resources where his survival is risky at best.

The intergalactic setting of Protocol crystalizes in "formations." The name lends itself to the idea of many spaceships in flight and begins to take the listener away from the desolate planets of far off galaxies and into the complex lifestyle of outer space. A heavey, synth-bass line supports muted guitar rhythms and together create the foundation for the quirky rhodes melodies sprinkled throughout the track.

Vocoder by DVST8 and funky guitar wah from fellow Digiproach artists, BRAHE, make "prairie_dogs" one of the stankiest tracks on the album. The opening riffs create the feel of a character lurking through the alleys of a great future city. We hear turntablism come to the front of the mix on "process_of_assimilation" with DVST8's scratching used for stop and start record sampling as well as tight rhythmic soloing. "final_option" features a catchy guitar lick that could be mistaken for a sitar. The world rhythm of this leading lick is dominated by heavy distorted guitar chugs that pretty much kill the Theivery vibe that the track opens on. The buzzy bass-synth helps balance out the grime by giving the composition a future funk element.

Protocol begins to shine in a different way with "aftermath." This track is deep in the cut with reverberating claps, atmospheric guitar loops, and a synthetic violin effect that lays over most of the song. This is another short interlude piece that actually feels a little too short. If Protocol would continue to cultivate this erie, mysterious sound they create on "aftermath," they might really be on to something.

"regeneration_station" is one of the albums most electronic detours. Although still within the overall soundscape these producers are after, the track is dominated by choppy, synth textures and a repetitive dance beat. The song would work great as background music for a boss fight on Mega Man, but as a listening experience, it lacks some of the soul and gusto that the rest of the album musters.

Protocol presents some of their fattest beats in the final chapters with "the_new_hero" and "departure." The second to last track, "the_new_hero" seems to set the album up for a sequel. With an air of triumph, this could be the soundtrack for the hero of the story walking with his back turned to a giant explosion. Enemies vanquished, the new hero arises. "departure" is dominated by a heavy beat and an eerie vocal chorus that could easily be the music for the credits but also suggest a scene of deep space flight. The hero boards his ship and moves on to the next great adventure.

The sound of Protocol could easily be expanded upon by a live band yet still manages to bring the out the best of the studio production format. Producers, Smalls and DVST8, have crafted an intriguing concept album that shines in its moments of perfect execution such as "time_to_leave" and "final_option." The best of these tracks capitalize on the fusion of guitar work and beat production. With a supporting cast of electronic synths and textures, Protocol have flexed their compositional muscle while still keeping their individual fortes in the spotlight. The only low points of this album are when the music falls victim to its own concept. The musical compositions sometimes seem to take a backseat to the idea of a sci-fi narrative. If this were, in fact, the film score to a movie, then some the weaker tracks would play a more vital role in fleshing out the experience as a whole. But as a primarily musical experience, the album might have benefited from simply leaving minutes of some tracks on the cutting room floor. Regardless of this shortcoming, Protocol present a set of tight tracks that will find many fans among the beat culture. The artists have presented a debut album with an enormous amount of potential for follow-up releases that will continue to tell the story of this sci-fi soundscape.

Protocol is now available on iTunes, Amazon, and CDBaby. You'll find it for the best price on Amazon at $8.99.

Be sure to listen for yourself below.

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