The Fall of the Shires is the stunning, vibrant and accessible prog rock debut from Oblivion Protocol – the new musical project from Richard West, keyboardist and writer for UK prog-metal stalwarts Threshold. A sequel to Threshold’s acclaimed double album Legends of the Shires, it is a welcome continuation of the story, with a distinctly dystopian twist set to a sweeping melodic, symphonic/neo-prog musical palette, but with well-judged prog-metal edges keeping everything fresh and dynamic.
Going back to 2017, I was absolutely bowled over by the sheer quality and musical breadth of Legends of the Shires, and it became my album of that year. Threshold have produced some great music over the years, with a variety of line-ups, but, for me, they got the balance just right between the more thoughtful and complex progressive rock side of their music and those powerful metal elements the band do so well.
It was a concept album full of light and shade, dynamism and elegance, with two threads to the story. One was about a nation growing up and trying to find its place in the world, informed by the backdrop of Brexit (although not explicitly about it). The second, parallel thread was about a person growing up and trying to find where they belonged and work out what to do with their life. It was this more personal aspect of the story that resonated with many fans, as he toiled with his life as a farmer and the obstacles he faced, including ecological pressures and general disillusionment in his chosen life pathway.
The Legends of the Shires story ended with the person seeing several possible futures: “Maybe a painter, a guide, a clerk, a maker. Or maybe a writer, a king, a star, a fighter” (from Lost in Translation). Richard already had a storyline in place to allow a continuation with a sequel on the next album. However, halfway through, several of the band decided to go in another direction with the subsequent Dividing Lines in 2022. That was another impressive album that utilised a few musical and lyrical themes destined for the sequel, but unfortunately a full continuation of the story did not take place.
Richard was suitably sanguine about the decision, but he really liked the storyline and decided that he wanted to stay in that world a little longer and do the sequel himself. The opening and closing songs were already written and Richard wanted to complete the unfinished story, even if it was just for himself. He originally thought no one would ever hear it, calling the project Oblivion Protocol, with a view that the work would probably be ‘consigned to oblivion’ rather than be released to the public. However, with the support of an enthusiastic record company, an album and a new band emerged as the result of Richard’s vision, determination and doggedness. “The accidental band making the accidental album” is how he amusingly describes the whole process!
Richard handles the keyboards and vocals with great aplomb, but he is joined by three musical friends he has known for several years. Within Temptation guitarist Ruud Jolie copes admirably with the dark and light on display, whilst the dynamic rhythm section of Darkwater bassist Simon Andersson and Devin Townsend drummer Darby Todd drive the music throughout.
There really is something for everyone on Fall of the Shires. Richard has been able to pull together epic, symphonic and cinematic prog rock grandeur with accessible and catchy melodies, but with a dark, brooding and futuristic, metal-tinged heart to the music. Unsurprisingly, the spirit of Threshold is present, but there are echoes of Rush, Pink Floyd, Queensrÿche, Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree and Ghost amongst others cited by the band.
The story is deeply dystopian and Orwellian in character, and sadly chimes with aspects of the world around us today, even giving us a glimpse of what the future might hold for us all if authoritarian power is allowed to go unchecked. The connection to classic concept albums like Operation: Mindcrime and The Wall is clear to see at times.
The Fall (Part 1) starts with the sound of a ‘cosmic wheel of fate’ choosing our protagonist’s next role. How much is fate and how much is the consequence of his own actions and decisions is left intentionally vague, but he ends up as the king – a role we subsequently see he is unfit for. Starting atmospherically with acoustic guitar, the music gradually gains intensity as the drums, bass and keyboards swell and draw you into the album. The lyrics frame the entire story succinctly as he decides to control the population, accepting all of the solutions suggested by his advisors.
How was he supposed to tame the land?
He summoned his advisors to his hall,
And asked for their solutions to it all.”
The devastating effect on the population, and the personal torment he, as king, gradually experiences, are chronicled across the rest of the album, and summarised in Richard’s soft, plaintive vocals on this opening track.
Something in the air.
Make them work for longer,
Till they’re too tired to care.
Close down all the borders,
To start another war.
Stop them being families,
Strike them at the core.”
Surviving from the original aborted recording sessions, Karl Groom (of Threshold) plays the lead guitar on this track and the final one, lending a lush neo-prog character to both tracks – juxtaposed against the disturbing and unfeeling consequences of the king’s actions.
The album alternates between the effects of these actions on the king himself (tracks 2, 6 and 8) and the effects on the population (tracks 3, 4, 5 and 7). Throughout, there is light and shade and changes in tempo, but musically there is a clear signature style that gives the album a consistency and conceptual structure. The guitar produces powerful metal riffs where necessary, but it is often lyrical and flowing. The keyboards fill the sound and give it an epic feel, with some lovely proggy flourishes, and the rhythm section can switch from dynamism to delicacy seamlessly.
However, it is Richard’s vocals that are the real surprise here and contribute to the project’s success. He will be the first to admit to being no Glynn Morgan – being lower and less heavy vocally – but that lighter, understated and rather accessible style he brings succeeds in softening the music and emphasising the more melodic prog nature of the music, compared to what it might have been like if Threshold had continued the story. “I opted for lower tunings on the guitar and bass, and relied more on atmospheric keyboards and orchestral elements to define the sound,” he explains.
Tormented looks at the inner turmoil and uncertainty of the king as his actions begin to unfold on the people. Starting with rich stabs of metal riffing and a galloping drumbeat from Darby Todd, this heavier musical template soon merges with a more melodic rock approach, with a catchy chorus, atmospheric keyboards and vibrant guitar soloing from Ruud Jolie. The inner ‘robotic’ voice of the king’s soul, snippets of spoken words and sound effects add more colour to the music and heighten the drama and futuristic narrative. The king cries out:
To problems you’ve invented?
They’re so unprecedented.”
Public Safety Broadcast is one of many album highlights, taking us onto the chaotic and crowded streets of authoritarian rule and 1984-like doublespeak. Richard’s calm, assuring vocals to the public merely emphasise the danger to the government of non-conformance. Lyrically and musically there are echoes of Porcupine Tree and Roger Waters, but all set to an amazingly catchy mix of expressive guitar and keyboard noodlings, especially on the explosive chorus (with a guitar riff recalling Blur’s Song 2 and Radiohead’s Creep to my ears). We are at the start of a nightmare and the parallels to the propaganda being peddled in the current conflicts around the world cannot be mistaken.
And we’ll protect you from your behaviour.”
This is Not a Test continues the oppressive narrative, with ominous militaristic conversations, but it is a wonderfully accessible slab of sweeping, arena-like orchestral and melodic neo-prog with a memorable chorus and lightness of spirit. The prog-metal guitar bursts never overwhelm the music and Richard’s lyrical keyboards are beautiful to hear, flitting here and there. Vocally and musically Porcupine Tree’s influence is the strongest here, but the style fits perfectly within the context of the track. Given the musical density on show, it is surprisingly commercial.
Some lovely, solemn piano introduces a change of pace in Storm Warning. We follow the sad plight of ordinary people fleeing from the terrors that have been set upon them and the shires. It’s an amalgam of prog, alt-rock, pop and metal that twists and turns throughout. Orchestral swells of keyboards here, crunching guitar riffs there. An expressive guitar solo towards the end and a series of poignant harmonised chants throughout. Is there hope amongst the fear… but is it misguided?
We know it’s going to pass.
It came without a warning,
But nothing ever lasts.”
The ‘robotic’ inner voice of the king returns and introduces the contemplative and reflective Vertigo, telling us his doubts, fears and thoughts. He knows the personal darkness that he has fallen into. Electric piano notes resonate, and you almost feel pity for a man clearly out of his depth, before realising that his plight was very much self-inflicted and has led to the suffering of millions.
‘Cos I’ve fallen far enough.
And I don’t know who to trust,
And my thoughts look so corrupt.”
It’s almost a power ballad at times with the symphonic keyboard wash adding to the melancholy and the beauty in despair. Another poignant and well-judged guitar solo is heard from Ruud as the intensity increases. He never over plays his hand and as a result such instrumental flights feel fully integrated with the musical soundscape, which has hints of Alan Parsons, as well as traces of Marillion and even Muse.
Forests in the Fallout is probably the heaviest track on the album and the prog-metal guitar riffing, pounding drums from Darby Todd, pulsating bass from Simon Andersson and Richard’s busy keyboard runs reflect the urgency of the unfolding apocalyptic vision as the ‘Oblivion Protocol’ is unleashed. Another memorable, dark chorus keeps the momentum flowing, but there is a soft and sad reflective interlude later on, as the people wistfully and heartbreakingly consider the events of their demise, in a plaintive John Mitchell/Lonely Robot-like pop-prog melodic and harmonic style.
The second took us down.
So cordon off the test site,
And hide us underground.
And some things can’t be undone,
Once you light the fuse…”
This track really displays Richard’s creative merging of many styles and genres that effortlessly coalesce. At no time do you sense the music is ploughing a single furrow. The synergy is unique, even if the influences can be identified here and there, and the contribution of all the musicians all help complete his project vision perfectly.
The Fall (Part 2) drips with poignancy and bookends the album very satisfactorily as the king starts to make his return home, as the consequences of his decisions are there for all to see. Another role that he has failed to follow through successfully. Reprising the musical themes of Part 1, it has a cathartic Pink Floyd soundscape, together with a majestic guitar solo from Karl Groom before an understated conclusion, suggesting that the next stage of our protagonist’s life is to come, as the sad church bells of the shires ring out in the distance.
Until you’re home again,
Back to where you once belonged.
Back to the machine.
Well I hope you find your way.”
Will the lessons of this life experience be learnt? We will no doubt find out, as Richard says he has several sequels already planned. I for one will be interested to see how the ‘cosmic wheel of fate’ spins next time.
The Fall of the Shires is conceptual, modern progressive rock of the highest order, with a wonderful and diverse palette of musical styles. Melodic and symphonic/neo-prog grandeur, but remarkably accessible, where the prog-metal bite and drive are balanced by Richard’s softer vocals and never dominates the cinematic and lush orchestral sweep of the keyboards. With only one song edging above six minutes, these are complex and intricate mini epics where the playing never becomes overindulgent, as the compelling and intriguing dystopian tale unfolds. There really is something for everyone to be found in The Fall of the Shires, and not just for Threshold fans. Check it out now – this music is definitely not destined for oblivion!
01. The Fall (Part 1) (3:50)
02. Tormented (4:53)
03. Public Safety Broadcast (5:12)
04. This Is Not a Test (6:15)
05. Storm Warning (5:33)
06. Vertigo (5:03)
07. Forests in the Fallout (4:57)
08. The Fall (Part 2) (5:99)
Total Time – 41:42
Richard West – Vocals, Keyboards
Ruud Jolie – Guitars
Simon Andersson – Bass
Darby Todd – Drums
Karl Groom – Lead Guitar (tracks 1 & 8)
Record Label: Atomic Fire Records
Formats: CD, Digital, Vinyl
Country of Origin: U.K./Germany
Date of Release: 18th August 2023