There is perhaps no better slogan in rock music than ‘Strings Are Voices,’ the maxim adopted by Texas-based instrumental prog outfit Scale The Summit, because it’s not easy to make it as an instrumental rock band. It is an extra special challenge to create concise and emotive rock songs with nothing but strings and percussion to tell the story.
In a style often maligned for self-indulgence and affectation, Scale The Summit have found a blissful space between musicality and technical fireworks—that is, they focus entirely on the songs, leaving their egos behind and using their collective virtuosity only as a means to say what they want to say.
“The most compliments we get are that we’re not just a guitar wizardy band,” explains guitarist and lead songwriter Chris Letchford. “Yeah, our stuff is really complex, technical music, but it’s still not over-the-top, shred-based. That would push a lot of people away.”
Letchford and his mates’ commitment to melody results in a particularly thoughtful atmosphere on their 2011 full-length, The Collective, released via Prosthetic Records. The band is triumphant—anthemic even—when they play heavy, but they’re also sparse and subdued in the right places. “I think we’ve found that perfect medium to where people that don’t even listen to metal can dig us,” says Letchford, “[people] that do listen to metal dig us because there’s enough of that influence in there, and the people that want a singer, it’s not boring enough to where it’s lacking enough of those ‘Strings Are Voices’ leads that we write.”
And no one could doubt that their roots are in heavy music. Letchford credits fellow Texan ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott of Pantera and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine for motivating him to play guitar well and write his own songs. “Those guys really made me want to take guitar seriously,” he recalls. “All I did was practice throughout high school for like four to six hours a day. I barely made it through. I just wanted to play guitar all the time. I would hear it from my teacher every day, ‘You need to quit playing guitar. You’re not gonna do anything.’ And here I am today, playing guitar as a profession.”
Letchford credits the genesis of his band largely to inspiration from fellow progressive metallers Between The Buried And Me. After going to different high schools, he and childhood friend/co-guitarist Travis LeVrier reconnected at a record store in their late teens while talking BTBAM. The two went on to form a local band in their hometown before moving to L.A. to attend Musicians Institute, where they met drummer Pat Skeffington, whom they approached because of his BTBAM tee shirt and the drumsticks poking out of his backpack. “We always resolve back to BTBAM for some reason, but that’s how it worked.” Bassist Jordan Eberhardt came into the fold later, after the trio put out a MySpace classified ad saying they were seeking some bottom end.
Although Letchford makes the formation of the band seem relatively uncomplicated and by happenstance, there was some drama early on as he tells of LeVrier’s brief stint with Florida mathcore group Into The Moat. LeVrier filled in for the band on guitar for a one-month engagement with BTBAM, Black Dahlia Murder, Cephalic Carnage, and it wasn’t long before he called Letchford to tell him he was thinking about joining Into The Moat permanently. The band eventually broke up, but for the time being Letchford was admittedly let down and Scale The Summit entertained the notion of continuing on as a four-piece with just one guitar, bass, drums and a vocalist.
The current Scale The Summit lineup was cemented after Letchford sent LeVrier a demo of the song “Omni” from what would become Scale The Summit’s first album, Monuments. “He said, ‘Never mind, I’m coming back,’” Letchford laughs. “So I was lucky enough to have written a song that was good enough to convince him to change his mind.”
Despite the emphasis on Letchford and LeVrier’s phenomenal guitar playing, The Collective gives the rhythm section plenty of room to get loose, or hold it down as the case may be. Skeffington does an admirable job driving the songs forward, laying down precise double-kicks for the heavy parts or expertly articulated cymbal and tom work for more subdued passages. “Colossal,” the album’s opening track, boasts a bass solo from Eberhardt in just the first 90-seconds of the song, one of many tunes where he aptly carries lead duties.
Letchford is eager to emphasize his bassist’s important role in the band, praising his feel and his affinity for coming up with interesting counterpoints and melodies. “Even though we are still a very guitar-oriented band,” he says, “we’ve had band practices before without [Eberhardt] there for whatever reason, and it feels so empty and the songs don’t feel the same. Like “The Levitated” for sure, because when the bass comes in, it’s like his part really pulls you down into that dark carnival mood… And it leads the song around and you follow and listen to the melody. Our chord work with the [two-handed] tapping for that song is not the lead of the song, even though a lot of people may think it is. But when you really listen to it, the mood is set by the bass.”
When it comes to writing, Letchford shoulders much of that load, putting together guitar parts in layers and leaving his rhythm section largely up to their own devices, with a few suggestions here and there. He envisions accompaniment as he writes guitars, but likes to afford Skeffington and Eberhardt the opportunity to interpret his work for themselves and potentially bring something new to the compositions. “I teach a lot of songwriting, composition stuff when I’m off tour,” he explains. “So the number one thing I tell people is that you [can’t] come to me wanting to write like me because you’re always gonna write like you. When I sit down and write, I just sit down and do it naturally.”
After all the band has accomplished as writers and as a working group, he’s justifiably proud of them for staying together over three albums and into their eighth year, saying they are on the same page now musically, more than ever. The Collective is proof of that.
So after having done tours with Dream Theater, Between The Buried And Me, Cynic, Devin Townsend, Protest The Hero and Periphery—all luminaries in progressive rock—Scale The Summit are finally embarking on a U.S. headlining tour this winter. But preparing to play such demanding music as theirs for 80 minutes a night is a challenge. “We’re having to relearn seven or eight songs that we haven’t played live in like two years,” confides Letchford. “I think once in the last two years we played an hour-long headlining set randomly somewhere in the middle of the country on a day off or something. But now, since we’ll be playing 80-minutes every day, we’re trying to get our stamina and endurance up in order to perform that stuff accurately with little to no mistakes.” Rehearsals, he says, utilize much of the band’s pre-tour energy.
Letchford admits he’s had to refer to the tab book he wrote for the band’s second album, Carving Desert Canyons , and to spending a significant amount of time listening to their first album trying to figure out parts.
In addition to the long set featuring material from each Scale The Summit release, the band will be playing a new song, called “Redwoods,” on the tour, which will be made available on a limited edition vinyl of The Collective.
Furthermore, Letchford says the band will be touring internationally throughout 2012 before woodshedding as the year expires to work on their fourth album, so this will be the last chance many of their American fans will have to see for up to a year.
The band comes to The Barbary in Philly on Feb. 15 and Architekt Music in Butler, NJ, a day earlier on Valentine’s Day.
Any Feb. 14 show is sure to draw the ire of prog-dude girlfriends all over the Tri-State Area, but Letchford isn’t concerned, stating, “I’m always a guy that goes by on the ‘I don’t really celebrate fake, made-up holidays,’ which is pretty much all of them. So I would just say that it’s a normal Tuesday, and come on and hang out.”
He goes on to discuss the venue [profiled in The Aquarian last year, after its opening] from an artists’ perspective, “[Architekt] is actually really cool because it’s a recording studio, but they have a live room in there, so the sound quality is going to be the best you’re gonna get.”
A headlining tour was certainly a longtime coming for Scale The Summit, and they’re excited, even though it won’t compare to the comfort of previous tours, like their first continental tour with Dream Theater. Letchford speaks longingly of the prog masters’ daily catering and of playing to crowds of thousands and thousands of eager fans. “Just to be able to play with some guys that I’ve looked up to for so many years… It’s my dad’s favorite band; it was just an honor to just be with them.”
And now, Scale The Summit is going out on their own, beginning their career as a headlining band while influencing countless other musicians. It’s not outrageous to think that one day some young progressive rock upstarts might be similarly honored to tour with Scale The Summit.
Scale The Summit will perform at Architekt Music in Butler, NJ, on Feb. 14 and The Barbary in Philly on Feb. 15. For more information, go to scalethesummit.com.