Oblivion Protocol – The Fall of the Shires

English prog metal veterans, Threshold, dazzled minds with last year’s Dividing Lines album, but their predecessor record is the raison d’etre for Oblivion Protocol’s existence. Threshold keyboardist, Richard West, enjoyed creating the band’s 2017 Legends of the Shires LP so much, that he decided to form a side project to write its sequel. On board with him is Within Temptation guitarist, Ruud Jolie, and Devin Townsend drummer, Darby Todd. Darkstar’s Simon Andersson joins on bass with West handling vocals. No wonder Nuclear Blast spin-off, Atomic Fire Records, offered them a recording contract on the spot. Oblivion Protocol are a mouth-watering prog rock supergroup that you’d expect to find on the roster of Inside Out Music, next to Dream Theater and the Neal Morse Band.

You might ask why Threshold have no plans to write the follow up to a record that achieved notable commercial success in Germany and Austria. Opener, ‘The Fall, Pt.1’, sounds exactly like Threshold, and that’s because it bears a deliberate resemblance to the melody of ‘The Shire (Part 1)’. A sinister radio feed cuts in and out of blockbuster effects like a coming storm until a light strum of acoustic guitar emerges from the debris. Richard West takes John Lennon as his inspiration for his vocal melodies as he guides us through the opening scene for the drama ahead. “Once there was a king with one demand / How was he supposed to tame the land? / He summoned his advisors to his hall / And asked for their solutions to it all.” It seems the solutions are to create a new big brother infrastructure to control the restless population, something which modern China can claim to have mastered with high levels of success in our digital age. Here, West inserts his trademark ethereal keyboard chords into the mix as if hesitating to put one foot forward on a journey into the unknown. The nod to Dave Gilmour in Richard Groom’s guest guitar solo transports you to the halcyon days of Pink Floyd.

Though the metallic extravaganza of Threshold’s music plays second fiddle to the overall prog rock narrative, you should find plenty to keep you on edge during the listening experience of this record. Most songs start with a dystopian public broadcast informing you of new restrictions on your freedom in an advanced bureaucratic state. “We have a problem – you are not ready for launch. Repeat: You are not ready for launch,” is the message at the beginning of ‘Tormented’. Cue the staccato guitar and drums and a hard rock thrash metal riff that rears its head only once more after a sensational start. The pick-up in the bridge sounds like Ross Jennings of Haken, but the adrenaline created in the intro remains under lock and key until the inevitable guitar and keyboard trade off when emotions reach their highest point. “It’s vitally important that you listen carefully and do exactly what we tell you,” declares the monotone American transmission voice in ‘Public Safety Broadcast’. The chorus will remind you of the early King’s X records when Doug Pinnick surrenders the mic to Ty Tabor. Piano and electronic percussion permeate through the unease with high reverb synth motifs as West’s perspicacious voice repeats the chorus: “Sooner or later, you’ll feel safer / And we’ll protect you from your behaviour.” It’s not quite as brutal as George Orwell’s framing of this message in 1984: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’

You can tell most of these songs come from the dexterous hands of a keyboard player. The guitars often feel like the last ingredient added to the mix with limited room for expression, other than when the time comes to bend the strings and work the scales for the emotive progressive blues soloing. ‘This is Not a Test’ festers on a Fates Warning riff with flourishing keyboard melodies to enhance its power, but the six minutes and fourteen seconds could do with more non-repeating sections like a Dream Theater composition that knows how far to stretch the elastic. You might think it harsh to criticise a band for being insufficient in their indulgences, but this is prog rock, right? “Line 100 – Go to line 100,” instructs the robotic voice in the intro to ‘Storm Warning’. This one will remind you of the riffing from the latest Black Orchid Empire album but with an anthemic chant of “whoa-oh-oh-owe” in all the right places. West’s voice is strong enough to invoke a sense of empathy with the fictitious characters of his story. You can sense the anguish of the hero’s self-doubt in ‘Vertigo’: “Do you know which way is up? / Because I’ve fallen far enough.” A less pompous Tears for Fears might have produced something like this back in the day.

The main criticism of this album is its reliance on acoustic strumming and Pink Floyd imitations, yet we cannot be too harsh on Richard West. His ability to carry the listener through the chapters of a dystopian rock drama is second to none. A few more hard-rocking numbers like ‘Forests in the Fallout’ would enhance the experience even further. This one reminds you what Megadeth sound like when Dave Mustaine sees platinum records on his wall. Listen to the drop-C tuning of the guitar incursions as they work towards the melodic chorus in a flurry of crunchy palm-muted notes. This is how to satisfy the instincts of a cerebral metalhead in the throes of a serious meditation on the consequences of tyrannical government.

It’s clear that Oblivion Protocol can be more than just a supergroup with a one-off purpose. There’s nothing stale about their dystopian concept, and a part three to the Legends of the Shires saga would be most welcome. The evidence here suggests there is still more to come from Richard West and company.



Release Date: 18/08/2023

Record Label: Atomic Fire Records

Standout tracks: Tormented, Public Safety Broadcast, Forests in the Fallout

Suggested Further Listening: Threshold – Legends of the Shires (2017), Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979), Dream Theater – Falling into Infinity (1997)