In a career dating back to the late 1980s, Threshold have racked up 10 studio albums plus a host of live albums and other collections. In recent years, however, their studio work rate appeared to have slowed down, with a five-year gap between 2007’s Dead Reckoning and March Of Progress.
Prog heavyweights Threshold talk line-up changes, leaving their angsty days behind them and how the creation of the new album was the smoothest yet.
By their recent standards, issuing the excellent For The Journey _a mere two years after their last album appears almost unduly hasty. Keyboardist Richard West – one of only two survivors from the line-up that released debut album _Wounded Land back in 1993 – declares confidently that Threshold have now regained greater momentum.
Tragic circumstances surrounded the five-year gap between albums eight and nine, with the departure from the band and subsequent death of singer Andrew ‘Mac’ McDermott (covered in Prog 30). Mac’s departure prompted the return of vocalist Damian Wilson for his third stint with the band. “We found that we worked really well as a touring unit with Damian, which we hadn’t felt so much in the latter years with Mac,” West says.
With plenty of touring with Wilson under their collective belt both before and after the release of March Of Progress, Threshold were determined to make a swift return to the studio. “We made a concerted effort after the tour to get straight back into the studio,” West reveals. “We’re not getting any younger. In fact, I’m already looking forward to making the next album.”
His enthusiasm stems in no small part from how smoothly the sessions were for Threshold’s latest release. By contrast, West regards its predecessor as having been much more laboured. “I remember March Of Progress as not easy to make. I don’t listen to that album very fondly as I really didn’t enjoy the studio process. In five years away from the studio as a band, you forget how to make a record, perhaps, and how to work together. I look back at that album as one of transition and turmoil, but we got rid of all the wrinkles with it. This time we really hit the ground running and it was really enjoyable. With For The Journey we’re on to smooth waters again.”
Evidence of those smooth waters is exemplified by the fact that for the first time, Threshold have managed to retain Wilson’s services for two successive albums. Indeed, he has now fronted the band for seven years, following two considerably shorter tours of duty in the 1990s for the band’s first and third albums.
However, with over a dozen musicians having passed through their ranks since their first incarnation as a metal covers band 26 years ago, West laughs off the suggestion that Threshold have long-term stability. “We’ve said that so many times over the years when we’ve come up with a new line-up. And then before you know it, it’s all fallen apart again. So I don’t want to tempt fate! But hopefully Damian will be here for the next two albums as well. We seem to be getting on really well as a unit and hopefully many more albums will define that.”
Musically, For The Journey has greater sonic consistency than its predecessor. “It’s a lot more coherent as a body of work,” West agrees. “March Of Progress had quite a few nooks and crannies and different flavours so that it feels a bit more disparate to me. Whereas For The Journey feels really focused and flows beautifully right from the first note to the last.”
That focus is helped by the writing being back primarily in the hands of guitarist Karl Groom and West, after contributions on March Of Progress from Wilson, second guitarist Pete Morten and bassist Steve Anderson. Indeed,
…Journey has been exclusively penned by Groom and West, save for Morten’s Siren Sky.
Despite such a deep back catalogue, West dismisses any notion that he and Groom are ever in danger of exhausting their supply of riffs and ideas, and the material on …Journey certainly finds the pair in a rich vein of songwriting form. Watchtower On The Moon is a strident opener, while The Box is an epic that recalls the mighty Pilot In The Sky Of Dreams _from _Dead Reckoning. West is particularly proud of the ballad Lost In Your Memory, which features a towering vocal from Wilson and
a gorgeous arrangement. “I feel like I’ve been trying to write the perfect ballad ever since
I was born and this is the closest I’ve got.”
West doesn’t regard ballads as anomalous within Threshold, believing they punctuate the heavier material. “There’s that extra emotion you get from a ballad which you can’t get in the same way from an uptempo track.”
Similarly, the lyrical aspect is close to West’s heart. “Lyrics are a great opportunity for me to assess my views and, without being pompous, if you come across something that feels useful, to share it with people that might appreciate it. Some of these songs are about forgiveness, honesty and perseverance – perhaps more grown-up subjects than we used to cover. In the old days it was rants about the environment and politics. Now it’s more pointing the finger back at myself.”
Does West feel less earnest and strident with another couple of decades behind him? “Absolutely. When you’re younger, you spot an injustice and you shout about it. When you’re older, you realise all you got was a croaky voice and nothing changed. It can be much better to try to change yourself in some situations. Ranting and raving can get a bit boring.”
Irrespective of balladry and thoughtful lyrics, ultimately Threshold remain a prog metal band, albeit one that should appeal to a far broader rock audience demographic than their profile suggests. However, West claims that the band continue an upwards sales curve with each studio album.
“We’ve seen a steady growth all the way through the catalogue,” he states. 2002’s Critical Mass first breached the German album charts, and since then the band have found themselves getting into more album charts and increasing sales. “While everyone is complaining that their sales are plummeting because of illegal downloading and Spotify, ours are increasing. Although it does make you wonder what they would be if people weren’t listening to us on Spotify! But we’re happy with our lot, honing our craft and still growing our fanbase.”
It could be argued, though, that Threshold’s fanbase should be much bigger. After all, prog metal is in rude commercial health, evidenced most notably by the success of Dream Theater, while Mastodon have made it into the UK’s Top 10 album chart. Threshold’s Achilles’ heel may be their numerous musical interests outside of the band. Are these a welcome distraction or do they detract from Threshold reaching their full potential?
“You pose it as a question but that sounds like a comment,” West responds. “There’s probably some truth in that, though. Artistically, it’s always nice to flex your muscles and spread your wings in another direction – there’s other stuff we want to do.”
Indeed there is. Groom is busy with production work for the likes of Dragonforce, there’s West’s League Of Lights, as well as work on an instrumental piano album. Meanwhile, Wilson fronts Headspace and his acoustic Iron Maiden covers band Maiden United, while drummer Johanne James fronts Kyrbgrinder and Morten leads My Soliloquy.
“One of the positives is that you come back from different projects and playing with different musicians with extra freshness and something new to bring to the table.”
Financial considerations also play a role. “We’re selling more than we used to but it’s never been enough to make a living. So we’ve always got to do the extra work, not because we want to be away from Threshold, but because we all have to pay the mortgage.”
Nevertheless, let’s hypothesise about what would happen if Threshold’s members devoted the vast majority of their time to the band. “You make a very valid point and I shall raise it at our next band meeting. First of all, though, I’ll have to instigate band meetings!”
West chuckles before adding more seriously: “For The Journey has been focused on maintaining the momentum of last year’s tour and getting straight back into the studio and be a bit more full-time on Threshold. Hopefully we will see that pay dividends.”
Those dividends should include Threshold reaching new fans, although their approach to touring could do with some revision: this autumn will see them play eight shows in Germany but only two in the UK. “Dream Theater play Wembley, while we play The Underworld or The Garage,” West admits of Threshold’s typical London dates. “Somehow Dream Theater have got everything right and we’ve got some growing to do.”
For The Journey is out on September 22 via Nuclear Blast. See www.thresh.net for details.