Lengthy songs have for a long time been a staple in progressive music. Due to the sheer magnitude of some ideas, artists either feel writing a longer song allows them to fully express themselves or they don’t plan on it at all and the song just follows a natural progression, writing itself until they’ve gone over the ten, sometimes twenty-minute mark. Don’t get me wrong, I am totally behind the lengthy prog epic so long as it isn’t just an excuse for guitar wanking, but sometimes it is the true measure of a progressive artist or group that they fit all of their ideas into a conventional song structure. The shining jewel of an example of this is Fair To Midland.
I discovered them in 2011 through a friend who hadn’t realised that the band was progressive. He went out of his way to mention that his brother had been listening to an awesome group, and he played me one song (“Whiskey & Ritalin”) that seemed straight-forward. When I got home and looked them up, I found out that they were indeed quite progressive.
Hailing from the great state of Texas, Fair To Midland was founded in 1998 as what I consider an experimental branch of the then popular nu-metal sound. Two albums were released independently, 2001’s noisy but still highly experimental affair The Carbon Copy Silver Lining and 2004’s more artistic inter.funda.stifle. The latter album led to System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian signing them to his Serjical Strike strike label, resulting in the release of The Drawn and Quartered EP. That EP was made up of material from inter.funda.stifle and live recordings.
While I hate to say the band’s real career started with their major-label debut, I do believe the extra funds and ace production by David Bottrill (whose credits include albums by King Crimson, Tool, Fripp, and I Mother Earth, among many others) were invested wisely, resulting in the monumental 2007 album Fables from a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times is True. This album saw the band reworking their older material to match new material thus creating a stunning set of prog rock gems. On this disc, the band takes the storyteller approach. The artwork right down to singer Darroh Sudderth’s penchant for using strange and wonderfully unique vocal approaches just screams 1971/1972-era Genesis. That bit I’d mentioned earlier about fitting everything into conventional structures is at once apparent here as each song is fiendishly devised to be catchy and single-worthy and none of the solos are ever long and overblown.
The thing that usually screams out at me the most when I listen to prog is how well the artists function as a group. While bands like Yes have had revolving line-ups, the best records they put out were the ones in which all of the members were functioning as equals. Fables from a Mayfly is a stunning example. Sudderth, with his veritable tickle trunk of vocal styles and brilliantly abstract and poetic lyrics, soars throughout the disc and thus stands out quite apparently. The damn – DAMN – solid rhythm section of Brett Stowers (drums, percussion) and Jon Dicken (bassist – good beyond reason) stands out in many key places, such as in “A Seafarer’s Knot.” Guitarist Cliff Campbell pulls out a savage combination of chunky rhythm and awe-inspiring lead hooks, such as his work on “Vice/Versa.” Perhaps most remarkable to me (not because he’s better than the rest but because I simply do not hear a lot of unique keyboardists these days) is Matt Langley on keys. Unlike the work of highly touted modern keyboardists like Jordan Rudess (no disrespect to his talents, but dude’s more than a little overboard sometimes), Langley’s keys creep around beautifully in the listener’s periphery and he uses a range of stunning sounds to enhance the beauty of the songs, even when they are at their most savage. You can hear what I’m talking about in “April Fools and Eggmen” or throughout the breathtakingly beautiful “The Wife, The Kids, and the White Picket Fence.” Matt Langley is beyond a shadow of a doubt my favourite modern keyboardist.
Their second major record, and the one I bless as the one that introduced me to the band, Arrows and Anchors was released in 2011 and packs even more punches. Whereas the last album seemed to me like it was made with the idea being to have all of the songs possessing a similar sound, this album is the complete opposite. There are very few tracks on Arrows and Anchors that are similar to one another. Most every song on the disc possesses its own devilishly unique sound and almost all are of a strength that oozes single material. As such, it is hard to name standouts when the band covers such a wide array of sounds, but I would mention “Amarillo Sleeps On My Pillow.” After all, how many times does one get to hear southern-fried progressive rock? With banjo and everything?! This track is also a fine example of how vocal-layering as been used on this record to tremendous effect. Joe Barresi was the perfect choice to produce this band. His diverse background as engineer and producer puts the cherry on top of this record.
Before I move on from this album, there’s also a big dirty bit of metal-inspired fun in “Rikki Tikki Tavi” that is more than worth mentioning. In this track, Sudderth has honed his more aggressive side into a savage weapon rather than as something quirky, and he juxtaposes this with a soft and airy chorus. The album’s tremendous coda, “The Greener Grass,” is another one of my favourites. I don’t think I can express my joy without using a string of expletives which would be unsuitable for publication.
Late in 2011, drummer Brett Stowers and bassist Jon Dicken left the band and were replaced by Logan Kennedy and Ryan Collier respectively. Unfortunately, the band is currently on indefinite hiatus, with sources offering a variety of statuses. Many of the band members are currently working on different projects. There was talk of Darroh Sudderth releasing a solo album but there don’t seem to be any recent developments to speak of. Of course, I wait with bated breath for another record from the band proper, but the band’s official website claims this could be a while. Until then, we at least have two remarkable masterpieces to listen to. All said, neither of Fair To Midland’s two major-label releases is better than the other. I believe both of the albums and the band itself to be landmark events in the modern history of progressive music.
(This article was originally published by Wave Maker Magazine in October 2012. It has been altered slightly from its original form. – Editor)
RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.