Dream the Electric Sleep - Heretics Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothDream the Electric Sleep have put out a masterful sophomore album which demonstrates their dedication to originality and to the concept album.

Dream the Electric Sleep
Label: independent
Time: 11 tracks / 74:00 minutes

Though they aren’t prog in the classic sense of the word, Dream the Electric Sleep (a name that always goes through my misfiring synapses as some variation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) are a band with all the right pieces.  Heretics might not boast a twenty-minute epic, resounding musical themes, or fantasy-inspired lyrics, but the album still feels like one piece of music.  Its structure is well-formulated and demonstrates that focus on individual songs can still produce a final product that is entirely album-oriented.

A self-proclaimed “progressive concept-rock band” from Lexington, Kentucky, DTES are what I’ll call “progressive art rock” or “crossover prog.”  They write long songs (the average song length on Heretics is 6 minutes) with odd time changes, unusual structures, powerful guitar licks, and entire choirs’ worth of vocal harmonies.  Since its formation in 2009, the band has been comprised of Matt Page (vox/guitars/keyboards), Joey Waters (drums/vox), and Chris Tackett (bass).  Their debut release, Lost and Gone Forever, was a two-year, self-produced project released in 2011.  Heretics, their 2014 followup, picks up where they left off.

Thematically, Heretics is rooted in the idea of taking a stand in the name of belief and bearing the scorn that inevitably follows.  I’ll borrow Matt’s own words to describe the concept: “[Heretics] loosely follows Elizabeth, a woman caught between two worlds, one of social and familial obligation, and one born from a desire to work towards a better future for her daughter and for herself. The narrative takes place in the early 20th century, where Elizabeth joins the suffragette movement, fighting for women’s right to vote.”  However, while Elizabeth’s journey takes center stage, the album’s subject matter isn’t limited to her story alone.  The cover features the faces of such women as Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth, channeling elements of each woman’s story and rendering Heretics a universal statement.  Elizabeth’s story delves into personal frustrations, social hypocrisy, and even the self-contradictions that factor into all battles of belief.

In that regard, Heretics provides the listener with a very microscopic look at the incredibly fine lines that exist between love and anger, and between hope and cynicism: at any given point, we are simultaneously close to each extreme.  Elizabeth – a woman “raised right in the wrong time,” whose “body [is] bound, but [whose] thoughts are free” – learns this lesson firsthand in her struggle to interpret her own social obligations.  By “To Love is to Leave,” she becomes the first-person (perhaps biased) narrator of her own journey.  Her “I” eventually becomes a “we” by the concluding tracks – what may seem like a welcome change from her initial solitude of going against the grain, but which proves to be even more isolating because there is no genuine accountability to be found in the hive-minded mentality that arises with crowd-think.  Heretics also makes a statement about rising above the status quo of even our own supporters – of taking steps of belief while still knowing how difficult the road ahead will be, and being forced to evaluate one’s own stance to avoid compromising everything.

Musically, the band draws from a lot of influences.  On the prog side, Pink Floyd and Genesis have clearly left their mark; on the pop-rock/alternative side, I hear plenty of U2, The Myriad, and Radiohead.  Matt’s guitar work draws heavily from David Gilmour, The Edge, and Thom Yorke as well.  His writing is riff-heavy as opposed to chord-driven, rendering DTES’ compositions ethereal and even psychedelic at times.  Delay and reverb fill the album with dark melodic sections, shattered by huge Jimmy Page riffs, and blended together again through soft, melodic vocals.

Heretics begins with the rousing self-titled track.  A neat time change halfway through offers an initial taste of the prog elements which characterize DTES’ writing.  Gloriously uplifting until its cacophonous conclusion, “Heretics” serves as a direct introduction to the second track, “Elizabeth,” as well as the idea that to take a stand is to be branded.  It concludes with the rhetorical refrain, “Does it [that knowledge] shake you?”  On “Elizabeth,” I love the fact that the guitars and drums move simultaneously in different time signatures, echoing her emotionally divided sentiments.  Matt’s soaring vocals are supremely moving, aching with the burden of Elizabeth’s decision, and his first guitar solo finds its bluesy presence at the 4:55 minute mark.

“Utopic” contends with “To Love is to Leave” for my favorite track on the album.  I love the odd 3-3-2 rhythmic pattern and the haunting acoustic riff which begins the track.  Chris’s strong bass presence undergirds another guitar solo – this one in two parts, featuring a slide and heavy tremolo picking.  The vocal work on “To Love is to Leave” is heartfelt and painfully moving (though I could say that about every track on this album, frankly).  This song is very much an art rock exhibition, showcasing the band’s ability to write incredibly emotive tracks.  In fact, the first few minutes remind me strongly of material such as Ben Gibbard, Wayne Coyne, or Jim Ward might produce.  The beautiful instrumental change at 4:30 introduces a guitar/bass counter-melody which plows through what may be my favorite lyrical passage on Heretics: “This is the song of sorrow / This is the song of my debt / This is the timbre of woe / This is the tone of my regret.”  After the outro chorus, the track gradually fades into an ethereal swirl of harmonic guitar feedback, overlapped by the gentle patter of rainfall on a tin roof.

I could say so much about each individual track.  Each finds a unique voice in the mix.  Notable mentions are “It Must Taste Good” (driving riffs; experimental chunks; big guitar solos; drum patterns from Joey that remind me of John Bonham on Led Zeppelin IV) and “I Know What You Are” (acoustic intro; ethereal breakdown; unison passages & chops).  “Lost Our Faith” and “How Long We Wait” are two separate tracks, but they might as well be one 11+ minute song precluding the album’s conclusion.  It is here, at the end, that we reach the turning point, where the “crusader for the cause” can lose his or her way because the “cause can cost a lot.”  In that moment, there is perhaps a nod to ultimate Hope as the final defense to fall back upon: “Fear made you cross / Cross the sane divide / Here lays the cross / The cross of your divine / How long we wait to see the light.”  “Ashes Fall,” the album’s grand finale, concludes with a flurry of guitar and bass, while male and female voices in unison quote “Waiting” by Faith Wilding.  This final track is full of a restless combination of emotions: hope in the future, disgrace at personal compromise, despair for failure, and uncertainty because “the road is gone.”  Yet, contrasted with the poignant lines of “Waiting,” it acknowledges the truth that was presented at the very beginning of the album: being a heretic – someone chastised by the masses for a difference of opinion – is not an easy choice, and will be a journey of inextricably mingled joy and pain.

I love this album.  Heretics appeals to me on a number of levels – to my own sense of belief as well as to my love of unique music.  Fans of rock, alternative, prog, indie, experimental, and even post-hardcore will find something to love.  There are plenty of different flavors to enjoy here.  Dream the Electric Sleep have put out a masterful sophomore album which demonstrates their dedication to originality and to the concept album.  The themes are big enough to insert ourselves into them: we all have our battles to fight, our beliefs to uphold.  Heretics is an anthem to sing in the process.

Justin Carlton