Among the various types of rockers one encounters in the world, I believe the heart of the prog rocker is uniquely romantic. In contrast to all other genres, the prog rocker is the one who sees music making as a mythic quest and a sacred calling. The prog rocker has a story to tell that is so epic, the danger and drama can only be conveyed through labyrinthine compositions and spellbinding feats of musical virtuosity. The prog rocker is going to unsheath Excalibur from the stone and slay the dragon while on his way to Mordor to destroy the One Ring while simultaneously telling you the story of how Stonehenge was built. It’s an artistic quest that many attempt, but at which very few truly succeed. Especially in 2017.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to attest that Lainey Schooltree has chased that Holy Grail and brought it back to the land of the mortals in the form of 100 minute epic called Heterotopia. She has kept her covenant with the ancient gods of progressive rock and delivered a work that deserves a place in the pantheon. After seeing Heterotopia in its embryonic state, I was especially excited to see how it translated in a proper live setting in its final form. Not only did it exceed my already high expectations, but I left having the sense that I had witnessed the launch of a significant work that demands to be judged on the global stage.
Heterotopia has an elaborate narrative, but you don’t need to follow it or even understand it in order to enjoy it as a pure rock spectacle. Backed by a 10 person Greek chorus, some choice lighting and two exceptionally well timed releases of dry ice, the five members of Schooltree powered through Heterotopia in its entirety like world class heavyweight champions.
Every band aspires to make an album that’s all killer and no filler, but Heterotopia actually is one of those records. There were, of course, notable standouts. In the role of Metanoia, Kristin Santangelo was positively captivating in “The Leitmaiden” and “Enantiodromia”. There is probably no one on earth better suited to the role of Enantiodromia than the incomparable Mali Sastri. “The River” is the one track on Heterotopia where the emotional tenor turns pitch black, but it delivers just as much doom laden grandeur as you’ll get from Magma or Van Der Graaf Generator. In addition to her already considerable feats of vocal sorcery, the combination of her wild eyed stare, gothic makeup and flared black dress left you feeling as though you were in the presence of a supernatural being. And a rather terrifying one at that.
Besides providing so many of the glorious backup harmonies to many of the songs, the 10 person Greek chorus had several standout sections of their own. “The Bottom of the River” managed to synthesize English folk music and Sondheim all in one piece. “Rocksinger” sounds something like a track The Sweet were commissioned to write for Schoolhouse Rock, but was rejected for its references to Suzi’s indiscriminate drug usage and sexual favors.
Heterotopia is solidly a work of progressive rock, but it never strays too far from its rhythmic anchors in the straight ahead rock tradition. The motorik pulse of “Dead Girl” draws you in and builds up to an outrageous climax.
For my money, “The Edge Annihilate” is the song for the ages. I’m convinced it’s the hidden track from The Sensual World in which Kate Bush collaborated with Journey. It’s “Don’t Stop Believing” for the goth crowd with backup harmonies provided by the Trio Bulgarka. It’s a strange conjunction, but I swear I was ready to hoist a lighter aloft as soon as Tom Collins’ fill kicked off that final chorus.
By far, the musical and emotional pinnacle of the performance was “Day of the Rogue”. Starting with a piano riff that sounds damn close to “Great Gig in the Sky”, “Day of the Rogue” is the culmination of Suzi’s transformation and the beginning of her reentry into the physical world. It’s a testament to Schooltree’s artistry that she’s able to constantly subvert your expectations by setting the emotional tenor of the music against the dramatic events and make it soar. The final stretch of the song was among the most triumphant two minutes of gloom I’ve ever heard. Even without a Stonehenge replica descending from the ceiling to cap it all off, it was an experience that was only heightened by the release of dry ice and a dazzling flourish of psychedelic lights. One could imagine that if they continued to ramp up the design and visual production values, Heterotopia could easily be a big ticket entertainment option in any major city.
This incarnation of Schooltree is the second iteration I’ve seen and is marked by a complete turnover in the bass and guitar duties and the welcome addition of a dedicated synthesizer player. While it’s eminently clear each musician is accomplished in his own right, they exercise such discipline in executing this music, it’s often hard to tell where Lainey’s vision ends and their individualism begins. Filling the role vacated by the estimable Brendan Burns, Sam Crawford more than proved his mettle by juggling rhythmic chores, melodic lines, sonic textures and one all too short solo in “Specter Lyfe”. The addition of Peter Danilchuk on synthesizer was an inspired and welcome addition to the Schooltree sound. Besides all of the excellent written material, he churned out some first rate spacey psychedelia on “The Abyss”. Forming the foundation of the entire musical edifice of Heterotopia, Ryan Schwartzel on bass and Tom Collins on drums were models of taste, economy and restraint.
Decked out in goth chick glam, Schooltree herself seemed content to let Heterotopia speak for itself. And that’s exactly as it should be. While so many are eager to confer automatic legitimacy and priority to “womyn in rock” these days, Lainey Schooltree has simply thrown down a gauntlet of stone cold artistic achievement. Heterotopia is a musical monument that stands tall in the valley of its ancestors and demands to be judged alongside them. I may not have seen Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis back in their heyday. But I did see Heterotopia at Oberon in 2017. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a perfectly comparable experience.