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​The Contortionist @ The Newport 7/31/2015

Lisa Sanchez
(Sanchez/2015)
​The Contortionist are not your average progressive metal band, and the band's singer, Mike Lessard, is not what you would expect of a technical death metal vocalist. Lessard and his band mates are currently opening for Between the Buried on the band's "Coma Ecliptic" tour which kicked off the first week of July in Georgia.
           
The six-piece Indiana atmospheric metal band has been touring non-stop since the release of their most recent album, Language, which came out in September 2014. Language was also the first album that featured vocals by Lessard, who joined the band in 2013, and the singer says the crowd reaction is palpably different depending on what material the band is playing. "The reaction to [performing] Language has been awesome...there's a different reaction between the older material and Language...it's all been positive. I really couldn't ask for a better response."
           
Because the tour The Contortionist are currently on features progressive heavyweights like Between the Buried and Me and Animals as Leaders, the band is able to play to a crowd that is more receptive to their complex, multi-layered sound. Lessard said, "It's a lot more of a laid back crowd. I think a lot of the crowd would rather take in the performance than mosh and be part of the performance. But, that doesn't stop some of the crowds from going a little crazy."
           
Because The Contortionist's strengths lie in the band's ability to build a mood with their music it's difficult to imagine the same depth coming across in a live performance, with time limitations and outside interference, but Lessard assured it was more of an opportunity than a hindrance: "We try to capitalize on that and use those parts to add a new flair live and make it a little more interesting. Sometimes we'll start off even more ambient than what's on the album and slowly build up from there. We'll make it go bigger than what's on the album as well. It lets us improvise, fool around, and put our feelers out a little bit."
Mike Lessard demonstrates his intentional stage presence as The Contortionist perform at The Newport in Columbus, OH, on 7/31
(Sanchez/2015)
​For those who are unfamiliar with The Contortionist's unique sound, the band is able to combine the distinctly heavy and brooding instrumentals of metal and combine them with an ethereal and hypnotic composition and tone. The Contortionist are one of those few bands who are able to paint an entire picture with their music, delving into complex song building and diverse musicality. To a casual listener, it is difficult to imagine Lessard's dreamy, accomplished vocals coupled with heavy bass and distorted keyboard, but the singer described the band's ability to blend styles by naturally striving for balance in both their performances and their recordings. "Balance is a key phrase and we're always mindful of certain words during our writing process," the singer said.
           
Metal isn't always the easiest genre to break into; it is a subculture where the number of years a band has been together can translate to status and that mindset can be discouraging. That issue has come to light this summer with Rockstar Mayhem Festival's Kevin Lyman and Slayer's Kerry King making disparaging comments not only about Mayhem Festival, but about the state of metal and its fan base. Considering The Contortionist are a newer band (formed in 2007) comprised of members born in an era influenced by Slayer, I asked Lessard what his thoughts were on the vitality of the genre:
           
"Slayer are in a different boat than we are. Somebody who has seen Slayer 30 times is not as excited to go out and see Slayer. Whereas for us, we're newer, so we still carry a little more of a spark of curiosity for people. I think the scene is just different. Usually for a lot of older school guys change scares them a little bit. It's just a different day and age." said the vocalist. "...I think it [metal] does have longevity. I think what bands will be able to ride the wave of longevity is the question because there's only a top percentage of the crop that can ride a career out, it's a pretty fickle industry."
           
Although it can be a tough climb just to get to the middle, Lessard had some encouraging advice to bands that are trying to make a name for themselves: "If you're persistent success will come. There is no cookie cutter way of getting success. What works for some bands does not work for others. Persistence is key, hang in there, find the right opportunities and be nice to everyone you meet. In this industry, nobody wants to work with an asshole. Every tour you should look to be a better version of yourself. Every day, honestly."
           
Lessard is a very amiable dude and doesn't try and paint himself as some musical mastermind. "Anybody has the capability to do what I do, or what anyone does for that matter," stated Lessard. "There might be some genetic things that help people excel a little faster, but persistence is one of the strongest traits a person can have. You can't teach motivation." The singer said he found music at a very early age, which initially sparked his interest in art and performance. "I was raised around music. The performance aspect came around middle school. At that age, being put up on stage for people to watch was exciting for me and I like those high-pressure situations where all eyes are on me, as vain and selfish as that sounds," Lessard laughed, "but, now it's just become more of an art form to play a live show. It's very much a performance. Everything, from the way my body moves to the way my vocals work, I want it to be spot on and I want it to be mesmerizing...it's transformed from the excitement of playing in front of people to the excitement of building a performance."
           
He also described the disorienting nature of persistent touring, but said that getting a chance to perform every night makes the struggle all worth it. Even though the constant pace can be difficult, even when Lessard is off the road, he continues to hone his skills.
 
"I write for The Contortionist and for my own stuff. I'm a very focused individual when it comes to that so when you get your foot even remotely in the door that's when you have to work the hardest. That's usually when people let their foot off the gas. I practice everyday, whether it be recording practice or an instrument, anything that's going to expand my ability musically, I do it. I take general philosophies used in making that art and carry it over to music to try and help my writing."
           
The level of concentration, care, and practice Lessard and The Contortionist take in their performance is obvious as the band takes the stage at The Newport on July 31. The band is backlit with white light, setting the tone for their moody compositions, and they start their set off gently with "Holomovement" which built note-by-note until it became a towering cascade of guitar and keyboard.
           
Lessard has a voice made for love songs, but he is able to transition to gutter growls and ear-piercing screeches without missing a beat. It's enthralling as he accomplishes this while moving around the stage, stomping and moving to the rhythm of The Contortionist's songs. Lessard described his body as his instrument during our interview and that idea definitely comes across on stage.
 
His performance is purposeful and the singer doesn't make a move that isn't premeditated and crafted to enhance The Contortionist's music and atmosphere. The band's complex sound thrived in a live environment, bringing each accented tone and intricate cadence to life during the performance at the Newport. The Contortionist never missed a beat, and they all seemed perfectly in sync, as if their instruments had a way of communicating entirely independent of the men controlling them. The band performed with little interlude or conversation, unleashing "Flourish", "Sollipses", "Thrive" onto the crowd, as well as "Language I" and "Language II." I would argue that when compared with pillars of the progressive genre like Animals as Leaders and Between the Buried and Me, The Contortionist are equals in composition and performance. The Contortionist's performance at the Newport showed the synchronicity between the band and the high quality of their live shows.
           
The Contortionist's run on the "Coma Ecliptic" tour will end mid-August and after that Lessard says the band is booked up until April/May 2016 with domestic and European tour dates. However, after they return to the states the singer guarantees The Contortionist will be working on new material for the upcoming year.