Houston's Scale the Summit Reaches a New Peak with The Migration

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It's too hard not to stick a climbing pun in the headline of an article about Scale the Summit. The local four-piece has been on a steep upward trajectory ever since releasing Carving Desert Canyons, its first album for Prosthetic Records, in 2009.

That disc helped them score tours with the likes of Dream Theater, Between the Buried and Me and Protest the Hero, putting STS on the map with a coast-to-coast crowd of progressive music fans. Scale the Summit kept that momentum by hitting the road again hard behind its 2011 follow-up, The Collective, building up their name considerably with heavy rock's brainier seekers.

By anyone's standard, it's been a pretty impressive rise so far for a Houston band purveying largely unclassifiable instrumental epics. Now Scale the Summit is set to ascend higher still with The Migration, released today. After five years of wandering in the studio wilderness, STS axemaster Chris Letchtord says the band has finally got the sound it's been striving for on wax -- thanks in large part to producer Jamie King (BTBAM, Devin Townsend).

"We wanted to focus on getting the natural kind of organic-sounding production," Letchford says. "The last couple records kind of were more overly compressed and -- in my opinion -- flat-sounding. We finally got an engineer who understood what we meant by 'natural and organic:' more like our live sound, versus a completely squashed record.

"Jamie King just got it," he adds. "We got lucky, I guess."

A less-skilled hand at the console might have been forgiven for not quite knowing what to do with The Migration. Combining the percussive pulse of metal with the spirited exploration of prog-rock and the oblong noodling of fusion, it's a record that's challenging by design. Living up to its title in the fullest sense, The Migration traverses the borders between genres as if they were nothing more than invisible lines on a map.

"There's definitely no boundaries," Letchford says. "We like to just sit down and write; what comes out comes out. Which is really cool: I don't want to screen myself, or think, 'Oh, the kids won't like this,' because at the end of the day, we're writing music that we want to enjoy playing and listening to."

That enjoyment shines through in the band's performances on the new record. The densely layered songs are propelled by a spirit of adventure: the sound of four instruments at home on the move, rarely staying in one place for long.

Despite the album's ambling complexity, though, Letchford says that the came together quickly. The axemaster and his shredding soul mate, Travis Levrier, put their guitar parts together first, then delivered sheet music to drummer Pat Skeffington and new bassist Mark Mitchell. That allowed the band to assemble the new material almost immediately, he says.

"It's not like sitting down in a group and wasting countless hours jamming a part out," Letchford says. "I write really quickly, and we've playing together for so long now that everyone's kind of on the same page, so it goes really smoothly."

Scale the Summit will debut new musical journeys like "The Odyssey" and "The Traveler" for its hometown fans June 26 when the band floats into Fitzgerald's with Intronaut. Although Letchford and Levrier started the group in L.A. nine years ago while they were attending the Musicians Institute, the decision to relocate back home was an easy one to make back in 2006.

"Here, living expenses are just so much cheaper," Letchford says. "It's easier for us to come and go on tour having smaller living expenses. We're also kind of in the middle of the country instead of driving all the way from L.A. to New York to start a tour. It's made it a lot easier on us."

As for missing out on L.A.'s storied music scene, Letchford says it makes little difference. Scale the Summit doesn't fit in there. In truth, they don't fit in much anywhere -- which is precisely how they like it.

"When it comes down to bands like us, we're too outside the norm to be pigeonholed as one thing," the guitarist says. "In a way, it works in our favor. We're able to do so many more things and kind of appeal to a larger crowd without having a specific label. It's fun being in a band where we can kind of play to anybody."

Scale the Summit will spend the summer sharing its musical journey with anybody and everybody on its trek across the U.S., capped off by what promises to be a large and friendly crowd of kindred spirits at Camden, N.J.'s YEStival -- a festival headlined by the legendary English prog heroes Yes.

To a lifelong fan like Letchford, that's rarified air to find yourself climbing into.

"I grew up listing to Yes," he says. "My dad was huge into Yes. It's just an honor to be able to say we got to play with them, not to mention actually going through with playing with them. From growing up, they're one of the bands that I still love.

"Yes still definitely holds a place in my iTunes for constant music rotation."

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