Skyharbor Show Their Inner Linkin Park on New Album 'Sunshine Dust'
The good stuff on Sunshine Dust makes it a generally decent listening experience. Skyharbor knows what they're doing as far as playing their instruments.
7 September 2018
Skyharbor began as a solo project for guitarist Keshav Dhar back in 2010, but circumstances led to the band expanding into an instrumental trio and eventually into a full five-piece band with a vocalist and second guitarist. That being the 2010's, band members arrived or were recruited from around the world via the internet as well as from Dhar's native India. Reading their bio, it sounds like the band took quite a while to coalesce as a unit, with their double-disc debut featuring a different singer on each disc, a drummer and bassist being replaced, and another vocalist touring with and singing on their second album. With the release of Sunshine Dust, the band now features Eric Emery on vocals. For those keeping track, that's four recordings with four different singers. But Dhar remains the main songwriter and de facto leader of the band.
The press materials for Sunshine Dust throw out the band names Linkin Park, Deftones, Devin Townsend, Incubus, and Karnivool as inspirations for Skyharbor. But really, it's like 85-90% of that first one. The shadow of Linkin Park looms large over this album, as the guitars alternately soar and crunch and Emery sings passionately in the same clenched vocal style that made Chester Bennington so recognizable. But Skyharbor doesn't have a rapper-shouter a lá Mike Shinoda, so they aren't quite a carbon copy.
The album opens with a quiet, 80-second long introduction called "Signal" before kicking into "Dim", with crunching bass, chiming guitars, and a chorus that allows Emery to belt it out. It has a middle section where everything gets quiet and slow and Emery softly coos while the guitars chime out notes here and there before a complicated guitarpeggio comes in and the drums start hitting, and there's a guitar solo, and it pushes back into the chorus one more time. All this should theoretically be effective hard rock songwriting. But nothing about "Dim" sticks. The song construction is just fine, the vocals soar, the guitars riff, and the bass and drums are clearly present, but none of it catches the ear. And that's what a lot of Sunshine Dust is like. It's competent but unmemorable, which doesn't leave a lot to talk about.
But there are some notable exceptions. This album features 13 tracks over a full hour, and Dhar and company manage to strike gold a few times in that hour. The first time is on track four, "Synthetic Hands". It's is a song that follows the same hard rock mold, but finds some hooks along the way. The verses have a skittering sixteenth-note guitar pattern accompanying the singing that gives the song significant forward motion. But it's the big, catchy chorus that clicks here. "Pull me in / Synthetic hands" is a weird turn of phrase but it has a strong melody, and it's memorable.
Later on, "Ugly Heart" uses the same template and does it nearly as effectively. Its opening verse features the lyrics "Here you left me all alone again / One step closer / to death / Try to keep me dancing on the edge." I'm not sure if putting "one step closer" and "on the edge" a few words apart is an intentional Linkin Park reference or not, but it's certainly leaning into the comparison either way. Anyway, this song has another big, catchy refrain, going "Hard to believe that / I barely made it out alive", while the guitars crunch along beneath the vocals. It also has a bridge that goes from loud and intense to quiet and subdued, with a nice laid-back guitar solo at the end of the quiet section before the song explodes again.
The album also has two more explicitly metal songs where Emery gets to show off his shouty-growly voice. "Dissent" has some satisfyingly crunchy down-tuned guitar work that continues throughout the song even when Emery reaches the requisite melodic chorus. It's a different sound for the band and shows where the Deftones comparisons come in. "Menace" is more melodic at the start, but with a rumbling bassline foreshadowing the heavier section to come. This is a song that builds to a chaotic climax where the guitars and vocals build into a barn-burning heavy finish straight out of an early '00s act like Shadows Fall or Killswitch Engage.
The most interesting song on the album might be the fully instrumental "The Reckoning". Freed from having to worry about vocals, Dhar seemingly focuses on composition, pushing the song through several different styles over the course of six-plus minutes in a way that feels very natural. A gentle, opening gives way to a pulsing second section driven by pounding drum rhythms. Eventually, guitars join the drums, but subtly, letting the rhythm keep the focus. A short break gives way to low, distorted bass filling out the same rhythmic pattern and then the guitars come in, and the song becomes heavier but built on the same basic rhythm pattern. Everything drops out just after the five-minute mark and the song returns to the same style as the quiet opening, gently fading away.
The good stuff on Sunshine Dust makes it a generally decent listening experience. Skyharbor knows what they're doing as far as playing their instruments. And I'll give them extra credit for the production that keeps Krishna Jhaveri's bass audible at all times and often with distinct parts of his own. We're 30 years out from Metallica's …And Justice for All and still far too many heavy bands take cues from that record and neglect their bass player as anything more than a sort of second rhythm guitar that just happens to play an octave lower. Skyharbor doesn't do that, and it's worth mentioning. But aside from the good bass and the five tracks I noted, the other eight songs on the album just kind of drift by, inoffensively Linkin Parking it up. In the age of streaming, it's really easy to pick out certain tracks to check out. Unless you're a listener who's really into Linkin Park or particularly supportive of the Indian heavy metal community, you might want to do just that.