NOTION BLUE: Emotionally Compelling Music

Notion Blue

New Haven progressive rock/metal trio Notion Blue was brought to life after singer and keyboardist Max Barbi‘s lost his brother Johnny in 2018. With that in mind, the resulting debut album ‘The Son, the Liar, and the Victor‘ is an emotional rollercoaster filled to the brim with beautiful melodies. The band—singer and guitarist Luke Chase, singer and drummer Gabe Chase and Max—spoke for Prog Sphere about the album. They are also on our new Progotronics compilation.

Define the mission of Notion Blue.

In every musical project we have, we endeavor to write music that we love and find emotionally compelling, in addition to writing based off a lyrical concept that is honest and true to our personal faith. We also hope that, if we are true to our faith, our music can be emotionally resonant to a wide audience of people from various walks of life.

Tell me about the creative process that informed your recent album “The Son, the Liar, and the Victor” and the themes it captures.

Grief and loss was the catalyst both for this album and for the forming of Notion Blue. We (Luke and myself) had played music with our bandmate Max and his brother Johnny on and off for years without having an official band. When Johnny died unexpectedly in 2018, in our grief and struggle, we started talking about forming a band.

Our first idea was to write a concept album about the life and times of our friend and brother Johnny Barbi. Musically, we’ve been deeply inspired by concept albums, most recently albums like Neal Morse Band’s Similitude of a Dream and Steven Wilson’s Hand Cannot Erase.  We thought a concept album would be the right format to help us tell this story. We started compiling the rough song ideas and demos into a list, and moving them around to form a clear and progressing plot. We had a storyline in mind, so we cut some songs and even left spaces that we planned to fill with an appropriate song to keep the story’s movement, or chapters we really wanted to tell. We wanted to write a concept album that was emotionally resonant in the way that concept albums moved us growing up, since the first time we heard albums like Dream Theater’s Metropolis Part II: Scenes from a Memory. To be clear, I’m not saying in any way that this album compares to those! I’m only saying that they were the inspiration and the ideal that we were working toward as we found our own voice writing this.

What is the message you are trying to give with “The Son, the Liar, and the Victor”? 

Our first priority with “The Son, the Liar, and the Victor” was to honestly and unflinchingly tell the story of the life and times of Johnny Barbi. Johnny had his demons, and our goal was to truthfully tell–inasmuch as we could do so–the story of Johnny’s spiritual journey. We believe that ultimately, Johnny came back to his faith despite his struggle with drug addiction, and we wanted to tell a story that led to redemption. In a nutshell, this is an honest and painful story, but we also want it to be a message of hope and redemption, especially for our communities plagued by addiction. We want people to know that, no matter how hopeless or alienated they feel in personal struggles, there can still be a hope and a future for them.

How did you document the music while it was being formulated?

All three of us are songwriters, first and foremost, so there’s an abundance of ideas/material. It’s just a matter of sorting it and seeing what fits the concept/story we’re telling. Sometimes one of us would bring a mostly formed song into our writing sessions and we would spend time refining that song. Sometimes one of us would bring a riff that we’d develop, not knowing if it would fit this album or another. When we felt like we had a full song, or at least the bones of a good song, we would record a rough demo for reference. We would make a playlist of the whole album in rough form and listen to it over and over again in the car, etc. After you’ve listened to your album more than 10 times you can start to get over the excitement of creating something and start to see the flaws or areas that need work more clearly, haha. So we basically rough-recorded the album many times before we started any real studio tracking.

Is the dynamic flow of the pieces carefully architected?

Yes! We thought very carefully over the dynamics of each song. We have two tracks that are pretty much high energy the whole time, in a way we feel fits the story,  and the rest of the songs have more dynamic variety. We also put a lot of thought into how each song transitioned into the next, as the goal was to have an album with seamless transition song to song.

Describe the approach to recording the album.

This album was literally recorded in our parents’ basement, in a studio space we finished building with our dad a year ago. So this is the first full album to be recorded there since it became a fully functioning home studio. After taking a full year to write and revise this batch of songs, we started tracking drums first. We tracked as much as we could together and finished most of the album before COVID 19. Thankfully, we had finished tracking vocals together and only had a few lead instrument parts left that we could finish up remotely during quarantine. This album was completely engineered, produced, and mixed by us. When we finished mixing, we sent the album to Mike Cervantes at The Foxboro in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for professional mastering.

How long “The Son, the Liar, and the Victor” was in the making?

It has been almost two years in the making. We started meeting and writing together in the summer of 2018 after Johnny passed away. After almost 2 years of various logistical roadblocks and life events, we are very very excited to be done with this project and to share it with everyone!

Which bands or artists influenced your work on the release?

As previously mentioned, our number one influence is Neal Morse Band. Neal Morse has a way of writing a concept album that works from despair to redemption that we have found so emotionally satisfying, both as musical artists and human beings. His music has a way of bypassing our brains in all of their cynicism and sneaking straight to the heart. We were inspired to try to truthfully tell the story of Johnny and we hoped we could use that kind of emotional approach but with our own creative voice. We are also deeply inspired by Steven Wilson and his incredible work, from Porcupine Tree to his solo work. We really tried to channel the influence of artists like Steven Wilson in some of the more melancholy, reflective songs and moody soundscapes on the album.

What is your view on technology in music?

Gabe: I think it’s impossible to divorce the two. Music exists because of technology, from the human voice all the way to today’s digital software. That said, I think we’ll always struggle with the tension between technology and the human element of musical expression. Yes, we used digital software to record and worked with a click track for almost everything. We pushed ourselves more than ever on this project to use more technology. For example, we experimented with some new technology on this album using my Roland SPD sampling pad. That was new territory for me creatively. I played the parts manually on the SPD, using it like an electronic drum kit, which I hope preserved more of the human element. I think what we’ve always loved about music as a band is not the kind of whitewashed production perfection you hear on the radio. Instead, the bands that inspired us were ones with musicians who were excellent but not perfect. It was inspiring to hear their specific musical voice and their humanity in their playing, even if that meant small errors and imperfections. I think that as technology continues to change and shape music, we will constantly be evolving and learning how to implement new technologies (if they seem necessary to our music) while trying to still sound as much like musicians playing together in a room as possible.

Max: I also agree, and technology has a place beyond the convenience of the modern DAW, too. I play 100% electronic instruments in Notion Blue as the keyboard player, and as someone who’s earliest influences are traditional folk, classical, Irish, bluegrass, flamenco etc – some really early, earthy acoustic music, it’s a real opportunity for creativity. I think many of my contributions have the spirit of that old music, but have had to be fleshed out in synths and sampled instruments, a combo I love. One example is Gates of Heaven, which was described by Luke and Gabe as an Irish hymn meets Stranger Things.

Do you see your music as serving a purpose beyond music?

It depends on what you mean by that. I think music is a universal language that has profound power way beyond the notes on the page. If you mean should music serve a didactic purpose to preach a specific message or ideology, we don’t think that’s what it’s meant for. We have our personal faith, and our faith is reflected in our music and lyrics, because we write based on how we see the world. That said, we mainly want to just create the best music we can while honestly speaking what is on our hearts. We want people to listen to our music and think for themselves, and we hope that, whatever our message is, it can inspire people from any walk of life.

What are your plans for the future?

Our biggest plan is more material! This album took almost two years to make, because we’re all so busy. But we have always been fairly prolific, motivated writers on our own. We have ideas/themes for our next concept album and some of the songs already written. We’ll continue writing with a Neal Morse/Steven Wilson influence, while also writing in the vein of other artists who have influenced us like Tool and Peter Gabriel.

I don’t know if we’ll be able to do many shows, but we are also hoping to start with some small local shows where we raise money for local addiction recovery centers, because that seems to be the right thing for us to do with this album.

The Son, the Liar, and the Victor is out now; order it from Bandcamp.

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