How Black Mirror, Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt inspired Protocol’s debut ‘Friar’s Lantern’

By her own admission, Mumbai prog band Protocol’s vocalist-lyricist Shweta Venkatramani is no saint. She recounts how she was running late for a job interview and the train she was on had stalled for 45 minutes, caused by a death on the tracks.

“I only remember hearing whispers of ‘we’re so late’ and I am ashamed to admit that that’s all I could think of too! Yet you’d look at my social media and think I’m Mother Teresa! Hence the lyrics ‘I have participated in the crime, I’m responsible for all that is wrong inside of my mind’ or ‘The voice of empathy has been evading me’,” she says, citing the contents of the gloomy yet jolting song ‘Swipe Left’.

The track, off their just-released debut album Friar’s Lantern, is the vocalist’s way of talking about the facade of righteousness and empathy. Partly inspired (but “far removed,” as she points out) from the Black Mirror episode ‘White Bear’, the song ties into a larger album narrative about illusions, faith and acceptance.

Another influence was reading Swedish prog auteurs Opeth’s frontman Mikael Akerfeldt open up about questioning faith through their material. “That struck a chord with me, because I was in a similar headspace – 24, not sure where I was headed and what I believed in, not with respect to religion though,” Venkatramani says. Guitarist Desikan Gopalan – also part of fusion/prog band Paradigm Shift – says he found the confrontational themes of Friar’s Lantern mirrored in Fight Club, in how the protagonist of album too takes on a journey no matter how discomforting.

Made and released over the span of two years, the first glimpse of Friar’s Lantern arrived in February 2018 with ‘An Honest Conversation,’ offering grandiose prog in the vein of Leprous. ‘Dawn of Truth’ (originally released in March 2018) gets into murky Porcupine Tree territory while ‘Wait Until Tomorrow’ (out in January 2019) drives straight into the riffs, courtesy Gopalan, bassist Vivian D’Souza and co-guitarist Sandesh Rao. While ‘Swipe Left’ was released in March last year, the remaining four tracks round off an impressive record – frenetic riffs over swirling, ominous keys (and the occasional growl) dominate ‘Gullible Child’, there’s cerebral yet angsty songwriting on ‘Imaginary’, mind-bending riffage and galloping drumming (from Nachiket Karekar) on the mostly-instrumental ‘Goodnight, Sweet Dreams’ and a gentle balladesque closing track called ‘Perfection’.

Keyboardist Rahul Kannan, who was also helming production for the album, says they wrapped up the album in late 2019 but bided their time to get the release plan right. Once the pandemic hit, however, a launch tour was thrown off schedule but they continued work on a second album. He adds, “It (the next album) was supposed to be a jam room and not a studio project. Not sure how that will happen, given the current circumstances. But I do feel our process has gotten a lot faster now, at least based on what we’ve written so far.”

In the process of releasing Friar’s Lantern completely digitally (with a listening session for friends and followers), Kannan says Protocol has learned a lot about social media and marketing a release. The band realized that Indians are amongst the top followers for artists like Steven Wilson and TesseracT, which means there’s perhaps a sizeable prog listenership waiting to be introduced to Protocol. “Our faith in the Indian prog scene restored, we want to reach out to these audiences, and that’s where our spends are also going,” Venkatramani says.