You can tell that James Broadhead needs to move on stage, but He doesn't appear to have the power he WANTS.
On a Wednesday night in January, Broadhead lurks near the front of the small stage in the Raleigh heavy metal bar The Maywood. Escher, his prog-metal quintet, moves behind him. They are the first band on a three-act bill, playing in front of about 35 people to celebrate the release of their very good second EP, The Ground is Missing. As Broadhead screams his way through the group's set, he seems stuck at the edge of the stage, bound by the small room and his own stiff legs. Sometimes, he sits on a barstool, rubbing his hands across his knees.
But a year ago, even this much motion seemed like a dream.
On Dec. 7, 2013, Broadhead was returning to Rougemont from Durham when his brother's car broke down. The brothers fiddled under the hood for a few minutes until realizing that this was nothing they could fix. They called for a tow truck and idled nearby. Other cars drove around them on that two-lane stretch of Guess Road, where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour.
"This guy just ran right into us," Broadhead remembers. "I got pushed up under the truck. This truck driver nearly ripped my legs off. They had to pull the truck off me."
The accident closed Guess Road for part of that Saturday night. In a brief report, news station ABC11 noted that "a small blue Honda appeared to have a shattered windshield. A crew on the scene told ABC11 a pedestrian somehow was pinned between two vehicles. The extent of their injuries is not yet known."
The crash shattered both of Broadhead's legs, requiring multiple surgeries to pin and bolt his bones back together. In the hospital, rods poked from his skin, holding the healing bones in place. For months, he wore full leg braces. Even now, he has to wear compression sleeves, and his legs may never be as strong or flexible as they were.
Still, he's thankful. He owes his recovery to medical technology developed to help wounded veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan; if his accident had happened only a few years earlier, he says, he'd be an amputee.
Onstage at The Maywood, during "The Inverse," a song that appears on Escher's self-titled 2012 effort and the newly released cassette, every member of the band closes his eyes at the same time. Broadhead, guitarists Will Collins and Will Brimson, drummer Dan Ray, bassist Cody Rogers: They seem suspended in a moment they thought they would never have—playing together again, onstage, with a singer.
The band transitions easily from blast beats and distortion to ringing jazz chords. The songs are complex but succinct, never forsaking urgency. But the greatest triumph is that they are here at all.
"Some of you may not have seen us with a singer before," Rogers says between songs. "James is back after a year. We're pretty stoked."
For Broadhead and for Escher, the injuries extended beyond broken legs. Doctors could repair those with enough surgery and physical therapy.
Worse were the external losses. At the time of the wreck, Broadhead—at 26, the band's oldest member—had just started a house-painting business. He had to give that up.
"I could be doing what I like to do, which is working on houses," Broadhead says. "But I can't. It's definitely changed my family, me, everybody. We've all lost different people in our lives, but to have someone who didn't die, and then they have to live with it ... I don't know."
Still, nobody in Escher entertained the idea of replacing the frontman. They'd already survived too much turnover. After forming as an outgrowth of Evisceration, a deathcore band Broadhead and Ray formed before Collins and Rogers joined, Escher spent a year writing and rehearsing for what became their 2012 EP. But as soon as they were done, guitarist Luke Dingfelder quit.
"I never heard from him again," Collins says.
It took months to find his replacement, a 16-year-old named Jennings Smith who commuted from Greenville to play. He stayed with Escher for a full year, and then shipped off to college—"Berklee [College of Music]," Collins says, "full ride."
Escher lost its practice space, too, and $5,000 worth of gear during a break-in at Hope Creek Church in Durham. Ray worked there, and Broadhead and Rogers would occasionally sit in with the church band. But just as they recovered from the theft and found a fitting match with Brimson, Broadhead's accident plunged them into fresh turmoil. Nobody wanted to go through the ordeal of recruiting a new vocalist. Should they stop or forge ahead without a singer? They played one show as a trio and many more as an instrumental quartet.
"We spent that period of time not sure if James was going to return to the band," Collins says. "People said we worked really well as an instrumental band, but we weren't really interested in doing that. We'd always written music with the thought of having a vocalist in the mix somewhere. At the same time, we didn't want to just abandon the work we'd been doing over the past two years."
Stuck in musical limbo, the other members explored their options. Rogers finished a degree at Wake Technical Community College, for instance, while Collins focused on his environmental technology studies at N.C. State. Collectively, though, they were eager to get Broadhead back, to graduate to more than a part-time instrumental imitation of themselves. But Broadhead wasn't sure.
"I wasn't in a place where I could be around that many people," Broadhead admits. "I said I just need to think about it."
Ray had played in bands with Broadhead since childhood. He delivered an ultimatum: "Come to my house and record, or we're done."
In October, just shy of a year since the crash, Broadhead showed.
Escher began working on The Ground is Missing in earnest shortly after Broadhead's arrival, rebuilding the songs with him, once a week for several months.
Recorded at home by Ray, the material is more ambitious than the comparatively straightforward math-metal of their debut. In the past, Escher wore influences like Between The Buried and Me and Meshuggah as teenagers wearing band T-shirts. The Ground is Missing shows that they've found new inspiration.
Six-and-a-half-minute opener "The Bog," for instance, begins simply, as jagged riffs from Collins and Brimson collide. The mix soon shifts, and Rogers leads the band through the twists of a complicated solo. Broadhead's vocals are multi-tracked and monstrous. Saxophonist Aaron Hill, a local jazz player, bursts through the melee like John Zorn squawking over Napalm Death. When Hill appears again, on "Glacier Freeze," he's in more of a traditional jazz comfort zone, playing against fusion riffs that battle the bass behind them.
Hill grew up listening to metal, but he left it when he got into jazz and classical music. When Ray asked him to contribute to Escher, he was intrigued.
"It's very, very different from most of the stuff I do," Hill says. "It's a lot like modern classical music. I don't want to put it in a box, but it's very specialized. You have to be in the know to get into it, but the people who are into it are really into it."
Even in their narrow prog-metal niche, Escher remain an outlier. They don't squeeze flowery melodies or clean singing into their songs, and they don't treat every moment as a chance for another technical showcase. That mentality is a driving force on The Ground is Missing. It's as if, near-tragedy and tribulations behind them, Escher have both broadened their musical palette and vowed to plow ahead.
"That's one of the most important things to us: Remaining heavy and fast," Rogers says. "We always try to keep it groovy and bring anything that would fit to the table."
"I want people to ask questions in their head while you're listening to us," Ray says, "not just to be able to zone out."
Broadhead's voice is a catalog of growls and screeches, but he keeps his lyrics resonant, his words decipherable. Using outer space—the allegorical muse for acts as disparate as Sun Ra and Voivod—as a primary source, he fuses fantasy with existential terror.
"Greetings, earthlings," he howls at the opening of "The Inverse. "You seem lost." He wrote the song before the crash, but it presaged the material that now interests him most. He's resolved to write something meaningful, he says, "about how intense life is, and how metal really can help people."
Broadhead says he'd love to tour for a year, so long as a label or sponsor is willing to pick up the tab. After the accident, Escher became less about meeting any pressing financial goal. For Raleigh's most exciting young prog-metal band, making this music is now therapy, not a career path.
"School, your girlfriend, then the band. Think about your family and your future first," Broadhead says. "I've been delivering pizzas right around the corner from my house. It's the best thing for my soul to be back in a work environment after a year—to be back in a band and everything."
Bryan C. Reed lives in Chapel Hill. Find him on Twitter: @BryanCReed.