Dream Theater are commonly mistaken to be a “progressive” metal band. Their fans love to brag about how “progressive” the band is as it makes them feel smarter than the typical rock and mainstream Maiden and Metallica metal fans. This is the same sort of intellectual smugness that pretentious urban leftists and the communist-infiltrated ivory tower have about the working class, those who do not shout whatever their currently favored political slogans in the street are like Mao’s Red Guards, or whoever openly dislikes the latest pretentious socialist realist film awarded a trophy by the liberal media shills to promote their Marxist agenda.
Article by Johan P.
The creation of this brief introduction to some of the more prominent bands of 70s progressive rock was directly inspired by David Rosales’ shooting down of late-60s/early-70s Pink Floyd. My article should not be viewed as a polemic against the conclusions drawn from ”A Sadistic Dissection of Classic Pink Floyd”. On the contrary, many of Floyd’s recordings – not least in a prog rock for hessians context – fall short in several respects compared to fellow prog rock groups of that era. The first section of my article (”Background”) serves as a necessary bridge between David’s article and what will follow below.
To keep the potential reader in mind, Pink Floyd might not be the most compatible progressive rock band for someone whose tastes run along the lines of the music promoted by the Death Metal Underground. Therefore, I will in this series offer a brief introductory piece on the genre, followed by a presentation of classics of progressive rock in an attempt to light a spark of interest among metal enthusiasts may become acquainted with this genre that developed in parallel with heavy metal. The focus will inevitably be on artists with British heritage, since most of the more prolific bands were English. Of course this doesn’t mean that prog rock was solely a UK phenomenon. There were loads of bands hailing from all over the globe; many good enough to reach the heights of the established British bands.
Before moving on to the presentation mentioned above, it might be a good idea to study the music of Pink Floyd with the purpose to discover why this band may not be the best entry point to the genre. There are at least three major reasons that could cause disappointment when listening to even the “best” (that is, the records closest to the more adventurous and ambitious side of prog rock and metal music) of Pink Floyd: shortcomings and discrepancies regarding song structuring, musical style and concept:
First, although some Floyd tracks (e.g. “Echoes”, one of their better numbers) features extended song structures or long compositions of an episodic character, they often lack the coherent narrative present in some of the more accomplished epics of progressive rock. For example, a composition featuring an “extended song structure” could be an ordinary rock song built around the usual verse/chorus/bridge components with the addition of one or more elongated parts that are to varying degrees connected to the main song. With “compositions of an episodic character” I refer to songs that are made up of several discrete musical events that are joined into one composition. Extended song structures is more frequently used by Pink Floyd than episodic compositions, although the latter method is very common in progressive rock in general (side note: an example of episodic song structuring gone wrong in metal is Satyricon’s first album, Dark Medieval Times). Quite a few Pink Floyd songs are long alright, but they are often built around roughly three extended song structure sections: first an introduction where the band presents a main theme, followed by a middle section with (often instrumental) excursions and some experimentation (creating atmosphere through electronic effects, guitar solos which builds up tension followed by a potential release, juxtaposition of found sounds, etc.), and finally a closing part, where the main theme returns. Or, if a long Floyd track follow the episodic song template, the compositional method appears to be taking several unrelated songs/ideas and forcing them together into one piece. This last method seems to be applied most carelessly on a larger scale in whole Pink Floyd albums as well. Several of their albums contain contrasting songs placed in an apparently random order, resulting in the works at large sounding both irrational and inconsistent.
The song writing procedure described above doesn’t necessarily count as a bad compositional method, but one of the bigger pitfalls of which the Floyd succumbs to all too often is that if done without enough finesse and thoroughness, these compositions end up with not much development or connection between the different parts. In many cases not just isolated to Pink Floyd, songs of this type end up being flawed by an arbitrary and fragmentary character. It could be the case that Pink Floyd did not have any sort of epic narrative, lyrical or musical, in mind when writing many of their longer tracks – or maybe they did, but just couldn’t pull it through. But why then did they chose to record such long, meandering songs then? Maybe it was more a question of shady conceptual ideas. Parts of the psychedelic/progressive rock ideology appears to have gravitated more towards the whimsical, escapist side of romantic art. Such an outlook shouldn’t be completely dismissed as inappropriate for a progressive rock band but it can pose problems if this attitude to romanticism isn’t backed up by adequate ideas of making a coherent statement. Especially in their earlier years, Pink Floyd made several peculiar attempts at playful and dreamlike tunes, which more than once failed because they turned out to possess an unfinished and pointless character. The reason these songs didn’t turn out so well is that they suffer from a lack of adequate compositional ideas suitable for creating the intended moods and visions.
When it comes to style, Pink Floyd were an early bird among late 60s prog rockers, even pioneering some techniques in a rock music context (experimental use of synthesizers), exploring multisensorial experiences through psychedelic music, live light-shows, and drugs. As Rosales’s Pink Floyd article correctly points out, it often led to nothing but “interesting”, fragmentary, and meaningless ideas. While the band members’ lack of virtuosity doesn’t necessarily pose a problem, it’s a disadvantage that throughout their career they never dared to step too much outside the boundaries of the blues-derived rock style like so many other progressive bands did.
The confused, fragmentary, and unfinished nature of many Pink Floyd songs stems from lack of conceptual substance. Many of their compositions leave the listener with promising impressions left unfulfilled or worse bored with the bads subtly ironic stance working as a defense against such accusations. Few were probably surprised to watch the band (especially band dictator Roger Waters) growing more and more cynical in relation to their own work, their fans, and the music industry as the years passed after their massive public and critical success with Dark Side Of The Moon.
However it would be unfortunate to end the story of progressive rock here. Even Pink Floyd managed to put worthwhile compositions together once in a while. I have a soft spot for the space-rocking live concert part of the double LP Ummagumma, where, surprisingly, there is less trace of whimsy. These compositions are allowed to breathe and linger on to reach the conclusions missing on less adventurous Floyd records. The four tracks on the first disc of Ummagumma are actually live re-workings of older songs performed with a possibly more refined sense of dynamics and texture than in their original studio forms.
If you take a look at the more established narratives of rock history, you will learn of a horrible aberration of 70s rock called “Progressive Rock”. Presented by many rock critics as a genre made up of spoiled middle-class kids trying to impress others of the same ilk with their pseudo-high-art, when all they really produced was kitsch. These musicians’ attempts to become accepted as members of the cultural elite (or the cultural underground for that matter) were, according to “rock history”, crushed with the arrival of punk in the mid-70s. After a dark century of both stadium spectacle and general pretentiousness, people could resume enjoying down to earth authentic rock once more. Some of this might sound reasonable but in several respects, this tale doesn’t live up to reality.
First, although the creative momentum of the original movement had started to wane considerably by the mid-70s, progressive rock bands were more popular than ever among the public in this period. This is an indicator of the survival of progressive music in the aftermath of punk’s simplicity. Furthermore, as the 1980s dawned, a new generation of underground progressive groups set about revitalizing the genre. Although I would say that not much prog rock produced post-1970s can compete with the original wave, the assumption that Sex Pistols and their ilk obliterated progressive music is plain ignorant. The legacy and influence of the progressive old guard may be heard and seen in much contemporary popular music, including metal.
Critics pointing at the corporate selling out and stadium rock syndrome of the bigger progressive groups but a defense may be raised for the accused. Progressive rock interestingly differs in one important respect from most rock music. With prog it is not just a matter of smaller, more worthy bands getting overshadowed by the larger established ones, even if this surely happened. Some of the biggest bands of the genre,somehow managed to perform grand stage productions that still carried meaningful art. The established critical narrative may be a result of the situation of the music industry at the time: record labels, fat and rich thanks to the decades of explosive growth in post-war media consumption, were convinced that obscure groups playing this new form of rock music were highly marketable. Parallels may be drawn to the various metal sub-genres. Those lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time could get considerable production budgets, granting a creative freedom never experienced before in the music business.
Pinning down the characteristics of progressive rock (or any musical genre for that matter) is not the most grateful of task. Neither is this the purpose of this series. Instead, it will contain rather brief background information and descriptions of the featured bands, giving more space to the musical and conceptual content of the selected albums. Hopefully this approach will make sense and awaken an interest of discovery of a genre that I believe has a lot to offer, not least for fans of extreme metal. Some sort of framework might be needed so let’s go back to the infancy of the movement to see where it started off.
Like hard rock and heavy metal, progressive rock stems largely from the late 1960s psychedelic milieu. This was a time of experimentation with not only drugs and alternative lifestyles, but new sounds, musical ideas and approaches. With the aid of mind-altering substances, younger artists took pleasure in finding new meaning in pushing the frontiers of the staling and commodified art forms of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz. These psychedelic explorers (primarily males of European descent from an upper middle-class background, although counterexamples abound) founded groups that in the late 1960s lingered ever closer to becoming progressive rock. In addition to rock and jazz, they also brought into their bands an interest in classical, choral and folk music. However as with any historical narrative, there are of course other factors that could be addressed as well as contradictory and arbitrary information. Take Yes for example, one of the most prominent prog bands to promote virtuosic musicianship and toss classical music topes into the stew. Contrary to common assumption, their guitarist Steve Howe is a self-thought musician who never bothered with learning notes or formal music theory while their ethereal singer Jon Anderson came from a working class background.
There is another facet of progressive rock with a notable parallel in heavy metal music and culture that needs to be addressed: it’s relation to the Romantic Era. This connection is thoroughly stressed and analyzed by Edward Macan in his excellent book on progressive rock, Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture. Macan explores not only the ideological roots of progressive rock, but manages to highlight the more crucial musical influences that helped create and crystallize the genre. He shows progressive rock’s origin in late 1960s psychedelia and what caused the music to take its particular form. As a tribute to Macan’s groundbreaking work, I will conclude this introduction with two interwove quotes from the aforementioned book:
Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with progressive rock is usually aware that it represents an attempt to harness classical forms into a rock framework, to combine the classical tradition’s sense of space and monumental scope with rock’s raw power and energy. Understanding the role classical forms have played in progressive rock, then, is essential to understanding the genre as a musical style.
For musicians of the late 1960s who wished to continue with instrumental music – and these were increasingly drawn to the emerging progressive rock, jazz-rock, and heavy metal styles – the question became how to bring a sense of organization, variety, and climax to the music without completely destroying the spontaneity and sense of timelessness which characterized the best psychedelic jams.
The musicians who pioneered progressive rock found their answer in limiting the role of improvisation to one or two sections of a piece, and carefully organizing the rest of the material along the lines of nineteenth-century symphonic forms. […] Nineteenth-century music and psychedelic music are both Romantic in the fullest sense of the word, sharing the same cosmic outlook, the same preoccupation with the infinite and otherwordly, the same fondness for monumental statement (often conveyed through very long pieces), and the concern with expressing epic conflicts.
Stay tuned to this series for the successive revelation and discussion of some of the best and genre defining albums of progressive rock!
Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree recently conducted an interview with Metal Wani. In the linked second part, he suggested an aesthetic reason for the backlash against the swarm of “progressive” metal acts – according to him, there are too many progressive metal bands that are overusing the “metal guitar sound”, to the point that such loses its impact. In the mean time, Wilson is trying to explore dark and melancholic themes outside of metal, most notably in his collaboration with Mikael Akerfeldt in Storm Corrosion. This is obviously a different perspective than our usual narrative here at DMU – if you ask us, your pseudo-progressive band failed not because metal guitar is a cliched sound (which doesn’t eliminate the possibility), but more likely because your songwriting either took the form of modern pop in disguise or incoherent nonsense.
I got thinking about this while reading through some of the stuff on The Gabriel Construct’s webpage. He said he wants to make progressive metal progressive again. After thinking about this, I realized that this really strikes a chord with me. It is probably one of the reasons I’ve felt so uninspired by the stuff I’ve been listening to.
Let’s take as a case study: HeavyBlog’s top 12 of 2013 so far list (restricting to 2013 will not influence this discussion at all, since the best prog of 2012 falls into the same tropes) and pull the albums that can be labelled as “prog.” I actually like a lot of prog metal. You should remember this, because it is going to sound like a post in which I slam prog metal. Instead, this should be read as a sadness that such a promising genre has hit a stasis.
This is going to get hairy with putting bands into certain boxes, but as I see it the list is Tesseract (should djent actually count as a form of prog?), Persefone (is symphonic metal a form of prog?), Coheed and Cambria, Intronaut, Extol (OK, I haven’t actually listened to this one, but the list says it’s prog), Leprous, and The Ocean.
What do these bands have in common that makes them prog? They tend to have technical playing with technique that derives from classical skills of fast arpeggios and scale patterns than more traditional metal/rock techniques. The chord progressions tend to be less straightforward. This can mean jazz influenced or excessive chromaticism. The time signatures tend to be less straightforward and can even involve alternating time signatures and metric modulations. Lastly, the songs tend to be longer and more thoroughly developed and tied together with a common theme.
So what’s the problem? Well, at one point in time doing these things within metal was a progressive thing to do. They weren’t being done. It was interesting and new. It was moving the genre forward. Now it seems that these things that define the genre have become tropes. You have to have x number of time changes, y number of chromatic patterns, and z number of songs over 8 minutes long. Oh yeah, and we’ll praise you mindlessly if you make these numbers without actually doing anything original.
Instead of being truly progressive and trying to bring in new influences to make interesting and new music, it all ends up sounding similar. Just because you came up with a way to arpeggiate faster, using a “new” pattern, and you do more chromatic steps doesn’t mean you’re “more progressive” or even more interesting. It is more of the same pretending to be different.
Maybe I’m reacting to an over-saturation of prog lately, and I won’t feel this way after a break from it, but sometimes when listening to prog it sounds like a joke. It sounds like the band is stringing together a bunch of tropes in mockery of how derivative it all has become. Scale the Summit is unfortunately going to get my wrath, but I can’t listen that new album. It has such high praise all over the place, but I’m so bored by it. I mean listen to this. It is pretty, and quite impressive technically at parts, but how many times have you heard this?
No offense to Scale the Summit, I could have picked something off literally any of the bands listed above and some of those albums might even make my top 10 of the year. It is just a feature of the current prog scene. It has become static. There are the occasional minor details that are new, but overall, it isn’t progressing.
Progressive metal can become progressive again. To some people it may seem shocking. What more do I want? They are already employing all of the complexity you would find in any fully trained classical composer. I’d reply, well, yes, any trained composer through the 19th century. But this stuff is more than a century old now. You could incorporate tons of modern developments. You don’t have to write atonally, but you can incorporate interesting post-tonal techniques to make something progressive without losing your band’s characteristic sound.
Other than tonality, there have been tons of other innovations from play style (stop with the incessant arpeggios, please), to modern electronic filtering of sound in new ways, to how your band layers together its pieces texturally, to instruments used (thank you Hybrid for showing us clarinet can be used in metal), to more original genre crossover, and on and on. You shouldn’t have to be an Animals as Leaders or Dream Theater clone to be prog. I bet I could write a fugue a la Hindemith that would sound really good by a metal band. How about someone tries that for originality?
I know there are actually lots of bands out there doing this, but they immediately get labelled as avant garde and pushed out of the prog scene. As I pointed out last time, this term should probably be reserved for the really, really out there stuff. Incorporating these techniques subtly into your standard prog sound should still count as prog metal. We should embrace more experimentation to finally get out of this stasis.
There’s a new style that’s rising which combines progressive metal with the True Metal styles that emphasize a warlike outlook.
While progressive metal has neat instrumentals and all, it’s generally caught in an effete urban altruism and disconnected from Machiavellian reality.
These progressive war metal bands are fixing that with epic, Nietzschean and complex compositions that challenge the status quo of “progressive” metal!
Human progress will forever be linked to those most primal memories of our species, wherein there emerged that intrepid curiosity that formed the crux on which history could be built. Moreso than the will to merely survive and subsist, it was the will to forsake the paradise of safety and pursue instead the harsh, untamed dusklands of the unknown, where intense tribulation could reveal the fiercest potentials of the few that could overcome. Within the realm of music — that most iconically Romantic of arts — this sentiment persists as a striving to expand the capacities of willful expression into an all-encompassing whole, swelling into symphonic full bloom during the 19th Century. But now, in the dreary modernity that constitutes post-World War II planet Earth, Metal music has proven to be an improbable successor to this upward-climbing composing ethos, and its 40-year history itself resembles less some linear development than it does the genealogy of a warrior race: evolving as one from troglodytic Rock origins, but then splintering into variegate subdivisions as established kingdoms become ever stiflingly overpopulated. If it is those most radical of subdivisions commanded by wildcat eccentrics, hermitic technicians, and sadistic savants that best define the nebulous label that is “progressive metal”, then ‘Mean Deviation‘ — the new and exotic pet project of Metal Maniacs veteran Jeff Wagner — is the one book ambitious enough to fasten a historical yoke around such a chaotically polymorphous Metal strain.
It’s a ridiculously exacting task to try and chronicle the entirety of a musical subgenre that isn’t really a subgenre, and whose content cannot be readily identified by formal analysis alone. And yet Wagner, being the dauntless historian that he is, enters the Nocturnus Time Machine® with naught but the earnest objective of highlighting whichever works were exceptionally bizarre, brainy, or both. Placing his starting coordinates in the late 1960′s when progressive rock and early ambient music had already begun to explore more neoclassical avenues, Wagner narrates the concomitant emergence of heavy metal, and oversees its unprecedentedly rapid appropriation of prog complexities. The most non-canonical, wildly erratic career choices of Black Sabbath, King Crimson, and especially Rush receive extensive coverage, and upon this foundation of classic radio giants, Wagner uncovers many of the grandiose intellectual motivations that would plant the seeds of ambition in the burgeoning ’80s underground — an explosive era that Wagner veritably lived and breathed throughout.
From this point is of course where the bulk of the book begins and where divergent paths are most numerous and dramatic, starting with an initial divide between what is now commonly known as Progressive Metal proper — Fates Warning, Queensrÿche, Crimson Glory, and [must we mention them?] Dream Theater as examples — and the more abrasively progressive styles that were set in motion by speed metal aberrants Watchtower, Voivod, Celtic Frost, Coroner, and a small conglomerate of other leaders whose names consistently haunt the chapters further on. The subsequent outgrowth of extreme metal within the following decade then takes the spotlight for what seems like a third of the book, and the magnitude of its proliferation logically finds Wagner having to document deviance on a steady, region-by-region basis. But in this manner, he is as remarkably thorough in his examinations of familiar prog-extremists as he is with some of the more impossibly obscure names, reliably identifying which recordings showed noteworthy marks of ingenuity. A study of Finland, for instance, seizes Demilich by the tentacles and takes special interest in Beherit‘s darkwave transmogrification. Norway’s chapter highlights Mayhem‘s early adoration of Swedish prog band Änglagård and of course German synthpop and kosmische musik, and goes on to investigate the growth of Manes, Burzum, Enslaved, and Neptune Towers. Continental Europe reveals a constellation of luminaries ranging from Supuration to Atrocity, whilst the melting pot frontiers of the Americas yield regional anomalies as diverse as Gorguts and Obliveon up in Québec to Atheist and Hellwitch down in Florida. And, wherever possible, Wagner takes great efforts to cite any intellectual influences or achievements on the bands’ parts; tellingly, Classical and ambient music is a frequent subject here, as are academic degrees in a surprising array of fields.
It is surely impossible to write a “progressive metal” book that will be accepted in all circles of the culture, as controversy and even widespread disapprobation seem to be taken for granted in the music itself. But for the particular minority who identify themselves as hessians, it is certain that many will lose interest as the final hundred pages close in, simply because almost all of the so-called cutting edge Metal bands of the late ’90s and onwards fail to contribute anything significant to the genre; but in Wagner’s defense, there are many instances where he does bring attention to the growing problem of entropy. The more philosophical among us may further object to the very grounds for Wagner’s criteria for “progressive-ness” — that is, how much the work in question defies convention and expectations. To build from an early example, Wagner argues that Voivod’s ‘Angel Rat‘ — an album widely lambasted as a sell-out for its regression to verse-chorus, consonant indie stylings — is in fact a progressive step for the band because it was so utterly unlike any of the albums that preceded, or anything else in the scene at the time. But this is nothing if not the most prostrate kind of optimism, which accepts an undesirable antithesis — in this case, total artistic decline into meaninglessness — as a necessary part of a dubious process towards some ideal of absolute artistic freedom or whatever. It’s true that to speak of “progress” we need to postulate an objective or end of some sort to move towards, but externalities like novelty and individuality alone are insufficient; something more intrinsic to Metal’s being must be identified, otherwise you allow for a flood of the same self-obsessed, irrelevant music-as-product to garner the association simply because it’s clever enough to imitate the distorted aesthetic. Therefore it is best to assert as an axiom that for the subject to be Metal, it must have as its essence that visceral if rather elusive-to-define spirit of vir, whose amorally creative will to power is partially outlined in the introduction to this review. From here, determining progression in Metal is only a contextual (and decidedly more limited) matter of whether the subject meaningfully transmits its central motivation using methods previously unexplored, for any number of nuanced reasons ranging from technical breakthroughs to conceptual maturation to ingenious angles of arrangement; of course, the ironic consequence to progressive forms is that they are often seized upon by the majority and ossified into standard forms over time. So, based on these tenets, you would have to re-evaluate progressive-labelled, impostor Metal bands like Opeth as actually not effectively progressive as a band like Morbid Angel, who were significant not only for innovative technique, but for using their talents towards representing death metal philosophy with hitherto unheard-of imagination and perspicuity. Take this same critical hammer to the “progressive eras” of Enslaved, Amorphis, Death, and all related corrupted prodigies who allowed themselves to be domesticated into entertainers, and suddenly ‘Mean Deviation’ is chiseled down from a bloated tome to a slim pamphlet.
Now it’s apparent that ‘Mean Deviation’ surely has its points of contention, but then again the book’s stated aim isn’t to illustrate a concrete and ontologically-sound definition of what progressive metal is, nor is it out to namedrop every single band that may have garnered the label through whatever happenstances of popular delusion. Essentially, the book’s aim really is as simple as what its title conveys: to reevaluate the Metal timeline with a specific interest in whatever was outstandingly highbrow and/or shunned by the hypothetical average headbanger. It is a scholarly, well-referenced, yet personable inquiry of metallurgical innovation, which harbors aspirations towards objectivity and acceptance amongst society’s intellectual elite, but never mistakenly reduces the art to a mere science. Rest assured that trivia in abundance is here to tantalize the reader’s inner nerd; just remember to take it all in with a sizable grain of sodium chloride.
Written by Thanatotron
Rocking the Classics : English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture
by Edward L. Macan
320 pages. Oxford University Press. $33
Delving into the world of progressive rock in a context of cultural development through history, this book explores the motivations and musicology of progressive rock with a broad but well targetted research base.
Living in a dying time presents as many troubles as recording in a dying genre. Something went wrong with metal in 1995, and since that time we have had big oaf idiot metal from the NWN/FMP types which bores us, versus popular metal music which is vapid and consumerist at its core and so has nothing to offer of substance.
Sell-out formerly black metal band Enslaved has finished recording another indie rock album for Nuclear Blast Records. Expect every fat guy in flannel with neck pubes to love it almost as much as he loves the smell of putrid mayonnaise that gets stuck in the beard like little white dingle berries.
Ancient‘s last hurrah, the Trolltaar EP, has been reissued by Sleaszy Rider Records with three bonus live tracks from 1993 according to the band’s Facebook page. Trolltaar saw Ancient develop cyclical simple Enslaved style riffs into extended black metal epics inspired by the virtuosity of longer 1970s popular progressive rock songs from Yes, Pink Floyd, Camel, and Led Zeppelin. Ancient were one of the few death or black metal bands inspired by popular rock music where the mass-market inspirations did not render them impotent as a metal band at least at first. Ancient, lacking a truly distinct riffing style of their own, eventually ran out of ideas and decided to play Hot Topic rock after Svartalvheim and Trolltaar but that is a topic for another time.