Is Progressive Metal Progressive?


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.

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20 thoughts on “Is Progressive Metal Progressive?”

  1. Phil says:

    I remember a programme about prog rock on a while ago, might have been on the BBC. One old timer was saying how new bands lack any imagination. The older bands used to include or experiment with random stupid shit just to see if they could; the example they gave was shoving a microphone down a shoe, throwing it down the stairs and then putting some reverb on it.

    1. Count Ringwoem says:

      Just to see if they could, or, to get out of a shitty business contract.

  2. Bobby says:

    Here’s the tip, the big dirty little secret that could make “progressive metal” mean something other than dung like Dream Theater: a lot of primitive death metal and black metal are “progressive” by any valuable definition of the word

    1. Yes. It takes a complete understanding of the term and a sinking in of the music to understand that.
      Incantation in Onward to Golgotha was far more progressive than Dream Theater in all their career of carnival hard rock.

      1. Daniel says:

        Demilich and even Iron Maiden’s more experimental side have way more in common with Captain Beyond than Dream Theater and Opeth do. Those who think Opeth are something other than harsher dad rock are usually the type unable to explain the differences between Immolation and Incantation.

        1. I agree about Demilich. But there is nothing experimental or adventurous about Iron Maiden. They went from peaking as an iconic and powerful pop-oriented heavy metal band in 1985 to doing longer songs (somehow called progressive, there was nothing progressive of the sort in them), to being plain boring “dad rock”.

  3. Wenge says:

    I think Averse Sefira is the “Progressive Metal”

  4. Rui-Lin Chao says:

    Compare to the age when the term “progressive” was first used, which was used to describe the music that was arranged totally unprecedented and unique, quite different from the music of the old age, “progressive” today has become the term for describing the group of music that “sounds the certain way”, sounding like Dream Theater, Symphony X or some. But recently, I feel like this wrongly-explained term stands for “mixing everything together without digestion”…
    Some dude:”No problem, because in this way, music sounds cool and contemporary”.
    Oh, come on. This concept should never be the core in terms of making music…

    1. Richard Head says:

      Right. Sun Tzu wrote on “the orthodox vs. the extraordinary”. The common way of doing things is the orthodox method, and by using an uncommon method you do something extraordinary. However, just because a method is extraordinary at once does not mean it will always be extraordinary; if it is used often enough then it becomes orthodox. This is the case of progressive rock which, in the 60s and 70s, was extraordinary. But, the musical techniques had become codified by the 80s, and today anything called progressive is guaranteed to be orthodox. Progressive is a real misnomer in music, along with avant-garde which is absurdly applied to music that has just appeared on the scene.

      1. Rui-Lin Chao says:

        You made my point of view more clear!

  5. :( says:

    Scale the Summit sounded like post-rock.

    1. that’s sort of what it is. just lame, uninspired instrumentals. exercises for the fretboard.

      1. Ara says:

        Not that Dream Theater rules or anything, but when these kids opened for them on a whole tour in the infancy of their career I was fairly disgusted. They have essentially one chord shape they abuse- I’m not a very learned musician, but it’s that power chord with what I think is a suspended ninth over it maybe? That alternating strings frets 1-3-5 shape. It’s a cool progression, when dynamically used in say Carcass’ “Arbeit Macht Fleish,” but what I’ve heard from Scale the Summit banks on the mood of that shape almost exclusively, unless they branched out from it in more recent stuff.

        1. Yeah, I don’t think they have much to offer except gear tips and stuff.

        2. Richard Head says:

          It is a power chord with a 9th, I know what you mean. They also don’t seem to be able to play any minor scales. Their music is far too happy-go-lucky and drips with insincere indications of profundity.

    2. BLOODLOVER says:

      Agreed. In what sense is it metal?

  6. Moses says:

    I think the crucial point is that technical innovation is not an end in itself but rather occurs naturally when the composer needs their musical language to accommodate their artistic vision. As soon as technical virtuosity (be it instrumental or theoretical) becomes the primary goal then the music will inevitably be soulless. This is also the reason why the inventors of a genre tend to be superior to their imitators. For the innovators the aesthetics and technical features of their genre were created in response to an artistic vision – whereas for the imitators they are simply conventions by which to abide in order to reproduce a particular sound.

    1. This is precisely my stance on the subject.

    2. LostInTheANUS says:

      Indeed, this is also why the household names in a certain genres or even locales sound similar yet are very much apart, like for example in Norwegian BM. Darkthrone, Burzum, Emperor, Immortal etc. all sound similar on the surface, but when you look under the hood they all achieve their point in vastly different ways. Now this may seem like preaching to the choir, but as you said imitators just repackage the surface (Tremolo-picked riffs+blast beats+SCREAMING MAN vocals=instant black metal according to stupid hipsters) without doing anything with it.

  7. I blew my head off like Per Ohlin says:

    Yeah I’ve felt the same about Scale the Summit.
    Very neat, nifty and pretty but still leaves me empty like a lot of progressive metal.

    I still like their sound over Animals as Leaders though.

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