Honesty is refreshing so let’s start with some of that: Heavy Blog has always, and continues to be, most about progressive metal. We’ve certainly expanded our tastes in the past and we’re looking to push that even further in the future, but progressive metal has a dear, close place to our hearts. But, what exactly does that mean anymore? Too often, communities rely on stagnant stereotypes. Ideas and conceptions of what something is ossify and shrugging those shackles off becomes more and more difficult, even in light of overwhelming evidence that they aren’t relevant anymore. That’s the worst case but even in a best case scenario, our tools and definitions require that we examine them much more frequently than we do.
So, as a blog that deals predominantly with progressive metal, it only makes sense that we ask what the hell it is. Now, there’s obviously no coming up with a single line definition and, even if there was such a possibility, that wouldn’t necessarily be a definition we wanted. Instead, we’re looking for something more flexible, able to contain multiple sub-definitions and a branching out of ideas. In philosophy (I know, I know, I’ll be brief) that’s called a rhizome: a type of root found in nature containing many different forks, junctions and multiplicities, all feeding from a central stem. So, while these tendrils grow in different directions, they can still all be traced back to a common trunk, a conceptual root which enables and gives them meaning.
That’s what I’d like to argue that progressive metal, and many other genres, constitute. Without noticing, we’ve been naming divergent things with one, generic name. And that’s fine; this isn’t about semantics or labelling. Instead, it’s a pause in a stream of consistent music and a taxonomy effort: a recognition and exploration of the tendrils that branch out nowadays of progressive metal and what they mean. We’ll also speculate a bit about the possible futures of such sub-sub-genres but not too much; this article is more about the here and now. As such, you’ll recognize some of these bands; we talk about some of them almost weekly. This article’s purpose is to serve as a primer, almost an internal dictionary for the scene, and not to explicitly showcase new bands. That being said, check out the further listening segment at the end of each definition; you’re bound to find something new.
Obvious disclaimer: we’re going to be using very broad brush strokes here so it only stands to reason that we’ll miss some great bands that are currently operating. If you see something, say something: leave additional recommendations in the comments below! With that being said, let’s get started!
To every rhizome there must be a trunk: a central sound, idea or word from which all other branches will draw. This must be understood not as a generative center (A Sense of Gravity didn’t create this genre) or a possessive center (A Sense of Gravity don’t have “rights” or “prestige” for this genre) but instead as a communal center, in which a large number of the qualities are shared with the other bands. This is the criss-crossed center of many-fold Venn diagrams, all meeting around a shared commons, a place where distinct, musical qualities graze. So, why A Sense of Gravity? We’ve spoken at length about their debut album, Travail, and its many profound advantages but one trait of that masterpiece stands above all: it’s far reaching, disparate influences and the elegancy in which it brings them together.
You see, Travail has a bit of everything: it has neck-breaking speed and aggressiveness along and in between of melodic choruses in tracks like Stormborn, channeling progressive metal’s penchant for contrast. It has over the top yet immediately accessible keyboard work all across the album, but especially in the retro “Trichotillomania” and its impressive solo. Here, the fascination which progressive metal has always had with keyboards and their capacities for over the top, technically impressive playing is reincarnated; while the effect used is retro, it receives a completely original rendition. If you’re missing the epicness that is some associated with the early days of progressive metal, and its closest ties to its brethren genre, power metal, A Sense of Gravity “Above the Horizon” to offer you, with its high pitched vocals.
All of this to say not that A Sense of Gravity is an Everyman, a generic blend of traits that has no spirit on its own. On the contrary: the basic, ersatz quality of progressive metal is to take a large variety of qualities, blend them together and still leave your own, unique stamp on it. At its worst, this usually creates something contrite and obvious; but at its best, as it is here, it creates a challenging and varied creation. This is our trunk then, the center from which all branches will feed: the basic passion of progressive metal is to break away from genre definitions and to pick and choose its influences.
That familiar tone of progressive metal, the somewhat sweet tendency towards higher-pitch notes, is one which some fans of metal might deride or prefer to forget. However, it’s dominant trait of all phases of progressive metal and our modern iteration is no different; one of the rising voices in the scene relies predominantly on it to forge their unique soundscape, and they’re not alone. Native Construct is a name that’s been uttered countless times above these pages and for good reason. I won’t extol you again with the details of why their debut, Quiet World, is great. Just go listen to it already if you haven’t. Instead, I want to shine a light on how much their work can be seen as reincarnation, a revival of a sound that, for a relatively short time, reigned supreme in progressive’s halls.
Somehow, that sound then enjoyed a decline. Perhaps because of the appropriation of its basic ideas into power metal, or perhaps because as a result of a pendulum reaction to just how popular the style was in the 90’s, it pretty much disappeared except for specific torch-bearers who kept it alive. But now, it is appearing to be making a triumphant return: just listen to the over the top opening passages to “Passage” on Quiet World (or the insane wind instrument solo at its middle) or to the poppy chorus of “Your Familiar Face” and you’ll see what I mean. These sensibilities reconnect to the original influences on progressive metal, namely Rush or Yes, and re-channel them in new and interesting ways.
That’s not to say however that these inclinations preclude heaviness. Native Construct are cited here exactly because they manage to blend this “lighter”, more brightly colored sound with blast-beats, heavy riffs and harsh vocals. This perhaps captures a certain quintessent quality of progressive metal, namely having one foot in several worlds and the ability to conjoin them into one. However, this modern iteration seems more obsessed with figuring out its own pace and sound rather than musical nods and paraphrases; or so emerges from countless interviews with young musicians in the genre. Whatever the case, the return of the neo-classical sound is one of the most promising current branches in progressive metal with plenty of work and innovation still left to be performed.
Progressive metal owes 50% of its name to metal. Therefore, it only makes sense that one of the fields which it explores will be heavy. And so it is; progressive has always had touching stones in other genres, death metal especially. However, instead of adding the moniker “progressive” in front of a different genre, thus birthing a new sub-genre, we want to deal here with bands that remain firmly within the progressive scope, without needing a complete divorce into something new. Gods of Eden and Persefone are prime examples for this sort of melange: it’s very hard to place our fingers on exactly what their style is but we can tell that something in the mix is predominantly tipped towards the heavier side of things.
Tracks like “Shiva’s Dream” for Gods of Eden or “Inner Fullness” for Persefone are the best examples of this. They sacrifice none of the technicality that progressive metal demands but, utilizing unique harsh vocals and more aggressive drumming for example, they somehow radiate a sense of heaviness and rage that is unparalleled. This is perhaps the inherent charm in this particular branch: it scratches both itches at the same time, allowing us to fulfill both our desire for challenging, intricate music and for emotional catharsis. Gods of Eden are especially talented in this field with tracks like “Beyond the Persian Veil” intoxicating us with sheer brutality and skill.
This branch of what progressive metal doing today is perhaps the most interesting and promising: there’s something elusive about it that escapes definition. Therefore, it’s intriguing. Conversations in the future should revolve around perhaps solidifying how we define it and what bands fall into it. Especially required is a clearer differentiation between it and the first category, as they draw (naturally) from the same common pool. However, when listening to these bands, their unique mark (which, interestingly enough, differs from one band to the next) is unmistakable.
This has been a brief (I swear!) review. There’s a lot we missed: dark progressive for example (with Australia at the forefront) and plenty of other sub-genres. However, the amount of bands listed above should give you a good purchase point on where progressive metal is going today. To be quite frank, it’s looking good: as part of the Golden Age of Metal, it appears that progressive metal is enjoying quite a proliferation. It remains to be seen which of these directions are further explored and complicated, made more whole and extensive, and which fade away, leaving us with “only” the bands that we have now. See you in the future.