Progress, Erase, Improve? The Case For Progressive Death Metal

My fingers itch to start this article with yet another semi-apologetic defense of the use of sub-genres but I’ll resist that urge. By now, I’m sure most of you are aware of the way I approach such things and why I find them useful. If you’re not, head on over to my Taxonomy of Progressive Metal piece to get a good idea. Funnily enough (or not) we start here as well from Progressive Metal; in this case, we’re going to take a look at a vanishing category, a branch in the extensive history of the genre that, somehow, disappeared. That category is progressive death, a style which first flourished in the mid 90’s but was then swept away in favor of both revisionism and the laziness that permeates most human interactions. Instead of retaining its clearly distinct and unique attributes and standing out as another pillar within metal, it was somehow sublimated, swallowed into a category with which it had a few conjoining points, consumed like in a weird osmosis.

The culprits are diverse members of the scene, readers, journalists and musicians in equal degree. The murder weapon? None other than a brother sub-genre by the name of technical death metal, tech death in short. Somehow, somewhere, somewhen tech death became a catch all name for music that relied on blastbeats, deep growls and fast riffs but also incorporated elements from diverse other genres, mainly jazz. Instead of recognizing the many ways in which technical death metal and progressive death metal diverged, the two were unified, creating an absurd situation: bands like Archspire now reside in the same category as Black Crown InitiateArkaik with PersefoneObscura with Opeth. Just a quick glance at that list will reveal the issue at hand: a lot of these bands have nothing to do with each other.

We’re here to say that it’s high time that progressive death metal be reinstated as a sub-genre. It has its own distinct qualities (which we’ll touch upon soon), unique bands that fit no other distinction and a rich history that diverges from that of other sub-genres, even if it might share some common ground with technical death metal. Even more importantly, it’s spawning new branches in different directions, with both sub-genres exploring and reinventing themselves in new ways. So, why call them the same thing? All it does is create confusion and muddies the waters of discussion, with fans focusing on untangling the weave and justifying put the bands above in the same bucket. While that might seem a bit silly we can also understand them: the ear rebels when one tells it that the sweet, emotion laden passages of Opeth are of the same genre as the harsh, overwhelming and brutal tones of Archspire. And so, let this article by your scissors; let us unravel now the Gordian knot that has entangled technical death metal and progressive death metal, once and for all.

nocturnus 1990

Historically, progressive death metal was never a “thing” except for Opeth. There were a few bands here and there, but until about the mid/late 2000’s, finding more bands under that label was rather difficult, and the classification was often rather dubious. This is mostly due to how death metal evolved. In the early/mid 90’s, the genre of death metal had its first children. In 1990, Nocturnus released The Key, which is generally considered to be the first technical death metal album. Within a next years, Death released Human, Atheist released Unquestionable Presence, Pestilence released Testimony of the Ancients, and technical death metal was born. These albums contained elements that we’d call progressive nowadays, but around that time “Progressive Metal” in the vein of Dream Theater was also having an explosion. Progressive metal back then was considered a heavier version of progressive rock, whereas tech death was a more technical version of death metal which used to be based on faster, angrier thrash metal. The “progressive” label did not fit the vision of this new strain of death metal artists, and they decided to adopt the “technical” descriptor instead. Back then “progressive” meant 10+ minute long songs, clean vocals (preferably in falsetto) and a more classical composition bent. It was music that took established rules, and stretched them, leaning heavily on musical theory. As a contrast, the technical death metal of yore was experimental, irreverent of convention, and just plain weird. The two genres couldn’t be more apart.

That changed quickly when Cynic released Focus in 1993, leaning heavier into the jazz elements of Atheist and blending them with Death’s sound. But by then the schism was already formed. The genre of tech death and prog metal had already started going their separate ways. Cynic’s experimentation into the softer side of metal started a strain of thought that still continues and expands to this day, but those elements were always put within a death metal context in tech death. Enter Opeth, the band that throws a wrench in the works. Coming from the land of death metal’s other, more melodic child Sweden, they took elements from “classical progressive metal” and blended them with death metal to create their own sound. This was a stark contrast to the tech death of the time, having clean vocals, very long, moody songs composed with classical music theory in mind. They clearly were doing their own thing which was fundamentally separate from tech death, hence they earned the prog death label. However, no one was really able to nail Opeth’s sound for many years, and those that came close were either leaning too heavily into prog that they got lumped in with regular progressive metal, or they were too death metal and got eaten by tech death. Over the years, this schism grew, and tech death’s main stream kept pushing more towards its namesake of technical playing, and thus extremity. Even Meshuggah were born of this strain, once being considered experimental tech death – they were playing with technicality not in terms of melody but rhythm.

cynic focus

 

 

In the meantime, progressive metal kept growing as well. Due to the inherent nature of the genre, musicians kept pushing the boundaries, and eventually some of it got heavier, imitating death metal. Eventually something was going to give, as prog metal appropriated heavier and heavier concepts. Bands that got lumped into tech death became more and more diverse. The label of tech death started to become increasingly strained as bands who didn’t have a lot of interest in pushing speed and technique yet still wanted to experiment with their sound started sounding very different from bands that kept pushing the extremity.

The real curveball that no one really anticipated in this mix was metalcore. Spun off from melodic death metal, metalcore and its angrier brother deathcore had their roots firmly planted in death metal to varying degrees. In the mid 00s these genres were a hotbed for experimentation, as young musicians who were influenced by all kinds of bands started making music that kept getting harder to define. Bands like Veil of Maya and The Faceless, both of which originally started out as what came to be known as “progressive deathcore”, started pushing the boundaries of their genre labels. Eventually, something had to give. With The Faceless becoming tech death on their second album Planetary Duality, influenced heavily by Cynic and Necrophagist, they carried over a lot of their audience from deathcore, and created an entry point. Public interest in the genre started to spike, and even more variety started pouring into the label of tech death. With tech death being infiltrated by progressive death metal, progressive metalcore, deathcore and even straight up prog metal, something had to give. The creativity and diversity just became too much to contain.

the faceless planetary duality

Enter progressive death metal, for real this time. Instead of some outlier, a hybrid which no one knew quite how to define, progressive death metal came to contain the bustling divide between tech death and its heavier counterparts. Ushered in by the increasing popularity of bands like Between the Buried and Me, Opeth’s third era (Blackwater Park/Deliverance/Ghost Reveries) and Textures, progressive death metal was now ready to assert itself. It was exemplified by a distillation of the elements that had made progressive metal great and their alchemical wedding with the heavier elements of death metal. In that mix, the emotional hues of progressive metal were maintained, namely the emphasis on grandeur, while the heavy elements of death metal were given compositional prominence. What was spawned was a creature that could write epics, sing of mental states and transformed lives while also focus on extremely difficult to reproduce playing and writing, bringing the image of the talented musician/writer into the fore. The sub-genre was expected to both tap into its listeners visual imagination, in the form of storytelling, and to astound them with its technicality and musicianship.

However, alas, classes, categories and names have their own momentum. Having been left out of the natural progression of death metal into technical death metal, progressive death was steamrolled by the existing classifications. Listeners, and therefore the bands who marketed to them, already had a name with which to address the music they liked; they weren’t going to switch it that easily. Technical death metal kept sticking to everything that remotely resembled death metal and appropriating its definition. Meanwhile, both genres were growing. As we approach recent times, we can clearly the most obvious proof for the disparity of the sub-genres: they’re each evolving in different ways, ways which less and less belong under the same taxonomic roof.

ulcerate destroyers of all

On the direction of progressive death metal, we’ve already written extensively about. The sub-genre keeps changing around a common core, exploring the multiple influences that have yet to influence and color it. It can safely house different bands and styles since they all come together around that hard to define and capture melange between death metal, classical influences, conceptual writing and emotional delivery. Bands like Persefone, Gods of Eden, A Sense of Gravity, Black Crown Initiate and more, continue to unravel and re-weave what progressive death metal is. Technical death metal is also seeing its share of permutations: more ambient and post-metal influences are being introduced into it. Fallujah have initiated this transformation in many regards but Job For a Cowboy, Gorod, Wrvth, and Ulcerate are adding to the growing transformation overtaking parts of the sub-genre. While many bands still play technical death metal in its traditional configurations, a distinct new direction is slowly growing.

We’ll be looking closer at this new direction in the coming few weeks, analyzing exactly what it is that unites all the bands we’ve cited above and more. But for now, we think that the case has been well made: progressive death metal and technical death metal have become, if they weren’t always, quite different in their sound, intent and execution. Therefore, there is no need or excuse to awkwardly associate them both with the same name. Genres are important and it’s important that we use them well. They allow us to understand and critique our favorite music. They are beacons for first time explorers, lending their light like language to new experiences and ideas. Conflating the basic terms of that language cannot be excused by convenience or habit, especially when we’re discussing two of the most promising and popular current trends in metal. And so, we proclaim that the age where technical death metal ruled alone is over. The future belongs to progressive death metal and technical death metal, rightfully named, assigned and understood: lingual spaces within which new music and be clearly conceived, made and listened to.

Comments

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.






12 thoughts on “Progress, Erase, Improve? The Case For Progressive Death Metal

  1. lagerbottoms Reply

    Great article.

    Yet, I have come to put those bands either in the Death Metal or the Progressive Metal drawer. Persefone, Opeth and A Sense Of Gravity are Progressive Metal to me, while Ulcerate, JFAC, Archspire and Obscura are Death Metal. That again breeds the situation that my Prog Metal is also filled with Intronaut, Meshuggah and Protest The Hero, who couldn’t be farer from each other :D
    While Death Metal brings Whitechapel, In Flames and Gorguts together….
    Oh well I stopped caring a bit along the way.

    It’s the same problem over at “Where do I draw the lines between Hardcore, Metalcore, Deathcore, Mathcore and Progressive Metal? with bands like PtH, Dillinger, Converge, Circle Takes The Square, Destrage, Vildhjarta, Ion Dissonance”

  2. AlphaBetaFoxface Reply

    Brilliant write up!

    I’ve always thought of tech-death and prog-death to be different, but haven’t really known how to describe it. When I think tech-death, I think Necrophagist, Vale of Pnath, The Zenith Passage, Beyond Creation, Archspire, all the stuff that is generally technical for the sake of being technical. But prog-death feels more like a much heavier version of progressive metal; albums where concept overrides technical fidelity. Bands like ones you mentioned (BCI, Persefone, etc). The albums tend to sound a little less mechanical and a little more structured in over-arcing ideas.

    I feel like bands such as Ulcerate, Gorguts, and so forth, deserve their own genre. I still use tech-death as a descriptor, but the wave of atmospheric-charged tech-death bands is growing and I struggle to associate Ulcerate with the likes of Gorod. Not that I have any problem with the use of genres, but when nitpicking, the whole atmospheric-death/prog-death/tech-death thing becomes a grey area.

    TL;DR, prog-death is more conceptualised and riff-focused than tech-death, tech-death is more technically insane, bands like Gorguts and Ulcerate are kinda in a grey area between atmospheric black metal and tech-death. In my opinion, of course

    • Nayon Reply

      I’ve seen Ulcerate et al. be referred to as “post death” in places, maybe that can work? I don’t think they intentionally take from black metal, it’s just that both “post death” and black metal use creepy/atonal elements. So they come from the same source, not from each other, I think.

      • AlphaBetaFoxface Reply

        I didn’t even consider post, but it would work perfectly. And atonality is just a given in the death/black metal circles for the most part so slapping on post would be a good solution.

        • Stephen Baker Reply

          Like I was getting at in my post above is that a lot of the older bands like Incantation and Immolation have elements of black metal. A lot of early death metal did. So maybe instead of creating new genres to fit these new bands into it’s more productive to look backwards. Because that’s where I think a lot of these bands are drawing inspiration and it’s kind of going over everyone’s heads.

  3. triangle Reply

    Spot on about tech death and prog getting mixed up a lot. My litmus test for categorizing bands basically comes down to how much tasteless wank there is. I can’t stand how soulless and self-indulgent tech death is, with all the non-existent riffs and artificial production that make up 95% of the genre. It’s the furthest from objective as possible and I’m well-aware of my own bias, but it works for me. Prog death tends to be a lot more restrained in that regard, exchanging the flurry of flashiness for, well, progressive elements. As AlphaBetaFoxface put it, structure and over-arching themes and ideas. Tech death lacks that so the distinction is really easy for me. Sure, bands like Fallujah might get a little noodle-y from time to time, but there’s a general theme or vision to their music. They want to evoke emotion and, with their newer stuff especially, create a contrasting atmosphere of beauty and brutality. I feel like their music actually builds and progresses towards these musical ideas. Tech death is just a jumbled mess of showmanship. Gorod is one of the few bands I think manages to straddle the line between the two, though after their last album I’d probably put them more in the tech category.

    As for Ulcerate and Gorguts, I was always a fan of post-death or caverncore whatever some people called it. Flourishing, Artificial Brain etc – you know the style. Very small sub-genre of progressive death, but one that’s distinct from prog death in general that I think it deserves its own little group.

    • Nayon Reply

      Harvest Wombs era Fallujah is pretty tech death! They went from deathcore to tech death to prog death over the course of 3 releases

  4. Kyle Mitchell Reply

    It’s funny. For me personally, I used to overclassify these bands as progressive death metal and never used the technical death metal term in my own library. But it is true that tech death and prog death are very different and I support prog death’s return to the genre lexicon!

  5. kisiel Reply

    How could Meshuggah ever be considered experimental tech death and ‘born of this strain’, if their first records where basically technical thrash, like Metallica on acid? They basically have and never had nothing to do with death metal.

    • Nayon Reply

      Around the era of Nothing/Catch 33 that’s what people called them for lack of a better term, and metal-archives also labeled them as such. Bands can hop streams, you know.

  6. Josh Watkins Reply

    I’m not going to lie but most of these prog / tech bands bore the crap out of me. I also find that a lot of the fans of the sub-genera tend to be elitist dicks trying to one up everyone … Also the shows are very bland, I live out in the bay area an we have boat loads of prog an tech shows that roll through (thanks to walnut creek …) but damn those shows are boring as fuck. There is always some singer that tries to get a pit going but everyone just stands and nods their heads with crossed arms an hipster man buns … I tend to have more fun at grindcore shows these days just because people are actually active an dont have a stick up their ass … an thats saying something cause I can’t stand grindcore for shit. Last real pit I saw was Trash Talk at oakland metro, that was also the biggest fucking crowd i’ve seen in that place in a very long time. the audience was diverse, everyone was having fun and besides the few middle aged gym addicted white hardcore dancers, no one had a pretentious stick up their ass.

  7. Stephen Baker Reply

    A very well written article. And I think a lot of the explanation of the nuts and bolts of what actually makes some of these bands fit into their respective categories also showcases a lot of what is wrong with the truncation that goes along with categorizing certain bands within certain genres. Go back to the initial wave of the first “legit” death metal bands and you could say that their sounds diverged more from band to band than newer bands within the genre these days. that is because there was no groundwork laid. Virgin territory, so to speak. For example, If Deicide released their first album today, they would be considered blackened death metal. Or if suffocation released their first album they would be considered “brutal death metal”. But when they arrived on the scene both bands were just considered death metal. In my opinion, the early bands encapsulated all of the influences that went into crafting the genre. You could hear the thrash, you could hear the elements that may have filtered into black metal a bit (example, Incantation, Immolation). Because of the over saturation of bands today, you have a lot of copy cats that sound like everything else. But I have noticed on the fringes of this, some newer bands who are incorporating a lot of the early elements of death metal and re-interpreting them with a modern edge. Even though these bands have a fresh sound, (Portal, Ulcerate, Diocletion etc..) their inspiration comes from some of the earlier bands. Our need to further truncate the sub genres, i think, causes us to miss this point about them. Ulcerate is more a kin to Gorguts than anything current. Portal is more a kin to Immolation. Diocletion is more closely related to Incantation and early Deicide. So I feel there is an artistic attempt to re-unify the sounds of death metal that have diverged ad nauseum but the death metal community may be unknowingly thwarting those efforts based on the need for strict categorization. Anyway, that is my opinion and mine alone. I’m not here to argue and I totally respect everyone else’s opinions on the matter. Great article. More of this kind of music discussion is what is needed and less TMZ style bullshit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *