Hey everybody! My name’s Shjon Thomas, and I play guitar in a Boston-based progressive metal band called The Deadstation. The awesome guys here at Heavy Blog is Heavy let me write a guest article on whatever I wanted… so I chose to share what I consider to be the ten most essential albums of “old-school progressive metal”!
Since the newer school of prog-metal is so popular with the readers here (Animals As Leaders, Periphery, etc…), I thought it would be cool to share some great albums that follow from the original style of the genre that was popular in the 1990s and 2000s. These albums have also been a large influence on my own music, so if you like something here, you might also like The Deadstation! (You can download our free EP “Episode 01” here)
My hope is that you guys find some enjoyable stuff here that you hadn’t heard before! Cheers!
Part One: Fates Warning – Disconnected (2000) & Riverside – Anno Domini High Definition (2009)
Part Two: Evergrey – In Search Of Truth (2000) & Ayreon – Into the Electric Castle (1998)
Part Three: Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane (2000) & Porcupine Tree – In Absentia (2002)
Part Four: Opeth – Blackwater Park (2001) & Symphony X – The Divine Wings of Tragedy (1997)
2. Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime (1988)
This entry is the oldest one in this article, but don’t be fooled… it is totally awesome. Queensryche’s magnum opus Operation: Mindcrime is a concept album revolving around a man named Nikki who gets involved with an underground organization that is assassinating political leaders. Dr. X, the leader of this group, uses Nikki’s addiction to heroin to manipulate him into doing his evil bidding. As you can imagine, things get worse from there. Since this album was released in the late 80’s, it definitely has a certain dated sound to it. If you’re coming from the more modern side of progressive metal, than this may be a bit of hurdle for you. There is a remastered version that was released recently which gives it a bit of an update though, so you might want to track down that version.
Besides the storyline, the standout feature of this album is probably Geoff Tate’s vocals. Range-wise, his melodies are pretty high up there, so that might catch you off guard the first time you listen. (Check out the chorus of ‘Spreading the Disease’ for some amazingly gratuitous high notes.) The emotion that he puts into the performance is the part you want to really focus on though… it is a huge part of what makes the lyrics sound so great, in my opinion. I should also mention that the song ‘Speak’ contains one my favorite guitar solos of ALL-TIME… it’s a true Michael Wilton face-melter that might have non-players buying a guitar before the end of the day.
Along with their previous album ‘Rage for Order,’ this set of songs is considered by many to be the beginning of true “progressive metal”, and it was a major influence for genre-leading band Dream Theater. For that reason, Operation: Mindcrime is an absolute essential listen.
Key Song: ‘Operation: Mindcrime’
1. Dream Theater – Images & Words (1992)
You probably saw it coming, but the #1 slot belongs to Dream Theater’s Images & Words. Although they have released plenty of amazing albums, I believe this one deserves the top spot for a few reasons. This album really brought the term “progressive metal” to a wider audience, mostly due to a music video for ‘Pull Me Under’ being played on MTV. Although Queensryche and Fates Warning were mixing metal with progressive influences earlier on, Dream Theater helped push the genre into the stratosphere. The sound and production on Images & Words has literally inspired thousands of bands across the world, and without it, some of the albums on this list wouldn’t even exist.
As far as musicianship goes, Images & Words is pretty much PERFECT. Each member provides a stellar performance that will make any musician’s jaw drop. I feel that some of John Petrucci’s best lead guitar work is featured here… it’s just as technical as ever, but he still keeps a large emphasis on melody and memorable phrasing. Check out the guitar solo in ‘Under a Glass Moon’ for a great example. As far as the vocals go, I believe that James Labrie’s godly status still stems from this release. Don’t get me wrong, he always sounds great, but on this album he almost sounds perfect. Another thing to note is that Mike Portnoy used triggered drum samples here, which gives the whole thing a very different feel from their other releases. If you combine that with the 90’s keyboard sounds, it sounds a bit reminiscent of Rush’s later synth-period work.
I believe that Images & Words was really one those “planets aligning” type albums, where three important elements came together and were balanced effectively: musicianship, songwriting, and production. It is the most essential listen for a progressive metal fan… everything else is secondary.
Key Song: ‘Pull Me Under’
Liquid Tension Experiment – Liquid Tension Experiment
Threshold – Subsurface
OSI – Office of Strategic Influence
– ST, TDS