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

8 years ago

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 Initiate, Arkaik with Persefone, Obscura 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.

Eden Kupermintz

Published 8 years ago