A month or so ago, I wrote a post titled “The Occult in Modern Day Metal“. In it, underneath countless of apologies for the simplifications I was about to present the readers, I took a brief look at how the occult has lent words, images, ideas and themes to the metal genre. Charting three main movements, I attempted to offer an initial direction for asking questions, a jumping point for something much more extensive. Perhaps where I’d left the most gaps was in the last part; the post was getting long, the hours were getting late and the subject matter was growing more complex. This should come as no surprise to those versed in the source material itself (and my writing/sleeping habits, if we’re being honest). You see, that final part dealt with the New Age and its ties to progressive metal. The thing is, however, that New Age is one of the most loosely defined, scholarly debated and impossible to understand spiritual movements to have ever existed. It’s right up there with Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Swedenborg-ism (I swear that’s a real thing, you can Google it) and other obscure, esoteric belief systems.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that it’s a social movement as well as a spiritual organization. We’re talking about communities, chapters, societies, budgets (and lots of them) and a body of people which, again and again, refuses to recognize overreaching definitions. Simply by proliferating, splintering and practicing their beliefs do the members of the New Age continue to make the movement more complex. For example, is Scientology part of the New Age? Its members would (most of the time) say no. However, they meet all sorts of criteria required to be forcefully admitted: their chronology, belief system and organization structures fit the bill pretty well, although sometimes they don’t. Anyway, let’s get back on track; this is about metal after all and not your dry, theoretical definitions for which sociology is famous for.
So, the aforementioned post ended with a short and surface-level look at New Age and progressive metal. Nowhere are the ties between metal and the New Age more clear to see than in progressive metal. Some other genres, like melodic death metal, flirt with the idea but progressive metal (and I’m using the broadest definition possible of the sub-genre here) has embraced the thematic firmament of New Age in a bear hug. The purpose of this post is to zoom in and see what we can say about that hug: how does it influence progressive metal? What are the ideas that are expressed within the lyrics and aesthetic choices of progressive metal and how do they tie back into the New Age? Finally, we may want to ask (briefly, again, because otherwise this post would turn into an essay): what is The Point™? Why does progressive metal draw so deeply from New Age? What do they get out of it?
Disclaimer: none of the below is meant to disparage New Age or progressive metal. Where I am snarky, it is because it serves the writing (and because I’m not perfect, sadly. My subjectivity gets in the way from time to time). I have respect for whatever people would believe and the point of this post is not to “disprove” New Age, as if that’s even possible. Nor am I trying to paint progressive metal’s fascination with these ideas as childish or even that they’re exclusively from the New Age; there are a host of influences that work on every single genre.
Disclaimer (reprise): please remember that I am using the broadest definition possible of progressive metal in this post. Therefore, you’ll see many bands below that share almost no common traits with each other. And yet, they’re categorized as progressive metal. Why? See you in the next few months, when I write another 3000+ word post about that. But not today. Oh no, not today.
All Hail The Dodecahedron – New Age Aesthetics
Before we begin, there’s something that needs to be said. New Age, and indeed almost all of esoteric thought, is never about making something new. Prestige, veracity and acceptance derive from resurrecting the past. This has roots in all sorts of complicated facts that made the 19th and 20th centuries pretty shitty times to live in, invoking the need for rebirth, a return to a supposedly glorious past. Thus, the older the better. And nothing is much older than the simple truism which says that shapes are magic. In the ratio between the triangle’s edges and its vertices, in the numbers which make up the geometrical shapes which, in turn, make up the world around us, power was to be found. By manipulating these ideas, all sorts of things were sought after: knowledge, certainly, but also power, wealth and magic. Two prominent examples we can cite here are Pythagoras and the Egyptians. Within their ideas of what shapes can do and mean, humanity has found countless inspirations, stories and tragedies.
And so has New Age. But, most importantly for us, so has progressive metal. The idea that shapes are mystical and powerful can be found all over the more progressive elements of metal’s wide field. Just look a the image above: that’s from Entheos‘s Primal EP. By the way, before we get to the image, ever thought about Entheos’s name? Theos literally means “god”. It also has Ancient Greek origins and, tying into what we mentioned above about the importance of the past, it is one of the main names for deities within the New Age milieu. En is a preposition which comes to us from Latin and, unsurprisingly, means “inside”. Both languages are tremendously important to New Age: they are both seen as primary languages, especially Ancient Greek. In conjunction with Hebrew, they are some of the most prominent languages within esoteric thought. They are both codes (since so few people understand them today) and mystical systems (since the Greek were some of the first philosophers and Latin was the language of the Renaissance scholars, some of the most prominent writers about magic and mysticism).
So, In God. When we get to the last part of this article, that will make much more sense. Actually, some of it will make sense right now, since it’s tied to ideas presented in the image above as well. You see, one of the most important parts of New Age, and in esoteric thought in general, is that the whole and the part are connected. Drawing straight from Plato’s conception of the world, New Age almost always recognizes that There Is Something Greater Than Us But That You Are Still Important™. You are the part and the universe/Gaia/aliens/god/Dharma is the whole. Look above: that’s exactly what you see here. The main shape contains all the smaller ones; more than that, all the smaller shapes, more basic but still important, stand at different points of the larger whole. They have their own role in this, their own part and together, they make the much larger and more profound, central shape. Within New Age, understanding the part is just as important as understanding the whole; they each have their own implications and meaning. Lo and behold, Entheos have us covered there as well: their first track is called “Specific Meaning in a Group of Dots” and its lyrics are all about understanding, power and dominion.
This aesthetic reoccurs within progressive metal all the time. Don’t believe me? Here and here. Oh, and here. How about here and here and here. And here. Let’s delay on that last one; we’ve talked about Language quite a lot before but the aesthetics of the cover really just say it all. Beyond the “hidden” geometrical shape in the celestial body (in and of itself a super important New Age image, but you can read about that in my previous article), the proportions are important here. The tree stands small but obviously important, smack in the middle of the image. The celestial body dawns above it, blending with the sky but also with the earth, in its pastel, green colors. The large and the small, both complex in their own way, mirrored and connected. The tree has its own internal order but is chaotic in comparison with the smooth, symmetrical lines of the celestial shape.
Want to guess which is you and which the world? If you’re not feeling 100% secure in that guess yet, reading the lyrics to the album should give you some pretty large clues. And that’s exactly where we’re going next: into the bowels of the beast, where New Age and progressive metal first collided.
It’s Veils All The Way Down – New Age Lyrics
New Age has always been a first and foremost written movement. There’s plenty of painting, music and other forms of art within it, sure. But the written word is what gives it power and perhaps that’s why there’s such a massive emphasis on language within the movement. Therefore, the lyrics of progressive metal music is where we should be looking for the closest connection between it and the New Age. Last time, we focused on the importance of astral themes within New Age (mainly theosophical) thought. While that is certainly an important pillar in both progressive metal (and mostly in djent) and the New Age, it’s by no means the only one. The New Age spans ideas from mystical enlightenment to psychological analysis, from elemental genesis to alchemical manipulation of the world around us. Thus, the crossing points between it and progressive metal might be endless; due to its mercurial nature, nearly anything can be included within the umbrella of the New Age.
Therefore, let us stick close to our sources and speak of core beliefs rather than rare or esoteric ideas. Let’s take a look at one of the absolute main ideas of New Age. This idea (and image) comes to us straight from the Renaissance (and a bit later, since William Shakespeare was one of its most important proponents) and is called The Great Chain of Being. You see, following in the footsteps of Aristotle (nothing can be new, remember?), Renaissance scholars resurrected the idea that creation is one giant whole that slowly ascends towards god. This ascension is built of discrete and cohesive steps, steps which nonetheless intermingle. At the bottom are minerals and vegetables, just above them are animals. Just above them are humans, then angels and, finally, god. Each layer has its own unique quality and purpose. For example, humans are gifted with intelligence and our goal is to discover the world and, through it, achieve god.
[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=1926585809 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=617852158]
Sounds familiar? You bet that the New Age fed on those ideas. They fuel the very basic idea of New Age that There Is Something Greater Than Us But That You Are Still Important™. Everything flows towards god (or Dharma, or destiny, or Gaia, or whomever) and you serve a purpose in that flow. Thus, you are affirmed but you must know your place, you must work towards achieving all that you can be. By fulfilling your unique purpose, in our case that is thought, you take part in the grand whole. Can we find that in progressive metal? In droves. Take a look for example at the lyrics from Eidola‘s Degeneraterra. A brilliant album, it explores diverse themes and ideas, all centering around well-being, mental fortitude and deep knowledge. In “Humble Ledger (Gnostic States)“, one of the most moving tracks on the album and one whose name should already trigger some red lights, the band speak of nothing other than the Great Chain of Being:
“First we must prove we can work.
That we are deserving of the penance and the sacred dirt.
Because our constitution is buried int he soil,
while our ambition seeks to ascertain and toil in the high.
Do you really know what’s real anymore?
Then we must move.
Invite ourselves as conduits
to congregate in lieu
of all the disparity we hold in our hearts
and the unanswered questions that tear us apart.
I could show you everything I know,
but I was told that honest art is dead.
You could give me a bed when I’ve got nowhere to go,
but you were told that good nature is all in your head.
When will we lead ourselves to water
and drink ourselves clean in the well?
When will we see our sins as fodder,
transcend the judgement and bid farewell?
When we are one,
we will discern a meaning.
When we are one,
we are consecrated.”
I could write a complete post just on these lyrics and perhaps the time for a *prognotes on this album has come. In any case, let us unpack some of the ideas which interest us here. First of all, from the very beginning is the idea of the Great Chain expressed. You have to work, you have to complete your function (read: self-work) in this, our material realm, before you can move to “higher places”, sacred places. The idea that man is entrenched in a physical state but aspires to the glory of the skies goes as far back as Ancient Greece and was of course moved into the New Age. Coming to terms with this state is the very definition of “good nature”, the state in which humans must aspire to live.
However, it gets even more interesting. You see, there’s a problem with promising transcendence: it often doesn’t happen (read, never). And then you’re stuck with a throng of believers who want answers, who long for the places promised to them. One of the many answers is the conduit. We’re not meant to actually translate there; we’re meant to move the energies, the grace, the power from above, down below. We’re making the Earth better by connecting to the energy above and letting it flow. The idea is that once we complete the self-work, once we complete transforming ourselves, we don’t just disappear to an outside realm. We stay behind and serve as beacons, drawing that energy downwards (often by arranging a harmony of shapes by the way, recalling our earlier investigation). That’s that intermingling I mentioned before, the ability of the highest members of a level in the Great Chain to capture something from the level above and bring it “down to Earth”.
[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=1926585809 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=843952731]
“The temple that you seek, it isn’t mine
(then let it burn, we’ll cast our stones aside)
I’ve given you the tools of grand design.
(overgrown thoughts of our demise)
The nature of the gift is astringent.
(trading faiths, empire’s remorse)
The complex of ascent is contingent.
(ends of time, redesign recourse)”
Well, what do you know! That’s exactly what the track above says. The conflation of ideas here is clear and complicated. We move past but we stay behind, we say farewell but we remain. We become ourselves but we are also one with everything else; we are cleansed but we also cleanse others. These are almost New Age texts in and of themselves, transmitting not only the ideas but also their roles and conclusions. This is the amazing part: it’s not just that the ideas of the New Age filtered into progressive metal. It’s that their intersections, the ways in which they are brought together, the many combinations of those ideas, also came with them. Progressive metal doesn’t just point to those ideas, it also synthesizes them and understands in much the same way that the New Age does (more examples here and here). Sometimes, it even adds its own ideas, bands forming complex new theories and ways to understand New Age and, through it, the world. As such, it’s not only a commentator on these ideas, a silent spectator which passively consumes them. It’s also a proliferation mechanism for those ideas, whether it does it consciously or not.
So, what do these intersections tell us? What are the ideas and images that progressive metal would like to bequeath us, through the tinted glass of the New Age? I’ll try and answer that question in very broad terms below. However, remember that, first and foremost, we are dealing with art here. Any meanings that might be gleaned from lyrics and paintings are, in large part, also our own. The bands might have meant some things and not others, but it is in the marriage between their ideas and ours that a song, an album or a career come to have meaning. Therefore, take the below with a grain salt; listen to the music yourself, read the lyrics and create your own meaning. Damn, that sounded almost New Age didn’t it? Mea culpa.
You Are The Language – New Age Themes
1) Introspection is the key
Progressive metal has always been fascinated with the idea of the self, the mind and inner exploration. Ever since the first days of Dream Theater, mental and emotional states have been in the forefront of the genre’s concerns. This has changed very little today: if you look carefully, you’ll see that all of the ideas I presented above focus around the concept of the self. The idea which progressive metal would pass to you, time and time again, is that working on yourself is the key to changing your life. You must begin with who you are, how you act and how you perceive yourself if you wish to better yourself/achieve a higher plane/conquer the world. New Age nods emphatically; as part of the individuation process of the late 19th century and the 20th century, the movement was spawned to obsess with the self. It explores, defines and works on the many ways and meanings of the self, attempting to explain the ties between it and the world around it.
2) Knowledge is never passive
To learn is to change yourself. Thus, the self-work I described above is almost always tied into the gaining of knowledge. In this instance, it is self-knowledge. “Know thyself” was written in Apollo’s shrine in Delphi. The New Age and progressive metal have listened to this lesson and marked it well. New Age, from its very beginning, was spawned from scholars and esoteric knowledge by definition changes the one who learns it. It turns your whole upside down and reveals things which you didn’t know before, things which change who you are and how you understand your life. Progressive metal’s perception of knowledge is quite the same: it is venerated as a vessel of change, an all powerful thing which makes you (mostly) better, wiser and more emphatic. The last one is crucial. Through knowledge we learn how to listen to the world and listen to others around us, to change ourselves into beings more in tune with the world around us. By learning more about anything, we learn more about everything.
3) At the bottom of all of this is power
Unsurprisingly, like many other forms of thought, at the basis of New Age lies power. This power is inherently connected to the two ideas I just mentioned: you must know yourself and from that knowledge will come the power to change the universe. This is “connecting the unconnected” par excellence which, you might remember from my previous post, is the basis for all magical thinking. Here, the self is connected to the universe (like in The Great Chain of Being) and by understanding the part, like in the shapes we started with, you’ll understand the whole. Progressive metal embraces this, with open arms. Most of progressive metal is all about inner strength but also about growing that strength until it encompasses the world around you. Like metal in general, it promises its listeners release, holy power, justification and control. It does that by hinting towards the ultimate prize, the ability to expand your will and enforce it on the world around you. This is the promise of the New Age as well: speak the code, crack the language, say the spell/mantra/prayer and the world is at your beckon.