Greetings fans of irregular rhythms and concept album! It is I, the wizard of synths, the lord of unisons, the Big Nerd™, Eden Kupermintz! The Prog-nosis has once more passed under my control and, as is custom, I am going to use this introduction to wax philosophical about some things. This time around, I want to inform you of a discussion which happened in our Discord server (join here) about the differences between “avant-garde” and progressive music. Or, perhaps, I should say the “relationship” between these two terms because it’s clear that they are interconnected and not mutually exclusive. Of course, the usual and boring caveats about genre discussions apply here: these are more modifiers than strict categories, Your Mileage May Vary, blah blah blah. You know the drill now let’s talk about things like adults and in good faith instead of pulling the conversation-killer card that is “but everything is subjective, bruh!”
So, what exactly is the relationship between the avant-garde and the progressive? Well, it might first help us to ascertain that both definitions denote a relationship between the music being described (or any other form of art, to be honest) and the rest of the field that they are otherwise a part of. Avant-garde describes works that are so far ahead, stranger, or more experimental than the current field of music they operate in that they become a “territory” onto their own. Sometimes this label is also associated with a certain type of sound (like in the case of avant-garde metal) but it’s usually a catch-all that describes the forefront of a certain genre or style (interestingly enough, this terminology is geographical but we’ll leave that to a way more rambling post, shall we?) The relationship between avant-garde music and the rest of the music it is contrasted with is that it is ahead of it; it is a purely relational term and is thus prone to always change, since the mainstream always advances towards the avant-garde for reasons we won’t explore here (but that we have explored in the past).
Progressive on the other hand has a much closer relationship with actual musical practices and approaches. Odd-time signatures, guitar/keyboard unisons, concept albums, and more all denote a very specific sub-genre of music, whether that sub-genre is part of metal, rock, or elsewhere. While it’s true that “progressive” can also describe sub-genres that don’t sound anything like this, it’s still the case that when you tell most people you’re listening to progressive music (as we often do as part of this column), then they’ll have somewhat particular set of sounds in their head. As time goes on, “progressive” tends to be a more stable and immutable category, as the sounds which it describes remain pretty much the same. Sure, new and exciting genres get the “progressive” moniker stuck to them (like the ever-expanding genre of progressive stoner metal, which is an “invention” of the last decade, give or take). But the addition of that moniker is usually triggered by the same kinds of developments in sound as what we described above.
Now, the relationship between those two categories is clear. Sometimes, even often, progressive music can mess around with the formula of a certain sound so much in its quest for the musical oddity and complexity which lies at its core that it becomes avant-grade. But progressive music can, and often is, mainstream; for example, Opeth plays progressive death metal but is by no means avant-grade. But they were. When they were starting out, Opeth’s quest for a more complex and nuanced form of death metal (whether they did or did not present their goals as such is irrelevant) brought them towards the avant-garde; they were playing music that very few other groups were playing. As time went by, the culture adjusted to their sound and even adopted it, turning progressive death metal into a staple of the mainstream. This is, by the way, by no means a criticism or me trying to say that the avant-garde is superior; it is simply a cultural “location” as opposed to progressive music, which is a musical “style”. This style often places bands which plays it at the avant-garde of their genre but is by no means always there (yes, I really like the fact that this term is geo-graphical).
Glad we sorted that out! Why are we talking about this? Well, first off because it’s a fun and interesting discussion! But secondly because the premier band I want to talk about for this entry of the column is an excellent example of the difference, and the relationship, between the two different labels. Cool! Here we go.
Closer To The Heart (Top Picks)
Gospel – The Loser (hardcore/progressive rock)
Yes, you read that genre definition correctly. As if arriving in response to faint cries of distress, Gospel‘s impossible The Loser has graced my ears this week just in time for the musings presented above about the progressive and the avant-grade. First described to me as “hardcore with synths”, The Loser is actually much more than that. Namely, it is a successful, fascinating, and avant-garde melding of King Crimson/Camel-esque progressive rock (namely “muscular”, synth-heavy, groovy progressive rock) and hardcore/screamo vocals. Yes, once again, you have read correctly. No, I don’t have an explanation as to why or how this works. But it really does.
Actually, I think I might have an explanation: at the heart of it, metal grew out of and alongside progressive rock. The two genres were never as distant as some people think they were. In fact, punk also grew alongside these two genres and there was constant communication between the styles, even if it was filled with derision and superficial hate. I mean, listen to Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black and tell me that stuff isn’t metal as fuck? Or to some of the riffs on Camel Mirage? Well, what if you dug up that latent aggression and heaviness from out of progressive rock, bringing it to the forefront and amplifying it? You’d have the perfect base to then input whatever else you’d like from metal, punk, or hardcore, since you’re basically halfway there by being aggressive and direct. This is what Gospel have managed to do on The Loser.
Enough words; listen to “S.R.O” for example. Quickly after the opening, trippy synth lead, the track very quickly picks up tempo and introduces an infectious groove section into the mix. If I told you this was a Camel track, you’d have no grounds to argue with me at this point: the synths are loud, the guitars are heavy and fuzzy, and the whole thing is just forward in your face. There’s plenty of patience at play here; the progressive rock elements are not just something to be flirted with and discarded. Gospel spend a good minute and forty five seconds exploring these sounds. Then, the extremely harrowing and angry vocals erupt, merging beautifully with a simpler, more explosive version of the track’s initial riff. Moving between this version and its violence, amplified by the vocals angst, and the tripper elements of the band’s sound, “S.R.O” becomes an ever deepening and expanding whirlwind of sound.
And that’s one track. The rest of the album explores in both directions, creating more expansive, progressive soundscapes and heavier, more emotive segments as well. This combo, driven by a progressive rock edge, is taken so far to both extremes that the album becomes avant-garde, completely challenging how we currently see, experience, and describe both the genres which it channels. It’s also heaps of fun, sure to get you both headbanging and rumination. My god, this album should not exist and it should not be this good; but it does and it is.
Polyphonia (Further Listening)
Dychromia – The Dangers of Curiosity (progressive death metal)
If you’re looking for some excellent, well-produced, and “present” progressive death metal (in the sense that the riffs and tracks have direction and doesn’t just dissipate into meaningless noodling) then look no further than Dychromia. It runs the gamut of more intricate stuff, coming close to technical death metal at times, and more “traditionally” progressive metal ideas and sounds. This makes the album both interesting and challenging, replete with plenty of breakneck transitions but also moments of genuine, punchy, and direct aggression. Make sure you listen to the beautiful synths on the second track, “The Green Visitation”, and the super cool ways in which they interact with the guitars and vocals. Fans of mid era Between the Buried and Me take note