Is Progressive Metal Progressive?

I got thinking about this while reading through some of the stuff on The Gabriel Construct’s webpage. He said he wants to make progressive metal progressive again. After thinking about this, I realized that this really strikes a chord with me. It is probably one of the reasons I’ve felt so uninspired by the stuff I’ve been listening to.

Let’s take as a case study: HeavyBlog’s top 12 of 2013 so far list (restricting to 2013 will not influence this discussion at all, since the best prog of 2012 falls into the same tropes) and pull the albums that can be labelled as “prog.” I actually like a lot of prog metal. You should remember this, because it is going to sound like a post in which I slam prog metal. Instead, this should be read as a sadness that such a promising genre has hit a stasis.

This is going to get hairy with putting bands into certain boxes, but as I see it the list is Tesseract (should djent actually count as a form of prog?), Persefone (is symphonic metal a form of prog?), Coheed and Cambria, Intronaut, Extol (OK, I haven’t actually listened to this one, but the list says it’s prog), Leprous, and The Ocean.

What do these bands have in common that makes them prog? They tend to have technical playing with technique that derives from classical skills of fast arpeggios and scale patterns than more traditional metal/rock techniques. The chord progressions tend to be less straightforward. This can mean jazz influenced or excessive chromaticism. The time signatures tend to be less straightforward and can even involve alternating time signatures and metric modulations. Lastly, the songs tend to be longer and more thoroughly developed and tied together with a common theme.

So what’s the problem? Well, at one point in time doing these things within metal was a progressive thing to do. They weren’t being done. It was interesting and new. It was moving the genre forward. Now it seems that these things that define the genre have become tropes. You have to have x number of time changes, y number of chromatic patterns, and z number of songs over 8 minutes long. Oh yeah, and we’ll praise you mindlessly if you make these numbers without actually doing anything original.

Instead of being truly progressive and trying to bring in new influences to make interesting and new music, it all ends up sounding similar. Just because you came up with a way to arpeggiate faster, using a “new” pattern, and you do more chromatic steps doesn’t mean you’re “more progressive” or even more interesting. It is more of the same pretending to be different.

Maybe I’m reacting to an over-saturation of prog lately, and I won’t feel this way after a break from it, but sometimes when listening to prog it sounds like a joke. It sounds like the band is stringing together a bunch of tropes in mockery of how derivative it all has become. Scale the Summit is unfortunately going to get my wrath, but I can’t listen that new album. It has such high praise all over the place, but I’m so bored by it. I mean listen to this. It is pretty, and quite impressive technically at parts, but how many times have you heard this?

No offense to Scale the Summit, I could have picked something off literally any of the bands listed above and some of those albums might even make my top 10 of the year. It is just a feature of the current prog scene. It has become static. There are the occasional minor details that are new, but overall, it isn’t progressing.

Progressive metal can become progressive again. To some people it may seem shocking. What more do I want? They are already employing all of the complexity you would find in any fully trained classical composer. I’d reply, well, yes, any trained composer through the 19th century. But this stuff is more than a century old now. You could incorporate tons of modern developments. You don’t have to write atonally, but you can incorporate interesting post-tonal techniques to make something progressive without losing your band’s characteristic sound.

Other than tonality, there have been tons of other innovations from play style (stop with the incessant arpeggios, please), to modern electronic filtering of sound in new ways, to how your band layers together its pieces texturally, to instruments used (thank you Hybrid for showing us clarinet can be used in metal), to more original genre crossover, and on and on. You shouldn’t have to be an Animals as Leaders or Dream Theater clone to be prog. I bet I could write a fugue a la Hindemith that would sound really good by a metal band. How about someone tries that for originality?

I know there are actually lots of bands out there doing this, but they immediately get labelled as avant garde and pushed out of the prog scene. As I pointed out last time, this term should probably be reserved for the really, really out there stuff. Incorporating these techniques subtly into your standard prog sound should still count as prog metal. We should embrace more experimentation to finally get out of this stasis.

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9 thoughts on “Is Progressive Metal Progressive?

  1. Mitch Stuck says:

    Yeah, I liked this Scale the Summit song when it was called “Midnight” and Joe Satriani played it in 1987.

  2. You express the same feelings I’ve had in a very long time! But I feel that that’s because sometimes we look for “progressiveness” where it is no longer there. Currently, I’m not sure it is at any place that is pleasant for me to listen to, but here is my general take on the history of progressiveness in metal.
    I love some progressive rock bands from the early 70s (Yes, Rennaissance, Genesis) and recognize some very specific pieces as the epitome of progressive rock/metal: Yes’ simple yet beautifully constructed “Heart of Sunrise”, and the perfection of their style on the piece “Close to the Edge”; Renaissance’s debut album as a whole is an excellent example of rock prog.
    Prog metal perse stopped having any real “progressive” value by the mid 70s.
    After the sounds revolution that NWOHM was on metal, well-formed Speed Metal (what you commonly know as “thrash metal”) pushed in a new direction. You might not like it, but that is the true importance of Slayer’s “Reign in Blood”. And how about Voivod?
    I’d say that after that it was probably some of the Death Metal bands (do not make the mistake of taking Death Metal by the example of the multitudes of mediocre bands like Cannibal Corpse) that actually made some progressive music, though it goes unrecognized as much of the truly underground music goes. In terms of structure and development I’d recommend paying attention to the riffing (the riff is the center of metal music) on Morbid Angel’s “Blessed are the Sick” and Vader’s “De Profundis”. In terms of harmony, try Immolation’s “Herein After” and maybe their more dynamics-lacking yet still good example “Unholy Cult”. A personal favorite for interesting yet simple contrapunctal ideas is At the Gates’ “The Red in the Sky is Ours”. And you must be more than familiar with Gorguts’ Obscura, which was another sound revolution for metal, followed up by a more conservative yet much more refined “From Wisdom to Hate” (another personal favorite).
    After Death Metal pushing the boundaries (Black Metal was a beautiful yet scary uber-Romantic outgrowth -progression- of/from Death Metal), I think much that has gone on in the progressive field is on the Avant-Garde side or noise side. Maybe “Sigh” was a good example.

    Nowadays, Progressive gets confused with “cramming inconsistent bits together” and “changing time signatures several times” (many Death Metal bands do this as routine and they are never considered progressive). That’s how you get bullshit albums such as The Ocean’s “Pellagial” and Witherscape’s debut being praised by the ignorant masses of consumers looking for “the next big thing” in any disparate-sounding thing they can come across.

  3. And I do think that Tesseract’s “One” is a better and more progressive album than most of the music labeled as “progressive” is. although it is itself labelled as Djent (a misnomer, as anyone with some sense can tell you).

  4. […] does my disappointment come in? Well, it kind of comes from my Is Progressive Metal Progressive post. I mentioned at the beginning that Exivious is basically a jazz outfit on metal instruments. I […]

  5. Sometimes, I think Limp Bizkit were one of the most actually progressive bands in Metal.

    Not when I think clearly about it of course, but I know what you mean about Prog bands not actually progressing.

  6. Very thoughtful indeed. If you produced some new prog metal bands out there with this mindset, perhaps, you guys will create something new? Might be very interesting. 🙂
    Btw, ‘Djent’ is not a genre. It’s just a tone that’s used in almost all prog metal (even other metal sub-genres) music these days. 🙂

    • I think Djent has become an independent subgenre now.

      I understand that people were arguing about whether it was a real subgenre or not when it was starting out, but I think so many bands have come out sounding like eachother, so many record labels group them together, so many Djent fan sites and concert line-ups have been made that it has come online, become self-aware and is now a real genre.

      People had the same problems with Thrash Metal when it was new, with Hair Metal when it was new and with Nu Metal when it was new, but now, most fans agree that they are real subgenres.

      Sure they might argue about the name “Hair” is interchangeable with “Glam/Sleeze/Teeth/Pop Metal” and “Thrash” sometimes gets intertwined with “Speed.” “Nu” sometimes gets called “Rap” or “Alternative.”

      There’s disagreement over all of them “Glam is just a look” “Nu is just rapping and DJs over the top” and people say the names are stupid. Nowadays, a few people say “Djent” is a stupid name and “Djent is just a tone” but there’s more to it than that, and it has become a real genre due to the critical mass of bands making Djent music.

      Sure; Uneven Structure, Tesseract and Periphery are all pretty different, but so are Kreator, Anthrax and Metallica.

      So are Linkin Park, Powerman 5000 and Korn.

      So are Bon Jovie, Quiet Riot and Motley Crue.

      In Power Metal, there’s a vast difference between Stratovarius, Helloween and Sonata Arctica. And its named after power? All Metal is Powerful.

      I agree that naming Djent after a tone is unusual, but its better than naming it after a look (Glam/Hair) or the fact that it is new (Nu) is equally silly.

      Maybe they should have called Thrash “Chug.” Sure, some non-Thrash bands like Motorhead and Sabbath had chugging, but that ties into the idea of how much Djent took from Messugah. I know that some non-Djent bands have the Djent-Tone like Architects did on Hollow Crown, but that ties in with the idea of bands like Anvil and Metal Church being heavier than most Heavy Metal bands but not quite Thrash.

      Maybe the name will change, but the subgenre will stick, if history is any indicator.

  7. […] This is one heck of a prog album. Over the past few years I’ve been growing more and more disillusioned at the prog metal scene. While this album certainly has some innovations, I think its main strength […]

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