Progressive metal is an experimental form of heavy metal. It takes heavy metal and adds complex song structures with strange time changes, more technical musicianship, and fusions using the complexity of jazz and classical music. It differs from avant-garde metal as avant-garde experiments more with unusual sounds and atmospheres than it does with technical complexity. There is not one way of truly explaining the progressive metal sound. Almost every subgenre of metal has used progressive elements creating sounds like progressive black metal, technical death metal, and progressive sludge metal. Also, each band uses different progressive elements. Some use jazz fusion and others take more of an influence from neoclassical music. The constants across all genres and fusions is that song structures tend to be unorthodox with solos and breakdowns in places one would not expect and the mixing of elements typically not associated with metal.
1960’s and 1970’s progressive rock was the biggest influence in the birth of progressive metal in the mid 1980’s. Progressive metal bands site acts like Rush, King Crimson, YES, and Genesis as the major reasons they began to incoporate progressive elements into their music. Some progressive rock bands, like High Tide and King Crimson, would fuse elements of heavy metal into their sound in the the mid 1970’s, but it wasn’t until the release of 2112 in 1976 by Rush that a progressive rock band fully embraced the addition of heavy metal. This album is widely recognized as the jump start to the progressive metal movement in the early to mid 1980’s.
Metal bands Fates Warning and Queensryche were the first two true progressive metal bands. They would both use traditional metal and progressive elements on all of their albums and songs. Fates Warning fused progressive with more of a thrash/extreme metal sound, while Queensryche went with more of a meldoic metal style. The release of Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime in 1988 would bring progressive metal to the forefront. Operation: Mindcrime is recognized as a masterpiece and the essential must own progressive metal album. After the commercial success of this album, progressive metal bands would begin to become more prevalent.
Essential Progressive Metal Albums:
- Operation Mindcrime (Queensryche)
- Awake (Dream Theater)
- No Exit (Fates Warning)
- Blackwater Park (Opeth)
- The Divine Wings of Tragedy (Symphony X)
- Periphery (Periphery)
- Lateralus (Tool)
- Animals As Leaders (Animals As Leaders)
- Dragon’s Kiss (Marty Friedman)
- Images and Words (Dream Theater)
- Aenima (Tool)
- Terria (Devin Townsend)
- Fortress (Protest the Hero)
- Leviathan (Mastodon)
- Destroy, Erase, Improve (Meshuggah)
- Edge of Sanity (Crimson)
- Dead Heart, In A Dead World (Nevermore)
- Bleeding (Psychotic Waltz)
Dream Theater was the next progressive metal band band to reach the heights of commercial success in the early 1990’s. They strayed a bit from the sound of Queensryche by adding even more progressive rock elements and concentrating heavily on technical musicianship. Dream Theater would become one of the most important and influential artists in progressive metal with many bands in the 1990’s, 2000’s and present day siting them as an influence.
The 1990’s saw more success for progressive metal with bands like Tool and Meshuggah mixing the sound with alternative metal and death metal respectively. Meshuggah is the band most noted by extreme metal artists as a major influence in the addition of progressive elements into death metal, thrash, and doom metal helping to inspire artists like Opeth, Strapping Young Lad, and Tiamat. Tool would carry the torch for progressive alternative metal influencing bands like Deftones, System of a Down, and Chevelle to experiment with progressive elements.
The popularity of progressive metal severely declined in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s Certain bands would help to keep the sound alive, especially sludge metallers Mastodon. With the decrease in commercial popularity of not only progressive but metal in general in the 2000’s, Mastodon was able to breakthrough onto the radio and video media creating a large loyal following of fans. Other bands would increase the reach of progressive metal in the 21st century helping to create some new fusion genres. This coupled with the increased concentration on technical shred guitar becoming prevalent in present day metal has helped to revive progressive metal. Recently the popularity of bands like Dream Theater has increased again and the revival has given big pushes to new bands like Coheed and Cambria. Progressive metal continues to thrive as one of the most popular forms of underground heavy metal.
Mathcore mixes the rhythmic complexity and odd time changes of progressive metal with the brutal pace and singing of death metal and metalcore. Mathcore tends to take a lot of influence from jazz like concentrating more on strangely placed breakdowns and weird changes in the overall tune of the song, while continuing to play extremely fast riffs. The first band to experiment with a formula like this was hardcore band Black Flag with their album, My War, in 1984. However, Mathcore would not reach popularity until the mid to late 1990’s when bands began to expand progressive elements to more categories of heavy metal. This would help diversify the sound during a decline in the popularity of progressive metal. Bands like Candiria and Converge fused jazz breakdowns and other jazz elements right smack in the middle of fast metal progressions. Bands, like Dillinger Escape Plan, would follow popularizing Mathcore and helping to once again popularize progressive metal.
Djent is an offshoot of progressive metal that contains complex palm muted guitar riffs mixed with technically perfect solos and heavily distorted guitars. The term was created by Fredrik Thordendal of the band Meshuggah. Spoken, the word is meant to sound like what the palm muted guitar in progressive metal sounds like. Djent also adds electronic and computer based sounds along with the use of seven and eight string guitars. The band Periphery really put the sound on the map with the release of their debut self-titled album in 2010. Other djent bands include Animals As Leaders and Tesseract
Neoclassical metal takes its influence from the neoclassical movement that was developed in the late 19th century when composers began to expand on the sound of classical music instead of limiting themselves to a typical classical song structure and rigid musicianship. The sound was developed in heavy metal in the early 1980’s most notably by Yngwie Malmsteen and was one of the earliest forms of progressive metal. He used new compositions and virtuoso techniques for the guitar that were never heard before. This movement helped to create the technical perfection of the shred guitar in heavy metal which has been used prominently in progressive metal, power metal, and speed/thrash metal by artists like Marty Friedman, Symphony X, and The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This experimentation of going against typical heavy metal sounds and structures was a major influence on the development of power metal, avante-garde metal, and progressive metal. The sound still has major influence on artists today with bands like Protest The Hero, Periphery, and Children on Bodom using neo-classical elements in their music.