Never thought I would be writing about this genre. It seemed to have so few fans in the first place. Then metal died. Then it really, really died. Then it sorta peeked around the corner and prog was sorta taggin’ along with it. Eventually, thanks to the internet, Prog Metal became kinda chic? Nowadays there’s so much progressive metal I can’t keep up with it all. This is my attempt to illustrate how the genre was forged and how it has evolved. I have been a fan since, almost, its inception.
Let us begin with where I think there was the turning point for this sub-genre of metal:
Iron Maiden – Powerslave
Sept. 3, 1984 – So prog metal starts with, but who else – Iron Maiden. Maiden is more grouped with the heavy metal sound of old aka new wave of British heavy metal, but I think this is really where they put a new epic direction to their style. The Maiden also kept going with it for quite awhile after this release then picked up with it again in the 00’s.
Well, as for the album itself, it has the beginnings of more staple Maiden with “Aces High” and the classic, “Two Minutes to Midnight.” Both songs feature some excellent bridges, quite intricate for the time with dueling, as well as harmonized guitars. Alas, that is not where the prog stamp shines. That begins when we get to the instrumental ‘Losfor Words’, which is a short little metal jaunt that we head-bang to until we reach the title track, the epic-lee impeccable ‘Powerslave.’ Not only does Powerslave have an epic run time at around 7 minutes, but it just feels that way. Throwing around Egyptian chord progressions and boasting a gorgeously pompous 2 minute guitar solo. It also helps that epic feel having lyrical themes about the Egyptian god, Osiris, who seemed to be very frustrated about dying stating ‘I don’t want to die, I’m a god, WHY CAN’T I LIVE ON?’
Powerslave assures us of its prog status finishing out the masterpiece of an album with the massive adaptation of the poem, “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” for 13 minutes. Taking its que from Rush who, years earlier, translated the other epic poem you read in high school, Kubla-Khan, with their song “Xanadu.”
There are other grand standing moments to Powerslave. I’d also like to point out the guitar licks launching “Back in the Village” which are some of the most ear blistering in metal history. Then there’s the metal anthem “Flash of the Blade” sporting more famous Maiden harmony guitar work (I remember this song being used in several films).
Maiden’s best? I think so, but, then again, I am a progressive metal junkie and would undoubtedly single out this album as Dickinson and co. finest hour.
Queensryche – The Warning
Four days after Powerslave, Queensryche releases this, their first effort in the prog metal realm after a “normal” heavy metal E.P. This is more definitively considered the first progressive metal release of the genre, featuring the sky-soaring vocals of Geoff Tate, which became the genre’s standard for years and years to come.
The Warning has only one really long song, which is the staple of prog metal/rock – the 10 minute “Roads To Madness.” But The Warning boasts a rich sound and production. The song structures are also not common heavy metal (at the time anyway). The ‘ryche were/are Pink Floyd fans and gave one of Floyd’s old producer’s a shot to round out the sound for their first full album release. He definitely had his influence as there are a lot of odd intros and unusual tones. And the guitars are played quite elegantly, but surprisingly a little cut back and pushed to the distance – odd for a metal release. I suppose the most unique aspect of The Warning is the lyrical content that focused on science fiction-esque stories and positive encouragement for awkward youth. Very un-Motley Crue-like for the time.
I listened to this album retroactively after becoming an Operation: Mindcrime fan and was a tad disappointed in how not-so-heavy it was, but, after time, it has grown on me and I consider it prog metal canon. And it really is heavy in spots, but it’s so ambitious that it takes a long while just to catch up with what the ‘ryche were cookin’ at the time.
Yngwie Malmsteen – Rising Force 1984
Yup, good ole’ Eng-Vay. He just keeps a rollin’ and this was his debut, which, undoubtably had its effect on the prog metal genre. Rising Force probably launched an entire record label (Shrapnel Records) with this release as its success proved guitar instrumental shredding was marketable. This album will influence many guitarists in the future of the genre like Michael Romeo of Symphony X.
Well RS is almost an all instrumental album and basically uses classical structures aside from the two rock tunes on the album. All this showcasing, what else, but Eddie Van Engvay’s prowess on the six-string (which was, at the time, the speediest known to mankind). The classical pieces are beautiful and heavy at the same time. Malmsteen’s playing is jaw dropping and he basically put all his best ideas forth on this debut solo effort (not that I don’t like many of his other discs).
Fates Warning – The Spectre Within 1985
Fates had an album well before this in Night on Brocken, but that was more of a tredding of the well-worn new wave of British heavy metal path. Of course they took their ques from Iron Maiden and even did a Maiden cover on NoB: “Flight of Icarus.” Thus I’m assuming they were being influenced by Maiden up to their Piece of Mind album with the wroughting of Night On Brocken. Then I’m only going to assume again that once they heard Powerslave they then decided to follow suit and keep the songs longer and the chord progressions more complex and varied.
At the start of their career, FW is a gruff and clunky machine which automatically makes them the heaviest of the genre at this time and for several long years after. They have low end riffage aplenty and dig out many a’ manly guitar solo. This era of FW is really more along the lines of chugga-chugga ville, but Jim Matheos throws a lot of them at you and keeps it interesting. They still keep it epic with 2 songs over 7 minutes and end the album with the 12 minute epic “Epitaph.” Most bands ended the album with an epic at this time I guess.
FW has a fairly split fan-base, one side yearns for the days of vocalist John Arch from this album and there’s the other half that appreciate present day vocalist Ray Alder. I would fall into the latter category. The first song on this album supports my stance particularly well with all the repetitious “AHHH-ahhh-AHHH-ahhh-AHHH-ahhh” and I find it rather annoying. John Arch also doesn’t really find a pleasant melody to sing around the riffs. His voice is strained a bit at the top end and he can be indiscernable at mid-range. He is tolerable enough though and sometimes doggone impressive, but some metal fans just swear by him as the one and only for Fates Warning.
Well, in all the production is muddy and Fates Warning would see bigger and brighter (and slicker) days, but The Spectre Within is a solid effort. This thing takes days and days for the listener to penetrate their sound and would keep most prog metal heads busy for a good time.
Queensrchye – Rage For Order 1986
Well after listening to this album for half my life, I can honestly say that it is a groundbreaking masterstroke by the band. Took a long while to reach this conclusion though. The first time I listened to it, I was waiting for their song “Prophecy” that I heard on Z-Rock to start playing and it never did, since, well, it’s not on this album. I didn’t know what the title of the “Prophecy” was, just knew what it sounded like. Thus I was disappointed that the song never came on. “Walk in the Shadows” caught my eye though and I repeatedly listened to it. The rest of the tunes aside from “Surgical Strike” weren’t real jammers and there are some odd rhythm patterns that made it difficult to catch on. Then the layered vocals on “Screaming In Digital” started to really blow me away and I repeatedly listened to it. Then I would have this album on while playing Nintendo until, eventually, I enjoyed every song.
Great story eh? Okay, I realize that it’s not, but I wanted to point out the depth of this release and the amount of time it takes to digest. Despite a short running time on virtually every song, this album is progressive in several ways. For one, it’s the first prog metal release to feature keys. Although Queensryche never had a full-time keyboard player, there’s only a couple of songs on Rage that don’t have synths on it. Geoff Tate seems to be a one man choir on this album and has vocal multi-tracks galore on every song. This is one of Scott Rockenfield’s finest hours as he seems to find a varied tempo unique to every song and comes up with some real odd time signatures to fit each song specifically. It is also progressive in the fact that it explores new sounds very foreign to metal at this time like on “Gonna Get Close To You” (one creepy tune). I would almost dare call this the first industrial metal release as well, but it is not overtly so.
Despite not having long songs or divulgent instrumental passages, this album is complex in a different way in that it is highly textured and explores new vocal effects. Just listen to “Neue Regel” and you hear all kinds of odd samplings and keys. There’s also tons of effects and over-layering on Geoff’s vocal affront making this song one big anomaly of the era.
Lyrically this album is beyond bizarre for heavy metal exploring themes of obsession, stalking, lost love, futuristic rebellion, and android identity turmoil. You know, typical hair metal. Also, their George Orwell motif begins here making many appearances on albums to come. Love this passage in “Chemical Youth” – ‘SHOW ME the wave of eighties is #3, CHANGE ME – our religion is technology.’ Always though they were talking about the “80s” with technology being their religion (you know Sony Walkman and Commodore 64s and all), but apparently the song is about some kinda futuristic society with the youth in revolt.
Rage For Order offers a completely new direction for metal and was probably not appreciated at its release, since it was, as we say in the underrated business, well ahead of its time. Go in with a fresh perspective and don’t have expectations about what metal is supposed to be or think that Queensryche should stick to their formula from the self-titled EP. You will find a revolution in 80’s metal.
Iron Maiden – Somewhere In Time Sept. 29, 1986
Keyboards. Give me some keys, some synths, some key-tars, some synthesized guitars. I need more keyboards, because it is 1986!! EVERYONE MUST HAVE KEYBOARDS IN THEIR MUSIC!!!! You too Judas Priest! And especially you Iron Maiden!!
After Priest put out Turbo, the house of cards completely fell and even the metal community had to accept keyboards as a regular every day sound in their music and Rush fans into metal didn’t mind at all (perhaps even preferred it). Maiden even bowed a bit and put a dosage of synths and synthesized guitars on Somewhere In Time. Just look at that album cover – man, ain’t that killer?!! Anyway, it doesn’t kill the sound at all and they usually just use it for texture and this is a fine sounding album all around with a gorgeous mix. Putting these spicy, sci-fi’esque guitars well at the front, some beefy bass from Steve, and punchy beats by Nicko with a touch of keyboard-y atmosphere to round out the wall of sound nicely.
Well this album isn’t all that progg-y, but with a few exceptions like the long guitar solo exchange on the title track between Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, which, I think, features some of the first Van Halen-esque two-hand tapping technique that the band has ever done. You just couldn’t escape that 80’s era influence no matter who you are (tappin’ plus keyboards! Just goes to show how bands almost all have to follow trends). “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” is somewhat long and indulges into the realm of thrash, which was huge at the time. It does contain a fairly lengthy closer in “Alexander the Great” too with a great intro solo by Smith or Murray (not sure who plays it). Then Bruce does a basic lecture on the conqueror in the song of course. That seems to fit, since Dickinson has a history degree. However, I was taken aback to find out that Bruce didn’t write any songs for this album and the guys nix’d on all his ideas.
Anyway, great album – one of my faves. “Deja-Vu” is one of the greats in metal history and one of the first songs that turned me onto the band. The intro solo alone by Adrian is worthy of a blind buy. “Stranger in a Strange Land” is a very emotive, nostalgic tune with some of Bruce’s finest vocal efforts and most everything else is good to great. Not to mention that “Wasted Years” is one of the band’s biggest hits. Well, if it weren’t for the keys being introduced to the band, I probably wouldn’t even consider this album prog, but, alas, it does show the band “progressing.”
Crimson Glory – Crimson Glory 1986
This band is so pompous and uncool that they totally rule. Even donning silver and white masks for a time just to prove they are dorky prog guys, who sing about dragons and red sharks. Annoyed by high pitched, shrieking vocals? Then I have found your kryptonite band. That’s all that legendary vocalist Midnight does, flaunting his mighty range constantly into the listener’s ear.
Crimson Glory also specializes in harmony guitar playing to match Midnight’s crystal shattering vocals. You’ve known that down tuning was big in modern metal circles right? Well, I think Crimson Glory dons ‘up-tuning’ for their guitars just to match Midnight’s voice. The first song, “Valhalla,” right off the bat just immediately purports this unique style of metal going into jarring licks and high pitched banshee wails.
These guys wrote great songs too for what they were attempting to do and were a band for four years before being signed and releasing this, their debut effort. CG stated they always focused on melodies and they do that quite well, creating very pleasant hooks for the listener’s ear. Not much of a jam band, but they do show instrumental prowess and complex riffs in the short span of each tune.
They create a mighty wall of pompous sound with this release. All should bow to their greatness.
Fates Warning – Awaken The Guardian 1986
Looking for a catchy tune? A friendly melody? A snappy beat? An infectious hook? Something to whistle around the house?
You won’t find it here. Awaken the Guardian is a prog metal fans day dream in nightmare form. It is just one impenetrable album. John Arch is in storytelling mode most the album and just spits out lyrics trying to get the story out without singing normal vocal melodies. He isn’t the most discernable of singers either making it a difficult listen. Awaken has plenty of acoustic intros, abrupt time changes, and solos in various places to pretty much define the genre. I just find the sound so dense and Arch’s vocal stylings so messy, that I don’t find myself reaching for the play button when I see the album on my iPod.
“Prelude to Ruin” is a classic in Fate’s stable though and frequently played live (of course, it sounds better live with Ray Alder singing it though :P) with those brutal Matheos riffs. “Fata Morgana” is a cool tune with some pleasant hooks for once to draw the listener in. It’s a song about a witch – a lyrical theme that John Arch seems to indulge in frequently. I also like the instrumental “Time’s Long Past,” which makes for a somber minute and a half. Guardian, however, ends on an 8 and a half minute snoozer, “Exodus.” Have really no idea what it’s about since I barely understand Arch except when he says ‘Exodus.’
Many a’old school prog metal head would label this a classic, but I guess you had to be there. I think the band got better over time, and while this album certainly shows progress from the previous efforts, I never acquired the taste to drink from the cup of John Arch’s Fates Warning era.
King Diamond – Abigail 1987
I think this is the first metal concept album, but could be wrong. Thus it almost automatically ends up in the progressive, Tommy-side of of the sub-genre. Only this time full-bore metal. The story is about some dead lady named “Abigail” who possesses the baby of Jonathon or something like that – I never really got this gothic horror tale’s story down. I have to hand it to the King, it’s really a groundbreaking album and it’s totally unique in song and approach to the concept album.
Even though the songs are quite short (mostly around 4 minutes) aside from the 7 minute closer, there’s still a lot of room for expression in the songs. Concept albums are story-based and demand a lot of moods and tempo changes to match the unfolding of the story’s plot. You’ll find a surprising amount of time changes and jam sections within the lean run-time of each song. For instance, “The Possession” has a mid-section where the tempo speeds up and takes on a jazzy-jam form and roughly a 1/3 of the song becomes instrumental in a short 3 ½ run-time.
Even though his name is ‘King,’ I don’t really see him as a musical dictator – he gives plenty of room for his musicians to breathe. Mikky Dee does a ton of improvisational fills and odd tempos from the kit. And Andy LaRoque (c’mon is that his real name?) is King Diamond’s best musical friend and creates a wicked storm of riffs and a whirlwind of guitar tricks. He is really a great songwriter as well as musician and has done a masterful job of carrying out Diamond’s vision over the course of his career.
Highlights include “Deadly Omens” with a real catchy chorus, the iconic title track with its middle eastern-like lead riff, and the brilliant “Black Horseman” to conclude the story. There are a couple of ‘meh’ tunes like “The Family Ghost.” Overall, Abigail is a mint of metal from hey-day of heavy metal. The only complaint is the production is a bit tiny and the band sounds pushed to the back, but its generally a haunted sounding metal offering.
Fates Warning – No Exit 1988
John Arch departs and here arrives Ray Alder coming out swinging with an ear destroying high-rise vocal attack. Fates gets off to a grand start on No Exit with a genius little guitar instrumental with some fine two-hand tapping then lets Ray cut loose on “Anarchy Divine.” “Silent Cries” ques right up and slams the listener with brash riffage, getting right on with letting you know that Ray Alder was the right man for the job. Crushing any high-end vocals previously heard by the band on their first three albums. This is also FW’s biggest “hit” album landing a walloping 110 on the Billboard.
No Exit climaxes on their 22 minute monument, “The Ivory Gate of Dreams,” the longest song in prog metal history at this point. How do they end on such a crest in a 22 minute tune? Shouldn’t they be in cooldown mode? I remember counting the amount of riffs in “The Ivory Gate of Dreams” and it came out to be 21 or something like that. It has its slower, mellower moments, but they just pay off with a killer riff to follow up the more emotional moments. Even though the original studio is rippin’, I recommend the live version though – IT’S EVEN HEAVIER! And I mean heavy as stink!
I remember being 18, in the record store, holding this album in my hands and seeing the final song that had 8 different parts to it thinking ‘this looks really cool.’ Back then, music was a major purchase and I had to do more research. I never found a review, thus Fates would wait long time before I followed through on my first impulse and lived to regret it.
Iron Maiden – Seventh Son of A Seventh Son 1988
Well there you go again IM, getting all proggy on us and releasing a concept album or what was marketed as one anyway. For a “concept” album there are certainly a number of hits like “Can I Play With Madness” and “The Evil That Men Do” (at least U.K. hits anyway, America always had its head up its musical arse). Listening to the entire album, one does get the impression that there’s some kinda loose story going on about a cursed man with prophetic powers, struggling with his “gifts” that seemingly lead to a tortured existence.
Soundwise, Maiden still stuck with the keyboard-ness of their previous album, but totally dropped the synthed guitars, which is too bad. I really thought Somewhere In Time had the perfect gem of a sound and the guitars on SSoaSS are really dry in tone. Steve Harris has a nice, meaty bass sound though. The keyboards flesh out more color for the album as a whole, but I never really dug the guitar tone they chose. This is unfortunate because the songs are mostly really excellent and executed sharply.
It does really work on “Infinite Dreams” though, because they toned it down for that song and they went for something jazz-like and proggy. The very Yes-like opening, an abrupt time-change into a “Revelation”-ish riff, and developing into an IM galloping jam session makes for a masterful prog tune. Although the title-track is the longest tune, I think “Infinite Dreams” is where they really cut their progressive teeth and the title-track sort of trugs along. Just borrowing the main lead on “Powerslave” and the harmony guitar line from “Alexander the Great” then repeating the song’s title “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son,” but it does have some great shred work from Adrian and Dave near the end. For that, it is worthy of your ear’s time.
I do like this album much and it contains some of their finest song-writing, but eventually the sound wears on me. Thus I consider it a step down from the previous 4 with Bruce (what band could live up to those expectations?), but a hearty effort and still required Maiden listening.
Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime 1988
The second you read the thread title, you knew it was coming. The pre-eminate concept album in all of metal. The breakthrough album that ‘Ryche fans were waiting for since their E.P. had arrived. Dropping all experimental sounds of the previous two, Queensryche opted to stick to the mainline metal sound, only building their sound around a very complex story-line with a lot of topical ideas and revolutionary urges to the listener.
Operation: Mindcrime does what all masterpieces do and starts off the story from the end (Pulp Fiction, Citizen Kane) introducing our anti-hero, Nicky, from a psych-ward, saying “I remember now, I can’t remember yesterday. I just remembering doing what they told me…” We hear a cool instrumental, then “Revolution Calling” describes Nicki’s calling to this charismatic figure named “Dr. X,” who promises a ‘cure’ for the reprobate society that Nicki sees all around him. The title track follows depicting the results of following Dr. X’s cure as Nicki becomes an assassin slave to the cause of X presented in an onslaught of metal groove and killer solo’ing by DeGarmo and Wilton. I won’t give away the rest, but obviously the story travels through many tragedies and downfalls. Sometimes presented in somber ballads and others in straight-ahead rockers.
For a complete story arch, Mindcrime has a surprising number of singularly infectious songs, which you wouldn’t know were part of a whole concept. “Breaking the Silence” and “Eyes of A Stranger” are complete songs on their own. Each signifying the breathtaking vocal talent of one Geoff Tate, who may have the most crystallized sounding vocals in history. He is probably the most influential singer of the subgenre.
Even though Mindcrime is not nearly as electronic as Rage or sci-fi experimental as The Warning, it certainly uses those experiences and forges some nice “segue” songs in the process. “Electric Requiem” and “Waiting for 22” and are excellent tone illustrators, exploring some eerie atmospheres and the emotional states of the protagonist. Very nice touches provided by the honed in experiments done through their previous efforts.
What’s amazing is to hear Goeff Tate describe how the album was inspired. Tate was wandering around the streets of Toronto at night and entered a Catholic church which was lit by a plethora of candles. He said he began to feel what he interpreted as a religious experience and kept hearing the humming notes in his head of the title track’s lead notes. It all started there, as well as the Catholic motif featured on the album. Later on, he saw a prostitute in a nun’s outfit and the character became enfleshed right before his eyes.
If there was one album that I could point out that changed my life, I would say it’s this one. Even though it has a flawed/deprived protagonist, I feel the story was successful in telling me that the system was corrupt, the governmental leaders are power-mongers not to be trusted, and the media is full of lies.
Metallica – …And Justice For All 1988
If Master of Puppets didn’t get the attention of prog-anites, then …Justice certainly got our heads to turn. Metallica releases their most complex and layered album to date. Funny, they were called sell-outs for the first time with this record and it is also one of their darkest and most anti-social albums to date with the longest songs of their career. Don’t think that’s ever happened to a band before. Well, I think the original crowd of thrashers who claimed ‘sell-out’ were right to a degree – the album does lack speed somewhat. Listen to “Dyer’s Eve” and I can only think that the album could use more tracks like that. The production values just demand it – Lars’ drum tone is perfect for speed on this album. The trudgers on the album like “To Live is To Die” don’t really mesh well with the over-all sound and direction of the album. I know they wanted a tribute to Cliff somewhere, but they should have left that track for the next album and it would have sounded fantastic! My stance has nothing to do with Metallica traditionally being a thrash band and should always have a large collection of fast songs on each album, but this particular album was tailored to fit thrashier tempos.
Recently, I have also noticed that most the Metallica songs that the general public are familiar with are not their high-octane songs like “Damage, Inc.” They are mostly mid-tempo to slow aka “Sad But True,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Unforgiven,” etc. It seems like speed, one of the primary attributes of thrash, if not THE attribute, is antithetical to public acceptance. Megadeth even turned down the thrash for Youthanasia on the tracks that were originally written for speed due to the producer’s theory that all hits were mid-tempo. Playing extraordinarily fast just doesn’t seem to get you radio play. About the only thing with speed that Metallica got to radio was the last 1/3 of “One,” which is unfortunate – I would love to hear “Fight Fire with Fire” or “Trapped Under Ice” for once on the rock station rather than “Enter Sandman.”
Nice tangent buddy – now let’s talk about the album… Well …And Justice For All has some loose reputation of being a concept album, but it’s just not. There are some connectable ideas on corruption and American society/government. The whole album just takes a glass half-empty stance it seems, but there’s no story or real arc here. This record starts with a quaint barn-burner in “Blackened,” which, I believe, may be one of the first metal songs taking a strong environmental stance. Well, now, I just thought of Ozzy’s “Revelation Mother Earth,” so let’s say it’s one of the first environmental friendly thrash tunes. Testament would follow suit about a year later with their song “Greenhouse Effect” as well as a slew of other heavy bands. The main melody riff is kinda standard that James sings over but the chorus is really tight along with the rhythm section and mid-section has some tremendous bridges and a killer outro solo by Kirk.
Then hits the tremendously lengthy title-track which seems to be written with the drummer creating the riff – a bit odd for metal or any musical genre. There are tons of layered guitar harmonies hidden throughout this track and it takes quite a few listens to take hold. I heard Kirk state how tired he was of playing this song live as it sorta lost the audience in its musical demand for attention. Love it though – one of my favorite Met songs!
We then segue to “Eye of the Beholder,” which has a very smooth intro and lyrical themes similar to “…And Justice For All”: the corruption in American society and government. I guess these two songs back to back give one that ‘concept’ feel.
Did you know there was a day in MTV’s time where they played a seven and a half minute video with 18 guitar solos and shot in black and white? That day was in 1988 and that song was “One” of course. Where are we now as a society musically speaking? “One” was more of an exception back then, but, really, there’s very little understanding of musicality and appreciation of instrumentation in the general public. It would seem less now than back then anyway…
Okay, I’m done doing a song by song break-down in order, but I also hold “Shortest Straw” and “Harvestor of Sorrow” in high reguard, particularly the lead riffs on “Shortest.” I always loved “playing” air guitar to that particular Hammett solo.
Well, too bad the crowd response didn’t go over with Metallica during the longer songs and they ditched that format for 20 years. Gone are Metallica’s epic song structures for many releases to come, but not for good. Metallica would give it one more go with Death Magnetic, but, unfortunately, Lars Ulrich’s drum prowess would certainly be gone for good after Justice…
King Diamond – Them 1988
The follow-up to Abigail is basically more of the same: a horror concept album with creaky doors and spooky ghosties. Well, actually, it’s a tad harsher than that. It seems that King’s grandma was kind of a kooky old lady and he bases this story around her. It seems she likes drinking tea laced with blood and lives in a haunted mansion with some sorta other-worldly life forms giving her power called ‘them.’ King Diamond uses his own name ‘King’ in the story as the main protaganist. And he has a showdown with this oppressive grandmother of sorts in the mansion. To illustrate this King writes four minute metal songs throughout the album and employs his various vocal stylings to fit each story mood.
Although the songs are short via prog standards, they are in constant fluctuation. Sure, there’s a few songs that start out with standard riff’ing, but they quickly move to storytelling form, trying to fit the mood of each one of King’s written lines. You’ll hear the song “Tea” and get a metal bashing, which will then switch to acoustic leads at the drop of a hat. The drumming from Mikky Dee is outstanding and he pulls off all the stops and starts of King’s demanding story structure.
This album has superior production to Abigail in my opinion, but there’s just more fluidity to the Abigail songs. This is still a great, unique heavy metal record. People use King’s voice as comedy fodder quite a bit in metal circles, but his output is really quite sophisticated musically speaking and hardly anyone was doing what he was doing at the time.
Crimson Glory – Transcendence 1988
As a late teen I came across Crimson Glory in a metal mag bragging up their talent as on par with Queensryche, so I had to check it out. It wasn’t until years later that I came across a CG tape in a used record shop and payed my 3 bucks and said “I heard these guys were good.” Metal lookin’ guy replied, “never listened to their stuff before.” So shrugged it off and put it in my tape deck and proceeded to be blown away by Midnight’s vocal attack as well as John Drenning’s brilliant songwriting and guitar playing.
Crimson Glory really is the incarnation of what you’d thought Queensryche would sound like had they expanded on their EP sound and direction. Think “Queen of the the Reich” with better production and a sheener sound. Their ballads on Transcendence like “In Dark Places” are also reminiscent of Ryche’s “The Lady Wore Black.” Powerful, high-pitched, but very dark.
Crimson are a fantasy-based band – on this album they have a song about dragons (“Where Dragons Rule”), a science fiction song, and an Edgar Allen Poe adaptation. It’s all here, but there’s also a troubled side to the band that you can get the feel for on songs like “Burning Bridges,” “Painted Skies” and, once again, “In Dark Places.” The singer, Midnight, had some real struggles in life with addiction, which ultimately led to his death a few years back.
He did leave an amazing legacy though and this album is a testament to his talent as well as the rest of the bands’. There is just a grand, high octane sound over-all on Transcendence with those high harmony leads to match Midnight’s over-the-top wails. This band perfectly symbolizes a pomp march of royalty in all raiment and ‘glory.’
The songwriting shows brilliant craftsmanship time and time again. “Lady of Winter” has an infectious chorus to bass combo. “Masque of the Red Death” would be beyond cheesy for most band’s to tackle, but CG handles the challenge with awesome shrieks from Midnight and a fantastic mid-section jam with a great build-up and finish. There’s a neo-classical lick in “Eternal World” that backdrops the guitar solo that is incredible. One of the most jaw-dropping and adrenalizing guitar leads in metal history.
The finale’ is the title track, “Transcendance,” which has the most unique and ethereal classical guitar leads I’ve ever heard. There’s a harmony electric part that is amazingly haunting and Midnight’s vocals fit the other-wordly theme of the song perfectly. This album is thoroughly a progressive metal classic – do not pass it by if you’re a fan of great metal hooks and melodies.
King’s X – Gretchen Goes To Nebraska 1989
King’s X never claimed to be metal, but I am co-opting the band for this thread. They have always been one of those bands that doesn’t bear the metal flag, but metal-heads have always considered metal. The second issue is is ‘is this actually progressive or is it grunge?’ Cuz Mike McCready said “King’s X invented grunge” you know. When I hear this album though, I’m really not feeling too Seattle (or lookin’ California, feelin’ Minnesota). Ty’s guitar tone was one of the first to use that type of tuning to get that sound, which is where I guess McCready got the idea for his sound. This speaks to the influence King’s X had on the musicians along the musical landscape cuz they certainly didn’t influence the general listening public much. King’s X has always proven to be a musician’s band.
I definitely consider it progressive though as Doug Pinnick has always claimed to be a protege’ of Chris Squire (and Bootsy Collins as well – about the best combination of influences a bass player could find). The songs speak for their progressive selves with long musical passages in various places like the last three minutes of “Pleiades” or the spooky interludes on “Out of the Silent Planet.” The X would broaden their progressive sword on the next release, but this album itself is quite a wonderful example of the genre. A strong C.S. Lewis influence doesn’t hurt their case either, taking ques from his sci-fi space trilogy and Narnia fantasy series. However, this album is supposedly a concept album based on a short story by the Drummer, Jerry Gaskill, who actually mentions Narnia in the text. The story is found here, and it is quite a bizarre read.
Well, what can I add to one of the greatest albums of all-time? King’s X trademark harmony vocals are all over every song and this is what seperated them from other bands at the time. They have singing trio talent and then some. This wasn’t just Van Halen with Michael Anthony/Eddie repeating the chorus during their run, but quite a whole new frontier was being dug out by the band with their vocal style or styles. They would sing over and under each other creating several different layers of vocal harmonys . They could have just totally used frontman Dough Pinnick’s singing talent as the crutch on every song – cuz the the guy is just that soulfully good, but opt to include the whole band creating an entire wall of sound just with their voices.
Guitar player Ty Tabor sometimes takes the lead himself and belts out an entire tune like on “The Garden of St. Annes” or “Pleiades.” “St. Annes” also features some of the most gorgeous acoustic playing you’ll hear in rock. He really composed something special there. It really is a complex chord progression, comprised of a combination of appreggiated and strummed guitar techniques, but goes down and digests easily through the listeners ears. The song is almost all harmony vocals throughout and it is amazing to hear such a breathtaking combination of vocals and acoustic guitar wizardry.
This is Doug Pinnick’s area to shine though and you can hear one of the most unique voices in rock on his mantra “Over My Head.” A song about his grandma singing gospel music around the house at night while Doug layed in bed. Obviously, she had her influence on his vocal style as you hear him sing “music, music, I hear music” with his powerful deep rootsy gospel way. This all before Ty lays down a seething solo in a large section of the song.
The band’s most realized gem though is the opener “Out of the Silent Planet” named after C.S. Lewis’ science fiction work of the same title. This is one of the most special tunes in rock. There is really no lead vocalist on the song, but Doug and Ty trade off chanting vocals, then they overlay them with the whole trio’s harmony vox. The guitar sound is completely crunchy though, guiding this eerie Eastern trance-like song throughout with a soul-crushing riff. Then they top it off with a spooky, sitar-led midsection bridge with a harmony vocal climax – obviously showing off their Revolver-era Beatle’s influence.
There’s so much more to talk about on this classic like how smoothly the song “Summerland” switches between ballad and bone-crunching rocker. Or the uniqueness of the 70’s-ish “Everybody Knows A Little,” which combines a touch of Yes and the funk of Parliament. There’s straight up metal riffage on “Mission” and the funked-out groove of “Fall On Me.” This album goes everywhere and succeeds on all fronts with out feeling strained or over-reaching.
Gretchen is one of the pinnacles of rock/metal and should be appreciated by all serious musicians or collectors of rock music.
Fates Warning – Perfect Symmetry 1989
Perfect Symmetry is the beginning of the new Fates Warning. The rough edges of the band’s new wave of British heavy metal are sanded down and honed into tighter song craftsmanship. Fates Warning becomes a leaner, smoother machine on this release. This is the first album that has Mark Zonder on drums and he is a drumming machine, coming up with some very complicated patterns. This does prove a promising start to a man I consider the greatest drummer in the progressive metal genre. The drum sound doesn’t do him many favors though in my opinion it’s a tad too mechanical sounding and the bass drums sound like triggers, but probably are not.
Ray alder doesn’t wail at the drop of a hat like he did on No Exit, but picks his spots and hits those high shattering notes for emphasis. The guitar tone is considerably smoothed out, more sophisticated, and a little less metal. Matheos opts for a low key guitar tone for quite a bit on some tunes like the main verses on “Static Acts.” He still gets heavy for the most part. The band also puts the addition of keyboards in their music for the first time as well. Ironically, the keys are handled by Kevin Moore, who would go on to be in a much more widely recognized prog band in the 90’s.
Symmetry is a perfectly good example of what prog metal would become later on. Going through various emotions and build up from quiet beginnings to all out rockin’ heaviness all in a single tune. They also hit on those morose tones like on the song “A World Apart” that later bands would explore thoroughly like Pain of Salvation, Riverside, or Porcupine Tree.
“At Fates Hand” is a concert regular for FW, which is mostly a slowed-down, acoustic piece that very gradually ends in an all out prog metal jam fest. Featuring tons of loopy leads and keyboard-to-guitar exchanges. PS, as a whole, is an important album for Fates Warning and would describe their sound for at least another decade.
Voivod – Nothingface 1989 Oct.
As we approach the 90’s things get more experimental and ‘odder.’ This release by metal band Voivod certainly illustrates changes coming.
The vocalist, Snake, sings right along with the instruments a lot hitting the same melodies and notes as the guitar or drum beats – an approach I’ve never been a big fan of. I suppose he’s trying to imitate what a robot/cyborg would sound like to go along the album’s story, but I still prefer the singer to create their own vocal melodies rather than hit up the band for the same notes. “Inner Combustion” is guilty of this as any of the songs, but still has a catchy vibe. Guitar playing-wise, Piggy makes quite a few odd chord progressions, making a lot of dissonance along with the harmony. The bass drum combo is quite “sci-fi” sounding and cool – they aren’t drum machine-ish at all, but are quite snap tight shut and syncopated.
“X-ray Mirror” has a very punk-ish vibe and contains a lot of abrupt time changes, which is typical throughout the whole album. “Sub-Effect” illustrates the bands metal past the most with it’s machine gun fire guitar to bass drum riff ala “One” by Met, which takes a right turn during the chorus to a completely different time signature (of course). The song then hits some funk chords for about a 17 sec solo, which swiftly changes to a softer tone with an echo effect with Piggy throwing some eerie vox over it. This is the theme of the album – expect the unexpected.
I had a tape of this in college and lost it many years ago. To review it I just streamed some Youtube songs, and I remember most of the album, but it’s still a tricky sucker – they really go all over the place during each song. I still think the Pink Floyd cover, “Astronomy Domine,” is the best thing on the album. Voivod makes a very different and interesting album, but, to me, it’s just alright, not the revolutionary record that some fans claim it to be. I actually enjoyed their next release, Angel Rat, quite a bit more.
Savatage – Gutter ballet 1989 Dec.
Gutter Ballet begins with the anti-nuke rocker “Of Rage and War” and you sit comfortably enjoying the song thinking “now this is Savatage!” That’s some great E-string thumping through the chorus and Jon Oliva does his patented angry shrieks, reaching their climatic peaks on the song during the lyrics “the world would be a better place if we were ridda you!” You come out of your head bang stance and await the next rush and are greeted by a piano intro? ‘When did they start doing that? That’s not in Hall of the Mountain King.’ Then the song rushes up to what sounds like something from the Rocky III soundtrack. Then we here some lyrics that sound like they belong on an ambitious Broadway play. “Another sleepless night in a concrete paradise – …neon cuts the eye as it hits the sky.” All of a sudden Criss Oliva destroys your mind with one of his textbook solos from yester-year and all doubts are forgotten. This is Savatage!, but with a Broadway twist…
I’ve been listening to Gutter Ballet for some years now and it’s really the ultimate transition album. You totally hear a band caught in their gruff heavy metal style trying to enter new ground. There’s stuff you might hear on Sirens like “Hounds” or “The Unholy.” Then there’s all this struggling playwright music coming at ya out of nowhere. Then you come to find out later on that the band turned to their producer, Paul O’Neil, for song material and it has really changed the band and what people listen to on Christmas for good (more on that later). So Paul gave the band his songs that he wrote for Broadway musicals back in the seventies and Jon Oliva really took to it. Jon’s a pretty competent piano player and certainly has the dramatic flair to pull this new direction off royally. “When the Crowds Are Gone” totally completes this new direction with heavy orchestration building up to an emotional piano/soft vocal soliloquy.
The album ends with a trilogy which I didn’t find out was a concept piece until years later. The last song called “Thorazine Shuffle” had little clue that it was part of a play and sounded like a total heavy metal riff-a-rama. Savatage is always known for their lead guitar by Cris Oliva and he doesn’t let us down, especially on his guitar piano duo instrumental, “Temptation Revelation,” which turns out to actually to be surprisingly quite heavy.
Well after this album – the band kept in this direction despite the lack of success of Gutter Ballet. They would eventually go full-bore concept album band and gain more and more recognition. Eventually, years later, Paul O’Neil would have some of the guys in Savatage help create his Christmas albums under the moniker Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
Racer X – Street Lethal 1986
Influential albums on the genre during the 80’s:
Racer X – Street Lethal, Helloween – Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1 & 2
These albums are a couple of close but no cigars as entries into the subgenre of prog, but they certainly had their influence. Racer X is a technical band of extreme proportions with masterful instrumentals here and there on each album, a frenzy of guitar shred, and impossible bass playing by John (Juan) Alderete. All their songs are pretty much follow basic rock structures though and what amazing songs they are (“Street Lethal,” “Dangerous Love”). Street Lethal is an 80’s metal classic.
Helloween are obviously the godfathers of power metal and define the genre as we hear it today. These 2 Keepers albums contain a couple of 13 minute songs though and they cross into the prog realm a bit just kinda like prog/power does today. It goes to show how closely related these two genres are. Most of the other songs on the Keepers albums are basic metal tunes though.
Extreme II: Pornograffitti 1990
Nuno Bettencourt is a machine, an absolute machine, and I mean that in a good way. His technique is perfect and every note is struck with pristine precision. His playing is full of lean, tough riffs and can play plenty o’ heartfelt acoustic leads as well. You’ll hear him destroy the fret-board on “Flight of the Bumblebee” then create an acoustic hit in “Whole-hearted.” He can play with soul or funk and, as heard on later solo releases, virtually any style like flamenco.
As for this album, Pornograffitti has a title and image that would seem to fit most hair band attempts at a musical release at this time. However, after diggin’ under the surface, you’ll see a completely opposite stance taken by the band. This is a concept album about a coming of age boy, who is lost and confused in a decadent society. Extreme seems to take a pessimistic side about this culture and how it negatively affects a young man. Very un-hair metal-ish for the time as the songs seem to take the high moral road after one actually reads them. I suppose many a’ moralist dismissed this as just another Pretty Boy Floyd or Little Caesar album.
What I don’t think is the strength of this band is the rhythm section who is very basic for the complex style of music they are playing. The drummer and bass player seemingly have no identity and for a band that claimed to be funk-oriented, this is not a good thing. They leave all the funk-ness to Nuno almost and it makes for a dry attempt at being funky. Nuno does his job, but it’s just not enough to pull off a 70’s-ish funk groove.
Great album, banging songs and you get to hear Gary Cherone before he became the most hated man of Van Halen fans.
Queensryche – Empire 1990
I suppose I was bordering on disappointment when this release came out in late 1990 – it just wasn’t Mindcrime. The title track was heavy enough though with those “Screaming In Digital”-like vocal effects and I dug the groove. The other tracks were just too poppy and I didn’t take to most the album. It offered a mixed bag – a buncha singles and several long songs that took time to grow on you. In hindsight, I think it’s a really good album, but struggled with it at first and second glance.
It took awhile, but later on I could see the brilliance coming in spots from some of those singles. “Della Brown” has a great bass lead and a grand song all-around. “Silent Lucidity” has a David Gilmour-esque slow burn guitar solo to complement the lullaby. There’s a really cool high-rise, vocal bridge on “Hand On Heart.”
I’m not sure if this album is considered prog really or even metal??? The final song is what puts it over the top and does me right. It is epic, emotional, heavy, and orchestrated. “Is There Anybody Listening?” also digs behind the human condition and ends on the perfect ‘note’ with the relaxing sounds of moderately crashing waves on a beach front.
This was the right time for Empire to be released on the public and I don’t think the band could be more popular if they were trying. The songs were all over radio (not just “Silent Lucidity”). This went triple platinum and even Top 40 radio-only people began to recognize the band. For good or for bad, this was Queensryche’s moment in the limelight. And they put it to good use by touring heavily, not on this album, but on a dramatic interpretation of Operation: Mindcrime. That’s hardcore. I think the band kinda does what it wants and their hearts were into Empire. I still think “Best I Can” and “Jet City Woman” are milquetoast though.
King’s X – Faith Hope Love 1990
Once again I am adopting King’s X as metal even though there’s a handful of tunes on here that could be defined as soft art-rock. The guitars are heavy enough on the up-tempo tunes though and incredibly layered. I dunno how many times producer Sam Taylor had Ty Tabor over-lap his guitar leads, but it is a paragon wall of sound. The band’s trademark harmony vocals are outstanding as usual and they back up complex lyrics and song structures perfectly. However, I never cared much for the rhythm section as Doug’s bass is pushed back in the mix and I never really jelled with the drum tones on the album. Yet this still remains one of my favorite King’s X releases. It is as prog as the band would ever get in their history.
There’s the bluesy rocker “Moanjam” which has 2 ½ minute guitar jam that almost automatically declares it ‘prog,’ which leads to the bizarrely mellow “Six Broken Soldiers. Signifying what this album is about – going all over the landscape musically. It’s not without the downer times like the clunker of a title track that has moments here and there but not enough to warrant the 10 minute running (crawling) time. There’s more praise than jeers here of course. The bands fires up their Beatles influence on “I Just Can’t Help It” and the border-hit “It’s Love.” Both songs featuring harmony vocals to ski down in your wintery dream.
Faith Hope Love’s pinnacle is “We Were Born To Be Loved” though – a prog tune with pop and pomp that I’ve never quite heard from a band before or since. It has an incredible chorus and tricky leads that show the band’s musical prowess and tightness. Only a band that lived and died together could write something this good. This song’s greatness spread so far in the musician’s camps that Paul Shaeffer plays it going to commercial breaks on Letterman to this day.
Savatage – Streets 1991
Hey, great album cover guys. “A Rock Opera” huh? Not the best marketing plan. The music inside doesn’t really reflect the ho-hum cover and retro album title recalling the days of DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise or The Who’s Quadrophenia. This is a fine metal offering. The concept album flirtings that the band delved into on Gutter Ballet have evolved into a full fledged story arc in Streets. They aren’t playing around either with this musical direction. There’s many dirge-like tunes and sad piano accompanied songs to be had here that take a break from Savatage’s typical metal ramblings.
If you read along with the story, it is about a homeless man who becomes a rock star and it would seem that the band had written this album about Kurt Cobain (although I doubt the band even knew who he was at the time they wrote it). So the man gains a huge following and becomes the darling of the critics. He then becomes disenchanted with the industry and goes on a downward spiral living a life of despair.
Because the music reflects the story-line and often times it’s a downer mood, so there’s a lot of somber music throughout the album’s run-time like the ominous beginning to the title track. There’s also several tracks here that are devoted to piano or sound like dirge-ish ballads aka “A Little Too Far,” “Heal My Soul,” and “Going Away.” However, I prefer the hard hittin’ rockers like “Ghost in the Ruins” and “Agony and Ecstasy.” Both featuring classic leads by Criss Oliva.
Other than Pantera’s Abbott brothers I don’t think there’s a more talented set of brothers in metal than the Oliva bros. Jon Oliva’a powerful vocals are some of the most unique in metal and Criss Oliva is maybe the most underrated guitarist in the genre. Criss plays with speed and precision, but he had soul like no other metal guitar player and new what note to strike at the right time. He was also tremendously skilled at solo construction and could build it up like a stories narrative structure. Creating a tension filled template to jam over and finish it off with a climatic lick. This guy had his own sound and has been missed from the genre. He may have been another Van Halen-ite and you could hear it, but he had his own spin to that school of guitar. Streets is probably the best example of what a great guitarist he was, especially on “Ghost in the Ruins.” Where he noodles and bends his way through a 2 minute middle interlude – showing all his tones and techniques in the process. What a master of two-hand tapping he is on this release.
Streets is a great great album and shows off the talents of Criss and Jon Oliva in spades. Almost every song goes through a number of mood changes and various tones. Sometimes I find myself waiting for the metal explosion to happen and for the downer stuff to be over with, but this is not an easy listening album, it is full of heavy emotions.
Voivod – Angel Rat, 1991
Being Canadian does have its advantages (I guess). Voivod would take advantage of their “heritage” and they consult legendary Rush producer Terry Brown to record this album for them. He did all the Rush albums from 1975 to 1982 (you know, all the good ones?). Why Rush ditched him, I don’t know, but it proved a drop in record quality in my opinion. We may not have such masterpieces like “Mystic Rhythms” or “Mission” though had he stayed around with the band. Oh wait, this is a Voivod review right?
I think they picked the right guy and he harnessed and focused the band’s sound into a more melodically inclined album. Things aren’t so mechanical sounding this time around as on Nothingface. He really smoothed out the bass, drum, and guitar combo. Snake also doesn’t sing so much along with the band’s notes, but, rather, finds his own melodies over the sonic landscape. Angel Rat becomes a very easy going, chilled out listen, but, still, rather challenging at the same time. Piggy’s dissonant yet harmonic guitar playing is still there as well as the organic bass tone.
The band is still heavy, but not as heavy as the past and that’s probably because of Brown’s influence. There’s still prog moments to be had here like the solo to bridge on “None of The Above,” which has guitar playing that I don’t think had quite been done up to that time. Very technical yet chaotic at the same time with some incredible dual harmony overlapped leads which then seques into a groovin’ bass drum section.
Then there’s the android-like “Golem” which has some brilliant riff work by Piggy playing off the bass lead of Blacky. This all culminates into a loopy mid-section with virtuoso playing oozing from every note from the band.
So how bout that lovely album cover, eh? Just hand picked to sell zillions of records. What does it mean? Why it’s a bat-crow that doesn’t have wings flying at a pirate and chasing him down in his nightmares. Of course! It all comes together in a cohesive thought! That pirate will never make is back to his ship now! I guess if you look at the lyrics of the punk-like song “The Prow,” it says something about ‘hidden treasure on the seven seas’ and the cover must be inspired by that one song.
I think the album’s gem is “Panorama” with it’s tricky heavy metal lead sounding like Judas Priest cum King Crimson. It then breaks down into a mind boggling rhythm bridge with the drum-bass combo to blow up your wig. And you begin asking yourself – why didn’t these guys write longer songs? They could easily do it, but they show off their musical prowess in spurts, which seems to be the band’s motto.
Angel Rat is a satisfying listen from start to finish – give it a few shots. I think it will grow on you.
1991 is the year of Terry Brown in prog metal. He helms this mid-period release by the prog metal godfathers, Fates Warning. It’s basically the same deal as the Voivod album he produced. He took a heavy band and honed their sound making it a smoother, more palatable listen, but still with its heavy moments. I’ve been listening to this album for quite awhile and there’s always new ground to be discovered whenever I hear it. On the surface, this is a pop-ish metal album, but not nearly as commercial as glam metal. More like Adult Contemporary Hair Metal. Of course, the prog is there in full effect, you just don’t notice it as much and the highly musical moments just seem to segue into the band’s song agenda so fluidly.
“Leave the Past Behind” starts out very mellow and stays that way during the melodic verse, but what you don’t notice is how subtley complicated Mark Zonder’s drum attack is during the song’s exposition. This then leads to a rousing chorus about how the songwriter needed to step into a change in his life and move on from his old life. Huh? What happened to dragons and witches era Fates Warning? Oh, that’s right, John Arch is long gone and the band is now far out of his fantasy-looming shadow.
Things get heavy again with the poppy “Eye To Eye” – a very relationship oriented song about the incongrueties of the female and male minds. A song containing a gorgeous vocal bridge by Ray Alder, hitting those operatic tenor notes. Right in the dead middle of the album is the band’s epic offering, “The Eleventh Hour.” A song that stays mellow for a full three minutes before hitting on a heavy metal power chord (as a whole this album stays mellow too long in places for my tastes). Then it hits on a proggy guitar lead and off we go on a robust, emotional journey, hitting on heavy notes then onto more tender moments.
This is one of my favorite albums by the band, but it’s not without its dull moments like the tepid “Life in Still Water” which seems to wallow in its stale song title. And I could care less if I heard “We Only Say Goodbye” ever again with its well-tread, boring lead riff, and extraordinarily slow intro. For some reason though it’s a fan favorite live – bleh (I guess because it’s easy to sing along too).
Things pick up again with the title track, “Point of View,” (I call it title track cuz the chorus contains the word ‘parallel’) and the lead just blows me away. For some reason it reminds me of the melodies of some long lost seventies tv show outro, but it is metal to the core. Then it drifts off into a mellow main verse carried by Mark Zonder’s killer drumming. The infectiously complicated chorus follows with some soul-destroying emotional, high-pitched vocals of Ray Alder. Of course it all climaxes on a killer solo by Jim Matheos and then the catchy chorus brings this prog metal masterpiece to an end.
Dream Theater – Images and Words, 1992
As you can see from the album cover just above this one, looks like DT did a bit of plagiarism. That’s okay though, since Fates Warning borrowed DT’s keyboard player, Kevin Moore, on Perfect Symmetry. That would be the most influence that DT would have on the genre at this point. Their first album, When Dream and Day Unite, was a total failure and they only played three local gigs to tour on that release. They were dropped from their record contract and wouldn’t quit as a unit after dropping their original vocalist. They then auditioned tons of vocalists before landing James Labrie for an album that was already written and ready to be recorded.
As you can see in this thread there was a lot of prog metal before Dream Theater. This is the album that really put the prog in prog metal though. Before this there was a lot of complex structures and wow musicianship, but not quit to this degree. Dream Theater seemed to reach back to the old prog rock bands from the seventies and put it to a heavy metal sound. Rush, Kansas, and Yes were just a big of influence on DT just as much as Metallica or Iron Maiden were on the band. Whereas Fates Warning were a Maiden clone at first and developed their sound from there. DT were seemingly prog first and metal was just the tool to wield the entire sound. I mean Queensryche were good musicians, but didn’t show anywhere near the flare of the musical prowess that DT exhibited. DeGarmo/Wilton didn’t have the speed and technique of John Petrucci and Neil Peart was seemingly reborn in a metallic double-bass suit with Mike Portnoy. In other words, Dream Theater took the subgenre to a new level of dedication.
Almost everything on this album is a prog metal classic and canon to understanding the subgenre. There’s the smooth heavy metal thunder of “Under a Glass Moon,“ the sonic beauty of ”Surrounded,” and the monstrous “Metropolis Part 1,” which, eventually became its own album. The disc starts with the “Enter Sandman”-like “Pull Me Under,” that has the slow building acoustic intro which peaks into a silver metallic riff. This is the band’s biggest hit is probably the first song that people usually hear from the band, which also features a mind-dizzying pre-chorus lick.
This album threw some twists at typical heavy metal listeners with the second song, “Another Day,” and the closer “Waits For Sleep.” The power ballad-ish “Another Day” features some saxophone leads and has a lot of pop sensibilities – aspects that a metal-head would usually never expose themselves to, but it’s surprisingly enjoyable. Plus it is awfully impressive to hear James Labrie pull it off live without a hitch. “Waits For Sleep” is purely a piano piece and delivers, dare I say, a keyboard riff that is catchy, moving, deep, and complex all at the same time. One of the greatest piano tunes I’ve ever heard.
The grunge movement may have been the fashion of the day around at this time, but this was a new revolution going on for niche music listeners – a movement that would carry a flame on its torch for much longer than grunge. Thanks to internet networking this band is as big as ever.
Galactic Cowboys – Space In Your Face, 1992
It is my privilege to introduce to you to what I think is one of the greatest albums of all-time. Galactic Cowboys were sort of the close cousin to King’s X (heavier cousin) and the bass player for GC was actually asked to be the second guitarist for King’s X early in their career. Galactic had it all: a great, charismatic singer, tight musicianship, and incredible vocal harmonies. They were like The Beatles and Metallica weaving a beautiful cross genre tapestry. This album, in my arrogant opinion, is their best showing and has the best production to come from the band as well as the best songage (not a word I know). Not only could you label this prog metal, but the term ‘psychedelic metal’ was whispered to describe this band and another band at the time called Saigon Kick. Both bands displayed thick vocal harmonies on top of a heavy metal pallet. Sometimes they even used Eastern musical influences just like psychedelic rock of old, especially on the hidden track “Still Life of Peace.”
The band’s meat and potatoes though are the combining of metal riffs and sheen harmony vocals on the likes of songs “Circles in the Field” and “I Do What I Do.” “Circles” is about, of course, the ‘alien’ symbols in corn fields and it features pile driver sound effects. “I Do” is a trippy tune that abruptly shifts from thrash-like riffs to acid trip leads and then interrupts with an acoustic strum or two. Poppy harmony vocals soak the song thoroughly of course.
The Cowboys were goofy, laid back guys, and you could hear it like on the oxy-moronic transitions in “You Make Me Smile” which goes from heavy metal thrashing to an acoustic chorus in a blink. The song also features those loopy leads during the bridge that is so often heard in prog tunes and automatically qualifies the band as part of the subgenre (at least melodic prog metal anyway). The most obvious goofing around is in the song “Where Are You Now?” that has clips of bass player Monty Colvin calling old high school sweethearts and they don’t give him the time of day. “Remember me? High school?” The women totally blow him off or mock him for being in a band called the “Galactic Cowboys” and not being a country band.
“If I Were A Killer” is the biggest ‘hit’ off the album, which talks about the sickness of a society that would embrace a murderer or let him off scot free. A tune that was rather precognicent of the OJ trial. It also absolutely rocks!! And should be heard by all fans of nineties metal. The scream at the end sounds like singer Ben Huggins blew his voice out kinda like Klause Meine did on the Blackout album during the title track.
Galactic Cowboys would tour extensively off this album playing with the likes of, yes, their buddies in sound, King’s X. They also did quite a few shows with Dream Theater and, in retrospect, say they didn’t get to know those guys very well cuz DT were always practicing their instruments! At least that was the case with John Myung. I must say that would be the ultimate show, seeing these two bands playing the majority of their material from these two albums, their best albums, in 1992.
Extreme – III: 3 Sides to Every Story 1992
Even though Pornograffitti went multi-platinum, nobody gleamed an eye when Extreme released their follow up album to that ‘extremely’ successful album. Grunge and alternative music completely drowned out any music that resembled hair metal, which included Extreme, no matter how much more ambitious and intellectual their music was over the typical soundscape of the L.A. strip. And ambitious it was, putting the previous album’s concept to shame, and aiming even higher sites of pretentiousness. Going for a Kurasawa’s Roshomon theme with a 3 part album that took three themes and three musical approaches to each theme. The themes were, of course, three sides to every story: Your side, my side, the truth and separating them appropriately.
The first part of the album consists of the “your side” of the story and is more along the line of basic rock tunes. The second part, “my side,” offers a real musical hodge-podge that is hard to put a finger on. Then the 3rd side, “the truth,” is heavily orchestrated and, well, ‘progressive.’ The first side takes a real pessimistic view of the world and seems to hit on all the major issues of the day: nuclear weapons, war, racism, the lack of love in the world… The second part sort of takes a stance of philosophical despair and comes across Nietzschien. The third part acts like solution or cure all – kinda like the end of the book of Job when God appeared to Job and told him what was really going on behind the curtain.
As ambitious as this album is, it is really spotty. It is really not an album that is good start to finish. You have to find the gems for yourself. “Warheads,” “Rest in Peace,” and “Peacemaker Die” are just very repetitious rock tunes with basic back beat rhythms – kinda ho-hum. “Color Me Blind” is the best (and probably only good tune) from the first part of the album. The second part starts off with a nicely orchestrated homage to Queen (specifically Queen II) and Gary is no Freddy, but he gets the job done. The third part of the album is where one can cut their progressive teeth and where the band truly shines. They create some grandiose tunage here. “Am I Ever Gonna Change?” is genius and is brilliantly constructed with some incredible tones and leads from Nuno. It’s one of the best rock tunes from the era. “Who Cares?” kicks in the heavy orchestration next, sounding like a Spielberg happy ending. It then explores a lot of time signature changes and different instruments to have Gary sing over, playing out very theatrically.
Well the album came and went, so Gary asks “Who Cares?” Apparently nobody, this album barely registered a blip on the radar despite the band coming off a hot streak.
Savatage – Edge Of Thorns 1993
Out Jon Oliva. In Zack Stevens. Why? Not too sure, but Jon wrote a lot of the music on here and even played keyboards, but no longer wanted to front the ‘ Tage. Stevens was a great choice though – he has that deep gruff singing style down that Jon was so adept at and hits upper register notes as well when needed. Savatage has fully settled into their new digs of broadway metal and don’t stop that boat here. It seems much more natural here, rather than on Streets which stated ‘we are doing a rock opera concept album’ right on the front cover.
The album begins with, what else, a somber piano playing alone – this does not last for long as drummer Doc Wacholz slams the listener into a heavy metal groove along with a typical metal riff from Oliva. The bridge then jams along with a low end piano lead that becomes the lone backdrop for one of Criss Oliva’s riveting solos. This song sets the stage and mood, showing the listener that they are in for a dynamic ride filled with musical diversity aplenty.
From there on out Savatage slams the listener with three more quality tunes of metalage before switching gears awkwardly. This leads us to the myopic mid-section: “Labyrithns” is a piano dirge then it eventually becomes a piano/guitar harmony, which leads into the downer of ballad “Follow Me.” After surviving another piano piece in “Exit Music,” they keep it nice and sludgy in “Degrees of Sanity.” All of this mid-section describes the character’s emotional state of going through turmoil and lunacy. Finally “Conversation Piece” starts and ends the somber lull. We are treated to one of Savatage’s greatest pieces. A song which starts out simply enough, but evolves into a rousing chorus and one of Criss Oliva’s finest minutes of soul-wrenching solo’ing.
The album ends on two mellow tunes, but they are amazing. “Miles Away” is like a cool glass of citrus after a long day in the desert with a river-like acoustic riff by Oliva (can you tell I like this guy?). Then comes the quasi-bluesy finale’ in “Sleep,” which is just a vocal/acoustic guitar duo, but is catchy and ingeniously written. Well Oliva ends his career here after dying in a car wreck. He would prove to be one of the most (if not the most) underrated guitar players in all of metal.
Criss Oliva (1963-1993)
Tool – Undertow, 1993
When Tool came out with their first full-length album, they hit the ground running. Not only did they release a fresh sounding metal album, but the music scene was ripe for something different like this. Traditional British-sounding heavy metal was way out of step with the times and this band certainly filled the void. The bizarre, nightmare-ish videos were the perfect marketing ‘tool’ for the band’s sound and made an impact upon anyone who saw those freakish visions. What’s impressive is that they were directed by the band’s guitarist, Adam Jones, working with stop-motion artists.
Alternative was in and any metal head who didn’t want to be mocked by their friends could get into this band and still be taken seriously. By 1994 anyone watching mtv or listening to rock radio was familiar with Dan Caray’s rolling, tight drumming style and Keenan’s ambiguous lyrics with a subdued, cool singing style reaching peaks of intensity at the right chosen moments.
What’s funny though is that Voivod was doing this style years before Tool and would go mostly ignored by the music listening public. That organic yet mechanical bass tone was already there in Voivod along with the tight drum lines that would combine musically to describe some kind of cyborgian entity. The off-beat vocals and the artsy lyrics of Snake certainly beat Maynard James-Keenan to the punch. Piggy was probably more advanced as a guitar player with dissonant chords and odd phrasing in his jazz-like metallic style (that won’t win you many friends in the music biz). Adam Jones certainly had his own style of expression though opting for a tone more on the deeper root end. I’m sure Tool didn’t ape Voivod, but I’m pointing out the flaws of, sometimes, being ahead of the curve. I’m not taking anything away from Tool here.
I think we all know the majesty of the hit songs, “Flood” and “Sober,” on this album. Of course there’s other great songs on this classic album: “Swamp Song” kills the listener with its haunting bass line and pure bread groove. “Crawl Away” is the hardest hitter on the album with bombastic combinations of drum bass and guitar. “Prison Sex” is the perfect tune to play for the uninitiated to describe their signature sound and style. The band, Chevelle, has made on entire career playing the song “Bottom” over and over in various ways. The album ends on “Disgustipated,” which is 15 minutes of goofy sounds and whispers…
Fates Warning – Inside Out 1994
This is your all Fates Warning all the time and nothing but Fates Warning thread (or so it seems). The band picks up where they left off with Parallels and continues on with the Adult Contemporary Metal. Mark Zonder is still a monster though – he’s gotta be one of the most creative drummers on such a minimal drum kit. He’s sooooo much tighter than the octopuss-ian Mike Portnoy, who sometimes bites off more than he can chew. Zonder seems to be able to take a snare, one symbol, and a bass pedal and make some extremely challenging rhythm patterns suitable for progressive rock.
Even more so than Parallels, Inside Out uses guitars to create textures for Fate’s song approach rather than basing the melodies over a wicked riff or killer high harmony. Quite a departure for metal. The band really focused on making catchy chorus and came up with some great choral melodies. It’s readily apparent that they really worked hard at it. The first four songs reflect this well enough and are nice prog rock sing-a-longs? There’s some interesting turns from there on out like the complicated “Face the Fear” or the dark “Island of the Stream.” Eventually we come across one of the band’s finest moments in “Monument” – a song about, yes, monuments. Okay, sounds dull, but it works, and is one of their best tunes to play live (much “livelier” and rockin’ in that setting). It’s got a brilliant lead riff and Zonder finds the perfect groove to carry along the song with a genius bass line from Joe DiBiase.
If you dug Parallels then I don’t see why you won’t be displeased with Inside Out. It has the same Terry Brown production that smooths out those rough new wave of British heavy metal roots. I just wish the album were heavier though…
After the success of Images and Words, the band was in the pressure cooker to come up with a new feast for prog rockers. Images and Words was in the oven for several years before being released on the public, so DT had to live up to those expectations with not nearly the same amount of time. What they put out to the fanbase was an even more complex album that’s darker than its predecessor with an overall cold, crystallized sound. “6:00” begins the album, a basic rocker with an incredibly tricky drum pattern that kicks starts the song. Then “Caught in a Web” rips in with a kooky circus-like keyboard lead and catchy chorus. Both of these songs sport James Labrie’s new singing direction of being harsher and more aggressive (almost totally foreign to his attack on Images and Words).
Controversy strikes with the song “Innocence Faded,” which was revealed later on to have been about the cold relationship between guitarist John Petrucci and keyboard player, Kevin Moore, who ditched the band right after completion of this record. Kevin did not like the big time in the music biz and also wanted to go for more darker pastures in the overall sound approach. Well, anyway, it has a killer last outro jam for a minute and a half.
The mid part of the album is the three part sonata, ‘A Mind Beside Itself,’ which begins with the brilliant instrumental, “Erotomania,” and ends with the ballad, “The Silent Man.” In the middle is “Voices” – just an incredible ride emotionally. There’s grand vocals by Labrie and a shred-fest of a solo with maximum speed and tons of soul as well – tis a deadly combination. “Voices”, a song about mental illness, is one of the greatest wonders of Dream Theater’s career. The ballad to cap off the trilogy is a tad weak, which is usual for DT, who has a tendency to write dull ballads.
Side two picks up again with Mike Portnoy’s first song about his battle with alcoholism, “The Mirror” – the first of many songs about Mike’s struggle. This song starts out rather haunting with Moore’s keyboard mooding along then hits harder later with Petrucci’s metal riffage. The verses are a tad stiff, but the middle vocal bridge really pays off with emotional singing from James. “Lie” shifts the gears next and is an up tempo number. This tune goes through many a’ tempo change and time signature in it’s 6 ½ minutes, but it’s a great example of prog metal hitting on all cylinders of the vocal attacks by Labrie in the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus – all are winners. The song ends on a destroyer of a wah-solo by Petrucci combining speed and technique unheard of at the time.
As for the rest of the album, “Scarred” is a nice little gem of a jam at 10 ½ minutes with chord progressions galore and “Lifting Shadows of a Dream” is an alright quasi-ballad. Which brings us to the closer in “Space Dye Vest,” an anomaly of a Dream Theater song; written by Kevin Moore about a model in a magazine wearing, well, a space dye vest and borders on a dirge – sounding very dark even for this album. It’s also very slow in tempo and has James singing like he is lonely in outer space. I guess this is the direction that Kevin Moore wanted to go and he knew that DT would not fit those perimeters. He would then go on to be with Fates Warning and introduce this mood to that band in the concept album masterpiece, Pleasant Shade of Grey.
Queensryche – Promise Land 1994
At this time in life, the radio and music television was completely saturated in alternative and grunge and I had grown discontent with the direction of music, wishing that metal would come back. Little did I know the music scene would get a million times worse and should have been happy with this state of the state of music. This album and Youthanasia were going to be the truck I rode to metal’s comeback and was choppin’ at the bit for their release. First came Megadeth, which I quickly felt wasn’t going to get the job done and they had completely thrown away their thrash roots – an album I would have appreciated more had I known that Cryptic Writings and Risk were just around the corner. Queensryche released Promise Land and I was sure that people would recall ‘Silent Lucidity’ and Empire as a whole and get excited about this release. Other than a few spots on MTV for their ‘I Am I’ video, this album came and went without much fanfare. Metal was dead and, for some reason, I was disappointed, since I needed some type of public affirmation that my music was socially acceptable (now I don’t give a rip about that).
Listening to Promise Land again, I can honestly say it’s a fine album, just not the shot in the arm that metal needed at the time. It’s a dark, introspective, metaphysical album. The band really strived to evolve their sound, but I think they recall Empire still in a few spots. Like ending the album on a somber filled song that ends in a question mark (‘Someone Else?’) just like they ended Empire with ‘Is Anybody Listening?’ And ‘Out of Mind’ tries desperately to be another ‘Silent Lucidity’ dealing with mental illness again with simple acoustic chord progressions. This album is heavier than Empire however.
The album really shines on the first two tracks with the psychological analysis piece ‘Damaged’ and the eastern, metaphysical ‘I Am I,’ which is a genius little tripper of psychedelic metal. ‘Damaged’ has a haunting high-end echo lead and ‘I Am I’ contains Geoff Tate’s brilliant use of layered vocals that he started doing back with ‘Screaming In Digital’ off of Rage For Order.
The album sorta loses its way from there, especially with the epic ‘Promise Land,’ which is probably the most experimental song they’ve ever done. Most would call it truly progressive as it explores sounds and tapestries the band never traversed before, but I just don’t find anything that sticks in the song. The sax towards the end is kinda spooky, but the artificial xylophone and odd harmonics don’t add up to a solid listen. I’m sure if you’re a prog purist you’ll adore this 9 minute oddity of Q’s lifework. The rest of the songs are just mediocre (‘Disconnected,’ ‘Lady Jane’) until we get to ‘My Global Mind’ – one of the best songs of their career. A song that spells out the world’s issues yet still remains optimistic as it rides along DeGarmo’s tight riff and Tate’s vocal choruses.
Well the album didn’t bring back metal, but in retrospect it is a solid effort, especially when compared to the next 5 albums the band would release after it, which are spotty at best. The band that basically defined the subgenre of metal would cease to be a prog band for a long time after this release. Probably can’t even call them a metal band anymore post-Promise Land.
Symphony X – The Damnation Game 1995
The second band name that probably pops up nowadays in a prog metal conversation is Symphony X who have overtaken Queensryche and Fates Warning in terms of relevance. They had an album out before this one, but Russell Allen wasn’t singing on that one, which pretty much makes it a wash. This is the album where the band defined itself for the next decade or so.
Its all here – the band’s signature sound and style: the quick double bass and odd time patterns, Michael Romeo’s over-the-top neo-classical indulgences, and Russell Allen sounding like the second coming of Dio. Then the synths create an entire soundscape backdrop for the band to play over like a backing orchestra. You can hear a lot of similar chord progressions that would came in later, more popular releases on songs like ‘The Edge of Forever’ that sounds like ‘Awakenings.’ The burgeoning of ‘The Oddyssey’ can be heard on the intro to ‘Whispers.’ The one difference this early release by the band has from later releases is in the heavy use of choral anthems. And by that I mean, they have a real choir singing some of the chorus or they multi-tracked Allen’s vocals over and over til it sounded like a church choir. You can hear this particularly on groove metal pounder ‘Savage Curtains’ where they antithetically use these choir vocals against a powerful riff. They seemed to ditch this choir approach on later albums.
The band was pretty small time at this point so the production is not too hefty. The drums are a bit clunky and the album as a whole is not so heavy. ‘A Winter’s Dream’ is an excellent two part song though with a somber part 1 and a powerful lick to drive part 2. Romeo would crank things up a couple notches though for their next release, The Divine Wings of Tragedy.