Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Essentials of the last decade: Progressive Metal

It's time for another installment of essential music of the decade.  

While I may have cut my music-loving teeth on progressive rock and alternative rock, it was metal that introduced me to the wider world of heavy, crushing music.  I've spent years listening to and enjoying it, and there is a veritable cornucopia of great albums that I've adored as time has gone by.  While I don't listen to heavy metal nearly as often as I used to, it remains the music that I've heard the most and probably the type of music I own the most of.

Since there is such a plethora of essential recordings in heavy metal, I've chosen to split the sizable list into two - one for progressive metal and one for more vanilla heavy metal.  (And to be perfectly honest, these divisions are rather arbitrary - something you may call progressive will end up on the other list, and vice versa.)  They're not in any particular order, so just make sure to pick them all up.  As such, today's list is going to focus on the progressive greats!

Fates Warning: X

Fates Warning is (or at least, used to be - it may have been supplanted in the past couple of years) Peter's favorite band, and X was my first introduction to them.  It is their tenth record, and the last that they've made to this point.  While Peter might disagree and say that their penultimate effort, Disconnected, is their best - I'd have to go with X.  It's their most rounded effort, with crushing guitars and tight drum work, heavy bass and soaring vocals.  From the quiet seething of the opening track to the thunderous melancholy of the closer, it's a study in song construction - and Jim Matheos (the essential member of Fates Warning) has an ability to craft a tune that most artists only wish they could have.

Mastodon: Leviathan

Mastodon is a band that has ambitions that most groups would balk at, and Leviathan is the album where those ambitions pay off most wonderfully.  It's a concept album about the story of Moby Dick - not the usual fare for thunderous, roaring heavy metal - and it never lets up for one moment.  The two vocalists weave their two voices together into a cacophony of sound, and the music is heavier than you'd care to know.  Having recently seen Mastodon live, I can tell you that they are just as brutal in person as they are on compact disc - and hearing them play album opener "Blood and Thunder" as their last song of their set was a perfect way to end the concert.  It's ponderous and overwhelming music.

Opeth: Watershed

I never thought anything in Mikael Akerfeldt's future would be able to beat the thrilling title track from 2001's Blackwater Park, especially after the only other original member of the band, Peter Lindgren, in 2007.  Oh, how wrong I was.  Watershed came out while I was living in Tarragona, Spain, and I remember loading it onto my mp3 player and meandering the town.  It starts delicately, with lilting acoustic guitar work and a duet between Akerfeldt's signature voice and that of a woman, setting the scene for a different kind of Opeth album.  And then the rain begins; the thunder cracks, and your eyes become the size of dinner plates.  It took me a long time to realize the brilliance of Watershed, but it is easily the best thing Opeth has ever done, and is one of the best albums of all time - period.  Right when you think you've figured out what will come next, they surprise you and turn you on your ear.

Neurosis: Given to the Rising

Given to the Rising
Neurosis is a band that has wavered on the edge of public consciousness for decades, but remains one known only by those who are true metal aficionados.  Much like the Melvins (who deserve to be on one of these lists, but I'm sure having trouble deciding where to place them), they've been influencing well-known musicians without being well-known themselves.  That needs to change, and Given to the Rising is the tool that will affect said change.  Peter (upon commenting on this album a couple of years ago) called it the soundtrack to the apocalypse - and I simply can't think of a better way to describe it.  It will crush every bit of you, grinding you into a contented pulp and roaring away at the edges of madness.

Isis: Wavering Radiant

Wavering Radiant
I didn't care much for Wavering Radiant when it first came out - I much preferred older Isis albums such as Oceanic.  In fact, I didn't really get into it until I saw them play most of the album live in a club show, where the music thundered and the heads were a-banging.  Afterwards, listening to the record was changed for me, and I understood exactly what I'd been missing before - and it has since become my favorite Isis album of all, without question.  There's more of a focus on melody than on previous Isis albums, with more clean singing and less throaty grunt vocals, as well as more keyboard work than they've used before.  This makes it layered and complex, and absolutely wonderful.

Om: Pilgrimage

Om is a band that I didn't know what to make of for a long time.  A two-piece band with a bassist/vocalist and a drummer, it's the most sparse and droning stuff you will ever hear.  It's as though someone took the feel of the Krishna chant and channeled it into heavy metal.  The melody line (as played by the bass, of course) repeats itself many times, but it doesn't feel cheapened for that repetition - instead, it moves in ways nothing else can.  Four long songs that seem to flow into each other, this is a record best heard while feeling meditative - it will take you to new realms of consciousness.

OSI: Office of Strategic Influence

Office Of Strategic Influence
OSI is a supergroup of sorts from Jim Matheos and Kevin Moore, and it's absolutely brilliant.  Each of their albums is quite different from the last, but while some days I might argue that their newest effort, Blood, might be their best, Office of Strategic Influence is the most essential.  The guitar work is driven and precise, the programming and keyboards are perfect, and the vocals are sublimely remorseful and melancholic.  And the seven-plus minute "shutDOWN" featuring Steven Wilson on vocals is one of the most moving pieces of metal ever written.  You do yourself a disservice by not knowing this band.


  1. Agree, agree and agree again. I would, though, add two albums to the list: first, something by Devin Townsend. I don't know what, but he absolutely deserves a spot here (I favor progressive over vanilla as there is nothing vanilla about Devy).

    Second: either Specs of Pictures Burnt Beyond or The Towers of Avarice by Zero Hour. I don't think any band has perfected the highly technical style of progressive metal as they have. What makes them so good though is that despite being so technical, they manage to make emotionally gripping music. Too often, technicality strips the emotion out of the music. But those guys manage to create highly technical, brilliant progressive metal that has serious emotional hooks. In that respect, I don't believe they have any peers.

  2. Ooh, ooh, and what about Cynic - Traced in Air?!? Certainly not vanilla metal, so I would have to argue that certainly belongs here.

  3. Both Devin and Cynic are on a second list of progressive metal ones I'm working on. There's just that many great ones!