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|Cultural origins||Mid 1980s, North America, United Kingdom, Australia|
|Derivative forms||Technical death metal|
Progressive metal (sometimes known as prog metal) is a fusion genre melding heavy metal and progressive rock that combines the loud "aggression" and amplified guitar-driven sound of the former with the more experimental, cerebral or "pseudo-classical" compositions of the latter.
Whilst the genre emerged towards the late-1980s, it was not until the 1990s that progressive metal achieved commercial success. Queensrÿche, Dream Theater, Tool, Symphony X, Shadow Gallery, Angra, King's X, and Fates Warning are a few examples of progressive metal bands who achieved commercial success; additionally, many other thrash and death metal bands started to incorporate elements of progressive music in their work.
Progressive metal, as a distinct musical style, was primarily advanced by members of the American heavy/power metal scene of the mid-1980s, particularly Queensrÿche, Fates Warning and, later, Dream Theater. These bands form the so-called triad, the "Big Three" of prog metal, or the most important and influential groups of the traditional scene.
The origins of the genre date back to the very beginning of heavy metal/hard rock and progressive rock, as some bands began to merge the two different approaches. 1960s pioneers like King Crimson maintained their musical innovation while incorporating a harder approach, using dissonance and experimental tones, yet maintaining a relationship to the power chords of hard rock. At the same time, metal/doom stalwarts such as Black Sabbath began to integrate accentuated progressive influences into pioneering records such as Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) and Sabotage (1975).
Canadian trio Rush are widely recognised as bridging the gap between the hard rock period, English prog and the purely heavy metal genre. Initially influenced by Led Zeppelin, they evolved to combine established progressive rock technique with blues-based power chords. Records such as 2112 (1976), A Farewell to Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978) showcased technical expertise while utilizing a more direct approach than the established English prog rockers.
1984 brought full length debut albums from American bands Queensrÿche, from Washington, and Fates Warning, from Connecticut. Taking inspiration from established metal acts like Iron Maiden, each expanded their music to include more progressive elements (The Warning 1984, The Spectre Within 1985) – some through sound experimentation and compositional refinement, others through extremely complex structures and atypical riffs – up to the two seminal works in 1986: Rage for Order and Awaken the Guardian. In the following years the two bands, while following different paths – more basic and simple the first, more articulate and complex the latter - explore and expand the technical refinement and sonic finesse of their music, continuing to lay the foundations of the genre with important works such as Operation: Mindcrime (1988) by Queensrÿche, No Exit (1988) and Perfect Symmetry (1989) by Fates Warning.
Progressive metal also found a home in the burgeoning U.S. speed metal movement, influencing thrashers Metallica and Megadeth. "Math-metal" pioneers Watchtower, from Texas, took the concept of time-changes to a new level, combining thrash metal, syncopation and prog in their albums Energetic Disassembly (1985) and Control and Resistance (1989), giving rise to an extremely technical approach based on the rhythmic deconstruction typical of jazz fusion. This same type of prog metal will be later integrated into death metal by American bands such as Atheist (1991's Unquestionable Presence) and Cynic (1993's Focus). Among the other pioneering thrash metal bands, one of the most important is the Canadian Voivod, with their complex and experimental style, full of psychedelic dissonances (Dimension Hatröss 1988, Nothingface 1989).
The major second wave US bands that contribute to further delineating and developing the genre are Psychotic Waltz and Dream Theater. The former, with an approach halfway between Watchtower and Fates Warning, produced A Social Grace (1990), melding their signature sound with the psychedelic Into the Everflow (1992), while the latter explored the legacy of the bands that preceded them while advancing their personal style with When Dream and Day Unite (1989). Both albums focused on keyboards and band members' virtuoso instrumental skills, and their efforts resulted in two fundamental albums, that institutionalize classic progressive metal and a certain way of conceiving it - Images and Words (1992) and Awake (1994).
As for Europe, among the pioneers are the Germans Sieges Even, who, starting from the techno thrash of Watchtower, explore the more technical and angular side of progressive metal with Steps (1990), followed the following year by the more melodic A Sense of Change (1991).
Among other important groups that have distinguished themselves for the peculiarity of the proposal: in the US, for the melodic and/or power side Shadow Gallery (Carved in Stone 1995), the neoclassical Symphony X (The Divine Wings of Tragedy 1997), Redemption (The Fullness of Time 2005), O.S.I. with Kevin Moore (ex-keyboardist of Dream Theater) and Jim Matheos (guitarist of Fates Warning); for the technical side Zero Hour (The Towers of Avarice 2001), Power of Omens, Arch/Matheos (parallel project of Fates Warning), instrumental groups such as Spastic Ink, Liquid Tension Experiment, Gordian Knot and Canvas Solaris; for a more heavy approach Hammers of Misfortune (The Locust Years 2006) and Heart of Cygnus; in Europe: for the melodic and/or power side the Norwegians Conception (Parallel Minds 1993) and Ark (Burn the Sun 2001), the Germans Vanden Plas (The God Thing 1997) and Secrecy, the English Threshold, the Danish Royal Hunt (Paradox 1997), the Swedes Andromeda (II = I 2003) and Evergrey (In Search of Truth 2001), the Poles Riverside (Out of Myself 2003), the Spanish band Avalanch; for the technical and/or experimental side the Norwegian Spiral Architect, with their innovative approach between Watchtower and Fates Warning in [A Skeptic's Universe (2000), Twisted into Form, Leprous (Tall Poppy Syndrome 2009) and Frantic Bleep. Among the groups outside the European-American context are the Australians Vauxdvihl (To Dimension Logic, 1994).
Among the bands of the late 1990s who managed to bring innovation to the scene, thanks to a strong personality and a substantial discography, there are the Dutch Ayreon, a project by Arjen Anthony Lucassen, and the Swedes Pain of Salvation: they've helped redefine the canons of traditional progressive metal. The first one through theatrical and melodramatic rock operas (Into the Electric Castle 1998, The Human Equation 2004), interpreted by numerous singers and arranged together with many musicians, the latter referring to the eclecticism and anti-conformism of Faith No More, always looking for an unusual style (One Hour by the Concrete Lake 1998, BE 2004). An experimental and alternative approach, that in prog metal sees Thought Industry (Mods Carve the Pig: Assassin's Toads and God's Flesh 1993), Mind over Four, and Voivod as forerunners. Another important and key figure for electical and unusual prog is the singer, guitarist and composer Devin Townsend, who brought the vanguard attitude to highest levels within this genre (Terria 2001).
As of 2018, the genre is still constantly evolving in multiple forms, and has reached a far broader variety of sounds and styles than it had at its origin, with many of the historical bands continuing to record new music and tour, while thousands of other new bands emerge in the underground scene every year, from all over the world. Recently, Mastodon and Gojira are two examples of progressive metal starting to reach mainstream popularity.
Progressive metal can be broken down into many sub-genres corresponding to certain other styles of music that have influenced progressive metal groups. For example, two bands that are commonly identified as progressive metal, King's X and Opeth, are at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum to one another. King's X are greatly influenced by softer mainstream rock and, in fact, contributed to the growth of grunge, influencing bands like Pearl Jam, whose bassist Jeff Ament once said, "King's X invented grunge." Opeth's growling vocals and heavy guitars (liberally intermixed with gothic metal-evocative acoustic passages and clean melodic vocals) often see them cited as progressive death metal, yet their vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt refers to Yes and Camel as major influences in the style of their music.
Classical and symphonic music have also had a significant impact on sections of the progressive metal genre, with artists like Devin Townsend, Symphony X, Shadow Gallery and Ex Libris fusing traditional progressive metal with a complexity and grandeur usually found in classical compositions. Similarly, bands such as Dream Theater, Planet X, Puya, Liquid Tension Experiment, The Faceless, Between the Buried and Me and Animals as Leaders have a jazz influence, with extended solo sections that often feature "trading solos". Cynic, Atheist, Opeth, Pestilence, Between the Buried and Me and Meshuggah all blended jazz fusion with death metal, but in dramatically different ways. Devin Townsend draws on more ambient influences in the atmosphere of his music. Progressive metal is also often linked with power metal, hence the ProgPower music festivals, with bands such as Fates Warning and Conception originating as power metal bands that incorporated progressive elements which came to overshadow their power metal roots.
Recently, with a new wave of popularity in shred guitar, the hitherto-unfashionable genre of "technical metal" has become increasingly prevalent and popular in the metal scene. This has led to a resurgence of popularity for more traditional progressive metal bands like Dream Theater and Symphony X, and also has led to the inclusion within the progressive metal scene of bands that do not necessarily play in its traditional style such as thrash/power metallers Nevermore and technical death metal pioneers Necrophagist and Obscura. These bands are often labeled progressive metal, seeing as they play complex and technical metal music which does not readily cleave to any other metal subgenre.
In the late 2000s, bands such as Born of Osiris, Periphery, Tesseract, Animals as Leaders and Vildhjarta popularized the "djent" style of progressive metal based in a sound originally developed by Meshuggah. It is characterized by palm-muted, syncopated riffs (often incorporating polymeters), as well as use of extended range guitars. Extended range guitars also feature in other forms of progressive metal; artists including Devin Townsend, Dir En Grey, and Ne Obliviscaris have used 7-string guitars without being part of the "djent" movement.
Proyecto Eskhata, a Spanish band, has received much press coverage in Spain for its fusion of progressive rock and rap metal, which journalists have described as "progressive rap metal".
Differences from experimental metal
Although progressive metal and experimental metal both favor experimentation and non-standard ideas, there are rather large differences between the two genres. The experimentation of progressive metal has a strong emphasis on technicality and theoretical complexity. This is done by playing complex rhythms and harmonies and implementing unusual time signatures and song structures - all with the use of traditional instruments. For avant-garde/experimental metal, most of the experimentation is in the use of unusual sounds and instruments - being more unorthodox and questioning of musical conventions.
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