This is The Proglodyte’s Bonepile, a place for words about progressive heavy metal music. Thanks for being here.
I like all metals, really, but my bippy is most reliably and thoroughly flipped by the progressive ones. The reason, pretty simply, is that I’m sort of a novelty seeker at my core and progressive music tends to be complex and dynamic and sometimes tangly and twisty and a million other words that point to unpredictabili-
…welp, look at that: barely into the intro and already we’re looking sideways at the definition of progressive and wondering, “What the hell are you, anyway?” Because, in many ways, progressive music has become anything but unpredictable over the years. There’s a huge pile of progressive metal bands out there whose most distinguishing factor, ironically, is that they do just what you’d expect a progressive metal band to do. It’s a long and heady debate you’re in store for if you’re up to the task, but here we’re going to keep it simple by going with just a two-part model:
Prog Metal will refer to that stereotypical sound and style that most metalheads associate with Dream Theater; which is to say heavy guitars, keyboards, and classically trained vocals playing complex arrangements with noodly head-to-head instrumental acrobatics throughout, and usually within long songs.
On the other hand, progressive metal will refer simply to any heavy metal that pushes the boundaries of the genre or a particular subgenre without leaning on the crutches exemplified by the Prog Metal camp.
Of course, these are generalizations and some of the bands I line up under them won’t exactly fit, but they’ll do. And no broad judgments here; there’s good and bad in each.
I hope this column will be a little like a corner in the Gentlemen’s Metal Club (also open to the Ladies since 1987), where we can puff our pipes and look at each other over bifocal frames and discuss the relative merits of heavy metal that dares to eschew convention. We’ll focus on works that the rest of the club hasn’t already covered. For example, to start, we won’t be talking about recent offerings from deserving bands like Opeth, Agalloch, Murmur, Cormorant, Mekong Delta, Panopticon, or the excellent new albums from Anubis Gate, Morbus Chron and Mare Cognitum, because these can all be found in the LRchives.
This inaugural edition is aimed at those of you on the heavy prog fence. Maybe you enjoy complex heavy riffing and melodicism but tire of overblown keyboards and instrumental masturbation. The selections on offer feature all the trappings of Prog Metal without the keyboards and much of the noodliness you get from more conventional applications of the form. (And already we’re talking about Prog Metal that doesn’t quite fit in the Prog Metal slot. So much for clean categories.)
Please do enjoy.
*If you’re at all interested in the –ology of progressive heavy music, definitely get your hands on a copy of Jeff Wagner’s excellent treatment of the subgenre, “Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal.”
AMORAL – FALLEN LEAVES & DEAD SPARROWS
Maybe you know that Finland’s Amoral used to do technical death metal. They were really good at it, producing three high quality records in the style before perpetrating that most fabulous of fan-fucks, the genre jump. They repurposed their technicality, pulling back on the body blows in favor of a juke-and-jive approach that fares better over the long haul, and jettisoned the death growls for… uh… the winner of Finnish Idol 2007, Ari Koivunen? Yep. And even if he does have the tenor of a tweener, dude kills it in terms of sheer quality. He helps in big ways to make this third record into Amoral’s new identity a winner, despite it being a lot of things I tend to sneer at: super clean and shiny, unabashedly melodic and lyrical, built with the clear intention of rousing the stadium crowd. But wow, such great songs. Sharp and proud and emotive throughout. Imagine the melodic sensibilities of your favorite heavier AOR bands but with a grander sense of adventure and Mage-level musicianship. It’s not a perfect record, as the middle drags some under the weight of a couple ballads, and it’s lighter and prettier than what a lot of metal’s blackhearted bastages can tolerate, but if you can manage to let just a drop of this sunshine glint your greasy soul, you may just find it suits you.
Label: Imperial Cassette
Release Date: February 14, 2014
MALPRACTICE – TURNING TIDES
Malpractice is also Finnish and they have a terrible band name. Until you realize they were a 90s thrash band and remember that terrible band names make perfect band names for 90s thrash bands. But they don’t play thrash anymore. Instead their sound is steeped in the oxymoronical “traditional progressive” pot, meaning they follow the same muse as Fates Warning and Dream Theater and Symphony X. But unlike so many other bands with similar visions, Malpractice nails their very own sound while staying true to heavy progressive ideals; no keys and no compromise. And they do it so well you won’t notice any of that unless you’re looking for it really hard and if you’re doing that then you’re listening for the wrong reasons. No surprise then that their sixth album, Turning Tides, focuses on songs over technicality, the interplay between riff and melody in those songs being perhaps its greatest strength. For some, on the other hand, this “simplified prog” approach may represent an Achilles’ heel, particularly if one is hangry for noodles, but there’s boatloads of technical playing out there and fewer really good songs, so this piques my palate perfectly.
Label: Sensory Records
Release Date: September 16, 2014
CODA – MECHANISM
Okay, so you did want noodles. That’s good. Noodles are good and Coda brings a whole big ol’ bowlful. This Canton, Georgia, trio is an act that clearly worships at the Prog Altar; the kind of guys that wear t-shirts that say, “Prog out with yer frog out” (seriously, somebody make that shirt). They’re mathy and technical and love farting around with wacky times and off-kilter key shifts. But they’re also heavy and riffy. So meaty noodles. Noodly meat? Gross. Where the Coda concept distinguishes itself from that of other heavy proggy bands is in the way it’s all folded together, slowing things down for a unique melodic approach and then revving to red between stanzas. And there, the aim is fun (even for the bass!), so there’s noodling aplenty, but they avoid the density that can reduce it all to so much work for the listener. At times, because these are relatively disparate styles, it can feel pretty well jigsawed, but in the main it feels done genuinely in the spirit of boundary busting. Mechanism is a debut album, for sure, rough and brave, but one that makes it easy to see Coda one day creating a masterpiece of progressive heavy metal. Can’t wait.
Label: Tate Music Group
Release Date: February 4, 2014
Well, thanks for hangin in there for this first issue of The Proglodyte’s Bonepile. I hope you enjoyed a taste of what a Prog Metal band can do with the standard blueprint, but without keyboards. Next time we’ll have a listen to a few Prog Metal bands that include the keys but tweak the blueprint just enough to make things interesting in ways you probably wouldn’t anticipate and just might enjoy despite yourself.