The Proglodyte’s Bonepile – Prog Metal Goes Pop

This is The Proglodyte’s Bonepile, a place for words about progressive heavy metal music. Thanks for being here. 

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Way back before the ’14 holiday season, you may remember, we started talking about progressive metal bands, how we might recognize and classify them and how difficult that can be sometimes, and how all that complexity should lead to some pretty engaging discussion. 

We began with the recognition that keyboards are among the major hang-ups reported by metal heads about Prog Metal, and we looked at a few bands that manage to check all the subgenre’s boxes without the tinkly-dinks and woopity-bloops of the keys. Of course, LastRites readers are an astute bunch and you all observed that, for many, the keys probably aren’t the major hang-up but, rather, that honor is reserved for the singers who bring to the table “a cheese ball you’d be embarrassed to serve at your next dinner party.” Now some bands handle this particular bugaboo with a Wal-Martian pragmatism: they simply remove the singer. But that doesn’t really address the concern does it? The proverbial craw here doesn’t appear to be stuck with vocals per se, but with a specific brand of vocals. Today, then, let’s consider a few acts that attempt to handle the problem of o’er-the-top vocals by redefining their role and intent. For many prog-minded heavy acts, it’s a pop flavored voice that moves the focus from musicianship and genre cross-pollination to catchiness and popular crossover appeal. 

And, well… that just sounds horrible, doesn’t it? 

Indeed. But let’s be genteel about this, shall we? Babies and bathwater and all that. 

As always, some fare better than others, and it seems the ones that do pop thing well tend to do it really well. Some have been at it for a while and carved out extended runs for themselves. Woodstock, NY’s, 3, might be the best of the straight up Prog Metal Pop contingency, although you’ve more likely heard of Coheed & Cambria and Protest the Hero. None of those bands has released a record recently, but Periphery gave us an EP last year, and they’re an interesting example, being something of a self-appointed ambassador of the djenty prog pop set. They’ve got a brand new double disc on its way, too, though, so we’ll leave their broader discussion for later. 

The most intriguing lately have been those who reach back, strangely enough, to styles once so popular that they became hackneyed as quickly as high school seniors become college freshmen. A favorite is the co-opting of the kind of sound you’ve associated with acts like The Smiths, Depeche Mode, and The Cure. That, layered over a modern interpretation of Prog Metal. Yeesh, right? But although the popular post-punk/new wave sound (and the whole turtleneck-and-Ray-Bans-and-swoopy-hair-and-pouty-face thing that the scene had going on with its laureates) was generally awful, it somehow fits really well with what’s been happening in modern heavy prog. As usual, the trick seems to be a heartfelt weaving of stylistic threads, as opposed to the mere stitching of styles. South African mathy prog jobber, Paving the Labyrinth, gave us an amazing example in their Robert-Smith-does-post-rock-via-The-Mars-Volta on last year’s Polyopia (although theirs is far enough outside the bounds of Prog Metal to warrant full inclusion today, I do anticipate something new from PTL in 2015 and will certainly give them more well-deserved ink then). And coming from another angle of the same circle, where The Fixx ponders the fate of the universe, Junius gave us a nice little stand alone EP in Days of the Fallen Sun, too. 

So there’s about a million ways it’s being done, but the best example over the last several years has come from Anubis Gate’s transformation with their self-titled, in which they softened and brightened their overall sound but then wrapped that in the melancholy melodicism of 80s pop legends, Tears for Fears. Again, not a simple rip of their style, but a legitimate joining with the Tears aesthetic that has made for a pair of outstanding records, including 2014’s AotY contender, Horizons. Both have been lovingly reviewed at this site and can be found in the LRchives.

Like all the bands mentioned above, those featured in the Bonepile today pull inspiration from some bygone sound that you’ll find familiar, if not necessarily recognizable. As before, we’ll be working within the Prog Metal realm; that is, with bands that commission their blueprints from the firm of Dream Theater-Early Works Technologies (DTEW). Yes, Dream Theater disciples are legion. But a good many of the better among them do carve out a nifty little niche at the outer edge of the DT sphere and often it’s pop in the vocals that gets them there, at least in part. Each has lately released a full length record and subsequently enjoyed a warm sliver of spotlight in the progressive music critics’ world, as well as rising popularity among prog’s work-a-day masses. And they’ve arrived at relatively close coordinates, albeit via different developmental and temporal pathways and with varied results. 

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VOYAGER – V

Autralia’s Voyager builds from the basic blueprint of Prog Metal but refuses to be constrained by it, making really good songs that only rarely spend a lot of time goofing around in Noodlytown. A lot of the band’s appeal comes from that rare combo of familiarity and distinctiveness, surely a key to succeeding in this arena. The music on V re-interprets post-punk’s poignancy as cautious contemplation, but with the determined bearing of the wayward sea-farer plunging into uncharted waters, aware of the silver-laced black clouds behind. Themes explored include technology, fantasy, relationships, and mental health and great care is taken to integrate the lyrics with the sounds and the themes with the larger motif of modern life. Particularly gratifying is the band’s attention to progressive ideals. For example, “A Beautiful Mistake” sports all the catchiness and familiarity of a regular-ass popular rock-and-roll song, but none of the standard trappings. Instead, it follows the narrative of new love in an unbending line from infatuation to ruination and culminating with a dizzying realization that leaves everybody pretty darned unsure about where it all ends up and where we might be headed, making the irony in the idyllic melody that much sweeter. And it’s kind of not about people at all.Label: Nightmare Records

Release Date: June 2, 2014
Links: Facebook

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HEMINA – NEBULAE

Where Voyager tweaks the standard sound to generate something fairly fresh, Hemina’s taken the idea of pop-infused Prog Metal to an extreme that it probably didn’t need to get to, but that somehow has a whole heap of heavy proggers lapping at the band’s hemline.  Their schtick seems to be about embracing many loves, stretching the modern kitchen-sink prog aesthetic backwards to embrace the melodicism of early-80s pop and then pushing it through the distortion filter to make it all sound “metal.” The effort’s commendable in its desire to make something unique, but it’s a bit of a sham, intentional or otherwise, because it really kind of just mashes all these things together into something a lot of people can’t quite remember how they know. Which is to say it really isn’t all that progressive at all (just because djenty 80s pop hasn’t really been a thing before doesn’t make its first prominent iteration a creative coup; cf. Periphery, above). But a lot of people seem to really like it, so maybe you will, too. In truth, there’s a lot on this record that threatens to really draw a heavy prog nerd in. It’s one of those deals, though, where the Yins just kind of don’t stand a chance against the overwhelming Yangs. There’s some clever songwriting and even some nifty riffing, but where the cost of each of these cool things is another Diva’s vocal run from one of the male singers, there’s just no sunk cost deep enough to justify further investment.

Label: The Bird’s Robe Collective
Release Date: August 19, 2014
Links: Facebook

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DISTORTED HARMONY – CHAIN REACTION

The 2012 debut from Israel’s Distorted Harmony created a busy buzz in the heavy prog community, walking the well-worn Dream Theater path, for sure, but with more panache than bombast, and a knack for songs that trumped the heavy debt to DT. The sophomore effort, Chain Reaction, is more mature, sovereign and self-assured. These vocals are as tuned in to pop as Voyager’s and Hemina’s are but more subtly and in a 90s alt-rock kind of way that reaches to, say, Soundgarden at their most melodic or maybe a young Dave Matthews (which you liked then and should still even if you won’t admit it now). Lead singer, Misha Soukhinin, laces his approach with a touch of jazziness, adding one more layer of complexity to a soundscape already lush, deep and wide. As with all good prog projects, this record’s about painting a compelling picture, in this case with inspired strokes of melody, rather than filling numbered shapes with a bunch of notes. The result is that no aspect of the music here ever really dominates, but rather the song is always afforded its due deference and that makes for a more thoroughly realized and replayable album.Label: Self-released
Release Date: July 29, 2014
Links: Facebook

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Thanks for coming back round to The Proglodyte’s Bonepile. We’ve spent a couple visits now chatting about bands that, as good as most of them are, look an awful lot like what a Prog Metal band ought to look like, even if they bring a little something extra (or less) to the stage to set themselves apart. Which is to say, if this sort of thing really isn’t your sort of thing, your patience is sincerely appreciated and will be rewarded next visit when we spend some time with progressive metal acts that poke the standard bearers in the eye with a greasy black-nailed middle finger and take a big fat dook on the blueprints.Till then…

Posted by Lone Watie

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