If you ask anybody who’s been reading Last Rites reviews and features for a while (maybe even back to the Metal Review days), it’s pretty obvious what constitutes our humble site’s wheelhouse: Traditional Heavy Metal, Death Metal, Black Metal. Then Doom. Then all the weirdo offshoots and amalgamations of those sub-genres. That insightful reader will also tell you, though, that there’s so much more at the edges of that massive pile of Old School and Extreme. And we like to think we’ve been getting better about sharing more and more of that other stuff we love with you all. Just recently Craig Hayes has given us a delightfully voyeuristic peak into the aggressively grimy and jaded world of Crust (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), the Lordly Chris Sessions has taken us on a tour of the storage rooms at the Heavy Metal Museum of Ancient History, and our Dear Leader Captain loves to fling us all headlong into the uber-extra fantastical Kingdom of Power Metal at least once a year. All that is amazing and wonderful and I love it, but there’s also a whole big beautiful world of progressive metal out there that, on the whole, we tend to ignore. That is a shame and, since I’m the guy ‘round these parts that spends the most time in that world, I’m going to try to rectify that problem with a regular feature focused on progressive metal.
The Proglodyte’s Bonepile (redux?)
I wrote the first installment of The Proglodyte’s Bonepile about five years ago [sits back, strokes graying beard, contemplates cruel time, cries]. I banged out a second piece about three months later and then… the ol’ idea machine gasped, sputtered, and took a shit. Well, that’s not entirely true. I still had plenty of ideas but they’d all (naively) revolved around themes. I found pretty quickly that writing a regular metal music piece that depends on themes falls apart quick when I’m also trying to focus on albums that are at least somewhat timely and the current crop of new(ish) releases doesn’t care or even know about my stupid clever ideas. I never gave up on the notion of this feature, though. I kept enjoying progressive heavy metal, after all, and never lost the desire to share the good stuff with other people who also enjoy good stuff. Nonetheless, the bonepile languished, a fine idea lying dormant under the dust of amotivation, procrastination, and a stubborn loyalty to creative but impractical notions of how to get it done.
Something recently, though, has rekindled the fire and I’ve found myself opened up to the novel idea that just maybe a clever format ain’t what it ought to be about. The underlying motivation is and always has been, quite simply, to share progressive metal with people who might appreciate it, so why not just go with that? Keep it simple, stupid. Et voila! Unbridled genius.
So, from here on, that’s what The Proglodyte’s Bonepile is all and only about: sharing the music and saying a few words about my experience with it. No fancy format or unifying thematic focus, unless something presents itself naturally. I’d like to keep things regular but also sort of chill, non-urgent, so I figure a quarterly schedule ought to do nicely. I’ll listen to as much progressive metal as I do, keeping an ear out for those albums I think are most likely to tickle the palate of the ever-discerning Last Rites reader, then report on them about once every three months.
From the inaugural piece, on criteria for inclusion: “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.
That’s it. Simple. Done.
So let’s get to it.
When I first sat down to start putting this piece together, I was a little bummed out because I was afraid there wasn’t enough really good progressive metal yet this year to even justify it. I thought I’d be complaining about a couple and giving a half-assed recommendation for a couple others and mostly hoping with everyone else that the second quarter would be a little more generous. More time, though, brought some really good new records and allowed a couple others to reveal their goodness with repeated spins. As it turns out, the first quarter of 2019 has given us quite a bit already to be thankful for and, what’s more, it’s been a crop as diverse as it’s been bountiful. All that’s missing below from the progressive metal spectrum is something on the extreme end, a Slugdge or Enslaved, but those are surely coming (a note at the bottom there on what is actually on the horizon), and what we have certainly gets heavy enough to remind us that it is progressive metal, after all.
Obviously, with so much finally coming down the pike, it’s not practical to talk about every single album I’ve been able to listen to, so what you’ll find below is a sampling of my favorites. If you’re feeling adventurous, though, definitely go do some of that internet spelunking to check out a few of the others that just didn’t make the cut, including new albums dropped by Evergrey, Parad1gm, Blackbirch, Hazpiq, Tear Light from Matter, Soen, Mago de Oz, Not Otherwise Specified, Amalgam Effect, and Mastord (featuring vocals from Markku Pihlaj, of the wonderful Manitou).
First things first: Devin Townsend – Empath
The one big new record that deserves a word, but about which I’m not prepared to say very many. The new Devin Townsend album, Empath, just hit the streets on March 29, barely before I was wrapping this piece up. As of this writing, I’ve listened three times and one of those was passive while working. I’ve already heard from podcast prog pundits and seen in the blogosphere plenty of people calling Empath Townsend’s very best work ever. I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that assessment can be made legitimately after a week, but whatever. Here’s what I can tell you from my brief experience with it: It’s big. And busy. And eclectic. It makes me think of some massive Rube Goldberg machine laid out in a Cathedral made of mirrors. There’s so much of so many things happening. Very intricate and sophisticated in that serious business meets wackadoodly fun kind of way that Devy does. It’s fascinating, but I can’t quite tell what’s going on yet. Maybe it’s genius. Maybe it’s an insanely complicated way to do a simple thing that ultimately just ends up making a mess. Maybe I’ll have a better sense of it by next quarter. Maybe I won’t.
And now, the 2019 progressive metal albums I’m most excited to talk about, plus a bonus or two:
Dream Theater – Distance Over Time
It’s so hard to give an unbiased ear to any new release from a long-running band, especially one you’ve been following since they started their long run. Of course that’s true when you’re still high on them and you’re kind of standing by with the blue ribbon in hand, but what about when they’ve taken a few shits of late? Still so hard. It’s just that now you’re standing by with a consolation ribbon and a roll in your eyes because, okay, maybe just stop even trying now? I love you, but wow. Thing is, if you can step back far enough to get outside the preconceived notions, sometimes you find them to be not only wrong but unfair. Well, sometimes I find that. I’m talking about me. I expected shit from Dream Theater in 2019, because they’d dropped a couple dooks on us in a row and had been spotty, at best, since 2005. I really didn’t want to get my hopes up just to be let down again (we’re always just trying not to get hurt, really, right?). Somehow, though, my guard was down when I listened the first time and I couldn’t have been happier. Legitimately surprised and damn near excited by how much I enjoyed it. Win.
To be clear, Distance Over Time is not a great album, but it is very good. What makes it so good is that it showcases what Dream Theater is very good at (making prog metal), without choking the listener on the idea that they’re so good at it (everything bigger, wider, grander than everything else). That is, it’s familiar without being overfamiliar. Petrucci et al. pinch from their own catalog, for sure (opener and lead single “Untethered Angel” borrows liberally from Scenes from a Memory and Six Degrees), and it’s got its questionable groovers in “Room 137” and album closer “Viper King” (seriously bad choice of punctuation, guys), but even the weakest moments don’t sink the album overall. In fact, Distance Over Time manages even to touch on greatness, particularly on the longer tracks, where the band has (almost) always shined. And “Fall into the Light” outshines them all with a combination of call-back to the band’s Kansas-inspired swinging classic rock riff and a relatively rare foray into speediness, along with a familiarly emotive chorus and classically-minded bridge. All great. But its brilliance is reflected most brightly in the contemplative mid-section and Petrucci’s achingly beautiful solo.
Queensrÿche – The Verdict
Speaking of nostalgic darlings dropping dooks on your best prog metal memories: Queensrÿche, of course. Long a title contender for most excruciatingly disappointing once-great prog metal pioneers, Queensrÿche has somehow (we all know how) been on an undeniable upswing since 2013, when they released a welcome, if relatively safe, return to form in their self-titled album and followed it up with an outstanding display of revitalized mettle in Condition Human. Where those albums showed clearly that Queensrÿche not only remembered how it started but also had something exciting to say about where they found themselves all those years later, this year’s offering, The Verdict, shows the band standing strong and tall in that super sweet spot between what was and what can be. In fact, that awareness led to the best record they’ve made since Empire and they achieved that by injecting a fiery new vision of themselves into the mold of what made them great in the first place. The production has a lot to do with it, lending a sense of grit, depth and fullness to song writing that draws deeply from pools of early career inspiration. Even among the bevy of vigorous riffing and urgent melody, some of Queensrÿche’s greatest songs have been those that slow down to think deeply. I mean hall of fame tracks like “The Lady Wore Black,” “I Dream in Infrared,” and “Eyes of a Stranger,” and my favorite song from The Verdict, “Dark Reverie,” more than holds its own in reflecting the luminous spirit of those amazing tracks.
Appearance of Nothing – In Times of Darkness
In Times of Darkness has all the things I tend to love most about my favorite sub-genre: heavy riffs, complex arrangements, a diverse array of instrumentation, sound, style, and atmosphere, and, above all, dynamic songs that tell interesting stories. Familiarity with some of my favorite bands isn’t a prerequisite, but it is a nice bonus and surely increases the likelihood an album will stick (although it can be a liability, of course, when the new music doesn’t measure up; it measures up here), and In Times of Darkness reminds me of some amazing other bands, sometimes just in a tone or rhythm for a measure or two, other times for extended runs. I hear David Gold in some of Omar Cuna’s vocal melodies and cadences, late-period Amorphis when the music goes wide and calls for the death growls, Opeth in some of the guitar riffs and keyboards, Subterranean Masquerade in parts of the arrangements. Critically, this all comes off more like homage than apery, which is to say Appearance of Nothing makes songs that are clearly theirs, even if they echo their influences.
There are some amazing performances by each member of the band and its guests, including Christian Älvestam (death growls; Scar Symmetry and a dozen other bands), Anna Murphy (LR readers may recognize her from guest appearances on Klabautamann’s Smaragd and last year’s excellent Slow Motion Death Sequence by Manes), and Devon Graves (aka Buddy Lackey of Psychotic Waltz, Deadsoul Tribe, and criminally overlooked The Shadow Theory). Given the array of talent on display here, and that it’s all executed so wonderfully throughout, it says something important that the quality of the songs is the strongest aspect of In Times of Darkness. As remarkable to me is that I almost didn’t even bother looking into Appearance of Nothing’s In Times of Darkness because of its terribly underdeveloped and ultimately boring album cover. I don’t know what made me remember not to judge a record by its cover, but thank goodness something did because, otherwise, I would have missed hearing what is, so far, my favorite progressive metal album of the year. In fact, I’m willing right now to put good money on this one being a year end contender.
Digression Assassins – Oblivion
When I first noticed this album, it was because somebody had referred to it as progressive hardcore, a term I hadn’t encountered before. Plus, I don’t know much about the hardcore scene in particular, except that the idea of a progressive offshoot of it seemed at once dubious and intriguing. Interest piqued. Turns out Digression Assassins are better described as post-hardcore, which makes sense given that their early catalog is very much in line with bands from that sub-genre with which I am familiar, namely The Dillinger Escape Plan and Coalesce (some folks cite fellow Swedes Refused as a reference, too, but I’m only passingly familiar with them). This new album, though, is quite progressive indeed, so maybe a new-fangled label is warranted.
The first thing most will notice is that Digression Assassins’ vocalist, David Catala, comes off an awful lot like Cedric Bixler-Zavala, of The Mars Volta, both in sound and style. The music is still very much in the post-hardcore vein, but stretched out, twisted up, and extensively mathcored, if you’ll allow me that. The band’s enthusiasm for busting boundaries from within their little niche reminds me quite a bit of what Fucked Up did with their fantastic 2014 release, the epic Year of the Dragon, in spirit, at least, if not in style. Bottom line is that this record is made of really good songs that are aggressive and atmospheric, bruising and melodic, loyal to the hardcore ethos and brave in their expansion beyond it.
Darkwater – Human
Putting this one here for the diehard Prog Metal fans that may be reading this (more like “fan,” probably. Hey, pal! Glad you’re here!). Darkwater, if you don’t know, is the epitome of that Prog Metal descriptor I put up there in the criteria, heavily indebted to the Dream Theater sound and style. Where they do set themselves apart a bit is in emphasizing melody over showmanship, so closer to the Vanden Plas end of the spectrum than, say, Haken. They write beautiful, moving songs and they’ve done it exceptionally well for 16 years and three albums now (having taken nine years between their second and third albums). They continue that trend on their newest, Human, so I’m enjoying it quite a bit. If you’re not already into this style, it’s probably not going to do anything at all flippy for your bippy but, if you are, it’s a fine example of how to execute Prog Metal damn near perfectly, even if it isn’t doing anything new or very different at all (hello, irony).
Thousand Sun Sky – The Aurora Complex
Every year there’s a seemingly unnavigable sea of one-person instrumental progressive metal albums released. There’s so many of these projects plying a so similarly clinical combination of modern (read: djenty) metal riffs within a swirl of symphonic keys and programmed drums that, when I sample one, I rarely get through a few tracks before clicking it off and wondering if it’s all just so much digital detritus of some soulless AI algorithm.
Every now and then, though, some musical savant manages to filter all that genius through something like real emotion and we get something truly great. This (admittedly still very young) year, it’s Thousand Sun Sky’s The Aurora Complex. Thousand Sun Sky is the work of one Australian woman named Eva Sanchez (with the help of friends on some tracks). She says she loves progressive metal, melodeath, and technical death metal, especially of the Scandinavian stripe, and you can hear all that in her music. The Aurora Complex is just what was described a few words ago: complex modern metal riffs within a swirl of symphonic keys and programmed drums, except that it feels like it’s actually coming from that real person that made it, heartfelt and emotive in the deeply personal way that evokes the tightly-closed-eyes, head-bobbing music enthusiast with whom we all identify so deeply. And, my goodness, those melodic leads and solos. So many of them and each just wonderful. Eva’s for real.
And finally, very briefly, here’s a bonus for all those metal aficionados who appreciate the dark and the strange, even when it doesn’t come with rippin riffs or blasty beats.
Magnesis – Alice au Pays des Délires
The new album from French neo-prog rock band Magnesis, Alice au Pays des Délires, is shadowy and eccentric, bizarre at times, as it runs the gamut from whispery ambient tones and electronic/synth music to symphonic and theatrical movements to plain ol’ rock and even some pretty convincing heavy metal moments, including the track presented here, which features some amazing lead and solo work from both guitars and keys. Now, disclaimer: this record is poorly produced, and Eric Tillerot’s vocals are definitely an acquired taste (sometimes they’re legitimately bad) and they’re way too far up front in the mix. And despite all that, it’s still a wonderful piece of music that I’ve come to really love. I hope you enjoy it, too.
Extra Bonus: Call it The Molly Hatchet Effect
A big, grimacing, teary-eyed “I hate you!” to Ascending from Ashes for giving me the ol’ “Wanna hurts donut?” of album covers. While combing the internets for new and upcoming prog metal, I happened upon a mention of the band’s newest record, Glory. The album cover reeled me in like a siren. Just look at it! It shines like The Hero’s answer to Allen/Lande’s dueling pterrordactyls. But, ooooooooh, you tricksy bastages! On the inside of that powerfully pretty package lurks a chimera of heavy radio music, at best a sometimes fun and fiery pop-prog-metal (think Coheed and Cambria) and, at its predominant and overwhelming worst, a massive choking pile of rancid Sevendust. You made Molly Hatchet proud with this particular bait and switch, you sickos.
If you’ve hung in there for this whole feature, my hat is off to you, good reader. I really appreciate your effort. Hopefully, you’ve come away from it with a couple new bands to explore. Part of the problem with progressive metal is that it suffers from a stigma related, ironically, to an identity born from some of its biggest acts greatest successes. It’s not a problem exclusive to prog metal but it does seem to plague this subgenre disproportionately. Maybe by shining a light every so often on a variety of good examples of the style, we can help folks discover those worthy albums that defy or even transcend the stereotype. I say “we” because I am just one person with only so much time and energy within a limited sphere, so I would love love love to hear from you. Please let us know in the comments what you’ve been enjoying from the progressive metal world that I may have missed. Don’t worry so much about whether it “qualifies.” If you think it’s progressive metal and you like it a lot, it’s worth mentioning.
In the meantime, I’ll get busy checking out the new releases for the second quarter as they come down. We already know the next three months will bring us, for better or worse, Periphery, East of the Wall, Frequency Eater, Pervy Perkin, Myrath, Monkey3, Aeon Zen, Baroness, Dreadnought, Alberto Rigoni, and of course, the almighty Arch/Matheos.
I am, to say the least, very excited.