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Regarded as a prog metal classic, Dream Theater's Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory is now 20 years old

ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2019 09:11PM



20 years of Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory

It’s entirely coincidental that the cover of the latest Prog magazine (issue 101) should feature the cover artwork from 1999’s Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater when I finally decide to blog about prog metal. The idea for the blog has been floating around for nearly four months, prompted by an influx of requests to review albums that are covered by the prog metal umbrella. Metropolis pt.2 was integral to my thought process, having been suggested to me back in April that it was a prime example of the sub-genre where Dream Theater had reached the apex of their creativity and inspiration, with a great depth in the song writing, some 14 years after they had originally formed and with two different personnel from those in the original line-up, one of whom was Jordan Rudess on keyboards, recording an album with the band for the first time. Evidently, the advice I received was both pertinent and accurate, otherwise why would there still be sufficient interest in the album for Dream Theater tour it in its entirety on its 20th anniversary and why would Prog devote so many pages to it?


Heavy rock, heavy metal or prog?

Going back further in time, along with most other commentators of the period I made a distinction between heavy rock, Deep Purple, for example, and music created by the progressive groups of prog’s golden era, though King Crimson, rightly or wrongly lumped into the prog camp, were hurtling towards their first interregnum with the clever but undeniably heavy material that surfaced on Red (1974), a polished production that should be heard in the context of their live performances over the preceding year, later to surface on USA (1975) and even more fully documented on The Road to Red (2013).

The distinction between the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), a term coined when punk and new wave were fading by Sounds’ Geoff Barton in May 1979 and prog acts subjected to scrutiny in an ever-more commercial musical environment, was even more pronounced. However, NWOBHM inherited some of the do-it-yourself punk ethos that also featured in the make-up of nascent neo-prog bands, marking a convergence in thinking, if not in style.


Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal
Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal

The birth of prog metal

Around the same time as neo-prog was becoming established in the UK, a US prog metal scene was developing where the influences featured metal bands, including examples from NWOBHM, along with the well-established Rush. Fates Warning formed in 1982 and released their first album Night on Bröcken in 1984; Majesty, which became Dream Theater, was formed in 1985; Shadow Gallery (as Sorcerer) formed in 1985; Crimson Glory, following two changes of name, released their eponymously-titled debut album in 1986 and the follow-up, Transcendence (1988) is regarded as a prog metal classic.

Prog underwent resurgence during the mid-90s, catalysed by this assimilation of the progressive ethos into metal. Away from the US, the Scandinavians melded their take on metal with analogue retro-keyboard sounds, creating dark, sometimes stark prog that acted as a soundtrack for the folklore of Norway and Sweden. Anekdoten’s debut Vemod (1993) has been accurately described as sounding like King Crimson had they not disbanded in 1974. Although predominantly instrumental and heavy, with copious doom-laden Mellotron, the lyrics stand out as intelligent and call to mind Richard Palmer-James. The melancholy feel is enhanced by the addition of cello; at times the guitar is like the angular playing of Steve Howe on Fragile and the bass style owes a heavy debt to John Wetton. Did the success of Vemod’s release provide the impetus to reform King Crimson as a double trio conformation in 1994, with its nod to the Red-era? If so, Fripp and co. still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP but as far as the fan-base was concerned, they were ready for any new material. This incarnation of Crimson picked up from where the 70’s Crimson left off, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends, an alignment that continued with the subsequent studio releases The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and The Power to Believe (2003) which get progressively darker (though there always moments of optimism), heavier and technical. On balance, I’d call Thrak (1994) heavy prog but by the time they reached the third Crimson interregnum they were almost certainly prog metal, devoid of symphonic prog flourishes.


ProgBlog and prog metal

I’ve just been reminded that Steven Wilson, in an interview a few years ago, decried a lack of variation in metal and its limited musical vocabulary, suggesting that over-familiarity with the sound of was reducing its power. Wilson’s words appeared before I had ever been asked to review any prog metal but I still had a general feeling, one that might open me up to accusations of musical snobbery, that prog metal had a tendency towards being metal with progressive flourishes bolted on and that it was all a bit same-y. Up to the point two years ago when I was asked to review Radiant Memory (2017) by Process of Illumination, an instrumental band from Texas, the closest I’d got to sitting down and attentively listening to prog metal was either Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) or Sign of the Crow (2016) by the David Cross Band. The former, I’d suggest, contains more of the perceived prog metal tropes whereas there’s a ‘metal edge’ that runs deep in the latter. Cross’ heavy credentials date back to his tenure in King Crimson where he was fighting to be heard over band mates who were increasingly moving into proto-prog metal territory. I also own three studio albums by Peruvians Flor de Loto: Imperio de Cristal (2011); Volver a nacer (2012); and Nuevo Mesias (2014), and the self-titled debut from Il Bacio della Medusa (2004) – all of which can be described as hard-edged prog, which is why I bought them, but which display inspiration from metal. My favourite from this cohort by some distance is Sign of the Crow.

Radiant Memory took me by surprise, but the absence of vocals made it easier to review. I wouldn’t really class the album as straightforward prog metal and, to be fair to the band, they accurately state that their music is ‘an ambitious blend of progressive rock, instrumental music and metal.’ Their playing is of a high standard and there’s a lot of variation on the album thanks to a good guitar/keyboards balance. I was also wrong-footed by The Last Cell, the stage name of Jean-Marc Perc. Perc began playing the guitar at age nine, culminating in a Music degree from university in Vienna. He combines interesting-interval djent and tasteful shredding, all carried out with outstanding technical dexterity. The five-track EP Nautilus (2018) and 2019’s Continental Drift may contain archetypal examples of shredding and djent styles but he also adds delicate picked acoustic guitar – the music is highly melodic and he’s not averse to incorporate jazz-phrasing, demonstrating an innate musicality.

There is an obvious stylistic spectrum even within prog metal, so despite my disdain for Opeth, I have to admit that Heritage (2011) is growing on me. Part of what Wilson, who mixed the album, described as a trilogy (the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album from 2011 Grace for Drowning), Heritage was Opeth’s first full departure from the band’s metal roots and dispensed with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion. Its appeal lies in its variation. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano but the album references all the sounds of classic 70s prog, with Mellotron, rewarding organ and plenty of electric piano. There are tricky time signatures, knotty guitar riffs and sensitive playing amongst the crunchy power chords. Should the album’s category be changed from prog metal to prog? It doesn’t really matter, though Slither, a tribute to Ronnie James Dio who died during the time the record was being made, is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade.



Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'
Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'

Dream Theater define prog metal

So was Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory a ground-breaking moment for prog metal, and do I like it? For someone listening to the record for the first time, 20 years on from its release makes it difficult to ascribe how innovative it was. By 1999 ‘prog’ and ‘progressive rock’ had begun to attract less invective - Radiohead released OK Computer in 1997 and while everyone seemed to accept it was brilliant and pushed boundaries, the band themselves denied it but the public began to use the p-word and Radiohead in the same sentence. Metropolis pt.2 certainly doesn’t conform to my idea of metal and there are a number of aspects that have been borrowed from prog. The opening section with the hypnotherapist is pure Roger Waters and the album is replete with Floyd-like sound effects inter-track segues. If prog had remained a dirty word, it’s unlikely that the storyline, shifting between different events through time and marked out by lyrics denoted in different fonts, would have been so readily accepted. I’m not a great fan of LaBrie’s vocals which I find occasionally shaky and certainly no better than average which is a shame, because they are essential to the story-telling, and I do find the lyrics a little trite. On the other hand, it’s impossible to criticise the musicianship and there’s a sublime section that reminds me of Zappa’s Hot Rats. There’s a delightful ‘throw everything at it’ approach that conforms to prog stereotypes, meaning that if this was to be the gold-standard or the epitome of prog metal, I’d probably go along with it.


I believe it’s predominantly the links to metal that have allowed the prog genre to thrive and though there are obviously other musical forms that continue to impact and shape progressive music, the blurring of distinction between aspects of prog and metal, whether or not originality has been compromised, has facilitated the integration of metal into the prog genre. For my part I recognise the importance of this association, and at the level of listener I can appreciate the technicality involved in the playing.

Even though I think there’s very little that’s inspiring in the prog metal world at the moment, reporting on prog metal is still important and as I’m still not entirely convinced by the genre and still a novice, ProgBlog now has a dedicated specialist, Stefano Amadei, to write about developments in the world of prog metal






By ProgBlog, Jul 12 2015 10:43PM

I’ve just spent another night at a not-your-usual-kind-of gig. I’ve been signed up to the Barbican Centre’s mailing list for almost 18 months now and the kind of show it puts on are often on the fringes of ordinary prog: the Lindsay Cooper tribute last year and Goblin performing a live soundtrack to Profondo Rosso earlier this year are prime examples and mean that appearances by Van der Graaf Generator lie relatively safely within the boundary of the genre. The Keith Emerson Band would have been straightforward crossover prog but for the performance on 10th July they were joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra with conductor Terje Mikkelsen playing The Three Fates Project, an album of orchestrated works by Emerson, largely but not exclusively originally presented as trio pieces with ELP, and also featuring a couple of tracks by guitarist Marc Bonilla. I was personally rather thrilled by the prospect of the concert, imagining it hinted at the Works tour with orchestra in the late 70s which sadly had to be curtailed because of the negative financial impact, so it was good to see Emerson performing with an orchestra.

Emerson’s love of classical music is indisputable and his classical adaptations for a rock group format are legion. He also has a long history of integrating a rock band with an orchestra dating back to his days with The Nice: The side-long title track of Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968); the commissioned title track from Five Bridges (1970); and ELP’s Works (1978) which included his Piano Concerto no.1, the first true formal classical piece he’d written. However, this concert also formed part of the Barbican’s Moog Concordance series, marking 50 years since Dr Robert Moog unleashed his modular synthesizer on an unsuspecting world; a modular Moog formed the centrepiece of Emerson’s keyboard set-up.

I was accompanied on this sonic adventure by Jim, who pointed out that the recent back-room deal between the BBC and the government, in which the corporation agreed to pay for the cost of free TV licences for the over 75s, estimated at £650 million, was likely to require further cuts to services provided by the BBC, such as their orchestras. The Myerscough report Delivering Quality First from 2012 about the future funding of the BBC, talked about job cuts and rationalisation of Performing Groups: the five full-time orchestras and the BBC Singers. The size of the funding cut was to be of the order of 10 per cent but it swiftly became apparent that this figure was not to be shared out equally: the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic got away with single-figure cuts whereas the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers had to bear the brunt of the cuts. Of course I think that the TV licence fee should be reviewed and restructured, as should the current governance structure of the corporation after the awful handling of the last round of negotiations with the government, but the BBC remains an important organisation, largely unbiased, that offers not only some incredible programmes accessible to everyone and facilitates live culture through its Performing Groups, one of which was supporting Keith Emerson. Hands off the BBC!

The show began without Emerson but with the orchestra, drummer Ralph Salmins and bassist Travis Davis who inadvertently created a huge crunching noise over the quiet orchestration at the start of Abaddon's Bolero as he plugged in his guitar. The appearance of Marc Bonilla as the number built to a crescendo drew a burst of applause from the audience which was repeated, louder, when Emerson, replete in a sparkly dark suit appeared to play a few bars on the Moog at the end of the piece. At this juncture Emerson explained a little bit about the concept of The Three Fates and cracked some feeble jokes when he really shouldn’t have bothered. He even asked if Rick Wakeman was present in the audience, suggesting that Wakeman should do the jokes. It also appeared that he expected Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess to be in the crowd but it wasn’t clear if Rudess was to supply any humorous material... The music fitted the classical treatment really well and it was during the second piece, The Endless Enigma that I realised how Emerson’s scoring for strings was quite identifiable, harking back to The Five Bridges Suite. Emerson didn’t contribute to Bonilla’s American Matador but the composition didn’t seem at all out of place, showcasing the guitarist’s technique and genuinely providing a Spanish feel. We were sitting quite close to the front of the stalls and over to the left side of the stage close to where the band had set up and from this position, though the full orchestra was distinct, the only part of the band that was consistently audible was the drums. I could hear the cellos and double bass better than I could make out the bass guitar; the volume of the guitar became more acceptable as the concert progressed but the keyboards, with the exception of the grand piano, were for the most part indistinguishable, lost in the swell of the brass, woodwind and strings. It was only when Emerson played solo lines like for the encore Lucky Man that he could be made out clearly.

The weakest songs may have been After All Of This (which Emerson described as also being And all of that) and a piece from a film that never surfaced The Mourning Sun but that might have been due to their relative brevity. It was interesting to hear the performance of an Alberto Ginastera piece other than ELP’s version of Toccata, Malambo and the presentation of Fanfare for the Common Man, preceded by a story about asking Copeland for permission to use the piece, was a clever comparison of the score as written followed by a version just featuring the electric group that had originally appeared on Works. The highlight was of course Tarkus in its entirety, which didn’t sound out of place as an orchestrated piece.

Emerson took up the conductor’s baton for part of the encore and seemed to do fairly well. Lucky Man, dedicated to Greg Lake and featuring the only vocals of the evening, ably provided by Bonilla, brought the event to a close. With ELP never likely to play together again a concert like this was a must not miss occasion. Despite some difficulty with the sound (at least from our seating) the performance was exceptionally enjoyable, far more so than the last rock band and orchestra I went to see – the disappointing Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It's just a bit ironic that there was no attempt to play The Three Fates from the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album when the night's performance was dubbed Three Fates.



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