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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, Apr 10 2019 09:29PM

As the rest of the world watches, the UK plays out a real-time tragicomedy that the actors know is going to cause severe damage to services and the economy but, like the slow-mo approach to the cliff edge, seem incapable of taking appropriate action to avert the impending disaster. I flew to Bologna on the day of the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU (I had tickets to see Ian Anderson on the Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary tour) and fellow passengers laughed at our choice of dates and the confusion we’d have encountered if parliament had approved the Prime Minister’s deal. I was in Genoa the previous weekend where, over dinner with Italian friends, I was asked what on earth we, the UK, were doing. Brexit makes watching televised parliamentary business like watching an episode of The Office; excruciating but compulsive viewing.


Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19
Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19

Exiting the European Union is an act of wanton self-harm regardless of whatever anyone says about ‘respecting the will of the people’ or ‘give us what we voted for’ but unfortunately the genie has been released from the bottle and conflicting desires following the 52:48 split have used up our wishes to poison debate with hatred and accusations of treachery, fuelled by the personal ambitions of a few die-hards and financed by shadowy figures running insidious Facebook advertising campaigns. As it stands, Theresa May has at last extended an invitation to Jeremy Corbyn to work out some compromise on getting the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 passed, having had her preferred deal, what she regards as the only deal, rejected by the House of Commons three times; we’ve also had a series of indicative votes, seeking out a consensus for a resolution, none of which has commanded any majority in the House. Judging from reports of the current state of affairs it seems that she’s asking Labour to compromise and not shifting her own red lines.


I voted to remain in the 2016 referendum but if we are forced out of the EU, any deal must protect workers’ rights; the environment; the Good Friday Agreement; the rights of UK citizens living within the EU and EU citizens in the UK; food and manufacturing standards; and businesses importing and exporting between the UK and the EU; in other words a soft-Brexit with some form of customs union. One potential model has been coined ‘Norway plus’. Norway, along with Liechtenstein and Iceland, are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). Norway plus, which was proposed towards the end of 2018, would consist of membership of EFTA and membership of the EEA, combined with a separate customs union with the EU to create a trade relationship similar to that between the EU and its member states today. The one potential drawback cited by critics is that the UK would have to abide by EU regulations without any political representation in the EU's bodies, though it encompasses an idealised wish list for a soft Brexit.


I’ve always been intrigued by Norway, from Scandinavian mythology to physical geography lessons during my schooldays in the early 70s. Unlike the UK, who did exactly the opposite with money from North Sea Oil extraction, the Norwegian government created two sovereign wealth funds. One of these was for reinvesting surplus revenue back into global stocks, shares and assets and the other, the smaller Government Pension Fund Norway, invested in Norwegian and some Scandinavian businesses, acting like a national insurance scheme. Norway featured heavily in the second of my Interrail travels, where 10 days were spent exploring the country from Oslo up to Narvik, well inside the Arctic Circle and the farthest north I’ve ever travelled, 68o28’ N.

This trip coincided with campaigning for the 1983 Norwegian local elections, so university friend and fellow traveller Nick Hodgetts and I hung around with the Norsk Arbeiderparti (who had a band on stage singing about social democracy) and the Greens on our first afternoon in Oslo. I really enjoyed Norway; the people, the landscape, the towns and cities, picking redcurrants for a free night and breakfast at Åndalsnes Youth Hostel, and though the trains were frequently crowded, the travel was enjoyable, too. The journey up to Narvik was by bus, having unsuccessfully attempted to hitch a ride from Fauske. The road trip was just over 5 hours long, hugging the coastline and crossing two fjords by ferry. I described it as ‘cosmic’ in my diary, driving along quiet, unlit roads, climbing out of valleys and descending towards the head of a fjord with the mountains darker than the night sky. Just after midnight on the walk from Narvik bus station to the railway station, a casual glance towards the firmament revealed a constantly changing green shadow, fading, growing, shifting and finally dissipating; the aurora borealis clearly visible above the glow of the city lights.


Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983
Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983

We managed to see a number of free live music performances and though one of the last concerts I attended in the UK before setting off on my northern Europe trip was Pendragon, Solstice and The Enid at the Ace, Brixton on May 11th, an indication that neo-prog had truly arrived (partially thanks to being embraced by Kerrang!) it was striking that throughout the country the predominant musical style and associated fashion was heavy metal, though it was almost impossible not to hear Mike Oldfield’s Moonlit Shadow or Irene Cara’s Flashdance being played on the radio (or some cassette player.)

Whereas I’d started listening to Sweden’s Bo Hansson in the mid 70s and began buying Finnish prog in the mid 00s, I hadn’t actually paid any attention to music from Norway. A couple of years after my Norwegian trip, a-ha became the country’s top musical export with uplifting pop, though the trio themselves were irked that music critics couldn’t see beneath the shiny surface of their songs where the application of classical theory and a rich harmonic language made them mini-symphonic masterpieces straight out of the book of prog. Also around that time, the Norwegian love-affair with heavy metal evolved into Norwegian black metal, a sub-genre that peaked in popularity in the early 90s and was considered to rival Swedish death metal. I remain unconvinced that Sweden’s Opeth should fall under the prog banner despite prog flourishes amongst what I still hear as death metal and I that have been and am equally dismissive of black metal groups from Norway that have adopted prog stylistic leanings. However, when the third wave of progressive rock surfaced in Sweden and the USA in the early 90s, if it wasn’t quite metal with prog sensibilities it could certainly be classed as material close to the sound of Red-era Crimson; heavy prog but not prog metal.


My first taste of Norwegian prog was a set from Arabs in Aspic at the 2017 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa. Not knowing what to expect, I was nevertheless impressed with their brand of prog which though biased towards the heavy end of the spectrum, contained sufficient melody, variation and surprises to suit someone more accustomed to symphonic prog. They sang and communicated to the almost exclusively Italian crowd in excellent English, reminding us that we were united by progressive rock. They also formed the backing band for the Saturday headliner, space-rock legend Nik Turner.


Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017
Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017

When I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files I used to take it around Europe as a reference when I went into record stores until it became worn and fragile. This was also the source of my first interest in Anekdoten and Änglagård, expanding my knowledge of Swedish prog. The book was eventually replaced with Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook, a more complete and up-to-date volume with a set of different album sleeves presented in full colour. One of those depicted was Wobbler’s debut Hinterland (2005) which, I’m ashamed to say, I paid absolutely no attention to.


Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook
Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook

I’m pretty sure I saw adverts for Rites at Dawn around the time of its release in 2011 but it was From Silence to Somewhere (2017) that finally hooked me. One of the people I follow on Twitter had raved about it when she got her copy but at the time I didn’t follow up the recommendation. Some time early in 2018 I’d been browsing on Bandcamp and somehow ended up on the Karisma Records page which linked to the band, where I ended up listening to it, was blown away by it and bought a copy on vinyl. Hinterland (on vinyl) and Rites at Dawn (CD) followed and since then I’ve bought Hinterland and From Silence to Somewhere as presents for my brothers. I’ve also just ordered a remastered CD of Afterglow (2009) as a present to myself. The music sounds like early 70s symphonic prog, largely thanks to a keyboard set-up that would not have been unfamiliar to Rick Wakeman while recording Fragile, and trebly Rickenbacker bass. It’s a full sound, well structured, expertly played and nicely produced. Wobbler certainly aren’t afraid to stretch themselves with lengthy compositions, all of which could attract the criticism that they’re merely regurgitating music from 45 years ago rather than progressing, but the band started out playing music that they liked without worrying about where they would be pigeonholed. I like it, too. I like it very much.


The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)
The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)

It was while I was selecting a CD of Hinterland for my brother that I came across Jordsjø, another band allied to Karisma Records and after checking the reviews, bought Jord. There are some similarities with Wobbler but in the main they play prog with a large dose of Scandinavian folk. It reminds of the An Invitation EP by Amber Foil, not only in the palette, but the feel of the music which evokes unidentifiable forces dwelling in some dark forest. I’m a big fan of the flute on the album which adds to the folk feeling but the last track is something very different, though equally good – an electronica outing that could easily have been composed by Tangerine Dream in the mid 70s.


Jord by Jordsjø
Jord by Jordsjø

So if the UK is to leave the EU, and the leaders of EU countries are discussing this as I type, I’m going with Norway...




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