Back to the Dave Weigel series on Slate about prog rock and where it’s gone…
Weigel doesn’t really elaborate on where the lessons of prog have been passed along to further generations of musicians. He pays a little lip service to prog’s antecedents in regards to indie rock. He mentions Radiohead briefly, talks a bit about Wolf Parade and states that Coldplay and U2 have been produced by Brian Eno (whom he qualifies as being attached to the prog movement only by saying that his first experimental music was done in collaboration with Robert Fripp; as if the prog influence was nowhere in evidence in, say, his first handful of solo albums or in his work with Roxy Music). He discusses briefly Robert Moog’s invention of the synthesizer without really touching on what that means to today’s musicians. Then he wraps back around to talking about the old school once again, waxing nostalgic for prog in exact opposition in the way he states that prog musicians held “no nostalgia for anything in rock.”
But in one sentence in a section devoted to the band Rush, he glosses over precisely where prog’s history has been absorbed and put into action.
“Virtuoso metal and math rock, bands like Mastodon and Protest the Hero, have nestled into the same place.”
Virtuoso metal. Sigh. Such a genre doesn’t exist. But then, here’s the problem I have with most liberal political writers who pick up the pop culture gauntlet and run with it. Admittedly, Weigel does better than most here in discussing a genre of music for which he holds a lot of passion. But for some reason, writers of my political persuasion have a really hard time dealing with metal in general. Indie rock is considered okay, but metal is treated as if it were strictly for boneheads. I mean, certainly, there is a contingent of boneheadedness in metal, because of much of the music’s commitment to simple aggression and fury. But there’s also a lot to examine in the genre when it comes to prog’s influence (even if it’s not as blatantly stated).
Mastodon is the easiest “mainstream” metal act to consider. Their breakthrough album, Crack the Skye, is nothing if not a progressive metal album. A concept album about astral projection, loss of “self,” Hawking’s theories on wormholes, magic, the Devil, Tsarist Russia and Rasputin, the album contains two epic-length tracks (one split into four movements) and the kind of musicianship worthy of any prog outfit. It’s hardly the result of a lack of “veneration of technique.”
Then take Opeth. Started as a Swedish death metal ensemble, the band has long embraced the qualities of progressive rock; featuring complex song structures, extreme shifts in dynamics and time signatures, intelligently developed lyrical content and epic song lengths. They’ve worked for years in collaboration with Steven Wilson of the modern-day progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, toured with Dream Theater (whose prog influences are even more pronounced than those of Opeth) as part of the Progressive Nation tour and have been known to prep audiences for their performances by playing classic tracks from prog artists (including Italian stalwarts Goblin) over the P.A. Their latest album, Heritage, was heavily influenced by the work of the French prog band Magma, and was described by Allmusic’s Thom Jurek as “drenched in instrumental interludes, knotty key and chord changes, shifting time signatures, clean vocals, and a keyboard-heavy instrumentation that includes Mellotrons, Rhodes pianos, and Hammond organs.”
But prog’s inroads into the metal scene is no recent phenomena. Early metal acts like Black Sabbath and (especially) Blue Öyster Cult happily incorporated prog elements into their work. Iron Maiden have long brought progressive rock influences into their music, with mythological and futuristic-themed lyrics, a tight focus on technique and a penchant for complex structure. I mean, this is a band that—at the peak of their popularity—devoted nearly 14 minutes of Powerslave’s running time to an adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And that’s just the starting point.
You want veneration of technique? Look no further than any number of power metal bands, but pay closest attention to Helloween’s two-album run with The Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part 1 and Part 2. You want classical composition combined with inspired musical virtuosity? Take a gander at Yngwie Malmsteen’s body of work, in particular Rising Force.
Even the most brutal of death metal can reflect the complexity and assemblage of non-rock influences of prog. Nile, for example, contain methodically-researched lyrical and conceptual content (detailed at length in the liner notes of their albums) based on Egyptian history and mythology, combined at times with the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, shifts into Middle Eastern tonality and acoustic interludes, and the kind of technical precision that Gentle Giant’s Gary Green laments the lack of in Weigel’s piece. (And, I might add, while facing the same criticism that many prog artists faced—that their emphasis on technicality and construction takes away from the emotional side of the music, resulting in music that, while expertly executed, comes off as cold and clinical.) There’s the jazz-influenced, envelope-pushing work of Atheist. There’s the vocoder-laced melodicism and precision of Cynic. There’s the mind-bending complexity of Lykathea Aflame.
And then, there’s black metal. I could go on for days about how black metal is perhaps the ultimate hybridization of punk, metal and prog. Take Emperor, for example. Constantly-changing time signatures, symphonic keyboards, technically-precise musical attacks, and a seemingly complete distance from that which is “rock” (Emperor does a lot of things, but it typically doesn’t groove) are the hallmarks of their two breakout albums, In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (I mean, seriously—how much more prog can album titles get???). And they get more progressive from there, through to their final album, Prometheus – The Discipline of Fire & Demise. This evolves into the solo work of Emperor frontman Ihsahn, whose albums reflect an even more growing influence of prog, classical and jazz on his music, featuring brass ensemble accents, the adventurous saxophone work of Shining’s Jørgen Munkeby, innovative work on 8-string guitar, and the thrill of experiencing someone excitedly pushing the boundaries of rock music forward. And hell, he made his solo debut at 2011’s ProgPower Festival in Atlanta, ferchrissakes.
Putting politics (and racism, and murder) to one side, look at Burzum. Almost completely removed from rock, Burzum accomplishes the feat of marrying punk’s “stripping things down” ethos with the compositional integrity of metal, while emphasizing the mesmerizing power of simple repetition in the way that Can, Kraftwerk and Neu! perfected as part of the krautrock prog variation. Partially because he’s a racist asshole, Varg Vikernes (the sole person behind Burzum) has, like many of the prog pioneers, almost completely eliminated any influence that comes from rock’s blues roots in favor of European and Scandinavian classical and traditional musics. And, hey, there’s even extensive keyboard noodling, if that’s what you’re after.
Then there’s Enslaved. Starting with 1997’s Eld, and finding full fruition on 2000’s Mardraum—Beyond the Within, Enslaved have continually brought more and more prog influences (shifting dynamics, mellotron, multi-part epic songs) into their repertoire, with Vertebrae and Axioma Ethica Odini being favorably compared to Pink Floyd at their peak.
And further digging into black metal shows no shortage of bands with Jethro Tull-esque devotion to album-length suites and folk music, ELP-styled symphonic bombast, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis’ theatricality, Pink Floyd-esque concept albums, Fripp-inspired ambience and Yes-level virtuosity. Root, Ulver, Samael, Limbonic Art, Sigh, Drudkh. Lugubrum’s world music excursions. Oranssi Pazuzu’s melding of Amon Düül II and Mayhem. Moonsorrow’s Finlandic folk.
So that’s where the bodies of prog’s past are buried: under the tremendous weight of heavy metal, where those bodies have built a strong foundation. It’s all down there if you dig it up and care to look.