One of the great things about the metal genre is that it has more sub-genres than Solomon had wives, and because of this there is plenty to please most every type of fan. My personal favorite, and certainly the most exciting and varied, is progressive metal, which benefits additionally from having sub-genres of the sub-genres. Prog metal, of course, stems directly from the progressive rock of the past, specifically the 70s when such bands as Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Rush, and Pink Floyd (among dozens of others) broke away from the dull, generic, mainstream rock scene. Often combining conservatory training with influences taken more from classical and jazz music (rather than the more typical blues), they invented a new genre identified by its considerably more complex song structure, virtuoso playing, utter disregard for the “rules” of rock music, and typically long song lengths as well.
From these roots, along with a love for classic heavy metal, prog metal was born. The purpose of this article is to serve as an introduction to the genre for people with little or no knowledge or experience with it. Albums made by the countless influences on the genre are not included (with one exception, but more on that later) as that would make the list hopelessly long, and the focus is on the METAL bands that emerged. I hasten to add that this is also not meant to be taken as a “best of” list, nor even a list of my personal favorites, rather it is a wide variety of prog metal albums, not just traditional prog metal, but also progressive death and progressive black as well, each band/album chosen because they epitomize the sub genre and sum up its greatest strengths and what it’s all about. This also allows fans of more extreme forms of metal (or people who dislike it) to go to the sections they might be most interested in. The list is also not meant to be comprehensive or for people who are already invested in the genre. I expect you already know the majority of these albums, and I know you’d have chosen others. Congratulations. For convenience and logical progression we will start with the section of traditional prog metal, and then move to progressive death, and then black. Also for the inquisitive listener each album may be found in full on YouTube either as a single whole or as a playlist.
TRADITIONAL PROGRESSIVE METAL
- Dream Theater – ‘Images and Words’ (1992)
If you were to ask the typical prog metal fan to name one band that was the quintessential prog metal band, that summed up the genre, and served as an example of everything they either loved or hated about it, chances are you’d get Dream Theater as an answer. This, their second album (first with vocalist James LaBrie), put them on the prog metal map (and gave them their only hit single). Everything that encompasses traditional prog metal is here, high ranged clean vocals, guitar and keyboard wizardry, and some of the most insane and tight drum and bass playing in all of music. On the instrumental side of the band are three men, all of whom are still considered to be some of the best in the business; Mike Portnoy (drums), John Petrucci (guitar), and John Myung (bass). Also well regarded, though he has long left the prog metal scene, is founding keyboardist Kevin Moore, the composer and lyricist for the band’s lone hit “Pull Me Under,” a song which sums the band and album up perfectly.
- Queensrÿche – ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ (1988)
One of the earliest examples of a metal band going into full prog territory, this Queensrÿche album is an undisputed classic, not only of prog metal, but heavy metal in general. It is of course a concept album (you’ll find a lot of concept albums in prog metal) telling the story of a recovering addict who becomes involved with a revolutionary group. It sits comfortably on innumerable “Greatest Metal Albums of All Time” lists, and is notable not only for the story, but for the vocal performance of Geoff Tate, the blistering guitar work of Chris DeGarmo & Michael Wilton and tight rhythm section of Eddy Jackson & Scott Rockenfield.. Fans of traditional metal, especially from the 80s, might well want to start here as it will be familiar and comfortable, though chances are plenty of you already have a copy on your shelf.
- Symphony X – ‘The Divine Wings of Tragedy’ (1997)
Often regarded as one of the founding bands of the prog metal genre, Symphony X has a long and well respected history. Led by guitar virtuoso Michael Romeo and the powerful vocals of Russell Allen this album launched the band to the forefront of the genre upon its release. It is a perfect introduction to the genre, excerpts and allusions to Bach and Holst flitter through the 20 minute title track, along with lyrical references to Milton and Dante. The title track is a prog epic masterpiece, and an engaging and exciting story unfolds over its running time. And the blistering guitar lines and fat bass are a head banger’s delight as well.
- Devin Townsend – ‘Terria’ (2001)
Devin Townsend is one of the most well know and well respected musicians in the prog metal world today. Although at one time he was primarily known as the madman behind extreme metal act Strapping Young Lad, he has long had one foot in the prog genre, releasing albums under his own name. ‘Terria’ is, in my opinion, Devin at his best, and covers most everything he is known for. The album is highly atmospheric, yet still very heavy and melodic. It also covers his powerful and wide range of vocal abilities (over 5 octaves, C2 to F7) and goes from strong, clear, and, at times, falsetto vocals to his signature screams in a heartbeat. Indeed, I would argue he’s one of the best vocalists in all of metal. An added bonus is the drumming by the “Atomic Clock” himself, Gene Hoglan. It’s a highly introspective album, at times very quiet and at others hectic and wild. It serves as a fine example of the wide range and varied sounds and styles of prog metal.
- Green Carnation – ‘Light of Day, Day of Darkness’ (2002)
If Pink Floyd ever decided to record a metal album, I imagine it would sound a great deal like this Green Carnation masterpiece. Composed of a single 60 minute song (I did say that prog loves long songs) and written by guitarist and bassist Tchort (ex member of black metal royalty Emperor), it deals in large part with the death of his young daughter and the subsequent birth of his son. It is a highly emotional and often beautiful album, with a few flashes of heavy death growls tossed in for good measure. It is, however, in large part an atmospheric and lyrical work, with the guitar often evoking the style of David Gilmore. It takes you on a long, at times tragic, journey through death and grief until final peace. Don’t let the single track element of the album scare you off, prog is about constant movement and exploration and this song never grows dull.
- Porcupine Tree – ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’ (2007)
No introductory list of modern prog rock or metal can be complete without at least one release by composer, guitarist, and vocalist Steven Wilson. Although the band has since disbanded and Wilson has gone solo, Porcupine Tree remains one of the most widely loved and respected prog rock/metal bands of the modern era. ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’ is a concept album dealing with the disenfranchised, bored, often over-medicated, and indifferent lives of modern youth, and their reliance on technology. Needless to say the take of this portion of the population is less than positive. This is also the heaviest and most strictly metal the group ever went, in large part due to the heavier style and exceptionally technical nature of drummer Gavin Harrison who gives a brilliant performance. It was also awarded Classic Rocks “Album of the Year” and received a Grammy nomination for “Best Surround Sound Album” thanks to Wilson’s mixing. It remains a fresh and piercing critique of modern society and also serves to illustrate Wilson’s exceptional melody writing ability.
- Pain of Salvation – ‘Remedy Lane’ (2002)
This is the fourth album by this Swedish band and is another concept album. Written by guitarist and vocalist Daniel Gildenlöw, it follows an unnamed character’s (non-linear) journey of self discovery. It is also semi autobiographical, and is often an emotionally devastating listen dealing with the still birth of a child and the attempted suicide of a friend, along with relationship and sexual issues. While the music is certainly complex throughout, this band has never been about bowling over the listener with their technical abilities or how fast they can play. The emotional and human elements of the story are of primary concern, and Daniel’s strong vocal delivery drives each of them home as the album progresses. Those looking for an intense, at times dark, and emotional journey of the soul and what makes us human would do well to start here.
- Ayreon – ‘The Human Equation’ (2004)
Like all Ayreon albums, ‘The Human Equation’ is a concept album written by mastermind and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen. Ayreon is more of a project than an actual band, as with each album Arjen uses guest vocalists and musicians to play his music. Unlike previous albums which dealt with an ongoing sci-fi storyline, this album takes place inside the mind of a man in a coma from a car crash. The different aspects of the man’s personality and subconscious, along with himself, wife, and best friend are played by guest vocalists in what is a “who’s who” of prog metal and rock vocalists. Vocal guests include the previously mentioned James LaBrie and Devin Townsend, but also the soon to be talked about Mikael Åkerfeldt, along with Heather Findlay of the folk/prog band Mostly Autumn, along with many others. It is a sprawling double album totaling over 100 minutes of excellent prog metal and rock. As is often the case for the genre, plenty of other styles of music come into play, as there are splashes of Celtic music along with folk and even hints of country. The vocal styles range from clean singing to almost operatic, and a few death growls as well. Really, the full gauntlet of prog metal is shown in this single album which, being a massive concept album written by a single visionary, is about as prog as it gets.
9. Between the Buried and Me – ‘Colors’ (2007)
Generally regarded as the album that put the band on the prog map (they had been more of a metalcore band previously; although they had certainly had progressive elements, this was their first album to embrace it). ‘Colors’ is a 64 minute tour de force of highly technical prog metal played at blistering speed. Mixing growls and plenty of clean vocals, vocalist Tommy Rogers puts on an exceptional vocal performance, in an album that is highly melodic, while still retaining its great brutality throughout. While there is a lot going on and the album deserves repeated listens to absorb everything (which is true for all albums on this list) it is also one of the easier to listen to and enjoy immediately, and is well recommended to anyone who enjoys “core” music and looking for something with considerably more substance and maturity.
EXTREME PROGRESSIVE METAL
This following section will cover what I’ll call the extreme section of prog metal. Bands that are certainly heavier; and use death growls, and black metal screams. Obviously the title of “extreme” is one that comes with considerable bias. What is extreme to one person is easy listening to another. However for the sake of this list the bands that are heavier than most, and use mostly harsh vocals I include under the “extreme” heading as they don’t belong in traditional prog metal. As noted previously the purpose of all this is to give a variety of the more extreme bands and their styles within prog metal. Thus many notable bands and albums (such as Death’s ‘The Sound of Perseverance’) have been omitted as they are stylistically similar to other bands motioned, and as I’ve said I’m trying to keep the list to a reasonable length. Clearly many worthy bands have to be excluded given the parameters and the number of albums I’m working with, but this list is to excite and engage people new to the genre. And those albums will certainly be found with experience. If after all these explanations you still wish to complain about your favorite band being omitted, or something not being “metal” enough, do it on your own time, or talk to someone who is pathetic enough to care. You however won’t find that here.
Opeth – ‘Blackwater Park’ (2001)
We now move into another sub genre of progressive metal; progressive death. And in this genre there is no better example than Opeth. In recent years they have abandoned their death metal roots, but with ‘Blackwater Park’ we find the band at the top of their powers. Unlike typical death metal that is more interested in blast beats and brainless gore lyrics, Opeth have created a complex and sophisticated album of emotional depth highlighted by tight playing and the incredible vocals of Mikael Åkerfeldt. Vocals range from some of the deepest and most harrowing death vocals around, to clean singing, both melodic and brutal at the same time. This was my introduction to the extreme metal genre, and after discovering its beauty and power I never looked back. This album will change your life if you give it a chance.
Cynic – ‘Focus’ (1993)
One could easily make the argument that the beginning of the more extreme side of progressive metal begins right here with Cynic. Based out of Florida, both guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert had previously played with the legendary death metal band Death. The combination of that aggressive brand of death metal and the flair and musical pyrotechnics of jazz fusion merged together to create a jazz/progressive death metal masterpiece. To this day it remains a highly original album with sounds rarely heard elsewhere. When it was recorded it was revolutionary in its scope and its execution. Today it still is. Besides the standard death growls, many vocals were electronically manipulated, which adds to the futuristic sound of the album. Besides the above mentioned musicians, bassist Sean Malone shows why he is one of the best bassists the metal genre has ever known. No other album, or band, sounds like this, and it is required listening for anyone interested in complex, extreme music.
Ihsahn – ‘angL’ (2008)
Founding member of the legendary black metal band Emperor, chances are Ihsahn needs little introduction to fans of the black metal genre. After the end of that band he went solo and this is his second release under his own name. Much of his signature sound is kept intact, his otherworldly screams are as good as ever but his clean vocals are used more and the music is some of his most complex and varied. The lush keyboard work he employs creates a rich and vibrant atmosphere to his already well established guitar sound. There is also a guest vocalist by way of Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt on “Unhealer” and the two trade death growls and black screams in a thrilling song. Everything that progressive black metal is can be found here.
Agalloch – ‘The Mantle’ (2002)
Black metal is of course a varied beast, and showcasing the more folk-based and atmospheric side of the genre was Agalloch, who sadly broke up last year. They left a fantastic body of work behind, none better representative of the different sides of progressive black metal than ‘The Mantle’. It is a sprawling, epic album of often serene and chilling beauty, punctuated by frequent bursts of metal and John Haughm’s haunting vocals. It is a highly affective album; much is acoustically driven, with delicate finger picking and a strong post-rock vibe hovering over it. For being a black metal album, this is more atmospheric than heavy, making it a good place to start for anyone hesitant to listen to heavier progressive metal. Regardless, this album is a true masterpiece.
Enslaved – ‘Vertebrae’ (2008)
The final album of this subgenre comes courtesy of Norway’s Enslaved, one of the founding bands of black metal and “Viking metal” as well. There is a healthy amount of jazz and art rock besides the requisite ferocity of the metal attack throughout the album. It was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year with a host of well deserved accolades. Lyrically it deals much with Norse mythology, while also addressing with the frailty of humanity. On pretty much every level this album has depth and incredible execution. Arguably the most challenging of these black metal suggestions, the quality of this band’s discography is staggering and this album is well worth the time that should be invested in it.
King Crimson – ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ (1969)
I said in the beginning that the point of this article is to focus on progressive metal, and not bog the list down with foundational albums from the golden age of progressive rock; with one exception. Simply put, progressive metal, in all its many wonderful forms, would not exist in the way it does without this album. King Crimson were, and still are, arguably the most experimental and cutting edge of the original prog bands (for that matter, their current output still gives most anyone a run for their money) and this, their debut album, was 40 years ahead of its time when it was released. The groundwork for progressive metal can all be found on the opening track “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a heavy, frequently atonal piece of music, which features one of the great guitar solos in rock history played by legend Robert Fripp. The vocals, sung by bassist Greg Lake are often electronically distorted and harshly sung while the lyrics deal with the violence of modern society and Vietnam. The wild and violent saxophone work adds another level and ties the song to much of the more adventurous metal being released today. The rest of the album is by and large a gentle listen and prog rock at its best, but the opening track is required listening for anyone interested in progressive metal.
And that, Dear Readers, is Metal Wani’s list of an introduction to progressive metal in its many parts. It covers the wide range of styles and some of the sub-genres that encompass it. It’s a truly exciting, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally satisfying form of metal; certainly the most varied in its types, and executed by many of the most talented musicians in all of metal. And anyone looking to heighten the quality, sophistication, and overall worthwhile nature of their listening habits would do well to embrace it. Happy listening!