Progressive Metal – The Thinking Girl’s Metal

I’m a band geek. Deep in my nerdy, nerdy heart, the memories of picking up my very first real instrument and (poorly) playing Ode to Joy with a group of 15 other kids at half-tempo remains strong and cherished to this day. It was your standard 20-year-old Yamaha clarinet and I had no idea how to put the reed in. That first day, I put my ten-year-old hands on the keys and blew, making a sound somewhere between an elephant being strangled and a duck that’s been stepped on. As our teacher patiently made his way around the room, correcting reeds and replacing foot pads, I managed to get a couple of semi-musical squeaks out. A feeling of immense pride and endless possibility opened up in me. This was awesome. I could do so many things with this!

And here I am, two decades later and the joy of playing an instrument well can still sing through my blood. I eventually moved from clarinet to saxophone, and then to harmonica when the band program went belly-up and I had to, you know, actually buy the instrument I played. Turns out instruments are really expensive. Luckily, the love of playing music also led me into a deeper appreciation of listening. And even luckier, there are many many many phenomenal and different musics to listen to.

I’ve listened obsessively to a number of different genres in my life: classical, classic rock, alternative rock, punk, electronic, synth-pop/new wave, folk, dream pop, heavy metal, Indian ragas, even hip hop and rap in specific cases. But all my favorite groups and musics had a few things in common. The instrumentals and arrangements had to be either very intricate and beautiful, or a little… weird. The vocals had to be excellent and varied. The lyrics needed to be at least a little poetic. In other words, there had to be real talent and skill somewhere, or at least extreme emotion. Or humor. Never radio style pop. Most pop is too generalized and simple to evoke passion, and I want passion in my music.

In the past few years, I’ve been making my way into the heavy-yet-technical world of progressive metal. A chance encounter with Symphony X’s “The Odyssey” pushed me from the more-mellow world of prog/alt rock to metal (something I’d long avoided due to a classmate with an obsession with Metallica). After repeat listening (only thirty or fifty times), I moved onto their other albums. Being a Google Music listener, I started getting more metal recommendations, and my husband started suggesting bands too (his love affair with Rush and Yes led him to Dream Theater, which was not exactly my thang, sorry babe). And holy crap, there is some amazing music in this genre.

Like many “progressive” genres, there is a huge focus on complex arrangements, technical instrumentals and adding in elements classically kept to other music types. Thank You Scientist makes good use of a trumpet. Yes, metal with trumpet. It’s great. Haken and Leprous both use clean, almost choir-boy vocals AND growling to connect extremely eclectic and complicated music that stays heavy, yet beautiful. I’ll probably fanboi out later about Haken because yea, wow. There are even pure instrumental groups that blow my mind while still letting me focus on other tasks: Pomegranate Tiger, Liquid Tension Experiment, Cloudkicker, Scale the Summit, Intervals, Animals as Leaders… And more. Always more.

So I dedicate this post to progressive metal. I love you. Your ultra-heavy bass lines and crunchy guitars make me want to head-bang, even though your complex time signatures make it pretty hard. Your inspired concept albums and nigh-endless breadth of styles keep musical boredom at bay. Thanks to you, I am seriously considering plonking down 800 bucks on a student-grade flute so I can play prog metal flute while the hubby rocks his 8-string or 12-string or 5-string bass or keyboard. Because we’re now that kind of family Even my baby girl is getting in on the action with one of my harmonicas and she’s two. Thank you for helping my family rock out.

Want to try this genre out? Take a peek at some of the following:

  • Love classic rock like Jethro Tull, and Deep Purple? Try Opeth’s “Sorceress”
  • Enjoy Muse’s “Black Holes and Revelations”? Try Leprous’ “Malina”
  • Want something perfectly hard and heavy? Try Haken’s “Vector” OR Pomegranate Tiger’s “Boundless” if you want no lyrics
  • Want to soar through space, no lyrics to distract? Try Derek Sherinian’s “Planet X”
  • How about electronic-esque, beautiful, and with plenty of guitars both acoustic and electric? Try Cloudkicker’s “Little Histories”

Give a recommendation if you know any other amazing prog-metal bands, because I’m always looking. And I can’t be alone in that.

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