Recently, it’s become more and more apparent to me that the label Progressive Metal is turning into something increasingly convoluted and vague. Maybe this stems from stumbling upon one too many bands labeled as “progressive,” only to listen to their music and find that I would consider them nothing of the sort, or maybe it’s just that the classification in of itself seems too broad in the first place. Admittedly, progressive metal houses smaller sub genres within itself that are more distinct and clear-cut, but this article will hopefully lend more clarity to modern progressive metal as a whole.
This post is not meant to be a list of reasons why this sub genre is “superior” to others, nor is it meant to be a part of any other sub genre arguments (i.e. the argument about if djent is or isn’t a genre, or if genres even matter at all). The purpose of this article is to simply, with your help via comments, further define and classify what progressive metal is (and isn’t), in order to provide clarity to myself and anyone else who finds themselves confused.
After some thought, I’ve found 7 attributes that come to my mind when trying to define progressive metal. Most progressive groups won’t possess all of these characteristics, and many will only display 2 or 3 of them, but all 7 of these points are reasons why I consider this to be my favorite genre of music. If you disagree with these points, or you think I’ve left an important aspect out, please give some feedback using the comments section! With that said, here’s what I’ve come up with:
- Progress – This one is a given. Over the course of a progressive band’s career, there will be a steady and obvious progression from album to album, reflecting their growth as writers and musicians. This gradual maturation can manifest itself in a plethora of different ways, and it will look different for every band. If a band has essentially released the same album 3 times in a row, you can’t really call that progress.
- Song Structure – While much of heavier music today still follows traditional song structure (verse-prechorus-chorus, rinse/repeat), progressive metal often bypasses that stale concept in favor of a more unorthodox approach. Even though there may occasionally be some repeating sections, it’s fairly common for there to be between 10-30 different parts in a single prog metal song. What separates the good from the bad is the ability to weave so many sections into a single cohesive piece of music, instead of a pile of random parts hastily stitched together.
- Song Length – Long songs are another regular attribute of progressive metal. The average song, whether it’s a radio pop song, or a typical metal track, will probably sit around the 3 or 4 minute mark. Progressive metal is akin to classical music in this aspect (among others), in that songs can sometimes clock in at upwards of 10 or 15 minutes, with the average song length falling around 7 minutes or so.
- Variety – Many metal bands are comfortable with simply sticking to their distinct “sound” once they’ve found it, in order to continue pleasing their fan base, or hey, maybe it’s just what they like to play and they’re content to keep doing it. A trademark of progressive music however, is taking the listener on a journey through many different musical locales over the course of an album. This is accomplished by implementing various scales, keys, tempos, and instrumentation. This could be something more subtle like a tempo or key change, or something much more drastic such as “genrebusting”, as Jimmy likes to call it. As mentioned in point #2, cohesion is crucial to successfully pulling this off. I often experience Synesthesia when I hear music, meaning I see colors in my head while I listen (without the aid of drugs, haha). One of the things I love about prog metal is that, as opposed to when I listen to a typical metal record and see only one color, a good progressive album will make me see a huge range of colors as the music moves through different vibes and feels.
- Technicality – Whether it be a load of mindless wank, or an actual tasteful application of advanced musicianship and virtuosity, technicality is undoubtedly a part of progressive metal. Some groups make the mistake of thinking that how fast their fingers can move is more important than their ability to write actual songs, and that’s an easy mistake to make. In the right context though, I find music with advanced levels of technicality to be very enjoyable, both to hear and to play.
- Time Signatures – Music is a vast well of possibilities, with a near endless amount of combinations between factors such as scales, tempo, and time signatures (and much more). It’s a shame then that the vast majority of music is confined to variations of 4/4 and 3/4, with even simple meters such as 5/4 and 7/4 being rarities at best. There’s nothing wrong with the basics, but to rely solely on them is to just barely scratch the surface of music’s potential. Thankfully, there are many proggy bands out there that implement odd time signatures into their music just as often as they play using the more common meters, thus bringing their art to new levels of intricacy and beauty.
- MusicImage – Although this point isn’t tied as directly as the others to the music itself, it’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed with most modern progressive bands. While many sub genres of heavy music seem to have a certain image or “look” associated with the bands and fans, that doesn’t seem to carry over to this sub genre too much. From my experience, most band members, and fans of proggy music, just look like normal dudes. I see this as a good thing because even though it probably contributes to prog metal being less popular than most other genres, it gives the bands more time and resources to focus on what’s actually important; the music.
Alright, you can see how the term “progressive” can be a very broad term. One band’s music could contain a few of these characteristics, while another group’s work might contain some of the other qualities listed above. Both of the said bands could be considered to be sharing the same sub-genre, even though they may sound nothing like each other. I would probably love both of them though.
So what do you think? Do these things come to your mind when you think of progressive metal, or am I way off my mark? One thing to consider is that when it comes to music, many things can be subjective, so naturally different people will consider different musical aspects or bands to be progressive. Heavy Blog wants to know though, what does progressive mean to you?