Progressive Or Regressive?
A Look At Some Recent Prog-Metal

The Academy did it again.

For the benefit of those who despise award shows and my constant obsessive complaining about them, I have shortened the annual Bitch About the Grammys column to only a couple of paragraphs this time. That’s mostly because there’s just nothing left to say about the stupidity and laziness of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and their seeming inability to keep track of the best music released in a given year. That’s also because, as the Grammys go, this year’s selections aren’t too bad. OutKast made out big for their excellent Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Warren Zevon will hopefully receive a posthumous award for at least one of his five nominations. Nothing for most of the year’s best releases, of course, but that’s all subjective and to be expected.

I do, however, have one major gripe, and it’s a familiar one. Fountains of Wayne are nominated for Best New Artist, despite having been around for about seven years and having released their third album in 2003. I’m tired of the Academy calling something new just because they haven’t heard of it before. If they’re going to rely on hit singles to select the nominees in this category, they should probably change the name to Best Breakthrough Artist. Calling Fountains a new artist is just plain ignorant, and lazy to boot.

But there is an upside. Thanks to a Best Rock Song nod, I now live in a universe where it’s accurate to call “Stacy’s Mom” a Grammy nominee. That’s too bizarre.

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One thing that bothers me about the Academy is its pained reliance on restrictive genre labels. They’ve subdivided the nominations into “fields,” including pop, rap, country, R&B, bluegrass, alternative and rock. Thing is, music just doesn’t neatly fold itself into boxes like that too often, unless the producers and artists are specifically designing it to. To pick a few nominees, would you label OutKast rap or R&B? Or pop, even? They do all three on their nominated album. Kid Rock – is he rock, rap or country? Or all of the above?

If there’s one label that means nothing anymore, though, it has to be alternative. That word used to describe the indie bands that offered, yes, an alternative to mainstream radio. Now it’s been co-opted as a mainstream radio format. The word has lost all significance – it’s just another way to describe a style, instead of an attitude. Do you think Jane’s Addiction (the modern version) imagines their music as an alternative to anything?

Here’s another one: progressive. What does that even mean? When it entered the lexicon, it was meant as a sign that a particular band was pushing the boundaries of accepted musical forms. Bands like Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull wore their prog badges proudly, and created technical, complex music that certainly seemed to progress toward something.

Now the progressive tag is applied to anything that smells like Tales From Topographic Oceans. If it’s needlessly hard to play, say the critics, it’s prog. Never mind that the term now describes its opposite – if anything, the we-wish-it-was-1973 attitude of most prog is regressive. And then there’s progressive metal, a subgenre with an oxymoron all its own. Metal hasn’t significantly progressed anywhere since 1984 or so, and progressive metal is nothing more than ’70s prog played louder. Labels like “prog-metal” are commonplace because they give writers an easy out – you don’t need to discuss anything on its own merits if you can play the sounds-like game.

For my money, Dream Theater sounds like no one else on the market right now. They’re a stunningly virtuosic quintet, able to play rings around even the most talented of their peers. They have a symphonic compositional sense that’s unmatched, and an inhuman endurance level. Their concerts have been known to run three hours, chock full of the most difficult and taxing music you’re likely to hear outside of a Zappa revue.

They also seem quite at home with every stupid metal cliche in the book. Guitarist John Petrucci lets fly with some of the wankiest solos since the days of Yngwie Malmsteen, drummer Mike Portnoy just loves his double bass pedals, and singer James LaBrie comes from a time when long-haired men screamed from the throat and were thought of as cool, not cheesy. There is a wild card – keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who adds most of the symphonic touches, would have been run out of Megadeth on a rail. But otherwise, the stupidity of genre labels aside, calling Dream Theater a metal band wouldn’t be inaccurate.

Except that lately, they’ve been upping the symphonic elements and downplaying the metallic ones. Last year’s double-disc opus Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence featured a 40-minute song, a sure sign that someone’s been listening to Relayer or the like. Though pieces of the album were slash-and-burn, very little of it stood up to older DT records like Awake for sheer heaviness.

Well, here’s hoping you didn’t like that direction, because the new Dream Theater album, Train of Thought, takes a sharp veer back to the punishing riffs of old. In fact, you’re only a few minutes in before Petrucci starts bitch-slapping you with his lightning-fast soloing, something which made very few appearances on Turbulence. Train of Thought is seven songs long, and the average length is right around 10 minutes each. There are few breaks from the metallic onslaught – “Vacant” is a two-minute interlude, “Endless Sacrifice” begins and ends with clean guitar sections, and that’s about it. The rest is loud, fast and angry.

In fact, this record sounds very much like DT’s attempt to make a classic Metallica album. Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets certainly incorporated elements of ’70s prog, and added the impressive feat of creating symphonies with just guitars, bass and drums. As much of a presence as Rudess has been since he joined four years ago, the rest of the band seemed to have trouble fitting him in here – he’s consigned to a few solos and some ill-matched (yet brief) interludes when not providing background atmosphere. The focus is undeniably on the guitars this time around.

Train of Thought is a complex album, of course, and the instrumental sections that make up the bulk of each song are impeccably arranged and played. Still, what sticks are the metal cliches throughout. All the lyrics are angry, but that anger is directed at well-worn targets – religious fanatics, bad parents, the insanity of life, etc. The songs have titles like “This Dying Soul” and “In the Name of God,” and LaBrie sings them with the traditional operatic seriousness of the best metal singers throughout the ages.

But hell, who listens to this stuff for the lyrics? You listen to Dream Theater to hear five guys lock into some crazy complex polyrhythms, the sort of thing that sounds impressive even if you don’t know what a polyrhythm is. You listen to hear Petrucci, one of the best masturbatory axe-slingers around, go apeshit all over his fretboard. You listen to hear Portnoy somehow not pull a rotator cuff while slamming out superhuman drum fills. You listen to hear a level of musicianship you just don’t get to hear anymore, and Train of Thought largely delivers on that. If you liked Awake best and have been hoping the band will return to that sound, you’ll like this. Even if you hoped they’d continue traveling the symphonic road they’d been on, though, this is impressive stuff, and it shouldn’t let you down too much.

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Comparatively speaking, few would likely consider Queensryche a progressive band. But consider the following evidence: 1) They’ve made a concept album – 1988’s brilliant Operation: Mindcrime, which included spoken sections, an overture, and an imaginative plotline. 2) They’ve worked with orchestras, several times (“Silent Lucidity,” “Real World,” etc.), and used them to accentuate the inherent symphonic qualities already present in their music. 3) They have a classically trained, operatic singer in Geoff Tate, a guy who can hold a note well past the lung capacities of many of his peers. And 4), Dream Theater asked them to open their recent tour, a slot that has traditionally been held by neo-proggers like Fates Warning.

It’s also true that they’re known as a metal band – they even have an accursed umlaut in their name, over the “y.” But in truth, they haven’t played what any self-respecting longhair would call real metal since the early ’80s. Queensryche only has one metal album to its credit (1984’s The Warning), and since then, they’ve been exploring the progressive and pop sides of their sound.

One doesn’t expect much of Queensryche these days, unfortunately. They have the pallor of a band that’s past its prime, and their last two projects suffered in comparison to their early work. Hear in the Now Frontier was a compressed pop album, a collection of singles looking for a platinum record that never came, directed almost entirely by guitarist Chris DeGarmo. He then promptly left the band, to be replaced by Kelly Gray, who did a competent yet unremarkable job on Q2K, a limp effort heavy on groove and light on inspiration. Even the most ardent fans had to admit that the days of great Queensryche records were probably over.

Which is why Tribe, their just-released ninth album, is such a pleasant surprise. Inspired by the events of September 11, Tate rallied the band, pulled back DeGarmo for five songs, and turned in the best Ryche record since Promised Land. It’s no coincidence that DeGarmo’s return heralds an album crying for unity and understanding, even if he’s since bid the band farewell again. His guitar sound and distinctive flair for melody instantly pop from the speakers, giving all the evidence one needs to conclude that Q2K should never have happened.

Tribe is a shorter, more song-oriented disc than Queensryche has made lately – 10 standard-length tracks, each with memorable choruses and fewer art-rock touches than before. At only 41 minutes, it’s pretty much in and out, but it’s enough time to leave a swell impression. “Open” opens the record with a monstrous riff and a lyric about tolerance, “Desert Dance” incorporates some rapcore shouting (but done well) over a killer guitar line, “Falling Behind” has a classic DeGarmo acoustic feel, “Rhythm of Hope” reaches skyward beautifully, “Tribe” crashes in with heavy distortion and Tate’s menacing spoken verses, and “The Art of Life” pulls it all together in four impressive minutes.

There’s just no way also-rans like P.O.D. should be outselling this album. This is a thoroughly modern Queensryche, thoughtful and restrained, yet muscular and confident. When stacked against their recent work, this thing is almost a revolution. Tate’s in fine voice throughout, a marked improvement from the previous couple of albums, and while there’s nothing fun or enjoyable about most of the lyrics, one imagines Tate is at home again, excoriating violent governments and crying out for peace. It turns out, all he and the band needed was something to sing about.

And the epilogue, “Doin’ Fine,” might be the most genuinely uplifting piece of music yet inspired by 9/11. “Next time we could try a little harder,” Tate sings, before proclaiming, “Look around, everything’s better now.” Tate never succumbs to Springsteen-itis, the unfortunate tendency of American songwriters to believe it’s all about America, and to provide a rallying point for the country. We’re all, as he notes, the same tribe. The theme of the album is summed up in “Great Divide”: “Take the flag we wave, the freedoms that we sing, without respect for one other, it doesn’t mean a thing.”

This is the passionate response to September 11 that I was hoping to get last year from our more literate songwriters. That it comes from a reinvigorated Queensryche is one of the happiest surprises of my year. If you gave up on the Ryche before the turn of the century, then give this a try, because Tribe will most likely happily surprise you, too.

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Which brings us to the grandaddy of all progressive metal bands, Iron Maiden.

Maiden is another band that people are surprised to learn I know quite a bit about. They invented the symphonic metal prototype, and if you’re brought up liking bands like Queensryche and Savatage, eventually you’re going to work your way to Iron Maiden. They’re everything that’s good and bad (usually in equal measure) about this sort of thing – pretentious, goofy, ambitious, textured, ass-kicking, and defiantly their own band. Maiden has never tried to be anything except what they are, and despite legions of imitators, no one does it quite like they do.

What’s always been fascinating about Iron Maiden is their insistence on doing nothing halfway. They’re unflinchingly accepting of both the impressive and silly parts of their sound and image. They write lengthy historical dramas, set books to music, and revel in any new way they can find to bring their sound further over the top. Remember in Spinal Tap when the band unveiled their Stonehenge rock opera and stage set? The movie was making fun of Iron Maiden, and to their credit, there’s no doubt they got the joke.

Much of the melodrama is contained in the forceful alto of Bruce Dickinson, who always sings like he’s leading the Roman army to conquest. Dickinson has a great set of pipes, and his style fits Maiden perfectly, as amply displayed whenever they try to make an album without him. Most recently, the singer’s spot was filled by Blaze Bayley, who led the band through the two worst albums to bear their name (The X-Factor and Virtual XI). One could easily imagine the band giving up the ghost, never again attaining the heights of Powerslave.

But we’ve all watched Behind the Music, and we all know the reunion tour is a staple of long-running rock acts. When Dickinson rejoined Maiden in 2000, you could almost hear the sigh of relief. Bayley was so impossibly bad, so much worse than anyone feared, that even watching the Dickinson band shuffle through a tour of their hits would have been preferable.

Here’s the thing, though – Dickinson’s return re-energized the band in ways even the most hopeful fans couldn’t have expected. 2000 saw the release of Brave New World, an album that brought them back to their Seventh Son sound with a vengeance. And now here’s Dance of Death, the thirteenth Iron Maiden album, and it’s even better. It’s rare to witness such an impressive creative rebirth from a band many had written off.

Given that this band likes to set atmosphere right up front, the fact that Dance of Death opens with a live-sounding count-off (“One, two, three, four!”) is startling. That the first two tracks are, dare I say it, fun is also quite a surprise. “Wildest Dreams” is a revved-up rocker, and “Rainmaker” is barely done kicking your ass before its 3:48 is up. The pieces get longer as the album progresses, but the vibe remains – this is probably the most fun I’ve ever had listening to Iron Maiden.

The album includes epics galore, like the marching song “Paschendale” and the atmospheric closer “Journeyman,” which incorporates strings for the first time on a Maiden album. But none are more epic or mind-expanding than the title track, quite simply one of the best songs in the band’s catalog. It’s more than eight minutes long, and it leaps from complex section to complex section nimbly, wrapping it all up in one chorus-less whole. It’s the second coming of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and the absolute highlight of the album.

There’s not much more I can say – if you ever liked Iron Maiden, even a little bit, you’ll like Dance of Death. It’s unquestionably one of the best things they’ve yet done, and considering they’re on album 13 and year 24, that’s borderline amazing. Those lamenting the loss of heavy music on a truly epic scale can take heart that at least one band is still doing it right.

This one’s for Shane Kinney, who’s been after me to review Dance of Death for months. There you go, Shaner, now what are you going to do for me?

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A quick note about last week’s column before I go. I got a nice email from Keavin Wiggins, who runs Donnie Vie’s website, and he sent me the artwork and liner notes for Just Enough. Suffice it to say that my guess about Vie playing all the instruments was incorrect – there’s a host of people on there, and I fear I’ve slighted them all. In particular my apologies go to Andrew Rollins, who appears to have been Vie’s musical partner on this project. Everything else I said still stands – good album, check it out at

Next week, Ryan Adams.

See you in line Tuesday morning.