The 13 essential progressive metal albums you need to know
One of the defining elements of metal is the overdriven aggression of it, but there have always been bands willing to go beyond the primal rush of the power chord and take the form to more inventive, more technical, more progressive places. Many bands have dabbled with proggy strokes, from Iron Maiden on their lengthier compositions to Metallica on the relatively sprawling and complex …And Justice For All. For this list, though, we’re looking only at albums that go the whole prog-metal hog. And it’s progressive metal, not prog rock, so you won’t find the likes of Porcupine Tree, The Mars Volta or even Pink Floyd releasing inflatable pigs here.
That said, progressive metal remains a broad and not always easy to define concept. Where do the boundaries lie between prog-metal and experimental, avant-garde and post-metal? And what of the intensely technical mathcore and djent scenes (which we’re not covering here as they’re pretty much their own things at this point)? Genre lawyers can argue the toss about what’s been left out, but here are 13 bona fide prog-metal classics to take you on a musical journey…
Opeth – Blackwater Park (2001)
Opeth’s Blackwater Park helped pave the way for bands from the more extreme end of the musical spectrum to spread their creative wings, and 20 years later it remains an album that has rarely (if ever) been bettered in prog-metal terms. Their earlier albums had been rooted firmly in death metal, while more recent efforts have seen mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt plunge more completely into ’70s-styled prog rock. But it was Blackwater Park where Opeth struck the perfect balance between snarling metal aggression and hugely ambitious songwriting. Two decades on, it remains an untouchable album of contrasts, subtlety and power.
Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime (1988)
Progressive metal as a recognisable entity in its own right stemmed largely from two bands: Queensrÿche and Fates Warning (with Dream Theater arriving not far behind to form the scene’s ‘Big Three’). Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime not only pushed a more complex and involved musical style into the mainstream, it followed in prog rock legends Pink Floyd’s footsteps by taking the form of a full-blown sci-fi concept album.
Fates Warning – Perfect Symmetry (1989)
It might not have had the same impact as Queensrÿche’s crowning moment, but Perfect Symmetry by Fates Warning was another seminal moment in the development of prog-metal. It marked the point where they changed from a vaguely Iron Maiden-ish straight-up metal band to something far more complex and involved. With vocalist Ray Alder’s acrobatic vocals, consummate musicianship and inventive rhythmic twists, this LP helped pave the way for that more melodic, power metal side of the genre.
Dream Theater – Images and Words (1992)
If Queensrÿche and Fates Warning lit the torch, Dream Theater picked it up and did a runner with it. Over the course of more than three decades, they’ve become the quintessential prog-metal band. They’ve written convoluted concept albums (Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory, The Astonishing) and a 42-minute single song, multi-part suite (Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence), but they pretty much perfected their core sound as far back as their second album. Debut LP When Dream And Day Unite was a bit of a turkey to be fair, but on Images And Words that blend of transcendent, layered composition and sheer virtuosic class all came together.
Mastodon – Crack The Skye (2009)
The ‘Big Three’ of early prog-metal shared a polished, melodic fluidity to their presentation, but it wasn’t the only type of metal to start embracing more progressive patterns and concepts. Just as Opeth took death metal to more expansive realms, Mastodon rose up like a leviathan from a tar pit of sludge and stoner grooves. For many, in fact, their Moby Dick-themed second album Leviathan remains peak Mastodon, but they would certainly get proggier and weirder, with Crack The Skye providing their ultimate headfuck. It was heavy in all senses of the word, revolving around a concept that dealt with the loss of Brann Dailor’s sister, wrapped into a fractal tale involving Rasputin, astral travel and Stephen Hawking’s theories of wormholes.
Tool – Lateralus (2001)
‘Push the envelope, watch it bend…’ demands Maynard James Keenan on the title-track, and if there was ever a band for doing that, it’s Tool. Their third album Lateralus was a challenging album: dense, dark and sometimes baffling, it bristles with complex rhythms and changing meters. It also mixed a cerebral sense of over-analysis (back to that title-track again) with more visceral, instinctive musical gut-punches, all while utilising mathematical motifs as metaphors for human communication.
Voivod – Nothingface (1989)
Thrash metal in the ’80s was A) awesome and B) pretty straightforward most of the time. Dave Mustaine might have brought some blazing technicality to the table, but Canadians Voivod were the scene’s most progressive lights. Their fifth and defining album Nothingface even featured a spiky, metallic cover of a Pink Floyd song (Astronomy Domine), not to mention several riffs inspired by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
Enslaved – E (2017)
The second wave of black metal was even more straightforward and feral than thrash, but many of the artists who sprang from (or were inspired by) that frost-bitten crucible would go on to twist the form into strange and often unrecognisable shapes. From the trollish dungeon synth of Mortiis to the ambient blackgaze of Alcest, the genre has travelled to some fascinating places. Enslaved helped shape Viking metal, but have also leaned increasingly into more progressive areas. By the time they released E in 2017, the progressive and metallic elements had become pretty much indivisible, with long, convoluted songs that snake and weave sinuously in often unexpected and unpredictable directions.
Cynic – Focus (1993)
Before Opeth, there was Cynic. Mikael Åkerfeldt had formed his project before Cynic released their extraordinary debut album, but was yet to release a record when the Floridian band showed just what could be done with death metal. They incorporated a number of elements, most notably jazz-inspired patterns and rhythms, while the lyrics explored spiritual and philosophical themes. Focus was perhaps too far ahead of its time and the band split up not long after it was released to a rather mixed reaction. It was later embraced as a genre classic and, speaking after a successful reunion tour in 2008, frontman Paul Masdival told Metal Discovery: “It was just really disorienting to hear a sea of 10,000 people singing Veil Of Maya…. The last time we did this song I think a bottle hit my head and we were in Texas somewhere with Cannibal Corpse.”
Between The Buried And Me – The Parallax II: Future Sequence (2012)
You could probably draw a (somewhat convoluted) line between Cynic and BTBAM’s blazingly technical mix of metalcore, jazz, prog rock and pretty much anything else they like the look of. Utilising a full complement of synths, saxophones and even a tuba, the band channelled vast banks of musical creativity into a mind-bending concept album mixing sci-fi, philosophy and the potential death of humanity.
Meshuggah – obZen (2007)
Djent might have coalesced into its own distinct genre over the past decade and a half, but palm-muted pioneers Meshuggah were always out there on their own. Their use of polyrhythms and jarring, complex structures won them a cult following and continues to be a huge influence on underground and extreme metal bands of all hues. They haven’t made a single bad album, but in a career of highs, obZen still stands out as a superlative collection of everything they do so brilliantly.
Devin Townsend – Terria (2001)
Devin Townsend has already had an experimental streak a mile and a half wide. You could fling a dozen genre labels at his various projects but ‘prog-metal’ is certainly one that would stick to Terria. His previous solo album, the thrashy Physicist, was a bit of a disappointment (Devin himself has referred to it as “a bunch of poo”), but he made up for it with Terria. Mixing atmospheric soundscapes with crunching heaviness and all manner of strange twists and turns, it’s a beautiful, bewildering masterpiece.
King’s X – Gretchen Goes To Nebraska (1989)
Sticking with Devin Townsend for a second, he named Gretchen Goes To Nebraska by King’s X as one of his favourite and most influential albums. He told The Quietus: “The last song, The Burning Down, as soon as that song was over I felt that I had changed in some way, I felt that there was something about what I had just experienced which defined me in a way that I couldn’t articulate.” He wasn’t the only one affected as the band were another distinct influence on ’80s prog-metal. Gretchen… was undoubtedly their finest hour, mixing tight grooves and melodies with elements of gospel and psychedelia. It also straddled the boundary between prog rock and metal, but with enough crunch to earn a place here.
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