Like a lot of American kids in the late1970s, Jeff Wagner’s first communion with heavy metal came from drinking the blood of Kiss. From there, Wagner — with the help of a “kickass” FM radio station — discovered the wonders of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Ozzy and Aerosmith.
But Wagner’s real love was for the metal bands that dared to step outside the mainstream, like Voivod, Queensryche and Fates Warning.
From his hometown in southeast Iowa, Wagner went on to write for fanzines, land a job at Relapse Records and eventually become an editor at Metal Maniacs Magazine. Wagner is now a staff member at The End records and is writing Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal, a history of the movement. The book is scheduled to publish in either the summer of fall of 2009.
“I started following those bands (like Queensryche, Voivod and Fates Warning) early in their careers, and with every album you were getting a significantly evolved version of what came before,” Wagner said of his love for progressive metal. “It was exciting, you never knew what direction they were going to take. Most importantly, there was some amazing music happening too. Even though Motorhead were making great albums then, you already knew what you were getting. I found the journey of bands like Voivod and Fates Warning infinitely more exciting.”
Wagner recently answered a few questions from Messenger-Inquirer reporter and Noise Pollution blogger James Mayse about the evolution of progressive metal and about how progressive bands have changed metal music.
1. What was Queensryche’s musical evolution? The first EP is very similar to Iron Maiden. But “The Warning” contained computer noise/effects (NM156) and orchestrations, while “Rage For Order” had some truly bizarre parts (“Screaming in Digital” is a song I remember note for note, and I haven’t owned “RFO” for at least 15 years). What changed between the time the EP was released and the band recorded “The Warning”? Was it just a growing confidence in their abilities as a band, or were they inspired by other artists?
First: break down and purchase another copy of ‘Rage for Order’ immediately! J It’s their masterpiece, even above ‘Operation Mindcrime’, although I know that’s not the consensus. Queensryche were always influenced by non-metal artists as well as their more obvious Maiden/Priest influences, which certainly pushed them into different areas, even early on.
They just had a kind of bravery about them, and along with their theatrical streak, it resulted in some pretty big strides early in their career. As you mention “NM 156” was somewhat groundbreaking as it incorporated sci-fi sound effects and a weird futuristic atmosphere, and “Roads to Madness” is this grandiose, sprawling epic. Their growth from album to album was definitely amazing at that time, certainly beyond their years. They couldn’t have been older than their early 20s at that time. I can’t say what changed between the EP and ‘The Warning’, as I haven’t spoken to them for this book yet. But I think the greatest leap they ever made was from ‘The Warning’ to ‘Rage for Order’.
2. Speaking of influences, was there a common thread between bands like Queensryche, Fates Warning and Dream Theater? Were the bands inspired by the same bands (or books of films, for that matter)? If I remember correctly, Fates Warning had already released albums like “Night on Brocken” and “The Spectre Within” before Queensryche really became popular. Did the bands share influences?
Those bands, and quite a few others featured in this book, all seem to have one common denominator: Rush. There doesn’t seem to be as unified an influence in terms of books or films that the members of these bands shared, but Rush is definitely the influential bond between those three. And each of them, particularly Fates Warning and Dream Theater, took influence from progressive rock bands, from Kansas, Genesis and Pink Floyd, to Marillion, to more contemporary bands like Porcupine Tree.
In fact, progressive rock plays a large role in this story; you can’t tell the story of progressive metal without first understanding progressive rock, its origins and the effect it had on the early ‘80s metal bands. It seems like many progressive metal bands that began in the ‘80s took just as much influence from a band like King Crimson as Black Sabbath.
3. In the movie, “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” the members of Voivod talked about how their music was influenced by growing up in a decaying industrial surrounding. How have things like the environment and landscapes influenced bands like Rush and Voivod? With Rush, maybe there was no influence (although they seem to incorporate woodland sounds in “The Trees,” which is a beautiful song). How did growing up in Norway influence the early black metal bands (Emperor, Immortal), who seem to have an obsession with nature?
I can’t speak for Rush, as I’ve never read anything from the three members that mentions a direct influence on their music by their surroundings. I’ve got a lot of literature on Rush, and I don’t recall anything of that nature. Hopefully I’ll be talking to them for this book, and that’s something I’ll ask them about.
Voivod have definitely noted that the industrial town they grew up in was pretty bleak, and dirty, and noisy, and that would also be a perfect description of their early music, particularly ‘War and Pain’. It’s similar to what both Black Sabbath and Judas Priest have said, regarding their hometown of Birmingham, England; apparently its blue-collar, industrial atmosphere had a great effect on the darkness or bluntness of their music. And probably the escapist nature of it too.
The early Norwegian black metal bands seemed compelled by two major non-musical inspirations: their natural surroundings—the pristine mountains, rivers, waterfalls, fjords, winter/frost/ice, all that seemed to inspire bands to create these huge epic sounds that were also primal and earthy; the second non-musical influence was their rejection of how Christianity and its missionaries overtook the more pagan, earthbound ways of their Nordic ancestors. So yes, that’s a great example of how non-musical influence can have a significant effect on a band’s sound, and in that case it was an entire regional movement. As for the post-black metal avant-garde that arose from the early Norwegian black metal bands (which applies more to my book), I think that was more a movement inspired by other music outside of metal, and in some cases other arts. The nature thing is still there in bands like In The Woods, Fleurety, Ved Buens Ende and later Enslaved…but probably not so much in later stuff by both Dodheimsgard and Ulver.
4. Speaking of black metal, that’s a genre that’s so broad musically it almost has no definition. How have bands like Emperor (classical influences) and Enslaved (hints of the psychedelic) and Nachtmystium (“stoner” black metal, although that’s a crude definition for so nuanced a band) built on black metal to create their own sounds? In turn, did Emperor’s early works (“Nightside,” “Welkin”) change black metal?
Emperor’s early material changed, or at least sublimated black metal in terms of its symphonic elements. They were probably the best in that area, and I don’t think anyone since has touched that stuff, including Emperor themselves. It’s bands like the ones you mention, Emperor, Enslaved, and Nachtmystium, and even Deathspell Omega and the more avant-garde ones I mentioned in the previous question, that have left the strictures of traditional black metal and have evolved their music for the sake of it, just out of pure creative drive. They don’t seem to regard scene rules or scene limitations.
So many Norwegian bands have stepped away from, or at least evolved past the origins of what put the country on the metal map in the first place. Some people complain about that, but there are plenty of bands upholding the pure early ‘90s Norwegian black metal ideals, like Darkthrone, Carpathian Forest, Urgehal…there’s no shortage of that stuff.
5. I’ve been listening to Agalloch’s “The Mantle” all afternoon, so here’s a related question. Agalloch has some of the “trademarks” of black metal (raspy vocals, frenetic picking) at times … but the band also has an acoustic side that is quite stunning. Is the band “post metal” or a black metal hybrid? Perhaps the question of nature and influences plays best with Agalloch. It seems as if they’re trying to recreate the feeling of being in nature through music? What are the band’s influences? Do the band members have an artistic “goal” they are trying to accomplish?
Sure, they definitely seem inspired by the nature thing that the Norwegians developed. I guess I would consider them “post-black metal”, yeah, the same way earlier Katatonia is. They don’t really fit into any one category, because they’re just as influenced by bands like Current 93 as they are Katatonia and early Ulver. You’d have to ask the band about their “goal”, I can’t really speak for them on that score.
6. Is industrial metal another form of progressive metal? Is industrial taking the influences of mechanization and attempting to recreate them sonically?
Most industrial metal bores me, so maybe I’m unqualified to say. But I’ll go for it anyway. Just because it’s got an industrial influence (or a folk influence, or a prog rock influence, or a ton of keyboards) doesn’t necessarily make it progressive. The questions should be: are these bands changing each album? Are they constantly evolving and morphing and searching? Are they not just deviating from the norm in their basic sound, but are they deviating from their previous work to some degree, and trying to travel new and different avenues with each new project? Most of them don’t. Besides, the definition of industrial seems to have lost its true meaning. It’s almost always called “industrial metal” if someone throws an atonal, mechanized, synth-generated beat behind their metal. I’m not sure that’s fair to real industrial bands. Industrial should indeed take “the influences of mechanization” into music, but it’s a much looser definition these days. As I understand industrial music, I understand it to mean bands like Psychic TV or Einsturzende Neubauten, or Front 242 and Skinny Puppy. But then, maybe I don’t understand industrial music at all. To answer your main question, there aren’t a ton of industrial-sounding metal bands in this book, because most of them churn out the same album time after time, and that’s not my definition of progressive. Industrial metal seems to embrace a more static sound and approach than what the definition of “progressive” will allow.
7. We haven’t talked at all about death metal. I find much early death metal rather one-note (or one-grunt), but the genre is showing almost as much variation now as is black metal. What was the first band to take death metal’s “traditional” sound and expand it?
That’s the chapter I’m elbow-deep in writing right now. It’s a tough call. Celtic Frost were considered a death metal band as much as a thrash or black metal band back in the day, and when they released ‘Into the Pandemonium’ in 1987, it was a total radicalization of all that. But I think what you’re talking about is the purer late ‘80s/early ‘90s death metal sound. Around 1990/1991, several bands began expanding the sound and taking it into a more experimental and/or technical area. I think of Disharmonic Orchestra (‘Not To Be Undimensional Conscious’) and Atrocity (‘Hallucinations’ and ‘Todessehnsucht’) in Europe, and here in the states the first that come to mind are Death’s ‘Human’ album and Atheist’s ‘Unquestionable Presence’.
8. Sweden seems to be a hot bed for progressive death metal (or Swedish melodic death metal, as some call it). This might be hard to pin down, but how were the Swedish bands able to take death metal and change it? What were their influences? Was it simply because they weren’t in Florida (or the USA in general) and didn’t have to follow American DM trends?
Plenty of Swedish bands were initially inspired by and continued to be inspired by American death metal, and that evolved into what we know simply as “Swedish Death Metal”…it’s a pretty distinctive sound: Entombed, Carnage, Dismember, etc. But than the melodic death metal bands, of which In Flames and Dark Tranquillity would be the two main forerunners, and Arch Enemy too, I suppose, they dipped further back in time to bring out the twin-guitar harmonies of classic bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.
I wouldn’t consider those bands all that progressive though…they were more pioneering, which I think is a bit different. The Swedish bands that will feature most highly in this book, that came out of the Swedish scene, don’t fit squarely into either the “melodic” or “brutal” death metal approaches. Stuff like Edge of Sanity, Afflicted’s first album, Therion, Meshuggah, Pan-Thy-Monium, and Opeth.
9. Would you consider early Metallica albums (“Kill Em All,” “Ride The Lightning”) progressive? It seems the argument could be made … but perhaps the entire San Francisco scene was a progressive hot bed, and Metallica was just one part of that. Were the early thrash bands “progressive” in the sense that they were pushing metal in a new direction?
Well, yes and no. ‘Kill ‘Em All’ was more a pioneering sound than a progressive one. ‘Ride the Lightning’ and the two albums after it, yeah, I think you could easily argue for them being progressive. It gets sort of difficult, and definitely pretty subjective at this point. Good example: Exodus was a major band, out at the front of the Bay Area scene from its earliest days, and their importance, along with Metallica, can’t be overstated. But Exodus doesn’t really fit anyone’s idea of a progressive band, as once they locked into that sound, they pretty much stayed there, with only minor deviations here and there. They never made their ambitious ‘Master of Puppets’ or anything, that’s for sure. That’s not to take away from them, early Exodus is amazing stuff. Metallica are basically a proto-progressive band, if you want to get into even stupider terminology! They and Megadeth introduced a lot of interesting, ambitious arrangement ideas, a high standard of musicianship, and a more involved approach than most thrash bands of the era. There’s a part in the book that takes a brief look at these two bands, along with Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate, as bands that inspired and helped kick-start the progressive scene that would come later. Two huge names in ‘80s progressive metal, Watchtower and Dream Theater (just on the edge of the ‘80s, but still…) have admitted major influence from Maiden, Mercyful Fate, Megadeth and Metallica in interviews I’ve done for this book. And if I can throw a couple names out there, bands from the Bay Area scene that I count as truly progressive, it’s Anvil Chorus and Blind Illusion. Obscure as hell to many, but influential and important to a lot of bands in that area at the time.
10. Opeth defy all attempts at classification. A “death metal” band, they released an entire album that wasn’t “metal” at all in sound (“Damnation”) and Mikael Akerfeldt has always incorporated classical influences into the band’s sound. What is Akerfeldt’s musical background and were their band’s that influenced Akerfeldt’s musical development?
11. I guess I’ve looked at progressive metal as a reaction against “mainstream” metal. But how have the progressive bands impacted the mainstream? What is the musical legacy of Queensryche? Is a genre-bending band like Opeth changing the way metal is made today? I’m sure they’re are copy-cats, but are they’re bands trying to build anew on the foundations poured by the progressive bands?
With things like Queensryche’s “Silent Lucidity”, and Dream Theater’s “Pull Me Under”…it’s more like the chart success of those singles helped those bands find a larger audience. But they haven’t had a hit since. I’m long past trying to figure out the trends of the mainstream. That’s a largely fickle audience, clinging briefly to things then moving on. So I think prog-metal bands haven’t significantly impacted the mainstream, while fleeting mainstream success of these bands and a few others has impacted those bands’ careers in a positive way.
Regarding Opeth, I think they’ve helped some fans of more melodic progressive metal get into death metal vocals. They’re a true crossover band, in the sense that they can tour with everyone from Nevermore and Dream Theater to much heavier bands, and get respect from all those different sorts of listeners. Their success is not only deserved, but they’ve helped tremendously in widening the definition of what a progressive metal band is.
Regarding copycats, there’s really no room for them in “progressive” metal. Of course, there are bands like Ayreon, Evergrey, Symphony X, and so many others, who are clearly influenced by the Big Three (Queensryche, Fates Warning, Dream Theater). They’re bands full of excellent musicians, and even creative musicians, but they aren’t pushing anything totally new out there…I wouldn’t say they’re breaking the kinds of boundaries that make them truly progressive. Ironically, that scene, the new breed of bands like that, are what are largely accepted as “progressive metal”. It’ll get a whole chapter in the book, because the sheer numbers of bands in this vein demands it. I’m sure some people will take issue with my thoughts on these kinds of bands. I’m not even saying they’re categorically bad…just not as progressive as some other bands that deserve the designation.
12. Personal question: What’s your favorite progressive band? Fave prog metal album?
Yeah, tough one! If you’re talking about progressive rock, I’m way into King Crimson, Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator and more obscure stuff like Supersister and tons of the Italian bands from the ‘70s. As for progressive metal, I don’t think there are two better examples of great progressive metal than Voivod and Fates Warning. And then there’s Rush, who treads the fine line between both prog rock and prog metal.
Favorite prog metal album? Crap…I hate these kinds of questions. One day it’ll be Voivod’s ‘Angel Rat’, and another it’ll be Fates Warning’s ‘Awaken the Guardian’. Some newer albums that I felt were tremendous include Dream Theater’s ‘Octavarium’, Opeth’s ‘Watershed’, and I think 3’s ‘The End is Begun’ is absolutely tremendous, one of my favorite albums ever. I’m very much into In The Woods’ ‘Omnio’ and Spiral Architect’s ‘A Spectic’s Universe’ also. So, again, I give you multiple answers when you’re only wanting one. My favorite album of all time is Rush’s ‘Moving Pictures’, so maybe that’s your answer.
13. Some people hated “Operation Mindcrime II,” but I like large parts of the album. The end fizzles out, but I was happy to see the band return to their epic and pick up the story. What did you think of “OM II”?
I thought it was a bad idea on paper, before it even came out. There’s just no way you can do justice to a classic album like the original ‘Operation Mindcrime’ when you’ve gone through so many changes, and even downplayed your metal influence, the way Geoff Tate has. I don’t hold anything against him, or them, for that, but I felt it was too calculated, and that never makes for good music. I did give it a chance, tried to approach it with an open mind, and it’s marginally better than I expected. The best thing they’ve done since ‘Promised Land’, but that’s not saying much, as their post-‘Promised Land’ output has been terribly uneventful.
14. Last question. What are the essential progress metal albums a fan should own?
I’m going to compile my Top 25 recommended Prog-Metal albums for the book, but it’s not final yet. It won’t necessarily be personal favorites, and it’s not done yet, but I guess if someone wanted a quick lesson on great progressive metal, you couldn’t go wrong with these 10:
1) Rush – Moving Pictures
2) Cynic – Focus
3) Dream Theater – Images and Words
4 ) Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian
5) Queensryche – Rage for Order
6 ) Watchtower – Control and Resistance
7) Voivod – Nothingface
8) Psychotic Waltz – Into the Everflow
9) In The Woods – Omnio
10) Opeth – Watershed