Progressive Metal: Explore the Universe

A Gateway into the World of Heavier Rock


If you’re intimidated or uninterested in metal, don’t let the name of this genre turn you off. Progressive metal is a gateway drug, opening up the world of heavier rock and metal. It is devoid of metal’s strident side-effects of screaming vocals (usually), blast beats, and the satanic aesthetic. But all that is not to say progressive metal is metal lite. As a genre, it takes itself seriously and isn’t afraid of pretension with band names like “Plini,” “Scale the Summit,” “Thank You Scientist,” and “Melechesh” in this article’s playlist.

The aesthetic is often one of trippy, thought-provoking abstraction in long, musically-complex, modal tracks—modal meaning the tracks employ arcane melodic scales. Where a lot of popular music uses major (the happy scale), minor (the sad scale), and the blues scale, progressive metal employs a host of others. Lydian, for example, is a variant on the major scale in which one sharp note imparts a resplendent, mysterious unease to the otherwise (often) saccharine major sound. Dorian is a funky fusion of major and minor, neither melancholic nor happy. Phrygian, on the other hand, plays like a warlord’s theme. Appropriately, the mode was named by the Ancient Greeks after “Phrygia,” a kingdom in modern day Turkey. In Ancient Greece, the “Phrygian mode” (or scale) was the mode of war; today it’s a staple of metal music.

Back to progressive metal, Sithu Aye, a Burmese-American artist, tracks all of his music in his bedroom with a guitar, a bass, an audio interface to hook up the instruments to the computer, and programmed drumming. His eight albums and EPs sound huge despite being solo projects. Sithu is a great artist to start with because he showcases a core technique of progressive metal (and other genres of metal): “djenting.” Djent is an onomatopoeia of the sound artists make by strumming the lowest notes of the guitar and palm-muting the string to affect a darker timbre. High distortion on the guitar produces a chugging, amelodic “djent” sound. The djent is often played with fast, complicated, head bobbing rhythms, turning the guitar momentarily into a percussion instrument. Listen for the djent sound in Sithu Aye’s tracks and how it breaks up the melodic sections.

With no lyrics, Sithu’s music still achieves a strong character and an awesome ambience. The tracks on “Cassini,” his first album, are named exclusively after space objects and scientific phenomena; the spacey, drifting guitar licks and chaotic, djent breakdowns seem to reflect the miraculous organization of life among the cold, entropic blackness of space. Pretentious or not, the concept is fun, and at least not half-hearted or weakly ironic.

“Isles EP” is the strongest pound-for-pound. “Isles” builds the anticipation leading into “Skye” with grace. The latter kicks off the album with gorgeous guitar riffs that drift off and echo.

Scale the Summit burnt out like a wildfire; with one remarkable album, a few good tracks on another, and nothing of quality to follow, it seems the band’s style was so unique they couldn’t find anywhere to go with it.

Nonetheless, “The Migration” is an experimental album that sounds like the soundtrack to summiting a tall evergreen-carpeted mountain. What’s unique is that “The Migration” is almost entirely composed of songs in major and related keys, giving the album a feel of overwhelming positivity and eagerness to explore a wide-open world of challenge and new experience. The progressive element of building intensity and ascending arpeggios makes the album feel like a narrative. Playing the track “The Olive Tree” on guitar, the developing licks feel like footsteps that ascend the neck with awesome simplicity.

Finally, Thank You Scientist is more progressive rock than progressive metal, but it’s too good not to make the playlist. A lot of people can’t take the whiny, falsetto voice of the lead singer, but if you can learn to like the voice, you’ll learn to love the album. Though the mixing isn’t the best, musically the album is a masterpiece, with jazz and pop influences that complement the progressive rock organization and dissonant chaos. The band blends pop-song catchiness, brilliant jazz instrumentalism, and unique progressive rock structuring to produce a sound that’s completely on its own.

As a preview, I’ve included “Ladders to Sumeria,” a banger by a black metal artist, Melechesh, and “The Nihilist” by Horrendous. The natural progression from progressive metal is death metal—prepare yourself for the next piece.

Listen to the tracks and more featured in this article:

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