Prog Metal

Many as­sume that pro­gres­sive mu­sic was go­ing through some­thing of a lull in the 1980s. But over in the US and Canada, a new, ex­cit­ing scene was bub­bling into ex­is­tence. Prog goes in deep on the his­tory of pro­gres­sive metal…

Prog - - Contents - Words: Dave Ever­ley

The story of the birth of prog metal by the bands who were there.

Voivod drum­mer Michel ‘Away’ Langevin re­mem­bers the first night his band opened for

Rush. It was March 20, 1990, in Ed­mon­ton, Al­berta, and the iconic Cana­dian trio were tour­ing their home coun­try in sup­port of Presto, a record that found them gen­tly row­ing back from the synth-heavy fur­row they’d been pur­su­ing dur­ing the pre­vi­ous decade.

By con­trast, Voivod were head­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, rel­a­tively speak­ing. The Que­bec quar­tet had be­gun life as a prim­i­tive thrash metal band, all white hi-top sneak­ers and flail­ing hair. But their re­cent al­bums had seen them in­tro­duc­ing more com­plex mu­si­cal and lyri­cal themes into their mu­sic. Their lat­est, the pre­vi­ous year’s prog metal land­mark Noth­ing­face, had even in­cluded a cover of Pink Floyd’s space cadet an­them As­tron­omy Domine – some­thing that would have been un­think­able for their 80s thrash con­tem­po­raries Me­tal­lica or Slayer to do.

As Away and his band­mates walked back­stage that first night, they found a bot­tle of cham­pagne wait­ing for them. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing it was a note signed by Rush’s Geddy Lee, Alex Life­son and Neil Peart wish­ing them luck.

“That was a huge mo­ment for us,” says Away now. “Rush were so in­flu­en­tial. The fact that the drum­mer wrote the lyrics and the con­cepts was big for me. And Alex Life­son was one of [Voivod’s then-six-stringer]

Piggy’s favourite gui­tarists.”

But there was much more sig­nif­i­cance to that bot­tle of bub­bly than just the best wishes of one of prog rock’s great bands. Con­sciously or not, it was a ba­ton be­ing handed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next – an ac­knowl­edge­ment that the fu­ture, or one strand of it, be­longed to Voivod and their ilk.

Voivod’s sup­port slot with Rush was one of the key step­ping stones in the up­ward tra­jec­tory of prog metal, a genre that had risen from noth­ing in a hand­ful of un­con­nected hotspots across North Amer­ica less than a decade be­fore to be­come an emerging mu­si­cal force. There was Watch­tower from Texas and Fates Warn­ing from Con­necti­cut, Queen­srÿche from Seat­tle and Crim­son Glory from Florida. And there was a band named Majesty from Bos­ton, who had re­cently changed their name to Dream Theater and would even­tu­ally go on to be the most suc­cess­ful of them all.

Char­lie Grif­fiths, gui­tarist with British prog met­allers Haken, is a diehard fan of the early prog metal pi­o­neers. “The mu­sic I hear in my head is def­i­nitely shaped by those early for­ma­tive years lis­ten­ing to bands like Watch­tower and Fates Warn­ing,” he says. “They were to­tally ahead of their time.”

“We wanted to take the mu­sic as far as it would go, take the in­stru­ments as far as they would go, take the com­po­si­tion to ex­tremes.” Mike Portnoy

Con­trary to re­ceived wis­dom, prog wasn’t on the ropes in the 1980s – it was evolv­ing. As Gen­e­sis, Yes, Rush and the other gi­ants of the pre­vi­ous decade dressed them­selves up in pop drag and rein­vented them­selves, a group of British diehards were mar­ry­ing the old val­ues to new ones un­der the ban­ner of ‘neo-prog’.

But the most in­ter­est­ing grass­roots de­vel­op­ments were hap­pen­ing in the US, in the un­likely con­fines of the heavy metal scene. Talk­ing to the prime movers of the nascent prog metal move­ment three and a half decades on, it be­comes clear that it was as much a prod­uct of co­in­ci­dence as it was for­ward-think­ing.

“We were just fill­ing a void,” says former Dream Theater drum­mer Mike Portnoy.

“We wanted to take the mu­sic as far as it would go, take the in­stru­ments as far as they would go, take the com­po­si­tion to ex­tremes. If we thought there was a gap, we knew there had to be an au­di­ence for it.”

The idea of pro­gres­sive rock and heavy metal com­ing to­gether wasn’t new. Rush and Yes played to as many long-haired, den­im­clad rock­ers as they did pro­fes­so­rial prog fans, while young bands such as Iron Maiden

were prog con­nois­seurs un­der­neath the denim and leather, their record col­lec­tions filled with Jethro Tull and Gen­tle Gi­ant al­bums along­side Black Sab­bath and Led Zep­pelin.

But by the early 80s, metal was ac­cel­er­at­ing, lit­er­ally and philo­soph­i­cally. Pro­po­nents and fans alike were more in­ter­ested in speed, heav­i­ness and out­ra­geous­ness than they were mu­si­cal com­plex­ity. In the US, 1982 saw the birth of the thrash metal move­ment, in which ev­ery­thing was sac­ri­ficed on the al­tar of ve­loc­ity.

“It wasn’t like you had to keep quiet about your love of pro­gres­sive rock,” says Jim Matheos, gui­tarist and linch­pin with prog metal pi­o­neers Fates Warn­ing. “We were to­tally open about it. But there was def­i­nitely a slump in in­ter­est in prog at that time among rock mu­si­cians. Peo­ple were more into the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.”

Matheos founded Fates Warn­ing in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut with orig­i­nal vo­cal­ist John Arch in 1982. They took their in­flu­ences from both sides of the mu­si­cal coin: in their heads, Black Sab­bath, Deep Pur­ple and Dan­ish oc­cultists Mer­cy­ful Fate hap­pily co-ex­isted with prime Gen­e­sis, Jethro Tull and Yes.

Fates Warn­ing’s first al­bum, 1984’s Night On Bröcken, was stan­dard is­sue 80s heavy metal, distin­guished only by John Arch’s he­li­umpitch vo­cals – a char­ac­ter­is­tic shared by many of the prog metal bands who fol­lowed.

“The first record stands alone – there’s a lot of the Maiden in­flu­ences there,” says Matheos. “But af­ter that we be­came more con­fi­dent as mu­si­cians, we be­came bet­ter writ­ers. We wanted to ex­pand our sound a lit­tle bit. We wanted to chal­lenge our­selves as mu­si­cians and as lis­ten­ers.”

By their sec­ond and third al­bums, 1985’s The Spec­tre Within and the fol­low­ing year’s Awaken The Guardian, Fates Warn­ing were be­gin­ning to shake off their rudi­men­tary mu­si­cal ap­proach. The songs were be­com­ing bolder and more com­plex, wear­ing their pro­gres­sive in­flu­ences on their denim jacket sleeves. It was the sound of a band lib­er­at­ing them­selves.

“I don’t think we felt like we were be­ing held back by any­thing,” says Matheos. “It was the whole ex­pe­ri­ence of ex­plor­ing new things, espe­cially when you’re that age.”

The pe­riod be­tween 1982 and 1985 rep­re­sented the first stir­rings of what would go on to be­come pro­gres­sive metal.

“We were aware of some­thing be­cause we sub­scribed to all the mag­a­zines,” says Matheos. “But at the same time, com­ing from where we did in the back­woods of Con­necti­cut, we were iso­lated from the whole thing too. That drove what we were do­ing. We didn’t want to get folded in with the rest of them.”

Nearly 2,000 miles away in Austin, Texas, an­other group of like-minded mu­si­cians were think­ing ex­actly the same thing. Watch­tower had been put to­gether by Rick Co­laluca, bassist Doug Keyser, gui­tarist Billy White and singer Ja­son McMaster in 1982 – coin­ci­den­tally the same year as Fates Warn­ing.

The two bands didn’t be­came aware of each other un­til much later, but there are vivid par­al­lels to their sto­ries. Like their north-east­ern coun­ter­parts, the mem­bers of Watch­tower grew up lis­ten­ing to con­tem­po­rary rock and metal out­fits like KISS, Aero­smith, Iron Maiden and the emerging NWOBHM bands be­fore grav­i­tat­ing to the more chal­leng­ing end of the prog spec­trum: King Crim­son,

Van der Graaf Gen­er­a­tor, Frank Zappa.

“When we started, it wasn’t re­ally a con­scious de­ci­sion to do what we ended up do­ing,” says Rick Co­laluca. “It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, we’re go­ing to do all this tech­ni­cal math stuff.’ It was more, ‘We love this heavy, fast stuff and we love this other, more com­pli­cated stuff – let’s do some­thing dif­fer­ent and in­cor­po­rate both parts.’”

Like Fates Warn­ing, Watch­tower started out as a route-one heavy metal band but rapidly be­came some­thing else. Be­tween 1982 and the re­lease of their de­but al­bum, 1985’s re­mark­able En­er­getic Dis­as­sem­bly, they didn’t so much jet­ti­son their heavy metal be­gin­nings as warp them out of recog­ni­tion. Mar­ry­ing the ve­loc­ity and vi­o­lence of the newly birthed thrash metal scene to the com­plex­ity of prog and jazz rock, they forged an un­likely miss­ing link be­tween Me­tal­lica and Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra. Even more than Fates Warn­ing, Watch­tower were a band ahead of their time.

“Once we latched on to the con­cept of what we wanted to do with our mu­sic, we were just driven to do it,” says Co­laluca. “It wasn’t about com­pet­ing with any­one or try­ing to outdo any­one. It was just about do­ing the same thing we all seemed to be of the same mind­set about, and we pressed for­ward with it.”

Austin had long gar­nered a rep­u­ta­tion as a hot­house for mav­er­icks, and Watch­tower’s hori­zon-ex­pand­ing ap­proach was em­braced by the city’s rock com­mu­nity. It helped that their shows were visual spec­ta­cles, more in tune with the fran­tic en­ergy re­lease of thrash metal than prog’s stud­ied mu­si­cian­ship.

“For some peo­ple, pro­gres­sive rock is bor­ing and kind of stuffy live: ‘Okay, we’re go­ing to be this per­fect thing,’” says Co­laluca. “We de­cided to lay it all on the line and go crazy. If we made mis­takes here or there, fine.

“There wasn’t re­ally any great col­lec­tive of peo­ple de­mand­ing a sound that mixed pro­gres­sive rock and heavy metal. So we weren’t con­sciously aim­ing our­selves at them. We weren’t aim­ing our­selves at any­one.” Jim Matheos

When we were hit­ting on all cylin­ders, it was a fuck­ing thing of beauty. It wasn’t just out there play­ing a record. It was like, ‘Holy fuck, that was fuck­ing awe­some.’”

Hav­ing built up a loyal fol­low­ing in

Austin, Watch­tower be­gan to ven­ture fur­ther afield, test­ing the wa­ter for their new prog metal hy­brid.

“Most of the other bands we played with were straight­for­ward metal bands and there were some peo­ple who just didn’t get it,” says Co­laluca. “It felt like we were def­i­nitely out there on our own.”

Half a con­ti­nent away, Fates Warn­ing were go­ing about things in a dif­fer­ent way. They found it harder to play gigs – partly be­cause of their ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion, tucked away in the north-east­ern cor­ner of the US, but partly be­cause, un­like their south­ern coun­ter­parts, no one knew quite what to make of them.

“We didn’t re­ally do a proper tour un­til 1988,” says Matheos. “Be­fore that, we would play lo­cal gigs, go to New York, maybe play as far out as Cleve­land, but we were re­ally do­ing 10, 12, 15 gigs a year for the first three or four years of this band’s ex­is­tence. When we did tour, we’d get paired up with some odd groups – Motör­head or An­thrax. Peo­ple were a lit­tle bit baf­fled by us.”

In­stead, they ex­isted on the record sales that came on the back of the buzz built via ap­pear­ances in heavy metal mag­a­zines such as Ker­rang!. But the prog com­mu­nity, such as it was, seemed largely obliv­i­ous to their ex­is­tence.

“There wasn’t re­ally any great col­lec­tive of peo­ple de­mand­ing a sound that mixed pro­gres­sive rock and heavy metal,” says Matheos.

“So we weren’t con­sciously aim­ing our­selves at them. We weren’t aim­ing our­selves at any­one.”

One per­son who was pay­ing at­ten­tion was a teenage New

Yorker named Mike Portnoy, a pre­co­ciously tal­ented drum­mer and ra­pa­cious de­vourer of new mu­sic. Portnoy had put to­gether his own band, Majesty, at the Berklee Col­lege Of Mu­sic with gui­tarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung. They shared a vi­sion of unit­ing the prog mu­sic they’d been weaned on in the 70s with metal’s con­tem­po­rary new styles.

“At that time the pure prog scene was pretty much non-ex­is­tent,” says Portnoy to­day. “I was miss­ing those kinds of bands, but I was also a full-on met­al­head into Slayer and Ex­o­dus and all that stuff. When I met the other guys, we all wanted to com­bine the two things, like a Reese’s Peanut But­ter Cup.”

Portnoy was heav­ily in­volved in the thrash metal tape-trad­ing scene – a pre-in­ter­net net­work of fans swap­ping new mu­sic via the post. “I knew of Fates Warn­ing and Watch­tower and Crim­son Glory and all those kinds of bands be­cause of tape trad­ing,” says Portnoy to­day. “I re­mem­ber Watch­tower’s first Amer­i­can tour – a cou­ple of the guys stayed at my house. They were like Rush on steroids. I went to see Fates Warn­ing when­ever they came to New York.”

As Majesty’s de facto man­ager, he was the one who would send out their own tapes to pro­mot­ers, la­bels and other bands. One of these, the semi-leg­endary Majesty Demos, came into the hands of Jim Matheos.

“Oh, I to­tally heard the po­ten­tial,” says Matheos. “I knew some­thing was go­ing to hap­pen. I lis­tened to their tape over and over again. I was amazed at what they were do­ing. And I was a huge fan of Voivod, who were al­ready putting out al­bums. Espe­cially the gui­tar play­ing.”

Like Fates Warn­ing and Watch­tower,

Voivod came from a metal back­ground, but the Cana­di­ans’ tran­si­tion was an even big­ger jump. Their de­but al­bum, 1984’s War And

Pain, was a bru­tal, punk-in­flu­enced as­sault, and the fol­low-up, Rr­röööaaarrr, was only marginally more re­fined. By the time of

1987’s Killing Tech­nol­ogy, though, they were be­gin­ning to in­cor­po­rate more com­plex mu­si­cal ex­plo­rations in their thrashy sound, while a cen­tral con­cept themed around an in­ter­ga­lac­tic war­lord would pro­vide an over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive not just for the al­bum but for their en­tire ca­reer.

It was no co­in­ci­dence that Voivod had toured the US with Swiss avant-gardists

Celtic Frost a year ear­lier, and the open­ing band in Austin was Watch­tower.

“They were one of the first thrash bands

I’d seen play­ing prog rock,” says Away, who grew up lis­ten­ing to VdGG and King Crim­son.

It was an ap­proach that Voivod them­selves be­gan to take on­board, in­spired partly by their own de­vel­op­ing mu­si­cal skills.

“Be­tween 1983 and 1988 we re­hearsed ev­ery sin­gle night,” Away says. “We were ready to add a lit­tle bit more of the prog rock thing into our mu­sic. When we toured in 1987, we no­ticed the metal au­di­ences were a lit­tle puz­zled by our style.”

Voivod’s new ap­proach reached fruition on 1988’s

Di­men­sion Ha­tröss, a fully fledged prog metal con­cept al­bum. Jet­ti­son­ing the 100mph thrash­ings of old, its com­plex mu­si­cal­ity, shift­ing rhythms and sci­ence fic­tion lean­ing po­si­tioned the Cana­di­ans as the Van der

Graaf Gen­er­a­tor of metal. Its fol­low-up, 1989’s Noth­ing­face, was even more as­sured, ramp­ing up the prog as­pects and throw­ing in a cover of As­tron­omy Domine, just in case any­one hadn’t got the mes­sage.

“1989 and 1990 were great for us,” says Away. “The video for As­tron­omy Domine had a lot of air­play on MTV, we got of­fered big tours with bands like Rush and the al­bum sold quite a lot. To us, it felt like jus­ti­fi­ca­tion that what we were do­ing mu­si­cally was right.”

In New York, Mike Portnoy wasn’t hav­ing as much luck. His band had changed their name from Majesty to Dream Theater and signed a deal with ma­jor la­bel off­shoot Me­chanic Records, who re­leased their de­but al­bum, 1989’s When Dream And

Day Unite. That record – fea­tur­ing singer Char­lie Do­minici – was a fine call­ing card, tem­per­ing its in­tri­cate metal riff­ing with swathes of key­boards.

The band had, not un­fairly, been mar­keted as “Me­tal­lica meets Rush” – only the masses weren’t quite ready for that com­bi­na­tion yet, and the record sank with­out trace.

“We never went on tour, never made a mu­sic video, which was ab­so­lutely cru­cial back then,” says Portnoy. “We were watch­ing

Voivod and Queen­srÿche do­ing re­ally well and go­ing, ‘Wait a minute, we’re dif­fer­ent but not that dif­fer­ent.’ We started to get dis­cour­aged.”

Rather than quit­ting, the band dou­bled down on their ini­tial game­plan. They fired Do­minici and spent the next two years work­ing on the mu­sic for what would be­come their break­through al­bum, Images And Words.

“We were work­ing day jobs ev­ery day, go­ing to band prac­tice ev­ery night, look­ing for a new singer, look­ing for a new record deal,” says Portnoy. “It was a very hard time. I’m shocked we made it through. But we per­se­vered and we fi­nally got the payoff with Images And Words.”

Re­leased in 1992 and fea­tur­ing new singer James LaBrie, Images And Words was more than just a life­line for Dream Theater. The sin­gle Pull Me Un­der gave them a bona fide hit, drag­ging the al­bum along in its wake.

“We were plas­tered all over ra­dio and

MTV with an eight-and-a-half-minute song,” says Portnoy. “That hadn’t hap­pened since the days of Yes and ELP in the 70s.”

Dream Theater had fi­nally blown the doors off, al­low­ing prog metal to step through into the main­stream. The only prob­lem was that many of their peers ei­ther weren’t ready or weren’t able to step through with them. Voivod had fal­tered with Angel

Rat, the fol­low-up to Noth­ing­face.

A shift­ing line-up and lack of laser-sharp am­bi­tion meant that Fates Warn­ing had never made the leap from cult­hood to main­stream ac­cep­tance. And Watch­tower – the band who brought to­gether prog and metal like no one else – had sim­ply fallen apart af­ter their as­ton­ish­ing sec­ond al­bum, 1989’s Con­trol And Re­sis­tance.

“We took four years be­tween al­bums, which didn’t help us,” says Watch­tower’s Co­laluca. “But we had line-up prob­lems and we just hit a bar­rier so we de­cided to shut the whole thing down. We did con­tinue writ­ing piece­meal af­ter that, but real life got in the way.”

“Watch­tower are the band from that scene that should have made it,” says Portnoy.

“They were the most ex­treme ones from that genre. And Fates Warn­ing too – as well as they did, they should have had the suc­cess Dream Theater had, espe­cially with the Par­al­lels al­bum, which came out about a year be­fore Images And Words.”

“Maybe there were missed op­por­tu­ni­ties back then,” says Fates Warn­ing’s Matheos. “I don’t know why the guys from Dream Theater be­came su­per­stars and we didn’t.

But they were an amaz­ing band, and they worked hard and de­served it.”

Dream Theater and Queen­srÿche – whose 1988 al­bum Oper­a­tion: Mind­crime re­mains a land­mark of the genre – may have been the only two bands to have emerged from prog metal’s pri­mor­dial soup who went on to gen­uine suc­cess, but the legacy of those early in­no­va­tors res­onates down the years.

It’s there in ev­ery­one from Meshug­gah – who have taken Watch­tower’s prog thrash to some­times un­fea­si­ble new lev­els of ex­trem­ity and com­plex­ity – to new-school he­roes

such as Le­prous, Be­tween The Buried And Me and Haken.

“When I think about how they recorded all those parts with­out all the com­puter and stu­dio tools we have to­day, it blows my mind,” says Haken’s Char­lie Grif­fiths. “When Haken played Prog Power USA last year, Fates Warn­ing played the Awaken The Guardian al­bum with the orig­i­nal line-up, so it was a real ‘full cir­cle’ kind of feel­ing.”

To­day, Dream Theater re­main the flag-bear­ers for the orig­i­nal prog metal scene, though they don’t stand alone. De­spite hav­ing gone through many ups and downs, Voivod have con­tin­ued to in­no­vate and the Cana­di­ans are set to re­lease a new al­bum this year. Fates Warn­ing still put out al­bums and play live on a semi-reg­u­lar ba­sis, while Watch­tower re­united and have re­leased a slow but steady drip of songs this decade, cul­mi­nat­ing in 2016’s Con­cepts Of Math EP.

“I don’t want to say Dream Theater cre­ated a new mar­ket, be­cause bands like

Fates Warn­ing, Watch­tower and Voivod were all do­ing it be­fore us,” re­flects Mike Portnoy. “But I think col­lec­tively we all def­i­nitely cre­ated some­thing that did change mu­sic and kept prog’s spirit alive in a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent form.”

“It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, we’re go­ing to do all this tech­ni­cal math stuff.’ It was more, ‘We love this heavy, fast stuff and we love this other, more com­pli­cated stuff – let’s do some­thing dif­fer­ent and in­cor­po­rate both parts.’” Rick Co­laluca





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