I was recently given the assignment of producing a short piece on the 5 progressive-metal albums that you must absolutely hear or hear again if you are indeed a fan of the genre. Having been alive on the planet since the invention of heavy metal I regarded this as a somewhat arduous task. How does one choose only 5 albums from a genre that has produced so many outstanding releases over almost 40 years of music?
My methodology was fairly simple: I scoured the ‘net for articles naming the 5 greatest prog-metal discs of all time and found an interesting list of the top 100. From there I compared the list to my own collection of music with numbers CD’s in the thousands, mostly from the metal genre and a significant portion of those from the prog-metal sub-genre. What follows then is a list of 5 essential prog-metal albums from my collection.
At number 5 let’s begin with Symphony X’s V: The New Mythology Suite. This American band has been producing excellent prog-metal since the mid-90’s and has released 8 studio albums since ’94. The disc in question is the band’s fifth and features a tale loosely based on the myth of Atlantis. Musically Symphony X is stellar featuring the usual instrumentation and interplay between guitars, keyboards and soaring vocals. Notably on this release the band weaves in some traditional classical fragments from the likes of Mozart, Bach and Bartok. Clocking in at a little more than an hour it tells a compelling story with all the prog-metal elements expertly executed.
Moving on to number 4 let’s talk about an incredible prog-metal project under the directorship of Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen. I stumbled upon this band/project a number of years ago when I saw a different release titled, “Universal Migrator parts 1 & 2” (released in 2000) on the shelf of the local cd shop and picked it up on the strength of the cover artwork alone. However it was the project’s next release in 2004, “The Human Equation” that blew my mind. Ayreon’s work until that point had focused primarily on sci-fi themes but this release dealt with the story of a man who is in a coma due to a car accident and is subsequently locked in his own mind. Each of the 20 songs represents the 20 days he is in a coma and as is the case with Ayreon releases each character has its own voice. Dream Theater’s James LaBrie is “Me” the unfortunate victim of the accident. What transpires is a mesmerizing journey through one man’s psyche featuring all of the fear and pain that one might imagine in the situation. In the end it is a wonderful story of forgiveness and redemption. Musically Ayreon is exquisitely pristine in its execution and delivery.
Taking the spot at number 3 is the legendary Queensryche album, “Operation Mindcrime” which many fans regard as the pinnacle of the band’s career, a notion with which I agree. It is a concept album that presents the story of ‘Nikki’, a former drug addict whose becomes a puppet to a revolutionary megalomaniac/group. With the use of the word ‘mindcrime’, Nikki becomes an involuntary assassin and what follows is a tragic tale of near insanity as Nikki comes to grips with the reality of what he has been forced to do. Epic and majestic in its scope few bands had attempted this level of prog-metal storytelling at the time of its release in 1988. Some would say that the legend of Operation Mindcrime carried the band for the rest of its career – Queensryche certainly never achieved anything close to this level musically in any of their subsequent releases.
The number 2 slot is filled by prog-metal legends Dream Theater and their 1992 release, “Images and Words”. Although the disc is the band’s second release it is considered by most to be the first true DT album in that it’s the debut of vocalist James LaBrie who is so instrumental to shaping DT’s melodies. I clearly recall hearing the disc’s signature track, the infectious and pulsating “Pull Me Under”, at a friend’s when it was newly released. As for the balance of the album I was completely blown away by its 8 majestically crafted tracks – if there is such a thing as a perfect prog-metal album, “Images and Words” is it. In fact this album sparked my love of prog-metal and I haven’t missed a Dream Theater tour since the mid-90’s.
The number one spot is held by the legendary Rush and their 1976 release, “2112”. I remember buying this album on vinyl back in the day and taking it over to my best friend’s house because he had a killer stereo system. As we listened to the first side of the record we were both covered in goose bumps and the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up – something that still occurs to this day. I would make the argument that Rush invented prog-metal with the release of “2112”. Taking up the entirety of side one the song is the tale of an idealistic young man whose love of music and spirit is crushed beneath the heel of a totalitarian regime bent on enforcing a drab and lifeless existence. Tragically he commits suicide and never learns of his planet’s redemption as told in the final act. “2112” was an ambitious risk that laid the groundwork for Rush to become the worldwide phenomena are.
So there you have it: my top 5 picks for essential prog-metal albums that you absolutely must hear, or hear again. As with most list articles you may disagree with my choices or be ticked off that I’ve omitted your own favourites. If that’s the case hit me up on Facebook and leave a message on my wall at Reverend Rock's Facebook and let me have your thoughts.