The Path to Paradise Begins in Hell – Progressive Metal

The Path to Paradise Begins In Hell

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these, despite writing about numerous other things and being on the Nine Circles Audio Thing. Blame grad school – I am stuck in this hellhole to further new opportunities, so I am hoping things pan out. Otherwise, I will be so mad. Luckily, I am free (for now!), so here we are!

Anyway, last time, I discussed gothic metal and my appreciation of the aesthetic as a whole. I consider that genre to be the darker side of symphonic metal; instead of the beautiful fairy queen, you get the belle dame sans merci who will make you suffer for your desires. I also wanted to address something that I thought of before we jump into the next genre – if you think about it, there are more men involved in gothic metal than in symphonic metal. Granted, the genres overlap, but men rarely take the spotlight in symphonic metal. Maybe some of you can tell me why?

Now, we can start talking about a genre that is known to be experimental in nature, albeit not avant-garde (I might write about avant-garde at some point). Given our recent discussion of Empath (see podcast), it’s only fair that we look at how this genre has become a staple in my music listening and how it has expanded my horizons into other bands.

It’s time we talk about Progressive Metal.

Start with the Burning Star

Imagine this, if you will: you are a 14-year old girl who has become fully aware of this interesting genre of music that is both heavy and enjoyable. While you are consuming music via Pandora, where each song is different than the next, a new song pops up on your radio. It sounds like nothing you’ve heard – it doesn’t sound like the power chords of power metal or the operatic vocals that you have come to both love and emulate. Instead, what catches your attention is the light guitar strumming that immediately begins. The strumming continues, repeating the same chords over and over again before the rest of the music kicks in. This is completely different from what you are used to. In fact, the music is so familiar to you that you know what will happen when that electric guitar comes and the rest of the instruments keep the beat going.

And then you hear the vocals, which have stayed with you and have sat in the back of your mind for many years, until very recently, when you fell in love with their newest album.

“You could have been all I wanted / But you weren’t honest / Now get in the ground…”

If you have been paying attention, then you know that song is “Welcome Home” by Coheed and Cambria.

That’s right: Coheed and Cambria started my love and appreciation for progressive metal, even though they are not a progressive metal band to begin with (heuristics will tell you that they are a cross between pop-punk and prog rock, but who cares, really?). Something about Coheed and Cambria and their earnest honesty to tell a story in a series of albums whose entire lore is told in no particular order is something I find completely endearing. With the exception of one album, they have dedicated the entirety of their output to the comic book series singer Claudio Sanchez has created and, let me tell you, it’s brilliant. For a band who remain somewhat a myth to me – and whose discography is something I want to dive into at some point – they have held a special place in my heart for many years. Their almost whimsical yet powerful music is something that I enjoy, which is hilarious considering that, despite the years, I don’t know what’s happening. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the many elements I enjoy in my prog happen to occur in Coheed and Cambria’s music. For someone who didn’t like prog very much and is also picky about some genres of music, Coheed and Cambria are definitely a fantastic starting point for the uninitiated.

After all, when there is a voiceover about a fucking bicycle telling a writer to kill off one of their characters, you know they did something right.

However, as I grew older and became more involved with Coheed and Cambria’s music, I found myself wanting something else. I wanted heaviness, color, and darkness. While the music of Coheed and Cambria was dark, it wasn’t dark enough. I wanted to confront my demons through music, almost exorcising them when I needed to. It was through this that I met what became my mainstay of my prog listening since I was in high school. In fact, it was all I needed for a long time.

Speaking of Coheed and Cambria, I recently re-listened to their newest album, The Unheavenly Creatures, after shelving it for a few months due to overplaying it for a long period of time, and it’s still a banger.

Universal Flame

I know what you are thinking: Hera, are you really going to mention Devin Townsend when you said you weren’t going to? The answer is yes, but that’s because he’s my true introduction to progressive metal. However, hear me out before you start raising your pitchforks; he’s not going to be in my suggested gateways.

I have already mentioned when I got into Devin on the podcast – the album Addicted is my favorite from the Project – but the reason he is so important to me as a listener is because he covered all the bases. The Project had everything of what I think prog is: drama, insanity, emotion, walls of sound, choir, orchestral arrangements, and color. There is so much color on a Devin Townsend record that you can literally paint an entire house with it. I never sought anything outside of Devin because he has everything, and the two albums that scratched that itch – Addicted and Deconstruction – were on constant rotation.

Until 2014 rolled around and I thought I needed to expand my horizons.

After all, I got burned by Sky Blue, and I needed to think about my associations with music. Thus, I shelved the Project and anything Devin-related, and decided to jump into new prog albums that both satisfied my curiosity and allowed me to see what else was out there.

Obviously, I went back to Devin – how can you not? – in 2016, but, now I was able to see what kinds of progressive metal was out there and hear it to see if I liked it.

And I liked it. A lot.

Progressive Metal Gateway Albums

Pain of Salvation - Road Salt One

Pain of Salvation – Road Salt One (2010): Oh, where do I begin with this one?

Suddenly she is down on all four
And the walls will support her no more
Cries her eyes out like never before
Onto this linoleum
The bottled up and stored

This album was recommended to me during that time period where I was taking a break from Devin, so I decided to dive deep. Although this continues to remain the only PoS album I have listened to in full at the time of this writing, something about it intrigued me in a way that I could not understand. First, it was how different it was to other albums in the same genre. For one thing, the music was not what I was expecting; after years of listening to Devin, I had expectations of what progressive metal sounded like and what it should be. Imagine my surprise when I found myself tapping my foot to the rhythm of blues and jazz embedded between Daniel Gildenlöw’s outstanding vocals and the more avant-garde tonalities the album employed. Very soon, I found myself in a haze of music that felt sensual and atmospheric, which seemed to be its main intention. Eventually, once I found myself really paying attention to the lyrics, I had to stop the music and look at the lyrics to confirm that, yes, someone did get their hands tied to a headboard. There have been many instances where I listened to this album during that period and I found myself giggling at the absurdity of it all. However, some points really do hit close to home.

When I first heard it, I was going through a rough time emotionally. I am not going to get into the details of it, but it felt like that person wasn’t caring about me, so I started dating someone else. For a long time, the song “No Way” came to define that person, especially when the conversation is between two men and how one of them doesn’t understand how their beloved likes the other guy. In my head, it became the de facto confrontation these two people in my life would have to deal with if they ever met. Meanwhile, the song that ultimately came to define my mentality during that time was “Curiosity” – while I still associate that song with aspects of my personality, it came to define my thoughts about how I perceived love and affection. Granted, some of it is complicated and filled with doubt but, at the end of the day, you only get to live it when you feel it. After that intense, emotional period, I decided to shelve it, probably never to hear it again.

Then, I was alone once again, and Road Salt One kept me company while I tried to understand what went wrong. Although it would turn out that it wasn’t my fault, it still hurt. “Linoleum” became a go-to during that time, which I listened to until I couldn’t stomach it. For what had become a source of joy for me had become one of memories, and I was tired of living in them. So, I put it away.

As it would turn out, almost a year later, I would go back and listen to it again, just because there was something about it that compelled me to. Whether it was Daniel’s high emotional and rhythmical voice, the nuances of color – the album cover looks nothing like how it sounds – or just how the lyrics speak to the rawness of the human condition, Road Salt One is one of the more interesting albums I have ever heard. If this is any indication, I have a feeling any other PoS album is going to be just as compelling as this one. Granted, I have to slowly make my way through their discography, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that this is the best PoS album. Come at me.

Myrath - Legacy

Myrath – Legacy (2016): I can tell you exactly where I was when I first found this band – I was hanging out in some coffee shop in Studio City and I was talking to a friend about a compilation of Middle Eastern metal that we had both discovered independently of each. Because of my lack of knowledge about the region and the separation among the various countries within that region, I used the term as a collective whole until I could become better acquainted with the history of the region (as it turns out, Tunisia is not part of the Middle East, but they are sometimes added to the list of countries who fall under that term due to their main language being Arabic). Then, she asked me if I had heard of this one band, called Myrath. After I said no, she recommended that I start with Tales of the Sands, as she thought it would be right up my alley.

Fast forward to now, and I am truly invested in this band.

With the release of Shehili, I felt the need to talk about Legacy and what these guys mean to me. While I haven’t had this album on constant rotation since 2016 – it hasn’t left at all – I decided to go back and really pay attention to it. Thus, I ended up with some words:

What I also loved about it was how different it was from all of my picks that year [2016] – and I had 20 – as it was one of the more mainstream Arabic bands I had been familiar with at this time. While I had enjoyed their previous effort, [Tales of the Sands], when I first heard it, their identity and their thematic concepts came to full bloom here. Things were richer, fuller, and more provocative, especially with the sultry “Endure the Silence.” It beat out my top contender of the year until I listened to it again (DTP’s Transcendence was that contender) due to its more engrossing and straightforward appeal. Transcendence is an album that you listen to for reassurance; Legacy is an album you play when you are doing a performative dance.

Even after its release date, I still come back to this album because there is always something different about it when I come to visit. Whether its lyrics instill images of oases in the middle of deserts or the way the music makes me feel, there is something about Legacy that makes me come back to it. Perhaps it has yet to let me down or – even better – Zaher Zorgati’s voice continues to call to me when I need something that will pump my blood. Legacy feels erotic and sensual in a way that is a step away from the forbidden, almost like Kontinuum’s No Need to Reason. You play these albums to not only entertain, but to also seduce someone into spending time with you, and it may just work. (context)

I think the reason I love this album so much is because it’s so different from other albums in the genre. While Road Salt One is different due to how it presents itself, with all the art rock and art house feel that makes you blush at the sight of it, Legacy is more sublime in its presentation. Of course, “sublime” isn’t the word I would use when I think about Legacy but hear me out. Myrath has this intensity to them that makes you stand up and take notice. They have a presence that is highly cinematic, and they make you want to dance whenever you are listening to them. There have been many instances where I find myself swaying or bopping my head to the beat, and I just get into their music so much that I forget how fast time passes. This has, obviously, earned me some looks while I am out and about. While their newest album is fantastic in its atmosphere and its depth, Legacy remains one of my favorite albums of all time and I encourage everyone to listen to it.

I also would write about Shehili and how it’s a fantastic follow-up to Legacy, but I might talk about that at a different point. After all, by now, I have probably played it more than I can count.

It may be bombastic as all hell, but their video for “Believer” is a banger – the Prince of Persia feel to it is worth the run time.

Evergrey - The Atlantic

Evergrey – The Atlantic (2019): Evergrey is one of those bands that you know they exist, but never give much thought about. You hear the name whispered among friends, but you just don’t really investigate it. After all, you are consumed by the next shiny thing that comes to your attention. This can lead to things being put off for years, as you listen and investigate something until you need a break from it.

About five months ago, I made a promise to myself that I would expand my writing horizons and focus on albums that I wouldn’t normally write about. This included albums whose genres was not something I was familiar with, but still felt I could discuss at length if need be.

Cue my interest and inherent fascination with Evergrey’s The Atlantic:

For an album whose production was briefly stalled due to the files being stolen, The Atlantic seems to have come out relatively unscathed in terms of how it has been constructed. Its impressive opener, “A Silent Arc” pulls no punches, bringing both an abundant wall of sound and potent emotion to the forefront. This song is the fundamental blueprint that creates the record’s pace, and the other songs make small musical references to it. This starting track remains one of the weightiest on the album, whether that’s because of the emotional vibrancy of lead singer Tom Englund’s vocals or how the instrumentation has been layered and mixed is completely up for interpretation. What’s more impressive is that Englund’s voice matches the ebb and flow of the sound; his voice shatters through the heaviness and the denser parts of the music, highlighting the emotion behind it. His vocals add a warmth and color reminiscent of when the sun breaks after a storm; it becomes an anchor amidst the superb composition and instrumentation The Atlantic offers. (context)

Before the new Rammstein and Myrath dropped in May, The Atlantic had become one of my most played albums, both on Spotify and my general music library. I would listen to it constantly, playing it repeatedly until I could no longer listen to it because I couldn’t stand it.

I have a habit of playing something until I get sick of it, and depending on my mood, something can be played for months until I need to shelve it.

I love this album so much; it’s literally what progressive metal should be: emotional, fun, and heavy as all hell. As an album that truly looks at what happens when the storm finally breaks, The Atlantic kept me company during a really hard time in my personal life. It kept me from falling into despair when I felt overwhelmed or filled with resentment about one issue or another. If I wanted to feel better, I would just put on the album, press play, and ignore the world for a while. And then, when I was ready to come back to reality, I would turn it off. It is definitely one of the best albums I have heard this year and it will be a great contender for AOTY once EOY list season begins.

Well, that was a lot. I like progressive metal – at least, what I’ve heard so far – but I am pretty sure there is more out there that I need to get to. Everything is on a queue at this point, and trust me, it tends to yell at me during the most random times. It may take me months, but I get to things eventually.

By now, I have written about ten genres that I enjoy. Before we jump into more of them, I want to ask you what other genres you would like me to explore. I have an idea of where I want to go with these, but I also want to ask you about other genres that you would like me to visit. It can also be metal-adjacent, as long as there is a reason for it.

Next time, I will go over some albums that didn’t make the cut for these gateways, and then I will talk about a genre that blurs wanking and technicality seamlessly when done correctly.

Hasta la proxima!

– Hera


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