Too Much Is Never Enough: Technical Metal in 2009
Band Photo: Opeth (?)
Earlier in the year Metal Underground presented its annual “Best Of” awards and with his finger always on the pulse, deathbringer mentioned a new dominance in metal leading us into 2009. Maybe you’ve noticed the extra acoustic interludes, the blazing shred solos, the disjointed poly-rhythms or maybe you haven’t - but either way a cloud of progressive influence has undoubtedly emerged over the metal scene. Not just in our minds here at MU, but in the minds of fans Opeth, Cynic, Meshuggah, Nachtmystium and Ihsahn stood out with impressive 2008 releases. Even more excitement and interest has been generated by collaborations between Ihsahn and Opeth, and 2009 hasn’t let up with Mastodon’s progressive opus “Crack The Skye” and Obscura’s “Cosmogenesis” leading the charge.
So what magic is at work here aside from great prog-metal releases? Larger bands such as the explosive power metal act DragonForce and progressive groovers Mastodon have played a large part in the uprising of the pursuit of extreme talent for more mainstream metal fans - opening legions of otherwise clueless greenhorns to the bar of instrumental ability. Old hands such as Deicide, Cannibal Corpse and numerous thrash acts have also not been untouched by the progressive aura and have regained the thirst for pushing technical boundaries - a truly founding ideal of metal if ever there was one. Another force at play here is the power the internet has had in exposing technical freak shows like Necrophagist as well as many young tech-metal heads being introduced to metal and fostered through 90s progressive acts such as Tool or Dream Theater. Not enough for you? Let’s take a little trip back in time then.
"Progress comes slowly - always met with a measure of ruthless resistance"Watchtower, "Control And Resistance"
In the 1980s metal emerged as a genre more technically demanding and aggressive than any of its bluesy rock predecessors and towards the end of the decade popular thrash bands like Metallica, Kreator and Megadeth began writing compositions fraught with complex riffs structures that exemplified progressive ideals. However, one small Texan band named Watchtower raised the bar for generations to come to both marvel at and spend their teenage years boarded up in practice rooms to best. Watchtower's 1989 technical metal opus "Control and Resistance" contained all of the hallmarks of technical and progressive we know now and still stands among the elite of musical shred fests.
It wasn't until 1993 however that saw a primal scream from the death metal genre in an explosion of talent which building from the inspiration brought on by thrash metal. Pestilence's "Spheres," Atheist's "Elements," Believer's "Dimensions," Demilich's "Nespithe," Gorguts' "The Erosion of Sanity," Cynic's "Focus," and genre spearhead Death's most technical album "Individual Thought Patterns" all surfaced in what was the heyday of technical metal.
As it would be, the scream of death metal acts would be a final one as a new wave emerged to wipe the slate clean. The early 90s were a time when grunge prospered and technical metal just didn’t sell enough albums for labels such as Roadrunner to support them properly. In the metal world, simpler visceral music was in with acts like Sepultura, Pantera and White Zombie leading the new sound. Bands chose to reject the self-indulgent wankery of 80s shred metal for forms of raw aggression and groove. The main thrash metal warriors of the 80s (arguably bar Slayer) all branched out into more commercial sounds with varying success and the flame of technicality was extinguished in the metal mind.
"We’re the carriers of a new anomaly; Fold, unfold. Bend, shift color."Meshuggah, "Corridor Of Chameleons"
While many technical bands influenced the progressive micro-trend we see today, acts like Necrophagist, Opeth and Meshuggah in particular caused the sort of commotions that forced musicians to take notice.
Meshuggah is a band with that could have gripped a whole fan base with time-signatures alone. An almost complete paradigm shift from any other metal band before them aside from lost gems like Confessor, Meshuggah carved their own path into the face of metal with a mathematical devotion to industrial heavy grooves. Necrophagist, on the other hand, was the poster child for technical death metal. Technical simply does not describe the laser sharp, sterile and calculatory riffs intertwined with unmatched neoclassical fury of band mastermind Muhammed Suicmez. Lastly of course is Opeth, a band who epitomizes the progressive spirit. Matching brute with beauty and epic death metal with forlorn acoustics in a seamless display of song writing genius, Opeth have been reigning the progressive metal kingdom since the mid 90s.
The progressive power of Dream Theater has been another force bubbling up through the 90s to draw a raft of young fans into the more cerebral of metals subgenre pantheon. In fact, Dream Theater was one of the few bands to escape the curse of grunge and prosper with highly praised albums such as "Awake" and "Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory."
And so it seems the seed was planted - along with other juggernauts like Nile, Cryptopsy, Gorguts and Martyr the rising of influence of technical metal has been evident in the last few years with the unnatural popularity of new acts like Behold... The Arctopus.
"Cosmogenic cycles, universal dreams, the unseen essence, energies refreshed"Mastodon, "Capillarian Crest"
So where to start with all the bands making waves today?
There are bands that praise the mighty Cynic (Alarum, The Faceless, Exivious, Textures) and like Opeth and Atheist freely include jazz influence in their music. A common influence on progressive metal, jazz is a genre renowned for technically superior drummers and bassists. For any readers wishing to dip into jazzy waters, Allan Holdsworth is a widely hailed guitarist whose influence extends deep into bands like Meshuggah, Blotted Science, Cynic and many more.
There are the truly out-there bands for which metal is a safe haven to explore musical boundaries. Ephel Duath has long been the figurehead in avant-garde technical metal (trumpets and all), and Braindrill is a band quickly rising to DragonForce-like infamy with anything resembling normal riffs becoming second fiddle to maniacal tapping and sweep picking. Psycroptic, Behold... The Arctopus, Dysrythmia and Psyopus are also worth a listen for the open minded adventurer.
Those who air on the progressive side will probably already know of the mastery of Symphony X and Dream Theater, but bands like Twisted Into Form, Liquid Tension Experiment and Zero Hour are also worth a listen. In particular, Norwegian band Spiral Architect springs to mind as contender for "Most Insanely Technical Prog," taking the blueprint Fates Warning laid down in the 80s and taking it to new extremes.
In black metal, Emperor is the stand out with "Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire & Demise" being nothing short of a masterpiece. Ihsahn's solo work is more than worth checking out, and bands like Borknagar, Arcturus, Direwolf are also highly recommended. With only a demo to their name but a large amount of hype, Aussie metallers Ne Obliviscaris also garner a mention, if not least for their drummer crowned “Fastest Feet In Australia.”
Fans of Meshuggah might also want to check out guitarist partially self titled side project Fredrik Thordendal's Special Defects, or similar bands like Theory In Practise and Coprofago. Of course, we can't forget the strong undercurrent in today’s metalcore and hardcore scene either. Bands such as Between The Buried And Me, Textures, The Dillenger Escape Plan and Protest the Hero have helped the idea of technical ability being something to strive for settle into the mindset of younger and non-metal fans.
As a full circle, guitarist Ron Jarzombek from the aforementioned seminal metal band Watchtower is still shredding on the sharp side of the technical metal blade alongside Mr "Hammer Smashed Bass" Alex Webster in the form of Blotted Science. One of many bands to rise up in '08 as technical metal titans, fans new to Jarzombek's handy-work should check out Blotted Science's predecessor, Spastic Ink - some of the most technically demanding musicianship to be laid down in metal without question.
"Always in motion, circling a notion (of fixed unchangeability), truth itself untrue to those who stop to think, fluently fluid, subjectively in sync"Spiral Architect, "Adaptability"
And so we can see, it is quite curious that the influence of progressive metal has permeated into many corners of the metal kingdom. The old guard are also enjoying a new found popularity, one much more open minded to progressive philosophies than the past. In the near future Cynic, Atheist, Believer, and Pestilence will have all produced new music to meet a new era of fans. A band like Cynic who were once misunderstood and had a tough time while touring with Cannibal Corpse are now after 15 years, being properly rewarded for the youth they sacrificed to their instruments - enjoy it while you can prog nuts, and make sure to support the great new bands time has fostered.
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