Read: Essential Book on Prog-Metal
Originally published on http://blurt-online.com/
By Rev. Keith A. Gordon
Heavy metal, perhaps, is the only musical offshoot of rock 'n' roll upon which is heaped more critical scorn than progressive rock. As for "progressive metal," the bastard love child of 1970s-era prog-rock and 1980s-style heavy metal, well... forgetaboutit! There's nothing that will shut down a mainstream critic's synapses and brick off their ears faster than hearing those two magic words... "progressive metal." You know the type, the kind of guys and gals that wax ecstatic over a new Mars Volta album, chanting in a chorus of the band's "progressive elements" even while turning their faces into a corpselike grimace at the mention of a truly radical band like Meshuggah.
Enter music historian Jeff Wagner and his enormously informative tome Mean Deviation
, published by the estimable rawk folks at Bazillion Points (the house also behind the stellar volume Touch And Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine '79-'83
, previously covered by BLURT)
. The former editor of Metal Maniacs
magazine and a bona fide, died-in-the-wool heavy metal fan, Wagner has thought this stuff over, listened to the music, come to his conclusions, drafted the charts and, well, wrote the definitive book on the evolution of progressive metal music over the past four decades. Just because many blockheaded critics refuse to sully their reputations with anything deemed "metallic" doesn't mean that you have to deny your medulla oblongata the enjoyment of this challenging and often exhilarating genre of music.
Wagner charts the beginning of progressive metal's long crawl towards a modicum of commercial acceptance to the collision of twin early-1970s musical phenomena: the first generation of prog-rock bands like King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and ELP; and proto-metal trailblazers like Black Sabbath, Rainbow, and Judas Priest. These important, ground-breaking bands would, in turn, begat the likes of Canada's Rush and Voivod, the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" bands like Iron Maiden and, subsequently, Wagner's "big three" of influential progressive metal bands.
Wagner's "big three" consists of a trio of hard-to-pigeonhole, metal-leaning bands: Queensryche, Fate's Warning, and Dream Theater. As theories go, his isn't a bad one, and while I personally would lend more credence to Voivoid's influence on a subsequent generation of prog-minded, technically-oriented metalheads, I'll gladly bow to Wagner's greater expertise in this matter. Explaining the musical accomplishments and importance of each of these three bands, Wagner patiently lays out the effect of each band's influence and how they've helped prod along the evolution of this critter called progressive metal.
Mean Deviation isn't content merely laying the entire prog-metal thing at the feet of the "big three," Wagner frequently straying off the path to explore many darkened corridors. The author ventures into such vastly-unexplored regions as tech-metal cult bands Voivod (yay!) and Watchtower; thrashers-turned-existentialists like Atheist and Cynic; and death metal progenitors like Celtic Frost. Along his literary sojourn, Wagner gleefully explores the 1980s and '90s-era underground metal scenes in Northern Europe and North America, going into exhaustive and welcome detail on such adventuresome metal outfits as Death, Pestilence, Realm, Spiral Architect, Psychotic Waltz, and a wealth of other obscure-but-considered bands.
The fruits of decades of prog-metal evolution and revolution are covered by the last chapters of Mean Deviation, Wagner highlighting the musical accomplishments of such contemporary merry pranksters in the genre as Opeth, Meshuggah, Porcupine Tree, and even unlikely international artists as Japan's Sigh and Gonin-Ish. A lengthy appendix to Mean Deviation provides capsule bios of better than two-dozen worthy bands that didn't make it among the dozens covered in the main text, while another appendix offers a handy list of recommended progressive metal albums to jump-start a collection, from Angra's Holy Land to Zero Hour's The Tower of Avarice, with albums from Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Rush, Voivod, and many others rounding out the list.
Wagner's prose is lively and informative, entertaining while providing the music fan with plenty of considerations for future purchase. Heck, even the Reverend has ponied up a couple of sawbucks for albums on Wagner's recommended list, which is no little feat, indeed. The lasting importance of Mean Deviation, however, isn't the random additions to one's music collection, or even the well-deserved coverage that the author provides the aforementioned bands in the book.
Mean Deviation legitimizes heavy metal and progressive metal with an academic sheen, albeit delivered with a fanboy's enthusiasm. Often unfairly belittled, many of the bands championed by Wagner have contributed greatly to the ever-changing history of rock music, delivering overlooked, but no less worthy albums that have influenced mainstream artists in ways that many casual fans may be unaware. Mean Deviation is more than a textbook of progressive metal, Wagner's impressive work cause for reconsideration of his subject matter and, in the long run, greater acceptance of a music that is often challenging and difficult. Plus, this profusely-illustrated and deeply-researched book is just a hell of a lot of fun for both the dedicated metal fan and the newbie alike... the Rev says "check it out!"
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