Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jeff Wagner's "Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal"

Bazillion Points add to their astounding track record with this extensive review of one of the more misunderstood metal sub-genres by Jeff Wagner. I picked it up a week ago and it arrived yesterday. I read it in a day, which isn't to suggest that it's a sparse volume. At 364 pages, it's actually pretty thorough examination of the origins of the form and the various global 'scenes' of progressive metal that occurred during the late '80s and '90s. It avoids the usual pitfall of devolving in an A to Z buyer/collector's guide, however this leads to its chief flaw.

Jeff Wagner's very serious about his examination of this sub-genre. His one interview with John Arch of Fates Warning (which still can be found on I think) was the first piece of Heavy Metal journalism I looked up to. He has an understanding and a love for "Awaken the Guardian" that touched me. I learned a lot from that interview and held Jeff Wagner in high regard since. The problem is that the book doesn't tackle what progressive metal is in social and cultural terms. It's a bit closed up in the introspective metalhead box, talking to the initiated. It doesn't aknowledge the outside forces that pushed Heavy Metal music towards embracing modernism and humanism for that brief period. I would have considered that aspect perhaps outside the bounds of the book if it was more of the familiar A to Z collector mold, but as a thorough treatise on the essence of progressive metal it is sadly spent on quotes from the musicians themselves that fail to express what exactly progressive music might be. Which is to be expected because most musicians are engaged in the art of making art, not in the practice of musicology and the study of culture from an outside point of view. I have had similar concerns with the documentary "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey" also.

I don't know what that tells about myself or Jeff, but I didn't learn much new about bands I might have overlooked from this book (aside from Xysma and Hieronymus Bosch that is!). Perhaps this suggests the field of progressive metal has mostly been explored, save for the furthest reaches of the obscurantist underground. The useful distinction that the book draws between 'Progressive' and 'progressive' types of music (the capitalized form being the name of an established and conservative genre and the latter being music that embodies the spirit of progress) is explored to some degree but I wanted more, heh. These are small shames as I doubt there'll ever be a follow-up benefiting by such rigorous research on this subject, it's too niche.

If I'm making it sound like it's a bad book, it is not. It's a great introduction to a misunderstood genre. There are valuable positions and information throughout. As I went through it I underlined certain passages, positive and negative reminders. It probably says something that I do not do this even when I tackle philosophical texts but I did it for a book on something as niche and progressive metal. In the possibility that Jeff ever finds this blog post (I place a reasonable amount of trust in that people engaged in public creative pursuits will google themselves occasionally), here's the few of the underlined passages with nitpicky commentary from someone very close to the center of his target audience.

Last page of prologue: "There doesn't seem to be much bad taste, excess or bombast in a band like Pain of Salvation, yet they're decidedly progressive, and metal enough to earn the title".

I realize this is a matter of opinion and not fact, but I think even close friends of the band would agree that the majority of their music is bombastic. I'll add that the way they treat a lot of their 'heavy' subject matter is epidermic and riddled with Americanized lingual cliche ran through a Swedifier and therefore tasteless, but taste isn't a high priority in art-making so that's of lesser significance.

Chapter Invention / Reinvention, page 5: "Art rock was song-oriented yet avoided the disposability of the pop formula by virtue of quirk and intelligence."

I found this to be a very astute contrasting definition of art rock.

Chapter Passing the Threshold, on Queensryche's "Operation: Mindcrime" : "While many concept albums are mired in messy, cliched or overcomplicated storytelling, this story of prostitute-turned-nun Mary, junkie Nikki, and the manipulative Dr. X flowed persuasively from beginning to end".

Prostitute-turned-nun is exactly a cliche, as is the devious 'Dr.X' and so on. The story is sadly contrived but I will agree it's convincing due to Geoff Tate's talent for the dramatic and the theatrical. The concept of the album has a beginning middle and end but that's not the same as being understandable and well-done: "Operation: Mindcrime" is not a badly written story, but it's a very confused one. Geoff Tate seems to me to have given up on the sociopolitical commentary of the work early on and instead focused on soap opera interpersonal conflict to carry through. It is critical for an examination of progressive metal, of which Queensryche were a big part of early on, to assess "Operation: Mindcrime" in a less forgiving light, seeing as it inspired a big part of US progressive/power metal scene to follow in its confused humanist/political footsteps, and ultimately contributed to the creative stagnation of the genre. Reading something like this shows how much metalheads bought into the half-assed politics of "Operation: Mindcrime". It diverted the focus of metal music at its commercial peak, from romantic fantasy and esoterica to sappy drama masquerading as social critique.

This isn't to say that I don't like the record. I do, quite a bit. But we must be strict with the things we love.

Same chapter, page 59

"Alder had fantastic power and control, and probably a wider range than Arch".

A wider range is probable, but surfaced demo and live material with Alder handling not only John Arch pieces but also his own (circa No Exit) show him to be a 'studio singer' in that he sorta hits the notes but he wavers in and out of the safe space and is out of breath a lot in a live situation. It's difficult for the audience to appreciate the exactness of pitch control on very high notes, they tend to sound the same. Alder hid behind that when he was trying to match the US power metal singer zeitgeist and it was a good choice for him to slow down.

Chapter 6, Killed by Tech

Although 'tech metal' is a wider term that perhaps captures the modern range of this sort of music better, it's worthwhile to remember that that brief movement that starts with Watchtower and ends at the onset of 'tech death' was mainly a thrash sub-genre. Therefore, techno-thrash (it says "complex, abstract techno-thrash" on the featured flier). Thoughout the chapter, this term is found once and the slightly historical revisionist term of 'tech metal' is found plenty more. I realize that 'techno-thrash' was a buzz word more with European journalists (especially, it seems, with German ones who had an affinity for this sort of music) and that it outlived its usefulness once industrial metal came about but it's worth mentioning anyway.

On page two, "Tech metal uses disorienting time signatures, 5/8ths and 51/32nds flying everywhere..."

Is this a typo or perhaps humor? 51/32 is a very improbable signature, I don't think any techno-thrash or progressive metal band messed about with anything so exact perhaps Ron Jarzombek on "Headache and a sixtyfourth".

On Sieges Even ripping off Watchtower, thank you for getting both sides of the story on this, it's been a long-time open question for me.

"Dream Theater have become essentially the Grateful Dead of prog metal"

Excellently put.

The connection between Cynic's robot voice and Dead Brain Cells was interesting as well.

The photo of Allan Holdsworth explaining his chart to Ron Jarzombek is a great find, absolutely hilarious.

On chapter Swedish Oddballs, "Quorthon pointed to composer Richard Wagner and the most epic Manowar material..."

I thought Quorthon, in a fit of self-importance had gone on record saying that he had never listened to Manowar before long into his epic metal phase?

Next page when discussing Leif Edling's adventurous Candlemass related projects, "Dactylis Glomerata showed Edling had no interest in writing to formula, even if it brought him a healthier paycheck" and at the end of the paragraph, "Edling returned to Candlemass's more recognizable style for future albums, and to more familiar lineups."

I have here an annoyed pencil note by the underline saying "why not connect the dots?". I love Candlemass too but we must be strict with, well, you know. I felt as if the book was trying to keep away from reporting controversy and 'dirt' so much that it became slightly anodyne.

That Gonin-Ish started as a tribute band to Anekdoten blew my mind.

The "Still Moving Pictures" gag is very funny.

That's it. That I went through the trouble of keeping notes and writing this probably is the strongest recommendation I can give for the book. It engaged me even when I disagreed with it. It's pretty exhaustive and due to this I will not play the game "you left out _____ band". The important and influential bands are here and even some obscure ones for the more adventurous. I recommend this book to people that like reading about the history of Heavy Metal music and especially the cross-section of that category with that of those who were put off of progressive metal after just listening to a bit of Dream Theater or some Queensryche. There's a lot of beauty under the surface.


  1. Yup - I also enjoyed this, slightly flawed, book. Trouble is, after reading it, I looked bloody EVERYWHERE for the 'White Fear Chain' album to no avail. ARGH.

  2. Speaking of Queensryche, I always thought Operation: Mindcrime was overrated. Even though there's no explicit narrative behind Rage For Order, I always thought that was a much better concept album. I imagine it as the story of some sort of artificial intelligence who falls in love with someone and becomes obsessed with them, even though they'll never be able to interact with them since they don't have a body.

  3. I do like Rage for Order more myself.

  4. I am also more keen to The Warning and Rage For Order than Operation: Mindcrime. Sure Mindcrime has it's good moments but overall it's not very consistent and the "concept" ain't much to write home about if you ask me.

  5. The big thing for me is that when I listen to Rage for Order I feel like Geoff Tate is talking about thinks he himself feels, exaggerated and theatrical, sure. But on Operation: Mindcrime he's talking about what feels to me like actors in a soap opera. He's very passionate and his voice has always been sublime for me, but it's wasted on that stuff.

    Rage for Order is one of those kinda creepy records that I still feel pulled towards its center. Operation: Mindcrime, though I like it still, is something of a 'case study in Heavy Metal preteding to be grown up' instead. I keep a certain distance from it because I am not pretending to be grown up.

  6. Nice, knowledgeable review. My paltry offering - more symopsis that review, and utterly uncritical due to my overwhelming ignorance - is at Thanks also for turning me on to Rage For Order.

  7. John I found your review to be anything but ignorant. Very well written and presented, I'm sure it'll tell people who are considering getting the book much more than mine will (which really is more of an impromptu dialogue with the writer of the book, one which has led to a wonderful bit of private correspondence).

    All the topics you're going on about in your blog, I'm interested in. And your writing voice is excellent, so I'll be following along. Cheers for the comment and cross-reference at the end of your article.

  8. I'd have to agree when it comes to Mindcrime and Pain of Salvation, I did find those comments in the book somewhat peculiar. However, I suppose that they could be a part of the generally quite positive attitude which the book takes towards its subject matter, which I think is something that helps it on the whole. While a critical analysis can also be worthwhile, perhaps it may have been a bit out of place in this sort of book, which rather seems to function as something of a basis for further analysis. That is, it essentially presents to some extent what there is to appreciate in the bands, or what they're trying to do, and allows people to evaluate them on the extent to which they succeed at living up to their aims.

    I'm not really a fan of Mindcrime, but I think that it's somewhat peculiar that 'Promised Land' seems to often be neglected by people in favour of the earlier records. Maybe it's just because the general narrative of bands becoming increasingly commercial, then releasing a very commercial album (which 'Empire' probably is) and going to the dogs is very much ingrained in metal's psyche, and perhaps for good reason. Fates Warning don't necessarily get off easily when confronted by this tendency either. I believe that Wagner's book had, in keeping with the aforementioned tendency, described 'Promised Land' in decent terms.

    I agree that it was a good idea for Ray Alder to slow down, and he also seems to have developed more variety over the years. I still think that APSoG was probably his best performance, although 'Perfect Symmetry' gets angry at me when I say so.

  9. Hi, Zero.

    Perfect Symmetry is one of the 'worst' Alder performances in that he is uncontrolled and the theme of the record is counter to that. Just too high, too strong for his voice. He wasn't a trained singer at the time and it shows. Live it fell apart even worse.

    This doesn't mean I don't love Perfect Symmetry because I do. I accept the shortcomings, it's just that it's very easy to hear how much strain there is in that performance, impossible to call it a top one because of that. It's a great performance out of context, but if placed next to people like Geoff Tate that were doing similar things at the time, it's humbling. John Arch would have handled the range better, of course, but I'm not sure he'd have gone for those simple melody lines either. Man, I shouldn't be thinking of a Perfect Symmetry with John Arch on vocals.

    I do agree that Mean Deviation didn't have the obligation for hardcore negative critique over any featured band. Furthermore, were such critique to occur, there would have to be a tighter definition of what progressive metal is about than the book attempted, otherwise negative critique would end up like glorified "I didn't like it" in more verbose print, which is not in keeping with the book's tone at all.

  10. Yes, I'd agree that Perfect Symmetry is pretty raw and strained, and I don't think it's too surprising when some people find it somewhat 'whiny' or anything of the sort. I think that it's pretty clear that his vocals did improve on, for example, 'Life in Still Water', in terms of ability. On the other hand, though, I wouldn't really call 'Parallels' superior vocally, as I tend to find the vocals, although more controlled, a bit too 'conventional' and simple in terms of patterns, melodies and such. They don't really do that much for me, I guess.

    However, what I like about 'Perfect Symmetry' is that the vocal melodies are fairly detailed, and there's a lot of pretty subtle changes in tone and such in the vocals which end up being very effective. While the vocals by themselves may not be as good, in combination with the instruments they do seem quite carefully patterned to interweave and interact with them. It just seems as if Alder was thinking quite carefully about where exactly to sing the next word, although sometimes he doesn't pull things off as well as he was later able. I guess that they seem to have been more concerned with using vocals carefully to create atmosphere here, while on 'Parallels' this was sometimes present but less so. It's perhaps less pronounced than with Arch in any case, but it does seem to work, and I'm not sure that you would have 'Perfect Symmetry' as such if Arch were in the band.

    But then, I like John Mortimer a fair bit more than many more technically able vocalists, so I guess that I just don't necessarily put that much emphasis on vocal skill (although in some cases, like 'Rage for Order', it's more or less necessary). Another factor could be that 'Perfect Symmetry' was the first album which I listened to from Alder-Fates, so I could be a bit more affectionate to it because of that. I suppose that in APSoG most things are put together quite carefully, and Alder's vocals are better and more versatile at that point, which is probably why I like it more.

    I agree when it comes to criticism. I think that for a criticism of, say, Mindcrime to fit into the book, it would have to be accompanied with a fairly long look into what the album tries to do and how, and that could perhaps take up too much space for an introductory book of sorts. I don't think that something along the lines of Twain's article on Fenimore Cooper would really be appropriate, especially given that Queensryche are a band that deserved some respect.

  11. I do not think Parallels is superior on the whole to Perfecy Symmetry. Parallels sounds preconcieved as a (relatively to say, Rush or Queensryche) 'hit' record. I don't know what Jim Matheos was thinking at the time for with subject matter as existential (and often morose) as that, he would never have a really huge record. I think it sold okay, but below estimations. The band nearly and then completely fell apart soon after. I appreciate Parallels compositionally and emotionally in some songs, but it's a distant record for me.

    You say the vocal melodies in Perfect Symmetry are fairly detailed, I think there's a difference between detail and ornamental embellishment. John Arch added detail incrementally to what you can hear on early FW demos (gracefully packaged in the remasters) were pretty standard Iron Maiden vocal lines only with a careful ear to the structure and harmony of the whole.

    On the other hand, circa Perfect Symmetry, Alder stumbles from point to point in his melody through dubious passing notes and half-steps and when he despairs his cure-all is to jump an octave. Perfect Symmetry's very orchestrated music deserved another compositional pass at the vocals, I feel.

    A Pleasant Shade of Grey sounds to me like a record where far less performance nuance was meant or attempted, but where every contributor played to established strengths towards the overall composition. The end result is robust and supports what, in the Jim-Matheos-as-solitary-lyrics-writer, is their ultimate aesthetic and existential statement. The band underplays on purpose, there's much less angst like in Perfect Symmetry and much more a sense of resignation and melancholy. It's not a 'hit' record. It's a well crafted and considered piece of art, one of the few 'grown-up metal' artifacts worth the continued adoration by ponytail metalheads.

  12. I hope you don't mind me getting back to this post but there's something that I've been wondering lately. I'm not very familiar with modern progressive rock. I don't know much about what happened after the 80s or at least how it "progressed". So my question is, besides heavy metal riffing and bombastics, what do you think are the fundamental differences between progressive metal and modern progressive rock? I wonder if they ever touch the same themes and if they do, are there big differences in approach or outcome? Or is it that progressive metal WAS the modern progressive rock for awhile.

  13. Well, I am not very knowledgeable on what progressive rock did after the '70s, really, but I am aware of two of its evolutions in the forms of RIO and Zeuhl. The former stands for 'Rock in Opposition'. Google it, it's not so much a stylistic descriptor but the bands that came out of that are unique and distinctive (Present, Univers Zero and The Thinking Plague are my favorites). The latter is the peculiar mixture of classical composition, fusion and progressive rock that Magma spearheaded. These two strains of more 'extreme' progressive rock seem to have spawned progeny that is not Heavy Metal related but carries on to this day.

    On another front, in the '80s and early '90s there seemed to have been a lot of 'neo-progressive' rock, championed by Marillion which I'm sure you're familiar with (Misplaced Childhood remains a favorite in Helmland). These bands seemed to take a more conservative approach in their progressive rock imitation and took the orchestral aspirations of bands like Genesis and married them to what is very distinctively '80s sounding pomp rock and AOR. You know, synth pads and gated reverb on the snare. This strain also had little to do with Heavy Metal, though if I remember correctly the Marillion drummer did play in a progressive metal supergroup called 'Arena' I think? I don't listen to stuff like IQ or Pendragon really but I'm aware it exists.

    While all this is happening, King Crimson keep breaking up and reconstructing themselves into different 'mobile units', all of which were daring in their pursuits and also did not take much from Heavy Metal in inspiration.

    So if an outsider like me can spot 3-4 different strands of post-'70s progressive rock derivations, I'm sure an aficionado can point you to an equally-as-rich history as to that of Heavy Metal that trajects four decades as well.

  14. I'm aware of those few strands as well (I still have to check out later King Crimson) and I didn't mean to suggest that progressive rock can't go on "progressing" perfectly well without Heavy Metal's innovations. I'm just puzzled with definitions because I am pretty sure that some progressive rock have wrestled with same kind of concerns as progressive metal has (Existential angst and what it means to be an individual in mass society, etc. Actually they did this in 70s already I think) and I guess there are bands that play sonically heavy, progressive/experimental music you can't trace back to Heavy Metal. So then the real difference must be in the way they choose to handle the subjects they're set to explore. It must echo the Heavy Metal aesthethics in some way.

    Hmm I guess this discussion is a little out of place following the post about Jeff's book but I overlooked your piece about defining progressive metal by accident when I thought about this stuff.