This has been swimming in my mind from when I read Jeff Wagner's book on the subject of Progressive Metal. I got a real handle on it a couple of weeks ago as I was playing choice cuts from the genre for my girlfriend. I tied down the nascent description I'm about to present to exact musical quotes and this helped in solidifying my theory. I'll try to do the same here, though keep in mind I'm still working out the implications.
So, why am I trying to reinvent the wheel? Progressive metal has been defined literally to mean "metal (or metal-esque) music intent on constantly changing/evolving' for decades now and it's a favorite pastime of pony-tailed metalheads to argue about how a band is truly Progressive (or merely 'progressive' or 'prog') so why mess with it and them? Because that definition doesn't work, even worse, because it's pathological. In the popular conception, Progressive metal owes to its name to keep on moving forward, ultimately further and further away from its 'Heavy Metal base' and further away from the archetype into curious reconfigurations that constantly push the envelope, any envelope. This is a recipe for disappointment if there ever was one and it's very curious, psychologically, why people would obsess over their favorite bands eventually becoming something different from what made them their favorites to begin with. After all "inclined to constantly progress" is not a positive or negative attribute in itself, it isn't something one can love and attach themselves emotionally to. It is to what one progresses towards that could possibly be the attraction point for the listener, but then, even if the band reaches that initial promise, the mandate of "Progressive" demands that they then discard it and move on. It's schizophrenic. But that - the psychological profile of the pony-tailed metalhead and his mock (I contend) desire for ever-forward moving progress - can wait a while.
I think Progressive metal, as we've experienced it from 1986 to roughly the end of the '90s is actually defined by very different things than what are popularly accepted. Metalheads have this curious incapacity, well, perhaps not incapacity, perhaps it's a lack of desire, but anyway, they don't want to consider the social context that shaped the subgenre variations of Heavy Metal they're devoted to. It's as if speed metal, then thrash and power metal, then progressive metal, were destined to come into existence because the Metal Gods willed it so and that's as musicological one has to get about it. Do you like it? That's the issue for them, not how or why something came to be exactly. Jeff Wagner took a brave step outside of this mentality in his book by tracing the musical lineage of Progressive Metal to its rock counterpart, but there's more there, I think.
Rush is a big deal for Progressive metal, so thinks Jeff Wagner and so do I as well. But besides the obvious technical chops and lengthy compositions of the band, we can take a sideways look into Rush and explain what Progressive metal really is about. The Canadian trio is considered the forefather of most, if not all things Progressive Metal for the straightforward reason that the forefathers of that genre (Fates Warning, Dream Theater, Watchtower but not Queensryche, who were influenced by them only by a degree of separation through Iron Maiden) are all professed fans of the band and because traces of their music of Rush can be directly found in most of these bands material. It's not high musicology, 'Ytse Jam' sounds like 'YYZ', there you go.
However, Rush were not a band infinitely bent on progress, and even if they gave that illusion during the one quantum leap in their '70s discography between the first two records and what came after, or if we're lax and consider their shift of sound towards the more streamlined, techno-pop of their '80s material a move in that same progress, it still then ended. In fact, that '80s shift in Rush is I think, emotionally, the crux of modern proghead mentality. '80s Rush found their final, adult sound and have occupied that niche since then. Progheads keep hoping that an equivalent adult metal sound will be found, but no such thing exists so far.
Furthermore, keep in mind that when Progressive Metal was in its heyday, Rush have been putting out the same record for half a decade already. Rush as an inspiration was not to push the Progressive Metal stalwarts towards infinite progress (what we instead came to call 'Avant-Garde Metal' instead, for good or worse), so... what?
It was the gradual move from the fantastic, romantic and solipsist (the domain of Heavy Metal, now and forever) towards the modernist and humanist that Rush started. Rush were an inspiration to young metalheads in the late '80s to attempt to write songs about their real and current human situation. Rush, for every 'By-Tor and the Snow Dog', for every 'Necromancer', also presented (Ayn Rand inspired, curiously but not surprisingly) paeans towards self-will and actualization, allegories towards surviving modernity and even negotiating singular identity in a mass-consumption world. These are concerns that every sentient being in the modern world has to deal with, and that's what Progressive Metal tried to introduce into the Heavy Metal cannon. The psychological reasons for such a violent shift of context in metal music in the latter part of the '80s has to do, I theorize, with the increased outsider interest in the genre and the market pressure on it. As I've said many times before, metal music felt that in the spotlight, it had to come up with something 'grownup' to say. This may sound damning but I do not necessarily think that nothing useful and artistically vital could come from such pretensions of adulthood. If anything, those that got the worst of it were not the musicians that created Progressive metal masterpieces but the naive progheads that structured their identity on the basis that their 'grown-up metal' was better than everything that came before it. Progressive metal was an open question but yet it was percieved as a final answer by many.
I've said this in different ways on Poetry of Subculture and other places, but never so clearly and directly. Progressive Metal (of that ten year period, modern prog is a different matter, which we'll get to) is not focused on endless forward movement as an end in itself, it is about the introduction of modernist themes that deal with the social human condition while using Heavy Metal tropes to achieve energy and direction. That modernist concerns are inherently confusing and sap willpower, whereas Heavy Metal music is inherently simplistic and directive are contradictions of intent and form is very much apparent and at the core of the genre.
To qualify my statements we'll have to look at a few disambiguating examples. First, let's think a bit on technicality. Much is constantly made about Progressive Metal being the technical frontier for not just metal musics but rock instrumentation music in general. Indeed if one listens to Watchtower or even Dream Theater's debut (1988-9 releases) there isn't much in popular rock music that offered such pyrotechnical display. However jazz and fusion musics were miles ahead, even then, in the pursuit of intricacy as raison d'etre. Perhaps today the two fields have been largely equalized, but listening to say, Tribal Tech, back in 1989 would put the rigid ditties of Dream Theater in some perspective. Furthermore, in the metal field it could be said that the true frontier for technical intricacy had been pushed by the many children of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, in the 'shred' sub-genre. Or from a different vantage, the barrier for information density had always been the domain of technical death metal, not Progressive Metal itself.
Could Progressive Metal players of 1985-1995 play even flashier, more dense, more intricately? That question is diverting from the important fact that even if they could, they didn't. Progressive metal, especially in its infancy, was flashy, but not too flashy. They were trying to do something with their chops that wasn't devoted to the chops themselves. They were using modern technique and equipment to express modern themes and considerations. There were much more technically obsessed types of music than Progressive Metal in that period and its only due to musically illiterate fans (it's true, the elitist progheads usually can't tell consonance from dissonance, they can only tell when 'there's a lot of notes') that the reputation of Prog is primarily one of technical overindulgence. One needs only compare a Dream Theater instrumental with any given top-player fusion jam session to see the difference in focus. Progressive Metal overplays like a nerdy but bright pre-grad university student trying to attack a subject they have burning interest in from every which way. And that interest was the human condition. Naturally, a sophomoric atmosphere is inherent in much Progressive metal due to this, but even that can have its charm.
The other issue I have to tackle is the mythos of Progressive Metal constantly having to move forward to dignify its moniker. This is a trip many Progressive Metal musicians of the early '00s (the decade of post-modern self-reflection for metal) fell into as well, eventually taking their bands and aspirations completely outside the field. Fans rejected most of these bands for their 'betrayal' while at the same time still considering the need for ever-forward progress as the definition of the sub-genre they so loved. This must have been confusing for musicians and listeners alike. Bands that have enjoyed the interest of Progressive Metal fans have instead kept to a narrower path. Dream Theater is the most striking example of a Progressive Metal band that is very conservative, almost never moves forward. But even slightly outre bands like Fates Warning, have enjoyed their lasting success for keeping to a general formula of Progressive Metal. Bands on the fast track to actual progress, like Mayfair or Depressive Age, were finished with metal in the span of one or two records. There's a reason for this: Heavy Metal can do only a few things, but it does these things great. If you try to make it hit different beats, it's a lot of work for relatively few returns. Eventually the struggling musician realizes they can actually achieve the moods they're going for without depending on distortion, solos and double bass, and they morph into the electronica or post-punk or whatever else outfit they needed to be anyway. Those that keep the metal tropes are doing it because they still love Heavy Metal for its romantic core, and that's not 'Progressive' at all.
So that's the tension inside Progressive Metal circa 1985-1995, romantic tools in the service of modernist goals. The genre was bound to suffer commercial death early on with such a volatile tension in its core. Rush circumvented implosion by dropping the romantic tropes of grand compositions and overplaying arrogance by the '80s and instead found the contemporary rock niche in which they could explore their modernist concerns and they grew a whole second audience for it.
So what of modern (post '90s) Progressive Metal? Or, to put it as its now known, "prog". That's second generation music that has had to deal with the confusion I describe above and it has had to take a stand on what it wants to be in light of such information. Most of it has tried to be all things at the same time: hyper-technical, yet constantly bastardizing the metal with outside influences, both completely left-field and at the same time rigidly conservative when it comes to Heavy Metal play structure and composition. The end result is schizophrenic: imagine Meshuggah covering U2 while Tangerine Dream supplies keyboard drones. Some people like that type of music, I personally can't stand to listen to it for long because it hasn't made a choice of focus, instead it has made its focus to not have to commit to a choice. This is the perfect music, psychologically, for people who suffer from delusions of grandeur and/or enjoy self-validation by how elite their hobbies are. At any case, not a good path in life.
Humanist arts are necessarily wimpy. They're not tough, or macho. In fact, the forces behind such stances are under the critical eye of humanism. Chauvinism, racism, sexism, inherent philosophical aspects of most romantic ways of thinking are deconstructed in every way by modernist arts. That is after all, their purpose. Watchtower have nothing in common with Exodus or any other beer-thrash band. If anything, Watchtower felt they are here to destroy this conception of what Heavy Metal music is. Now that all that stuff's in the past it's easier to see it in a docile light, but the minor revolution of Progressive metal was that it was flamboyantly weird, wimpy, nerdy... even gay, at times. Modern progressive metal that tries to be all things for all people all the time is terrified of being gay and wimpy and weird predominantly. It thinks the way to counteract that aspect of its identity is by slapping on Pantera and Meshuggah riffs to keep the image 'tough', it's schizophrenic.
Let's listen to this, the quintessential Progressive metal song, and see if we can find anything even remotely 'tough' in it:
This is not at all manly. As intercourse, this is erratic and interrupted. As rhetoric it's rambling and multifaceted, fractured thoughts going every which way. Driving pulse is sacrificed for scope and color. This song goes in many directions and it most importantly takes the most roundabout route to its destination. This is the essence of Progressive metal. It's the audio version of a painting such as this:
That struggles so not to say one thing in the most direct and clear manner, but instead to convey as many aspects of a situation, with its many actors and disparities and often even illogicality. Of course this high concept is wimpy! Machismo is a simple and heavy concept, a bold red color that destroys nuance and detail, it has no place on the page. Listen to that fractured riff, modulated through many keys and rhythms, as if Fates Warning are trying to present it in as many ways as possible, leaving it to the listener to decide, in dialogue with it. Of course the guitar sound is hollower (Rush producer being no accident) and lower in the mix, so that every voice in the mix is equal. Democracy, such an incompatible notion in dynastic Heavy Metal, yet, here it is. From this song to everything vaguely Progressive metal that came out in its shadow, these concepts and concerns are clear and bright to the educated listener.
This means that it's possible to make Progressive metal as such even today, and still keep to the formula. Indeed many bands do. The clarity of the approach should be judged on the modernist grace of the music, not on whether it's overtechnical, genre-bending or all-things-at-once carnival music. Progressive metal is judged on how it utilizes composition to augment its modern program. As the concerns of modernity have not been assuaged (and never will) so will every living popular music have a fringe aspect dedicated to it. Literal-minded metalheads will eventually need to develop the knowledge and language to understand what it is Progressive metal tried to do.