DREAM THEATRE: John Cahill / My beginners guide to ProgressiveMetal (Dream Theatre, Fates Warning, Watchtower, Spastic Ink, Spiral Architect, Pain Of Salvation, Psychotic Waltz – and much more!)

I don’t usually feel the need to comment on a contributor in these occasional ‘a civilian writes’ pieces. However, I’ve known John for a couple of years now and rarely have I known such an open minded person when it comes to music, or indeed many other things too. I’ve never managed to sell him anything. But then again, that’s not really the point. John’s compilation CDs which he sends me from time to time are peerless in that he must have an extraordinary insight into not only my musical preferences, but my prejudices too.

He’s turned me on to all sorts of music, much of which had I known the genre in advance or indeed the performers, I might well have discarded. And yet, without exception, every track he’s sent me has in some way and to varying degrees reached my emotional core.

He’s unique – in a rather fine and special way.

Coupled with this, he’s modest too. And yet he writes with a passion about music that I rarely find in the writings of ‘professional’ writers in the hi-fi magazines. Here, in typically oblique yet accessible style is the next piece from John. Enjoy!


Progressive Metal:

One of my musical passions hardly any of my friends enjoy; it’s a style of music that most people do not like; generally I hear comments such as its “too cold” or “technical” or “heavy!” But I’ve been a fan ever since the first day I heard Dream Theater and ‘Dream and Day Unite’ being played in Shades (Shades used to be a specialist record shop in the heart of Soho that specialised in selling metal based records).

This is a fan’s look on the development of this music; its influences, how the music formed and a look at some of the bands that have influenced the sound. It’s not a definitive list – but will hopefully inspire you to purchase some great albums.

First, I have to admit I’ve mixed feelings around the use of branding music into genres; at one level it helps to identify music I may wish to purchase and encourage developing links and contacts with people who have similar tastes. At another it could possibly encourage narrow listening habits and perhaps get on the way of bands being more creative.

Basically, ‘Progressive metal’ combines the progressive music of bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Jethro Tull and Rush with metal acts such as Metallica, Testament, Iron Maiden, Queensyche and Rush. I remember when I first bought When ‘Dream and Day Unite’ and describing it as Rush meets Metallica.

Rush were never really a true metal or progressive band; but they have elements of both and can really be considered as the grandfathers of prog-metal. The main inspiration in the band is Neil Peart drummer and lyricist. Some of their best albums include ‘A Farewell To The Kings’, ‘2112’, ‘Moving Pictures’ and ‘All The Worlds A Stage’. The lyrics were mainly inspired by the writings of Ann Rynd. Their music combined the melodic bass lines and high pitched vocals of Geddy Lee with the guitar playing of Alex Leifson and the awesome drumming of Neil. The band took elements of Yes (the melodic bass and odd time meters) with the riffs of Led Zeppelin.

The 80s Early Signs:

Around 1979 the music heavy metal music scene went through a revival called NWOBHM. Bands such as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Saxon, and Diamond Head brought a new energy into the metal scene; this in turn influenced bands such as Metallica and helped to develop the trash scene. Along with Metallica bands such as Testament and Megadeath all played a part in influencing bands such as Dream Theater.

Other influences include the Neo-Classical movement and shred: guitarist such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, Tony MacAlpine, Paul Gilbert, Steve Vai – and Joe Satriani brought a more technical approach towards playing (influencing bands such as Symphony X and guitarist like John Petrucci). This period also saw the formation of Queensryche, Fates Warning and Savatage. The last 3 bands were considered Power Metal at the time bands they brought a new level of technicality into the genre. Albums like ‘Operation Mindcrime’ and ‘A Gutter Ballet’ showed elements of what would now be called progressive metal.

Progressive Metal

Several bands appeared around the same time Cynic, Dream Theater, Psychotic Waltz and Watchtower. And, of course, Cynic.

I know of no other band that pushed the boundaries of progressive metal to so many different extremes. The band was as much influenced by the Fusion as they were by the trash movement and more ambient bands like Pink Floyd. The album ‘Focus’ combined Trance like themes with Death metal growls and some very hot based fusion licks. The band was going in so many different directions that they only managed to produce one album before merging into Portal and then going their separate ways. This came as no surprise.

Dream Theater:

Dream Theater is the most commercially successful band to come out from this genre – and with good reason.

First, the band has been a huge influence on nearly all the bands that have followed; they’ve constantly produced some great albums and have followed this with regular tours. ‘Images and Words’ is a classic; it combined the heaviness of Metallica with some beautiful melodic pieces. James Labrie brought an almost operatic voice to the band; this was combined by virtuoso performances by all the band members. Hardly surprising as 3 of the band members meet at Berkley Music College.

With Fates Warning, much like with Rush, it was the addiction of a drummer that allowed the band to develop into something very special. Mark Zonder brought a whole new degree of sophistication and musicality to the band.

Psychotic Waltz were a very talented band that produced four outstanding albums. Unfortunately they never really had the commercial backing to allow their talent to break through to a larger audience.

Watchtower combined a technical approach with Trash based influence and the amazing talents of Ron Jarzombek (Spastic Ink) on guitar.

Recent Additions to the genre:

Within the last 7 years a few bands have risen to the challenge of taking the music to new directions; Pain Of Salvation, Zero Hour, Spiral Architect, Fragile Fastness and Riverside.

Pain of Salvation has brought a more emotional approach without losing the power within this style of music. The band have produced a number of concept based albums that have a emotional depth within; for instance the song ‘A Trace Of Blood’ is about the miscarriage of one the band’s member’s baby (a sad song that emphases everything that the band is about). For most fans the first four albums are classics – but after that they’ve received very mixed reviews.

Spiral Architect is considered by many fans to be a ‘technical’ metal band. The band tends to have a pretty bleak outlook; they combine influences like Fates Warning, Cynic and Psychotic Waltz with Fusion music. This is complicated stuff – but well constructed. The band has pushed music to new extremes and somehow, makes it work. Be warned this is either love or hate music and is pretty hard to get into due to the high level of technicality.

Riverside has a similar style as Porcupine Tree; perhaps a slightly more metallic base but their music like Porcupine Tree is firmly based around progressive rock – but with a modern edge. Both bands have released a number of excellent albums.

Fragile Vastness is a Greek progressive metal band. ‘A Tribute To Life’ is another concept album but the music brings world music elements into the mix. Other bands have done this before e.g. Lanfear, Orphaned Land, and Wastefall – but not to the same extent.

Zero Hour for me defines what a good Progressive Metal band is all about; lots of odd meters incredible playing combined with energy and enthusiasm, powerful vocals – and a powerful live performance.

In the last few years a new sub-genre of fusion based metal has developed. Dream Theater had a side project called Liquid Tension Experiment that produced fusion that has a strong metal foundation; other bands to experiment with this include Bonzo Levin and Stevens, Planet X (ex Dream Theater keyboard player band), Loose Change, 7 for 4 and On The Virg.

Progressive Metal will always be in the margins. Most bands generally have to struggle to release music and make a living at the same time. The truth is that generally this music doesn’t shift a lot of sales – unless you happen to be Dream Theater. But the music has a loyal and dedicated fan base – and I enjoy this music for all the reasons why most people dislike it. (This is precisely why John is so welcome on this site. Editor HP)

Albums by early pioneers:

  • Yes: The Yes Album
  • Genesis: Nursery Cryme
  • Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon
  • Rush: 2112, All the Worlds A Stage, A Farewell to the Kings, Moving Pictures
  • Rainbow: Rising, Long Live Rock and Roll
  • Iron Maiden: Killers, Number of the Beast
  • Rising Force: Rising Force
  • Joe Satriani: Surfing with the Alien
  • Metallica: Master of Puppets, Justice for All
  • Testament: Practice What You Preach, Ritual
  • Queensryche: Operation Mindcrime
  • Savatage: A Gutter Ballet

Progressive Metal: The foundations:

  • Cynic: Focus
  • Dream Theater: When Dream and Day Unite, Images and Words, Awake, Metropolises part 2, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
  • Fate Warning: A Pleasant Shade of Grey
  • Psychotic Waltz: A Social Grace, Bleeding
  • Watchtower: Energetic Disassembly

Recommended Listening Highlighted are my favourites:

  • Andromeda II+II
  • Arabesque: The Union
  • Fragile Vastness: A Tribute to Life
  • Lanfear: Zero Poems
  • Mindflow: Mind Over Body
  • Pain of Salvation: Entropia, One Hour By Concrete Lake, The Perfect Element, Remedy Lane, Be, Scarsick
  • Opeth: Damnation
  • Orphaned Land: Maboo
  • Riverside: Out of Myself
  • Spiral Architect: A Sceptic Universe
  • Tool: 10,000 Days
  • Wastefall: Soul Rain 21
  • Zero Hour: Towers of Avarince


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