Progressive metal, in all it’s guises, has been home to a wealth of classic albums since its rise to prominence in the late 1980’s. From death metal’s excursions into proggy territory to thrash metal’s diversions into ever expansive realms and epic song length’s, progressive metal has bloomed in the intervening years and this article focuses on 8 of those classic recordings which have admirably stood the test of time. To put it simply, if they were released today they’d blow your mind, just as they did all those years ago!
To that extent, this article focuses only on those albums released pre 2000, any worthy prog metal albums released post 2000 will be covered in a future article. Also, for the sake of diversity, our usual one album per band mantra applies.
This is just Part 1 of a series focusing on classic prog metal albums….go check out Part 2 if you like what you read here.
Strap yourselves in for a cerebral pasting, these classic progressive metal monsters were purpose built to fry your brains!
Crimson Glory – Transcendence (1988)
Approaching progressive metal from a fast-paced, power metal angle, Crimson Glory‘s seminal second album is a full-on metal assault with it’s opening two tracks, Lady In Winter and Red Sharks, providing a welcome kick to the nuts.
So far, not so progressive we hear you cry!
Well, it’s true, Transcendence often smacks of straight-up American heavy metal but it’s progressive nature subtly reveals itself, the band enhancing progressive metal’s standing via lyrical concepts and rapid-fire tempo changes. “In Dark Places“, the album highlight, is a progressive metal updating of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and “Burning Bridges” takes the slow burn approach to epic balladry; consummate musicianship backed up by vocalist Midnight’s powerful, classic metal delivery.
If released today, Transcendence‘s classic Metal stylings and adventurous compositions would still turn heads, it’s ability to stretch minds and bang heads proving as formidable as ever.
Queensrÿche – Operation: Mindcrime (1988)
Another release from 1988 and a landmark concept album from a band who epitomised ‘progressive’ in the 1980’s.
Operation:Mindcrime virtually needs no introduction, its place in progressive metal history so firmly set in stone that it practically holds together the entire foundations of the scene.
As concept albums go, it’s also a masterclass in world building, each track serving the narrative perfectly yet never forgetting that infectious melody and memorable riffs are equally as important as ushering metal into new directions; “Spreading The Disease” and “Revolution Calling” proving that ambitious concept albums can be fiercely intelligent and still rock hard!
Queensrÿche returned to their finest hour in 2006 with Operation: Mindcrime II and vocalist Geoff Tate eventually adopted the moniker after the band splintered in 2012; proof that this undisputed progressive metal classic is as important today as it was 27 years ago.
Iron Maiden – Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988)
Iron Maiden‘s first real dip into pure proggy waters came on 1988’s bona-fide classic, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.
Adding keyboards to their trademark sound upped the already intensified drama and the epic title track indicated that Maiden were no strangers to abrupt time changes and high-brow concepts.
Their trademark gallop wasn’t gone – The Evil That Men Do maintained the grit of old – but a new found finesse now accompanied the memorable choruses and elaborate structures. Somehow, despite composing some of the most progressive songs of their illustrious career, Maiden were still savvy enough to include the obligatory hit single; “Can I Play With Madness” maintaining the quality of “Wasted Years”, “2 Minutes to Midnight”, “The Trooper” and “Run To The Hills”.
Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son remains a significant moment in Maiden’s formidable back catalogue and we doubt anyone would complain if Maiden released this epic milestone in 2015!
Fates Warning – No Exit (1988)
Similar in style to Crimson Glory, Fates Warning were another band to adopt a power/thrash approach to progressive metal.
No Exit thrashed hard, check out “Anarchy Divine“, while incorporating progressive metal’s composite structures and Ray Alder’s intensly powerful vocals continued where his predecessor, John Arch, left off; vocals that may be an acquired taste but were to become a staple in late 80’s/early 90’s prog metal.
Formidable and frenetic, it’s the 22 minute epic,“The Ivory Gate of Dreams” which looms large over prog metal history; Fates Warning taking the genre by the scruff of the neck and dragging it kicking and screaming into mainstream acceptance. No Exit is as surprisingly experimental now as it was in 1988, its rampant time changes and falsetto vocals proving as indelibly effective as ever.
Kings X – Gretchen Goes To Nebraska (1989)
Describing themselves as indescribable, Kings X are a band who aptly fit that modus operandi but the bands fearless experimentation and melding of styles on Gretchen Goes To Nebraska tags them firmly in the progressive metal camp; even if the ‘metal’ may not be as metallic as many of the bands in this feature.
Quintessentialy a bands’ band, Kings X took the best bits of Pink Floyd, Rush and The Beatles and added funk, soul and harmonies so rich that if it weren’t for Ty Tabor’s crunchy riffs scattered throughout, they could almost qualify as prog-pop.
Predating a grunge sound that Alice In Chains would build an entire career around, Kings X’s equally accomplished debut, Out Of The Silent Planet, would prove to be highly influential and this astonishing album still sounds fresh and vital today.
Voivod – Nothingface (1989)
Nothingface is not only Voivod‘s most successful album, it’s also a critically worshipped progressive metal classic.
Home to Voivod’s universally adored cover of Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Divine“, these unconventional Canadians wore their prog influences proudly on their sleeves and its testament to the quality of the album that the bulk of Nothingface maintains the credibility of Floyd’s classic composition.
Voivod’s exceptional 2014 album, Target Earth, marked a return to the complex rhythms of Nothingface, proving that this colossal album still resonates with not only the fans but also the band themselves.
Watchtower – Control And Resistance (1989)
Bands in the late 80’s seemed to tap into an inexhaustible well of experimentation and progressive attitudes and Watchtower were no exception.
Twisting thrash into to ever more contorted forms, Control And Resistance was the bastard son of Bay Area thrash and jazz-fusion (“The Eldritch” perfectly encapsulates their approach in just 3 concise minutes) and remains a confounding and technically astonishing slice of futuristic progressive metal.
Kudos to the astonishingly gifted Ron Jarzombek (Spastic Ink, Blotted Science) who’s incendiary guitar work is simply mind-blowing; his split-second time changes and elaborate solos were undoubtedly a massive influence on the still burgeoning technical Djent scene.
So ahead of its time, Control And Resistance would shock and surprise in 2020, imagine how it sounded 31 years ago!
Anacrusis – Manic Impressions (1991)
Anacrusis‘ progression from technical thrashers, on their Suffering Hour debut, to the progressive metal majesty of Manic Impressions – and its equally accomplished follow-up Screams And Whispers – has seldom been matched and yet this most unique band rarely receive the recognition they deserve.
Manic Impressions, a study of mental anguish and deep depression counteracts it’s bleak subject matter with a unique sound both complex and dynamic and aggressive yet delicate. Gems such as “Something Real” and “Paint A Picture” paint an extremely vivid picture of the wealth of ideas Anacrusis seemed to hold in abundance. This album may sound clinically detached at times but its discordant riffs, schizophrenic vocals and intricate bass lines smother the listener in a dry, arid atmosphere unique to Anacrusis. Strangely addictable, Manic Impressions has retained its unique charms 24 years on.