Continuing where Part 1 of our Classic Progressive Metal Albums That Haven’t Aged A Day left off, Part 2 embraces the 1990’s and the progressive metal albums from that decade that have stood the test of time remarkably well.
We admit, production values may date these albums but the music itself continues to enthral and attract new generations of fans eager to explore those bands who took metal into uncharted territory. From the progressive death metal of Pestilence to the concept histrionics of Ayreon, not one of these albums can be considered anything other than groundbreaking and still utterly relevant today.
Savatage – Streets: A Rock Opera (1991)
The album cover may be hideously of it’s time (check out the preening machismo, low-cut attire and flowing locks) but the music found on Streets is anything but archaic.
A ‘Rock Opera’ is always going to sound dramatic, over the top and flamboyantly extravagant and it’s for exactly those reasons that Streets has barely aged a day. Taking a West End/Broadway approach to the concept album, the theatrics enhance the story, throwing the listener directly into the narrative of a lost soul attempting to find himself again in the seedy streets of New York City.
Spilling over with epic balladry, streamlined rockers and symphonic grandeur, the impassioned delivery of Jon Oliva and the intricate guitar leads of Criss Oliva showcased a group of musicians at the height of their collaborative creativity. For a respected power/thrash metal band to even contemplate a Rock Opera as ambitious and so stunningly realised as Streets bordered on madness but just listen to “Streets” and “Believe” if you need proof that this is one theatrical journey down darkened back-streets still worth taking.
Pestilence – Spheres (1993)
From thrash metal (Malleus Maleficarum) to death metal (Consuming Impulse) to progressive death metal (Testimony Of The Ancients) to Spheres; an album so eclectic it fits all previous descriptions and throws some jazz-fusion into the mix to create a spacey, avant-garde, progessive metal masterpiece. It may have split Pestilence fans straight down the middle at the time but there’s no escaping its timeless appeal today.
Easing fans gently into ever challenging terrain, Spheres is cannily front-loaded with death metal indebted tracks designed to appeal to the fanbase before unleashing the triumvirate of “Personal Energy”, “Voices From Within” and “Spheres”; songs that barely register as death metal and thrilling examples of a band tapping into otherworldly influences.
Cynic – Focus (1993)
Cynic may have emerged from the murky swamps of late ‘1980s Floridian death metal scene but to compare their progressively minded excursions into unexplored realms, to the bludgeoning of gore-hounds Cannibal Corpse and religion-baiting Deicide, is akin to comparing caviar to rice pudding!
Wildly experimental, Cynic inadvertently followed a similar path to Holland’s Pestilence and crafted a death metal take on jazz-fusion (Focus was released just 4 months after Pestilence’s Spheres), eschewing the brutality of old-school death metal in favour of complex rhythms, moments of ambient calm and synthesised vocals to accompany the de rigueur guttural growls. It was death metal but not as we knew it.
Focus still sounds utterly unique to this day, a sound few bands would dare to emulate in the intervening years, and this once in a lifetime convergence of such talent and tenacity leaves Focus standing tall as one of progressive metal’s finest moments.
Symphony X – The Divine Wings Of Tragedy (1997)
With elements of Queen, Yngwie Malmsteem and Rainbow finding their way through Symphony X‘s seriously crunchy riffs, The Divine Wings Of Tragedy combined hefty grit and metal muscle with expansive, adventurous songwriting and occasionally jaw-dropping theatrical flourishes to create a true progressive metal classic; comparisons with Dream Theater were inevitable but Divine Wings stands on its own merits.
The gargantuan 20 minute title track still galvanises as it negotiates a neo-classical maze of twists and turns featuring a cappella, heads-down Dio-esque power metal and sublime flourishes of Keyboard-infused; all embodied by Russell Allen’s ridiculously varied vocals.
A prog metal classic and no mistake, anyone who experiences this masterpiece for the first time so many years after release will still be floored by its ambition and technique.
Shadow Gallery – Tyranny (1998)
Opening with an instrumental that ably combines all the facets progressive metal fans demand, Shadow Gallery‘s whirlwind of keys, staccato riffs and high tempos may dial down the heavy when compared to many bands in this feature but Tyranny is still defiantly prog metal, even if it favours melody over muscle.
Maintaining a relatively streamlined – and radio friendly – approach Tyranny‘s high calibre songwriting is of a consistency rarely heard, amounting to an album that must be absorbed in its entirety to appreciate its true scope. Nevertheless, “I Believe” is a noteworthy epic featuring (brief) guest vocals from Dream Theater’s James LaBrie and Mystery’s stop-start clash of intricate riffs, layered keyboards and harmonies are highlights.
True prog metal fans revere Tyranny as a benchmark of the genre and this lofty position has yet to be usurped in the preceding years. Classic and highly influential.
Ayreon – Into The Electric Castle: A Space Opera (1998)
From Savatage’s Rock Opera to Aryeon‘s Space Opera, a Sci-fi concept album so mind-bogglingly immersive that its highly accessible nature stands as testament to the skills of Ayreon’s songwriter, producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist; Arjen Anthony Lucassen.
Channeling the no fear attitude of prog rock giants Yes, this terminally unfashionable pinnacle of progressive metal is in fact a timeless ode to unshackled escapism and indulgent flights of fancy and is an essential masterwork. Camper than a clearance sale at Millets, Into The Electric Castle‘s irresistable sense of fun throws everything into the mix; prog rock/metal, neo-classical, space-rock, folk and jazz-fusion all make an appearance and all (somehow) blend seamlessly.
“You must enter the nuclear portals of the electric castle!” instructs the narrator on “Welcome To The Dimension”, who are we to argue when the journey is still this enthralling and this captivating 22 years later.
Dream Theater – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999)
A melting pot of trad metal riffs, shred-heavy guitars and copious amounts of old- school inspiration courtesy of the likes of Priest, Maiden and Rush, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory – the long-awaited follow-up to”Metropolis—Part I: The Miracle And The Sleeper”, found on 1992’s equally accomplished album Images And Words – is commonly regarded as Dream Theater‘s pièce de résistance.
Dream Theater have come close to matching the sheer genius on display here many times (Images And Words/Train Of Thought/Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence) but Metropolis is the epitome of their fearless approach to progressive music.
One listen to Fatal Tragedy, a furious mix of Queen meets Metallica meets Yngwie Malmsteen, should be enough to convince you that this album is as monumental now as it was back in ’99.
Control Denied – The Fragile Art Of Existence (1999)
It all led to this.
From the neanderthal, gore-drenched days of Death’s Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy, to the ever increasing progressive nature of each subsequent release, Chuck Schuldiner’s genre-defining creative spirit was always striving to expand death metal’s boundaries and The Fragile Art Of Existence – Control Denied‘s only studio album – would prove to be the swansong that altered perceptions once and for all.
Handing vocal duties to the all-together more accessible Tim Aymar, Chuck Schuldiner was free to concentrate on his impeccable musicianship and incredibly intricate and varied compositions. From doom-passages to blistering death metal speed finessed to the point of perfection, not a single moment is wasted on an album that should have led to greater things.
As it transpired, the world was robbed of one of its most creative minds when Chuck succumbed to brain cancer in 2001 but at least the Fragile Art Of Existence left us with a cacophony of ideas, tempos and atmospherics that ebbed and flowed at such a rate that even now, it can become impossible to keep up with the myriad of changes.