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 Cynic to the concept histrionics of Ayreon and on to the mainstream-baiting magnificence of Dream Theater, not one of these albums can be considered anything other than groundbreaking and still utterly relevant today.
Sieges Even – Steps (1990)
It was quite a leap from debut album Lifecycle – with its progressive thrashy overtones – to this jazz-fusion inspired prog metal masterpiece from Germany’s Sieges Even, with fans bemoaning such a wholesale change on its initial release!
With no prior notice, these unhinged geniuses delivered Steps; a puzzling collection of hard jazzy rhythms, contorted tech riffs, acoustic interludes and no end of dramatic flourishes. The results confounded expectation at every turn with each track twisting and turning through enough syncopated movements to make even Rush confused.
Perhaps a little softer than much of the material found in this feature, it’s primarily the fearless nature of Steps that warrants its inclusion in place of the equally impressive A Sense Of Changeand the more aggressive Lifecycle.
The likes of Dream Theater, Cynic and Chuck Schuldiner himself were undoubtedly listening at the time of release….and tentatively taking their own steps to emulating this all-time classic!
Cynic – Focus (1993)
Cynic may have emerged from the murky swamps of the 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.
Vauxdvihl – To Dimension Logic (1994)
The epitome of the term ‘cult item’, Vauxdvihl‘s To Dimension Logic may be a melancholy affair that’s practically been forgotten but its a damn near perfect representation of progressive metal in the 90’s.
With a cold, bleak atmosphere – aided and abetted by an abundance of almost robotic spoken word vocals – To Dimension Logic remains a true curiosity, its impact unsullied by the passing of time as the obligatory Rush and Queensryche influences brush shoulders with an industrial edge.
This is otherworldly stuff, transcending the pitfalls of prog metal by avoiding over the top showboating and instead concentrating on conveying a myriad of emotions via multiple styles and outstanding songwriting. It’s no understatement to suggest Vauxdvihl were onto something particularly special but sadly, To Dimension Logic is the only full length album to their name.
The video below credits this album as a “prog metal masterpiece”….we agree wholeheartedly!
Devin Townsend – Ocean Machine: Biomech (1997)
Pretty much everything Devin Townsend has ever touched turns to gold but it’s Ocean Machine that we keep coming back to.
An album devoid of pretension, this is pure artistry and pure progressive metal majesty at work. With an innate ability to wring emotion out of each carefully conceived moment, it’s almost impossible to accurately describe the crashing wall of beautiful sound that emerges from this album without resorting to tired cliche.
But we’ll try.
Gently lapping at the edge of your subconsciousness, Ocean Machine: Biomech managed to be both heavy and serene at the same time, its sprawling undertow of ideas, tones and unusual ambience perfectly executed and breathlessly claustrophobic.
We couldn’t be sure, but listening to this work of genius while semi-submerged in an isolation tank could very well transport you to other realms….it’s that otherworldly and so completely, so deliriously, immersive!
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 the stop-start clash of intricate riffs, layered keyboards and harmonies on “Mystery” 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)
Ayreon‘s space opera is 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 well over two decades 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 Judas Priest, Iron 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 1999.
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.