Mayfair – Behind… (1993)
Taking their cues from Rush but elaborating on the Canadian trio’s heavier aspects, Austria’s Mayfair were a terminally unfashionable prog metal act who not only milked the Rush back catalogue for its more obtuse moments (and that’s saying something!) but also dared to combine the whimsical nature of the UK’s Canterbury scene from the late 60’s / early 70’s with the more histrionic moments of Queensryche.
That’s quite the combination and the results were as uniformly unexpected; odd vocal tics accompanying rolling drums, ethereal guitars and moments of doom metal heaviness interspersed with Voivod-esque dissonance alongside Rush’s penchant for mind-enhancing percussion.
As perhaps expected, this all adds up to 30 mins of completely unexpected musical madness as Mayfair’s tension between complicated harmonies, jazz-fusion-esque improvisation and an intriguing mix of the silly and the serious comes to the fore.
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.
Pestilence‘s 4th album may have split fans straight down the middle back in 1993 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.
Edge Of Sanity – Crimson (1996)
Crimson, the fifth full-length studio album from Swedish death metallers Edge Of Sanity, marked their first concept album and the moment when they became a progressive death metal force to be reckoned with!
Featuring a single 40-minute track – a brave move in itself – this bleak outlook on the survival of humanity was a marvel of musicianship, a forever evolving beast that seamlessly changed pace from full-on death metal to clean acoustics without warning.
Featuring a guest appearance from Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth) on lead guitar and additional vocals, Edge Of Sanity would return to these themes on Crimson II but it’s this first outing that remains a treasured progressive death metal milestone.
In a league if its own.
Opeth – Blackwater Park (2001)
Complex and intricate yet rewarding and endlessly listenable, Opeth‘s Blackwater Park is a diamond amongst a sea of jewels – with the entirety of Opeth’s extraordinary back catalogue proving virtually faultless – but Blackwater Park remains the quintessential Opeth album.
Championing a progressive death metal style with an emphasis still on the ‘death’ (at least on this release anyway), Opeth ran the gauntlet of colour and shade, emotion and aggression on a set of tracks which never fail to surprise. “The Leper Affinity”, “Bleak”, “The Funeral Portrait” and the title track showcased Opeth’s unique and highly progressive take on death metal. Complete with acoustic interludes and clean vocals, which provided a welcome break from the guttural growls and blast beats, these songs exhibited a melding of styles that may have sounded disparate on paper but, together, provided a contrast and a beauty to a genre that had always relied on all out assault.
On the flip side, “Harvest” and “Patterns In The Ivy” were warm and tranquil tributes to the 1970’s; beacons of maudlin light amidst the death metal darkness and they remain nuggets of acoustic, folk-rock-infused, gold.
Arguably the highlight of the album though is “The Drapery Falls”, the one song which perfectly balanced both sides of Opeth’s sound. From soothing vocals and expansive yet cascading riffs, the song exploded into a jazz-death metal frenzy at the halfway mark, culminating in 11 minutes of pure progressive perfection.
Opeth may have recorded albums to rival this remarkable release (Ghost Reveries and My Arms, Your Hearse come very, very close) but in 2001, Blackwater Park was the epitome of progressive metal and of the genre taking tentative yet tremendous steps to unparalleled new heights!
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