Progressive metal has its roots in the progressive rock movement of the '70s. In the mid 1980s, bands began to take the basics of progressive rock and add in a heavy metal sound to the equation, forming a new style of progressive music. Progressive metal became huge in the early '90s, with Queensrÿche and Dream Theater having several hit singles that were played regularly on MTV. Since that time, the genre has expanded to include death metal, jazz, and classical elements. Here are 10 essential progressive metal albums that will give you a good overview of the genre.
A modern-day masterpiece, 2007's Colors is an hour-plus track divided into eight parts. While Between The Buried and Me showed signs that they could be the future of progressive metal with Alaska, Colors was the real deal. The fact that the band members were in their late 20s when the album was recorded is astounding. Colors goes from a late-day Beatles vibe to a full-on metal onslaught, sidetracking into a country hoe-down and a trip into space along the way.
Many thought that Dream Theater couldn’t top their sophomore album Images & Words, but the band shocked the progressive metal world with 1994’s Awake. Their darkest album to date, Awake is the sound of a group of paranoid, depressed, and disillusioned musicians. The internal tensions within the band translated to Awake, with downtrodden cuts like “Space Dye Vest,” “The Mirror,” and “Innocence Faded” showcasing a different side of Dream Theater.
Dan Swanö is a musical genius, and 1996's Crimson is exhibit A for showcasing his brilliance. A one-track, 40 minute epic, Crimson is not for the faint of heart. Dealing with the future and infertility, Crimson is an album that was made to be digested in one sitting, with the lyrics on hand. To try to break down this one track would do it a great injustice, as the song speaks much louder than any words could try to put it in.
The band’s first album with vocalist Ray Alder, No Exit is known for its 20-plus minute epic “The Ivory Gate of Dreams.” The other tracks on their 1988 release aren’t bad either, but it was the majestic closer that had progressive metal fans drooling. Alder’s vocals were better than John Arch, not an easy task to say the least. No Exit would be the album that opened up the band to a wider metal audience.
Devin Townsend is an eccentric artist, one that keeps listeners on its toes. Ocean Machine, one of a million side-projects that Townsend was involved with, released one album, 1998’s Biomech, one that had Townsend embrace his calmer, melodic side that was kept hidden with Strapping Young Lad. Fans of his main band were surprised to hear Townsend’s wonderful clean vocals and knack for catchy songwriting. Too bad the album never caught on with the mainstream metal community.
Picking the best Opeth album can be a hard task, as most of their discography is filled with quality material from top to bottom. 2001’s Blackwater Park, though, is considered by most to be their magnum opus. Vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt finally perfected his clean vocals, and the production, done by Porcupine Tree frontman Steve Wilson, is crisp and powerful. The title track, “The Drapery Falls,” and the haunting acoustic “Harvest” are the highlights to this masterpiece.
This 1997 debut album from the Swedish quintet is phenomenal. After a decade-plus of working their way up, Pain Of Salvation put together a masterful story involving a war-torn family in a fictional society. Daniel Gildenlöw’s soaring vocal work turned many people’s heads and the band took many chances on Entropia, keeping the listener engaged with a blend of soothing, acoustic melodies and up-tempo, funky riffing.
Arguably Queensrÿche’s best album, the 1988 concept album detailed the story of a drug addict and his transformation into an assassin. While the band’s earlier albums were solid slabs of progressive metal, Operation: Mindcrime was their first album where everything clicked. Geoff Tate’s vocals never sounded better, and Chris DeGarmo’s guitar work is understated.
Symphony X has always been a band that has kept to the underground, steadily releasing album after album, while maintaining a loyal fan base. 1997’s The Divine Wings Of Tragedy was the first sign that Symphony X could compete with the big dogs of progressive metal, with the title track coming in at a hair over 20 minutes. I’ve always considered Russell Allen to be one of the most underrated vocalists of all time, and Michael Romeo is a guitar god in the progressive metal circles.
Before Opeth was successfully mixing death metal with clean acoustic and vocal work, there was Tiamat and their 1994 album Wildhoney. While the band would later move towards a gothic metal sound, at one point, Tiamat was posed to take the progressive metal world by storm. An album that went for atmosphere as the main focus, Wildhoney can be best described as a journey through despair and melancholy, with the brilliant lyrics acting as the tour guide.