Progressive technicalities

When bands of any genre, but especially rock and its ilk, do different or unorthodox things with their musical approach, you tend to see all kinds of labels flying around to attempt to categorize them. The adjectives are numerous, with some of the most prominent including: “experimental”, “progressive”, “art”, and “avant-garde.” But these terms are nebulous. What exactly does having a progressive sound imply?

It’s hard to say what the exact roots of the progressive rock genre are. Broadly, the word “progressive” means to push the boundaries of a given subject, most typically associated with politics. In the case of rock music, this meant breaking out of the verse-chorus-based structures, blues roots, and four/four time signatures that were, and are, common. Certainly, the polyrhythms and freeform nature of jazz fusion and its bop predecessors could be said to parallel and espouse many of the fundamentals that differentiated pro grog from its more vanilla counterpart. However, many of the bands who would become pivotal in establishing the groundwork for the term were almost the antithesis of the spastic quality we now associate with modern progressive music.

Progressive rock came out of the psychedelia of the late ‘60s. It wasn’t the chops of the playing or the sophistication of the musical theory that garnered the progressive tag. Rather, it was the grandeur of the songwriting and arranging combined with the use of otherworldly effects, tones, and lyrics. Bands such as Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, and Jethro Tull were all put under this label, all of which were mid-to-slow in tempo and focused on innovation  in instrumentation and evoking imagery through their sound.

It wouldn’t be until early the next decade that progressive music would begin to assimilate the connotations that we usually associate with it. Initially, Canada’s Rush sounded like a tighter Led Zeppelin. By the middle of the ‘70s, however, they were writing epics like 2112 that were both grand in narrative and musical scope while utilizing a high level of musicianship. Rush championed the use of outlandish time signatures and wonky rhythmic feels in addition to having science fiction and fantasy themes. Not only were the being progressive with their music, they were pushing the envelope as instrumentalists as well.

Which brings me to, believe it or not, the main thrust of the article. In the world of metal, bands doing new things are getting categorized the same way their predecessors of the 1960s and ‘70s were. The two biggest terms that I see being bandied about are the traditional “progressive” label, and the newer “technical” modifier. What exactly is the difference between a progressive death metal band and a technical one?

Typically, I tend to associate progressive qualities with those of the late ‘60s progenitors. That is, innovation in arrangement, songwriting, instrumentation, lyrics, and tone. Progressive music has a grandiose scope and is sometimes weird just to be weird. Technical music, on the other hand, focuses more on musicianship. We’re talking about the aforementioned time changes that Rush pioneered, as well as esoteric scales and chord progressions. The focus is on musical theory and treating the playing as if it were math-like.

That’s not to say the two don’t often overlap. But for the sake of discussion, let us take three bands from various subgenres and categorize them. With melodic death metal, we might take At the Gates’ Slaugher of the Soul as an entry that is a “vanilla” entry. Early Opeth might be considered progressive, with a focus on dynamics, acoustic guitars, and unpredictable song structure, but not especially pushing the boundaries of playing for the genre. Arsis, on the other hand, would be a technical melodic death metal band, putting a premium on its band members playing ability and use of odd time signatures but not doing especially unique in the songwriting department. Other examples might include, in the metalcore genre: Killswitch Engage (standard), Between the Buried and Me (progressive), and Revocation (technical).

The key distinction between the progressive and technical modifiers can be summed up as: songwriting grandeur versus musical technique. Again, bands who fall into either of these categorize often have traits of the other, but most of the time, it is possible to recognize which are most predominant.


~ by Dux on March 31, 2012.

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