I thought it might be interesting to offer up a small list of my favourite extreme/progressive metal albums.
Please note that just because something’s a favourite, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a band’s best album, or even indicative of what the band does as a general rule. These are just albums that have connected with me on some level a bit more deeply than superficially, and that I find myself returning to time and time again. There’s even a good chance that some of these don’t necessarily qualify as extreme metal to some people (and in one case, there’s a very good chance people would argue that the album isn’t even metal…at least, not all of it). But this is my blog, and on my blog my rules basically, you know, rule.
There are in no particular order.
I’ll have a little write up on each as well so you’ll get to know my thoughts a bit.
Here we go.
Moonsorrow – Viides Luku – Hävitetty. 56 minutes. 2 songs. Sounds like a Yes album, doesn’t it? Only Yes never featured blast beats, tremelo picking, and harsh vocals in Suomi/Finnish dealing with elements of traditional mythology and legend (maybe we just need to give them time, hmm?). A little lighter on the folk elements that typified their earlier albums, this is still an amazingly dense, complex, and progressive slab of metal that should impress even the most jaded of prog listeners. Usually when I play Viides Luku – Hävitetty, it’s in a playlist that either immediately precedes or follows another album I’ll be including on this list. In fact, maybe this is a good time to echo my playlist choices and tell you about…
Green Carnation – Light of Day, Day of Darkness. One, single, 60 minute song. Light of Day, Day of Darkness is one of the crowning moments in metal music as a whole, and the band never did anything like this again. There’s a little bit of everything here, from ambient sections, pastoral, ballad like movements, and full on metal riffing. Choral vocals, clean vocals, spoken word, a bit of death metal growl, there are very few albums that have offered the diversity of sound and mood that this one did. Sadly, it’s out of print. This means that if you find a copy, it’ll either be used or more expensive than perhaps is warranted (I’m looking at Amazon and there’s 3 new copies for sale, with 2 of them priced over $60.00 US). It is worth seeking out, even if you’re not necessarily a fan of metal, because there’s way too much good stuff on here to simply ignore. Not only a favourite, I think it truly is one of the hallmarks of progressive metal.
Emperor – Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. Yes, Emperor would release more progressive albums. Future releases would be far more symphonic, far more grandiose. And those albums would in many ways be more like Ihsahn solo releases than Emperor albums (not that any of that is a bad thing, of course). But for me, this is where it all begins for them. With expansive tracks like the 8-minute ‘With Strength I Burn’ next to massively heavy tracks like ‘The Loss and Curse of Reverence,’ this album was proof positive that black metal had every right to stand shoulder to shoulder with any other style of metal…that it wasn’t just about the stuff that got publicised in newspapers. This was intelligent metal that never lost sight of the purpose of the best metal…to rock the **** out as hard as possible.
Agalloch – Ashes Against the Grain. Sadly, you’ll see very few American bands in this list. I don’t know why it seems to me that American metal bands with a prog leaning seem to look toward Dream Theater for stylistic influence and so many European bands look to the more extreme side of things. Obviously this isn’t always the case, but it rings true more often than not from my experience. Agalloch hails from Washington state, and theirs is a pretty interesting sound. Equal parts pastoral and brutal, both musically and vocally, there’s times I see them as the metal equivalent of a post-rock band. It’s hard, again, to pick a single album from them, but I think I’ve listened to this one more than any other Agalloch release save for The Mantle (and maybe The White EP, but that’s another story). I discovered this band via Youtube, and their video for the song ‘Not Unlike the Waves.’ Check that song out…it may not be 100% typical of them, but it gives you a good taste of what the band has to offer. I love the 3-part, 19-minute epic that closes out the album too (and there’s another 19 minute epic on the limit edition version of the release). Like the Green Carnation album above, this one’s on The End Records, but still in print.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – Of Natural History. Here’s another band on The End Records. It may be a theme. This album was not released by that label, however, so I feel less odd listing it. This was the California band’s second full length studio album, and it did an amazing job of distilling their sound, crafting an album with diversity in sounds and tightly written songs. It’s hard to pick favourite tracks from this one…‘A Hymn to the Morning Star’ and ‘The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion’ are key for me because they were the first two SGM songs I ever heard at their concert at NEARfest in 2003. Nils Frykdahl’s voice ranges from the sublimely operatic baritone to wails and screams that seem impossible to have come from the same throat. Violinist and vocalist Carla Kihlstedt shines on ‘Gunday’s Child.’ ‘Babydoctor’ is 14 minutes of extremely disturbing music. Every sing brings something different to the table. I think it’s currently their finest moment.
Therion – Vovin. By this point Therion had well and totally left their death metal roots behind. I had a hard time picking one of their releases to add here, but in the end, I stuck with my favourite. Other Therion albums may have been a bit more ‘progressive’ or genre-bending (I’m thinking of Theli or Lepaca Kliffoth), but Vovin is where everything came together for the first time. Hugely symphonic, with amazing vocals, memorable songs, and hooks big enough to catch a whale, this album is a perfect slab of metal. ‘Draconian Trilogy’ (Vovin means Dragon in Enochian), ‘Clavicula Nox,’ ‘Raven of Dispersion,’ ‘Birth of Venus Illegitima’ (which was the subject of a great performance video), there are so many highlights on this release that I wonder if the band felt that they could never live up to it…
Opeth – Blackwater Park. Picking an Opeth album is hard, because there’s so many great ones. It’d be easy to pick something like Watershed, which is perhaps their most diverse single album. And while Damnation was my gateway album for the more extreme side of metal (and let’s face it, there’s very little extreme about Damnation!), when all is said and done I’ve listened to Blackwater Park more than any other Opeth album. The beginning of their collaborations with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, it really was their coming of age release. Amazing songs on here, amazing moods throughout. Mikael Akerfeldt shows breadth and range with his singing…I think he’s one of the most impressive vocalists out there today no matter what genre. His clean singing is smoky and gorgeous, his growls menacing and above all clear and easy to understand. The album’s title track is one of the great prog epics ever with no questions. I dare you not to want to scream along to the ending lines after you’ve heard it. There’s not a down moment on this album, and it really paved the way for the releases to follow.
Enslaved – Eld. What Opeth is to death metal, perhaps Enslaved is to black metal? There are times I think this, and the fact that the two bands toured together recently doesn’t exactly dissuade me of this notion. There is a difference between death and black metal (and it’s not something I’ll go into here and now), but even at the beginning Enslaved wasn’t exactly a typical black metal band. Some of that has to do with the fact that the two main members of the group (Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson) have a deep and abiding love of bands like Rush and Genesis. While later albums developed their progressive metal side much more, it began here, with 1997’s Eld. While the production values are somewhat typical black metal (i.e., not necessarily that great), the songs are pretty expansive, with the 16-minute ‘793 (Slaget om Lindisfarne)’ as the keystone.
Primordial – To The Nameless Dead. Here’s one where we’re blurring the lines somewhat, but the songs are so damned good, and the singer so amazing, that I had to add it on. Primordial is from Ireland, and is one of the biggest names in Celtic/Pagan metal. Much like Therion above, I had a hard time picking a single album, but this, their most recent studio effort, really distills everything the band is capable of. The songs are tight, powerful, very heavy yet played with a light touch…there’s some turn on a dime changes that really impress. And as much as I rave (and rightly so) over the vocal capabilities of Mikael Akerfeldt, Ihsahn, and Thomas Gabriel Fischer, Nemtheanga (Alan Averill) may well be my favourite extreme metal vocalist of all time. Key songs include the brilliant opener ‘Empire Falls,’ ‘Gallows Hymn,’ ‘Heathen Tribes,’ ‘No Nation on This Earth.’
Ulver – Themes From William Blake’s The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell. Here’s the one I think people will argue even being metal. And I really can’t complain too much…by this point Ulver had pretty much left behind their black metal roots and crafted a 2-CD set of genre bending, style defying music. One could guess based on the title that the album was inspired by William Blake’s illuminated opus The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell, but few could guess the amazing breadth of the music held within. Drum and bass, prog rock, industrial, black metal…every track was something different. Every song or spoken word piece took the band and album in a different direction, and if the description makes things seem nebulous and not well connected, well…you really have to hear it to understand it. Oh, and the CD booklet contains reproductions of Blake’s plates as well…it’s a gorgeous looking release, as well as one of the most progressive things I have ever heard.