17 September 2010

(More Than) 10 Questions with...Jeff Wagner

One of the things that sometimes is frustrating about prog is that, well…it’s not. Not progressive, that is. Without getting deep into the whole ‘what is prog and what isn’t?’ argument, it seems there’s a decent number of prog bands out there whose sound is so derived from the ones who preceded them that it’s sometimes a fair thing to do to ‘label’ bands as either prog or Prog, where big P prog is reserved for bands that actually push boundaries and evolve their sound. Unfortunately, a lot of the bands that I’d stick under the big P label are ones that a lot of people would avoid because it doesn’t sound like what they’re used to. It’s unfortunate and a shame because there’s amazing music being done that prog fans would probably go nuts over if they took the chance.

Jeff Wagner feels the same way, I think.

Formerly working for Relapse Records and Metal Maniacs magazine, he’s currently prepping the release of Mean Deviation, a 400 plus page book on the genre of progressive metal. For a lot of people, prog metal means ‘Dream Theater and bands that sound like them,’ and while DT is certainly one of the leading lights of the style, they are far and away not the only band plying the prog metal trade…and perhaps they’re not even the best at it. Wagner’s book promises to explore the entire breadth of progressive metal…its roots, its high water marks, and where its heading today. If you’ve ever been curious about prog metal in general, this looks like the book to get to start your journey.

Jeff sat down with me to discuss a little bit of his own past, his own discoveries, and added some insight into the process of getting this book fit for public consumption. I think (hope) you’ll find the questions and answers interesting enough to check out his book…it looks well worth it!

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself, if you don't mind? What are your credentials, so to speak, for someone not familiar with your past?

JW: I’ve been a voracious music listener for as long as I can remember. I started writing for fanzines in the late ‘80s, and started my own fanzine in 1992. My ‘zine was partly a reaction to the flood of strict death metal ‘zines around at the time. I loved death metal--some of it, anyway--but it was such an oversaturated scene by 1992. Lots of the fanzines of the day looked and read exactly the same, and there were lots of generic bands doing nothing interesting with the music. So I put my first issue out and slapped a big picture of Confessor on the cover and also featured bands like Disharmonic Orchestra, Anacrusis and Atheist. That lasted for three years (six issues). From there I worked my way into the music biz, taking a job at Relapse Records in Pennsylvania in 1994. In 1997 I was hired as co-editor of Metal Maniacs magazine and moved to New York, staying there until 2001. Best job I’ve ever had, but I had too many issues with the publishing company, so I quit and we moved to rural Virginia. I took an at-home job with Century Media Records later in the year. In 2004 I jumped to The End Records (still working at home) and have been there ever since. I’m more on the Omega side of things (The End’s distro/mail order) than the label.

2. How did you first discover an interest or love of metal music?

JW: Kiss was the gateway. My obsession with Kiss in the late ‘70s led to an interest in FM radio around 1980. I was lucky to discover bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Aerosmith and Rush on WXLP, a very cool radio station based in the Quad Cities (I grew up in eastern Iowa). From there it was just peeling off layers, making discovery after discovery, getting into more and more radical stuff until, by 1984 or so, I was fully immersed in the metal underground, buying new albums by Slayer, Metallica, Fates Warning, Voivod, Bathory, Queensryche, Savatage, Possessed, and tons of others as they were being released. A really exciting time to be a young fan of metal.

3. What would you say differentiates a progressive metal band from the rest of their metal brethren?

JW: I hope everyone reading this and/or looking forward to reading the book understands my attitude regarding the term “progressive metal”: I don’t consider “progressive metal” a genre or sub-genre. To me it’s more a way of thinking, a unique angle of attack, an immersion into a vast array of influences and the outcome of that. Each truly progressive metal band should sound nothing like another one. Bands such as Mind Over Four, Queensrÿche, Pan-Thy-Monium, Pain Of Salvation and Therion all get some kind of spotlight in this book, yet they sound nothing alike. Something I didn’t write in the book, but which occurred to me recently, is that each album recorded by any truly progressive band should be a transitional album. They should never really “arrive” at their sound and stay put. It’s all an experiment. Maybe progressive music is marked by constant transition, something having to do with perpetual discovery and a restless artistic spirit.

I think we all understand what “metal” is. But I don’t think “progressive metal” is as easy to define, and certainly not as easy to define as sub-genres such as “death metal” or “NWOBHM.” I take a pretty strict dictionary-definition of the word “progressive,” as it applies to music. The book starts with this quote from Frank Zappa: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” Inside the book, there’s a quote from Fates Warning’s Jim Matheos. He’s talking about how “progressive metal” has, for many people, come to define a particular style. And I agree with his view: “All of a sudden this great progressive category has become this little box with really high walls. You’ve got to play really long songs, in odd time signatures and really fast, and then you’re progressive. Before all this it was more of an all-encompassing category—different instruments, different song structures, slow, fast—it was quite experimental.”

I don’t know if that properly answers your question, or if it can be answered so easily. It’s a good question, though, and one that I attempt to answer in some 350-plus pages of the book.

4. Would you say there's a difference in styles between, say the American prog metal scene and the European prog metal scene?

JW: I can’t give an adequate answer. My answer to the previous question probably explains why. I could never say “American Progressive Metal is Like This, and European Progressive Metal is More Like This…” If I did, I’d be dwelling in those high-walled tiny boxes that Matheos talks about, and I don’t want to go there. Too claustrophobic.

5. If someone demanded an answer, what would you say was the first progressive metal band/album?

JW: This is something I touch on in Mean Deviation, although I don’t press the point very hard. Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was perhaps the first progressive metal album. You could argue that the first four Sabbath albums were progressive too, in relation to the rest of the music stream of the early ‘70s. There simply wasn’t anything quite like Black Sabbath back then. There were other hard rock bands, and there were albums like Deep Purple’s In Rock that took hard rock to another level--which some like to name as the birth of heavy metal—but I believe Sabbath truly birthed the beast. And then with their fifth album, their creativity exploded. They spent many months in the studio, worked entire days on the smallest sonic details, added a variety of different instruments to their repertoire; they explored unusual song arrangements and a wide array of textures, stuff you didn’t hear on the preceding Sabbath albums…they even brought Rick Wakeman in to play some keyboards. It’s a very progressive album.

6. Tell us a little it about Mean Deviation, your forthcoming book. What motivated you to write this?

JW: One minor motivation is because metal, after all these decades, is still not taken as seriously as other genres, or given the respect that other rock forms are given, unless you are already a card-carrying metal fan. Hopefully at least one person with that kind of prejudice will pick up the book and then come away from it with an understanding of how deeply complex metal can be--I’m not necessarily talking about complexity on a technical level, although that’s part of it. But mostly, and maybe ironically, I wanted to write this book because I’ve never been 100% comfortable with the “progressive metal” tag. To many people, that means a style of music, ie. “Dream Theater and bands that sound like Dream Theater.” But that’s hardly the whole story. What about Voivod? What about Meshuggah? I’m not a Dream Theater hater. I’ve bought every single album they’ve done since the very first one. They’re interesting and important, and some of their albums I genuinely love. But when I tell people I’m writing a book about progressive metal, and they say, “ah, that’s not my thing,” I feel like there’s some static to work through there -- I don’t know what they mean, and they probably don’t get what I mean. Then I tell them how much space I’ve given to Voivod, or Watchtower, or Opeth, or Therion, or some other band they love, and they understand a little more what the intention of the book is. It’s not chapter after chapter about Vanden Plas or Symphony X or whatever. Because it’s not one thing; it’s not one sound or some easily-recognizable genre offshoot. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but it’s the same thing as “progressive rock,” right? You can’t say Magma sounds anything like Genesis, or that Samla Mammas Manna sounds anything like Van der Graaf Generator, yet they’re all prog rock aren’t they? Finally, I wrote this book because I love some seriously weird, eclectic, complex metal bands and wanted to write about them. A book with three solid pages on Pan-Thy-Monium is something that has never existed before, and I guess I’m crazy enough to want to bring that into the world.

7. Is there anything you discovered in writing this book that surprised you at all?

JW: I was pleasantly surprised that Jim Pitulski, who signed Symphony X to Inside Out, sided with me about Symphony X. He basically says that, even though Symphony X is a great band and do what they do very well, they’re not truly progressive. That was not only unexpected, but it gave me added confidence to forge on with that argument throughout the book, and especially in that particular chapter…an argument that will ultimately be an unpopular one with some people. But that’s okay. I was also surprised when people dropped a line on the Bazillion Points website while I was writing the book, saying they hoped bands like Sup (aka Supuration), Thought Industry, Gorguts, Confessor, Mind Over Four and Demilich will be discussed, along with the more obvious bands. I read those comments as I’m writing about some of these obscure, very weird bands, and I thought, “great, I’m not the only one out there who thinks this way!” Also, writing this book allowed me some time with certain bands/albums that passed me by previously, like Pain of Salvation, who never totally clicked with me, but who I really appreciate now, and stuff like Toxik’s Think This, and Extol’s final two albums (especially The Blueprint Dives).

8. Is there anyone you would have liked to interview for this book, but were unable to?

JW: Rush. I made some half-hearted attempts to contact their management early on, with no response, but while doing so, I was able to find great quotes from outside sources. Those quotes perfectly fit what I needed, so I was content to use those and move on.

9. How did you hook up with Bazillion Points as publisher?

JW: I’ve known Bazillion Points’ Ian Christe since my days at Relapse, and got to know him better while living and working in New York. We used to play that metal trivia board game, Metal Mental Meltdown, and I’d beat him every time (and anyone else I ever played, if I can mention that without sounding cocky about something as ridiculous as my gift for metal trivia retention). At one point, after I’d left Maniacs, Ian said “You need to put all this knowledge to use,” and he also pressed me a couple times, “When are you writing a book?” He even figured I should be the one to write the first book on progressive metal. (I had actually gotten pretty far in talking to various agents, managers and artists about book ideas in 2001, but for one reason or another, things didn’t pan out.) When Ian announced the formation of Bazillion Points in early 2008, I sent him an email in reply saying “Congrats! When you’re ready, I know an author who’s chomping at the bit to write his progressive metal book.” He replied very quickly and said, “I’ve got an ISBN # with your name on it, let’s talk.” I’m thrilled to be involved with Bazillion Points. They’ve grown a lot since early 2008, and Mean Deviation will benefit from that. I don’t think any other publisher would have put this much time and effort into making this book look as insanely good as it does. I’m super-happy with the cover art, layout, the 16-page color spread, etc. Awesome company.

10. When is the book due out?

JW: In physical bookstores, December 1st, 2010, but Bazillion Points will be sending all individually preordered copies out in early November. Preorders are being taken there right now (www.bazillionpoints.com), as well as through Amazon and other online sites.

11. Is there a certain sub-genre of metal you feel is pushing the boundaries further and progressing more?

JW: There’s some interesting stuff happening in the post-black metal world, such as Amesoeurs, Caina and that sort of thing. The instrumental (instrumetal?) wave has produced some very cool bands, such as Canvas Solaris, Dysrhythmia, Behold the Arctopus, Animals as Leaders. But generally I don’t see as much sub-genre/movement sorts of things happening as much as I do individual bands with no real niche or affiliation, such as Hammers of Misfortune, Ihsahn’s solo material (mostly his latest one, After) or this obscure Polish one-man-band that I love, called Egoist.

12. Do you feel that progressive metal suffers a similar problem to other styles of prog...that being the fact that a few bands seem to be the hallmark of the style, and as a result other groups end up compared to or copying them to the exclusion of developing a unique style of their own?

JW: Sure. That’s the biggest bitch I have about the “progressive” tag, and as said above, one of the main issues I wanted to explore throughout Mean Deviation. Dream Theater were progressive when they came out. They’re not exploring as much as they once were, but they’ve earned the right to that sound. But any band that comes out with a big Dream Theater influence out front…how is that in any way progressive? Unless you want to talk about it as a style, it’s not truly progressive. Same thing is starting to happen with Opeth. I’ve heard a few outright ripoffs of Opeth, and I feel really sorry for the guys in those bands. Give us your own voice, or get out.

13. What is your take on the more extreme end of progressive metal...bands like Opeth or Enslaved, artists like Ihsahn, et cetera?

JW: This is an area where you can always find super-interesting and truly progressive bands. Opeth and Enslaved are covered in depth in the book, they’re fantastic bands. Ihsahn gets a fair mention as well. It’s been going on since the ‘80s—thrash bands like Voivod, Celtic Frost, Blind Illusion, Mekong Delta, and Coroner totally deviated from the norm; the early ‘90s brought stuff like Death (beginning with their Human album), Nocturnus, Cynic, Atrocity, Gorguts, all who stretched death metal to the limit. And it continued with black metal, especially the many Norwegian bands that had this vast array of influences and turned the genre inside out, like Enslaved, Arcturus, Ved Buens Ende, In The Woods, Solefald, etc. There are quite a few wildly avant-garde sorts of bands that arose from the extreme underground too, like Umbra Nihil, Thy Catafalque, Ephel Duath, Kayo Dot, Psychofagist, to name a few. The more extreme end of the metal genre has always offered plenty of innovation, definitely.

14. What is your response to people who feel progressive metal is neither progressive nor metal?

JW: Are there people out there who feel that way? If so, I’m glad I’ve never befriended a single one of them. Next.

15. What would you say are your desert island discs...the albums you couldn't bear to live without if stranded on that proverbial tropical island with a magically powered CD player?

JW: Damn, I hope to never see a desert island in my life. I’ll give you 12 albums, one for each month on the island. These aren’t necessarily my favorite 12 albums ever, but they’ll do. I’ll limit the list to metal and prog rock, otherwise this could get ridiculous. (I like various rock, “alternative” and even pop-leaning bands, but that’s another book and another list…)

1) Rush – Moving Pictures
2) Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian
3) Voivod – Angel Rat
4) Genesis – Nursery Cryme
5) Black Sabbath – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
6) Anathema – We’re Here Because We’re Here
7) Holy Terror – Terror & Submission
8) Queensryche – Rage for Order
9) Metallica – Ride the Lightning
10) Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet
11) Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick
12) King Crimson - Red

16. Do you have any parting words for our readers today?

JW: Listen in the dark with a proper stereo system. Or whatever way makes you happy…but just listen. It all goes back to this bit of Zappa wisdom: “Remember, Information is not knowledge; Knowledge is not wisdom; Wisdom is not truth; Truth is not beauty; Beauty is not love; Love is not music; Music is the best.” He was a wise man.

1 comment:

Assaf Vestin said...

Fantastic interview.
I've been following Mr. Wagner's writings and works in Metal Maniacs and in the other places he works/ed and I see things in the same way he does and expressed repeatedly in this interview.
I look forward to reading this book