Heavy Metal Grows Up Progressive  

from The News And Observer, Releigh, NC. Jan. 5 1992
by Brenda Herrmann


Progressive metal might sound like an oxymoron to those who think heavy metal hasn't progressed one note since Black Sabbath bashed through "War Pigs" more than 20 years ago. But progressive metal is a thought-provoking, artistic approach that is pushing the boundaries of hard rock into a format that -- gasp -- even grown-ups can appreciate. The groups use stories, concepts and lush technical arrangements to elevate their music beyond standard rock. In fact, a few metal bands have released rock operas, a format the Who made popular in 1968 with "Tommy".

Although there were a few rock operas in the 1970s, it has now fallen upon progressive metal bands to further the cause. The best example of this is Queensryche, the Seattle quintet that defined progressive metal with the 1988 concept album "Operation: Mindcrime."

"To me, progressive metal means something beyond the standard or status quo," says Queensryche vocalist Geoff Tate. "It is an accolade."

Queensryche expanded on its mental metal image with this year's sleeper hit "Empire," which is not a concept album. Nearly 3 million copies of "Empire" were sold, and the single "Silent Lucidity" landed in the Top 20 pop chart and garnered an MTV Viewer's Choice Award; the success of this album caused a resurgence of interest in "Operation: Mindcrime."

Hot on Queensryche's cowboy-booted heels is Savatage, a Florida bred quartet that just released its seventh album, "Streets: A Rock Opera." The Savatage opera consists of 16 songs, chronicling the story of D.T. Jesus, a former dope dealer turned rock god who end up a drug addict. "Streets" opens with strains from the Metropolitan Opera Children's Choir of New York and moves into hard rock songs like "Jesus Saves" and the painfully beautiful "Tonight He Grins Again" and "A Little Too Far."

"I guess you'd call it progressive because it combines so many other elements besides metal -- jazz, fusion, classical," explains Savatage singer Jon Oliva.

Lengthy liner notes guide the reader through the story. While one might expect a metal opera to be as simple as the theme to "Green Acres," metal bands do concentrate on images, orchestration and verse rather than rhymes and rhythms. Oliva says the band didn't worry about the highfalutin reputation it might earn because of the rock-opera tag.

"There's a risk to doing a rock opera, but people either come with us or they don't. We can't plan our music around that," he says. "Besides, we've always been taken as a serious band. So this suits us."

"Streets" took eight months to complete at a cost of $250.000, more than a bit over budget, Oliva says.

"[The previous album] 'Gutter Ballet' did very well, so the record company [Atlantic] gave us carte blanche," he says. In a move of faith, Atlantic is also releasing three videos for the album. The first, "Jesus Saves" will make its debut later this month.

For its current tour, the band is performing only certain acts from the opera, mixed with earlier favorites. Even as Savatage hits the road, Queensryche is finishing its 15-month tour and now is offering "Operation: Livecrime," a home video of this year's tour that included "Operation: Mindcrime," performed in its 15 track entirety for the first, and probably last, time.

"Mindcrime" centers on psychological manipulation, anarchy and rebellion and features three characters: Sister Mary, a former prositute turned nun; Doctor X, the instigator of a violent underground revolutionary movement; and Nikki, a street kid who becomes the victim of Doctor X's mind manipulation.

"We always dreamed of performing 'Operation: Mindcrime' in its entirety, but due to finances we weren't able to at that time," Tate says. "But as 'Empire' did well, we decided to perform hte whole album and film it for posterity."

The concert was filmed by director Wayne Isham, who created similar projects for the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel and Motley Crue. The film was shot during May perfomances in Wisconsin. "Livecrime" is available in a limited-edition boxed set that features a 70-minute concert video, a compact disc or cassette of live recordings from the tour, and a 44-page booklet outlining the plot. In the video, the three characters of "Mindcrime" are shown on screens behind the band, helping to emphasize the story line. Tate is a powerhouse with his operatic vocals, and guitarist Chris DeGarmo relives the story in each note.

"It's a part of the show that takes on its own feeling," Tate says. "When we kick into 'Mindcrime,' a shudder comes over the audience." Tate believes that a theme makes "Mindecrime" all the more powerful. "It's a release for the audience. It talks about the issues people care about, why we can no longer trust our leaders, economics, reasons behind war. It tells people to think for themselves."

Unlike some pop musicians, Tate thinks it is detrimental to the band and its audience to underestimate the intelligence of the listener. "There's so many different levels you can enjoy our music at, whether it's for the concept and the lyrics or just for the drumming," he says. The theme also makes creating the album more challenging for the band, he adds.

Miami's Saigon Kick and Detroit's Warrior Soul also fall into the progressive-metal category, though not in the terms of rock or era. Both groups are pushing the boundaries of metal beyond the basic ideas of aggression, sex, love and death.

Warrior Soul followed a theme of social defiance on its 1990 debut album, "Last Decade Dead Century." Rather than portay rebellion as a bunch of teens partying, lyricist Kory Clarke writes songs like "I See The Ruins" or "The Losers" about people ostracized by society. But the band has failed to match the critical or commercial success of Queensryche. In fact, Clarke has been accused of being too serious in his work and has been ridiculed for being too arty. It's not easy for a band to be taken seriously when it sounds more like Ozzy Osbourne than R.E.M.

Saigon Kick's self-titled debut proved the band ot be an amalgam of hard rock, punk and pop. The band is difficult to categorize but it has wooed the metal crowd by opening shows for hard rock start Skid Row and funk-metal-rap leader Faith No More. Notes Saigon Kick vocalist Mat Kramer: "We get rockers, skinheads and kids from the alternative crowd all the same gig. The rockers will be up front banging their heads, the skinheads will be in the mosh pit [the center section of the arena] and stage-diving, and another bunch of kids will be dancing and swaying."

Even hard-rock groups that aren't considered progressive or thematic have expanded their works, as if to probe to the public that metal is a real art form. Metallica, for example, weaven entire stories and lessons into songs such as the new single "The Unforgiven." While cheesy, fun hits like Warrant's "Cherry Pie" are the ones that get the most immediate airplay, in the end the songs with meaningful messages may become the classics.

<< back