Metal Evolution - "Progressive Metal"

Metal Evolution - "Progressive Metal"
Sam Dunn
VH1 Classic

All Access Review:  A-

As if channeling some malevolent force from the Great Beyond, the moody schizophrenia and heart-of-darkness explorations of King Crimson's unsettling early 1970s progressive-rock seemed to emanate pure evil. Where more timid musical spirits braked to a screeching halt at the borders of that uncharted musical territory they explored with such curiosity, Robert Fripp and company pressed on, eager to discover bizarre sounds and encounter odd time signatures while welcoming any weirdness that might suddenly jump out at them from the blackness. Hardier souls like Metallica's Kirk Hammett embraced the more disturbing and strangely foreign elements of Crimson's oeuvre, and some, like Classic Rock magazine's Jerry Ewing, even go so far as to consider them a proto-thrash outfit.

It's not quite as easy as it sounds to establish that link between the early forefathers of English prog-rock, like Yes and Genesis, and heavy metal, but filmmaker Sam Dunn and his co-conspirators do just that in the beginning of "Progressive Metal," the latest chapter in his "Metal Evolution" series that's been dominating the airwaves on VH-1 Classic over the last few months. Over the life of "Metal Evolution," Dunn has shown the ability to make connections that don't seem patently obvious, and he doesn't do it in a ham-fisted manner. With regard to Crimson's influence on thrash, Dunn lets Hammett and Ewing make the case for him. And Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, also interviewed by Dunn, bolsters the argument by adding "I doff my cap" to metal artists who have shown an affinity for weighty, challenging music. 

And this heavy metal sub-genre certainly has its share of challenging artists. There's the mysterious complexity of Tool and the blend of raging thrash metal, technical brilliance and melodic playfulness of Dream Theater - Dunn's inquisitive nature leading him to revisit Dream Theater's somewhat rebellious Berklee College of Music experience and study Tool's brooding intensity and penchant for remaining anonymous. All of that, however, is nothing compared to the extreme lengths Meshuggah goes to in pounding out its jazz-infected death metal assault or the completely insane prog-metal noise riots Dillinger Escape Plan ignites onstage. It is at this point that Dunn wonders if progressive-metal hasn't gone too far, the furious live clips of Meshuggah and Dillinger Escape Plan leaving viewers with mouths gaping wide. Mastodon brings "Progressive Metal" back to some semblance of normalcy, the Atlanta, Ga., prog-metal outfit combining unrelenting heaviness, surging power and intricate instrumentation on albums such as the "Moby Dick"-style concept record Leviathan, one of the truly important rock albums of the last decade. Dunn isn't shy about singing Mastodon's praises, and with good reason, considering the focused study of Leviathan he undertakes. Their lofty ambitions, Brann Dailor's multi-dimensional drumming, the hoary vocal blending of Dailor, Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders, and the sheer immensity of their sound has turned Mastodon into what is perhaps the biggest force in metal today, at least among the more independent-minded metal denizens plying their trade.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the fearless experimentation of 1970s progressive-rock envelope-pushers Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson. Dailor cites Crimson and Genesis, in particular, as inspiration at the beginning of "Progressive Metal," which leads Dunn to craft a concise, yet compelling history of prog-rock through intelligent, insightful interviews with the likes of Hackett, Yes/King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, and Yes bassist Chris Squire, along with Ewing and another Crimson drummer, Michael Giles. Augmenting the tightly edited and endlessly fascinating dialogue is a series of period live footage from Crimson - playing "21st Century Schizoid Man" - and Yes, shown performing a lively, boisterous version of "Roundabout" that makes present-day Yes seem impotent by comparison.

Once Dunn dispenses with the old guard, he turns his camera eye on Rush. Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee are all interviewed for Dunn's piece, and their commentary on the transition from Caress of Steel to 2112 is informative and interesting. Clearly, Rush is the suspension bridge that connects old-school prog and the progressive-metal community that is driving metal out of all its predictable ghettos and into places where others fear to tread. Dunn's keen interest in Rush shows, resulting in a long segment on the band's development from basic, blue-collar hard-rock dynamos to a trio that isn't afraid to stretch the limits of imagination. That hunger to expand and grow that's made Rush an enduring proposition has undoubtedly made an impact on the upstart metal bands swept up in their hugely influential wake. Plenty of Rush live footage - from yesterday and today - is offered that puts the band's rugged, uncompromising, and dynamic musicianship on display in "Progressive Metal," and when Lee, in his talk with Dunn, mentions how radio contains many "empty calories" and that people will also be on the lookout for interesting, unconventional music, it gives one a glimmer of hope that many will turn to early Genesis, Crimson and Yes to scratch that itch.

Though Dunn takes a more linear - and therefore, less artful - path in detailing progressive-metal's rise, he handles the subject matter with characteristic humility and sincere interest. He is thorough in his investigation of progressive-metal, leaving very few stones unturned. "Progressive Metal" is the last episode of the season for "Metal Evolution," and it is a strong chapter in the series. Whatever Dunn has up his sleeve for the future let's hope it matches the detailed examinations, intellectual groping and witty humor that have made "Metal Evolution" such wonderful television.

- Peter Lindblad

Metal Evolution - Progressive Metal
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