In honor of today’s day being 2/1/12 or “2112 Day” or “International RUSH Day” or “Progressive Rock Day” as some are calling it, Metal Army chatted with notable metal historian Jeff Wagner. Wagner is the author of 2010′s Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal (Bazillion Points). In addition to being an authority on all things prog, death metal and thrash Jeff was one of the leading editors of Metal Maniacs magazine from 1997 until 2001. In a wide ranging interview we recapped the origins of Jeff’s book, the roots of the genre, it’s historical importance as well as it’s future. What follows is an excerpt of a longer chat we had.
MAA: What led you to write Mean Deviation?
JW: Well from a practical standpoint it was a book that had not yet been written. We are seeing a lot of metal books now because metal has a long enough history to provide for a bunch of books, and provide a bunch of different views covering all the genres. A book on prog metal had not been written and I was a long time fan of metal. I was also a fan that tended to gravitate toward the weirder, more experimental, more progressive stuff. More avant garde stuff. I look at my record collection and one thing I can say about it is there is not a whole lot of stuff that sounds like other stuff. I have always gravitated toward progressive sounds. I like my bands to be similarly unique in and of themselves. I like EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER, but I don’t like bands that sounded like them. There were a lot of obscure prog bands that sound just like them and I didn’t find them interesting. It’s an originator thing. I why I like DREAM THEATER, but not bands that sound just like them. Actually I can’t think of one that I like who sounds just like them. (laughs)
MAA: Your book identifies a “big three” of the genre. How did the their arrival on the scene change the game?
JW: Both QUEENSRŸCHE and FATES WARNING showed up at the same time and wore their influences on their sleeves. And those influences were obviously IRON MAIDEN and JUDAS PRIEST. They took that template and took it to some different and more nuanced areas. They messed around with more long-form song writing. FATES WARNING on their second album is writing ten minute songs. They further intellectualized their music to the point where you go from Rage for Order or Operation Mindcrime and on the FATES WARNING side Awaken The Guardian and No Exit. QUEENSRŸCHE had a more theatrical image. Then DREAM THEATER came a long in their wake and they made a different kind of amalgam of it. Not only have the same bands in common that FATES WARNING and QUEENSRŸCHE did, they took it in two other areas. First I hear an even more melodic KANSAS- type rock sounds and even a more AOR radio rock from the 70s. I even hear some JOURNEY in early DREAM THEATER. And they even made it heavier with palm muting and double-bass drumming and took it some places other bands didn’t go to so they ramped it up even more. That’s why these three bands made their mark. They style was familiar and easy to get into, but also they were it challenging.
MAA: A lot of people think of Spiritual Healing by DEATH as the album when death metal crossed over with prog and became more malleable. But it was really before then, right?
JW: I think for one thing if you think about death metal, it is not easy to play. To the novices’ ear a lot of death metal sounds like garbage or noise. There is a built in tendency to already be a good musician to pull off really good death metal. If you are really conveying something truly brutal it’s a skill and an art. Not only do you have DEATH, but you have MORBID ANGEL. I don’t know how progressive you wanna say they are, but Tre Azagthoth. He was really virtuosic about his playing. I think POSSESSED toward the end of their output was really musical. There is something really intrinsically musical about death metal that it doesn’t get enough credit. And then with DEATH, even the album before Paul (Masvidal) and Sean (Reinert) came in they were going in that direction. Chuck was even singing in a way where you understood all of the vocals and didn’t need a lyric sheet. That was innovative too. (laughs) And then the Human album just blows the doors off of what could be done with the death metal form. There could be with Jazz influences and Fusion. They gave it a fluid, lyrical and melodic tendency, but it was also a really brutal album. It showed how much depth the music can have. I think the Human album has four of the best musicians that have ever on one album.
MAA: I think it’s interesting where the original prog rock bands were influenced by Jazz and the modern bands found Jazz thought the back door of prog metal. What do you say to that?
JW: The way I look at prog metal is there is not really one sound and one style. There are bands that have nothing in common. Other than the fact that they are trying to move the form forward, they might have little in common. Some of them have their own unique vision and style that no other musician will quite have.
MAA: Who are some of the underground bands of the genre that the average fan might not know, but are essential.
JW: I think if you go into with the right mindset WATCHTOWER is a band that was important. They were there way early on. They were throwing in RUSH and Jazz influences in `84, 85. Not even FATES WARNING and QUEENSRŸCHE were not even doing yet. And then if you get up to their 1989 album Control and Resistance they were tightly honed, but a bizarre group of different things. I know for a lot of people, they aren’t anything to listen to. Ron Jarzombeck is getting a lot of attention now for BLOTTED SCIENCE, but he is a WATCHTOWER alumnus. And of course I’m gonna talk about VOIVOD. I know people are gonna roll their eyes at this if they know me at all and say “oh there goes Wagner talking about VOIVOD again”. They remain really underrated. Their first six or seven albums: Killing Technology through The Outer Limits they were constantly changing, growing by leaps and bounds, using new technology and exploring new production techniques. They are the textbook example of what a progressive metal band really is. I think for one album CELTIC FROST need to get mentioned. Just for the Into The Pandemonium album. It’s so eclectic and brave. They opened up with a new wave cover song. Later on it has beat box song. There was a soul song. You have gloomy opera-type doom songs, new wave, jazz weirdness, a doom song. Just a weird album.
MAA: A lot of people hated them for it. My friends all hated them after that.
JW: Oh yeah I know. Talk about splitting your fan-base! But it was so weird and out there I really loved it. I was so intrigued I had to love it. They really blew apart their fan-base and their career. WATCHTOWER, VOIVOD, CELTIC FROST and others. That is the thing about my book. I didn’t want to just talk about the popular bands and the avatars. I wanted to discuss who the underrated bands were.
MAA: What is your take on more recent bands like MASTODON and OPETH who have abandoned their heavier ways for prog? Also, what do you think of the backlash against them?
JW: I say more power to em! They proved that they can do this modern epic metal. They can be modern, be different. And they started off as a very different band. They followed their heart. I don’t care if you’re KISS or MASTODON, I don’t think any band owes anything to your fans in terms of where they go with their music. That is not to say they don’t love their fans. When those guys are writing new music, I mean who wants to hear the same old shit? (laughs) You can tell I feel strongly about this. OPETH could’ve come out with another Deliverance, another Ghost Reveries and another Watershed and it would have been very good. OPETH are so influenced by all these bands that really epitomized all of these prog rock bands. It was about time they made their prog album. I love it. Why would fans expect Mikael Akerfeldt to be boring and stay bored and do the same thing again. Compositionally it is one of his best records. I fully support those bands and what they do. It’s about wanting to be surprised and wonder what is around the next corner. It depends what kind of fan you are. If you like a band like OPETH, if you love MASTODON or OPETH you want what those bands do and are all about you want them to follow their hearts. And I was especially surprised at the OPETH fans because I thought they were more open minded. Allow these bands to do what artists do, let them change rather than be beholden to expectations.
MAA: How important is a band like RUSH and an album like 2112 to the music still being made today?
JW: I think hugely. For me when I sit in a dark room and listen to 2112 that is part of that experience for a guy like me or any fan that treasures the band. But the other thing about your question is: it’s huge because of the influence from a band like RUSH has had. They have influenced not just prog rock bands or prog metal fans. RUSH has influenced metal bands, death metal bands, grindcore bands and even indie rock bands and all other kinds of musicians. If you took a survey of bands from a wide outgrowth of all music, RUSH is a very important band. I think that ten or fifteen years ago they were a little more like a guilty pleasure for some people. Now it is okay to say you like RUSH now. Their influence is incredibly vast.
MAA: Looking back at the longevity of some of the bands that were around at the time when you joined Metal Maniacs, do you feel proud of the role the magazine helped play promoting metal bands to a wider audience?
JW: I was just a part of the Maniacs legacy and certainly all the magazine did was reflect the legacy of the music itself. I am amazed and sure I’m proud. When I started at Maniacs it was 1997. I felt like I was down in the trenches. It was one of the first times in metal’s history a lot of people thought it was dead and it didn’t have a lot of juice anymore. We all knew different at the time. It is pretty incredible. Especially when you are seeing demos and re-issues of albums that are selling really well, being sold and repackaged. Metal now in 2012, it just has a longevity that shows it will never die. Even if no new music came out, there is so much from what has come before this music will never die. It’s history is kind of staggering. For guys like me that have been with the music for a long time, we do feel proud that we have come through the other side. It’s legitimate and here to stay. Not to sound really cliche’. It is part of popular culture.
By Keith (Keefy) Chachkes