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Just Raise Your Volume 

Long time Threads resident Ammar Zafar delves into the depths of and origins of his progressive metal show.

What’s in a name? Titles are restrictive. They are also terribly important. How else am I to know whether what I am about to click on is worth the two to five seconds it’s going to take me to decide whether to stay or to move on? It’s a dilemma alright. One that I don’t mean to resolve, not yet anyways. Let’s leave that question and come back to it.

Let’s talk about sub-genres instead. Some people find naming a sound as ‘bestial blackened death metal’ too pedantic. How about ‘avant-garde jazz black metal’? Ok one more and I promise I’ll stop, ‘technical progressive deathgrind noise metal’. Personally, I love them. Passionate, heated debates over whether something is best described as ‘deathened black’ or ‘blackened death’ are the mark of a true scholar. An individual that takes their music very seriously (and rarely gets invited to parties). Jokes aside, I think there is some merit to these categorisations. It allows the discerning music enthusiast to communicate better with a fellow discerning music enthusiast and is the same difference between the statements, ‘my dad’s a scientist’ and ‘Dr Anderson is a molecular biologist focusing on stem cell research’. It demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the subject matter and where the subject matter is metal, a genre rife with individuals and bands trying really hard to not sound like anyone else, it is only natural for crossovers to happen and sub genres too numerous to keep track of emerge – no wonder then, that the descriptions become increasingly complex in a bid to fully encapsulate a sound that your neighbour might simply refer to as ‘that racket’. 

Frank Zappa, Joe’s Garage anyone? 

 ‘Don’t you boys know any good songs?’

So when it came to deciding on a name for the show, it had to be something that would let the potential listener know, unambiguously, what it was that they were getting into but at the same time allow a reasonably wide range of sounds and styles to be played, for like everyone’s favourite celestial body, the moon, I too go through phases – some last longer than others but almost all of them have one thing in common, off kilter metal! 

if only there was a term that would encapsulate it all? 

Voila! there is! Enter, progressive metal and I use the term in its original spirit and not as the genre popularised by bands such as Rush and Dream Theatre. How do we define it then? And it is here that I must admit my failure. I admit that I have failed at crafting a succinct definition for it. I have failed, as I have failed to popularise the catch phrase, ‘if i knew how to say it, I wouldn’t have to play it’ on my show. It is this strategy that I must nevertheless resort to now, to help draw out some characteristics that make a track, progressive.

I’ll start with a project that I recently discovered and it won me over on first listen. 

Bekor Qilish – Throes of Death from the Dreamed Nihilism

Listen to his utter disregard for musical time, the ‘start’ and ‘stop’ nature of the composition, purposefully dry and difficult to head bang to and with no melodic threads to hang on to. Not an easy listen by any stretch but for the brave soul an immensely rewarding musical experience. See how the rhythmic pulses never repeat (a feature common in a lot of modern progressive metal).  How about that tone? So crunchy. Cutting through like a hot knife through butter. Haunting Synths creating a mesmerising alien landscape atop which the guitar and drums battle and paint scenes previously unknown. Take for instance, the riff that comes in at 0:44 on ‘’Verminous Barrier’’. See how as soon as it comes on, it creates an expectation for the resolve. Nothing, it feels, would be more satisfying than the drums coming in and accenting the riff. See what he does instead? Moves the section along but without ever fully releasing that tension. So much more satisfying isn’t it? The whole album is completely unpredictable, throughout. No moulds, no templates, just pure musicality, untethered, free to tell its tale. This record to me is a modern progressive metal masterpiece!

Here’s another record, this one quite old actually but quite unique in what it does, 

Yearning – Plaintive Scenes

Structurally and sonically a prog metal staple. Has the odd time signatures, tempo changes, ambient passages, distorted riffs and crossover genres but there is one thing that makes it stand out. The tonality. It’s Major! I can’t say there’s many records that manage to be as hard hitting as this one using major tonality – such technical and musical prowess – a classic of the genre! 

Moving on from pleasant and collected to batshit crazy and chaotic then. 

Effluence – Psychocephalic Spawning

Here’s a very apt description as taken from the song, ‘’Cosmic Incubation’’

‘’….it flings itself onto its victim, eating its way through the helmet and settles on the man’s face, forcing it’s long snout down into the helpless victim’s throat, in order to deposit its horrible seed…’’

This album sounds like someone put nuts, bolts but also children’s squeaky toys and cowbells and howling wind and of course some blast beats in a blender and pressed the ‘crush’ button. Standout project, loosely brutal death metal but broadly mesmerising and ingenious – pushing the boundaries of what is ‘acceptable’ in music – experimental, furious, and free. No sound is out of bounds, no tempo change is too erratic but unarguably the most important thing that sometimes gets lost in all the clinical technicality; feeling – it’s there! At no point is this just mindless fast notes and weirdness for the sake of weirdness – No! It still has a soul, a story to tell. it still makes the listener feel!

Speaking of ‘feel’ – there is no project that does a better job of marrying genre defining, unparalleled technicality with so much ‘feeling’ than Vildhjarta.

Vildhjarta – Thousands of Evils

The heaviness in the atmosphere, the haunting beauty that permeates through each track, so dark, so beautiful, so real. Technically, structurally and musically in a league of its own. I remember when this first came out, a friend called it ‘Post Djent’ at a time when Djent was at the peak of its popularity. It took that ‘chuggy rhythm’ idea and transformed it into a roaring, unchained beast. Rhythmically unpredictable, screaming riffs, linearly plough through the tracks with no cyclic anchors. Clean parts layered masterfully to maintain the sense of dread and direct tempo changes to provide a very unsettling and thoroughly satisfying listening experience. The vision of this band, the sound, that tone, the two vocalist dynamic, the ethereal soundscapes, I am welling up just thinking about it. Do give this a listen if you also like your mind, blown and your socks, knocked off!

Hopefully, you are starting to get a sense of what it was that I could not express in one concise definition, hopefully you are also starting to see why not.

I will leave you with one last album. An album that came out in 2021 and is yet to be topped in my opinion. 

Ad Nauseam – Imperative Imperceptible Impulse

To take a genre like dissonant death metal, one already so niche, and to transform the possibilities of where that music could take you, sonically, spiritually, is a feat accomplished by few and none in my view better than these guys. Taking inspiration compositionally, from classical composers like Stravinski, utilising mind bending disharmony and dissonance to create a record so dense that it keeps unravelling with each listen yet so catchy that parts of it latch on to your brain immediately. Writing such exceptional music was not sufficient for these mavericks however, they had to innovate and experiment with the sound setup and recording process as well. Utilising modified, bespoke gear to create sounds and effects that are completely original, moulded primarily during the recording stage, with minimal post processing, they have managed to create music that aims to give the listener as real a musical experience as possible. 

The record comes with the following label 

‘’There is no loudness without quietness. As this album has been recorded and mastered in high dynamic range (DR11) to preserve music transients and dynamic, its overall volume is lower than most modern productions. Just raise your volume knob’’

Go on, raise it!

by Ammar Zafar

Tune in to All Things Progressive w/ Ammar Zafar every fourth Tuesday at 10pm, here on Threads.

Editor: Alex H Honey

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