Progressive death metal is one of the most malleable subgenres of music.
Popularized by icons such as Between The Buried And Me, Death, Cynic and Opeth, it basically blends the growling vocals, aggressive rhythms and raucous guitarwork of traditional death metal with the colorfulness, intricacies and eccentricities of prog rock/folk artists such as Yes, Camel, Jethro Tull and Rush.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Opeth’s seminal fifth LP, Blackwater Park, which is as good an opportunity as any to explore some vital progressive death metal songs.
Whether brief or lengthy, popular or underknown, the following 10 tracks are absolutely essential examples of the style.
“The Bee” kicks off the sextet’s last album – 2018’s Queen of Time – with an entrancingly chameleonic hodgepodge of symphonic fury, beautiful catharsis and mystical accentuations.
Its towering vehemence is matched by an incredibly accessible chorus that demands sing-along accompaniment; likewise, the many twists and turns are at once highly technical and overwhelmingly hypnotic, making it a superb introduction to PDM.
Becoming the Archetype – “Requiem Aeternam"
Technically, this one comprises three sequential tracks from 2011’s Celestial Completion, but it works best as a cumulative epic.
Its recurring classical piano interludes and spacey segues conjure prog rock darlings like Renaissance and Pink Floyd, yet it never loses sight of the dynamically diabolical environments and vocals that make Becoming the Archetype so beloved.
Between the Buried and Me – “The Proverbial Bellows”
Simply put, it houses everything that makes the subgenre so special by combining torrents of compositional terror with an endless stream of irregular rhythmic change-ups, elaborate instrumentation and catchy as hell melodies.
It’s a relentlessly engrossing, fluid and peculiar journey that signifies why the North Carolinian quintet is the best at what they do.
Devin Townsend Project – “Sumeria”
Rightly considered the mad genius of modern metal, Devin Townsend is a master of fusing his dense and abrasive backdrops with sudden shifts into tranquil introspection and unusual flights of fancy.
Case in point: “Sumeria,” a brutally bonkers and fun affair that incorporates two guest vocalists – Joe Duplantier (Gojira) and Paul Masvidal (Cynic) – into its carnivalistic chaos and meditative ending.
Edge of Sanity – “Crimson”
Taking a page from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play (among other album-length songs), the forty-minute “Crimson” also taps into the prog rock/metal penchant for imaginative storytelling.
Of course, it’s full of downright devilish singing and crushingly sophisticated arrangements throughout, as well as jazzily peaceful intervals and a general sense of grand importance and ambition.
Opeth – “The Leper Affinity”
“The Leper Affinity” validates why Blackwater Park is often seen as the quintessential PDM record. Added by the falsetto vocals, delicate pianowork and expert production techniques of Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Opeth offers a tour de force sleek wrath, folky respites and angelic harmonies.
Each passage is perfectly constructed, demonstrating how simultaneously melodic, cultured and ruthless the style can be.
Persefone – “Stillness is Timeless”
The penultimate track from the Andorran sextet’s last album – 2017’s Aathma – “Stillness is Timeless” fundamentally mixes the theatricality of Dream Theater, the celestial mellowness of Nektar and the guttural foundation of Obituary.
Decorated equally with fiendish rebukes and soaring remorse, as well as complex stampedes and purifying asides, it’s a dazzlingly multifaceted trek that few of their peers can rival.
Rivers of Nihil – “The Silent Life”
At its heaviest, “The Silent Life” blows away everything else on this list, as frontman Jake Dieffenbach sounds unholy when he roars over jackhammer rhythms and the fiercest guitarwork imaginable.
Yet, it’s frequently coated in eloquent and calming timbres, with a blissful mid-section jam whose horns and ambiance conjure the best of 1970s King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator.
Wilderun – “The Unimaginable Zero Summer”
This one kicks off 2019’s Veil of Imagination with an emblematic masterstroke of heavy and light personas. It juxtaposes acoustic guitar fingerpicking, soothing singing, gentle pianowork and various other orchestral/operatic elements with a bevy of acidic bellows and rough instrumentation.
Thus, the track is remarkably diverse and ambitious, combining the best of both worlds into something wholly poised and purposeful.
uneXpect – “Unsolved Ideas of a Distorted Guest”
Easily the zaniest entry here, it evokes the baroque bizarreness and experimentation of, say, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Diablo Swing Orchestra and Frank Zappa.
Meanwhile, the erratic counterpoints of vocalists Roxanne Hegyesy, Éryk Chapados and Stéphane English are as threateningly gruff as they are endearingly peculiar. As such, there’s little doubt that the now-disbanded uneXpect were tragically underknown and short-lived.