Separated at Birth? – The Nexus of Prog and Metal

The psychedelic period in rock music history permitted musicians and artists to experiment with the genre in ways greater than their predecessors had ever enjoyed. Rock and Roll music had caught on in rapid steps in the 1950’s and continued its pace into the 1960’s, albeit with a sidestep underground in the U.S. around 1960. But even as the next generation of youth picked up guitars and drumsticks, or practiced on organs, pianos and saxophones, the standard format of a rock song changed little. Songs were still usually two to three minutes long with an almost obligatory verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The sound of rock and roll changed but not the general song format.

What the psychedelic movement encouraged was longer instrumental sections and more serious musicianship. It also gave songwriters new lyrical freedom as the usual songs about love and heartbreak or dancing and partying were no longer essential for recording a hit song. The new lyricists wrote about social issues, poems, fantasy, literature, history, war, death, the occult, or simply enigmatic lyrics that the listener was free to interpret in his or her own way. And, although it’s not true for all new artists of the period, LSD certainly played an enormous contributing role in the new found musical expression.

Prior to the advent of psychedelia and rock music (for the “and roll” was not longer suitable to this more serious style of pop), two new musical styles were beginning to take shape. The drive to fuel guitars with distortion or fuzz tone effects and the desire to master and build on electric guitar solo techniques along with a more assertive and aggressive style of singing and playing eventually led to the sub-genre of heavy metal. Meanwhile, other artists saw the studio as a place to experiment with rock and attempt to create something that went beyond expectations of the rather simplistic approach to recording. These were the earliest days of progressive rock.

Freak outThe year 1966 was a pivotal one as psychedelic rock was beginning to emerge. The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” and The Mothers of Invention album “Freak Out!” are both seen as albums within the rock genre that took giant steps toward initiating the progressive rock movement. On the heavy side, Cream introduced the world to a heavier sounding version of electric blues with their debut “Fresh Cream”. The Yardbirds recorded songs like “Happenings Ten Years’ Time Ago” and “Stroll On”, their rewrite of “Train Kept A Rollin’” for the movie “Blow Up”. And The Who released their first album as well, including their hit, “My Generation” and the growling, bulldozing bass solo, “The Ox”. By the end of the year, The Jimi Hendrix Experience had recorded “Purple Haze” and Jefferson Airplane were working on their sophomore album. Both progressive rock and heavy metal were still a few years away from developing into name-worthy sub-genres of rock but the basic molecules were in place. All they needed was a catalyst.

Or a Big Bang. Between the years of 1967 and ’68, psychedelic rock came into its own, serving as a Big Crunch to several music styles. Rock and roll, folk, country western, classical, and jazz – all of these and more contributed matter and energy to the explosion that would spawn both progressive rock and heavy metal. If one looks at the ProgArchives list of proto-prog bands and the MetalMusicArchives list of proto-metal bands, more than a few bands and artists can be found on both. HeavyIron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, Jimi Hendrix all released albums during these two consequential years and their music is built on both the foundations of prog and metal, at least as it was back then. Other bands tended to lean more to one side than the other: Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf being more rock, blues, and heavy psychedelic rock, and Jefferson Airplane and the Doors going more for the experimental take. Then there was Pink Floyd who practically invented space rock with their adventures in electric guitar and organ soundscapes.

Bearing these considerations in mind, it should come as no surprise that the progressive rock album that broke down any remaining barriers did so with a bombastic, distortion overdrive song called “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson. The band’s debut, “In the Court of the Crimson King” was released in October, 1969 and is often hailed as the first true progressive rock album.kc It features an eclectic amalgamation of heavy psych, jazz, classical instruments, folk, and experimental music. Other bands, however, were also busy developing their music into new territory. The Moody Blues were turning standard pop rock into musical adventures by adding various instruments and experimenting with new recording techniques. Yes were busy expanding their songs by adding snippets from show tunes, Beatles references, church choir-inspired vocals sections, jazz, and anything else they could fit in. Meanwhile, the distortion and aggression types were aiming for a heavier, harder sound, first with Jeff Beck and then with Led Zeppelin at the forefront.

Deep PurpleBy 1970, the monikers “progressive rock” and “heavy metal” had already been applied to bands in their respective sub-genres. But some bands eluded a swift pigeonholing by straddling both sides of the grey area boundary. Deep Purple are always mentioned as one of the progenitors of heavy metal, however, the advanced talents of Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), and Ian Paice (drums), not to mention bass players who had to keep up (Nicky Simper and Roger Glover), and some of the band’s early songs put them in the proto-prog and prog category (their latest album is a rapturous step back to that style). Uriah Heep are found in a similar vein, attempting lengthy compositions that on occasion included an orchestra and choir.

As both styles of music ascended swiftly in popularity, there was precedent for quite a few bands to attempt to embrace both. The Wikipedia entry for progressive metal covers mostly bands like Queensrÿche, Dream Theater, Fates Warning, and Crimson Glory who emerged in the 1980’s. The coverage of earlier bands mentions a few who began releasing albums between 1969 and 1970: High Tide, Lucifer’s Friend, Night Sun, and of course, Uriah Heep. High TideThe approach these bands took was to incorporate distorted guitar sounds and heavy metal playing with other instruments, usually a Hammond organ but in the case of High Tide, a violin, and then create longer songs with extended instrumental sections that often referenced classical music (Baroque or Romantic) and at times leaned towards jazz. Volume and virtuosity, imagination and intensity. These bands were not the only ones bridging the two styles. Necromandus could be seen opening for Yes or Black Sabbath and were once said to be like “Yes plays the hits of Black Sabbath”. T2_-_It%5C'll_All_Work_Out_In_BoomlandT.2. and Jericho (a.k.a. Jericho Jones) were also fully capable of rocking all out with chugging power chords and screaming guitar solos and then switching gears to an acoustic number with classical piano, strings, horns, choir, or whatever suited their taste. Germany’s Eloy began as a hard rock group but by their second album were already deep into prog territory. Brits in Hamburg, Nektar, too crossed heavy rock with progressive thinking.

As the seventies counted out the first few years, bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Budgie as well as many lesser known bands were experimenting with more complex and varied songs. Some heavy rock artists went prog for a few years while other prog artists experimented with heavy rock. King Crimson included bombastic heavy music on their albums and Jethro Tull mixed acoustic rock with heavy electric rock while Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, and even Genesis managed to turn heavy rock into progressive art as they found ways to fit it into their songs when deemed appropriate. Though there may have been two distinct camps of rock sub-genres, both sides couldn’t resist borrowing techniques and ideas.

By 1974 / 75, two groups had emerged who could claim influence from both styles. Judas Priest experienced the early ‘70s as a “progressive heavy blues-based” band, according to founding member, Al Atkins. The first two albums by Priest capture the band in transition, moving from the experimental heavy rock style prevalent at the time toward a new approach to heavy metal. Indeed, music journalist, Martin Popoff, sees Judas Priest’s second album, “Sad Wings of Destiny” as the reinvention point of heavy metal, but the album still features some of the old progressive elements. Sad_wings_of_destiny_coverThe other very important band is Rush, who began as a straightforward blues-based rock band and then quickly metamorphosed into a heavy rock band with a desire to build their music on progressive rock principles.

Progressive metal is usually regarded as a musical style that emerged in the 1980’s and that is probably because many people consider true heavy metal to have emerged in the late seventies or early ‘80s. But the way I see it is that progressive metal is as old as proto-prog and proto-metal. Perhaps proto-progressive metal should be recognized as an apt moniker for the music of those bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s who attempted to create music that was both artfully complex and aggressively loud and bombastic.


Antecedents of Progressive Metal 1968 to 1976 – A Suggested Playlist

Iron Butterfly – In the Time of Our Lives

Vanilla Fudge – Some Velvet Morning

Deep Purple – Wring that Neck

Andromeda – Turn to Dust

High Tide – The Great Universal Protection Racket

T.2. – In Circles

Uriah Heep – Salisbury

Necromandus – Still Born Beauty

Eloy – Castle in the Air

Nektar – Crying in the Dark

Judas Priest – Epitaph / Island of Domination

Rush – By-Tor and the Snowdog

Going Metal – The Early Years of the Heavy Metal Genre

Thinking about it now, looking back through the decades to the early years of heavy metal is like looking at a great mountain range from a distance. We can see and identify the highest and most famous peaks with ease: Mt. Led Zeppelin, Mt. Black Sabbath, and Mt. Deep Purple. And some of the lesser prominent peaks also stand out from this distance: Mt. Uriah Heep, Mt. Grand Funk Railroad, and Mt. Nazareth. We can also see beyond and further back in history Mounts Iron Butterfly, Cream, Blue Cheer, Jimi Hendrix Experience and others. But like any mountain range, there are many lesser peaks, satellite peaks, sub-peaks, and mountains of lower status and height which are not readily visible from a distance.

When I first embraced heavy metal back in my late primary school days (around 1982), I soon became intrigued by the roots of this genre and from the magazines that were available at the time – Creem, Circus, and in Canada, Metallion – I learned about the big name bands that helped create this style of music that combined musical virtuosity (at times) with energy, power, and sonic aggression. LedZeppelinThe Big 3 were of course Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, and for a great many people, the genre was born with Black Sabbath’s early 1970 release of their eponymous debut. Black Sabbath invented heavy metal. To anyone who gave it a bit of thought, however, there were several progenitors who all contributed prior to the mighty riffs of the Black Sabbath title track.

Drummer Bill Bruford notes in his autobiography that no new form of music can suddenly appear on the scene. People need something to which they can reference new developments. (There’s that wonderful scene in Back to the Future where Marty McFly thrills the crowd with a Chuck Berry guitar solo and then leaves them stupefied with an Eddie Van Halen solo.) As Bruford points out, punk rock didn’t abruptly emerge in 1976. It was built on the garage rock music of the 1960’s which in turn was a back-to-grassroots effort to recapture the simple power of the original rock and rollers of the 1950’s.fresh cream Heavy metal experienced the same slow growth, perhaps beginning with some of the guitar rock of the late fifties and finally coming to conception with The Kinks You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night in 1964. The next several years saw this new aggressive, guitar-driven style gestate and develop with the likes of The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Jeff Beck’s fuzz tone guitar antics with The Yardbirds, the heavy blues of Cream, the guitar wizardry of Jimi Hendrix, the psychedelic rock of Iron Butterfly, the thunder of Blue Cheer, and so on. By January, 1969, when Led Zeppelin released their debut, a well-paved route to that landmark album had already been laid out and a plethora of bands of varying success existed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as on the continent.

If heavy metal was born with Black Sabbath’s debut in early 1970, then 1969 was the year the genre achieved consciousness. For this was the year that new bands started up with the desire to record entire albums of primarily fuzz tone guitar rock and not just include such styles as one of the flavours on their vinyl offerings. Though Led Zeppelin led the pack with Good Times Bad Times, Communication Breakdown, Dazed and Confused, and How Many More Times, and more tracks on their sophomore album, groups like Grand Funk Railroad, Andromeda, High Tide, and MC5 were hitting the record store shelves with various approaches to frenzied guitar rock, be it amped up blues boogie, garage aggression, or progressive heavy guitar rock. The world was being prepared for this new beast.grand funk

When both Black Sabbath and Deep Purple released their thundering guitar rock (plus organ in Purple’s case with In Rock) albums in 1970, dozens of bands in the U.S. and the U.K. were already in recording studios everywhere laying down their polished material which in many cases had already been in their repertoire for a couple of years. In the U.S. Euclid, Yesterday’s Children, Bloodrock, Sir Lord Baltimore, and others would put out their debuts. Many other bands would soon follow, like Sainte Anthony’s Fyre, Dust and May Blitz. budgieIn the U.K. bands like Budgie, Jerusalem, Iron Claw, T.2., Iron Maiden (an earlier band not related to the famous one), Leaf Hound, Necromandus, and others would set their songs to vinyl over the next couple of years. In fact, by the early 70’s there were bands all over the world who were experimenting with aggressive, fuzz tone guitar rock.

It’s interesting now to think that the proto-metal bands whose names still resonate as major contributors to the creation of the genre are mostly British. Yet the term “heavy metal” in reference to a music style seems to have come from America. Many will point out Steppenwolf’s lyric in Born to Be Wild, “Heavy metal thunder”, which is used in reference to a motorcycle engine. Indeed, Led Zeppelin make a similar reference in the lyrics to their 1975 song, Trampled Underfoot: “Check that heavy metal / Underneath your hood”. Others will cite the title of Iron Butterfly’s debut, Heavy. However, as many web sites report, the first use of heavy metal to refer to a style of music appeared in a review by Barry Gifford in the May 11, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone of a U.S. band named Electric Flag: “This is the new soul music, the synthesis of white blues and heavy metal rock.” (see Wikipedia article on heavy metal). Two years later, Mike Saunders, reviewing Humble Pie’s debut, As Safe as Yesterday Is, for Rolling Stone, wrote: “Here Humble Pie were a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-laden shit-rock band, with loud and noisy parts beyond a doubt.” Used in the pejorative here, it is no wonder that Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan would say in his documentary Highway Star that heavy metal is the most unflattering name for a genre of music. Heavy metal was also used to describe the music of the debuts of Grand Funk Railroad, Sir Lord Baltimore (who claim they were the first to have this label ascribed to them), and Dust.

The term heavy metal as a label for loud, aggressive, “heavy” music became quickly accepted in the U.S. and soon the label was being attached to British bands as well, with many American bands citing British acts as their inspiration. The term showed up a few years later in What’s Another Day of Rock and Roll on the debut album of Canada’s Triumph: “We’ve been five years working in a rock and roll band / blasting heavy metal right across the land.” However, after the initial rush to join the parade, many bands began turning towards more conventional rock styles and kept the guitar distortion to a radio-friendly level. Blue Cheer, Grand Funk Railroad, Stray, Nazareth, Deep Purple, and many others moved in varying degrees away from the aggressive, noisy approach of heavy metal. Other bands dissolved and some members left the music scene altogether or turned to other music styles.

rocka rollaBy 1974, when Judas Priest released their debut, Rocka Rolla, many of the old guard had changed their sound or gone away. Here heavy metal entered a chrysalis stage where few bands dared turn up the volume and fuzz. Glam rock bands such as KISS and Sweet were among the new breed of hard rock outfits that drew crowds of fans. What is sometimes labeled heavy metal in the mid-seventies gets blown out the door by the re-intensification of metal in the mid-eighties. The punk rock movement also set a new challenge for heavy metal bands. Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny was the reinvention of heavy metal, according to music journalist, Martin Popoff. Interestingly enough, the new bands to emerge in the late seventies and usher in a new era with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal built their sound on varying combinations of classic heavy metal of the early seventies, progressive rock (most notably Rush and the guitar work of bands like King Crimson, Genesis, and Yes), and punk rock.