In the Year 2000, the mainstream was ruled by Nu-Metal bands and progressive music was really at opposite ends of the spectrum.
On one side, you had the Dream Theater style of progressive music. This involved a lot of time changes, with the focus on high-octane technical musical workouts and each song exhibited a smorgasbord of riffs.
In this period, Dream Theater was also rebuilding their brand into something that matters. After breaking through with “Images and Words” in the early 90’s, they kept on moving into a more “record label” pressured sound, which alienated their fan base and even the band members themselves. Mike Portnoy expressed his disgust that John Petrucci was sent by the label to work with song doctor Desmond Child on the song “You Not Me”.
But the creative arts history is littered by artists tricked into taking the wrong path by label executives who chased dollars instead of career longevity. Bigger is merely bigger. “If it’s better”, is a debate for another day.
In the end, the best way to re-build their brand was to stand for something, instead of standing for everything. That meant that Dream Theater stood up for progressive music instead of standing up for progressive music that could have commercial appeal with the hope that it crosses over into the mainstream. And they reset their career with “Scenes From A Memory”.
On the other side of the progressive music spectrum, you had the Tool style of progressive music. This involved time changes, but the focus was on groove and atmospherics, with each song building on a unique riff or bass line or drum pattern. Tool always stood by their brand and never wavered from it.
In between you had Porcupine Tree, merging Tool like aggression with Pink Floyd like atmospherics and on the extreme end you had Meshuggah with their focus on groovy, technical polyrhythms.
The missing link is Fates Warning.
Fates Warning released an album called “Disconnected” in 2000. With “Disconnected”, Jim Matheos merged the Tool and Porcupine Tree progressive elements with the Dream Theater progressive elements and put them through the Fates Warning blender. It’s a fusion of all the best progressive elements at the time into a cohesive piece of work that can be listened to over and over again from start to finish.
With so much access these days, it’s only natural that albums are overlooked, especially albums that didn’t really set the commercial charts on fire. Hell, the press behind the album was even a whisper.
But the album sticks with me, in the same way that each lick and melody from “Images and Words” by Dream Theater sticks. In other words, both of those albums made progressive music sound simple on the ear. Other people might have the view that progressive music is about doing something different (like not following the verse – chorus structure) and pushing musical boundaries (like time signatures, exotic scales and different musical styles). I would add that making something technical sound simple to the ear should also be part of the definition.
Metallica did it with each album up to “…And Justice For All”. They got technical with each release, but it still sounded simple to the ear. Rush are the original kings of pushing the technicality with each release, until they reset their career with “Signals”. Dream Theater nailed it with “Images And Words”. Fates Warning nailed it with “Disconnected”. Tool nailed it with “Lateralus”.
Who is going to nail it next?