Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal

(Bazillion
Points)

 

www.bazillionpoints.com

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

Heavy
metal, perhaps, is the only musical offshoot of rock ‘n’ roll upon which is
heaped more critical scorn than progressive rock. As for “progressive
metal,” the bastard love child of 1970s-era prog-rock and 1980s-style
heavy metal, well… forgetaboutit! There’s nothing that will shut down a mainstream critic’s synapses and brick
off their ears faster than hearing those two magic words… “progressive
metal.” You know the type, the kind of guys and gals that wax ecstatic
over a new Mars Volta album, chanting in a chorus of the band’s
“progressive elements” even while turning their faces into a
corpselike grimace at the mention of a truly radical band like Meshuggah.

 

Enter
music historian Jeff Wagner and his enormously informative tome Mean Deviation, published by the
estimable rawk folks at Bazillion Points (the house also behind the stellar
volume Touch And Go: The Complete
Hardcore Punk Zine ’79-’83
, previously covered by BLURT). The former editor
of Metal Maniacs magazine and a bona
fide, died-in-the-wool heavy metal fan, Wagner has thought this stuff over,
listened to the music, come to his conclusions, drafted the charts and, well,
wrote the definitive book on the evolution of progressive metal music over the
past four decades. Just because many blockheaded critics refuse to sully their
reputations with anything deemed “metallic” doesn’t mean that you
have to deny your medulla oblongata the enjoyment of this challenging and often
exhilarating genre of music.

 

Wagner
charts the beginning of progressive metal’s long crawl towards a modicum of
commercial acceptance to the collision of twin early-1970s musical phenomena:
the first generation of prog-rock bands like King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and
ELP; and proto-metal trailblazers like Black Sabbath, Rainbow, and Judas
Priest. These important, ground-breaking bands would, in turn, begat the likes
of Canada’s Rush and Voivod, the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal”
bands like Iron Maiden and, subsequently, Wagner’s “big three” of
influential progressive metal bands.

 

Wagner’s
“big three” consists of a trio of hard-to-pigeonhole, metal-leaning
bands: Queensryche, Fate’s Warning, and Dream Theater. As theories go, his
isn’t a bad one, and while I personally would lend more credence to Voivoid’s
influence on a subsequent generation of prog-minded, technically-oriented
metalheads, I’ll gladly bow to Wagner’s greater expertise in this matter.
Explaining the musical accomplishments and importance of each of these three
bands, Wagner patiently lays out the effect of each band’s influence and how they’ve
helped prod along the evolution of this critter called progressive metal.

 

Mean Deviation isn’t content merely laying the entire
prog-metal thing at the feet of the “big three,” Wagner frequently
straying off the path to explore many darkened corridors. The author ventures
into such vastly-unexplored regions as tech-metal cult bands Voivod (yay!) and
Watchtower; thrashers-turned-existentialists like Atheist and Cynic; and death
metal progenitors like Celtic Frost. Along his literary sojourn, Wagner
gleefully explores the 1980s and ’90s-era underground metal scenes in Northern
Europe and North America, going into exhaustive and welcome detail on such
adventuresome metal outfits as Death, Pestilence, Realm, Spiral Architect,
Psychotic Waltz, and a wealth of other obscure-but-considered bands.

 

The fruits
of decades of prog-metal evolution and revolution are covered by the last
chapters of Mean Deviation, Wagner
highlighting the musical accomplishments of such contemporary merry pranksters in
the genre as Opeth, Meshuggah, Porcupine Tree, and even unlikely international
artists as Japan’s
Sigh and Gonin-Ish. A lengthy appendix to Mean
Deviation
provides capsule bios of better than two-dozen worthy bands that
didn’t make it among the dozens covered in the main text, while another
appendix offers a handy list of recommended progressive metal albums to
jump-start a collection, from Angra’s Holy
Land
to Zero Hour’s The Tower of
Avarice
, with albums from Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Rush, Voivod, and many
others rounding out the list.

 

Wagner’s
prose is lively and informative, entertaining while providing the music fan
with plenty of considerations for future purchase. Heck, even the Reverend has
ponied up a couple of sawbucks for albums on Wagner’s recommended list, which
is no little feat, indeed. The lasting importance of Mean Deviation, however, isn’t the random additions to one’s music
collection, or even the well-deserved coverage that the author provides the
aforementioned bands in the book.

 

Mean Deviation legitimizes heavy metal and progressive
metal with an academic sheen, albeit delivered with a fanboy’s enthusiasm.
Often unfairly belittled, many of the bands championed by Wagner have
contributed greatly to the ever-changing history of rock music, delivering
overlooked, but no less worthy albums that have influenced mainstream artists
in ways that many casual fans may be unaware. Mean Deviation is more than a textbook of progressive metal,
Wagner’s impressive work cause for reconsideration of his subject matter and,
in the long run, greater acceptance of a music that is often challenging and
difficult. Plus, this profusely-illustrated and deeply-researched book is just
a hell of a lot of fun for both the dedicated metal fan and the newbie alike… the
Rev says “check it out!”

 

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