Friday, 10 December 2010

Book Review: Mean Deviation

Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.
- Frank Zappa (dedication).

On June 16, 1902, just as Gottlob Frege's new Grundgesetze der Arithmetik was going to press, Bertrand Russell wrote to him, with catastrophic, utterly devastating news: drummer and co-founder Mike Portnoy had just left Dream Theater.

No, that's not right. Let me try again...

In 2008 a truly worldwide survey of more than 36,000 people (three dozen kilopeople!), the largest of its kind ever undertaken, made the first ever serious attempt to correlate people's musical tastes with their personality types. Led by one Professor Adrian North of Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University, the research uncovered more than one fascinating fact about us, the musical styles with which we prefer to be identified, and what these say about our characters. But that is not the impression you'd have taken from the headlines at the time.

Almost unanimously, journalists and reporters focused on just one single correlation from that report; one which, for whatever reason, they found to be quite unexpected, striking... astonishing. This was the correlation between classical music lovers, and heavy metal maniacs.

In fact, excluding only age differences, the researchers had found that devotees of these two musical styles share "virtually identical" personality traits. Such as being much more creative than other people*, and being "at ease with themselves", although "not exactly outgoing". Musically and psychologically adjacent to both groups, and giving perhaps some clue as to the nature of their common ground, we find the fans of so-called progressive music. Forever enraptured by technical proficiency and the grand scale of the orchestral, in recent times they have increasingly found their genre migrating due north in a heavy metal-led diaspora.


Some would argue that the classical, the progressive, has been in heavy metal's DNA from its very inception. The entire genre was born in Britain, they'd say, on the cold morning of Friday 13th February, 1970, when the first three notes of Black Sabbath (the opening track of the eponymous debut album, Black Sabbath, by a Birmingham band whose name temporarily escapes us) oozed and spilled out on to the rug, bleeding - in the words of its clever cover art poem, Still Falls The Rain - before a gesticulating death.

Those first doom laden notes, and in fact most of the song, comprise musical theory's infamous tritone interval. Branded Diabolus in Musica or the Devil's Interval by medieval musicians, this eternal technical oddity was otherwise virtually unknown in pop and rock. Admittedly it appears in The Simpsons' theme, but that's quite a rare pop culture appearance. Historically however, it has cropped up in many and various classical guises, from the 19th century onward. Erm, according to those Black Sabbath fans, that is.


Now at last we have the definitive document, the one that records the detailed co-evolution of these disparate musical styles. Today we can finally read the history - some are already calling it the Bible - of progressive heavy metal.

This book's credentials are impeccable. It's edited by Ian Christe, whose own Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal has itself remained more or less definitive in its own subject area, ever since its first appearance as a hardback in 2003. Even more importantly, this new account is written by the former (1996-2001) editor of the Metal Maniacs fanzine, already a highly regarded, respected, and revered authority in the field. Jeff Wagner's book was always guaranteed to be seminal and enthusiastically received, at least from the heavy metal half of an overall perspective.

That it also succeeds quite so brilliantly in charting the convolutions of progressive rock music, with its increasingly intertwined and eventually shared destiny with heavy metal over those decades, is a fact first attested to by the involvement of none other than Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson in the title's launch. Steven contributes the foreword to the book, as well as the prime and essential tribute: "We now have a definitive book on the relationship between metal and progressive music."

Sneak A Peek

Typical Amazon reviews concentrate on a roll call of the band and personnel names mentioned in the work. I'm looking for better metrics. A page count of 384 may be a nominally useful measure of the length of the work, but an appreciation of its depth can be gained immediately from the size of its index: eleven, full, two-columned pages. And a still better gauge is actually to view the full content of that index, which is available as a PDF download here. That's your roll call right there, that is, and it's particularly gratifying to realise that the entries for Fates Warning and Rush are actually longer than Dream Theater's! Here's a guy who really and truly knows his musical history...

There's a sample extract from Part II: The Science of the Day, chapter five, Passing the Threshold, available in PDF here, just to confirm your suspicions about how painstakingly well researched is Jeff's labour of love, his tribute to the creative artists involved in this fascinating tale.

Musical Structure

Befitting the complex musical forms whose development it describes, the book sports a considered and well thought-through top level framework. Steven Wilson's foreword leads into the author's prologue, where he sets the scene, hinting at the inspiration, the seeds and roots of the book, in his own reaction - as a fan - to Voivod's controversial (and widely misunderstood) sixth album - 1991's Angel Rat. And perhaps more significantly, his roommate's (also a big Voivod fan) diametrically opposed reaction to the same. Jeff saw in this dispute, in the rejection of the band's new direction by such reactionary, conservative fans, the true definition of progressive music.

Following this, the main body of the book is divided into five major parts. Here I'd like to reproduce its Contents section, for the purpose of providing each chapter with a pithy summary paragraph. Please keep in mind that these descriptions do nothing more than sketch out the broadest narrative arc of a work, whose substance is rather to be found in the fascinating level of detail in which Jeff teases out the offshoots and foliage of each main branch. You have to buy the book to get that!

Part I : Atmospheric Disturbance

The groundwork is traced, from the first saplings of metal and prog in the 60s, to the digital revolution in music, and the 90s explosion of progressive heavy metal.

1. Invention / Reinvention.

Almost inevitably in hindsight, we start not with Black Sabbath, but with the shock of 1969's King Crimson opening at Vermont with 21st Century Schizoid Man. Having thus given adequate justification for his book's subtitle, Jeff then goes still further back to enlist Zappa's unprecedented double album Freak Out! from 1966 as the second half of a platform, on which to introduce a mass of later 60s and early 70s names; the pioneers of the first progressive rock. Through this whirlwind retelling, Robert Fripp repeatedly makes clear how he regards much of King Crimson's output, both then and still on 1974's Red, in retrospect as heavy metal proper.

2. All Moving Parts.

Chapter two sees Black Sabbath receive their due recognition as the first heavy metal specialist band, while their fifth album, 1973's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, gets a nomination for the first ever progressive heavy metal album - due in some part to the keyboard and arrangement duties performed in the studio by a classically trained Rick Wakeman. Meanwhile, in an adjacent debate, just exactly who did first coin that term for what Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple et al were now starting to do? Major branches explored here include: Rainbow, Judas Priest, Scorpions.

3. By-Tor at the Gates of Delirium.

And already we've reached the ambitious, ofttimes Ayn Rand-inspired, epic song craft of Rush, whom Jeff credits with the most successful hybridization of prog rock and heavy metal thereto achieved. This entire chapter belongs to the Canadian trio, whose 2112 remains pivotal in prog metal.

4. Open Mind for a Different View.

The groundwork is completed by a survey of the biggest purveyors of "smarter, more sophisticated metal to the masses" in the 80s - principally Iron Maiden, Mercyful Fate, Metallica and Megadeth. As elsewhere, the significant influences on these are well researched and documented, via live contemporary interviews wherever possible.

Part II : The Science Of The Day

5. Passing the Threshold.

Also, in a sense, the torch. True prog metal arrives fully formed, from America, in the definitive guise of Washington State's Queensrÿche and Connecticut's Fates Warning, whose intertwined destinies dominate this, the publicly viewable preview chapter. An amusing sidebar titled "What If?" speculates on the alternative prog metal universe that would have sprouted, had Ron Jarzombek (later of Texas math rock legends Watchtower) succeeded with his tape audition for Fates Warning. Conclusion: actually, things would eventually have worked out pretty much the same.

6. Killed by Tech.

Ah yes, Watchtower. The birth of tech metal. I have no words for the mighty Watchtower. Except... uncompromising, mathematical. And, well, let's see, bat shit crazy. Luckily, Jeff does have words for them and their ilk; well articulated words, too. In fact, I read his very description of the genre as itself a labour of journalistic love. Once again, don't miss the fascinating and funny sidebar, "Prog on a Pogo Stick". We are still waiting for Watchtower's third, the doomed Mathematics; but here, Jeff does give us at least a little hope.

7. A Constant Motion.

Sure, there's a lot more to prog metal than Dream Theater; but hey, they're far and away the biggest kid in this playground. So many and varied superlatives run true of this band, that you sense Jeff had trouble in containing their story to a single chapter. Yet contained it had to be, in a book whose watch word after all is diversity. This chapter contains that one fatal quote, hinted at in my introduction above: "... a union that still shows no signs of relenting." More on that later.

Part III : A Quantum Leap Forward

There are many threads to follow from the early 90s, "going forward". In this section of the book, Jeff splits them both temporally and geographically into five closely related chapters, subtitled "Sublimation from Underground." The result is a well organised, well analysed record of this tumultuous and potentially confusing period of development.

8. Sublimation from Underground I: Voivod & Celtic Frost

Watchtower's Jason McMaster in turn passes the torch to Celtic Frost's Tom G. Warrior, while Canada's Voivod rise from the underground to the acclaim of critics like Cynic's Paul Masvidal; "metal godfathers" Lemmy and Bruce Dickinson; and, erm, Ryan Adams. The familiar sidebar morphs into a four-page discourse on 90s hybridization and genre-box disintegration.

9. Sublimation from Underground II: Europe

That's the continent of course, not the glam rock band. Voivod and Celtic Frost had Berlin-based Noise Records in common. Jeff uses this as a springboard for the exploration of related European bands, including Switzerland's Coroner; Germany's Sieges Even, Mekong Delta, Destruction, Deathrow, and Atrocity; then similar lists in turn from Austria and Finland. Sidebar: Mekong Delta's reworkings of classical compositions. Nice.

10. Sublimation from Underground III: North America

San Francisco is prolific. In fact, California; no, make that the West coast; and the midwest; hell, all of North America (and Montreal too) is breaking out in metal. Jeff picks out two midwestern bands in particular - Anacrusis and Realm - for their still resonant debut offerings, and their refusal to bow to the new orthodoxy of Metallica. Yay!

11. Sublimation from Underground IV: Florida

The explosion of death metal from Florida in the 90s is remarkable, as Jeff makes abundantly clear in this whole chapter dedicated to this one sunshine state, finding within it much variety and deviation from the headlong headbanging stampede. This chapter happens to straddle the midpoint of the book, and so coincidentally contains the 16 pages of full colour plates. Wow, look at San Francisco's Hammers of Misfortune, I'm just sayin', must give them a listen soon...

12. Sublimation from Underground V: From 2112 to 1993

Jeff identifies a sea change in 1993: the death of death metal, at the strangling hands of grunge. He further identifies three creative high spots that ultimately got smothered in the carnage: Spheres by Dutch pioneers Pestilence; Believer's Dimensions; and Cynic's Focus. All three bands would follow these releases with a commercially imposed, 15-year hiatus. And yet this one year remains to this day remarkable, for the sheer number and variety of new and/or evolved bands suddenly innovating in the genre (a fact borne out in the sidebar, 1993: Year of the Eggheadbanger).

Part IV : Genetic Blends

13. Deviation or Derivation?

Historical review time: why prog was dying in 1992, and why Dream Theater made such a positive impact crater. So begins a retrospective chapter, deeply analytical, and with the expository skill of the lifelong observer and specialist, yielding his tools: economics; fashion; and ultimately, perhaps for the last time ever, the thoughts and actions of enterprising new record label bosses. Pain of Salvation and Devin Townsend emerge as creatively, contemporarily, influential.

14. Swedish Oddballs

Yet another country gets the by-now familiar treatment of analysis; history; review. The unexpected prevalence of Sweden in the field of "grisly, violent metal" leads through the frustrations and reactions of small town life, via Therion and Edge of Sanity, to a foreshadowing of the prog metal gods Meshuggah and Opeth. Just recently I realised how many more of my favourite musical acts hail from this Scandinavian land. But on reflection, it would probably have been quite inappropriate (despite endorsements from both the ubiquitous Steven Wilson, and Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt) to include Abba. To say nothing of The (thoroughly and comprehensively metal influenced) Cardigans, nor yet of their beautifully talented vocalist Nina Persson's solo project, A Camp. Oh well.

15. The "Weirding" of Norway

Not so much prog, more black metal; Norway's main contribution to the genre is also surprising in its intensity and ubiquity. At this juncture, I must confess that I have pretty much avoided this sub genre personally, almost completely in fact. That's entirely because of the actions of one particularly murderous and maniacal psychopath. Accordingly, I've skipped most of this chapter too. Maybe I'll discover this country musically one day, when I've fully disassociated its music from the violence. But for now, on the basis that I've no knowledge with which to judge this chapter objectively: no review.

Part V : Into Data Overload...

16. The Expanding Universe.

Jeff identifies another sea change in 2000 - this time, using the actual phrase! woohoo! - whereby such challenging music as that produced by avant-garde bands like Japan's Sigh, or maybe America's Kayo Dot, could gain mainstream acceptance. This was one of the most entertaining and fascinating chapters for me. Meshuggah finally get their thoroughly deserved and warranted extensive treatment; Opeth too; whilst the inventiveness and popularity of Tool and Mastodon are justly celebrated.

17. A Way Out from the Way-out?

The final summing up is a complete pleasure to read, the history of progressive heavy metal music in review. Jeff repeats his Gottlob Frege moment, remarking that "In 2010, Portnoy [and] Dream Theater ... are in a comfortable position." At the time of writing, of course, those four bootmark impressions had yet to appear on Mike's arse - in the words of this chapter's title, on his Way Out. Notwithstanding, the final chapter is a beautiful conclusion to a fantastic account of this form of contemporary art.

Brass Tax

Finally, an epilogue and three fascinating appendices round off the work; each to my mind hinting at a potential sequel. Please!

The writing style has been dynamic, actively invoking the personalities not just of individual musicians, but of executives and organisations, bands, towns, epochs in time, musical genres and individual audiences. And despite occasional forays into the darker aspects of the music business, into human weaknesses and addictions, the book's emphasis is always, consistently and correctly, focused on the evolution of its musical forms.

Through it all, often unnoticed in its metamorphoses, the uniquely malleable music grows, develops, matures. It casts off old skins and grows new armour. It splits and fractures, throwing out new offshoots, whole hierarchies of new life. A bewildering tapestry of sub-genres, and certainly a great many new follow-up bands, await most readers, almost completely unaware of just how much they are still unaware of.

In its proper historical perspective, Progressive Heavy Metal is destined to be enshrined as one of the greatest, most evolved, varied and significant, and most artistically important, developed and valid, offshoots of Rock. That fact can become only clearer with time. This beautiful, highly authoritative, truly exemplary book is its illuminated manuscript; its codex; its definitive work of reference; its testament and tribute.

“One thing prog metal certainly is, is metal. Hard and bold and brash, but refined, adulterated, and mutated; it is heavy metal taken somewhere illuminating and sometimes bizarre.”
- Jeff Wagner (author), interviewed on Noise Pollution.

Publisher Bazillion Points have come through in the quality department, with photographs, and incidental graphics, being particularly well reproduced; but also, equal attention to paper and print. Which is just as well; this one will have to stand up to multiple readings, no doubt at all about that. Update, Dec 30: Told ya! I've now read it twice, hence this much expanded & updated review. The only question I have for the publisher is: for such a seminal, pathfinding, and goddammit resolutely well researched and significant work as this: why, oh why, no hardback edition?

Finally, for a quite knowledgeable and much more critical commentary on this book, try the Poetry of Subculture blog of Greek graphic artist Telemachus Stavropoulos, at

* Jazz fans also received honourable mention for creativity!

Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal
Author: Jeff Wagner (former editor, Metal Maniacs)
Foreword: Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree)
Artwork: Michel "Away" Langevin (Voivod)
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: BAZILLION POINTS (23 Sep 2010)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0979616336
ISBN-13: 978-0979616334

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