Cooking up a taste for Progressive in Africa

Authored by: Doug Jenkinson

From the editor: Doug Jenkinson, also guitarist for Johannesburg Prog/Metal band Raptorbaby, shares some insightful views on the development of genres and sub-genres within the African and international contexts. This article was too well-timed with the arrival of UK’s TesseracT on South African shores within the days ahead to not publish immediately. We hope that any readers or musicians exploring the universe of music, Metal and Prog can take some good points raised in this welcome item.

Tesseract SA tour by Turning Tricks Entertainment

Link to facebook event page for TesseracT – live in Cape Town on 28 April
Link to facebook event page for TesseracT – live in Johannesburg on 29 April

Cooking up a taste for Progressive in Africa

Since the time when I was a wee little boy I always remember being fascinated with music. I had parents, as most of us did, who enjoyed their own specific taste in music, and they introduced me to some interesting and diverse styles from their very British 70s and 80s collection. The likes of Genesis, Mike Oldfield and Marillion were always playing on their bass-boosted Sony stereo during dinners and house parties. As I grew and developed my own tastes and preferences in music, I found myself drawn towards the more obscure songs on albums, when others were more infatuated with the hit singles. I enjoyed the weirdness and the challenge of hearing something that wasn’t quite as predictable as the rest of the tracks from an artist.

For years, I could never quite define what it was that I enjoyed in music. I had basic knowledge of genres from watching MTV and VH1, but access to the internet was quite limited whilst growing up in countries like Swaziland, Ghana and Tanzania. As such, I never had access to more diverse information on the niches in music.

During my teens, I attended boarding school in South Africa; it was a time when I developed a keen interest in all things Metal. At that time, Nu-Metal had married MTV and I could not get enough of their incestuous relationship. I still found myself attracted to the more obscure, diverse songs by bands like Korn, Deftones and Slipknot while other people were fine with chanting along to ‘Wait and Bleed’. Also at that time, I finally acquired decent internet access and a fair idea as to how to use it, and I subsequently discovered the term that at least vaguely described what I preferred in music. This term was “Progressive music”, and my investigation of its definition took me on an epic journey in and out of all sorts of genres and styles during my late teens and early adulthood, all linked by this very general but very powerful meta tag.

Opeth (included by the editor)

Progressive Whose-it-what?

So, for other votaries in the temple of definitive musical exploration, you’ve heard the term thrown around a bit and I’ve spoken a little about my personal relationship with it, but perhaps you’re still not 100% sure what this damn term implies? Well, my metal-orientated homo sapiens-sapien, I’ll try the best I can to assist in broadening your horizon. In the end, Progressive music – and by association Progressive Metal – is all about the broadest of horizons.

See, academically speaking, Progressive music typically implies certain musical characteristics, such as unorthodox song structures, heavy theoretical or classical influences, and technically demanding compositions. However, not all of these conditions need to be met in order for music to classed as Progressive.

To a degree, the one universal feature of the genre is an unusual or experimental approach to how the songs are written; not the typical verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure. In fact, with Progressive music, it is often very hard to determine what part of the song is a verse or a chorus at all. Since most compositions do not adhere to that conventional paradigm of arrangement (some do, but with great variability), they are often rather composed as pieces of naturally-flowing note progressions. The music sonically “progresses”, hence the name. The rules that govern this progressive arrangement are based on the taste of the composer, and literally, you can do whatever you like with your composition. Usually the diversity in flow is achieved by blending styles and genres. The only rule – and the genre’s greatest challenge – is to arrange a song that maintains a coherent “feel”, something that musically sounds good to listen to, but somewhat challenging to consume since it follows it’s own rules.

Periphery (included by the editor)

And in layman terms

Speaking about it more casually, one can think of it as preparing a meal. Progressive music to me is often something that has a unique sound and style; music that is somewhat challenging, but ever so rewarding to listen to. Think of it as a complex dish to dazzle the senses and tease the taste buds. The Progressive Metal version of this genre has but one rule: it must be, at certain moments, loud and “aggressive” (think assertive rather than violent).

The diversity which spans the Progressive Metal genre is nothing short of staggering. Different bands blend a plethora of variable styles and influences into the usual Metal cooking pot, spicing their concoction with smatterings of Classical, Jazz, Indie and Blues, with a dogged determination to bring out musical flavours which are new and interesting. Each musical chef has his/her own preference for style and combination; their idea of a good flavour. As a result, obviously, those who profess to be avid fans of Progressive Metal (I have not met a non-avid Progressive Metal fan) will often overlook more than half the bands that technically fit within such a diverse genre, simply because many bands’ specific style does not speak to those listeners’ specific tastes.

Because of this fact, Progressive Metal predominantly remains a niche genre, often regarded by the masses in the same way as those exotic foreign food merchants found down narrow corridors – that is to say: with a sense of trepidation – whereas if people might trust their nose rather than preconceived perceptions of taste, they might indeed find themselves in for a treat. There are, of course, a few exceptions in fame and financial success among some of the bigger bands who vigorously wave the genre’s flag. Yet the reality remains that such diversity means a lot of hit and miss within the context of the taste of so many listeners as compared to orthodox, by-the-book aggressive composition that the main sub-genres of Metal enjoy among their legions of fans.

Katatonia (included by the editor)

Mother of Djragons

A sobering thought on the subject of Progressive Metal, is that at some point, most Metal sub-genres would have been easily classed as Progressive Metal at the time of their birth. New genres were essentially born from bands taking the traditional aspects of Metal and experimenting with style and approach, while keeping the same basic mix of instruments and loud, gritty sound that makes a band “Metal”. Those bands took the basic tool set and did something different in terms of compositional structure and sounds to create something unique and standout, at which point other bands – themselves innocent fans of the newly defined style – would propagate the burgeoning genre with their own slight adjustments and additions to it’s style.

What can still be considered as fairly recently, we have been witness to the birth of a new genre that I believe will eventually take it’s place among the great Metal sub-genres such as Thrash, Power, Death, Doom and Nu-metal. This newborn is known to the metal community as “Djent”, a style humorously defined by the sound of a struck note on the low string of an extended range guitar run through a mid-gain tube amp (usually digitally simulated tube amps, mind you, this is the modern age after all).

Djent has been declared as a direct descendant of Progressive Metal itself, and indeed Djent shares many characteristics of its Progressive mother: unorthodox song structures, and often; technical complexity. Many of the artists in this style profess their biggest influences to be some of the Progressive greats in Metal as well as other genres. However, the characteristic groove and chugg of this genre has made bands of it’s style rather more easy to identify and group together than its parent’s artists. There is something very specific about the sound. Over the last 8 years, Djent has undergone a very rapid definition in style and flavour, which has yet to slow down. In my opinion, the sub-sub-genre will soon emerge as a grown-up, at which point it will move out of it’s mom’s house and get itself a job as an officially recognized sub-genre of its grandfather, the mighty Heavy Metal.

TesseracT (Pretty Djent – example included by the author)

The bands of Djent are experiencing a rapid growth in success within the Metal community, thanks to their blend of a huge, aggressive sound reminiscent of the days of Nu-metal, with the sophistication of intelligent and complex songwriting that does not compromise the listener by flying too far into the clouds of weirdness. It’s what kids are listening to these days, and it has it’s mother, Progressive Metal, to thank for it’s intelligent and diverse sound that sets it aside from it’s hugely successful, yet very out of fashion cousin, Nu-metal.

Djent has also contributed greatly to it’s parent, with more focus and intrigue on the progressive aspect of Djent directing more attention at Progressive Metal as a whole. The added attention on Djent and it’s roots have created a resurgence of interest in Progressive music as a whole among metalheads. Djent has been so successful, that it has been absorbed by other sub-genres, such as Metalcore, Deathcore and Death Metal, who have adopted its approach to massive production and uniquely addictive extended range guitar tone.

However, it should be noted that among the more pedantic progressive metal purists, Djent is more of an irritant, and is considered by many as a more brain-dead derivative of the genre; a sweeping fad that will be dropped by kids for the next best thing. This is unfortunate, as some of the Djent heavyweights in the genre have done much to experiment and grow the style and are worthy of their place among the progressive greats. Just go check out bands like TesseracT, Uneven Structure, The Contortionist, Animals As Leaders, Periphery or Sikth who experiment with wildly diverse and flowing compositions, and that jump in and out of all sorts of genres and styles. And these to name just a few. As a listener, you will pick up pretty quickly the common thread of sound that groups these bands together. After that, don’t forget to go and check out Meshuggah – the band that started the whole trend in the first place – for an insight into the guitar tone and poly-rhythmic approach that permeates the music of all the bands within the style.

Meshuggah (Heavy Djent – example included by the author)

Where is the African “Djent” Success Story?

Understanding this concept helps to drive a fundamental point I wish to make here, particularly when turning our focus to our beloved Africa and it’s place within the global Metal community. At this point, Metal as whole is the niche, and Progressive Metal is barely on the map within as Africa has far fewer of its musical partisans exposed to the genre. I fully believe that Metal can become a popular style in Africa; with the experimental machinations of bands like Sepultura, blending traditional Brazilian music with it’s Thrash and Death style to create the 1996 epic Roots album as an example of how malleable Metal can be, and how it can absorb almost any style and feel into the formula.

Megalodon, Cape Town RSA (included by the editor)

So, where is our African claim to genre fame? At this point, Metal being a relatively small genre enjoyed by very few of the continent’s vast populace, the big staple Metal sub-genres remain the focus of our listeners. Perhaps this is because most of us as creators and consumers are still discovering and investigating the diversity of the mainstream genres within Heavy Metal. This is also reflected in the majority of the locally formed Heavy Metal bands which proudly play to the specifics of the members’ beloved sub-genre is, replicating that familiar approach and style to what they hold most dear about their Heavy Metal passion. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a specific style that they love. It’s the style they want to play, and it would be rather unfair to judge them negatively for that. After all, pursuing music in such a niche means it has to be a passion, otherwise what is the reward to be taken for doing so? Certainly not financial gain or a dramatic rise to fame. Perhaps someday, but certainly not yet. And those who do something as a passion do something the way they want to do it, and not the way others expect them to do it.

However, it does present a problem, in that there is little that uniquely defines our local Metal as compared to that of the rest of the world. We are just barely keeping up in style with the Metal mainstream which, much like computers, is rapidly progressing every year. This unfortunately results in little international interest in our local-bred talent, as we can be simply shrugged off as “another Slipknot/Emperor/Suicide Silence/Metallica/*insert-famous-band-that-defines-a-style-here* knockoff” and shoved aside since the rest of the world already possesses and enjoys such bands. And because we consume so much international media within Africa, we are strangely – ironically even – waiting for them to tell us we are worth something (it’s sad that people have this attitude, but many do), and that simply won’t happen without us stepping over some boundaries and putting something out there that is radically different and therefore difficult to ignore.

I believe that Progressive Metal, as a cultural attitude rather than a sub-genre, will help us break this mould. We need to take the parts we love about our beloved Metal, and find new ways to approach it; new ways to write; new things to say; diverse things that makes the all-seeing eye of the international community turn to look at us and find itself too curious and too intrigued to break it’s welcome stare. This will also have the added effect of pride in ourselves, as we start to identify something that uniquely defines the character of our Metal compared to that of the rest of the world. Our listeners will turn inwards, give more credit and support to local acts, and we will end up building ourselves up without the need for external assistance.

Raptorbaby, Johannesburg RSA (included by the editor)

Luckily, we have seen an upturn in experimental and progressively orientated Metal bands, particularly in South Africa where I reside. The process is slow, but it is making some progress and gaining momentum. This subject is not new to me, and my own Progressive Metal band was formed out of the many conversations focused on this subject between myself and my friends. Since then we have had the honour of playing alongside some very interesting local Prog acts from South Africa, including the likes of New Earth, Hokum, Savage Lucy, Riddlebreak, OhGod, Poverty of Ideals and many others; all ridiculously talented, and all doing their little bit to find new ways to express Metal, even though many of them do not class themselves under the Progressive umbrella.

However, the greatest goal we could aspire towards achieving is to establish a purely African sub-genre in Metal; something to call our own, and born out of the characteristics that make us African. I’m not talking about adding African percussion to make it sound “tribal”, but rather finding interesting ways to express ourselves through our African culture and history, whether that be in compositional or lyrical approaches, to create our own unique style. However, we are as about diverse as they come on this planet, so to expect us to form a cohesive sound and style to warrant a genre definition is a big ask.

But the first step in that direction could be the continued experimentation of our Metal artists, as they investigate new ways to approach the genre with their mind far in the clouds. Let’s get back into the proverbial “kitchen” with some truly African ingredients and cook up a cuisine that will have metalheads from all around the world salivating for a taste! Perhaps some cohesion will be formed through that, and wouldn’t it be nice to have the world turn to us, say how impressed they are with what we are doing, and we can simply flip them off and headbang our own way ahead under the African sun?

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Ohgod, Cape Town RSA (included by the editor)