What is prog metal? It’s a question that has perplexed philosophers since the days of Ancient Greece, or at least since the late 80s, when metal took on the DNA of progressive rock, resulting in a mutant strain of music that married volume and aggression with brain-melting complexity, far-reaching ambition and barking mad concepts.
Of course, prog metal is really whatever you want it to be. It could be the intricate explorations of 70s icons Rush or the arena-sized anthems of Dream Theater and Queensyche. It could be the jagged techno-thrash of Voivod, Ihsahn’s vaulting post-black metal or the interdimensional shamanism of Tool or… well, pretty much anything.
But who is the greatest prog metal band of them all? That’s where you come in. To answer this burning question, we threw it out to you – and you replied in your thousands. We’ve added up the votes, thrown out the wild cards (whichever joker voted for Machine Gun Kelly, get to the back of the class) and come up with the definitive list of the 20 greatest prog metal bands of all time. Buckle up, it’s going to get epic…
Many 80s metal bands kept their love of prog on the downlow, and Florida’s Savatage were no exception. Until, that is, 1989’s triumphant Gutter Ballet threw the doors wide open – this was power metal on a Broadway scale, not least on the title track’s orchestral overload.
From then on, they were off to the races: albums got grander, concepts got more intricate and the music got bigger. Outrageously OTT symphonic metal multi-media extravaganza Trans-Siberian Orchestra started out as a Savatage side project, which says it all. DE
Greatest prog metal moment: Gutter Ballet (1989)
Ihsahn’s been experimenting since day one. The Telemark native ascended as the mastermind of Emperor: the first symphonic black metal band and linchpins of the ’90s Norwegian scene. Then, after they broke up in 2001, he got even weirder with his solo stuff.
Ihsahn’s 2006 debut, The Adversary, intentionally regressed to his earliest influences: NWOBHM licks, symphonic swells and black metal tremolo picking alongside his seething screams. From that foundation, he built all kinds of weird shit. Eremita screeched with discordant jazz before Ámr’s synths bubbled away. Metal’s rarely as malleable as it is in this guy’s hands. MM
Greatest prog metal moment: The Eagle And The Snake (2012)
In 1993, Florida’s Cynic released their debut album through Roadrunner: a time, place and label obsessed with death metal. Focus was marketed to capitalise on the genre, yet its vocoders, synths and cosmic lyrics had nothing to do with it. The backlash catalysed their break-up the next year.
By their 2007 reunion, Cynic were rightfully recognised as pioneers. Comeback Traced In Air proved that they were no one-hit wonder by doubling down on the ambient jazz overtones. Even after 2020 left Paul Masvidal as the sole surviving member when Seans Reinert and Malone passed away, he channelled his grief into the celestial and beautiful Ascension Codes. MM
Greatest prog metal moment: How Could I (1993)
17. Fates Warning
By any reasonable measure, Fates Warning were way ahead of the prog metal curve. Formed in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1982, Jim Matheos’ crew took a couple of records to hit their stride, but by the time they released Awaken The Guardian in 1986, their transformation into progressive pioneers was complete.
Alongside Queensryche, Savatage and a handful of other, lesser known bands, Fates Warning were the first to think beyond metal’s traditional, four-minute format and drag it into a much more imaginative future. Still on exceptional form on 2020’s Long Day Good Night, their legacy is long and quite beyond dispute. DL
Greatest prog metal moment: Exodus (1986)
Leprous first snagged people’s ears as the backing band for frontman Einar Solberg’s brother-in-law, Ihsahn. However, more than a decade of avant-garde anthem-making has proven these Norwegians are no nepotism case.
Leprous debuted as a maximalist metal band: the scope and majestic vocals of Tall Poppy Syndrome carved them a home in the contemporary prog scene. On third album Coal though, the heaviness and breakdowns were relegated to the back seat, and melodies started driving their polyrhythmic songs. The refresh has resulted in such earworms as The Price and From The Flame – not to mention a reputation as prog metal’s catchiest band. MM
Greatest prog metal moment: Slave (2015)
15. Coheed and Cambria
Coheed And Cambria make even the most ambitious concept-minded band look like rank amateurs. Across nine albums (taking a brief break with 2015’s The Color Before The Sun), they have charted a course through a multi-medium space opera epic, each album detailing a different part of frontman Claudio Sanchez’s The Amory Wars storyline.
Starting out in the territories of post-hardcore and emo (sharing stages with the likes of My Chemical Romance and Thursday), Coheed’s songcraft soon grew to incorporate everything from heavy metal histrionics (Welcome Home, anyone?) to pure pop deliciousness (Jesse’s Girl 2), the best “nerd done good” tale since Weezer became international stars. RH
Greatest prog metal moment: Welcome Home (2005)
Enslaved are hailed as leaders of Viking metal, but their palate ventures far beyond that. Mayhem guitarist Euronymous turned the band on to Tangerine Dream in his record shop, Helvete, and it ignited a passion for esoteric sounds that made them second-wave black metal’s most genre-smashing band.
Heavy music, folk, prog and krautrock are all weapons in these berserkers’ arsenal, while their lyrics genuflect before the pantheon of Norse gods. Where to start with their discography is entirely subjective. Black metal loyalists best stick to the first fifteen years, since Enslaved’s mid-2000s and onwards are full of expansive songs and melodic vocals aplenty. MM
Greatest prog metal moment: Roots Of The Mountain (2012)
13. Iron Maiden
No one would dispute Iron Maiden’s credentials as one of the greatest heavy metal bands of all time, but their status as authentic prog metallers is somewhat less celebrated. Founder and bassist Steve Harris has always been heavily influenced by ‘70s prog bands like Genesis and Jethro Tull, and their influence can be heard in every elaborate epic that Maiden have ever recorded.
In recent times, they have fully embraced a prog metal ethos, and their music has become more adventurous and enjoyably indulgent as a result. It would be hard to overstate Maiden’s influence on just about everybody, and the entire prog metal scene owes them a debt of thanks. DL
Greatest prog metal moment: The Legacy (2006)
12. Symphony X
Led by virtuoso guitarist Michael Romeo, Symphony X are never knowingly under-the-top. Exploding into view with their self-titled debut in 1994, the Americans took the template laid down by Dream Theater, Queensryche and the rest, and cranked the intensity up to boiling point.
With Romeo’s blistering technique and vocalist Russell Allen’s soulful rasp as focal points, Symphony X have become one of prog metal’s most revered bands, but the sheer ferocity of their collective attack is still genuinely startling. Listen to 2007’s Milton-inspired concept sprawl Paradise Lost and witness prog metal at its most crushing and precise. DL
Greatest prog metal moment: The Odyssey (2002)
When brothers Joe and Mario Duplantier co-founded a bedroom band called Godzilla, they just wanted to imitate their heroes Machine Head and Morbid Angel. Now, the duo are the core of the most popular progressive metal band since Tool.
The Gojira journey has been a twenty-year-long upward incline, which commenced with 2001’s growling and blast- beating Terra Incognita. Follow-up The Link began flirting with prog during its melodic detours, then From Mars To Sirius affirmed Gojira as forward-thinking warriors fighting for mother nature. Magma and Fortitude later used heavier grooves and choruses to gun for arena stardom. And they succeeded. MM
Greatest prog metal moment: The Art Of Dying (2008)