Progressive metal, unlike other sub-genres of heavy metal, borrows heavily from hard rock, classical rock and early heavy metal influences. Although several of the bands on this list might not technically considered metal, we group hard rock and metal under the same umbrella for the sake of clarity.
Progressive metal (prog metal for short) is less about brutality and speed, as is the case with extreme metal or thrash. And the focus is not so much on evil or satanic themes, much like black metal. Instead, listeners can hear everything from classical music, symphonic metal, speed metal, power metal and traditional heavy metal in many “prog metal” bands. The focus has always been in the proficiency of the musicians, epic songwriting, and sounds that aren't neatly categorized into only one type of metal. As this list will show, even extreme metal bands can lean more towards the prog metal side. We now present our list of the 10 best progressive metal/hard rock bands.
10. X Japan
Although they still remain somewhat of a cult band in America, X Japan are one of the most successful metal/hard rock bands to emerge from Japan, and have sold millions of records worldwide, mostly in Asia, Europe and South America, after the success of the second album, Blue Blood (1989). The band formed three decades ago, and initially were a power metal/speed metal band with a sound heavily based on the new wave of British heavy metal bands. But eventually more influences of glam, classical music, symphonic metal hard rock and prog rock were added, as well as more ballads. Most of the band's lyrics are in Japanese, but over the years some English has also been added as well. The band is still going strong today, touring and making records. X Japan was also featured in the documentary Global Metal, and have been praised in interviews by former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman.
Although Cynic comes from the late '80s Florida death metal scene, they stood apart from bands like Cannibal Corpse and Malevolent Creation, at first because they were more thrash than death, but later because the band evolved to create a more avant-garde/progressive style of extreme metal. Founded in 1987 in Miami, the band currently features guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal, drummer Sean Reinert and bass player Sean Malone. The band's first album, Focus (1993) is considered to be a staple in the genre of progressive death metal, and showed that Cynic was well ahead of its time. With a hiatus, from 1994 to roughly 2006, the band decided to make a come back, and record two full albums, Traced in Air (2008), and most recently, Kindly Bent to Free Us, earlier this year. The band's unconventional mix of jazz fusion, experimental noise, hard rock, and extreme metal has paved the way for such bands as Intronaut, Between the Buried and Me, Ghost, Gojira and many more.
See also: The 20 Greatest Metal Albums in History
8. Symphony X
Hailing from New Jersey, Symphony X formed in 1994. The band uses heavy influences of Iron Maiden along with symphonic elements, classical music and progressive rock. With an epic, dense sound layered with hard rock percussion, keyboards and piano, walls of bass and melodic, distorted guitar riffs. The band has recorded nine studio albums and continues to work on new music and tour to this day.
Perhaps known as more of a black metal band, Sweden's Opeth were at first, an epic, blackened death metal band. When they formed in 1990, they were in the middle of a black metal scene devoted to Satanism, church burnings and violence. Opeth, however, were more interested in the sounds King Crimson, Deep Purple and guitarist Uli Jon Roth than that of Venom, Bathory or Mayhem. Guitarist/vocalist and songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt is known for having one of the most deep, brutal and guttural death metal vocal styles, but Opeth's music also contrasts this with clean, melodic singing, and slow, dreamy parts.
The band has been known for insanely long songs, with some songs reaching more than 12 minutes in length. Each Opeth album represents a slightly different variation of metal music. The band even recorded an entire acoustic album, Damnation (2003). Opeth are a successful, internationally known band, having toured the world several times, sharing the stage with everyone from Danzig, Nile, Katatonia, Lacuna Coil, Ghost, and many more. With the band's earlier work more centered in death/black metal, be sure to check out the band's most critically acclaimed album, Blackwater Park (2001), as well as the band's most recent releases, including Heritage (2011) and this year's Pale Communion.
With a sound that has been consistently heavy since they formed 14 years ago in Atlanta, Mastodon has managed to produce some of the most experimental and abstract music known to modern metal. The band features bassist Troy Sanders, guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher, and drummer Brann Dailor, who all contribute vocals. Imagine a sound that blends psychedelic, sludgy stoner rock, extreme metal, jazz and experimental noise, in what can be best described as The Mars Volta meets The Melvins meets Neurosis. Scott Kelly, guitarist/vocalist for Neurosis appears as a guest on each Mastodon record, except the band's first and most extreme album, Remission (2003). Mastodon's sound has evolved form extreme early on with very harsh, heavy vocals, to using cleaner singing, more spacey interludes, rhythms, guitar tones, and eclectic percussion styles. Be sure to check out the concept albums, Leviathan (2004), based on Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick, as well as 2006's Blood Mountain, an esoteric, nature-based record about climbing a mountain, which also features guest appearances by members of Neurosis, The Mars Volta, and Queens of the Stone Age. And don't neglect the band's release from this year, One More 'Round the Sun. The band plays the Fox Theater in Pomona on Oct. 17 with Gojira and Kvelertak.
5. Fates Warning
Considered to be one of the founders of the sub-genre of progressive metal, Fates Warning is an American band formed in 1982 in Connecticut. Although the band has seen numerous lineup changes in its three-decade-long career, the current lineup consists of guitarist/vocalist Ray Adler, guitarists Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti, drummer Bobby Jarzombeck, and bass player Joey Vera. With a mix of epic, classic metal and clear progressive rock sounds and styles, the band has 11 full-length studio albums, and a strong base of dedicated fans around the world. Using guitar riffs and harmonies, very similar to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, the band also utilized keyboards and pianos, to create epic yet clean, layered, progressive heavy metal songs. The bands is still going strong and show no signs of slowing down anytime soon, having released the album, Darkness in a Different Light, in 2013.
Queensrychye has been at the forefront of the progressive rock/metal sub-genre since its inception in 1982 in Washington state. Many even credit the band with creating the sub-genre, or at least bringing the deviation of heavy metal music to the masses. With over 14 studio albums, it is the band's groundbreaking, epic album Operation Mindcrime from 1988 that put the band on the map. Considered to be one of the best concept albums ever, the record tells the story of heroin addiction, political dystopia, assassination by mind control, and corruption. The band saw huge success with Operation Mindcrime and the following release, Empire, having sold more than seven million albums in the U.S. and a total of over 25 million worldwide, with multiple tours around the world.
But this success didn't come without internal problems within the band. In 2012, when original singer Geoff Tate was let go from the band, and replaced by Todd La Torre from the band Crimson Glory, Tate filed a lawsuit against his former band, claiming he was wrongfully fired. During this time, Tate formed a separate band also known as Queensryche. A judge ruled in 2014 that Tate lost all rights to the name Queensryche, but could legally perform Operation Mindcrime. Today, both Tate and Queensryche, featuring La Torre, still perform, record and tour.
3. Dream Theater
Formed in 1985, this American progressive metal band still contains original members guitarist/vocalist John Pertucci and bassist John Myung. Throughout the years, the band has undergone various lineup changes, including most recently the split with original drummer Mike Portnoy. The music has always been a boiling pot of traditional heavy metal riffs, shredding guitars and elements of traditional old-school metal like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, glam, speed metal, classic rock, hard rock, classical music, and of course prog rock, with heavy influences form such bands as Rush, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes. The band has toured all around the globe earning fans on every continent, having shared the stage with everyone from Megadeth and Iron Maiden to Deep Purple and Lamb of God.
2. King Crimson
Another band on this list that would not be considered strictly metal, but are appreciated by so many fans of hard rock, progressive rock and heavy metal that their contributions to prog metal cannot be overstated. Formed in the U.K. in 1968, this rock band took an unconventional approach from the onset. With too many lineup changes to mention, the band has had over two dozen members and musicians both past and present, and has a discography of over 12 studio albums. King Crimson's epic sound has influenced everyone from Tool and Primus to Genesis and Yes and everyone in between.
Make no mistake about it, Rush is not a heavy metal band, in the purest sense. But by all accounts they are responsible for the sound and evolution of metal as much as Deep Purple, or even Black Sabbath. Formed in 1968 in Canada, the band features bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart. For almost 50 years, Rush has earned millions of fans from around the world with such larger than life albums as 2112 and Moving Pictures; the band's career spans over 20 full length albums. Fans love Rush because of the great songs, amazing musicianship, and the dedication to live shows. Rush is in third place behind only The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, in terms of having the most gold and platinum albums for a rock band. In total, the band has sold over 40 million albums worldwide, were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, and show no sign of stopping or slowing down anytime soon.