For those of you who like to live on the heavy side of prog, I offer my brief thoughts on three prog-metal albums that have very little in common with each other despite the fact that they all rely on intense riffing as a foundational element. Basically a sampling of three distinct camps (metal fusion, female-fronted/operatic, and post-hardcore), what they have to offer should be of interest and I can’t help but say that each of one of these albums has some outstanding element that really makes them shine. 

Maschine – Rubidium
They say to never judge a book by its cover. I’m going to say, “Never judge an album by its opening track,” because after hearing the opener to Maschine’s debut, Rubidium, I was about ready to start track skipping. But I hung in there, and I’m glad I did. Maschine, the new band by the young and former guitar player of The Tangent, is quite a unique group. Initially they give off the impression of ‘prog-metal,’ but after a few tracks you realize that the picture they paint is quite distinct. While much of Luke’s guitar playing has a sort of prog metal style, you’ll notice that his done is anything but prog metal; it’s quite lightly distorted in fact, creating a sort of non-conventional approach to what is at times, conventional prog metal riffing. But that’s just a small part of it. In reality, once you sit through the whole album you realize that the metal is quite spread out. In the end, I’d say there’s more jazz here than anything, and between it all is a variety of rock that makes the style of this band quite hard to pinpoint (in a good way. Tracks like “Rubidium” caught my attention with their strong sense of urgency created through quick moving guitars juxtaposed against slow vocals. The jazz parts on this track show great interplay between the bass and guitar and let us take a nice breather and the band caps it off with a rather unexpected, but pleasant, cinematic section and drum solo. If there’s anything that you’ll immediately notice it’s that Luke’s guitar solos are to die for. Just check out “Cubixstro” or  “Invincible,” for instance, where the Steve Vai influences are unashamedly brought to the forefront and Luke displays mastery and taste in his tight control and expression with harmonics, whammy, and human quality phrasing. Track after track, Maschine delivers a high quality blend of jazz and rock, full of great melodies, jaw dropping guitar playing, and a level of unpredictability that makes for an engaging listen. Despite the fact that I felt that at times there were sections of songs that were notably less awesome than others, Maschine delivers a strong debut that should grab our attention and make us say, “pay attention to these guys and let’s see where they go from here.”

Ex Libris – Medea
There’s a lot of prog metal out there that does very little to grab my attention, but I must say that I was almost immediately captivated by Ex Libris’ latest effort, Medea. With a combination of intense rhythms and tight production that created a very powerful atmosphere alongside one of the most passionate female vocal performances I’ve witnessed in recent times, Ex Libris has a lot to offer. “Murderess in Me” shows seamless transitioning between vocals that are at times sweet and at others, aggressive, in some moments just plain pretty, and in others, powerful. Its no wonder that this band comes out of the Netherlands, because Dianne van Giersbergen is not shy in showing the influence of both Simone Simons and Floor Jansen in her singing, particularly noticeable on the tracks “On Ocean’s Command” and “A Mother’s Lament.” Don’t be fooled though, on the instrumental and compositional side of the coin this band has absolutely nothing in common with fluffy Dutch female-fronted symphonic metal bands like Delain and Within Temptation. You won’t be finding any pop hits hear, just hard hitting, rhythmically complex, in your face metal, more similar like what you’d get from the more aggressive Epica songs (but without the grunting vocals). While there’s a lot here that’s similar to Epica, I certainly wouldn’t go as far as to say that they’re a ripoff. Indeed, Medea carves out its own sound within the prog-metal world, one that knows how to give you attention grabbing melodies and gorgeous female vocals without falling prey to pop. And when it comes to spectacular voices, don’t let the comparisons scare you off; van Giersbergen is in a league of her own, she’s that good.

The Safety Fire – Mouth of Swords
As long as you can put up with emo influenced vocals (post-hardcore style, if you will…), then you’ll probably like this album. I know that’s a terrible way to start off a review, but in reality I still enjoyed The Safety Fire’s latest record despite the fact that I can’t stand these types of vocals even as much as I can’t stand James Labrie’s voice. Expect a high level of technicality, guitar riffs that will make your headspin and a high degree of melodicness. The playing is unconventional, the level of complexity in terms of rhythm can at times be astounding, and somehow every moment of guitar phrasing, whether it is on heavy chords or the when the notes sprawl and wander into the high register, is gripping. If you’ve listened to bands like Between the Buried and Me or Unexpect you sort of know what to expect in terms of rhythm; Mouth of Swords as a while delivers something very similar, but less brutal. Memorable moments include the thick, drawn out chords right before the four minute mark of “Red Hatchet,” the mellow vocal section of “Leopard,” and the middle section of “Old Souls” which  transitions from a great delay effect on guitar that flanks the vocals towards a memorable guitar solo and then a variation on the prior vocal section but with more distorted guitars. All in all, if you can put up with a bit of screaming, this is probably worth checking out.