Progressive metal is not the genre that we think of when we consider decolonization, anti-racism, or intersectionality. In fact, in 2017, The Atlantic published an article entitled “the Whitest Music Ever,” a critique of one of progressive metal’s predecessors, progressive rock.[i] Spawned in the 1970s with bands like Rush and King Crimson, progressive rock has been known as an avant-garde approach to the operetta rooted in extended structures, quasi-symphonic orchestration, and overt technicality. Something about the virtuosity, the masculinity, and the aggressive concert culture screams whiteness and privilege.
Within the slew of sub-genres that characterizes the metal community, progressive metal has been identified as a fusion between heavy metal and progressive rock that features highly complex melodic and rhythmic constructions, experimental time signatures, extended orchestration and elaborate song structure with a plethora of external influences from classical music to ragtime. Until recently, overt political critique has been less common in progressive metal than it has been in its punk-leaning counterparts. Instead, progressive metal has favoured the concept album in which all songs on an album revolve around a particular theme or tell a particular story leaving the listener to interpret its meaning.
In many ways, the genre is forward looking. But this nuance is often lost on outside observers who have a tendency to lump anything with distorted guitars and aggressive vocals under the umbrella of ‘skinhead’ culture ascribing violence, misogyny, and racism to a wide range of genres that fall outside the scope of the top 40. Yet recently, a number of voices in the new generation of progressive metal have used the genre to deconstruct their own positions of privilege and tell stories that critique dominant historical narratives.
On June 18, 2020, Canadian progressive metal band Protest the Hero released an album entitled Palimpsest that, as the album title suggests, explores how American history has been re-written to reinforce particular narratives. As a group of five white men from south-western Ontario, Protest the Hero chose to prioritize American stories because “their history and their politics affect all of us” because of America’s position as a global leader and trend-setter.[ii] The lead-singer, Rody Walker, describes the album as a “revisionist history” aimed to reveal stories that “old rich white dudes [have tried] to snuff out.”[iii] The content of the album emerged in response to the growing popularity of the MAGA movement in the United States as a way to demonstrate that the America to which many desire to return “is only great for the old, white, male, rich elite.”[iv] In many ways, Palimpsest is meant to educate its audience in the hope that “we can learn from history and change.”[v]
The song Little Snakes[vi] deconstructs the colonial past of the United States with a focus on Mount Rushmore. The first pre-chorus suggests that Mount Rushmore[vii] functions as a colonial panopticon of the mid-west.[viii] The site features 60-foot sculptures of four American presidents atop a mountain with the elevation of 5, 725 feet above sea level. The faces of the four colonizers, layered over the sacred Six Grandfathers mountain range, can be seen from miles around the former reservation territory. The line “eight eyes to watch ‘little snakes’” suggests that the sculptures contributed to establishing a climate of surveillance over Indigenous bodies. The chorus outlines the colonial logic behind the countless broken treaties that characterize the colonial experience in North America: “the rights they have, we gave to them and we can take ‘em away without giving a damn.” The colonizer gave Indigenous peoples land rights and this gift could be rescinded. Most powerfully, the text introduces a well-known, though easily forgotten, quote by Theodore Roosevelt that “I don’t believe the only good Indians are dead …. But I believe [that] nine out of ten are..” illustrating the desire of the American leadership to eliminate Indigenous peoples.[ix]
The text of Little Snakes does a lot of teaching – it educates the listener on the lesser-known history of colonial North America. But it also problematizes the complicity of many Americans in perpetuating colonial power dynamics. What was once a sacred land of the Lakota tribe of the Sioux people has become a celebration of the slave-owning and white supremacist ‘great men’ of American history. The lyrics draw attention to the irony that for many Americans, a trip to Mount Rushmore is simply a family “vacation.” But in fact, the pilgrimage-like trip is a celebration of “the site depicting [American] history’s ignoble blood lust.” Mount Rushmore has become a site of colonial erasure. The text concludes with: “colonialism by all definitions is the father of genocide” leaving many listeners uncomfortable with the role that they have performed in the ongoing colonial project.
The last song of the album, Rivet, presents an even more pointed critique of popular narratives on American exceptionalism. The first verse begins with a direct quote from the Depression-era song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The song and the verses quoted suggest a sense of betrayal by the promise of the American dream: “Once I built a railroad, I made it run/ Made it race against time/ Once I built a railroad, now it’s done/ Brother, can you spare a dime?” Despite the tireless labour of this essential work, American families remained impoverished and hungry. The second verse comments on the shocking relevance of Brother, Can You Spare Dime? in 2020 with “why does this all seem so damn cyclical?”. Rivet juxtaposes verses that paint scenes of disillusionment with the American dream with the chorus that quotes the “make America great again” slogan. It problematizes both this narrative and the political movement that supports it as a “history gone wrong.” By setting MAGA in a new context, Rivet reclaims what it means to “make American great again” by drawing attention to the slogan’s inherent irony.
A recent song by American progressive metal band, Periphery, provides a less explicit example of the role that music can play in challenging traditional narratives of the past. Rather than a focused deconstruction of a colonial symbol like Protest the Hero’s Little Snakes, Periphery’s Garden in the Bones provides the listener with a loose narrative that characterizes the settler-colonial experience. The text is permeated with references to sacred Indigenous symbols – headdress, buffalo, wolf, crow. Garden in the Bones highlights the layered history of the land that has been subject to settler-colonialism. Speaking from the perspective of the colonizer, the text problematizes “the claim we stake” to “the soil we own” by pointing out that “upon the burial [grounds] lie [the] thieves of their past.” The text draws attention to the genocidal tendencies of settler-colonialism by both beginning and ending the text with “mercy like a gun.” For many listeners, the literary nature of Garden in the Bones has raised more questions than it has provided answers. Countless Twitter and Reddit threads reveal that discomfort with the meaning of the lyrics has prompted listeners to look into the colonial past of their own countries.
So does The Atlantic’s critique hold up?
A focus on progressive metal is most certainly not intended to put white men back in the spotlight or to encourage the ‘white savior’ model. Instead, it is to recognize the power of the stories that are told through the media and to urge artists to be conscious of the stories they tell, who they speak to, and who they exclude. Music engages in public dialogue by reinforcing, critiquing, or being willfully blind to pressing current events. Little Snakes, Rivet, and Garden in the Bones show us how music can be used to critique the past and bring different narratives to light. Little Snakes, Rivet, and Garden in the Bones provide examples of how the past can be deconstructed not only in academia, but in popular realms as well. These songs re-evaluate the stories that we tell about our collective histories and experiences.
While Protest the Hero and Periphery primarily speak to the American context, Canada has not been immune to distorted interpretations of its own past. The ongoing disputes over sovereignty, treaty rights, and land claims with the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia, the Mi’k’maq fisheries in Nova Scotia, and the 1492 Land Back Lane movement in Ontario provide only a handful examples of the many contexts in which popular Canadian narratives about ownership and the nation are at odds with the historical realities. There is great opportunity for Canadian artists to look inward and use music as a medium through which to tell these stories and deconstruct these histories as a means of creating greater dialogue in popular realms.
After completing an undergraduate degree in flute performance, Jessi Gilchrist went on to study history at the University of Western Ontario’s MA thesis program. She is currently an MA candidate at Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto. Her research explores Anglo-Italian cooperation over empire during the 1920s and 1930s.
[i] James Parker, “The Whitest Music Ever.” The Atlantic, date. Date Accessed: 18 July 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/the-whitest-music-ever/534174/
[ii] Interview with Rody Walker from Protest the Hero for new album Palimpsest.” Loud TV, 12 June 2020. Date Accessed: 19 July 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HX4uaJNm7kA
[iii] Interview with Rody Walker from Protest the Hero for new album Palimpsest.” Loud TV, 12 June 2020. Date Accessed: 19 July 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HX4uaJNm7kA
[iv] Bryan Rolli, “Protest the Hero’s Rody Walker: Trump’s Vision of Greatness is America’s ‘Tragic Flaw’.” Loudwire, 16 June 2020. Date Accessed: 18 July 2020. https://loudwire.com/protest-the-hero-interview-rody-walker-trump-greatness-america-flaw/
[v] Interview with Rody Walker from Protest the Hero for new album Palimpsest.” Loud TV, 12 June 2020. Date Accessed: 19 July 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HX4uaJNm7kA
[vi] The title ‘Little Snakes’ refers to the English translation of, and spiteful nickname given to the Nadowessioux (Sioux) people.
[vii] For an in-depth discussion of the orchestration of Little Snakes, See Milen Petzelt-Sorace, “Orchestration in Heavy Metal: Little Snakes.” Sheet Happens Publishing, 3 November 2020. https://www.sheethappenspublishing.com/columns/161/little-snakes-orchestration-in-heavy-music
[viii] See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 195-230.
[ix] See Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006), 287-409.