Progressive metal, unlike other subgenres, borrows heavily from hard rock, classical rock, and early heavy-metal influences. Although several of the bands on this list might not technically be 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, 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 in this subgenre has always been on 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 toward the prog side. We now present our list of the 10 Best Progressive Metal/Hard Rock bands.
See also: Ten Metal Albums to Hear Before You Die
10. X Japan
Although they remain something 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 their second album, Blue Blood (1989). The band formed three decades ago, and initially were a power-/speed-metal outfit 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 been added. The band is still going strong today, touring and making records. X Japan were also featured in the documentary Global Metal, and have been praised in interviews by former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman.
Although Cynic come from the late-’80s Florida death metal scene, they stood apart from bands like Cannibal Corpse and Malevolent Creation. More thrash than death at first, the band later 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 were well ahead of their time. Following a lengthy hiatus, from 1994 to roughly 2006, the band decided to make a comeback and record two full albums, Traced in Air (2008) and, most recently, Kindly Bent to Free Us, from 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.
8. Symphony X
Hailing from New Jersey, Symphony X formed in 1994, the band employing heavy doses 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, and 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.
When Opeth formed in 1990, they were in the middle of a black-metal scene devoted to satanism, church burnings, and violence. They were dark, but were more interested in the sounds of 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.
With a sound that has been consistently heavy since they formed 14 years ago in Atlanta, Mastodon have managed to produce some of the most experimental and abstract music known to modern metal. The band features bassist/vocalist 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. In fact, 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).
5. Fates Warning
Considered to be one of the founders of the subgenre 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 utilizes keyboards and pianos to create epic — yet clean — layered progressive-heavy-metal songs.
Queensrychye have been at the forefront of the progressive-rock/metal subgenre since their inception in 1982 in Washington State. Many even credit the band with creating the subgenre, 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, which 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, and assassination by mind control and corruption. The band saw huge success with Operation Mindcrime and the following release, Empire, having sold more than 7 million albums in the U.S. and received three Grammy nominations in the ’90s, with a total of over 25 million sales worldwide and multiple tours around the world. But this success didn’t come without internal problems.
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 group, 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, but could legally perform Operation Mindcrime, II, and I. Today, both Tate and Queensryche (featuring La Torre) still perform, record, and tour.
3. Dream Theater
Formed in 1985, this American progressive-metal band retains 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 influence from 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 to Maiden, 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 understated. Formed in the U.K. in 1968, this rock band took an unconventional approach from the outset. With too many lineup changes to mention, the band has had over two dozen members and sports a discography of more than 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 almost as responsible for the sound and evolution of metal 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 have been thrilling their millions of fans around the world with such larger-than-life albums as 2112 and Moving Pictures; the band’s career spans over 20 full-length releases. Fans love Rush because of the great songs, amazing musicianship, and dedication to live performance.