The end of the year is upon us, which means it’s time to spew out a bunch of Top 10 lists across the Internet. It was a super year for music of all kinds, with a lot of great releases from old and new alike. This column is my take on the year’s best progressive metal releases.
A couple of notes. First, you might disagree with this list, and that’s okay. The beauty of lists is that everyone can make their own, and everyone is right. Second, if an album isn’t on this list it’s for one of two reasons. First, I probably didn’t think it was as good as the ones below. Or second, I just didn’t get a chance to listen to it enough to make a sound judgement. Without further ado:
The Neal Morse Band – The Similitude of a Dream (Metal Blade) – If you have to buy a double-CD prog metal concept album this year, buy this one, not Dream Theater’s The Astonishing. (Read Our Full Review)
Ayahuasca – Yin (Self) – Diverse, fun psychedelic prog that narrowly missed the top 10. My token Canadian entry! (Read Our Full Review)
10. Dysrhythmia – The Veil of Control (Profound Lore)
Instrumental prog metal is a niche market, to say the least, and one where it is hard to pull off great work. Of all the albums that crossed my desk this year, Dysrhythmia’s The Veil of Control came out on top.
Featuring members of Gorguts and Krallice, this trio has the capability to pound out some heavy stuff, but aside from the occasional blast beat, what we get here are six finely crafted King Crimson-influenced cuts including “When Whens End,” the best prog metal instrumental track of the year. Sinuous guitar lines and dizzying drum fills permeate the songs. Leave the clinical technicality to bands like Scale the Summit and Animals as Leaders: when it comes to pure prog metal instrumental song craft, Dysrhythmia are the real leaders.
9. Source – Return to Nothing (Pavement)
Another year, another lack of output from Tool. But never fear, because Source are here with the next best thing. Heavily influenced by Tool and Soen, with a dab of older Opeth for good measure, the band’s debut Return to Nothing is a remarkably well-done album.
The music stays on the right side of the line between shameless ripoff and authentic tribute, and aside from some poor sounding and unnecessary harsh vocals, Return to Nothing hits it out of the park. Excellent songwriting combined with precise musicianship make this the best Tool album we’ll hear until a real one eventually shows up.
8. Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary (Century Media)
The prolific and always entertaining Dan Swanö returns with his death metal-tinged prog metal project, Witherscape. The Northern Sanctuary is a step up in all facets from the band’s first record.
Musicianship and production are top-notch, as one would expect from Swanö, and the variety of songwriting keeps listeners on their toes throughout. Hints of death metal, doom, and old-school metal permeate The Northern Sanctuary, with Swanö’s clean and harsh vocals blending perfectly (and at times humorously) with guitarist Ragnar Widerberg’s excellent work. The title track is one of the finest epic prog songs of the year, but the album as a whole has no weaknesses.
7. Oceans of Slumber – Winter (Century Media)
The best thing Texas’s Oceans of Slumber did was recruit sublimely talented vocalist Cammie Gilbert to front their band. Gilbert’s sultry, bluesy, soulful powerhouse vocals take the band’s chaotic mix of progressively-laced death/doom/black metal to unforeseen heights on Winter, the band’s second full-length effort.
Somehow, despite what on paper looks like a number of mismatches in musical and vocal style, Winter turns out to be a brilliant chemist’s experiment much like the Cult of Luna/Julie Christmas collaboration. Harsh vocals and blastbeats perfectly offset mellower progressive moments, and the boys in Oceans of Slumber are definitely up to the task of playing music deserving of Gilbert’s vocal talents. I’m looking forward to their next release at least as much as any other band on this list.
6. Thy Catafalque – Meta (Season of Mist)
When it comes to one-man prog metal projects, Ihsahn gets all the critical adoration, but Hungarian avante-garde/prog solo artist Tamás Kátai dwarfs him in all respects: songwriting, originality, arrangements and production.
The music covers a wide range of genres, from ambient to electronica to folk to death metal, and does so with stunning effectiveness. Forget the fact that the lyrics are all sung in Hungarian; the songs on Meta are so engaging musically (and vocals performed so well) that language is no barrier. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from Meta, as I hadn’t heard any of Thy Catafalque’s earlier work, but once this album was on my playlist I couldn’t get it off. One of the most interesting releases of the year, even after two months of listening I’m still peeling back more layers of intricacy.
5. Opeth – Sorceress (Moderbolaget)
When I first got hold of the new album from prog monsters Opeth, it didn’t work for me. Thank goodness we reviewers try to listen to albums many times before writing, because Sorceress was the one album from 2016 that grew the most on me.
Sorceress sees the band’s progressive rock style fully matured. The album sounds like an Opeth album: the dynamics, the arrangements, and the vocals, even though it could only remotely be considered “metal.” From the ponderous hard rock riff of the title track to the beautifully rendered acoustic “Will O the Wisp” and all points in between, Sorceress played its way into my Top 10 list despite a shaky start. In this case, patience was rewarded with one of the best prog rock albums of the year.
4. Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows (Relapse)
If blackened progressive doom is a thing, Inter Arma are the flagbearers. Paradise Gallows is the heaviest album on my list this year, and with good reason. The sadness of the opening notes of “Nomini” and the closing dirge “Where the Earth Meets the Sky” bookend devastatingly heavy and expansive tracks featuring molasses-thick guitar riffs, cavernous harsh vocals, and occasional blast beats.
At no point throughout do we lose interest, as the band keeps variety and experimentation at the forefront of their unique, genre-defying style. With its staccato riffs and drumming, “Transfiguration” was one of my favorite heavy songs of the year, and the rest of Paradise Gallows isn’t far behind.
3. The Reticent – On the Eve of a Goodbye (Heaven & Hell)
This was my biggest surprise of the year, as The Reticent was an unknown (to me) one-man prog metal project I took a flier on back in October, just for the hell of it. I was expecting an amateur effort but what I got was the best prog metal concept album since Operation:Mindcrime. Seriously.
The talented Chris Hathcock takes us on a harrowing journey through the final 24 hours of his friend Eve’s life before she kills herself. On the Eve of a Goodbye features exemplary musicianship with influences ranging from old Queensryche to Opeth to Between the Buried and Me, and the most emotional vocals of the year. If you don’t cry when you hear the harrowing “Funeral for a Firefly,” you simply aren’t alive inside.
2. Fates Warning – Theories of Flight (Inside Out)
In any other year, Theories of Flight might have taken the number one spot on my list. As it stands, consider this excellent Fates Warning record my “1B.” On every conceivable level this record kills it.
Production is top-notch (it always is with this band), songwriting and arrangements are brilliant, and the band play out of their minds, with Bobby Jarzombek’s drumming leading the way, Joey Vera’s bass keeping everything grounded, and Jim Matheos showing why he is one of prog metal’s top guitarists. But the standout performance on Theories of Flight belongs to Ray Alder, who hasn’t sounded this good in decades. His singing on “The Light and Shade of Things” might be the prog metal vocal performance of the year. This is Fates Warning’s best effort since 2000’s Disconnected, and needs to be on everyone’s playlist.
1. Haken – Affinity (Inside Out)
It takes a stellar effort to top Theories of Flight, and Haken did just that with their fourth album, Affinity. 2013’s The Mountain was a beautiful, lush prog rock opus, but with Affinity Haken bring back the metal along with a reverence for 80s-era King Crimson and Yes.
Harsh vocals (courtesy of Leprous’ Einar Solberg) also make a brief return, and the occasional use of 80s synths and Simmons drums add a refreshing cheekiness to the proceedings. There are no missteps on Affinity: what we are given by these British vets is a near-perfect amalgamation of prog rock, metal, and 80s homage, all impeccably performed and produced. With Affinity Haken show themselves to be our current kings of the prog metal mountain.