Welcome to 2017’s final Progress Report, where we highlight the best of the year – and it’s been a fun year for progressive rock and metal, to say the least. A change from last year’s list: we’re eliminating the “Honorable mention” and just going with our Top 12. All of these records are excellent, and offer different takes on the genre, from pure 70s prog rock to today’s modern extreme progressive metal.
If we had an award for Record Label of the Year, it would be InsideOut – again. Just like last year, our top two albums come from that label, along with two others. Simply put, you can’t go wrong if InsideOut is releasing the album. Even their releases that didn’t make this list are great.
Without further ado:
12. Sons of Apollo – Psychotic Symphony (InsideOut)
Okay, we’ve all heard of supergroup Sons of Apollo, but for those unaware, the band consists of ex-Dream Theater members Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, Billy Sheehan, Bumblefoot, and former Yngwie Malmsteen vocalist Jeff Scott Soto. That’s a lineup rife with potential.
Thankfully, the band comes through with an excellent release. Musically Psychotic Symphony is very similar to the more aggressive, older Dream Theater releases, with much better vocals and a complete lack of pretension. I found myself playing this album a lot more than I thought I would. Hopefully Sons of Apollo stick together and keep it up.
11. Ayreon – The Source (Music Theories)
Whenever a new Ayreon album is released, you can expect a few things: it will be ambitious and epic, there will be a ton of high profile guests, and it will be really long. That’s the case with their latest opus The Source. It’s a concept album, revisiting the Forever saga.
Arjen Lucassen is an excellent songwriter, crafting complex arrangements that also feature plenty of melodies and hooks to keep the listener engaged. This time around the guestlist includes Tommy Rogers (BTBAM), James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Simone Simons (Epica), Tobias Sammet (Edguy), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Russell Allen (Symphony X) and more. 88 minutes is a lot to absorb, but Ayreon make the lengthy ride an enjoyable one, with the diverse music and various guest vocalists making it very compelling.
10. Premiata Forneria Marconi – Emotional Tattoos (InsideOut)
No, Premiata Forneria Marconi are not an Italian law firm, but rather a legendary Italian prog rock outfit. Emotional Tattoos is the 19th studio album from this collective. PFM have been around literally forever (well, since 1970), but their music still has a youthful vibrancy about it that draws the listener in.
Emotional Tattoos is a double CD, but not really: Disc 2 is the same as Disc 1, but sung in Italian rather than English. The album features eleven excellent prog rock songs, expertly played and with Franz Di Cioccio’s smoky, expressive vocals. “The Lesson” was one of my favorite tracks of the year, and is an example of how good the album is, with a funky bass groove, slinky guitars and keys, and great singing. English or Italian, this is one of 2017’s best.
Nostoc’s self-released debut ÆVUM is an extreme prog release, but these Costa Ricans have set themselves apart from other prog-death bands by producing a killer collection of tracks in all facets – production, songwriting, vocal performance and diversity of style.
I love it when new bands put the effort into production that’s essential, and Nostoc have done so here. The sound is full and aggressive, and the excellent bass guitar work is easy to hear. While the entire band kicks ass, Jorge Camacho really stands out on the bass. ÆVUM is an outstanding debut. I wasn’t expecting this quality, but I’m sure glad I was able to grab this record and give it its fair due.
8. Cormorant – Diaspora (War Crime)
Progressive black/death giants Cormorant return with Diaspora, an album that features even fewer songs than Becomes Astral (four), but clocks in at a massive 61 minutes. The tracks are between 8 and a whopping 26 minutes in length. In the hands of anyone else, this might be self-indulgent, but these Utah vets know a thing or two about sharp songwriting.
Diaspora is an excellent record, with all four songs taking us for thrilling rides. With engaging arrangements, solid vocals, and tight musicianship, Diaspora is an epic record that even detractors of the death/black vocal style can get behind.
7. Dodecahedron – Kwintessens (Season of Mist)
Five years after their debut, the Dutch black metal band Dodecahedron return with Kwintessens. Their style has classic black metal elements, but they also embrace the avant-garde, experimental and progressive, leaving us with a complex and at times disturbing opus.
That makes for an album that’s ever-shifting and unpredictable. Dense and extreme parts give way to groovy instrumental breaks before blastbeats and oppressive atmospheres kick back in. An instrumental interlude halfway through has traditional structure, giving the listener a chance to regroup before the roller coaster begins anew. It is chaotic at times, but Dodecahedron’s skillful arrangements and musicianship always bring things back from the brink.
Australia’s Voyager have had a cult following more than anything, which is a sin: they’ve been one of the more interesting prog metal bands around over the past few years (I’m only now digging into their back catalog), with consistently strong output. Ghost Mile is their sixth full-length effort, and sees the band continuing with their brand of pop-infused progressive metal.
Production is pristine as always for Voyager, and Ghost Mile contains a number of memorable songs – the lush opener “Ascension” and the chunky, guitar-driven title track are just two examples. Vocalist Danny Estrin has drawn comparisons to Simon LeBon (Duran Duran), which can be good or bad depending on your taste, but overall Ghost Mile is another top-notch entry in Voyager’s discography.
5. Wobbler – From Silence to Somewhere (Karisma)
’70s prog rock is often the most indulgent music out there, but some bands can still pull it off. Wobbler are the kings of all those bands, and From Silence to Somewhere is their best record. These guys are unabashed fans of ’70s prog but their music is genuine and original, led by Lars Fredrik Frøislie’s extensive keyboard collection.
Taking a lot of points from bands like Yes, Genesis, and Gentle Giant, Wobbler have crafted a wonderfully produced, stunningly performed prog rock album that should bring them into living rooms around the world.
4. Persefone – Aathma (ViciSolum)
Honestly, I had no idea where Andorra was, and still wouldn’t if it wasn’t for the fact that prog metallers Persefone hail from this tiny country (it’s between France and Spain, if you were wondering). Aathma is the band’s fourth album, and if their first three didn’t put Andorra on the map, this one will.
Aathma is a complex and diverse album, with every prog style one can think of represented – rock, metal, death, ’70s, a touch of djent, you name it. Harsh vocals, clean vocals, female vocals, this band throws everything in the mix, and amazingly they pull it off. Despite the sheer density of content, Persefone manage to give us a coherent, musically sound album that fires on all cylinders.
Lör are a veteran five-piece out of Philadelphia, and In Forgotten Sleep is their self-released debut. Trust me, they won’t be unsigned for long. This album has it all in spades – the perfect mix of prog, heaviness (there’s a bit of harsh vocal work in here) and folk metal.
Songwriting and performances seem effortless here, with short interludes between epic cuts. Whether it’s the folk-influenced “Dusk” or the prog-power of “Eidolon,” Lör play it all with envious skill. Every year a band comes from out of nowhere and knocks your socks off. Last year it was The Reticent: this year, it was Lör.
2. Caligula’s Horse – In Contact (Inside Out)
Australian prog metal juggernauts Caligula’s Horse are back with a new concept album, In Contact. To a degree, In Contact focuses on art, creativity, and the human connection. More importantly, though, are the songs and performances. Spread across ten songs and just over an hour, In Contact is a stellar slab of modern progressive metal.
Caligula’s Horse have always been known for adeptly blending melody with technical but not overdone arrangements, mixed in with the occasional djenty embellishments. In Contact is no different, with plenty of chugging riffs, stellar guitar solos, intricate yet still melodic movements, emotional vocals, and great songs. One of the top albums of the year regardless of genre.
1. Pain of Salvation – In the Passing Light of Day (Inside Out)
When you release your album in January it can be tough for us to remember come list time. Not the case here, as In the Passing Light of Day is such a fantastic album I found myself coming back to it repeatedly. Based on leader Daniel Gildenlöw’s near-fatal 2014 mishap, when a minor infection turned into a major illness and laid him up for the better half of a year, the album features spot-on performances, stellar arrangements, and emotional delivery.
In the Passing Light of Day is an aggressive, emotional, thematically coherent album that engages us right from the beginning and draws us in willingly for repeated listens. As it stands, In the Passing Light of Day is arguably the best record of Pain of Salvation’s career, and stood up to the competition for eleven months to be named our top prog metal album of 2017.
Other 2017 Progress Reports
The Progress Report: January 2017
The Progress Report: February 2017
The Progress Report: March 2017
The Progress Report: April 2017
The Progress Report: May 2017
The Progress Report: June 2017
The Progress Report: July 2017
The Progress Report: August 2017
The Progress Report: September 2017
The Progress Report: October 2017
The Progress Report: November 2017