Welcome to 2019’s final Progress Report, where we highlight the best of the year. Or at least, the best of what we were able to listen to this year. There are an uncountable number of releases every year, and we only have time to listen to a relative minority of them. So the chances of missing a truly great album always exist. If that’s the case, feel free to add a comment below, or on social media, because we’re always looking for more great music to listen to.
Without further ado:
12. Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal (Metal Blade)
Nearly eight years since their first record under the Arch/Matheos banner, vocalist John Arch and guitarist Jim Matheos have completed Winter Ethereal. Compared to its predecessor, it packs a bigger punch and delivers an altogether more refined sound. Winter Ethereal has more than enough fuel to burn furiously (which it does, by the way). The huge riffs and soaring vocals are awesome, but the detail in the drumming is often what elevates the music (like in “Wrath of the Universe” where the drumming is seriously out of hand).
The entire record is sincere, with the light, steady emotion of “Tethered” being the most apparent example of this, and there are no jumbled ideas that so often drag prog albums to the depths of the musical abyss. Arch/Matheos have once again produced an exceptional album that manages to stay away from being a Fates Warning 2.0. Winter Ethereal will have you satisfied by the time it ends.
11. Opeth – In Cauda Venenum (Moderbolaget/Nuclear Blast)
The ten songs on In Cauda Venenum are lengthy compositions, totaling 68 minutes. Aside from the now seemingly mandatory intro track, only one song is less than six and a half minutes long. One might think that this would make the album tough to absorb, but it’s really not. That’s because Opeth have created an album that is both complex and simple at the same time. Mikael Akerfeldt has never sounded better. His clean vocals continue to improve, to the point where they now outshine his old death growls.
Opeth may not have delivered a prog rock masterpiece here, but In Cauda Venenum is a solid record, and in many ways showcases the band in their least derivative state since abandoning harsh vocals and blastbeats. Akerfeldt and company have their own identity, and fans of prog rock will likely find In Cauda Venenum an engrossing and entertaining listen, and the band’s best effort since shedding their death metal skin.
10. Bent Knee – You Know What They Mean (InsideOut)
When one thinks of prog bands from Berklee College of Music, Dream Theater always comes to mind. But let me put forth that Bent Knee are a much more compelling act. Formed back in 2009, You Know What They Mean is the band’s fifth album, and follows 2017’s Land Animal.
At times, the sound on this album is decidedly more stripped-down and heavy than previous outings, but the band’s style still shines through. This is due in no small part to singer Courtney Swain, who is practically a modern Kate Bush. The songs presented here are all expertly crafted artistic prog rock, and they all leave us grinning and wanting more. I said it two years ago and I’ll say it again: get on the Bent Knee train.
9. Thank You Scientist – Terraformer (Evil Ink)
Terraformer is the third album from New Jersey’s Thank You Scientist. These guys play a catchy version of prog rock with healthy dollops of metal and jazz thrown into the mix. It’s all a heady take on the stylings of both The Mars Volta and Coheed and Cambria, and these six musicians have the chops to bring it.
Terraformer feels more like a double LP, clocking in at a massive eighty-five minutes, and at times they can lose the listener, but overall there is more than enough intricate yet catchy material here to make it worth our while. The balance between technicality and slick poppiness is spot on, with shredding guitar solos, jazz swings, and upbeat ditties all earning their time in the sun. Thank You Scientist show that they are a talented band that deserves our attention.
8. Arctic Sleep – Kindred Spirits (Self)
One of the year’s pleasant surprises is Arctic Sleep and their seventh full-length release, Kindred Spirits. The mastermind of Arctic Sleep is Keith D, who plays everything except drums here. A couple of guest vocalists augment the sound as well, giving added dimension to this atmospheric progressive doom album. For comparison’s sake, one might look towards Pink Floyd and Anathema a bit.
Kindred Spirits is a beautiful, expansive, vibrant album, full of emotional heft. Musical movements range from delicate to heavy and everything in between. Keith D displays a deft hand when it comes to arrangements, making each song an engaging, captivating force. One added dimension that sets Arctic Sleep apart from some contemporaries is D’s excellent use of the cello, which adds even more scope to an already impressive album, and one that will be seeing repeated spins in the future.
7. Tool – Fear Inoculum (RCA)
Like the band’s previous two albums, Fear Inoculum is going to take a long time to settle into. But taken at face value, Tool have delivered an excellent album that lacks the immediacy (“The Pot”) and fury (“Ticks & Leeches”) of past albums, instead opting for pensive and deliberate, yet no less effective sprawling tracks. Time will tell where this ultimately slots into their discography, but unless you hate the band you won’t be disappointed. The band drifts more towards post-metal here, which will both please and infuriate fans.
Fear Inoculum is very much Adam Jones’ coming out party. Jones has made it clear that his biggest influences are Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, and he wears those influences proudly throughout the album. On both 10,000 Days and Lateralus, the album highlights were Danny Carey’s virtuoso drumming and Justin Chancellor’s amazing bass riffs. Here, Jones takes over, and does so in unexpectedly brilliant fashion. Tool have delivered a sprawling, epic, and enthralling album – but not without its flaws.
6. Big Big Train – Grand Tour (Self)
Grand Tour is indeed grand. Big Big Train are a highly respected progressive rock band out of England, and this twelfth album finds them in peak form. This is their first album since co-founder Andy Poole departed last year, but there is no drop-off in quality here.
Grand Tour is nine songs and nearly seventy-five minutes long, and each song is a complex, intriguing blend of progressive rock. Highlights include the epic-length “Voyager” and “Ariel.” Throughout the entire album, Big Big Train show themselves to be at the front of the modern progressive rock movement.
5. Wilderun – Veil of Imagination (Self)
Boston’s Wilderun are almost the golden child of progressive folk metal. 2015’s Sleep at the Edge of the Earth was featured prominently on many year-end lists. They finally return here with Veil of Imagination, and the aim of pushing their genre-defying musical styles even further than before. Folk, death, prog rock, and metal are all deftly interwoven throughout these eight songs.
The folk elements are less dominant here on Wilderun’s third album, but it is no less bombastic and epic. In fact, it may be too over the top for some listeners, but over the course of an hour the band has put together an amazing, dynamic, all-encompassing progressive metal opus.
4. The Odious – Vesica Piscis (Self)
At the beginning of this decade, Portland’s The Odious made a big impression on the prog metal scene, with their debut EP That Night a Forest Grew and their follow-up LP, Joint Ventures. Then they seemed to have disappeared, until now. Vesica Piscis takes all that the band displayed seven years ago and ramps it up artistically and compositionally, giving us a complex, addictive, invigorating album.
The Odious take elements of progressive death metal, prog rock, jazz, avant-garde, hardcore and more, and fuse it all into something quite unique. Songs take unexpected turns down groovy swing- or jazz-drenched avenues when one would expect something completely different. The musicianship is beyond reproach and Patrick Jobe deftly nails every vocal variety presented. Vesica Piscis is one of the top releases of the year.
3. Obsidian Tide – Pillars of Creation (Self)
Pillars of Creation is Obsidian Tide’s debut. This trio from Israel catch lightning in a bag here, with a concept album about a man’s journey to find enlightenment. This is modern progressive metal at its finest, with influences from Watershed-era Opeth to Symphony X and Tool all prevalent.
What makes Pillars of Creation work, and stick with us to the point of rising this high on the list, is the captivating songwriting and excellent performances, none of which are over the top. The title track and the album closer, “Magnaminous,” are prime examples of this. Despite rather ‘normal’ influences, Obsidian Tide manage to take them all and mold them into a sound that is all their own on a wonderful debut album.
2. Soen – Lotus (Silver Lining)
Four albums into their career, Swedish progsters Soen have established themselves as one of the genre’s heavy hitters. 2017’s Lykaia was an honorable mention on our best of 2017 list, making expectations for their latest release Lotus pretty high. It includes a lineup change, with guitarist Marcus Jidell exiting, replaced by Cody Ford.
After recording the last album in analog, Soen used a more modern production style this time around, resulting in a bigger sound. The Tool and Opeth influences remain, with arrangements that give the songs time to develop and breathe, whether it’s a mellow track like “Martyrs” or “Lotus” or a heavier song such as “Covenant” or “Rival.” Joel Ekelof’s vocals are very expressive, the music very dynamic, making for an engaging and engrossing listen. Soen have exceeded expectations with Lotus, which is their strongest album to date.
1. Sermon – Birth of the Marvellous (Prosthetic)
The anonymous British band Sermon come out of the gates strong with their debut album Birth Of The Marvellous. It’s a theological concept album, though the band is neither pro or anti-religion. Instead, they say it’s about equilibrium. The band’s progressive style will draw comparisons to bands like Katatonia, especially in the clean vocals. Tool and Opeth are other musical touchstones.
Tracks like “Chasm” utilize melodic vocals exclusively. While singing is the prevalent vocal style, there are some periodic harsh vocals on songs such as “The Drift” that add variety. The arrangements are atmospheric with a lot of twists and turns, but Sermon prove with songs like “Festival” that they can inject catchy hooks as well. Equally adept at compact tracks and more epic songs like “The Preacher” and closer “The Rise Of Desiderata,” Sermon deliver a dynamic, cinematic and yes, marvelous debut that is the year’s best.
Previous 2018 Progress Reports
The Progress Report: January 2019
The Progress Report: February 2019
The Progress Report: March 2019
The Progress Report: April 2019
The Progress Report: May 2019
The Progress Report: June 2019
The Progress Report: July 2019
The Progress Report: August 2019
The Progress Report: September 2019
The Progress Report: October 2019
The Progress Report: November 2019