Welcome to our fifth annual Top Progressive Albums list, where we highlight the best of the year. As with years past, there was no shortage of albums to choose from, and cutting the list down to a top 12 was no easy task. We have some reliable heavy hitters as well as some surprising upstarts. And while I am sure we missed many super albums, keep in mind we don’t get to listen to everything that comes out. If your favorite album isn’t listed below, leave a note in the comments and tell us what it is; we’d love to hear it if we haven’t already.
I normally forego the whole Honorable Mention thing, but there are a few albums that should be mentioned as having narrowly missed the top 12:
Gazpacho – Fireworker (only because we didn’t receive it)
Pure Reason Revolution – Eupnea
Radiant Knife – The Body/The Ghost
Thematic – Skyrunner
WuW – Retablir L’Eternite
Xenobiotic – Mordrake
And now, the list:
12. Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant (InsideOut)
Australia’s Caligula’s Horse have been on an upward trajectory in the prog metal scene since their inception back in 2011. The band’s third and fourth albums, Bloom and In Contact, were both stellar efforts that placed deservedly high on year-end progressive metal lists. Rise Radiant is the quintet’s latest effort, and with it Australia’s best progressive metal band faced the daunting task of meeting lofty expectations.
As expected, the production on Rise Radiant is impeccable, crystal clean in much the same fashion as similar contemporaries Haken, Leprous, and Karnivool. Newcomer Dale Prinsse’s bass growls and thrums wonderfully beneath the guitars of Sam Vallen and Adrian Goleby, while Jim Grey’s voice soars above the mix, displaying a full range of emotion. At its best, the album showcases Caligula’s Horse’s capacity to both pulverize and captivate, with hard-hitting metallic complexity and nuanced, emotional performances to boot.
11. Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void (InsideOut)
California progsters Psychotic Waltz released several albums before disbanding in 1997. They reunited in 2010, but it took a decade for new material to emerge in the form of The God-Shaped Void. The 2020 version of the band includes all five members that appeared on their first three records, including vocalist Devon Graves, known then as Buddy Lackey.
The album isn’t a clone of their earlier material, but a natural progression. Songs like opener “Devils And Angels” and “Back To Black” blend hooks and catchy choruses with complexity and progressive interludes. “The Fallen” is a relatively straightforward ballad that’s a nice change of pace before the prog resumes. Graves is a compelling vocalist, and the band’s musicianship is top-notch. The band took several years to write and record the album, allowing the songs to be shaped, honed and perfected. It’s a welcome return for an influential band.
10. Nug – Alter Ego (Willowtip)
Nug may seem like an odd band name, until one realizes that this Ukranian post/prog outfit is named after the H.P. Lovecraft god that created Cthulhu. Then it makes sense. Alter Ego is the quintet’s debut album, after dropping a sterling EP two years ago. If you’re a fan of Precambrian-era The Ocean, buckle up, because Alter Ego is a helluva ride.
More so than any other progressive post-metal release this year, Nug balance the crushingly heavy with the intricate in near-perfect fashion. Even the short interludes are forebodingly essential to the album. Anguished vocals, killer riffs, and an amazing rhythm section should immediately elevate this band into the same realm as Cult of Luna, The Ocean, and Herod, to name a few. Go get Alter Ego.
9. The Reticent – The Oubliette (Heaven and Hell)
Chris Hathcock finally returned with his progressive metal project The Reticent this year. Much like his highly-lauded 2016 opera, On the Eve of a Goodbye, here on The Oubliette Hathcock tackles heavy subject matter. This time around, he examines the impact of Alzheimer’s from the patient’s perspective.
Spread across the seven “stages” of the disease, The Oubliette is a taut, emotional, and superbly-played progressive metal opus. Hathcock once again pours his heart into the performances, delivering excellent vocals and widely varied musical arrangements. The Reticent have once again delivered one of the year’s best progressive metal concept albums.
8. Novena – Eleventh Hour (Frontiers)
Novena are a prog rock/metal band formed in the U.K. by a group of seasoned musicians. Most notably, vocals come courtesy of Haken’s Ross Jennings. Others joining the fray include Slugdge’s bass player Moat Lowe, Dan Thornton on guitar, Gareth Mason (Slice the Cake) also on vocals, and others. Eleventh Hour is the band’s first album after a 2016 EP.
As expected, Jennings turns in a captivating and emotional vocal performance. The music here hits all the notes one would expect from a modern prog rock/metal band, from delicate to punishing, from soaring leads to downtuned riffs, from short and catchy to long epic numbers. And at 73 minutes, it’s a lot to absorb. Make no mistake, though, Eleventh Hour is an excellent release that deserves a lot of attention from us prog fans.
7. Oceans of Slumber – Oceans of Slumber (Century Media)
Oceans of Slumber’s self-titled album is their fifth release over seven years, so the group have made their mark and established their progressive sound. Cammie Gilbert’s clean vocal tones give way to growls layered with screams by Alexander Lucian and Semir Ӧzerkan. Soft acoustic melodies transition into a mania of Dobber Beverly’s kick drums and churning, distorted riffs.
“The Adorned Fathomless Creation” seems like a death metal song, but changes melodiously, while “Pray For Fire” has the opposite effect. Even when the music is slow and Gilbert presents her sweet vocal tones, Beverly’s drumming is an impetus that intensifies their songs. Piano and keys are of note, especially on “September (Those Who Came Before)” and “The Red Flower.” Gilbert joins Antimatter’s Mick Moss on the morose-yet-hopeful “The Colors of Grace.” Oceans of Slumber is a stunning work of beautiful darkness.
6. Katatonia – City Burials (Peaceville)
After taking most of 2018 off, Swedish melancholic metal stars Katatonia returned to work last year, and the results of those efforts are here in the band’s eleventh offering, City Burials. True to form, the quintet delivers a set of emotional, glistening dark prog, but this time around with a few classic heavy metal embellishments.
City Burials is one of the best-sounding self-produced albums in recent memory, practically glistening with lush keys and vocals, guitars that move from wistful to metallic, drums that can either crush or augment depending on the moment, and through it all a deep, reverberating bass presence that adds ominous undertones. City Burials is an album of beautifully dark progressive rock that will keep listeners glued to their speakers start to finish.
5. Black Crown Initiate – Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape (Century Media)
American progressive death metal outfit Black Crown Initiate are back with their third release, Violent Portraits of a Doomed Escape. Four years between albums is a lot, but the band has been hard at work honing their skills, and boy does it pay off in spades here. As long as you prefer your prog-death to lean more towards the progressive side, Violent Portraits… will scratch your itch perfectly.
While the clean passages may outweigh the harsh, these guys are not afraid to bring the brutality, which they do on numerous occasions. The material presented here is dynamic and brilliantly paced, with devastating riffs countering melodic moments perfectly. The short interlude “Bellow” may seem odd, but even that adds atmosphere to an already superb record. Violent Portraits of a Doomed Escape is one of the year’s best.
4. Haken – Virus (InsideOut)
Loyal readers of this site will know that a Haken release is pretty much guaranteed to land on progressive music year-end lists. 2016’s Affinity was our prog album of the year, and 2018’s Vector came in at Number 5. And if we were around for the band’s first three albums, those almost certainly would have featured on lists as well. Basically, we love Haken. Virus does not change that feeling.
Haken have taken the heavy, at times djent-like attack of Vector and tempered the edges, bringing back more of their renowned melodicism and of course Ross Jennings’ trademark vocals. The integration of themes and styles from Affinity and The Mountain make Virus a truly special release. Once again, Haken deliver one of the year’s best albums.
3. Wobbler – Dwellers of the Deep (Karisma)
Wobbler rekindle the spirit of older progressive rock very nicely on Dwellers Of The Deep, the band’s fifth full-length release. While a bit heavier than some of the older prog rock bands, this outfit shares much in common with Yes, for example. Complex song structures result in difficult-to-grasp songs, but with a little patience, the nuances become clear.
Songs like “By the Banks” display a wealth of progression and interesting ideas. Similar to bands like King Crimson, Wobbler employ a variety of instrumentation to make their songs as interesting as possible. This leads to songs that have a great deal of creativity. It all results in a colorful collection of songs that never stop giving. Add some long track lengths and there is a lot to become attached to, despite only containing four songs total. Glorious instrumentation and beautiful vocals round out the overall experience.
Swedish prog band Vulkan play a style of heavy prog rock that draws from a number of heavy hitters: Porcupine Tree, Opeth, and more. However, this group takes those influences and creates a sound that is wholly theirs, and here on Technatura, their third full-length release, that sound is fully realized.
Technatura features intricate yet melodic arrangements, stellar musicianship, and the stunning vocals of Jimmy Lindblad, who adds soul and emotion to every lyric. This is the rare album that really sees every facet of creation coalesce into something immaculate, much like Sermon’s album last year. With Technatura, Vulkan take their place amongst prog rock’s heavy hitters.
1. The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic (Metal Blade/Pelagic)
Two years ago The Ocean topped this list with Phanerozoic I, so once again there were high hopes for the second part of this extravagant work of art. Right out of the gate two things are obvious on II. First, this album lives up to, and in fact exceeds in some respects, its predecessor. And second, this is not merely a continuation of the first album, but another evolutionary step in The Ocean’s sound. Musically and vocally, II is the band’s most dynamic album to date, introducing a variety of vocal styles and effects as well as new more organic, even Eastern-influenced, musical motifs we haven’t heard from them before.
“Triassic” and “Jurassic | Cretaceous” just might be the best one-two opening punch of the year in progressive metal. While “The Cambrian Explosion” opened I with a sense of epic foreboding, “Triassic” launches II in a more pensive manner, moody and airy. “Jurassic | Cretaceous” is one of the best songs of the year, and is very Tool-like in nature. The intro hammers itself into our consciousness before an incredibly dynamic post-intro opens the song proper. The heavy/soft moments, the varied percussion, the delayed guitar melodies; between these two opening songs it all adds up to twenty-two minutes of perfection, which when combined with the rest of this excellent album places Phanerozoic II at the top of our 2020 list.