Welcome to our sixth annual Top Progressive Albums column, where we highlight the best of the year. As always, this is just one poor scribe’s opinion, and this year more so than past years I was more limited in the number of albums I had the opportunity to play. So again, if one of your favorites doesn’t show up on the list let me know; it’s just as possible that I didn’t get to listen to it as it is that I didn’t feel it made the cut. Regardless, the albums listed below are all excellent in their own right, and maybe there’s one or two here that didn’t catch your ear over the last twelve months. Go listen, and grab something for yourself over the holidays!
Dvne – Etemen Ænka (Metal Blade)
Heretic – Faest (Soman/Treehouse)
Hippotraktor – Meridian (Pelagic)
Liquid Tension Experiment – LTE3 (InsideOut)
Soen – Imperial (Silver Lining)
Spire – Temple Of Khronos (Sentient Ruin)
TDW – Fountains (Layered Reality)
Terminus – The Silent Bell Toll (Self)
12. Frost* – Day And Age (InsideOut)
“Enjoy yourselves, you scum” is how Day And Age (both the album and the song) sets us up before launching into an almost A-Ha-style beat, with sinister synths beneath glistening guitars. The twelve-minute epic opens Frost*’s fourth album, and first without a set drummer. Here they use three: Pat Mastellotto (King Crimson), Kaz Rodriguez (Chaka Khan), and Darby Todd (The Darkness). If you are familiar with their previous albums, you know what to expect.
The trio of Jem Godfrey, John Mitchell and Nathan King specialize in exquisitely powerful and polished progressive rock, with strong vocal arrangements and engaging songs. Day And Age is no exception, with each song drawing on the previous and easily holding our attention. From short and immediate tracks to lengthy and complex, Frost* have managed to put together a stunning prog rock album that is both dark and uplifting at once.
11. Diablo Swing Orchestra – Swagger & Stroll Down The Rabbit Hole (Spinefarm)
Swedish ensemble Diablo Swing Orchestra did not overly impress with their last album, 2017’s Pacifisticuffs, but they are intent on regaining our trust and love here on their fifth album, Swagger & Stroll Down The Rabbit Hole. With their unique mash-up of jazz, prog rock, classical music, and groove metal, the DSO have the potential to knock it out of the park when firing on all cylinders.
That’s mostly what happens on Swagger… as the band tears through number after number of quirky, catchy craziness. Thirteen songs stretch over an hour here, and each of them is full of crazy musicianship, theatrical vocals, and an all-around positive vibe that almost reminds one of a cross between Igorrr and the B-52’s. After a dip in quality last time around, DSO are right back doing what they do best: crafting some of the most fervently infectious music of the year.
10. Boss Keloid – Family The Smiling Thrush (Ripple)
Boss Keloid’s last album, 2018’s Melted On The Inch, was an honorable mention on our Best of 2018 albums list, so the anticipation for their latest release Family The Smiling Thrush was high. Over the years, Boss Keloid’s sound has evolved and expanded from stoner/doom. While that style is still there, they have really expanded their progressive approach, and this is their proggiest album to date.
They boldly open with the album’s longest track, the nine minute “Orang Of Noyn.” On songs such as “Gentle Clovis” and “Hats The Mandrill” they display a masterful blend of groovy riffs, progressive forays and memorable melodies. This is album that’s both catchy and creative, immediately accessible but also displaying depth that unfolds more and more upon multiple listens. Family The Smiling Thrush is diverse and dynamic, appealing to fans of numerous genres.
9. Big Big Train – Common Ground (English Electric)
Big Big Train’s 2019 album Grand Tour made our Best Progressive Albums chart that year – the only album of the bunch we didn’t review when it was released. So I was pretty excited to get promo for Common Ground, the English collective’s thirteenth album – thirty years into their career. Big Big Train consistently release top-notch progressive rock albums, and Common Ground is no exception.
Featuring lush production, fabulous musicianship, and expressive vocals, the only downside to Common Ground might be the subject matter. Like many albums coming out this year, the topic du jour is Covid. Lyrics about missing people and being isolated will hopefully sound dated in a few years, but the songs Big Big Train have crafted here more than make up for the themes. Once again, the band has shown us what a great progressive rock outfit can and should sound like.
8. Malady – Ainavihantaa (Svart)
One of two albums to make our list that we didn’t get the chance to review, Finnish retro-prog greats Malady released their third album, Ainavihantaa, on December 10, long after most sites have finished with the year’s music. Lucky for us, the album has been in our hands for months, with a couple release delays pushing it to December.
Like countrymates Sammal and U.K. standouts Wobbler, Malady specialize in lush prog rock heavily influenced by the sounds of fifty years ago. Vocals take a back seat to Mellotron, Hammond organ, slinky bass lines, and stellar drumming. This is all married to beautiful production (Ainavihantaa is one of the best-sounding albums of 2021) to deliver what is one of the strongest progressive rock albums of the year.
7. Thy Catafalque – Vadak (Season Of Mist)
Vadak, the tenth album from Thy Catafalque, means “wildlings” in Hungarian, and Tamás Kátai goes wild on this album, delivering a dizzying range of styles across ten songs and over an hour of runtime. Featuring no less than sixteen guest musicians and vocalists and recorded in more than ten countries, Vadak was a monumental undertaking and Kátai’s efforts pay off handsomely.
Vadak is Thy Catafalque’s most metallic release in some years, with plenty of harsh vocals and driving rhythms scattered across the album. Whether it’s the all-out aggression displayed on songs like “Móló” and “Gömböc” or the kitschy countrified flavor of “Kiscsikó (Irénke dala),” Vadak is a vital, enthralling, and aggressive release from a fantastic artist. If you’ve never listened to Thy Catafalque, Vadak is a great place to start.
6. Vokonis – Odyssey (The Sign)
The Swedish trio Vokonis‘ style has evolved over the years. Starting as mainly a stoner/doom outfit, they have added more prog to the mix, with their fourth album Odyssey their most progressive to-date. Guest keyboards from Per Wiberg (Spiritual Beggars, ex-Opeth) help guide them down that progressive road.
There are still plenty of down-tuned riffs and sludgy sections along with progressive forays. There are dual vocals with Jonte Johansson’s smooth, melodic style contrasted by periodic harsh vocals from Simon Ohlsson that add variety. Some songs, like the opener “Rebellion” and “Blackened Wings” are compact in length while still providing twists and turns. Others like the title track and 12 plus minute closer “Through The Depths” are given much more space to develop while maintaining interest throughout. There are certainly Mastodon influences, but Vokonis have developed their own approach, with Odyssey their strongest album so far.
5. Iotunn – Access All Worlds (Metal Blade)
A space-themed concept album? Sure. Technical death metal with a few other influences tossed in? Okay. Jón Aldará, the singer for Hamferð and Barren Earth, on lead vocals? Now you’ve got me! Danish progressive metal band Iotunn present us with their debut full-length, Access All Worlds, five years after they released an EP with a different singer.
The only nitpick with Access All Worlds is the somewhat mellow (and loudly mastered) production. This is more than made up for with incredibly strong songs that incorporate prog, death, and power metal seamlessly, and a tour de force vocal performance from Aldará, as expected.
4. Epiphanic Truth – Dark Triad: Bitter Psalms To A Sordid Species (Church Road)
The second album we didn’t get to review is from anonymous U.K. collective Epiphanic Truth, who display absurdly strong musicianship and songwriting skills throughout their first album, Dark Triad. There are only three songs on the album, but they are all of epic length, from nine to twenty-three minutes, and not a moment goes by where our attention wavers.
Dark Triad is an enticing mix of black metal, death metal, atmospheric washes, and jazz-infused interludes. The drumming and bass playing are amazing, and there is no shortage of riffs on the album. Vocal styles are all over the map, and largely successful. It sounds chaotic on paper, but in reality the band knocks it out of the park, delivering one of the best progressive extreme metal albums of the year.
3. Meer – Playing House (Karisma)
An eight-piece band featuring the usual rock trappings with orchestral elements? Sounds a little like the Diablo Swing Orchestra, which isn’t a bad thing. Meer are a prog-pop band from Norway, and Playing House is their second album. Sadly, their 2016 debut is not on Bandcamp (but is on iTunes and Spotify).
Meer’s strengths are twofold: glorious, lush arrangements and fantastic vocals dominate the album. Johanne Nesdal’s vocals are an early-year highlight; it was hard for me to stop listening to this album when she was singing. All eleven songs have their own wonderful quirks, from the easy groove of “You Were A Drum” to the majesty of “Beehive.” And to top it off, a crazy-cool bonus cover of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” is available, and needs to be heard.
2. Astrakhan – A Slow Ride Towards Death (Melodic Passion)
For this reviewer, at least, Swedish melodic prog metal act Astrakhan came out of nowhere. I was not familiar with their first few albums, but A Slow Ride Towards Death has me quickly rectifying that error. This isn’t the Canadian prog-sludge band, but rather a group formed by members of Royal Hunt and Pain of Salvation, and that influence really comes across, as A Slow Ride Towards Death is very similar in feel and composition to PoS’s excellent In the Passing Light of Day.
Alexander Lycke is a highly-regarded vocalist back in Sweden, and one listen to this album shows why. He (along with PoS’s Johan Hallgren, who does some singing as well as lead guitar) imbues the songs with such emotion and power that one gets lost in the album quite easily. Add to that some outstanding songwriting (and a penchant for adding a ton of flange effect to the bass guitar) and what we have here is one of the strongest progressive metal albums of the year.
1. Dordeduh – Har (Prophecy)
Nine years after their debut, the Romanian band Dordeduh return with Har. They were founded by two former members of Negură Bunget (vocalist/guitarist Hupogrammos and guitarist/keyboardist Sol Far).
Their first album was atmospheric folk/black metal, and while Har has those elements, Dordeduh expand their sound this time around with an avant-garde approach that incorporates everything from gothic to prog to electronic. The album opens with the 12 minute “Timpul Intilor,” which showcases all the aforementioned musical styles along with both harsh and melodic vocals. Whether epic in length or more streamlined, each song is compelling with numerous twists and turns. Catchy melodies devolve into extreme sections and progressive forays and back again, making for an eclectic album that maintains engagement throughout, even though it’s more than an hour long. The wait for a new Dordeduh album was a long one, but well worth it. Har is our pick for 2021’s best progressive metal/rock album.