Welcome to the final Progress Report of 2016. Next month I’ll be providing a “Top Something” list of 2016’s essential prog releases. With the year-end creeping up on us, big name releases are few and far between, but that just means we have a chance to dig deeper for some hopefully interesting fare.
We’ve still managed to stir up some variety this month, with releases from seasoned vets and newcomers alike. We’ve got some big-label records as well as some independent releases. Which ones hold up and which collapse under their own expectations?
Ratings are on a five star scale.
A Sense of Gravity – Atrament (Self)
The trendy thing in modern progressive metal is to emulate Between the Buried and Me, and that is very evident in this month’s column. Our first trend-followers are Seattle band A Sense of Gravity and their debut album Atrament. Don’t let the ’70s-prog, complete with flute solo, of opening track “Drowning in the Ink” fool you: this is a prog metal release, and in fact the opener sticks out like a sore thumb.
Luckily it is quickly forgotten once the band gets down to business. Atrament is more keyboard-driven than BTBAM music, and much of the time more musical despite the moments of hardcore chaos. Vocals are solid if unspectacular, and overall musicianship is tight and technical. This is a promising debut and should garner A Sense of Gravity some label (and listener) interest.
Animals as Leaders – The Madness of Many (Sumerian)
Los Angeles-based prog-djent veteran trio Animals as Leaders dropped their fourth album, The Madness of Many, this month. The band is renowned for their clinically technical approach, and that hasn’t changed here. Animals as Leaders’ sterile, unemotional style may not be for everyone, but they are masters of their craft and there is no denying their technical prowess.
Although the overall feel of The Madness of Many is as described above, there’s still plenty of variety in the individual songs, from the East Indian-influenced “Arithmophobia” to the funky bass and synth-driven “Ectogenesis” to the conservatively intricate “The Glass Bridge.” Fans of the band will jump on this one, but it may not result in many new listeners.
Cognition – Procession of Thoughts (Self)
Cognition call themselves progressive metal, but even after multiple spins of Procession of Thoughts I can’t figure out why. At best, these guys play an amateur brand of metalcore. Horrible vocals both clean and harsh are coupled with amateur production values, resulting in a nigh unlistenable mess. The few glimmers of decent songwriting and musicianship are fleeting at best.
Plenty of bands self-release these days, but when you still aren’t signed for your second album maybe that’s an indication that the music just isn’t any good. Cognition need to sit down and figure out just what kind of band they are. If they insist on labeling themselves as prog metal, I insist on labeling Procession of Thoughts as one of the worst prog releases of the year. Don’t seek this one out.
Maschine – Naturalis (InsideOut)
Luke Machin is the driving force behind Maschine, a UK prog outfit new to the scene. Naturalis is their second offering, following 2013’s solid debut Rubidium. The new album shows additional growth from a band that already had a great understanding of what makes for engaging progressive rock. Naturalis is only six songs long, but two bonus tracks are included, live versions of songs from Rubidium.
The best way to describe Maschine’s sound is to think of Haken’s prog sensibilities with Anathema’s male/female vocals. Musically the band is tight, technical, and melodic. Nobody hogs the spotlight – in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to point out the strongest musician, as they are all excellent. Don’t let Naturalis pass you by: it is excellent prog rock with plenty of heavy moments scattered throughout, and is my top recommendation for November.
The Neal Morse Band – The Similitude of a Dream (Metal Blade)
Progressive rock veteran Neal Morse is back only a year after releasing jam album The Grand Experiment, and The Similitude of a Dream is a double concept album. Maybe Morse and drummer Mike Portnoy don’t want to be outdone by Dream Theater? Regardless, this newest offering (loosely based on a book written in the 1600s) is of surprisingly high quality considering the fast turnaround.
Morse, Portnoy, and the rest of the band are in stellar form as they weave their way through more than 100 minutes of tasteful prog. Sure, since Morse left Spock’s Beard years ago his music has had a spiritual focus, but there’s nothing wrong with the bright, uplifting presentation here. With songs runningthe gamut from orchestral to metallic, The Similitude of a Dream plays as a more restrained and enjoyable Dream Theater album. Give it a chance and see what you think.
Oni – Ironshore (Metal Blade)
This column is bookended by BTBAM worshippers, with Oni being the heavier and more savage act of the two. Ironshore is the band’s debut album, and to be honest it starts off in rather sketchy fashion with the chaos of opening track “Barn Burner.” I had to read the press release closely to understand the big difference: Oni features a xylo-synth player. It’s an odd addition to an extreme prog offering, but when it works it works.
Ironshore gets better as the album goes on, and multiple listens uncover layers of technical mastery that a casual listen might miss. “The Only Cure” features Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe on vocals and precedes album highlight “The Science,” an 11-minute epic Between the Buried and Me wish they could write. This is a fun debut from a promising band.