Welcome to January, and a whole new year of progressive music to sink your teeth into, and boy are we off to a cracking start. This month we essentially have a five-way tie for our top pick, which is pretty amazing. Honestly speaking, whichever album happened to be playing at the time was my top pick, so if there was ever a month when you should give all of these (well, five of them) a good listen, this is it.
Ratings are on a five star scale.
Caligula’s Horse – Charcoal Grace (InsideOut)
Charcoal Grace is the sixth album from Australian progressive metal juggernauts Caligula’s Horse, and comes almost four years after their last outing, Rise Radiant, which cracked our 2020 Best Of list. This time around the band is a four-piece, with Adrian Goleby departing in 2021. This doesn’t affect the songwriting or performances, however, as Charcoal Grace continues the band’s track record of stellar output.
Charcoal Grace is an apt title, not only because it is also the name of the epic 24-minute centerpiece, but because the musical and lyrical themes revolve around the dark beauty that can be found in both silence and loss. As strong as anything the band has done in recent years, this album is full of power, skill, and raw emotion. Another excellent offering from one of progressive metal’s outstanding bands.
Madder Mortem – Old Eyes, New Heart (Dark Essence)
We’ve waited a long time for Old Eyes, New Heart. Norway’s Madder Mortem kicked our butts with 2018’s Marrow, an album that came in sixth on that year’s Best Prog list. Family tragedy and other obstacles delayed the release of the band’s eighth album, but what a welcome return it is.
Of course the scene-stealer is once again singer Agnete Kirkevaag, whose vocals are nearly unparalleled, but the music cannot be denied its place here, either. The band delivers forty-eight minutes of incredibly diverse music here, ranging from all-out prog metal bangers to the sultry blues of “On Guard.” Old Eyes, New Heart is simply one of the best albums I’m sure we will hear all year.
Manticora – Mycelium (Mighty)
Danish outfit Manticora have not graced the Progress Report in the past, but we are more than a little familiar with them. Progressive thrash metal with more than a few hints of power metal is the recipe for success on Mycelium, the band’s tenth release. After an ambitious concept arc spanning two albums and a novel, the band have “toned it down” with a succinct and slightly less grandiose outing.
More aggressive than their last couple of releases, Mycelium boasts speedy chops and Lars Larsen’s epic vocals in spades. Clocking in at a tight forty-eight minutes, this album delivers high-octane goods in trademark Manticora fashion. All killer and no filler is an old saying, but perfect for this album, which will please any and all fans of power and thrash metal.
MesaVerde – All Is Well (Apollon)
If I hadn’t read the promo one-sheet for All Is Well I would have assumed MesaVerde were a one-person side project put together on someone’s computer. But no, this is a fully-fledged band of experienced musicians. That experience shines through only occasionally on this, the Norwegian outfit’s second album.
Dated yet glistening production (including what really sounds like drum samples from the ’80s) and very mundane, repetitive vocal arrangements highlight All Is Well. Despite the very amateur vibe of the album these is some sort of undeniable charisma floating just beneath the surface, making All Is Well a strange one: average yet sprinkled with compelling moments.
Neal Morse – The Restoration: Joseph, Part Two (Frontiers)
I have to be truthful here: I am not a huge fan of the Neal Morse/Spock’s Beard family tree. The style of prog rock rarely resonates with me, so I tend to avoid reviewing their albums. It was with a bit of trepidation that I took on The Restoration: Joseph, Part Two – and I hadn’t heard Part One prior to this. However, color me surprised upon spinning this album, as I found myself thoroughly enjoying it.
Morse seems to be at his most inspired on this album, which despite its length (both parts add up to well over two hours) boasts oodles of great musicianship, catchy songwriting, and excellent vocals. If biblical-themed rock operas are your cup of tea this will be your album of the year. If you’re just looking for some well-played and well-arranged prog rock, well, you’ll see far worse than this over the course of 2024. The Restoration is one of Morse’s stronger solo outings.
Sgàile – Traverse The Bealach (Avantgarde)
Now here’s an album that’s the opposite of the MesaVerde release: Traverse The Bealach is a solo outing from Scotland’s Tony Dunn, his second release, and boy is it good. A blind listen would lead one to believe this is a seasoned band of stellar musicians boasting great songwriting, rather than one fellow putting it all together.
Shockingly good doesn’t begin to describe Traverse The Bealach. Sgàile have put together an hour of the most compelling and enjoyable prog metal I’ve heard in quite some time, and the fact that this all came from the hands and mind of one man makes it all the more special. The band’s second album takes us on a journey across post-apocalyptic Scotland through epic songs featuring soaring vocals, killer musicianship, and excellent arrangements. In an absolutely stacked month, Traverse The Bealach comes out as our top pick.