The albums you see below are a testament to the chameleonic nature of prog: Coldplay-esque stadium ballads, sludge metal, sample-heavy concept records, and classic-style prog all stand side by side, proving the genre isn’t something that fits into the easy category of “bands that sound like Yes, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd”. I (and, I imagine, the writers featured below) believe that the supposed borders of prog are actually boundaries and traditional lines of demarcation that can be traversed by any number of bands coming from any number of musical backgrounds. This crossover ability is very much imbued within the prog genre itself; for if groups are only content to rehash the 20-minute epics that make up much of the prog scene in the ‘70s, can they truly be called progressive?
When I wrote PopMatters’ inaugural Best Prog of the Year list for 2011, the sense that many readers disagreed with my conception of prog was clear. This became even more apparent when I gave my picks for the best prog albums of the 2000s, an article that spawned a lengthy comment section involving some stated and many unstated criteria for what it is that makes a band or an album “prog”. Admittedly, I did offer up controversial choices; I don’t think it’s illegitimate to deny the prog-ness of Blackfield, for example. And despite the fact that I qualified that I would include prog metal alongside prog rock in each list, many were still perturbed by the mixture. Still, what these comments indicated to me was a surprisingly unprogressive way of looking at progressive music, something at best disconcerting and at worst seriously problematic. Arguments about categorization are inevitable in any genre that prides itself on being an engine for change, but it is certainly prudent for conversation to remain open—though not so open that what made the genre successful in the past is disregarded—so as to create a truly progressive discourse both within the community of fans as well as musicians.
With these discussions in mind, it’s likely that many will contest the legitimacy of categorizing some of the below albums as prog. This isn’t bad or wrong at all; in fact, it’s likely the case that the more debate there is surrounding a particular record, the more progressive it is being, insofar as many records that are truly “progressing” in the lexically accurate understanding of the word aren’t understood well during the time of their release. So yes, this may not be the most traditional of progressive rock (and metal!) lists, but I think I speak for my fellow contributors when I say that it’s in the diversity of this list that makes it a truly great round-up of 2012’s best prog songwriters. Some of these may not fit the mold perfectly, but hey: at its best, prog was never a genre designed for following formula, was it? Brice Ezell
Queen of the Wave
There’s little I can say about this album that hasn’t been documented in Alan Ranta’s thorough, loving write-up that was published back in February, but given its greatness, I do believe I can afford it some extra praise. Though Pepe Deluxé have never been of the prog scene, Queen of the Wave opens up like any good concept album should: a bizarre story is introduced in the style of medieval lore (“Let me sing a song for you / Let me spin a tale that’s true”), accented by a flute line that could have been played by Ian Anderson himself. For a moment, one nearly forgets that Pepe Deluxé began in big-beat and trip-hop; these guys sound quite comfortable in prog’s tropes, producing one of the best concept records of the year and definitely the best “Esoteric Pop Opera in Three Acts” ever released. Jumping quickly yet organically between prog, sampled beats, surf rock, bursts of opera choirs, and a Bond-theme-in-the waits (“My Flaming Thirst”, which is easily twice as good as Adele’s “Skyfall” theme), Queen of the Wave is a near-masterpiece of progressive rock, perhaps the archetypal case of a “non-prog” band outdoing their prog counterparts. Brice Ezell
The assumption that most fans of popular prog would be put off by the dissonant, harsh tonality of black metal is hardly glib. The current prog archetype is fluid, legato guitar solos and symphonic composition, things one isn’t usually going to find on a black metal LP. But I imagine it’d be hard for fans of progressive metal to turn down Eremita, Emperor co-founder Ihsahn’s fourth solo venture. There are still strains of black metal running in Ihsahn’s musical style, but what’s amazing is how he’s transcended them, and, in doing so, creating a brand of metal that’s near unclassifiable or, as I like to think of it, progressive. In a time where prog epics are a dime a dozen, Ihsahn’s nuanced, sophisticated songwriting is a breath of fresh air. “The Eagle and the Snake”, the nine-minute labyrinth of a centerpiece that’s also Ihsahn’s best work to date, is exactly the type of experimentation progressive music needs right now. Eremita’s release during the philosophical “black metal renaissance” is all too fitting: it’s not just the genre itself that is growing, it’s also the artists themselves, sometimes to the point where they progress outside the bounds of their storied beginnings. Brice Ezell
Swedish prog-rock outfit Beardfish has long been revered for its unique, eccentric, and melodically addicting take on the genre. With each new release, they venture into heavier territory, and their most recent album, The Void, is no different. Although it’s not as strong as its two predecessors (Mammoth and Destined Solitaire), it’s still a remarkable record overall. Oddly enough, though, Beardfish seem to be channel another progressive metal group—Mastodon—throughout The Void. This is quite evident in the album’s fiercest tracks, such as “Involuntary Slavery” and “This Matter of Mine”. Elsewhere, “Seventeen Again” is an instrumental that definitely recalls earlier Beardfish albums (especially the two Sleeping in Traffic LPs). Built around charming piano work, its mixture of classical and ‘70s prog styles is quite alluring. The Void also houses two of Beardfish’s best tracks: “Ludvig & Sverker” and “The Note”. Truthfully, the former may be the most emotionally involving song the group has ever crafted; it’s effortlessly catchy and poignant. As for the latter, which clocks in at over fifteen minutes long, it is yet another wildly inventive and engaging genre epic full of smooth transitions. In the end, The Void is an incredible achievement in the group’s discography. Jordan Blum
The Parallax II: Future Sequence
Between the Buried and Me
The Parallax II: Future Sequence
Between the Buried and Me has always been a love-it-or-hate-it kind of band. Their mind-blowingly diverse and intricate blend of brutality and beauty isn’t for everyone. However, there’s no denying that their past few offerings have been utterly masterful. With The Parallax II: Future Sequence, they’ve easily outdone themselves. A 72-minute conceptual suite, it’s the group’s most ambitious, intricate, and thoroughly impressive record yet; in fact, it’s fair to call The Parallax II a work of genius. A sequel to their last EP (2011’s Hypersleep Dialogues), the album starts out with the Floydian majesty of “Goodbye to Everything”, which is actually the end of the story. From there, listeners are taken back through time to see how events unfolded. Some highlights include the reference to Hypersleep Dialogues’ “Specular Reflection” in “Extremophile Elite”, the emotionally piercing “The Black Box”, the melodic changes in “Melting City”, and the schizophrenic tour-de-force of “Silent Flight Parliament”. Best of all, The Parallax II is filled with conceptual continuity and reprisals. As clichéd as it sounds, the album truly reveals more with each listen—you’ll have to listen intently at least half a dozen times to truly grasp everything. All in all, The Parallax II is a masterpiece. Jordan Blum
In Dreams and Time
A psychotropic jaunt was always expected from Los Angeles-based Ancestors on their third full-length In Dreams and Time. The band’s reputation for mind-melting riffs, intergalactic synth, and ambitious albums was already well established, but In Dreams and Time is a staggering display of fertile creativity. Saturated in a warm analog glow, Meddle-era melodies mix with sumptuous organ feasts and multifaceted elements from sludge and post-metal. Driving riffs are counterpointed by more sedate passages, in which gossamer, temperate atmospherics reveal the band’s immense vision (a raft of stargazing celestial highs are explored as fuzz-ridden guitars soar over galaxies of synth and rich instrumentation). But for all of Ancestors’ astronomical inclinations, the band never drifts too far, plowing through firmly terrestrial dirge-like sections with molten, often muck-laden riffs. In Dreams and Time is a grand fusion of oscillating tempos and kaleidoscopic crescendos. It blends the vitality of progressive rock with the off-kilter harmonics of psychedelia and a heady stoner vibe, transforming the limitless into the tangible and nurturing. Craig Hayes