This year was a typical year for progressive rock and metal in two major ways. As usual, many of the most important modern artists released incredibly ambitious and rewarding records that stand proudly alongside their predecessors, and as usual, these LPs were almost unanimously ignored by the mainstream in terms of critical and commercial attention. Of course, neither of these points are surprising to enthusiasts (to be honest, this dichotomy is part of what makes this music so special to us), but it’s worth noting nonetheless.
That said, what really sticks out about the past dozen or so months is the pattern of established bands relying on their established formulas rather than trying something majorly new. Thankfully, it worked out more often than not, but there were still a few underwhelming—if still highly enjoyable—endeavors. Fortunately, a handful of relative newcomers picked up the slack and astounded so much that they finally reached the genre audience and acclaim they’ve long since deserved. As a result, this list was probably more difficult to compile than in previous years, as several former favorites failed to impress sufficiently, whereas a few up-and-comers blew listeners away. In the end, though, the following ten albums rightly outshine the competition and best represent what made 2016 such a diverse and phenomenal year in progressive music.
The Unreasonable Silence
As with all genres, some of the best current progressive rock is the work of a single visionary; such is the case with Cosmograf, the artistic alter-ego of Robin Armstrong. Although he seems to utilize more guest musicians at every turn, he still spearheads the operation, which has yielded several fantastic sci-fi journeys (namely, 2014’s Capacitor). His most recent narrative, The Unreasonable Silence (which is based on Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”), satisfies expectations once again by using talents like drummer Nick D’Virgilio (Big Big Train, ex-Spock’s Beard), bassist Nick Beggs (Steven Wilson), and singer Rachael Hawnt (The Beautiful Secret) to help explore “mankind’s struggle to understand the universe and our role in it”. The end result is a dazzling and introspective experience worthy of classic Pink Floyd.
Following the ominous and atmospheric introduction “echo $abduction;”, “This Film Might Change Your Life” utilizes spacey sounds, dramatic textures, and plenty of voiceovers to suck you in during its first half (think: IQ and Sky Architect), whereas its remaining portion highlights Armstrong’s unique tone and songwriting style. It’s a potent, technical, and infectious starting point, and luckily he maintains the luster throughout the sequence; for example, “Plastic Men” is vibrant and impassioned, while “Four Wall Euphoria” is a bit like late ‘60s Beatles mixed with Dream Theater. Fortunately, the title track closes The Unreasonable Silence on an appropriately epic and gratifying note, confirming Cosmograf’s expertise in crafting compelling concepts.
London sextet Haken is nothing if not prolific, seeing as how they formed only a decade ago and have already released four LPs and one EP. The group is no stranger to vintage tapestries either, as their work often feels as situated in modern prog foundations as it does in the influential styles of genre pioneers like Yes, Gentle Giant, and King Crimson. On their latest endeavor, Affinity, they go one step further by overtly harkening back not only to the heaviness of their first couple discs—Aquarius and Visions—but also to the synthesized power of the 1980s. It’s an amalgam that may not sound seamless on paper, yet works wonders to make Affinity distinctive, fresh, and consistently engaging.
“1985” serves as the most obvious nod to the past, with inspirational guitar riffs, electronic percussion, and keyboard solos backing vocalist Ross Jennings’ idiosyncratic uproars. It’s an acknowledged nod to soundtrack composer Vince DiCola, and it definitely adds an interesting shade to the Haken palette. Similarly, “The Architect” is easily the lengthiest and harshest track here, blending colorful yet brutal djent veneers, spacey transitions, and metal growls (courtesy of Leprous singer Einar Solberg) to recall outfits like Meshuggah, Periphery, Between the Buried and Me, and Devin Townsend. Naturally, the series is peppered with standard trademarks, too, such as the lavish harmonies within “Initiate” and “Lapse”, plus the overarching tenderness of “Bound by Gravity”. In a nutshell, Affinity captures just how willing and capable Haken is of stretching their own boundaries without sacrificing anything that makes them standout.
Like countless other remarkable artists, art rock sextet Bent Knee formed out of the revered Berklee College of Music in Boston. Often channeling similar chamber music elements as the Dear Hunter and Emanuel and the Fear, they fuse classical and modern timbres to produce something truly powerful, experimental, and diverse. While their first two records certainly introduced all that makes Bent Knee special, Say So takes their creativity, fearlessness, and conceptuality to a whole new level. Dense with “dark[ness] and infused with themes focusing on the emergence of personal demons, unwanted situations[,] and the difficulty of conquering them”, it’s a brilliant effort.
Say So spoils its listener from the get-go, as opener “Black Tar Water” is a breathtakingly hypnotic, multilayered, and a triumphant slice of self-reflection and empowerment. Courtney Swain seizes her redemption with the overwhelming yet eloquent force of say, Tori Amos or Björk, while each new textural coating adds radiance and weight. It’s a masterpiece onto itself, yet it’s only the start of the magic, as “Leak Water”, though a bit more straightforward and compressed, is no less bold and varied. Later, “EVE” interweaves soft songwriting with furious orchestration, while the final track, “Good Girl”, is a bittersweet commentary on the subjugation of women. Of course, there’s also “Commercial”, an off-the-wall trip that induces the intricate insanity of Frank Zappa. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Say Say, however, is that while many of the most anticipated progressive rock albums of 2016 disappointed (The Astonishing, anyone?), it proved that sometimes it’s the lesser known releases that contain the most magnificent material.
Bottled Out of Eden
Led by the madcap wit of vocalist/guitarist Kavus Torabi, English octet Knifeworld incorporates a bit of classic Camel, Soft Machine, and Gong (which Torabi now fronts, too, following the death of founder Daevid Allen in 2015) in its delightful concoction of eccentric, warm, and avant-garde jazz/psychedelic rock. Melding full-bodied and highly elaborate instrumentation, wholly inviting melodies, and a predominant sense of playfulness, Knifeworld never fails to evocate wonder at its musicianship and joy at its colorful accessibility. Happily, the group’s third venture, Bottled Out of Eden, is the ultimate representation of this charming feat.
Bottled Out of Eden kickstarts with its strongest selection, “High/Aflame”, which, according to Torabi, acts as a complex and catchy-as-hell “hymn to psychedelics, but also to Daevid Allen as well”. Its multifaceted, luminous, and ever-changing arrangement is sure to make you smile. In contrast, “I Am Lost” is more subdued and wistful, featuring a lovely supporting vocal from Melanie Woods, while “Foul Temple” is acoustic, sparse, and cautionary. “I Must Set Fire to Your Portrait” makes great use of their horn section, and “Secret Words” exemplifies how there’s always solid songwriting beneath the frenzied embellishments. Bottled Out of Eden also ends like it began, with “Feel the Sorcery” nearly matching “High/Aflame” in terms of exploratory dynamics and engrossing melodies. Really, there isn’t a moment on the full-length that doesn’t ooze vibrancy, adventurousness, and skill, all of which combine to make Knifeworld one of today’s most singular and enjoyable acts.
Initially shaped as a pseudonym for the pieces of singer/guitarist Giancarlo Erra (who debuted with Sol29 in 2005), Italian collective Nosound officially became a band in 2006. Since then, the quintet has issued several more studio works that burst with tasteful textures, graceful layers (including subtle orchestration), and most important, distressing lyricism delivered via Erra’s endearingly delicate voice. Frankly, only a few contemporaries—like Anathema, Steven Wilson, and Gazpacho—can even rival Nosound’s exquisite yet emotionally excruciating presence, which is arguably stronger than ever on this year’s Scintilla. It will overwhelm you with its stunning despair.
Considering that Nosound has such an individualized sound, it’s comforting that Scintilla feels very much like a continuation of, rather than a deviation from, 2013’s Afterthoughts. Though brief, opener “Short Story” makes a victorious impression with its pounding percussion, melancholic piano notes, and gentle laments, while “Last Lunch” follows a lengthier and more familiar path, complete with vocal echoes, dynamic syncopation, gothic organ swirls, and mournful cello outcries (courtesy of Marianne De Chastelaine). There’s also the sparse internal tragedy of “Little Man”, the conflicted aggression of “The Perfect Wife,” and the serene lusciousness of the title track, yet what stands out most is the sophisticated evolution and life-affirming nature of “In Celebration of Life”. It begins as a brittle piano ode and becomes an awe-inspiring outpour of inspirational majesty whose sole lyric—“In celebration of life / You just don’t see the abundance of love I have inside”—complements the all-encompassing aural beauty to bring you to tears. Bravo, Nosound, bravo.