[15 February 2012]
Late into 1999, a single album caused a seismic shift in the progressive rock scene. That album, Dream Theater’s Metropolis, Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, seemed like any other prog concept album. Yet despite its release later in the year, the LP would go on not just to be hailed as one of the year’s best progressive rock records, but one of the genre’s all-time classics. This set the stage for Dream Theater to shoot to the forefront of the progressive rock scene, while also serving as a prototype for the style of prog that would become even more popular over the course of the next decade. Just a year later prog supergroup Transatlantic released its debut record, still very much a prog favorite, which included much of the complex musicianship so masterfully displayed on Scenes from a Memory.
Oh, how times have changed. Dream Theater’s prominence—while no doubt still formidable—would wane in the latter half of the decade, as the band put out releases that just couldn’t match up to the brilliance of its prior recordings. Meanwhile, countless numbers of long concept records were released, with quality of music often being sacrificed for the quantity of minutes the musicians could keep on shredding.
Meanwhile, the more popular bands bearing the prog title (or at least those associated with prog) decided not to fall into the formula of the intricate concept record. In terms of dollars earned (which is by no means a good judge of how good a prog artist is), the decade’s most popular prog or prog-esque outfits were Tool and Muse. The latter makes sense; it’s quite accessible and not wholly prog, though there are more than passing references to the genre’s requisite traits. The former is highly perplexing. There is much prog far more accessible than the dark prog metal of Tool; it’s a wonder that the band sells as many records as it does. People usually don’t rush out en masse to buy albums that feature an 11-minute song involving the story of an alien abduction read at a blistering speed. Fortunately, people did, and in doing so they brought attention to the genre. After all, Tool fans have to find some other prog to listen to during the extensive time in between the quartet’s recordings.
All trends, failures, successes, and surprises considered, the “Aughts” were a great decade for prog. While genre standbys like Dream Theater began to show signs of aging, other bands rose to the forefront of the form, notably the British prog great Porcupine Tree. I could write extensively about the incredible talent of frontman Steven Wilson, but a simple Google search will do my job for me. To put it as succinctly as possible, Wilson is one of progressive rock’s most important musicians, and brilliant recordings either led by him or involving him dominated this last decade. (A particularly enthusiastic Wilson acolyte has compiled a complete discography of his work, totaling over three hundred pages).
Wilson—while in my view the preeminent progressive musician of the day—was by no means the genre’s only skilled songwriter. The following list is, I think, a fair snapshot of the decade’s quality prog releases. (One area I’m aware my list is lacking in is female prog musicians, which is an area I’m trying to expand my knowledge). Some will likely say that my appreciation of Steven Wilson-involved projects is much like the obsession with Radiohead that many critical magazines hold, and to some extent that is a fair comparison. He does appear on four out of the following ten albums, a considerable feat for any prog musician. I think, however, this is reflective of his skill as a multi-talented performer and producer, as well as his importance to progressive rock as a whole. In a sense, this list is not only a reflection of the many great efforts of progressive artists, but also a tribute to the the style’s most important musician of the last decade.
Note: This list includes both progressive rock and progressive metal, as the sub-genres often overlap.
Honorable Mentions: Between the Buried and Me’s Colors (2007), Ayreon’s 01011001 (2008), Therion’s Secret of the Runes (2001), Devin Townsend’s Ziltoid the Omniscient (2007), and Transatlantic’s SMPT:e (2000)
This is a pick that I’m aware will get me a litany of “Are you kidding?!” comments. I’m supposed to put De-Loused in the Comatorium or Frances the Mute here. Those records, after all, are the ones that made the Mars Volta popular, and to their credit they feature many excellent songs. However, I maintain that the band members became much more cohesive songwriters with Octahedron. One problem with records like Frances the Mute and especially The Bedlam in Goliath is that even by prog standards they’re too damn long. Ambiance and random bits of noise have their place, but much of the Mars Volta’s output consists of albums that ramble on without an end in sight. With Octahedron, however, the group changed up ts formula, sticking to shorter song lengths and tighter songwriting. The result is brilliant; the band penned its most beautiful ballad since “Televators” in “Since We’ve Been Wrong”, and proved that its incredible chops could be effectively displayed in a short runtime with the groovy “Cotopaxi”. Octahedron may not be as epic or as adventurous as the Mars Volta’s prior albums, but it’s proof that sometimes for a prog rock band it’s best to stick to great short songs rather than long ones that drag on.
Many might view this as another controversial pick, although slightly less so than Octahedron. Tool’s 2001 release Lateralus is a great record, but the songwriting on 10,000 Days is much more refined. The album mixes shorter, typically structured songs with left-field experimental fare in a more successful fashion than the previous Tool LP did. The record is also the band’s most diverse: there’s the oddball, schizoid stuff (the paranoid speed rants of “Rosetta Stoned”), the meditative Eastern-influenced songs (the haunting title track), and powerful prog metal jams (“Vicarious”). Best of all of these is “The Pot”, the album’s catchiest moment, which features a great turn from virtuoso vocalist Maynard James Keenan as well as what is likely the band’s best bassline yet. When juxtaposed against its popularity, Tool’s weirdness seems to make no sense, but in reality it’s part of what makes the group great. Despite releasing a meager two records in the entirety of the last decade, Tool still managed to prove itself as an incredibly relevant ensemble. I can’t wait for its next album.
With so many prog supergroups, it’s easy for a band like OSI to get overlooked. Like most projects of its kind, the lineup is impressive: Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos, ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore, and now former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, though for this release Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison picked up the sticks. The band’s first two recordings were good, but not great, but with Blood OSI became something more than just another side project. Blood is the culmination and refining of OSI’s mixture of prog metal (which Matheos excels at) and electronica (which Moore excels at). Even Moore’s much-maligned vocals work well on the album, adding to the engrossingly dark atmosphere. It’s not clear where OSI can go from here, but even if the group never puts out another record it at least quit while on top. Blood is not only one of 2009’s sleeper releases, but also one of the decade’s strongest prog LPs. It’s nice to see an album that debunks the myth that supergroups are at best self-indulgent.
Even by concept record standards, BE is insane. The album’s goal is nothing less than to explore the nature of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two. BE takes this heady concept and explores it through multiple different genres that on paper don’t sound like they would at all fit together on a cohesive LP. Fortunately, they do. Celtic folk, Delta blues, Broadway balladry, and metal all weave together into this ambitious sonic tapestry. The album is no doubt ostentatious, but it offers plenty to warrant its grandiosity. Many songs on the record could be described here to show the how the band effectively handles its portentous source material, but one noticeably stands out. “Vocari Dei” uses a lovely acoustic instrumental as a background to several audio recordings of people leaving messages to God. It sounds hokey, but as done on BE it’s insightful and at times heartbreaking; it’s a piece anyone of any faith could appreciate. The record’s philosophical heft and broad genre exploration make it a polarizing listen, but in the end the challenge it presents is more than met if one puts in the effort. Albums like BE are demonstrative of how prog continues to challenge its listeners in more ways than one.
After the numerous albums in which he plays a role, it seems superfluous for Steven Wilson to record an album under his name. Porcupine Tree, after all, began as a solo project for Wilson; the band didn’t begin recording as a whole unit until 1996’s Signify. But once Insurgentes concludes, it’s plain to see why this was released as a solo effort. Insurgentes pulls together all of the various sonics that Wilson explores in all of his projects, with a special emphasis on noise and drone, genres that he usually performs as Bass Communion. Had he tried to record this under any other of his band’s monikers, it wouldn’t have made sense. Songs on the album are somewhat linear, with memorable choruses and riffs aplenty, though usually songs build up to harsh quells of noise and static, such as the glorious climax of “Significant Other”. This record will no doubt not appeal to everyone, not even all of Wilson’s fans, for the album is a curiosity in terms of his overall discography. Nevertheless, Insurgentes’ portrait of an artist as a crazed madman (as evidenced by the striking sleeve art), is a beautiful portrait that ranks among his best work.
Compared to the many other albums that Neal Morse has participated in—whether as a solo artist or as part of Spock’s Beard—Sola Scriptura doesn’t stand out too far. The lengthy, labyrinthine songs are much like the stuff Morse has refined and perfected in his career. As a concept record, Sola Scriptura is great but nothing earth-shattering. Still, there’s an incredible power to this LP, and it likely has to do with the intense devotion that Morse has to the spiritual side of his music. After leaving Spock’s Beard in 2002 following the release of Snow, Morse decided to make his Christian faith the focus of his musical output. Fortunately, instead of going the way of the buffalo like much of the last decade’s Christian music, Morse’s work only became stronger. The complexity of Sola Scriptura is magnificent; the first two tracks alone warrant this album’s placement on this list. There is a danger to being preachy with music one feels spiritually invested in, but Sola Scriptura avoids that. This is a work of art made by a musician both technically proficient and spiritually rich.
Dream Theater has seen better days. The band released two of the ‘90s’ best prog albums, Images and Words (1992) and Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999). With this last decade, the group released some great material early on, only to move into generic prog territory as the new millennium went on. But with this 2005 release, Dream Theater took a bold move in crafting an album that demonstrated not just ts prog skills but also its ability to play on other genres. The prog stuff is stronger than the other styles the group take on, but the latter experiments for the most part work. Sure, the U2-aping ballad “I Walk Beside You” is a little corny, but it’s catchy, and the beautiful piano work on “The Answer Lies Within” manages to overpower the song’s cheesy inspirational lyrics. All of that aside, only one cut is necessary to mention to establish this album’s greatness: the all-encompassing title track, a 24-minute tribute to all that progressive rock was and still is. Beginning with a Continuum solo by the always-excellent Jordan Rudess and ending with an orchestra backing what might be John Petrucci’s greatest guitar solo, the song is breathtaking. Never once in during its runtime does it ever lag or get boring; it’s captivating through and through. “Octavarium” is a titanic achievement not just for Dream Theater, but for progressive rock as a whole. If the song’s finale doesn’t send chills down your spine, listen again. They’ll be there.
Many might contest this album’s classification as prog. True, just because Steven Wilson is in a project doesn’t mean that it must be a prog one, nor do the LP’s sometimes weird time signatures classify it as such. However, I think the spirit of prog is alive and well on this record, for the duo of Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen and genre hero Steven Wilson approach this material in a progressive way, even if it isn’t overtly prog. (Though the Pink Floyd echoes of “Christenings” are a little more than obvious). The album’s exploration of heartbreak and melancholy are particularly resonant, notably the powerful “My Gift of Silence”. Even a prog fan has to have their breakup album, and Blackfield II is that record. Though fairly short and straightforward, the album has an emotional realness that’s not often heard in prog releases. Wilson and Geffen remind us that prog can’t just be a litany of complex instrumentals out to rewrite music theory; it has to be emotive, just like any other genre. Blackfield II makes you feel its hurt; it’ll be long before you forget it.
Since the release of Blackwater Park, Opeth has put out five stellar recordings, each memorable in their own right. The band’s consistency is impressive: after ten studio albums, most artists will likely have taken a misstep somewhere. As a result of the group’s ongoing innovation and quality, it’s somewhat easy to forget the brilliance of its older recordings. This is but one reason why Blackwater Park remains the pinnacle of Opeth’s achievement; over ten years after its release, it still feels vital and unique. Most importantly, it’s the best the band has done in balancing the death metal so prevalent in its early work and the progressive rock that would flourish in their later LPs. Each track on the record is a great one, but one speaks to Blackwater Park’s excellence more than the others: the title track, a 12-minute masterpiece that weaves folk, powerful metal riffing, and some gorgeous jazz guitar together into an instant prog classic. The album concludes with the best lyric couplet of any prog album ever written: “Sick liaisons raised this monumental mark / The sun sets forever over Blackwater Park.” As the harshly growled lyric gives way to a gorgeous acoustic coda, it becomes clear why Opeth remain one of progressive metal’s greatest treasures.
While it is Porcupine Tree’s best album of the Aughts, the Public Enemy-referencing Fear of a Blank Planet is not its most important. That title belongs to 2002’s breakout album In Absentia, which changed the sonic direction of the group for the rest of the decade. The straightforward prog rock of Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun was now being joined by prog metal stylistics (no doubt influenced by Steven Wilson’s involvement with the recording of Blackwater Park) and electronic elements. But while In Absentia may have been the game changer for the band, Fear of a Blank Planet reveals how Porcupine Tree perfected its game. Like many prog rock LPs it’s a concept record, but it’s never clichéd. Blank Planet benefits from its zeitgeist concept: lyrically the album focuses on how mass media culture have turned much of the western world’s youth into a “blank generation” just itching for the next pill or bright screen to stare at. Wilson’s dystopian depiction of contemporary youth culture has its moments of exaggeration, but for the most part his criticism is dead-on. Even better than the record’s harsh criticisms are its music; this fairly short (by prog standards), six-song album is both concise and appropriately intricate. The 17-minute “Anesthetize”, whose Meshuggah-influenced midsection is one of the band’s heaviest moments, might be its best opus yet. The rest of Blank Planet features several other heavy riffs, but where the group shines the most is in the brief ballad “My Ashes”, a gorgeous, poetic reflection on isolation in the modern era. With this album, Porcupine Tree cemented its status as progressive rock’s most important band of the decade, as well as raising high expectations for its performance on the next one.