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.
10,000 Days (2006)
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.