I’m sure I speak for every progressive rock fan at PopMatters when I say that this music is almost as crucial to our wellbeing as breathing, eating, and sleeping (hell, we often do all of those while ensconced in our records). If you’re like me, you grew up with the ominous intricacy of King Crimson, the majestic dynamics of Yes, and the multifaceted vocal arrangements of Gentle Giant. In other words, you associate the stepping stones of your life with the pinnacle releases of the genre—I recall spending most of my freshman year in high school trying to convince everyone about the genius of A Passion Play. It is because of this reverence for the classic period that many fans approach newer progressive rock with skepticism, prematurely judging it as inferior to the original era. Well, if 2013 has shown us aficionados anything, it’s that prog is as original, diverse, impressive, and important as ever.
This year saw the release of some of the best modern progressive music from a wide array of subgenres and idiosyncratic approaches. Some artists were finally able to convince listeners that their solo side is every bit as viable as their collaborative side, while others were able to celebrate their legacies in a very worthy way. A few outfits returned from years of silence to remind us of how ingenious they are, and as usual, several underdogs managed to steal some of the spotlight. After all, the celebration of rising talent and the potential to be consistently surprised have always been two of the most endearing attributes of the field.
Of course, some heavy hitters didn’t make the list, whether it’s because their latest works came too late (Sky Architect) or fell too far (Dream Theater). Naturally, we welcome your feedback in the comments, as lists like these always stir up plenty of discussion (and even a bit of controversy, which is fine as long as you keep it civilized). In any case, the choices you’ll find below represent the cream of the progressive crop for 2013, and we’re sure that you’ll discover plenty of gems within. Jordan Blum
In the Silence
A Fair Dream Gone Mad
One wouldn’t be mistaken in listing off names like Katatonia and Ghost Brigade upon hearing the debut by the California prog doom band In the Silence—A Fair Dream Gone Mad is damn near close to a direct reference to several Katatonia albums. One would be misled, however, in taking those similarities to be a mark against AFDGM. In balancing the technical flashiness of prog with the moody, emotionally direct elements of doom, In the Silence pulls off a unique genre melding that’s much more difficult than many might give it credit for. This exercise in melancholy is an under-the-radar gem, and an indication that these guys are destined to be a lot more than a blip on the radar. Brice Ezell
Big Big Train
English Electric: Full Power
English troupe Big Big Train is a rare exception in the music industry—a band that manages to equal everything done by its most transparent influence, in this case, early Genesis. Of course, there’s always been much more to them than that, but with the recent additions of vocalists David Longdon, drummer Nick D’Virgilio (ex-Spock’s Beard), and guitarist David Gregory (XTC), the connection is quite palpable. English Electric: Full Power combines their recent English Electric LPs with the newer Make Some Noise EP. Seeing as how the two albums contained so many wonderful tracks, such as the hypnotic “Judas Unrepentant” and the touching “Curator of Butterflies”, it makes sense that hearing them together is even more joyous. In addition, the extra four tracks (from the EP) fit in perfectly, and the reorganized sequencing makes the collection feel more cohesive and seamless. Big Big Train’s blend of historically rich social commentary, luscious harmonies, and warm yet detailed arrangements have never sounded better. Really, these are some of the most majestic, catchy, and complex pieces the genre has ever produced. Jordan Blum
It’s only been a year since Ihsahn’s last solo LP, the mighty Eremita (which earned a spot on last year’s progressive rock list), but clearly this bold Norwegian songwriter hasn’t rested since then. With Das Seelenbrechen (“The Soul Breaking”), he’s continuing his evolution further away from the raw black metal of the recently reunited Emperor and further into the avant-garde classical direction that classics like Anthems to Welkin at Dust only hinted at. There’s also a mean Scott Walker streak going on here, with the all-over-the-place zaniness of “Tacit” suggesting that Bish Bosch had more than a few plays in Ihsahn’s stereo. But amidst all this experimentation, there are the groove-heavy riffs of “NaCl”, the staccato blasts of “Hilber”, and the masterful symphonic metal of “Regen”, evidence that Ihsahn, no matter the wildly divergent turns he takes, is a metal maestro underneath it all. Brice Ezell
Bruce Soord and Jonas Renske
Wisdom of Crowds
On paper, there is little reason this project should work. Bruce Soord’s main project, The Pineapple Thief, is a Muse-ier Porcupine Tree. Jonas Renske is best known for his emotional lyrics and vocals as the frontman of Swedish doom legends Katatonia. Wisdom of Crowds tilts more towards the former of the two’s sonic hallmarks, but even with that being the case, this is a weird, weird record. Hopping back and forth between Gothic gloom (showstopper “Frozen North”), dubstep (“The Light”), and bizarre victrola samples (the title track), this record may be challenging. But in daring to be bold and unencumbered by the routine, it draws from multiple at times disparate sonic influences and makes something new and exciting. If that’s not progressive, it’s hard to imagine what is. Brice Ezell
Himlabacken, Vol. 1
There is no rational reason to explain why the Skelleftea, Sweden native prog chanteurs of Moon Safari aren’t international music stars. Ever since its inception in 2003, though particularly with its 2010 defining masterpiece Lover’s End, Moon Safari has purveyed a style of classic prog that’s drenched in some of the most gorgeous harmonies this side of the Beach Boys. These Swedes have many twenty-plus minute epics under their belts, but the pop appeal in their music is absolutely huge, a fact no different for Himlabacken, Vol. 1. With influences like Queen and Yes out in the forefront, this stellar collection from one of prog’s most underrated outfits offers equal measures of infectious hooks and dazzling instrumentation. Brice Ezell