[30 November 2011]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
In 2011, progressive rock was comforting and disheartening in equal measures, as it has been over the decades. It’s comforting to know that every year always brings at least one quality progressive rock release, and prog’s natural affinity for complex musicianship naturally attracts attention from young musicians everywhere—those looking to prove themselves, those who would rather not get stuck in the jazz-fusion genre. On the other hand, it’s also disheartening to the extent that prog’s weak points continue to remain so weak. Pretentious concept records, overly grandiose musicianship, instrument solos that in themselves could compromise a whole symphony, and the ever-pervading obsession with fairy tales, space battles, and mythical creatures—all of these qualities are as much a part of prog today as they have been in the past. Moreover, the overall tendency of bands failing to progress (which one would assume is a necessary genre component given its title) is also true of many progressive rock bands: Many get stuck in the same old ruts that other prog bands found themselves in, which hampers the overall critical and cultural view of the genre.
These problems inherent to the genre were not the only unfortunate trends in 2011 prog-rock; controversy also played a role in the prog community. The shocking departure of Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater—the band he helped create—was hugely important. Dream Theater’s stature in contemporary progressive rock is substantial, and to see one of the core members of the band (as well as one of the band’s most technically proficient members, which is saying something given the talent present) leave put the band’s fate into question. Portnoy has since pursued other projects, such as the prog supergroup (cause there aren’t enough of those!) Adrenaline Mob, but from what I’ve gathered, we still have much to hear from the phenomenal drummer. The best that prog fans can hope for is (a) that Portnoy’s departure and subsequent interactions with the band don’t cause any rifts, real or manufactured, and (b) that all of the musicians involved can go on to continue making quality music. Fortunately, Portnoy’s future plans, as well as the release of another Dream Theater LP, give credence to the fact that all the musicians involved won’t stop trying to dazzle us.
All of these things aside, 2011, while not a banner year by any means, was still a good year for prog, with many notable high-profile releases competing for the best-of-the-year title. The general trend seemed to gravitate toward instrumental-based material, though several strong releases by progressive music standbys (notably Porcupine Tree frontman and polymath Steven Wilson) stood out amongst the fray of albums with space-themed covers. This list is encompassing both of progressive rock and, to some extent, progressive metal; though the latter and former genre are not interchangeable, there are important similarities, and as a result, some progressive metal records were included here due to their relevance in the progressive rock genre. (For instance, Between the Buried and Me’s suite-like, intricate metal has been used as a more intense counterpoint to the theory-heavy, technical shredding of Dream Theater on the Progressive Nation tours). The resulting top ten list is reflective both of the talent and diversity to be found in prog, whether it’s an album about crazy space adventures 2,000 years in the future or a singer/songwriter record that decides to explore some unusual territory. Brice Ezell
It took me a substantial amount of time before I warmed up to A Dramatic Turn of Events. This was so, first and foremost, because my appreciation of Dream Theater has waned since 2005’s Octavarium, but, secondly, because I was skeptical of the direction that the band would take after the strange circumstances surrounding founding member Mike Portnoy’s departure. Portnoy had been an integral part of the band’s central formula; while replacement Mike Mangini is an impressive drummer, Portnoy’s unique contribution to the band’s output cannot be overlooked. The band has yet to top their 1999 epic, Scenes from a Memory, which is impossible to imagine without Portnoy. Fortunately, with this record, the band has stepped back from the somewhat forced attempts at morphing into a dark metal powerhouse (The doom and gloom of the band’s prior album, 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings, was a bit much) and have instead gone back to the epic prog at which the band so excelled in the ‘90s. Dream Theater has always made heavy music, but it wasn’t heavy in the way the group had been aiming with records like Black Clouds. A Dramatic Turn of Events is not a perfect record; like many Dream Theater (and prog) LPs, it’s too long, and some of the various experiments the band takes come off as haphazard instead of organic. That aside, this record is important, providing two forms of hope for this aging band. For one, sometimes going back to one’s origins is the best way to move forward, and also, as brilliant of a drummer as Mike Portnoy is, it is possible for Dream Theater to exist without him.
Riverside’s brand of prog has often marred in comparison to greats like Porcupine Tree and Tool. These comparisons hold a degree of truth (“Forgotten Land” on this EP owes much to the former band), but they tend to be unfairly reductive. The band blends the atmospheric with bass-heavy, dark prog-rock, which it has done quite well over the course of its often overlooked career. Memories in My Head is a solid sampler of the band’s sonic skill, as well as proof that Riverside does have a unique sound. The album’s opening track, the excellent “Goodbye Sweet Innocence”, is both indicative of the band’s overall style as well as a notable exercise in dynamics. The band’s penchant for powerful basslines is evident on “Forgotten Land”, which for a moment makes it sound as if it’s about to break into a funk jam, but only for a moment, For those looking for a solid example of Riverside’s work, this short but nonetheless powerful EP is an excellent introduction.
Neal Morse’s 2002 departure from Spock’s Beard, which happened simultaneously with his conversion to Christianity, was one of the most notable prog happenings of the last decade. While his departure left many Spock’s Beard fans disappointed, it certainly didn’t stop Morse at all; his music continued to flourish, peaking incredibly with 2007’s magnum opus, Sola Scriptura. Morse, while not associated with the Christian music scene, remains unabashed about his faith in his music, and Testimony 2 is no different. The record, a continuation of the themes found on the first Testimony (from 2003), deals with the story of Morse’s conversion. On the whole, the record isn’t a departure from Morse’s past output by any means, but given Morse’s incredible talent, this record does not disappoint (well, save for the GeoCities-worthy sleeve art). Morse even brings in his old Spock’s Beard bandmates in to join him in the chorus of “Time Changer”, which, while somewhat cheesy, is nonetheless demonstrative of the prog that Morse does so well. At nearly two hours, Testimony 2 shows that while Morse still intends to make overly long records, he at least is still making them great.
Italian proggers Furyu demonstrate one very important skill on Cio Che L’Anima Non Dice, one which many prog bands lack: brevity. In just over half an hour, the band crafts a record that still manages to sound like epic prog without crossing over the border of musical excess. The record’s more intense sonics recall the complicated riffs of Dream Theater and Symphony X, which balances wonderfully with beautiful acoustic passages (like the outro of “La Vastità Del Mio Tempo/Ciò Che L’Anima Non Dice”). The album is sung entirely in Italian, but it’s truly accessible to any prog fan, regardless of language. Matteo Migliori’s vocals are quite evocative and are a solid accompaniment to the twin guitar attack, which is surprisingly fresh instead of overdone. Cio Che L’Anima Non Dice is one of 2011’s finest sleeper releases in the progressive rock scene, and since you can download the album for free, there’s no reason not to give this band a listen.
6Between the Buried and Me
Between the Buried and Me’s schizophrenic brand of metal always contained hints of prog, but with 2007’s Colors and especially 2009’s The Great Misdirect, the band brought more and more prog influences into their already progressive music. Hypersleep Dialogues is a concept record, but one doesn’t need to follow the complicated plot to appreciate the even more complicated music. The band takes some adventurous turns; when opening track “Specular Reflection” begins with a dark, flurried choral and symphony prelude, it’s clear that things can only get more portentous from there. And given the band’s prior displays of over-the-top ambition, it does. With this record, Between the Buried and Me have ventured further into experimental territory, but, if this record is any indication, future results are likely to be equally, if not more, impressive.
5Becoming the Archetype
After seeing a decade of excellent output by multiple now-classic bands, Christian music lagged heavily in the first decade of the new millennium, with bland alternative rock more or less dominating the Christian music scene. Fortunately, some bands, like progressive metal group Becoming the Archetype, are making a convincing case that religious ties do not necessarily equate to boring music. The band has already produced several impressive outings, attracting the attention of metal greats like Strapping Young Lad’s Devin Townsend, who produced their album Dichotomy. With Celestial Completion, the band have reached their peak. Though the album is jam-packed with beautiful classical interludes (“The Resonant Frequency of Flesh”), moments of intense riffing (“Internal Illumination”), and even crazed vocoder freakouts (“Elemental Wrath”), one moment in particular makes this record stand out. The track “Cardiac Rebellion” begins in heavy territory, but after a few verses, its powerfully strummed main riff is joined by a curiously placed horn. Then, after a brief moment of clean guitar, the song explodes into a show-stopping ska jam, done in tandem with Christian ska standby Five Iron Frenzy. This would be an impressive moment for a band of any genre, but for this experimentation to appear on a Christian label is even more impressive. Regardless of religious beliefs, it’s hard to deny the masterful musicianship of Celestial Completion.
With 2007’s Blackfield II, a record belonging in the top echelon of prog records released in the last decade, the international duo of the UK’s Steven Wilson and Israel’s Aviv Geffen established themselves as not just a band with a knack for great hooks, but also a uniquely progressive songwriting duo. (Make no mistake though: They’ve got plenty of great hooks). While in many respects, Welcome to My DNA is a step down from Blackfield II, mostly having to do with a couple of complete misfires (the banal, childish “Go to Hell” and the strange “On the Plane”), it’s a record that is still demonstrates the band’s skill in crafting shorter, practically radio-acceptable songs with subtle prog nuances. For this album, the majority of the record’s songwriting duties were given to Geffen, which brought in some unique additions to Blackfield’s sound—notably the dark, heavy “Blood” and sweeping, string-backed tracks like “Rising of the Tide” and “Dissolving with the Night”. Welcome to My DNA is everything that its title suggests: a picture of a band’s musical DNA, with all of the strengths and imperfections of their musical genome evident.
3Pain of Salvation
The second of a two-part album that represents a substantial departure for this underrated Swedish band, Road Salt Two is also an incredible step up from the uneven Road Salt One. Pain of Salvation excelled at the technical, complex side of prog-rock over the course of the last decade, peaking notably in the philosophical concept record Be. With the Road Salt records, the band explored ‘70s prog, with emphasis on blues and psychedelia. The first Road Salt had flashes of brilliance, but it didn’t quite bode well as a whole for the band’s new experimentation. Road Salt Two, on the other hand, is proof that the band’s new direction can produce incredible results. The bluesy “Softly She Cries” and “Conditioned” sound most like the aged prog that is emblematic of the Road Salt records, while the more intricate tracks like “The Physics of Gridlock” and “Eleven” mix classic styles with the band’s own unique sound. “1979”, a brief nostalgic ballad, is the band at its most tender. To top it all off, they even craft a jaw-droppingly gorgeous classical instrumental with “End Credits”. The Road Salt project as a whole may not be perfect, but Road Salt Two is a fine addition to the band’s impressive body of work, representative both of their prog roots and their own unique style.
Opeth’s consistently excellent output has always balanced the darkness of Swedish metal with the labyrinthine complexities of progressive rock. On Heritage, the band takes a great many steps in the latter direction, leaving behind most clear references to their metal roots. Those influences are not entirely gone; “Slither”, an homage to metal legend Ronnie James Dio, is the most obvious link to the band’s metal stylings, but overall, the record is an experiment in blending Swedish folk and nuanced jazz with the dense prog-rock that has increasingly flourished over the band’s nine previous studio recordings. The band’s winding attack stands out best on “The Devil’s Orchard” and “Famine”, both of which still maintain the suite-like structure the band has mastered. In some ways, it’s easy to pine for the heavy riffing and vocal growling that made past Opeth records so distinct and memorable, but given how brilliantly the band plays here, it’s instead easier to accept this record as a masterful expounding of, well, heritage, both for the band and for prog as a whole.
Some interesting questions were left in the wake of Steven Wilson’s masterful first solo outing, 2008’s Insurgentes. That record, which blended Wilson’s linear songwriting strengths with ambience and harsh noise, was indicative of one large part of Wilson’s prolific oeuvre; after Insurgentes, it seemed unclear what sound Wilson would explore in his next solo outing. A notable turn away from some of the harsh sonics of Insurgentes, Grace for Drowning highlights two of Wilson’s strongest traits: melody and complexity. Wilson’s melodic brilliance is evident on tracks like “Deform to Form a Star” and “Postcard”, which might be two of the most beautiful songs he’s ever penned. The magnificent choral section on “Postcard” is the most powerful moment on the record, which is interesting since the song is the most accessible track on an album full of variegated experimentation. Conversely, the album’s darker, more technically impressive fare is magnificently demonstrated on “Raider II”, a 23-minute prog-jazz opus that has flourishes of legends like King Crimson and contemporaries like Dream Theater; the shredding in the song’s midsection might be some of Wilson’s finest playing. Like any good solo record, Grace for Drowning is indicative of all of Wilson’s talents throughout; at double-album length, Grace is a sprawling and diverse portrait of Wilson as an artist, while still maintaining an overall sonic unity. Fortunately, despite being a double-album, it doesn’t drag along—instead, the entire work is the epitome of Wilson’s genius. Wilson remains at the forefront, if not at the top, of progressive music’s songwriters, and Grace for Drowning could very well be his best yet.