Music

The Best Progressive Rock of 2011

Brice Ezell
Steven Wilson

In 2011, there were only a few high-quality progressive rock releases, but those that managed to stand out are some of the best the genre has seen in awhile.

5 - 1

Artist: Becoming the Archetype

Album: Celestial Completion

Label: Solid State

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Becoming the Archetype
Celestial Completion

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.

 
Artist: Blackfield

Album: Welcome to My DNA

Label: K-Scope

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Blackfield
Welcome to My DNA

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.

 
Artist: Pain of Salvation

Album: Road Salt Two

Label: InsideOut

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Pain of Salvation
Road Salt Two

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.

 
Artist: Opeth

Album: Heritage

Label: Roadrunner

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Opeth
Heritage

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.

 
Artist: Steven Wilson

Album: Grace for Drowning

Label: K-Scope

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Steven Wilson
Grace for Drowning

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.

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