The first decade of the new millennium proved to be a fruitful time for great progressive rock. While some of prog’s most legendary bands took turns for the worse, others rose to meteoric prominence.
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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.
Sola Scriptura (2007)
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.
Blackfield II (2007)
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.
Blackwater Park (2001)
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.
Fear of a Blank Planet (2007)
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.