Music

The Best Progressive Rock (and Metal) of 2012

Brice Ezell, Jordan Blum, Craig Hayes
Anathema

The albums you see below are a testament to the chameleonic nature of prog: Coldplay-esque stadium ballads, sludge metal, sample-heavy concept records, and classic-style prog all stand side by side.

The albums you see below are a testament to the chameleonic nature of prog: Coldplay-esque stadium ballads, sludge metal, sample-heavy concept records, and classic-style prog all stand side by side, proving the genre isn’t something that fits into the easy category of “bands that sound like Yes, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd”. I (and, I imagine, the writers featured below) believe that the supposed borders of prog are actually boundaries and traditional lines of demarcation that can be traversed by any number of bands coming from any number of musical backgrounds. This crossover ability is very much imbued within the prog genre itself; for if groups are only content to rehash the 20-minute epics that make up much of the prog scene in the ‘70s, can they truly be called progressive?

When I wrote PopMatters’ inaugural Best Prog of the Year list for 2011, the sense that many readers disagreed with my conception of prog was clear. This became even more apparent when I gave my picks for the best prog albums of the 2000s, an article that spawned a lengthy comment section involving some stated and many unstated criteria for what it is that makes a band or an album “prog”. Admittedly, I did offer up controversial choices; I don’t think it’s illegitimate to deny the prog-ness of Blackfield, for example. And despite the fact that I qualified that I would include prog metal alongside prog rock in each list, many were still perturbed by the mixture. Still, what these comments indicated to me was a surprisingly unprogressive way of looking at progressive music, something at best disconcerting and at worst seriously problematic. Arguments about categorization are inevitable in any genre that prides itself on being an engine for change, but it is certainly prudent for conversation to remain open -- though not so open that what made the genre successful in the past is disregarded -- so as to create a truly progressive discourse both within the community of fans as well as musicians.

With these discussions in mind, it’s likely that many will contest the legitimacy of categorizing some of the below albums as prog. This isn’t bad or wrong at all; in fact, it’s likely the case that the more debate there is surrounding a particular record, the more progressive it is being, insofar as many records that are truly “progressing” in the lexically accurate understanding of the word aren’t understood well during the time of their release. So yes, this may not be the most traditional of progressive rock (and metal!) lists, but I think I speak for my fellow contributors when I say that it’s in the diversity of this list that makes it a truly great round-up of 2012’s best prog songwriters. Some of these may not fit the mold perfectly, but hey: at its best, prog was never a genre designed for following formula, was it? Brice Ezell

 
Artist: Pepe Deluxé

Album: Queen of the Wave

Label: Catskills

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List Number: 10

Pepe Deluxé
Queen of the Wave

There’s little I can say about this album that hasn’t been documented in Alan Ranta’s thorough, loving write-up that was published back in February, but given its greatness, I do believe I can afford it some extra praise. Though Pepe Deluxé have never been of the prog scene, Queen of the Wave opens up like any good concept album should: a bizarre story is introduced in the style of medieval lore (“Let me sing a song for you / Let me spin a tale that’s true”), accented by a flute line that could have been played by Ian Anderson himself. For a moment, one nearly forgets that Pepe Deluxé began in big-beat and trip-hop; these guys sound quite comfortable in prog’s tropes, producing one of the best concept records of the year and definitely the best "Esoteric Pop Opera in Three Acts" ever released. Jumping quickly yet organically between prog, sampled beats, surf rock, bursts of opera choirs, and a Bond-theme-in-the waits (“My Flaming Thirst”, which is easily twice as good as Adele’s “Skyfall” theme), Queen of the Wave is a near-masterpiece of progressive rock, perhaps the archetypal case of a “non-prog” band outdoing their prog counterparts. Brice Ezell

 
Artist: Ihsahn

Album: Eremita

Label: Candlelight

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Ihsahn
Eremita

The assumption that most fans of popular prog would be put off by the dissonant, harsh tonality of black metal is hardly glib. The current prog archetype is fluid, legato guitar solos and symphonic composition, things one isn’t usually going to find on a black metal LP. But I imagine it’d be hard for fans of progressive metal to turn down Eremita, Emperor co-founder Ihsahn’s fourth solo venture. There are still strains of black metal running in Ihsahn’s musical style, but what’s amazing is how he’s transcended them, and, in doing so, creating a brand of metal that’s near unclassifiable or, as I like to think of it, progressive. In a time where prog epics are a dime a dozen, Ihsahn’s nuanced, sophisticated songwriting is a breath of fresh air. “The Eagle and the Snake”, the nine-minute labyrinth of a centerpiece that’s also Ihsahn’s best work to date, is exactly the type of experimentation progressive music needs right now. Eremita’s release during the philosophical “black metal renaissance” is all too fitting: it’s not just the genre itself that is growing, it’s also the artists themselves, sometimes to the point where they progress outside the bounds of their storied beginnings. Brice Ezell

 
Artist: Beardfish

Album: The Void

Label: Inside Out

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Beardfish
The Void

Swedish prog-rock outfit Beardfish has long been revered for its unique, eccentric, and melodically addicting take on the genre. With each new release, they venture into heavier territory, and their most recent album, The Void, is no different. Although it’s not as strong as its two predecessors (Mammoth and Destined Solitaire), it’s still a remarkable record overall. Oddly enough, though, Beardfish seem to be channel another progressive metal group -- Mastodon -- throughout The Void. This is quite evident in the album’s fiercest tracks, such as “Involuntary Slavery” and “This Matter of Mine”. Elsewhere, “Seventeen Again” is an instrumental that definitely recalls earlier Beardfish albums (especially the two Sleeping in Traffic LPs). Built around charming piano work, its mixture of classical and '70s prog styles is quite alluring. The Void also houses two of Beardfish’s best tracks: “Ludvig & Sverker” and “The Note”. Truthfully, the former may be the most emotionally involving song the group has ever crafted; it’s effortlessly catchy and poignant. As for the latter, which clocks in at over fifteen minutes long, it is yet another wildly inventive and engaging genre epic full of smooth transitions. In the end, The Void is an incredible achievement in the group’s discography. Jordan Blum

 
Artist: Between the Buried and Me

Album: The Parallax II: Future Sequence

Label: Metal Blade

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Between the Buried and Me
The Parallax II: Future Sequence

Between the Buried and Me has always been a love-it-or-hate-it kind of band. Their mind-blowingly diverse and intricate blend of brutality and beauty isn’t for everyone. However, there’s no denying that their past few offerings have been utterly masterful. With The Parallax II: Future Sequence, they’ve easily outdone themselves. A 72-minute conceptual suite, it’s the group’s most ambitious, intricate, and thoroughly impressive record yet; in fact, it’s fair to call The Parallax II a work of genius. A sequel to their last EP (2011’s Hypersleep Dialogues), the album starts out with the Floydian majesty of “Goodbye to Everything”, which is actually the end of the story. From there, listeners are taken back through time to see how events unfolded. Some highlights include the reference to Hypersleep Dialogues’ “Specular Reflection” in “Extremophile Elite”, the emotionally piercing “The Black Box”, the melodic changes in “Melting City”, and the schizophrenic tour-de-force of “Silent Flight Parliament”. Best of all, The Parallax II is filled with conceptual continuity and reprisals. As clichéd as it sounds, the album truly reveals more with each listen -- you’ll have to listen intently at least half a dozen times to truly grasp everything. All in all, The Parallax II is a masterpiece. Jordan Blum

 
Artist: Ancestors

Album: In Dreams and Time

Label: Tee Pee

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Ancestors
In Dreams and Time

A psychotropic jaunt was always expected from Los Angeles-based Ancestors on their third full-length In Dreams and Time. The band's reputation for mind-melting riffs, intergalactic synth, and ambitious albums was already well established, but In Dreams and Time is a staggering display of fertile creativity. Saturated in a warm analog glow, Meddle-era melodies mix with sumptuous organ feasts and multifaceted elements from sludge and post-metal. Driving riffs are counterpointed by more sedate passages, in which gossamer, temperate atmospherics reveal the band's immense vision (a raft of stargazing celestial highs are explored as fuzz-ridden guitars soar over galaxies of synth and rich instrumentation). But for all of Ancestors' astronomical inclinations, the band never drifts too far, plowing through firmly terrestrial dirge-like sections with molten, often muck-laden riffs. In Dreams and Time is a grand fusion of oscillating tempos and kaleidoscopic crescendos. It blends the vitality of progressive rock with the off-kilter harmonics of psychedelia and a heady stoner vibe, transforming the limitless into the tangible and nurturing. Craig Hayes

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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