The Best Progressive Rock (and Metal) of 2012

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

Image: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/images/music_cover_art/p/pepe_deluxe_-_queen_of_the_wave_cover.jpg

Display Width: 200

Review: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/pm/review/154118-pepe-deluxe-queen-of-the-wave/

Display as: List

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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/i/insahn.jpg

Display Width: 200

Review: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/pm/review/162180-ihsahn-eremita/

Display as: List

List Number: 9

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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/b/beardfish.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List Number: 8

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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/6/61rr-tk7q5l._sl500_aa300_.jpg

Display Width: 200

Review: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/pm/review/164220-between-the-buried-and-me-the-parallax-ii-future-sequence/

Display as: List

List Number: 7

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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/ancestors_in_dreams_and_time_albumcover.jpg

Display Width: 200

Review: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/pm/review/159195-ancestors-in-dreams-and-time/

Display as: List

List Number: 6

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

5 – 1

Artist: Astra

Album: The Black Chord

Label: Rise Above

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/a/astra.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List Number: 5

Astra
The Black Chord

Astra, Southern California’s maestro of prog, crafts sweeping suites with a strong cosmic and hallucinogenic pulse that ebbs and flows with cinematic ease. The band’s sophomore release The Black Chord evokes the spirit and timbre of ’70s prog admirably, hearkening back to the genre’s mind-expanding roots. While Astra’s songs are undeniably vintage, music this rewarding is timeless. The Black Chord is a Mellotron and Moog frenzy, harnessing flourishes of Yes, Uriah Heep, and King Crimson, as well as touches of the Canterbury scene, and acid-fried space rock and proto-metal à la Hawkwind. Referencing such scenes and bands, often in the same song, Astra rolls out endless keyboard blowouts and billowing, amp-fusing guitar solos. Although the DNA of many a classic yesteryear outfit is apparent, the band’s tunes remained wholly distinctive and inventive. The Black Chord underscores Astra’s mastery of phrasing and its songwriting finesse, but the album’s true strength lies in Astra allowing its songs to roam free in an effects-laden meditative state. The Black Chord is full of undulating, fluctuating rhythms; but while it’s a complex, mercurial album, it never loses touch with its intimate and palpable heart. Craig Hayes

 

Artist: Baroness

Album: Yellow & Green

Label: Relapse

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/baroness1.jpg

Display Width: 200

Review: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/pm/review/160708-baroness-yellow-green/

Display as: List

List Number: 4

Baroness
Yellow & Green

Though known for their mastery of Southern sludge, Baroness has always had strong, progressive spirit. Following in the color-themed Red Album and Blue Record, the band has firmly defined its sonic by going for one of progressive rock’s most loved formats: the double album. But rather than capitulating to the double LP’s greatest weakness — the conflation of available space and the legitimacy of excess — Baroness create an incredibly streamlined yet adventurous affair over the course of 75 minutes. Each disc begins with a particular theme named after the two colors of the album’s name: Yellow opens with a tranquil, phaser-heavy guitar line, and Green kicks off the second half with a rousing, outlaw country inflected riff (it also happens to be the best instrumental song of 2012). After these introductions, the band takes many directions, ranging from the sludgy “Take My Bones Away” to the religious choir of “Twinkler” to the indie rock of “Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)”. Years from now, I’ll look back on many of these albums and think them great, but with Yellow & Green, I’ll look back knowing it’s a classic. Considering that Baroness is only on their third studio record, the risk they took paid off in a way no other album did in 2012. Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Rush

Album: Clockwork Angels

Label: Roadrunner

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/5/51fqxovrnsl._sl500_aa300_.jpg

Display Width: 200

Review: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/pm/review/159842-rush-clockwork-angels/

Display as: List

List Number: 3

Rush
Clockwork Angels

Canadian prog legends Rush have never sounded uninspired during their long career — unruffled and drifting on occasion, yes — but never unimaginative. However, the sheer enthusiasm with which they returned on their 19th studio album, Clockwork Angels, sounds like a band reborn. Rush’s first full-blown concept album in decades binds a philosophically heavy steampunk tale to the band’s patented intricate arrangements; this recording containing a great deal more steely muscle and grit than its predecessors, Snakes & Arrows and Vapor Trails. Composed and performed with the expected immaculate precision, drummer and lyricist Neil Peart’s dexterous percussion and dystopian narrative weave through an hour’s worth of outstanding interplay between the band’s trio. Keyboardist/lead vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist/backing vocalist Alex Lifeson sound reenergized, producing a compelling set of technically dazzling yet emotionally fulfilling tunes. Rush hasn’t sounded this progged-out in years — jazz, funk, and blistering hard rock collide with some solid metal riffing to keep things constantly engaging. Clockwork Angels is eclectic, electric, and eccentric. Four decades on from their birth, Rush’s creative drive remains undiminished. Craig Hayes

 

Artist: Devin Townsend Project

Album: Epicloud

Label: Century Media

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/d/devin_townsend_epicloud.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List Number: 2

Devin Townsend Project
Epicloud

If you judged Epicloud solely by the content of its lyric book, you’d likely be led to conclude that it was written by Andrew WK right after attending a self-actualization seminar. There’s lots of exclamation points and all-caps, a bluntly literal manifestation of the near-overwhelming positivity coming from this album, the fifth under the Devin Townsend Project moniker. On “True North”, he shouts “I LOVE YOU!” over and over again. The insanely catchy single “Lucky Animals” chants, “Animals, animals, and WE’RE LUCKY!” And, perhaps most fittingly, “Liberation” tells us, “THE TIME HAS COME TO FORGET ALL ABOUT IT AND ROCK!” While these may come off as banal or trite, together these simple statements form the apex of Townsend’s prolific career. Epicloud takes a step back from the highly technical prog of the demented concept LP Deconstruction, instead recalling the pop-metal of Addicted. However, unlike anything he’s done before, Townsend really brings incredible hooks out of these songs, definitively proving that heavy music can be “happy” without any false smiles or forced emotion. Ironically enough, it took a record of straightforward music for the very progressive Townsend to put out his best work. Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Anathema

Album: Weather Systems

Label: K-Scope/The End

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/anathemaweathersystemscover.jpg

Display Width: 200

Review: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/pm/review/156700-anathema-weather-systems/

Display as: List

List Number: 1

Anathema
Weather Systems

I first heard Anathema’s Weather Systems while driving down I-95 in the middle of the night, lost in self-reflection on dimly lit highways. By the end of it, I’d had a spiritual experience: never before had I been so affected by music. Never before had I heard such a powerfully beautiful and utterly emotional blend of vocals, lyrics, melodies, and instrumentation. Each element spoke volumes about love, loss, and life, and even after dozens of listens, it’s still absolutely astounding. I’m not ashamed to admit that Weather Systems is the only album that’s ever brought me to tears.

Every second of Weather Systems is damn near perfect. From the brilliantly arpeggiated “Untouchable Part 1” to the heavenly intricacy of “The Gathering of the Clouds” from the serene optimism of “Lightning Song” to the dynamic duality of “The Storm Before the Calm”, the lusciously orchestrated “The Lost Child” to the devastating finality of “Internal Landscapes”, Weather Systems expresses our most fragile, personal fears and feelings expertly. Not only is it Anathema’s best work and the best album of 2012, but in its own unique way, it’s the greatest album I’ve ever heard. Jordan Blum

PopMatters