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The 10 Progressive Rock Epics You Need to Hear Now

You'll kick yourself for not blasting these prog masterpieces sooner. These pieces represent their creators' highest level of artistic ambition and self-indulgence, and they're often declared the group's best composition.

Phideaux and The Pineapple Thief

 
Phideaux - "Snowtorch (Part One)"
(from Snowtorch, 2011)

Of all the progressive rock acts out there today, Phideaux may be the most criminally unknown. A group "…centered around several childhood friendships…" that "…search for unique combinations of sounds and textures", it is lead by multi-instrumentalist/singer Phideaux Xavier, who often unites science and sociopolitical commentary into his peculiar, catchy concepts. By mixing lively timbres (including quirky vocals) with touches of folk, blues, and psychedelic, Xavier has created some of the most charming, intelligent, invigorating, and unique music the genre has ever had; in fact, his last three records rival anything that inspired them. Nowhere is this unparalleled combination more immaculate than on their last album, Snowtorch, which consists of a single piece broken into four parts. Although the entire record is incredible, its opening track, "Snowtorch (Part One)", is easily the standout selection.

The construction of Snowtorch is a bit enigmatic; its four sections make up a 45-minute piece called "Snowtorch", but it also contains "Snowtorch (Part One)" and "Snowtorch (Part Two)," making the LP organized like one of those shape-within-a-shape images. Xavier explains the ambitious approach to the project:

Snowtorch is basically one song, even though they're broken into different titles. For example, all the musical ideas that are in "Helix" are present in the other songs, anyway. Also, the structure of the lyrics is almost identical to that of "Snowtorch (Part One)." We extracted "Helix" out because we thought it might be a song people would want to listen to alone when they didn't want to hear the entire piece. Really, though, it functions as the bridge between part A and B of "Snowtorch."

As for the story, it's concerned with astrology and the idea that "this torch in the sky will melt away the snow and free the life that was previously locked away in ice and cold gas." In addition, the album deals with the origins of humanity, spiritual purpose, self-actualization, and other existential crises (for a full explanation, check out the interview). Of course, none of this would matter if its music and melodies weren't worthwhile. Fortunately, though, the entire album is packed with brilliant arrangements, instrumentation, complexity, catchiness, and continuity, and its introductory gem is the best of the bunch.

In my review of the album for Sea of Tranquility, I called the song "the greatest progressive rock piece [released] since the mid 1970s", and I still stand by that assessment. Its 20 minutes showcase a perfect blend of sublime songwriting, eccentric yet endearing lyrics, and gripping intricacy. It begins as a fairly straightforward rocker, with Xavier singing poetically prophetic words over bold chord progressions and spacey effects. After a couple minutes, things become more complex as a wonderful central motif provides the grounding on which other textures frolic. After a few minutes of wildly vibrant instrumentation, Xavier and vocalist Ariel Farber (whose tone is remarkably similar to that of Kate Bush) sing a duet that would've fit well on an Ayreon album.

While each transition in "Snowtorch (Part One)" is exceptional, the most enjoyable fragment is "Fox on the Rocks", which consists of an intoxicating melody and some very clever rhyming. The subsection also finds Xavier testing his vocal limitations as he makes grand jumps up the chromatic scale to reach falsetto angst. Subsequently, elegantly played piano and strings lead to more extravagant theatrics. Several addictive themes are manipulated and reprised as each performer lets loose in grand displays of counterpoint and friendly showmanship. It's absolutely hypnotic (especially the final few minutes, which are rhythmically frantic and joyfully adventurous before returning to the track's core ornamentation).

Besides being ingenious as a self-contained work, the song stands out even more due to the way it establishes themes that reappear throughout the record. It's full of patterns that Phideaux continuously recalls (albeit in different forms) as the LP progresses, and the methods they use (such as having a female sing "Fox Rock 2") are quite witty. All in all, "Snowtorch (Part One)" is a gem on par with the genre's most beloved blockbusters (new or old).

 
The Pineapple Thief - "What Have We Sown?"
(from What We Have Sown, 2006)

One of the biggest misconceptions about progressive rock is that it favors style over substance and virtuosity over emotionality. While it's true that many artists in the field spoil themselves with overly elaborate structures and self-serving musicianship, plenty of them also excel at earnest, infectious songwriting. The best of the best know when to tone down the instrumentation in order to let the melodies and space take center stage. Case in point, English quartet the Pineapple Thief. Formed by singer/guitarist Bruce Soord in 1999 (after the disbandment of his previous venture, Vulgar Unicorn), they've since released nine albums that have lead to them becoming one of the most popular acts amongst fans and genre critics. Rather than go the symphonic route like several of their contemporaries, the Pineapple Thief often implements light orchestration and electronic manipulation into their rock music foundation, which, coupled with Soord's fragile voice and bitter, sorrowful songwriting, makes their music quite distinctive. This exquisite blend of technical wizardry and heartfelt melody shines through in "What Have We Sown?" the closing track of 2006's What We Have Sown. With its innovative transitions, engaging arrangements, and regretful sentiments, it's simultaneously beautiful and bombastic.

Interestingly, Soord's reflection on the track (and album) is honest and blunt. He recalls that it "really was me sort of indulging myself. That was literally a really quick album to finish my contract with the head of Cyclops before I moved over to Kscope… I went in the studio and said to myself, ‘Right, ok, let's just write a really long progressive rock track.' And funny enough that track has gone down really well with fans." Considering how beautifully melancholic, diverse, and unique it is, the piece's success amongst devotees really isn't that surprising.

"What Have We Sown" begins simply yet ominously with otherworldly dissonance underneath percussion, panicked strings, and fierce guitar work. It's destructive and ethereal. A few minutes later, everything fades away as sorrowful piano chords and synthesized effects create a perfect foundation on which Soord pours his disdained verse and forlorn chorus. His eventual falsetto harmonies and guitar solo add a lot of weight and complement the space well. Halfway through, the track evolves slowly and masterfully into an almost progressive techno freak-out full of affective countermelodies and layered patterns, which are outstanding. Afterward, the song changes into a more rock-based instrumental with sounds that fluctuate and soar.

As usual, there's stunning emotion buried underneath dissonance, as well as Soord's subtle yet potent lyrics and vocals. "What Have We Sown" still stands as one of the group's crowning achievements, as it meshes all of their specialties smoothly and powerfully. Despite releasing several fantastic LPs in the years since What We Have Sown, the Pineapple Thief has arguably never captured their inimitable merge of genres and production better than they did here.

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