From idiosyncratic tales of dastardly aliens to concept albums about a mysterious demon, prog maintained its reputation for eclecticism in 2014.
Label: InsideOut/Radiant/Metal Blade
List number: 10
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Established roughly 15 years ago, progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic has earned a strong fan base. Fortunately, the quartet more than proved itself with its previous three albums. With Kaleidoscope, the band more or less sticks to the same formula, so it feels fairly safe. Still, however, Transatlantic’s penchant for rich, arrangements, eccentric timbres, and stimulating melodies make it another stellar effort nonetheless.
“Into the Blue” starts things off with oracular ambience as strings bawl and sound effects soar. Neal Morse takes over the first vocal duties, singing solemnly yet strongly, taking listeners another spiritual journey. The music waves between ferocity and tranquility before erupting into more madness. Roine Stolt then takes command, and the piece feels like a lost Flower Kings gem. Oddly enough, though, the best portion of “Into the Blue” involves special guest Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), who grants a more ethereal treatment to one of Morse’s earlier expressions.
The middle three tracks, “Shine”, “Black as the Sky”, and “Beyond the Sun”, are shorter and simpler than their bookended siblings. The former is an acoustic ballad sung by Morse and Stolt with uplifting lyrics about perseverance and closure, whereas “Black as the Sky” is a quicker, darker, and more hectic beast. Morse’s keyboard riffs and Pete Trewavas’ bass lines govern as each vocalist dominates his part; of course, drummer Mike Portnoy holds it all together with incredible syncopation. As for “Beyond the Sun”, it features Morse lamenting softly over piano and subtle orchestration; really, it’s very similar in style to “Bridge Across Forever”, with a grand sense of poeticism creating a very touching musical shelter.
The 30+ minute title track closes the record, and not a second is wasted. After another boisterous and difficult introduction, Morse bursts in with a tempting verse and thrilling chorus. Tranquility mixes with panic as Stolt then commands the helm with vibrant confidence. Soon, a more peaceful section begins, evoking the warmth of Wish You Were Here, followed by Trewavas singing about uncertainties while horns flow around the band. Soon after, Stolt and Portnoy join forces for a quirky assault before the opening theme is reprised with added panache and weight. It’s a probable yet powerful way to conclude.
Kaleidoscope is another gem from the kings of symphonic prog. Music this audacious, intricate, and fun deserves acclaim regardless of how identifiable it sounds, and the quartet still stands as the dominant force in their field.
Album: Pink Lemonade
List number: 9
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Closure in Moscow
Like stylistic siblings Circa Survive and the Mars Volta, Australian quintet Closure in Moscow assault listeners’ ears with highly energetic and sporadic bursts of brilliant dynamics. Colorful, complex, and superbly catchy, the band’s debut LP, 2009’s First Temple, was an exceptional collection of hyperactive post-hardcore flights of fancy, with momentous musicianship infectious hooks scattered throughout. Arriving five years later, the group’s sophomore effort, Pink Lemonade, offers a substantially different approach. Although it’s not as hypnotically accessible as First Temple, Pink Lemonade is far more adventurous, imaginative, and surprising. In fact, it’s the most fearless and unique album I’ve heard this year.
“The Fool” kickstarts Pink Lemonade like an auditory heart attack. Vocalist Christopher deCinque roars with a sharp attitude whilst interjecting soulful harmonies at the end of each verse. Meanwhile, the music jolts with a start/stop frenzy that’s too tremendous to ignore. Similarly, the title track utilizes spares no expense to impress. deCinque provides an impassioned melody for each wildly creative rhythmic shift, which vary between hectic, tranquil, and atmospheric. Best of all, the final few minutes proves to be one of the most inventive and unforeseen segments I’ve heard all year. Essentially, a female counterpart sings seductively to an unknown person as the music veers more towards electronic swing than anything progressive. Her segment bleeds into the equally exciting “Neoprene Byzantine” too, making for completely unexpected stylistic shifts.
Further on, “Dinosaur Boss Battle” lives up to the zany awesomeness of its title. It’s epic, luscious, multifarious, and wholly confident, with a killer retro guitar solo near the end. Next, “Mauerbauertraurigkeit” is heartfelt and elegant, with soaring vocals and wonderfully tasteful accompaniment; likewise, “Beckon Fire” oozes classiness with its noir-ish orchestration, heavily effected vocals, and mysterious air, which segue into the joyously catchy “Happy Days”. Lastly, Pink Lemonade concludes with “ピンクレモネード”, a wondrously unexpected venture into Asian aesthetics in which women sing over an 8-bit tune. It feels ripped directly from the ending of an ‘80s video game, so it seems completely absurd in the context of its predecessors.
Of course, that’s what makes it, and Pink Lemonade, so inimitable. Rarely have I been so impressed with the sheer nonconformity of an album. Then again, it’s equally rare to find a modern band who strives so hard to set itself apart from the pack. Without a doubt, this one is special.
List number: 8
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Formed 15 years ago in Manchester, England, Amplifier currently rules as one of the chief psychedelic/progressive rock bands in the world. While the quartet found significant success with its first two studio LPs, Amplifier and Insider, 2011’s lengthy opus The Octopus is what really made earned them great recognition. In addition, its successor, the wonderfully catchy Echo Street, arguably impressed even more, so it’s no surprise that Mystoria handles the torch equally well. Heavier, faster, and darker than previous outings, it’s indisputably a quintessential Amplifier creation.
The disc begins with “Magic Carpet” and a dissonant explosion of percussion and spiraling guitar riffs, evoking the trajectory of Mastodon circa Blood Mountain or Crack the Skye. Its continuous shifts (both in terms of tempo and dynamic) keep it interesting. There’s a touch of Black Sabbath in the mix too, which is cool. Starting an album with an instrumental is usually a guaranteed way to build momentum and excitement for the rest of the adventure, and Amplifier certainly does that here. “Magic Carpet” feels like a delightfully cataclysmic yet melodic overture, and it breaks into “Black Rainbow” with a cool flash of reluctance. The first proper song on the disc, “Black Rainbow” is superbly histrionic, with instrumentation that dances around Balamir’s verses precisely. His performance is as distinct and colorful as ever, with shining harmonies that make it irresisitable.
Further on, “Cat’s Cradle” is one of the most alluring songs Amplifier has ever created. It begins like an unearthly festival, with zany tones leading the charge as Balamir sings some of the most contagious melodies he’s ever offered. Best of all, it progresses with refined urgency, as does “Bride”, a magical affair that packs in some fascinatingly odd rhythms. “OMG”, on the other hand, is a slower, more esoteric excursion loaded with feedback and tasty grooves. There’s a bit of King Crimson in there too. Finally, the album concludes with a two-part journey: “Crystal Mountain” and “Crystal Anthem”. The former is relatively softly and slow, like what Pink Floyd did before Dark Side of the Moon, while the latter piece is like the thrilling revelation or amazing epiphany coated in more glittering instrumentation, dominating percussion, and layered singing.
Mystoria easily earns its place in Amplifier’s discography. Although some influences are transparent, it’s another stellar collection of intricate yet accessible music and idiosyncratic, alluring songwriting. There’s still nothing quite like an Amplifier record.
List number: 7
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The Pineapple Thief
Spearheaded by Bruce Soord, English outfit the Pineapple Thief has long stood as one of the most gallant, unique, and touching progressive rock bands around. Although they always offer an exquisite synthesis of tasteful musicianship and top-notch songwriting, their last couple releases received some criticism for abandoning trademark experimental arrangements in favor of more straightforward approaches. However, the band still incorporates a lot of superb artistry, as their newest effort, Magnolia¸ validates perfectly. Each track maintains the superb blend of subtle orchestration and instrumentation that complements Soord’s fragile yet powerful vocals perfectly. Magnolia also sounds like their most confident and mature album yet.
The first song, “Simple as That”, finds Soord confessing pained uncertainties to an unknown person whilst repeating a dulled guitar riff. Things become more frantic once the chorus kicks in, with the concluding moments bursting into luscious layers. In contrast, the second song, “Alone at Sea”, is more hostile, yet it also has a striking sense of urgency all the same. It’s also coated in deadened picking that, combined with its subsequent wrath, evokes aspects of What We Have Sown. Later on, “Don’t Tell Me” is sentimental and light, with a lovely, heartbreaking string arrangement. It’s a sublime example of how the staple of what makes the Pineapple Thief so special—a tantalizing mixture of rock and orchestral composition—is still very much intact.
Meanwhile, “Season’s Past” is fairly scarce; it begins as a piano ballad but eventually incorporates softly covered percussion and strings, as well as Soord’s falsetto charmingly angst-ridden harmonies. With tribal rhythms and a dense soundscape, “Coming Home” is more sinister and multifaceted, showcasing the aggressive sentiments that are scattered around most of their releases, while “The One You Left to Die” is quite dramatic, a bit reminiscent of “So We Row” in the way the scoring and percussion work together to increase the tautness. The final track, “Bond”, steals the show in terms of sheer songwriting. Conquered by a habitual hypnotic guitar pattern that complements everything else brilliantly, its chorus is heavenly yet tragic, while its verses exude betrayal and scorn. It’s stunning.
Magnolia may not be the best Pineapple Thief record, but it’s still another fine excursion into sorrowful poeticism and idiosyncratic sonic classiness. Best of all, Magnolia proves that The Pineapple Thief is still at the top of its game—just in a different way.
Album: The Unravelling
List number: 6
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Knifeworld is a group known for its ingenious blend of psychedelia, jazz, chamber music, and progressive rock. An peculiar English troupe led by guitarist/vocalist Kavus Torabi, the group formed in 2009 and soon garnished praise spotlight their debut, Buried Alone – Tales of Crushing Defeat. Unsurprising, each subsequent release has been even more impressive, and their newest effort, The Unraveling, which they describe as “an eight song cycle shot through with existential angst, regret, and melancholy in an explosion of colour,” absolutely blew me away.
With its juicy timbres, wild arrangements, and bold vocal pairings, comparisons to acts like Phideaux, Gentle Giant, Frank Zappa, and Goblin are fitting. For instance, “I Can Teach You How to Lose a Fight” begins lightly, with a sophisticated rhythm and peculiar effects complementing vocalist Melanie Woods’ tantalizing melody. Soon after, Torabi’s ominous jazz fusion guitar lines, as well as the spastic horns and eerie chaos that unfold in the background, makes the track become very foreboding indeed.
“Send Him Seaworthy”, with its warm horns and friendlier phrases, feels like some Camel might’ve crafted in its prime. It’s still quite adventurous and complex too, with rich vocal harmonies throughout. In contrast, “Don’t Land on Me” is probably the most schizophrenic and extraordinary entry on The Unravelling. It begins with a hodgepodge of vigorous instrumentation that’s awesomely hypnotic. Its songwriting then takes center stage, offering masterful dynamic changes and peaceful passages. Overall, it’s an incredibly exciting and daring affair that single-handedly demonstrates why this is an album to relish.
The group’s odd lyricism continues on “The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes” (just look at that title), which consists of Torabi reciting a creepy poem as saxophones contrast with other shades. Meanwhile, a cyclical keyboard pattern dominates as more vivid instrumentation fluctuates brilliantly as he speaks. Also, “I’m Hiding behind My Eyes” is an exquisite finale that reaches Zappa-esque levels of intricacy. There’s a wonderful balance of acoustic and electric instruments here, and Torabi and Wood balance their voices together well with pretty melodies.
To be sure, this is one of the most idiosyncratic, courageous, and colorful records of the year. It reveals how special new music can still be. Do yourself a favor and unravel its splendor as soon as you can.
5 – 1
List number: 5
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Sentiment is perhaps the most important aspect of good songwriting, and few bands today are able to implement it as well as Norway’s Gazpacho. However insulating and bleak in context their music usually is, the group certainly makes some of the most nuanced, polished, and eerily lovely music you’ll ever hear. In addition, they devote astonishing attention to detail and conceptuality, as is evident in their eighth LP, Demon. Like Missa Atropos and March of Ghosts before it, Demon is a chilling yet heavenly jaunt into haunting arrangements and gripping storytelling.
Last March, I spoke with keyboardist Thomas Andersen, who explained that Demon explores “[the] air of darkness or ill will working throughout history and in people’s lives.” Inspired by a manuscript someone found in an abandoned apartment, it tells the story of “a guy who’d been stalking an evil presence . . . [he] thought he’d found the source of this force of darkness.” Interestingly, he says that “it’s [also] about this nagging feeling that [one] gets . . . like [you’re] not good enough . . . so the album is [also] about the demons we have inside us.” Always philosophical and heartfelt, every element of Demon is magnificent.
“I’ve Been Walking Pt. I” jolts with sparse, mournful piano chords, which complement singer Jan Henrik Ohme’s fragile tone and melody. As always, he lives and breathes the themes he presents with chilling grace and confidence. Soon strings, horns, hefty percussion, acoustic guitar, and other effects appear, and the halfway point introduces an old recording of choral bawling beneath the surface of Anderson’s understated piano motif, intensifying the supernatural air. From there, the band resurrects its previous chaos until orchestral textures and otherworldly ambience devours the final minutes. It’s a majestic, sorrowful way to start.
Moving on, “The Wizard of Altai Mountain” contains Western European instrumentation that makes it feel significantly different from its predecessor. “I’ve Been Walking Pt. II” is potent and thorough, with a wrath of ingenious melodic choices, as well as a few seamless ties to the first part. It hurdles between disordered tours of passion to distressing lullabies exceptionally. Finally, “Death Room” contains a bit more electronic guidance.
All in all, Demon offers more metaphysical illumination, technical valor, and sonic splendor than most bands fit into their entire careers. With its bursts of dissonant industrial sounds over enthralling syncopation, as well as disturbing yet restful patterns, it conveys a multitude of harrowing sensations, making it a compelling experience for sure. In other words, it’s a masterpiece.
Album: Walking on a Flashlight Beam
List number: 4
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Walking on a Flashlight Beam
With Riverside, Polish musical visionary Mariusz Duda crafts some of the best progressive metal around. However, his solo project, Lunatic Soul, aims for something a bit more introspective, moody, and stylistically multilayered. Although the first three Lunatic Soul discs are all fantastic in their own ways, there’s no denying that Walking on a Flashlight Beam is the best one yet. It’s nothing less than a beautiful, brooding, bleak, and utterly brilliant work of art, and it should be cherished by as many listeners as possible.
“Shutting out the Sun” introduces the collection leisurely but confidently, with steadfast commitment to establish each timbre before introducing the next one. It’s an ingenious buildup that begins with waves and sparse industrial instrumentation, covering the listener in a gloomy soundscape. Soon the percussion is joined by an electric coating, adding more exceptional colors to the aural palette. Each second feels enticing and incredibly intense. Likewise, Duda’s fragile but deep vocals makes for the perfect final layer in this medley of dreamy dissonance. This is a piece that sinks in slowly but ultimately grows to magnificence, devouring you with its powerfully poetic pines.
“Gutter” is equally masterful, yet also more menacing and dynamic. Vocally, it’s one of Duda’s most affective performances ever. The end of the song juxtaposes the regiment softness with bursts of chaotic flair, conjuring masterfully a bit of recent Steven Wilson and classic King Crimson. Eventually, “Pygmalion’s Ladder” stands as the most multifarious and epic song here. Its infectious instrumental passage is jumpstarted with a great vocal charge, and the way it develops bit by bit from a quiet lament to a gritty freak-out is remarkable.
The record concludes with two of its best offerings: “Sky Drawn in Crayon” and the title track. The former is spectral and frail, with the voices of children invading the middle portions, which, with its arpeggios and starry bells, is extremely haunting. Along the same lines, “Walking on a Flashlight Beam” concludes the proceedings with slightly sinister sensations, which are countered by elegant dressings from every corner of the environment. Really, it’s an awe-inspiring way to go out.
Walking on a Flashlight Beam will blow you away, not only as its own self-contained statement, but also as an example of how idiosyncratic, multilayered, fearless, and poignant music can still be.
Album: distant satellites
List number: 3
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For many listeners (including myself), Anathema’s 2012 masterpiece, Weather Systems, ranks as the most meaningful record they’ve ever heard. For that reason, many approached its successor, distant satellites, with some trepidation, fearing that it couldn’t match the near-perfection of Weather Systems. Well, this suspicion is somewhat correct; distant satellites isn’t as amazing as its predecessor, but it comes damn close to it. Showcasing another elegant, luscious, and commanding study of what it means to be human, the group continues to craft melodies, harmonies, lyrics, and arrangements that surprise those of just about every other contemporary
The highlight of the album is undoubtedly the “Lost Song” suite, which is broken into three parts. The first two parts start things off, echoing the effect and purpose the “Untouchable” duo had on Weather Systems. Also, a section of the second part is snuck into the background of the first, which provides a delicate yet brilliant sonic connection between the two pieces. As for the third part, it continues the arresting rhythms and powerful vocals that helped the first part shine. Throughout the trio of tracks (and the entire album, really), vocalists Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas bring as much power, fragility, and distinction as ever before. Without a doubt, the “Lost Song” set is among the best things Anathema has ever done.
Elsewhere, “Dusk (Dark is Descending)” is quite dynamic, with a divine balance of harmonies, percussion, and arpeggios making it irresistible display of lovesick excitement. Next, “Ariel” works in the opposite way, venturing from a quiet lament to an outcry of romantic injustice as only Douglas can portray. Later on, “Distant Satellites” serves as the most hopeful composition here. Cavanagh’s voice climbs with a sweet resonance, and the way the music transitions from programmed dissonance to instrumental elegance (and then to a mixture of the two) is astonishing. Finally, the album concludes with “Take Shelter”, an overwhelmingly emotional finale with great tenderness.
Like it’s immediate predecessors, distant satellites revolves around a sense of closure and promise for the finality of life and lost loves, as if all will be made right by the promise of eternity. By the end, listeners are left in awe, which is the only way an Anathema album should be.
Label: Century Media
List number: 2
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The Devin Townsend Project
Few, if any, modern prog albums have been met with as much preparation and hype as Z², Devin Townsend’s official sequel to his 2007 opus, Ziltoid the Omniscient. Indeed, the genre genius had been working on it on-and-off since at least 2009, all the while issuing other gems in the interim. Townsend even claims that this project is his most ambitious yet, which is a notion that’s difficult to deny after fully digesting the sci-fi behemoth. Z² packs in all the dynamic instrumentation, gorgeous melodies, ingenious wall-of-sound production, and of course, comic sounds and words that you’d expect, so it easily earns its place as both the latest advancement on the concept and the latest entry in Townsend’s legacy.
The work is broken into two unrelated albums: Sky Blue (the Devin Townsend Project’s successor to Epicloud) and Dark Matters (the actual sequel to Ziltoid). Although the former is the weaker entry (due only to the magnificence of its sibling) , it’s still full of great tracks, including “Rejoice”, a catchy yet hostile rocker electrified by falsetto harmonies and piercing rhythms. There’s also “Fallout”, which features the angelic voice of longtime collaborator, Anneke van Giersbergen, as well as both “Sky Blue” and “Rain City”, two ethereal gifts infused with peaceful production and melodies. Lastly, “Before We Die” features a sing-a-long hook as only Townsend can provide. All in all, Sky Blue is a great collection of songs whose impact is only lessened by how phenomenal Dark Matters is.
Utilizing the talents of several guest vocals, as well as a humorous narrator, throughout, Dark Matters is much more theatrical and overblown than Ziltoid, which makes it all the more enjoyable. Fortunately, its songwriting and musicianship are quite remarkable. For example, “From Sleep Awake” features the most touching melody on the disc, as van Giersbergen bellows, “Liar! Liar!” while the instrumentation is complementarily downbeat and melancholic. Likewise, “Deathray” is hilariously excessive; actually, it’s also a great example of Townsend’s fondness for conceptual continuity, as the entire song is a structural nod to “Ziltoidia Attaxx!!!” from Ziltoid the Omniscient.
The entire journey is thrilling, funny, and invasively engrossing, which shouldn’t be that surprising considering that Townsend’s the musical mastermind. It’s a bold, intricate, and relentlessly entertaining effort that further cements Townsend as one of the most fearless and brilliant musicians working today.
Album: Pale Communion
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List number: 1
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With 2011’s Heritage, Swedish progressive metal titan Opeth made a conscious (and controversial) effort to revise its identity. Abandoning fully the group’s trademark growls and pervasive brutality, the record focused instead on the imaginative timbres and freeform jazz arrangements of pioneering influences like King Crimson, Gong, and Van Der Graff Generator. Unfortunately, many fans reacted negatively to this new direction, claiming that the LP was more noteworthy for its experimentation than for its songwriting and arrangements. Two years later, plenty of naysayers expected the same for its follow-up, Pale Communion. To be blunt, they were proven dead wrong. Not only is this record absolutely incredible in its own right, but it’s equally remarkable for representing one of the biggest genre comebacks in recent memory.
Take, for instance, album opener “Eternal Rains Will Come”, which offers a full-bodied jazz fusion frenzy, complete with musings about the hopeless finality of a Biblical flood that demonstrate a haunting tenderness not seen since “Still Day Beneath the Sun” a decade prior. Later on, “Goblin” proves to be the most infectiously intricate, fun, and vibrant instrumental the quintet has ever crafted, while both “Elysian Woes” and “Faith in Others” contain irresistibly beautiful melodies. There’s also “River”, an atypically folksy ballad led by sublime acoustic guitar patterns and arguably the densest harmonies Opeth has ever featured. Really, I could go on and on about each refreshing and wonderful moment of this, to use the band’s words, “observation”.
Pale Communion finds Opeth striving to replicate the revered sense of ‘70s prog rock exuberance that Heritage hinted at. (Un)surprisingly, they succeed beyond measure, as the disc bursts with luscious layers of pristine instrumentation, enthralling melodies, passionate lyricism, and best of all, masterful cohesion. It’s probably the group’s most rhythmically complex work too, which is truly saying something. All in all, it will be remembered as one of Opeth’s greatest achievements; in fact, Åkerfeldt and company haven’t sounded this energetic, inventive, and complex since Ghost Reveries. Pale Communion is a near-perfect masterpiece that reveals how surprising, confident, and ambitious a band can be 25 years into its career. Without a doubt, it’s the best progressive rock album of 2014.