Music

The Best Progressive Rock of 2014

Jordan Blum

From idiosyncratic tales of dastardly aliens to concept albums about a mysterious demon, prog maintained its reputation for eclecticism in 2014.

5 - 1

Artist: Gazpacho

Album: Demon

Label: K-Scope

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/gpacho.jpg

List number: 5

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Gazpacho
Demon

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.

 
Artist: Lunatic Soul

Album: Walking on a Flashlight Beam

Label: K-Scope

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/lunaticsould_walkingonaflashlightbeam_albumart200.jpg

List number: 4

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Lunatic Soul
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.

 
Artist: Anathema

Album: distant satellites

Label: K-Scope

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/ds.jpg

List number: 3

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Anathema
distant satellites

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.

 
Artist: Devin Townsend

Album: Z²

Label: Century Media

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/d/devintownsend_z2_albumart200.jpg

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 , 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. 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.

 
Artist: Opeth

Album: Pale Communion

Label: Roadrunner

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/o/opeth_palecommunion_albumart_thumb200.jpg

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Opeth
Pale Communion

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.

Splash Image: Ziltoid the Omniscient, the lead character in Devin Townsend's

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