Music

The Best Progressive Rock/Metal of 2019

Jordan Blum
Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

This year in progressive rock and metal found genre mainstays continuing to impress while relative underdogs and newcomers finally seized some of the spotlight.

There's not one overarching inclination or pattern to progressive rock and metal in 2019. Sure, you have the typical mixture of genre mainstays continuing to impress and relative underdogs and newcomers finally seizing some of the spotlights. Beyond that, however, there's very little in terms of shared traits that are easy to nail down (as opposed to last year's trend of "creators coming back strong after facing losses not only immediate and seemingly insurmountable but also lingering from the distant past").

That said, narrowing down the myriad choices into a ranked collection was no easier this time around. As the sole curator, I spent more time than I care to admit weighing the merits of over 50 initial selections into a definitive set of ten. Yet, I stand by the following picks—even if some are predictable and popular enough to be cliché inclusions—for representing the exceptionally adventurous, vibrant, challenging, and enchanting hodgepodges that make progressive music so characteristic and crucial. (Also, this list only indicates the best of what I heard; no one can listen to everything, so feel free to let me know what I've missed!)

* Honorable mentions must go to the latest from the Tea Club, Bent Knee, the Night Watch, Artificial Language, the Flower Kings, District 97, Franck Carducci, Tool, Moron Police, the Mute Gods, Edge of Reality, and Cabinets of Curiosity, among others. Also, Baroness' quasi-progressive Gold & Grey deserves a nod for turning me into a fan after years of being unmoved by their work.

Heavy Metal Guitarist by The Digital Artist (CCO Creative Commons)

10. IQ – Resistance [Giant Electric Pea]

IQ is one of the most enduring bands from the 1980s influx of neo-prog revivalists. Comparable to modern Marillion (but with a slightly sharper, faster, and more cinematic edge), the quintet still soars thanks to the distinguished tenors of founding vocalist Peter Nicholls, bassist Tim Esau, and guitarist Mike Holmes. Their current recipe of resiliently futuristic and emotional compositions has spawned two of their finest LPs: 2009's Frequency and 2014's The Road of Bones. Fortunately, the nearly two-hour Resistance is right there with them, delivering every ounce of touching revelations and potent musicianship that's given them such longevity.

"A Missile" launches Resistance with fetching immediacy and atmospheric hesitation in equal measure (due, in part, to the tenacity of drummer Paul Cook and keyboardist Neil Durant). It's an awesome beginning, and successor "Rise" sustains the riveting magic. Eventually, "Shallow Bay" and "If Anything" bring a marginally lighter, freer, and more sentimental vibe. However, it's quickly reversed by the second disc's two epics, "The Great Spirit Way" and "Fallout", both of which are aural cyclones of exhausting excitement and changeability. Frankly, few acts of their era could produce something this stellar nearly 40 years into their career.

9. Big Big Train – Grand Tour [English Electric]

Big Big Train have long been the reigning kings of infusing British regality and social commentary into contemporary progressive rock, with line-up additions like drummer Nick D'Virgilio (ex-Spock's Beard), Rikard Sjöblom (ex-Beardfish), violinist/vocalist Rachel Hall, and guitarist Dave Gregory (ex-XTC) helping flesh out their gracefully bucolic intricacies. Unsurprisingly, Grand Tour is no exception. Perhaps a tad predictable in spots lyrically and musically, it inarguably deserves its place beside earlier gems like The Underfall Yard, Grimspound, and the English Electric pair. Honestly, no one does this sort of sound better.

The childlike contemplation of "Novum Organum" is a fine starting point, with lead singer David Longdon sounding as elegantly rich and concerned as ever. The far livelier and fuller "Alive" comes next and serves as one of the band's most pleasurably hooky and life-affirming tunes thus far. Later, "The Florentine" exquisitely urgent and articulate, with lovely acoustic guitar arpeggios peppering the landscape. "Pantheon" focuses more on strings and horns as it reaches toward flamboyant warmth, and "Ariel" is a multifaceted treat with several awe-inspiring phases. Filled with soft moments of survey juxtaposed by vigorously celebratory blocks of scenic instrumentation, Grand Tour is indeed a superb walkthrough of Big Big Train's excellence.

8. The Neal Morse Band – The Great Adventure [Metal Blade / Radiant]

The sequel to The Similitude of a Dream—which ranked highly in our 2016 listThe Great Adventure continues the Neal Morse Band's reimagining of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Promise. Specifically, it centers on "the Pilgrim's abandoned son", who possesses "a younger, perhaps angrier voice than was heard" on its precursor (according to Morse). Despite relying a bit too much on past themes and templates, as well as the overarching message of "a love that never dies", The Great Adventure is another testament to the group's distinctive knack at crafting theologically rich songwriting and arrangements.

Of course, the requisite overtures are here and expectedly impressive; similarly, the way it picks up immediately after The Similitude of a Dream makes it seem like the final half of a four-disc project. Generally, however, it's a darker affair, with the mesmerizingly catchy "Welcome to the World" motif, in conjunction with "Venture in Black", "The Great Despair", and "Fighting with Destiny", providing some infectious heft. On the other hand, guitarist Eric Gillette's shimmery singing makes "Hey Ho Let's Go" engagingly bright, just as all of the vocalists add to the quirky comradery of the spirited "Vanity Fair". It's a familiarly delightful formula, for sure.

7. Wilderun - Veil of Imagination [Independent]

Boston troupe Wilderun is among the most promisingly eclectic, go-getting, and poised up-and-comers in progressive music. Their remarkable formula typically fuses classical, folk, metal, and rock into staggeringly dramatic and vibrant concoctions, and happily, Veil of Imagination completely capitalizes on those characteristic features. In a way, it flows like a continuous 70-minute piece, never letting up from its relentlessly colorful clusters of genre-melding fineness.

By its nature, Veil of Imagination is difficult to highlight in segments. Nevertheless, its glorious trajectory contains some especially noteworthy attributes. The fact that it begins and ends with spoken narration gives it weighty continuity and purpose. Likewise, the gentle evolution of "The Unimaginable Zero Summer"—from an acoustic ballad with pastoral strings into an out-and-out progressive death metal theatrics and back again—is superb. Further on, "Sleeping Ambassadors of the Sun" makes great use of piano and operatic chants within its whirlwind of minimalist monologues and spaciously complex savagery. Next, lavish instrumental "Scentless Core (Budding)" uses a wider array of classical timbres before the turbulently hectic yet accessible "The Tyranny of Imagination". All in all, Veil of Imagination is proof that some of the most notable progressive music comes from comparable newcomers.

6. Leprous - Pitfalls [InsideOut Music]

Leprous frontman Einar Solberg has said that Pitfalls is "the biggest production and musical departure we've done"; in many ways, he's right. Whereas the quintet's past releases became increasingly ambient while still upholding their traditional djent foundations, this sixth disc leans significantly more toward sweeping symphonic synths and faint moodiness. That's not to say that it's a weaker effort or a betrayal of their beloved identity; on the contrary, it's a sublime compromise between the qualities fans love and the need to innovate that every artist should feel.

First and foremost, Pitfalls finds Solberg openly confronting his battle with anxiety and depression. Therefore, tracks like the intensely fragile "Below"—with its tenderly relatable refrain of "And I will lie, lie / Keep it all together"—and the agitatedly heavenly "Alleviate" give listeners a front-row seat to his stunningly pure pain. There's a more robotic but danceable charm to "I Lose Hope" and "Be My Throne". Divergently, "Observe the Train" is comfortingly quiet. "At the Bottom" swells with morose strings and bursts of angelic annoyance, while "Foreigner" rests upon striking guitar work. Pitfalls is certainly not the heaviest Leprous record, but it might be the thematically darkest and most worthwhile.

5. Borknagar – True North [Century Media]

Regrettably, progressive/black/folk metal outfit Borknagar are not yet a household name in the US; but, they're surely a prevailing force in their home country of Norway and deservedly so. For roughly a quarter of a century, they've resourcefully blended demonic and blissful passages within abundantly precise instrumental twists and turns. While 2016's Winter Thrice seems to be a fan favorite, its frostier and more focused successor, True North, likely tops it. Amid several line-up changes—including bassist Simen "I.C.S. Vortex" Hestnæs taking up vocal duties once again—it's a dynamo of icily emotive splendor.

True to its name, "Thunderous" sets the stage with hysterical rhythms, guttural outcries, soaring clean verses, and biting guitar lines. It does an exceptional job of demonstrating Borknagar's fluid and compressed approach to stately temperamental shifts, a penchant that's preserved on later gems like the more keyboard-driven "Up North", "Mount Rapture", and "The Fire That Burns". Along the way, the sparser "Lights" demands sing-along participation, "Wild Father's Heart" soothes with sophisticated rustic tapestries and remorseful songwriting, "Into the White" excels due to its hypnotic stacked singing, and the tribal "Voices" is a calming and succulent way to finish. Really, True North is a perfect introduction to Borknagar.

4. Periphery - Periphery IV: Hail Stan [Century Media]

By infusing their djent foundations with healthy doses of symphonic atmospheres and bizarre textural coverings, American quintet Periphery have become one of the most laudable acts in progressive metal. Naturally, they also excel when it comes to soaring melodies and introspective interludes (so likening them to a more ferocious version of TesseracT isn't unjustified). While their newest statement, Periphery IV: Hail Stan (no, that's not a misprint), doesn't outright surpass its closest predecessors—the two-part Juggernaut and Periphery III: Select Difficulty—it's nonetheless a masterstroke of Periphery fortes that any fan of the style will adore.

At nearly 17 minutes in length, opener "Reptile" is an epic onto itself, with Periphery's trademark brutality and transcendental beauty expertly and ambitiously intermingled. It also holds one of their sturdiest choruses ever, as do the downright hellish "Chvrch Bvrner" and the purifying "Sentient Glow". In-between, "Garden in the Bones" is dynamically decorated with wonderfully engaging timbres. "It's Only Smiles" veers toward being a multilayered radio-friendly anthem. "Crush" coats a modestly straightforward metal method in sleek electronic beats before abruptly transforming into a cinematic symphony as it wraps up. From start to finish, then, Periphery IV: Hail Stan still represents the peak of Periphery's prowess.

3. Thank You Scientist – Terraformer [Evil Ink]

When Coheed and Cambria frontman Claudio Sanchez invites you to join his record label, you know you're doing something special. That's the case for New Jersey septet Thank You Scientist, whose first two sequences—2012's Maps of Non-Existent Places and 2016's Stranger Heads Prevail—solidified them as gurus of frenetically fun orchestral prog rock/metal and jazz fusion. As thrilling as that initial pair is, however, there's little doubt that Terraformer tops them in every way.

Clocking in at almost an hour-and-a-half, Terraformer is admittedly a lot to take all at once. Fortunately, they make every minute worth it, with instrumental starter "Wrinkle" gifting a playfully focused frenzy of intersecting horns, percussion, guitars, and more to welcome you in. Afterward, "FXMLDR" is a hyperactive party that sees catchy melodies and eloquent lulls permeating Mars Volta-esque structural madness. Elsewhere, "Birdwatching" is mostly a luscious respite from the chaos, "Everyday Ghosts" embodies their lovingly irreverent songwriting, and the concluding title track is jaw-dropping for its percussive tricks alone. As a whole, Terraformer is the best example yet of why Thank You Scientist are the best at what they do.

2. Opeth – In Cauda Venenum [Nuclear Blast]

The 2010s have been quite polarizing for Opeth fans, as the group's move away from progressive death metal and toward a retro 1970s, prog-rock/jazz fusion aesthetic has left many original devotees dissatisfied. Although their fourth outing within that framework (and first to be recorded in both English and Swedish), In Cauda Venenum, feels very much aligned with its immediate predecessors, its ethereal essence and gothic fury also make it like a throwback to their mid-period triumphs. Thus, it likely satisfies longtime fans in ways that Heritage, Pale Communion, and Sorceress didn't.

The LP's apparitional theme is immediately apparent, with the prelude "Garden of Earthly Delights" offering a haunting collage of programmed beats, choral chants, church bells, whistles, children's banter, and climbing organ tones. From there, "Dignity", "Heart in Hand", and "Charlatan" house the compositional zigzags and melodic punches you'd expect from Opeth this decade. Beyond those, "Lovelorn Crime" and "Continuum" are two of mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt's most elegant ballads to date, whereas "Universal Truth" is a gorgeously orchestrated acoustic ode with quirky rhythmic changes and "The Garroter" presents pleasantly nightmarish jazziness. If not for 2014's Pale Communion, In Cauda Venenum would undoubtedly be Opeth's greatest album in a decade.

1. Devin Townsend – Empath [InsideOut Music / HevyDevy]

For over 20 years, Canadian virtuoso Devin Townsend has proven to be among the most vividly eclectic, audacious, skillful, and reliable artists of his era. Every LP he does reveals new shades of his creative and philosophical palettes, all the while packing in beloved trademarks to expand his endearing idiosyncratic catalog. In many ways, then, Empath is his magnum opus: a wildly polygonal cumulative reflection on everything he's achieved previously. As such, it presents a crucial existential examination beneath a brilliant blend of styles.

For instance, "Borderlands" conjures the country-rock twang of Casualties of Cool, "Hear Me" captures the comical viciousness of Deconstruction, "Evermore" recalls the dense pop-rock majesty of Addicted and Epicloud, and "Genesis" is a self-contained tour-de-force of seamless genre-shifts. While Townsend's tongue-in-cheek playfulness is here, it's his emotionally resonant introspections that reign supreme. After all, he's always been open about his inner demons—as should we all —and on "Spirits Will Collide", "Why?", and the ingeniously multifaceted epic closer, "Singularity", he beautifully tackles self-doubt, hope, love, and other relatable quandaries. Thus, Empath is as rewarding for its resourcefully unclassifiable musical cohesion as it is for its cathartic encouragements to be open about mental struggles.

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