In 2011, progressive rock was comforting and disheartening in equal measures, as it has been over the decades. It’s comforting to know that every year always brings at least one quality progressive rock release, and prog’s natural affinity for complex musicianship naturally attracts attention from young musicians everywhere — those looking to prove themselves, those who would rather not get stuck in the jazz fusion genre. On the other hand, it’s also disheartening to the extent that prog’s weak points continue to remain so weak.
Pretentious concept records, overly grandiose musicianship, instrument solos that in themselves could compromise a whole symphony, and the ever-pervading obsession with fairy tales, space battles, and mythical creatures — all of these qualities are as much a part of prog today as they have been in the past. Moreover, the overall tendency of bands failing to progress (which one would assume is a necessary genre component given its title) is also true of many progressive rock bands: Many get stuck in the same old ruts that other prog bands found themselves in, which hampers the overall critical and cultural view of the genre.
These problems inherent to the genre were not the only unfortunate trends in 2011 prog-rock; controversy also played a role in the prog community. The shocking departure of Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater — the band he helped create — was hugely important. Dream Theater’s stature in contemporary progressive rock is substantial, and to see one of the core members of the band (as well as one of the band’s most technically proficient members, which is saying something given the talent present) leave put the band’s fate into question.
Portnoy has since pursued other projects, such as the prog supergroup (cause there aren’t enough of those!) Adrenaline Mob, but from what I’ve gathered, we still have much to hear from the phenomenal drummer. The best that prog fans can hope for is (a) that Portnoy’s departure and subsequent interactions with the band don’t cause any rifts, real or manufactured, and (b) that all of the musicians involved can go on to continue making quality music. Fortunately, Portnoy’s future plans, as well as the release of another Dream Theater LP, give credence to the fact that all the musicians involved won’t stop trying to dazzle us.
All of these things aside, 2011, while not a banner year by any means, was still a good year for prog, with many notable high-profile releases competing for the best-of-the-year title. The general trend seemed to gravitate toward instrumental-based material, though several strong releases by progressive music standbys (notably Porcupine Tree frontman and polymath Steven Wilson) stood out amongst the fray of albums with space-themed covers. This list is encompassing both progressive rock and, to some extent, progressive metal. Although the latter and former genres are not interchangeable, there are important similarities, and as a result, some progressive metal records were included here due to their relevance in the progressive rock genre. (For instance, Between the Buried and Me’s suite-like, intricate metal has been used as a more intense counterpoint to the theory-heavy, technical shredding of Dream Theater on the Progressive Nation tours).
The resulting top ten list is reflective both of the talent and diversity to be found in prog, whether it’s an album about crazy space adventures 2,000 years in the future or a singer/songwriter record that decides to explore some unusual territory.
10. Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events [Roadrunner]
It took me a substantial amount of time before I warmed up to A Dramatic Turn of Events. This was so, first and foremost, because my appreciation of Dream Theater has waned since 2005’s Octavarium, but, secondly, because I was skeptical of the direction that the band would take after the strange circumstances surrounding founding member Mike Portnoy’s departure. Portnoy had been an integral part of the band’s central formula; while replacement Mike Mangini is an impressive drummer, Portnoy’s unique contribution to the band’s output cannot be overlooked.
The band has yet to top their 1999 epic, Scenes from a Memory, which is impossible to imagine without Portnoy. Fortunately, with this record, the band has stepped back from the somewhat forced attempts at morphing into a dark metal powerhouse (The doom and gloom of the band’s prior album, 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings, was a bit much) and have instead gone back to the epic prog at which the band so excelled in the ‘90s. Dream Theater has always made heavy music, but it wasn’t heavy in the way the group had been aiming with records like Black Clouds.
A Dramatic Turn of Events is not a perfect record; like many Dream Theater (and prog) LPs, it’s too long, and some of the various experiments the band takes come off as haphazard instead of organic. That aside, this record is important, providing two forms of hope for this aging band. For one, sometimes going back to one’s origins is the best way to move forward, and also, as brilliant of a drummer as Mike Portnoy is, it is possible for Dream Theater to exist without him.
9. Riverside – Memories in My Head [The Laser’s Edge]
Riverside’s brand of prog has often marred in comparison to greats like Porcupine Tree and Tool. These comparisons hold a degree of truth (“Forgotten Land” on this EP owes much to the former band), but they tend to be unfairly reductive. The band blends the atmospheric with bass-heavy, dark prog-rock, which it has done quite well over the course of its often overlooked career. Memories in My Head is a solid sampler of the band’s sonic skill, as well as proof that Riverside does have a unique sound.
The album’s opening track, the excellent “Goodbye Sweet Innocence”, is both indicative of the band’s overall style as well as a notable exercise in dynamics. The band’s penchant for powerful basslines is evident on “Forgotten Land”, which for a moment makes it sound as if it’s about to break into a funk jam, but only for a moment, For those looking for a solid example of Riverside’s work, this short but nonetheless powerful EP is an excellent introduction.
8. Neal Morse – Testimony 2 [InsideOut]
Neal Morse’s 2002 departure from Spock’s Beard, which happened simultaneously with his conversion to Christianity, was one of the most notable prog happenings of the last decade. While his departure left many Spock’s Beard fans disappointed, it certainly didn’t stop Morse at all; his music continued to flourish, peaking incredibly with 2007’s magnum opus, Sola Scriptura. Morse, while not associated with the Christian music scene, remains unabashed about his faith in his music, and Testimony 2 is no different. The record, a continuation of the themes found on the first Testimony (from 2003), deals with the story of Morse’s conversion.
On the whole, the record isn’t a departure from Morse’s past output by any means, but given Morse’s incredible talent, this record does not disappoint (well, save for the GeoCities-worthy sleeve art). Morse even brings in his old Spock’s Beard bandmates in to join him in the chorus of “Time Changer”, which, while somewhat cheesy, is nonetheless demonstrative of the prog that Morse does so well. At nearly two hours, Testimony 2 shows that while Morse still intends to make overly long records, he at least is still making them great.
7. Furyu – Cio Che L’Anima Non Dice [Independent]
Italian proggers Furyu demonstrate one very important skill on Cio Che L’Anima Non Dice, one which many prog bands lack: brevity. In just over half an hour, the band crafts a record that still manages to sound like epic prog without crossing over the border of musical excess. The record’s more intense sonics recall the complicated riffs of Dream Theater and Symphony X, which balances wonderfully with beautiful acoustic passages (like the outro of “La Vastità Del Mio Tempo/Ciò Che L’Anima Non Dice”).
The album is sung entirely in Italian, but it’s truly accessible to any prog fan, regardless of language. Matteo Migliori’s vocals are quite evocative and are a solid accompaniment to the twin guitar attack, which is surprisingly fresh instead of overdone. Cio Che L’Anima Non Dice is one of 2011’s finest sleeper releases in the progressive rock scene, and since you can download the album for free, there’s no reason not to give this band a listen.