If there’s one word to define progressive rock and metal this year, it’s “survival”. In a sense, this relates to groups retaining relevancy and quality—if not outdoing themselves entirely—after having very lengthy hiatuses and/or decades of fine work already behind them. Likewise, 2018 saw creators coming back strong after facing losses not only immediate and seemingly insurmountable but also lingering from the distant past. Thus, the music provided introspective appreciation for creators and listeners alike for the sights and sounds of the subgenres, as well as the more universal yet personal hardships and growths we all face.
As always, narrowing down our top choices was no easy task. While artists like Coheed and Cambria, Southern Empire, Ihsahn, TesseracT, Nosound, Kino, the Tangent, the Sea Within, Roine Stolt, Lynchgate, Rivers of Nihil, Kindo, the Ocean, Tiger Moth Tales, A Perfect Circle, Distorted Harmony, and the Pineapple Thief issued exceptional work, the following ten releases represent what impacted us most. (It’s important to remember that this list only signifies the best of what we’ve caught; no one can hear everything, so feel free to let us know what great collection we missed in the comments section below.)
10. Voivod – The Wake (Century Media)
The Voivod story continues with the Quebec powerhouse turning up the odd on this latest entry in the ongoing epic saga. Guitarist Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain adds new nuance and a brave strain of weird to the proceedings. On occasion, the songs taken on shades of the mainstream (though never in a way that will cause anyone to accuse the Voi of forsaking its Vod). Vocalist Denis “Snake” Bélanger performs with incredible vitality and hunger, sounding more like a man cutting his first album rather than something like his fourteenth. The quartet redefines epic on this affair, too, taking listeners into new aural dimensions that might seem unthinkable for stalwarts. Tunes such as “Orb Confusion” and “Sonic Mycelium” are, in their way, far more outre than anything this group has done in the past. Moreover, this seems like a fantastic billboard for Voivod’s live shows and, in their way, making their case for an in-concert audio/visual set. Long may Voivod and all its weirdness run. Long may we bask in its brilliant, alien glow. – Jedd Beaudoin
9. Kevin Hufnagel- Messages to the Past (Nightfloat)
Fans of classic shred metal albums get something of a treat via the latest by Gorguts/Byla guitar genius Kevin Hufnagel. Okay, while it’s not exactly something that Shrapnel records would have issued in the summer of 1988, it’s fairly close in spirit while also managing to capture the most sublime reaches of Hufnagel playing and compositions. “Pulse Controller” could be the title music for a slasher flick set in an emergency room on Halloween night; “Separations” speaks to the artist’s deft melodic/harmonic touches, a supreme blend of raw emotion and superior technique; and “Inner Unseen” reminds us of his abilities not only on the electric form of his chosen instrument but its acoustic counterpart as well. Also, “Circling the Grave” and “A Flame to Guide” are rock history masterworks that verify Hufnagel’s growing reputation is absolutely earned. A new gold standard in rock guitar records. – Jedd Beaudoin
8. Gazpacho – Soyuz (Kscope)
When it comes to evocative art rock permeated with philosophical lyricism, distressed singing, and stylishly erratic arrangements, no other band bests Norwegian sextet Gazpacho. Justly hailed for their idiosyncratic concoctions over the last 15 years, their past nine studio outings radiate their own identities while cumulating into a catalog of some of the most heartbreakingly elegant and sophisticated works in modern music. This year’s Soyuz is no different. While not Gazpacho’s best effort—that distinction still belongs to 2007’s fifty-minute epic, Night, although 2012’s March of Ghosts is a very close runner-up—it’s still a narrative opus filled with all of the haunting quirks, enchanting melodies, and striving continuity admirers adore.
Marking the return of drummer Robert Johansen (who left in 2009), Soyuz revolves around “being frozen in time” and mourning “the death of the old world, where everywhere was a different place with cultures and beliefs to match” (as keyboardist Thomas Andersen explains). Appropriately, then, vocalist Jan-Henrik Ohme sounds as silkily sorrowful as ever, especially on the delicately orchestrated “Exit Suite” and the seductively peculiar and boisterous “Emperor Bespoke”. Elsewhere, closer “Rappaccini” leaves listeners in breathtaking despondence with its blend of effects and instrumentation, while the one-two punch of opener “Soyuz One” and the penultimate “Soyuz Out” bring the album full circle with clever reprisals and multifaceted wonder. Like all Gazpacho records, Soyuz is a characteristic voyage of isolation and meditation that never truly leaves you. – Jordan Blum
7. Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly – Friendship (InsideOut)
As the leader of the now-disbanded Swedish quartet Beardfish, singer/songwriter/multiinstrumentalist Rikard Sjöblom proved to be a master of fusing intricately vivacious scores and captivating songwriting (that ranged from perceptively traumatic to charmingly sophomoric). Naturally, those trademarks touch just about everything else he does, including the newest offering under the Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly moniker, Friendship. Arguably on par with its immediately predecessor (On Her Journey to the Sun, which we placed at the #6 spot on our 2017 list), the full-length houses its touchingly nostalgic core within a whirlwind of colorful catchiness and density as only Sjöblom can craft.
Obviously, “If You Fall, Pt. II” is a clear highlight simply due to its ingenious mixture of feisty new ideas and gratifying links to the previous LP, whereas “Ghost of Vanity” is an irresistibly transformative and fun rocker that kickstarts the sequence wonderfully. That said, the true treasures lie within the complicated and lengthy title track, as well as the fondly melodic “They Fade” and the Zappa-esque “A Treehouse in a Glad”. Together, they express the main theme of the record: the ways in which we share unbreakable bonds with people as children, only to become totally separated as we become adults. As a dedication to “all of [his] friends, dead or alive, past and present”, Friendship captures the youthful joy and matured wisdom of its subject matter exquisitely. – Jordan Blum
6. Haken – Vector (InsideOut)
A wonderfully concise effort from this British prog-metal outfit that sometimes recalls Uriah Heep’s mid-1970s tendency toward the horrifying and fantastical while remaining true to contemporary sensibilities. “The Good Doctor” is a wonderful sci-fi/psych-fi number that manages to gets its groove on like no progressive rock tune has a right to. Meanwhile, “Puzzle Box” puts veteran metal titans to shame with its riff-o-rama and attention to harrowing dynamics (and a penchant for off-kilter rhythmic passages). The 12-minute romp “Veil” disappoints in neither execution nor scope, hitting with an intensity that is alone worth the price of admission. If “Nil By Mouth” and “Host” don’t inspire at least two generations of imitators, there’s probably little hope for progressive metal or its fans. Though not light in terms of concept or subject matter, Vector is a thoroughly fun listen that never fails to hit the mark. – Jedd Beaudoin
5. Riverside – Wasteland (InsideOut)
Polish quartet Riverside has long been among the top acts in current progressive music, and a big reason for that was the trademark style and tone of guitarist Piotr Grudziński. Unsurprisingly, his untimely passing at the start of 2016 left the remaining trio uncertain about what they’d do next. Fortunately, it turned out to be Wasteland, a beautifully bleak—yet eventually hopeful—trip (written “from the point of view of someone bereft, someone who has survived a tragedy”, as singer/bassist Mariusz Duda comments) that deserves its place next to its precursors.
Wasteland continues Riverside’s penchant for expertly balancing fetching aggression and mesmerizing tranquility throughout the playthrough (namely, on “Acid Rain” and “The Struggle for Survival”); yet, it’s the softer moments, such as the atmospherically acoustic “Guardian Angel” and the lusciously symphonic “River Down Below”, that truly demonstrate how strong their songwriting still is. Of course, “The Night Before” (a relatively simple piano ballad) ends it on an overwhelmingly bittersweet note that stands as one of their premium compositions to date. From start to finish, Wasteland is both a loving tribute to the legacy Grudziński helped cement and a testament to how capable Riverside remains moving forward. – Jordan Blum
4. Horrendous– Idol (Season of Mist)
One of the most-discussed releases of the year, Idol demonstrates how much Horrendous has evolved in a relatively short career. Its technical proclivities do nothing to hamper the heaviness here. “Soothsayer” comes as close to making one want to shake their progressive death metal-worshiping ass as anything in recent recorded history (and, frankly, achieves that intent). “Golgathan Tongues” seems destined to become a concert staple via its highly memorable riffs and classic metal tendencies. In truth, it’s probably been thirty years since a group delivered riffs that sounded this fresh and free from a storied musical history. “Devotion (Blood for Ink)” doesn’t just cast our minds back to the good ol’ days; it convinces us that the best days for metal are right now. The eight minutes and change closer “Obolos” is the epic that this generation of listeners will be waiting for, the kind of tune that will send kids racing to their bedrooms to pick up an axe or start their own cheaply crafted ‘zine. If listening to that song, or really any of the tunes here, doesn’t convince you that you’re witness to some kind of darkly sacred ritual, do drop us a line. – Jedd Beaudoin
3. Phideaux – Infernal (Bloodfish)
Although still criminally underknown overall, American outfit Phideaux has a remarkably ardent following, which is why the release of Infernal—their first album since 2011’s Snowtorch—has been so highly anticipated. Luckily, it was worth the wait, as it finds the troupe concluding their dystopic trilogy (which began with 2006’s The Great Leap and continued on 2007’s Doomsday Afternoon) with an inventive and renewed mixture of familiar motifs and fresh personas that underpin Phideaux’s distinctive brilliance.
As you’d expect, Infernal is littered with callbacks to the first two entries in the series (most rewardingly near the end of its superlative suite, “From Hydrogen to Love”), and they always feel seamless and fitting rather than like forced fan service. As awesome as those moments are, however, its real strength comes from the more organic theatricality (think: soliloquys and segues, like in a play) featured on tracks like “Cast Out and Cold”, “Sourdome”, “Wake the Sleeper”, and “Transit”. It’s precisely this merger of acquainted techniques and untested waters that makes Infernal such a satisfying finale to the saga and return for the extraordinary ensemble. – Jordan Blum
2. Amorphis – Queen of Time (Nuclear Blast)
Album 13 from Finnish metal titans Amorphis blends and bends more than genres. Along the way, the sextet bends minds with its fearlessly explorative approach, incorporating elements of folk music, classic prog, death and contemporary metal with doses of the symphonic. A guest turn from the always evanescent Anneke van Giersbergen on “Amongst Stars” pretties up the place, offering us a glimpse of those epic moments to come in outdoor European festivals, but the lads are never afraid of being extreme, such as on the mead hall anthem “The Golden Elk” or the Valhalla dance floor hit “Heart of the Giant”. Vocalist Tomi Jousten cements his role as a vocalist of extreme talents in the particular musical terrain he work, particularly on the closing “Pyres of the Coast” and “Wrong Direction”. Moreover, Amorphis brings a brilliant link between metal’s groove-oriented past and its more contemporary sensibilities. Wherever this outfit is going can’t be boring. – Jedd Beaudoin
1. Between the Buried and Me – Automata (I and II) (Sumerian)
Time and time again, North Carolinian avant-garde/technical metal quintet Between the Buried and Me proves to be unrivaled at what they do, and Automata reaffirms that ranking. Recorded together and then split up (if push comes to shove, Automata II is the superior half), the two-part tale about broadcasted dreams, voyeurism, and mental illness (among other things) collectively yields another mind-blowing sequence of unpredictable yet cohesive and enticing dispositions that more or less equal their past triumphs.
Although somewhat conventional (by BTBAM standards, anyway), Automata I still packs quite an arresting punch with the transcendental “Millions”, the erratic “Yellow Eyes”, and the many-sided cliffhanger, “Blot”. Without a doubt, it’s a solid first act, yet the unrelenting adventurousness of Automata II can’t help but blow it away. Be it the carnivalistic ballad “Glide”, the progressive swing madness of “Voice of Trespass”, or the cathartic wrap-up of “The Grid”, the second set outdoes the first while also contextually enhancing Automata as a single statement. Throw in the awe-inspiring hypnosis of “The Proverbial Bellow” (which contains the catchiest chorus vocalist Thomas Giles Rogers Jr. ever sang) and you have the foremost progressive rock/metal release of 2018. – Jordan Blum