COVID-19 impacted virtually every facet of our lives last year, including our ability to create, sell, consume, and bond over music. It’s truly remarkable, then, that plenty of progressive rock and metal bands were still able to craft some of their best work to date. (See our “10 Best Progressive Rock/Metal Albums of 2020” list for proof!) Likewise, it’s only natural to expect that the gradual remission of the plague and return to “normal” life—FINALLY!—would yield an even sturdier showing from these subgenres.
Fortunately, that’s what’s happened, which means that scaling down our choices to a final tally of ten was as divisive and challenging as ever. That said, we’re pretty confident in our final selections. From household names continuing to dominate their style to lesser-known masters doing their best to stand out, the following list comprises our picks for the very best that progressive rock and metal offered in 2021.
*Honorable mentions go to the newest studio LPs from Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment, Transatlantic, the Neal Morse Band, Danny Elfman, Be’lakor, Fractal Universe, Gojira, Signals of Bedlam, Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett, Soen, Cynic, Vildhjarta, and Yes. Also, while the Dear Hunter’s The Indigo Child is excellent—and the Dear Hunter deserve as much attention as possible—even founder Casey Crescenzo considers it a score + singles, not an album.
10. Scale the Summit – Subjects [Independent]
Instrumental progressive metal troupe Scale the Summit brings us their seventh studio collection this year with Subjects, a highly collaborative work that’s their first to feature vocals. Every song sees the Houston group working with a different prominent singer in progressive metal, including Courtney LaPlante of Spiritbox. Each vocalist complements Scale the Summit’s tingling guitar work, roaming basslines, and frantic yet precise drumming.
“Dissemble” and “Jackhammer Ballet” are standout tracks, as Skyharbor’s Eric Emery’s crooning accompanies the former, and the latter finds Kindo’s Joseph Secchiaroli effortlessly following the band’s irregular rhythms. Although the four-year gap between 2017’s In a World of Fear and Subjects signified Scale the Summit’s most extended break to date, their tight technical prowess has not faltered. Luckily, an instrumental version of Subjects is also available if fans want to experience the album in its purest form. – Andrew Spiess
9. Big Big Train – Common Ground [English Electric Recordings]
English ensemble Big Big Train have grown into absolute experts at melding buoyantly pastoral 1970s prog-rock bedrocks with plenty of distinguishing modern qualities throughout roughly a dozen studio LPs. Despite their reduced line-up, Common Ground sacrifices very little—if any—of its predecessors’ magnificent bucolic lusciousness and heartfelt historical underpinnings. It houses some of the group’s sharpest material in years, such as the feistily hooky “The Strangest Times” and the triumphantly multifaceted “All the Love We Can Give”.
Later, the title track packs Big Big Train’s trademark gorgeous communality, just as the penultimate “Atlantic Cable” is an epic narrative that rivals almost any similarly lengthy prior suite in their catalog. It’s an expectedly lovely creation, and the unbelievably recent and untimely passing of frontman David Longdon makes it—alongside 2022’s Welcome to the Planet—that much more special for how it enhances his legacy. – Jordan Blum
8. Leprous – Aphelion [Inside Out Music]
Backed by the toweringly touching voice of Einar Solberg, Norwegian art/symphonic rock collective Leprous can’t help but craft impeccably powerful, polished, and poignant listening journeys. While their newest sequence, Aphelion, isn’t their undisputed masterpiece, it’s still a stunning statement that focuses on combating mental health struggles. Opener “Running Low” alone justifies such excellence, as it’s undoubtedly among the quintet’s superlative blends of sobering somberness and explosively catchiness.
From there, “Silhouette” adds some frenzied programming to their classical formula before “The Silent Revelation” offsets intense outbursts with an orchestrally atmospheric and reflective core. The rest of the collection is equally compelling and tasteful, with the finale “Nighttime Disguise” exuding as much angelic anguished as anything else they’ve done. Without a doubt, Aphelion is a profound musical cleansing that only Leprous could craft. – Jordan Blum
7. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue [Pale Chord / Rise]
Vocalist Courtney LaPlante has made a strong impression on YouTube by herself, let alone with Spiritbox as a whole. Her viral single-take studio performance videos showcase her smooth singing and guttural screaming, as well as her relaxed charisma. Therefore, it’s no shock that Spiritbox dished out a promising debut album in 2021. For sure, Eternal Blue comprises 12 songs of methodically executed djent. “Yellowjacket” even features guest vocals from Sam Carter of Architects, one of the leading bands in progressive metalcore, not to mention a breakdown that could demolish a house.
Elsewhere, “The Summit” and “Secret Garden” are equally thrilling since they’re driven by spritely melodies that are more than enough to give Eternal Blue endless replay value. Undoubtedly, Spiritbox’s sharp songwriting and clean production, as well as LaPlante’s dedication as a frontwoman, will take them even higher after this. – Andrew Spiess
6. Tomahawk – Tonic Immobility [Ipecac]
Every year, we can expect new music from prolific vocalist Mike Patton in one form or another. This time around, we got a new LP from supergroup Tomahawk (led by Patton and rounded out with members of Mr. Bungle, Helmet, and the Jesus Lizard). Patton has always blustered a versatile vocal style, ranging from ghoulish half-whispered melodies and spoken words to monumental shrieks. Their first record in eight years, Tonic Immobility, picks up where 2012’s Oddfellows left off, but it adds a freshness to their catalog.
Stylistically, it wavers insidiously. Specifically, “Doomsday Fatigue” carries a sinister late-night western bar tone, while “Howlie” creates similar tension in its verses, albeit in a slight salsa style. “Business Casual” is full of Patton’s silly wordplay—and it coasts on a rolling bassline courtesy of Trevor Dunn—whereas “Tattoo Zero” is an extra display of Duane Denison’s consummate guitar picking. Overall, Tonic Immobility is almost cartoonish in its atmosphere. It’s a playful yet centered effort in experimental rock that would be insulting if they didn’t have a sense of humor. – Andrew Spiess