the-best-progressive-rock-and-metal-of-2016

The Best Progressive Rock and Metal of 2016

The following ten albums rightly outshine the competition and best represent what made 2016 such a diverse and phenomenal year in progressive music.

This year was a typical year for progressive rock and metal in two major ways. As usual, many of the most important modern artists released incredibly ambitious and rewarding records that stand proudly alongside their predecessors, and as usual, these LPs were almost unanimously ignored by the mainstream in terms of critical and commercial attention. Of course, neither of these points are surprising to enthusiasts (to be honest, this dichotomy is part of what makes this music so special to us), but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

That said, what really sticks out about the past dozen or so months is the pattern of established bands relying on their established formulas rather than trying something majorly new. Thankfully, it worked out more often than not, but there were still a few underwhelming — if still highly enjoyable — endeavors. Fortunately, a handful of relative newcomers picked up the slack and astounded so much that they finally reached the genre audience and acclaim they’ve long since deserved. As a result, this list was probably more difficult to compile than in previous years, as several former favorites failed to impress sufficiently, whereas a few up-and-comers blew listeners away. In the end, though, the following ten albums rightly outshine the competition and best represent what made 2016 such a diverse and phenomenal year in progressive music.

 

Artist: Cosmograf

Album: The Unreasonable Silence

Label: Cosmograf Music

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Cosmograf
The Unreasonable Silence

As with all genres, some of the best current progressive rock is the work of a single visionary; such is the case with Cosmograf, the artistic alter-ego of Robin Armstrong. Although he seems to utilize more guest musicians at every turn, he still spearheads the operation, which has yielded several fantastic sci-fi journeys (namely, 2014’s Capacitor). His most recent narrative, The Unreasonable Silence (which is based on Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”), satisfies expectations once again by using talents like drummer Nick D’Virgilio (Big Big Train, ex-Spock’s Beard), bassist Nick Beggs (Steven Wilson), and singer Rachael Hawnt (The Beautiful Secret) to help explore “mankind’s struggle to understand the universe and our role in it”. The end result is a dazzling and introspective experience worthy of classic Pink Floyd.

Following the ominous and atmospheric introduction “echo $abduction;”, “This Film Might Change Your Life” utilizes spacey sounds, dramatic textures, and plenty of voiceovers to suck you in during its first half (think: IQ and Sky Architect), whereas its remaining portion highlights Armstrong’s unique tone and songwriting style. It’s a potent, technical, and infectious starting point, and luckily he maintains the luster throughout the sequence; for example, “Plastic Men” is vibrant and impassioned, while “Four Wall Euphoria” is a bit like late ‘60s Beatles mixed with Dream Theater. Fortunately, the title track closes The Unreasonable Silence on an appropriately epic and gratifying note, confirming Cosmograf’s expertise in crafting compelling concepts.

 

Artist: Haken

Album: Affinity

Label: InsideOut Music

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Haken
Affinity

London sextet Haken is nothing if not prolific, seeing as how they formed only a decade ago and have already released four LPs and one EP. The group is no stranger to vintage tapestries either, as their work often feels as situated in modern prog foundations as it does in the influential styles of genre pioneers like Yes, Gentle Giant, and King Crimson. On their latest endeavor, Affinity, they go one step further by overtly harkening back not only to the heaviness of their first couple discs—Aquarius and Visions—but also to the synthesized power of the 1980s. It’s an amalgam that may not sound seamless on paper, yet works wonders to make Affinity distinctive, fresh, and consistently engaging.

“1985” serves as the most obvious nod to the past, with inspirational guitar riffs, electronic percussion, and keyboard solos backing vocalist Ross Jennings’ idiosyncratic uproars. It’s an acknowledged nod to soundtrack composer Vince DiCola, and it definitely adds an interesting shade to the Haken palette. Similarly, “The Architect” is easily the lengthiest and harshest track here, blending colorful yet brutal djent veneers, spacey transitions, and metal growls (courtesy of Leprous singer Einar Solberg) to recall outfits like Meshuggah, Periphery, Between the Buried and Me, and Devin Townsend. Naturally, the series is peppered with standard trademarks, too, such as the lavish harmonies within “Initiate” and “Lapse”, plus the overarching tenderness of “Bound by Gravity”. In a nutshell, Affinity captures just how willing and capable Haken is of stretching their own boundaries without sacrificing anything that makes them standout.

 

Artist: Bent Knee

Album: Say So

Label: Cuneiform

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Bent Knee
Say So

Like countless other remarkable artists, art rock sextet Bent Knee formed out of the revered Berklee College of Music in Boston. Often channeling similar chamber music elements as the Dear Hunter and Emanuel and the Fear, they fuse classical and modern timbres to produce something truly powerful, experimental, and diverse. While their first two records certainly introduced all that makes Bent Knee special, Say So takes their creativity, fearlessness, and conceptuality to a whole new level. Dense with “dark[ness] and infused with themes focusing on the emergence of personal demons, unwanted situations[,] and the difficulty of conquering them”, it’s a brilliant effort.

Say So spoils its listener from the get-go, as opener “Black Tar Water” is a breathtakingly hypnotic, multilayered, and a triumphant slice of self-reflection and empowerment. Courtney Swain seizes her redemption with the overwhelming yet eloquent force of say, Tori Amos or Björk, while each new textural coating adds radiance and weight. It’s a masterpiece onto itself, yet it’s only the start of the magic, as “Leak Water”, though a bit more straightforward and compressed, is no less bold and varied. Later, “EVE” interweaves soft songwriting with furious orchestration, while the final track, “Good Girl”, is a bittersweet commentary on the subjugation of women. Of course, there’s also “Commercial”, an off-the-wall trip that induces the intricate insanity of Frank Zappa. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Say Say, however, is that while many of the most anticipated progressive rock albums of 2016 disappointed (The Astonishing, anyone?), it proved that sometimes it’s the lesser known releases that contain the most magnificent material.

 

Artist: Knifeworld

Album: Bottled Out of Eden

Label: InsideOut Music

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Knifeworld
Bottled Out of Eden

Led by the madcap wit of vocalist/guitarist Kavus Torabi, English octet Knifeworld incorporates a bit of classic Camel, Soft Machine, and Gong (which Torabi now fronts, too, following the death of founder Daevid Allen in 2015) in its delightful concoction of eccentric, warm, and avant-garde jazz/psychedelic rock. Melding full-bodied and highly elaborate instrumentation, wholly inviting melodies, and a predominant sense of playfulness, Knifeworld never fails to evocate wonder at its musicianship and joy at its colorful accessibility. Happily, the group’s third venture, Bottled Out of Eden, is the ultimate representation of this charming feat.

Bottled Out of Eden kickstarts with its strongest selection, “High/Aflame”, which, according to Torabi, acts as a complex and catchy-as-hell “hymn to psychedelics, but also to Daevid Allen as well”. Its multifaceted, luminous, and ever-changing arrangement is sure to make you smile. In contrast, “I Am Lost” is more subdued and wistful, featuring a lovely supporting vocal from Melanie Woods, while “Foul Temple” is acoustic, sparse, and cautionary. “I Must Set Fire to Your Portrait” makes great use of their horn section, and “Secret Words” exemplifies how there’s always solid songwriting beneath the frenzied embellishments. Bottled Out of Eden also ends like it began, with “Feel the Sorcery” nearly matching “High/Aflame” in terms of exploratory dynamics and engrossing melodies. Really, there isn’t a moment on the full-length that doesn’t ooze vibrancy, adventurousness, and skill, all of which combine to make Knifeworld one of today’s most singular and enjoyable acts.

 

Artist: Nosound

Album: Scintilla

Label: Kscope

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Nosound
Scintilla

Initially shaped as a pseudonym for the pieces of singer/guitarist Giancarlo Erra (who debuted with Sol29 in 2005), Italian collective Nosound officially became a band in 2006. Since then, the quintet has issued several more studio works that burst with tasteful textures, graceful layers (including subtle orchestration), and most important, distressing lyricism delivered via Erra’s endearingly delicate voice. Frankly, only a few contemporaries—like Anathema, Steven Wilson, and Gazpacho—can even rival Nosound’s exquisite yet emotionally excruciating presence, which is arguably stronger than ever on this year’s Scintilla. It will overwhelm you with its stunning despair.

Considering that Nosound has such an individualized sound, it’s comforting that Scintilla feels very much like a continuation of, rather than a deviation from, 2013’s Afterthoughts. Though brief, opener “Short Story” makes a victorious impression with its pounding percussion, melancholic piano notes, and gentle laments, while “Last Lunch” follows a lengthier and more familiar path, complete with vocal echoes, dynamic syncopation, gothic organ swirls, and mournful cello outcries (courtesy of Marianne De Chastelaine). There’s also the sparse internal tragedy of “Little Man”, the conflicted aggression of “The Perfect Wife,” and the serene lusciousness of the title track, yet what stands out most is the sophisticated evolution and life-affirming nature of “In Celebration of Life”. It begins as a brittle piano ode and becomes an awe-inspiring outpour of inspirational majesty whose sole lyric—”In celebration of life / You just don’t see the abundance of love I have inside”—complements the all-encompassing aural beauty to bring you to tears. Bravo, Nosound, bravo.

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Artist: Opeth

Album: Sorceress

Label: Nuclear Blast

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Opeth
Sorceress

With 2011’s Heritage, Opeth leader Mikael Åkerfeldt made the bold, intrepid, and highly divisive decision to forgo the Swedish outfit’s signature death metal foundation in favor of a cleaner, warmer, and more retro aesthetic that conjures the folk and jazz rock elements of various ‘70s icons. Likewise, 2014’s Pale Communion perfected the new formula to yield not only a much superior sequence, but one of Opeth’s best records yet. It’s not surprising, then, that the quartet’s twelfth collection, Sorceress, is very much the third entry in this new phase, and while it doesn’t equal Pale Communion, it’s still an extraordinary addition to the catalog.

In general, Sorceress is the most streamlined and sinister LP of the trio, with “Sorceress” and “The Wilde Flowers” recalling the gritty riffs and in-your-face attitude of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Fortunately, there’s also a lot of heartfelt prettiness in the mix, such as on the Jethro Tull-influenced “Will O the Wisp” and the closing portion of “Chrysalis,” as well as some stark stylistic deviations, like the Indian essence of “The Seventh Sojourn”. Likely the standout element of the full-length appears on “A Fleeting Glance”, when Åkerfeldt juxtaposes devilish undertones and angelic harmonies (think: “Master’s Apprentices”) with gorgeous and moving results. Naturally, the bookended “Persophone” duo adds a bit of classy conceptuality, too, and helps make Sorceress a very worthy observation indeed.

 

Artist: The Neal Morse Band

Album: The Similitude of a Dream

Label: Radiant

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The Neal Morse Band
The Similitude of a Dream

For over two decades, Neal Morse has dominated American progressive rock. Be it as the former frontman of Spock’s Beard, a major player in Transatlantic, or perhaps most notably, as the head of his eponymous solo troupe, Morse continuously impresses with his distinctive brand of Christian-themed storytelling, fetching songwriting, and virtuosic yet enthralling arrangements. His newest endeavor (and second from the current, more communal configuration), The Similitude of a Dream, falls very much in line with its predecessors, which means that it’s another fascinating, ambitious, and thoroughly rewarding—if also too familiar at times—gem.

Loosely based on The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, The Similitude of a Dream is an expansive album that shadows similar beats (both musically and narratively) as past magnum opuses like Snow and the two Testimony offerings. Of course, that means that it contains everything that makes his music so special, like beautiful songwriting (“Shortcut to Salvation” and “Makes No Sense”), vibrant compositional freakouts (“The Road Called Home”), and plenty of clever reprises (“Confrontation”). That said, there’s also enough innovation (“The Mask” and “The Ways of a Fool,” plus a general increase in vocal variety thanks to keyboardist Bill Hubauer and guitarist Eric Gillette) to let it stand on its own merits. In the end, The Similitude of a Dream is a phenomenal accomplishment that further solidifies Morse as an exclusive and nearly matchless creative mastermind.

 

Artist: Marillion

Album: F E A R (Fuck Everyone and Run)

Label: earMUSIC

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Marillion
F E A R (Fuck Everyone and Run)

Let’s face it: British quintet Marillion deserves acclaim purely for maintaining the same line-up since 1989 and releasing over a dozen studio LPs over the past twenty-five years. What’s even more amazing, however, is that unlike countless contemporaries, they’ve arguably gotten better with each new statement. In fact, numerous diehard devotees declared 2012’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made their crowning achievement—that is, until this year’s successor, F E A R, surpassed expectations once again. Filled with dreadfully relevant social commentary, dreamy yet intense instrumentation, and poetically prophetic words and vocals, this 18th outing simply a work of art.

An acronym for Fuck Everyone and Run, F E A R is, as its title suggests, a conceptual suite built around the ways in which governments and people are increasingly impacted by uncertainty, isolation, money, and corruption. As usual, singer Steve Hogarth melds forcefulness and fragility like no one else on top of their trademark robust and elegant passages (many of which flow together, enhancing the sense of a unified scope). While each movement is outstanding in its own ways—as well as how it ties into the overarching purpose—it’s the four-part “The New Kings” that’s most enthralling in terms of transitions, melodies, and confrontations (“Remember a time when you thought that you mattered / Believed in the school song, die for your country…. Well, it’s all shattered now”). With F E A R, Marillion proves that it’s still at the top of its game when it comes to meaningful remarks and musical expressions.

 

Artist: Big Big Train

Album: Folklore

Label: English Electric Recordings

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Big Big Train
Folklore

When it comes to putting the “English” in English progressive rock, few modern acts do it as literally and lusciously as the Big Big Train. Formed roughly twenty-five years ago, the group released a handful of exceptional collections over its initial two-decade run; however, it was the formal addition of vocalist David Longdon, guitarist Dave Gregory (ex-XTC), and drummer Nick D’Virgilio on 2009’s The Underfall Yard that marked a significant stylistic change toward wholly endearing warmth, majesty, and grace. It, along with a few subsequent EPs and the two English Electric full-length follow-ups, cemented Big Big Train as a charming and complex outfit that could evoke Gabriel-era Genesis’ cultural tones and storytelling prowess (albeit favoring historical reverence over fictionalized peculiarity) while also soaring on its own masterful idiosyncrasies. Unsurprisingly, this year’s Folklore continues that legacy flawlessly.

In addition to the usual credited players, Folklore marks the official induction of singer/guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom (ex-Beardfish) and violinist Rachel Hall (who’d been a guest previously) into the Big Big Train family. She remains a subtle yet important asset to their sound, while Sjöblom’s contributions are possibly even more understated (so it’s not Big Beardfish Train now). Aside from that, the music itself upholds their treasured recipe of rich choruses, vigorous orchestration, heartfelt lyricism, and captivating melodies. Specifically, “Folklore” and “Wassail” are among their most infectious tracks ever, while “Brooklands” is plenty moving and the “London Plane” / “Salisbury Giant” two-parter is intricate yet serene. All in all, Folklore doesn’t really break any new ground, but when the formula is this distinguishing and gratifying, merely continuing the excellence is more than enough.

 

Artist: The Dear Hunter

Album: Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional

Label: Equal Visio

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The Dear Hunter
Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional

When Dear Hunter mastermind Casey Crescenzo announced this past June that Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional would arrive exactly one year after its predecessor, Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise, fans lost their minds. After all, the 2015 effort saw the group return to its beloved narrative after a six-year departure (during which it put out two unrelated gems, 2011’s The Color Spectrum and 2013’s Migrant) with arguably grander production, stronger songwriting, and more variety than ever before. Therefore, many wondered how they could possibly outdo themselves again (especially so soon)? Well, while Act V doesn’t necessarily surpass its sibling, it surely equals it, which means that it’s nothing less than a masterpiece.

As I said in my initial review, “If Act IV was a warm Broadway gala, Act V is its more melancholic Western counterpart”. Still, the pair justly feel like two halves of a whole, as this one continues its precursor’s penchant for lavish theatricality (“The Revival” and “Mr. Usher”), seamless transitions, catchy accessibility (“Gloria”), and bittersweet odes (“Regress” and “Light”). Of course, there are also plenty of references to previous Acts to add yet another layer to how striving and epic The Dear Hunter continues to be. Truly, no other band is on the same level, so Act V is not only the top progressive rock release of the year, but also the best album of 2016, plain and simple.

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