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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.

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Artist: Opeth

Album: Sorceress

Label: Nuclear Blast


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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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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

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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