the-best-progressive-rock-metal-of-2015

The Best Progressive Rock/Metal of 2015

While one-dimensional emulations of various styles dominate the charts, the acts within progressive rock/metal continue to create masterpieces for a very finite audience.

Year after year, progressive rock/metal devotees are faced with a tragic irony: arguably the most ambitious, imaginative, and complex genres in modern music are also among the most underappreciated. While one-dimensional emulations of various styles continue to dominate the charts, the immensely talented and striving acts within progressive rock/metal continue to create masterpieces for a very finite audience. Rarely do they receive the success and accolades they deserve, which is why the following list is so important to us.

This year saw many wonderful contributions from both established and criminally underappreciated artists. For instance, relatively popular kings Steven Wilson and Between the Buried and Me defended their crowns with Hand.Cannot.Erase. and Coma Ecliptic, respectively, while the Dear Hunter and Gazpacho proved once again why they’re among the most unique and extraordinary bands in the field with Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise and Molok. Even genre legends Echolyn and Neal Morse returned with exceptional efforts, and newcomer Native Construct announced itself as the next big thing in progressive metal. All in all, 2015 was another phenomenal year for progressive music, and the following ten records demonstrate why perfectly. — Jordan Blum

 

Artist: Native Construct

Album: Quiet World

Label: Metal Blade

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Native Construct
Quiet World

With avant-garde/technical progressive metal artists like Between the Buried and Me, Devin Townsend, and uneXpect leading the way, it can be difficult for an up-and-coming band to leave its mark on the landscape. Fortunately, Massachusetts trio Native Construct manages to do just that on its debut LP, Quiet World. By permeating brutal foundations with a ton of other lenses (such as jazz, musical theatre, and symphonic prog) the band has crafted an inexorably wide-ranging, dazzling, and complex gift that fares well against anything released by the aforementioned darlings.

A concept album about an eccentric outcast, Quiet World bursts open with “Mute”, a grandiose mixture of shifting rhythms, orchestral touches, and fiery playing that announces the specialties of Native Construct with ease. Later on, “Passage” balances delicacy and brutality even better, while the one-two punch of “Chromatic Lights” and “Chromatic Aberration” sends the record off on a multilayered, atmospheric, and adventurous high. Native Construct may be the new kid in town, but it deserves to rule the playground. — Jordan Blum

 

Artist: Neal Morse

Album: The Grand Experiment

Label: Radiant

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Neal Morse
The Grand Experiment

Just as one might cite Steven Wilson the frontrunner of modern English progressive rock, California native Neal Morse has been leading the American side for roughly 25 years, be it as a member of a band (like Spock’s Beard or Transatlantic) or a solo powerhouse. Just about every record he’s a part of is adored by genre aficionados, and his newest opus, The Grand Experiment, is no different. While it’s not his strongest solo outing, it’s still a fantastic collection of catchy, colorful, and complex compositions.

Named after its atypical, more-democratic-and-less-planned approach, the disc sees the Neal Morse Band regulars Randy George, Mike Portnoy, Eric Gillette, and Bill Hubauer once again working with a shared mind to generate incredible results. Be it the CSNY-esque harmonies of opener “The Call”, the trademark vocal counterpoints of the title track, or the standard epic finisher, “Alive Again”, Morse and company serve up another intricate yet intoxicating sequence with The Grand Experiment. Sure, its formula may be safe and familiar, but it’s still enticing enough to satisfy. — Jordan Blum

 

Artist: Echolyn

Album: i heard you listening

Label: self-released

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Echolyn
i heard you listening

Pennsylvanian quintet Echolyn has never really received the level of success and acclaim that it deserves. After all, its roughly 25-year career has spawned some of the strongest progressive rock albums of all time (such as Mei and As the World) with its core proclivity for warm textures and charming melodies ensuring that each new statement is similarly cherished. In 2012, the band returned after a lengthy break with a self-titled tour-de-force, ensuring that its follow-up would be heavily anticipated. As every moment of i heard you listening demonstrates, it matches, if not exceeds, such stellar expectations.

Opener “Messenger of All’s Right” may just be the strongest track on the disc (which is saying something), with Echolyn’s trademark poeticisms and gorgeous harmonies finding support from a straightforward yet alluring arrangement. Elsewhere, “Warjazz” and “Different Days” are faster and more fun, while the final moments of closer “Vanishing Sun” leave listeners aching for another spin. You’re missing out if you haven’t been listening already. — Jordan Blum

 

Artist: Tesseract

Album: Polaris

Label: Kscope

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Tesseract
Polaris

Prior to Polaris, English progressive metal troupe Tesseract released only two LPs: One (2011) and Altered State (2013). Nonetheless, they’re largely unmatched in terms of revere and popularity within the “djent” subgenre, and for good reason. With a spotless blend of atmospheric soundscapes, powerful dynamic shifts, mesmerizing melodic transitions, and emotional singing, theirs is a superlative, pristine blend. Nowhere in their catalog is this better represented than on Polaris.

Showcasing the return of original vocalist Dan Tompkins (who was replaced by Ashe O’Hara on Altered State), Polaris launches into a frenzy of bouncy, intricate rhythms and soaring harmonies with “Dystopia”, effectively setting the stage for the record to more or less combine the specificities of its predecessors into a magnificent compromise. As strong as the entire journey is, though, the unmistakable holy trilogy comes with “Hexes”, “Survival”, and “Tourniquet”, which combine to create the most affective and assorted block in Tesseract’s career. It’s truly a remarkable excursion. — Jordan Blum

 

Artist: Beardfish

Album: +4626 Comfortzone

Label: Inside Out

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Beardfish
+4626 Comfortzone

It’s often said that progressive rock takes itself too seriously, as its compositions and concepts can be, well, fairly pretentious at times. Thankfully, Swedish quartet Beardfish proves that musical virtuosity and tongue-in-cheek behavior aren’t mutually exclusive. Sure, the quartet’s instrumentation, songwriting, and melodies are all superb (and vocalist Rikard Sjöblom is easily one of the genre’s strongest singers), but each of the band’s past albums also contains plenty of colorful (and occasionally off-color) humor and social commentary. Unsurprisingly, +4626 – Comfortzone is no exception.

A reflection on how internalized negativity can prevent us from escaping our safe havens, the disc consistently combines poignant, relatable observations with sophomoric sentiments to yield another funny yet philosophical experience. From the haunting melodies in the “One Inside” suite to the invigorating expansiveness of “Ode to the Rock ‘n’ Roller” and the Mastodon-esque heaviness of “Daughter/Whore,” +4626 – Comfortzone maintains the blend of wildly vibrant arrangements and irresistible songwriting that makes every Beardfish album a gem. — Jordan Blum

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Artist: Gazpacho

Album: Molok

Label: Kscope

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Gazpacho
Molok

If one looks past the nerdy gimmick that concludes Molok —namely, a trick designed to potentially usher in the end of the universe—what she will find is another elegantly composed affair by the Norwegian outfit Gazpacho. Molok comes not but a year after the group’s superb LP Demon, which suggests that this is a creative time for these oft-underrated musicians. Though Gazpacho is regularly lumped in with prog circles — no doubt in part due to their label, the prog mecca K-Scope — compositionally they dabble in rather than borrow heavily from progressive rock. Molok is a multifarious journey, including jaunts into klezmer (“Bela Kiss”) and Broadway grandeur (“Choir of Ancestors”). As with Demon, however, Molok is all about atmosphere, and with every echoey piano figure and haunting choral vocal passage, you’ll find it hard to leave the enigmatic space Gazpacho has created. — Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Riverside

Album: Love, Fear and the Time Machine

Label: Inside Out

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Riverside
Love, Fear and the Time Machine

Polish quartet Riverside has remained one of the premier modern progressive rock acts for over a decade because of its exceptional balance of technical musicianship, colorful timbres, and exquisite songwriting and vocals. On its sixth LP, Love, Fear and the Time Machine, the group decided to offer a kind of return to form, as its retro aesthetic and accessible approach purposefully evoked 2003’s debut, Out of Myself. While it takes perhaps a few more listens to appreciate than its predecessors did, there’s no denying that the record is an incredibly poignant and hypnotic journey.

Take, for instance, opener “Lost”, whose chorus is arguably the catchiest moment in Riverside’s discography. Elsewhere, “#Addicted” is equivalent to a prog rock take on the Cure, while “Saturate Me” connotes comparisons to the bleak introspections of frontman Mariusz Duda’s side project, Lunatic Soul. Of course, there’s also “Found”, while closes the record in an enchantingly hopeful vibe. While it may not be quite as virtuosic as its precursors, Love, Fear and the Time Machine is still a masterful creation. — Jordan Blum

 

Artist: The Dear Hunter

Album: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

Label: Equal Vision

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The Dear Hunter
Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

With its initial three Act records (the first half of a planned six-chapter narrative), mastermind Casey Crescenzo composed an impeccably idiosyncratic amalgam of complex, heartfelt storytelling, magnificently dramatic melodies, and best of all, genre-defying twists and turns, pulling from pop, classical, progressive rock, and folk (among other genres). Although 2011’s The Color Spectrum and 2013’s Migrant were amazing in their own ways, fans have nevertheless spent six years clamoring for a proper follow-up to 2009’s Act III: Life and Death. Fortunately, it was well worth the wait.

By far the most orchestral and seamlessly sequenced record in the band’s career, Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise managers to offer plenty of gorgeous new gems (such as the Brian Wilson-esque “Waves”, the theatrical “A Night on the Town”, and the sorrowful “The Line”) while also showcasing exceptional conceptual continuity in referencing previous entries (namely, parts IV, V, and VI of “The Bitter Suite”). All in all, it’s another work of genius from one of today’s most exceptional bands. — Jordan Blum

 

Artist: Steven Wilson

Album: Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Label: Kscope

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Steven Wilson
Hand. Cannot. Erase.

At this point, there’s little to discuss on the matter of Steven Wilson’s prog pedigree. Ever since Porcupine Tree took off in the early-to-mid-’00s, Wilson has been at the top of the genre, a fact further cemented by his highly successful solo career. Although genre has rarely been a consideration for Wilson, with 2013’s The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories) he wrote as pitch-perfect a ’70s prog record as anyone in the present day could. In contrast to the stylistic strictures of that retro prog format, Hand. Cannot. Erase. finds Wilson embracing every facet of his polychromatic tastes, including electronic (“Perfect Life”), metal (the operatic climax of “Ancestral”) and even pop (the title track). Wilson weaves these various sonic threads into a compelling narrative inspired by the tragic case of Joyce Carol Vincent, a young woman whose body was found two years after her death in her London flat. Wilson’s vast sonic repertoire proves to be the ideal complement to that melancholy narrative of urban isolation, resulting in one of the best albums of his career, and certainly of 2014 overall. — Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Between the Buried and Me

Album: Coma Ecliptic

Label: Metal Blade

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Between the Buried and Me
Coma Ecliptic

With 2012’s The Parallax II: Future Sequence, the North Carolina prog metallers of Between the Buried and Me forged the biggest iteration of their sonic yet. The maximalist and schizophrenic Future Sequence is technically impressive in the way everyone has come to expect from the band, but in doing so it suffers from serious compositional oversaturation. (The record does have its supporters, however, including my colleague, Jordan Blum.) Three years later, Between the Buried and Me has streamlined that sound without sacrificing complexity on Coma Ecliptic, a high-octane concept album that has these lads in fine form. Herky-jerky headbang rhythms (“The Coma Machine”), Queen-esque grandeur (“Life in Velvet”), and carnivalesque in the style of Faith No More (highlight “The Ectopic Stroll”) coalesce into a mind-melting yet coherent whole. Vexing and visceral, Coma Ecliptic is both Between the Buried and Me’s proggiest LP and its strongest outing since 2007’s Colors. — Brice Ezell

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