Music

The Best Progressive Rock/Metal of 2015

Jordan Blum and Brice Ezell

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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/n/native-construct-album-2015-200x200.jpg

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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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List Number: 9

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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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List Number: 8

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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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List Number: 7

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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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List Number: 6

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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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