-Folk- Coming Soon
-Doom Metal- Coming Soon
-Experimental- Coming Soon
Despite a few disappointing releases from established bands, progressive rock and metal had huge years in 2011. So huge, in fact, that this turned out to be the most contested category in this year’s guide. A whopping 7 out of 10 albums received a score of at least 3.5 out of 4. Needless to say, prog fans have a lot of great albums to choose from here.
Cormorant’s second album is bigger and better than its predecessor in a number of ways. Having discussed music with Arthur von Nagel, there’s no doubt in my mind that he could be a great critic. His taste is deep and varied, and he draws influences from many great underground rock and metal bands. In Dwellings you’ll hear bits of black metal, melodeath, and lots of progressive metal, but there are subtle hints of post-rock, avant-garde, gothic rock, industrial, and many, many other types of music. There’s simply a lot to Cormorant, and they blend everything together seamlessly. Again, part of what made Metazoa great was the shock of hearing so many subtle influences incorporated into a large and heavy sound. While that’s still there on Dwellings, some of the excitement is gone. Cormorant’s sound is far more polished this time around, and while for the most the part that’s a good thing, it does lose some of its raw power in the process. That balances is tricky when black metal is a major part of the sound, and those are really pretty minor issues. Dwellings is another outstanding release from Cormorant, and it’s as distinct as it is varied.
Devin Townsend Project
Devin Townsend’s third album in his “project” series will be the most familiar of the bunch to fans of his previous work. Stylistically, Deconstruction is reminiscent of Ziltoid the Omniscient, complete with a crazy story and Devin’s unique sense of humor. There’s an all-star guest list here as well, and while all do an exceptional job, Deconstruction never really settles into a groove because of it. The story doesn’t work all that well, which is disappointing considering how well Devin has done comedic concept albums in the past. Ultimately though, both of those are minor flaws. The real meat here is the music, and that’s where Deconstruction shines. Devin is still a ridiculously talented musician, mixing some of the best growling and clean singing found in heavy metal music. The songs are mostly long and epic, and combine many of Devin’s heavier influences. No, it’s not quite Strapping Young Lad, but it is the heaviest record Townsend has been a part of it in some time. This is “Heavy Devy” and a more progressive Devin rolled into one, and on that level it works perfectly.
NOTE: Devin Townsend Project also released a more mellow album Ghost in 2011. While it is not quite as good, it is absolutely worth listening to, and is offered as a package with Deconstruction.
Flaming Row’s first album borrows heavily from established metal opera projects like Ayreon and Avantasia. Much like what those bands do, Flaming Row has a great amount of guest singers who play characters in a story told over progressive metal music. The vocalists are mostly excellent, and there’s a good mix between male and female singing and even some growling. The story is the real strength of Elinoire, however, as this tragic tale is the best I’ve heard from an album like this since Ayreon’s The Human Equation. The storytelling is captivating from the start, and Flaming Row quickly prove to be much darker than their counterparts. Elinoire is familiar in a lot of ways, but it’s also a very polished and well constructed debut album. Again, it’s not quite up to the level of Ayreon’s best, but it’s every bit as good as Avantasia and the lesser Ayreon albums.
After a great album in 2010, Haken have returned with an even better release a year later. Visions is an absolutely breathtaking collection of melodic, heavy, and epic progressive music, and it cements Haken’s place as one of the premier prog bands in music today. Haken draw influences from both classic and contemporary progressive rock and metal bands, and they blend together different styles of progressive music well. There are beautiful melodic moments, as well as heavier ones, but there’s a constant symphonic element that can be found throughout. They make great use of synths without overusing them, and it’s Haken ability to take touches of other prog bands and combine them into a unique and concise package that makes them such an enjoyable band to listen to. Visions is a very strong album, and it’s an essential listen for any fan of progressive rock or metal.
Leprous’ Bilateral is a largely experimental prog metal album that never loses sight of its human qualities. Throughout its avant-garde weirdness and constant styles changes, there is a consistent sense of passion to the music, and it’s great to hear both sides of progressive music work together so well. Former Emperor frontman Ihsahn makes an appearance, so it goes without saying that parts of Bilateral are heavy. There’s also a great deal of melody here, often found within the same sections, but there are truly beautiful segments as well. There are also plenty of crazy avant-garde parts, but none sound forced. The record flows incredibly well, and as a whole Bilateral is one the most ambitious and overall best progressive albums of 2011.
Tales of the Sands
Myrath’s third album sees the band progressing into a polished and complete progressive metal group. On Tales of the Sands, all aspects of Myrath’s sound come together to make catchy and unique pieces of music. The instrumentals range from symphonic to the standard crunching metal riffs, and the vocals are usually high pitched and would fit well in a quality power metal band. However, what sets Myrath apart are their oriental influences, specifically in their use of Arabian folk. It would be one thing if the band just played progressive metal and then transitioned into oriental sections, but Myrath do a lot more. The two styles are blended together seamlessly, and neither overpowers the other. There are a few songs that forgo the folk influences, which is strange because when used they are prominent part of the music. The songs without oriental sounds don’t fare as well, as the strong vocals can’t carry the entire load. The pure prog metal riffs just aren’t all that interesting, so it’s a good thing that most of the tracks are able to work with both parts of Myrath’s sound. Overall, Tales of the Sands is easily the best Myrath album yet, and it’s a very solid and mostly unique progressive album.
The Tree of Life
Influenced by early progressive rock bands, Orne have created a varied and often beautiful contemporary reimagining of 70’s prog rock. The difference is that Orne are have learned from how the genre has evolved throughout the years, and as such their album is focused and devoid of jamming or segments that don’t advance the music. The heavier parts are built up to in logical ways, and the album feels concise as a result. And while the band is clearly based in classic prog, they aren’t afraid to mix things up. There are some clear folk elements, as well as some male and female harmonies that are beautifully executed. The whole album has an atmospheric feel to it, and the spoken word sections add to that, even for those who ignore the rather uneventful story. Taken as a whole, The Tree of Life is a long, but never boring, album that borrows from its influences while bringing new ideas to the table. It’s the kind of album that progresses as it goes along, and prog fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Grace for Drowning
Steven Wilson, best known as the frontman of Porcupine Tree and half of Blackfield and No-Man, has returned with his second solo album. This one bears little resemblance to 2008’s Insurgentes, and is instead a straightforward prog rock album that sounds right out of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Grace for Drowning bears a striking resemble to King Crimson and other early progressive bands, and as such it embraces parts of Porcupine Tree’s music without sounding like a true PT album. If you like progressive rock, you’ve certainly heard similar albums to Grace for Drowning. It has the usual mix of soft ballads and heavier instrumental showcases, often both in the same track. Wilson is a solid singer and guitarist, but his biggest strength remains as a songwriter. That’s what makes Grace for Drowning a worthwhile listen, as the familiar sounding parts are weaved together in ways that pay tribute to classic prog while still sounding new in the process. Grace for Drowning is far from Steven Wilons’ best, but it’s good at what it does, and for fans of classic progressive rock, this two-disc epic is a treat.
The Lotus Effect
As a melodic progressive metal band, Sun Caged is often compared to Dream Theater. I’m not sure those comparisons are valid, as Sun Caged is far less technical and more varied than the classic New York prog band, but that’s a good place to start when recommending Sun Caged. And to be clear, this band is definitely worthy of a recommendation. Their latest album, The Lotus Effect, mixes acoustic and symphonic elements into Sun Caged’s melodic progressive metal sound, which makes the music that much more melodic. The vocalist will remind many of James Labire (again, from Dream Theater), but he lacks the range necessary to compete with him. In reality, the vocals are fairly standard for progressive metal, but they fit the music well. What really makes The Lotus Effect a great album is the sheer epic feel that runs throughout. The songs are mostly long, with the finale being almost 25 minutes, but they never get boring. Even with a fairly simple style, Sun Caged manage to build the songs in logical and interesting ways. This makes The Lotus Effect a consistent and enjoyable album, and that’s not something that can be said for most melodic prog.
Removing the growling from their sound turned out to be a great decision for Wolverine. Communication Lost is a much lighter album than past releases from the band, but it’s easily the group’s best album yet and one the best albums of 2011. The songs are incredibly varied and well written, and include a wide range of instruments and influences. There are still some heavy moments, and the vocals match the style of music well, subtlety changing from high and melodic to rough and low. There’s also a great deal of tension here, and it’s amazing how quickly Wolverine can shift from the beautiful to the powerful and back. This is great melodic and atmospheric progressive music that exists somewhere in between hard rock and metal, and it’s the kind of record that shows an equal amount of talent in the instrumentation and songwriting. Communication Lost is a truly outstanding album, and while some of the heavier segments from past Wolverine are missed, what’s here is excellent from start to finish.