Here we go again: the end of another awesome year for progressive rock, metal, and music in general. I had more difficulty this time around than any other year in recent memory. The top spot was ridiculously hard to decide on; it came down to choosing between my favorite band, my favorite musician, and a band that I was, heretofore, only a fairly casual fan of. After a great deal of deliberation, I’m proud to present my picks for top five progressive rock albums of the year.
Number 5: Riverside – Shrine of New Generation Slaves
This album was on repeat for a solid two months after it came out. Before this, I owned only two Riverside albums. Even so, I’ve followed them through their musical development from the pretty good album that made them famous (Second Life Syndrome), the excellent album that solidified their place in the progressive rock landscape (Anno Domini High Definition), and this year I had the privilege of being with them for the release of their magnum opus: Shrine of New Generation Slaves.
The music here is the logical next step for the band, but it also introduces some thrilling new elements to their sonic palette. Much of the music hums with the spirit of ’70s prog, but it still manages to retain the modern prog sensibilities of Second Life Syndrome and the harder edge of Anno Domini High Definition.
As captivating as the music is, however, it’s the lyrics that really make SoNGS stand out. Frontman Mariusz Duda is a bona-fide lyrical genius, and he uses those skills to great effect on this album. This is a philosophical concept album that examines the notion of selfhood in society: it takes a look at what self-determination requires of us, examines what earthly forces can pull us off course, and at the many ways that our personal relationships with each other can both build us up and break us down. This is ambitious and emotional stuff, and it’s only because of the wealth of other great releases this year that SoNGS doesn’t place higher on this list.
Number 4: Ayreon – The Theory of Everything
In between musical detours recorded under stage names like Star One, Guilt Machine, and Vengeance, Dutch composer and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen returned this year to the science fiction universe he’s been building since 1995. The name “Ayreon” is taken from a character in The Final Experiment – the first Ayreon album that kicked off a galaxy-spanning science fiction saga of epic proportions. The Theory of Everything arrived this year spanning two discs comprising two 20-minute songs each.
Over the years, the Ayreon story arc has explored the creation and eventual destruction of the human race, morally ambiguous aliens who lose their emotions thanks to science, the landscapes of the human mind, and even posited alternative explanations for the creation and purpose of the universe itself.
With The Theory of Everything, Lucassen has stepped away from the hugely ambitious scope of previous Ayreon albums and delivered instead a family drama about ambition, greed, and the cost of the pursuit of knowledge. It concerns a gifted but socially inept young man, his manipulative father, and his mysterious mentor as they all attempt to help, hinder, or otherwise use the young man, his gifts, and his search for the unifying theory that will unravel the secrets of the universe. I can’t help but feel as though this is what we’d get if Neil deGrasse Tyson had written The Who’s Tommy.
Number 3: Dream Theater – Dream Theater
Ah, Dream Theater. This is the band that basically invented the progressive metal genre. We don’t talk about their first album, but their second – the masterful Images and Words - remains one of the most beloved albums among the progressive rock faithful.
In the years since, Dream Theater have had multiple lineup changes and they’ve continued to make meaningful contributions to the progressive metal landscape. The thing is, they’ve kind of shed the late ’60s and ’70s vibe to which they were so heavily indebted on Images and Words. Quite simply, the band slowly modernized their sound over the years. If you were to listen to this eponymous album right after taking Images and Words for a spin, you’d think they were written by different bands.
Even if you won’t hear any jazzy saxophone interludes on Dream Theater, this is one of the band’s strongest releases. The band remains highly productive, releasing a new album every-other year. As with every new Dream Theater release, I was sure of one thing (that it would be awesome) and a great deal less sure of another (would it be the best prog album of the year?). The good news is that this album is everything I hoped it would be. The bad news is that it only falls at number three on this list. It’s a bit of a blow, considering Dream Theater are my once and future favorite band. I’ll tell you why they only take third place.
It’s because I compare every new DT release to the one that came before. Or to Images and Words. I’m by no means going to claim that the band has failed to innovate; rather, they continue to innovate only within a very narrow field of vision. Dream Theater is a masterfully written and played album, and a true gem in their discography, but it doesn’t come even close to throwing out the rulebook like their early releases did. My picks for number 2 and number 1, however, do this in spades.
Number 2: Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)
I tell anyone who asks that my favorite musician is Steven Wilson. He epitomizes what it is to be a composer, rather than just a frontman or a musician. You probably know him best for his work with Porcupine Tree, but it’s with his three solo albums that Wilson has truly shown his colors as a musical genius.
Porcupine Tree, like Dream Theater, came from a place that leaned very heavily on their influences; early PT was trying entirely too hard to be the next Pink Floyd. Whether or not they succeeded (I believe they did), it eventually wasn’t enough for Wilson or PT fans. Over the years, the band gradually shifted gears and modernized their sound, forging an identity of their own. They introduced increasingly ambitious progressive elements along with a harder edge, thanks to Wilson’s close relationship with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt. With the release of The Incident in 2009, Porcupine Tree finally went on indefinite hiatus. Wilson would frequently explain in interviews afterward that he felt the music had reached a point where it was no longer satisfying him creatively: that it had ceased to be innovative and that he had to spread his wings by embarking on a solo career.
The Raven That Refused to Sing is the third solo album from Wilson, and it continues to prove that he is undoubtedly one of the most important people in prog right now. He’s still very much the same man who wrote all that Porcupine Tree music, but he now is stretching the very definition of progressive rock. Throughout this album and its predecessor, Grace for Drowning, Wilson has seamlessly blended jazz fusion, progressive rock, and heavy metal into something that is wholly unique and utterly engrossing. God only know where he’ll go from here.
Album of the Year: Haken – The Mountain
Until Haken released The Mountain back in September, I had thought that Wilson’s Raven would be the obvious choice for Album of the Year. It was still an incredibly difficult decision to make, but I feel as though the boys in Haken have earned the top spot.
George and I have already raved about The Mountain here and here, so I’d feel like a broken record if I went on about it at length again. In case you missed those articles, though, I’ll give you the basics. Haken, in my opinion, is the most innovative collective of musicians currently identifying as a part of the progressive metal scene. This album has it all: gorgeous vocals, piano interludes, a cappella, salsa, jazz, heavy metal, polka, you name it. This is still a predominantly metal album, but the band effortlessly and seamlessly interjects into their own compositions with utterly bizarre musical stylings that would feel out of place in the hands of lesser musicians.
Even so, I spent more time in my review discussing the lyrics and their philosophical implications. This remains a deeply personal album for me, and one that resonates in some unexpectedly uncomfortable ways. The title comes from the Sisyphean ordeal we all go through in life: summiting a mountain of our own design with all of our ambitions, emotional baggage, triumphs, defeats, failures, and interpersonal entanglements sitting squarely on our shoulders. This is an album about the process of making something of our lives, and about all of the ways that we can sabotage ourselves, or otherwise stumble, along the way. For seamlessly uniting beautifully haunting lyrics with a glorious and breathtakingly brilliant musical vision, The Mountain rightfully sits at the top of this list.
And so concludes another unreasonably excellent year for new music releases. As always, I find myself wondering how the next year can possibly compare, but that will probably always feels like a great problem to have. See you next year.