I recently revisited one of my favorite albums of all time. Usually, when I give an album that unique title, it is an album I know everything about:
An album I know every lyric, melodic, guitar more, drum beat.
But as I re-listened to this one, I realized that I was far from being that way with this one. So how had I given it that title, when in comparison to other favorites, I knew so little about it? Was I just enamored with the idea of it? Or is there true beauty to be discovered in a listen from start to finish.
Let’s break it down.
Lantlos is a project by Markus Seigenhort. It is most known for the involvement of Neige from Alcest on the albums .Neon and Agape. Even before those albums, Lantlos was already engrained in the blackgaze (black metal meets shoegaze) sound that we were hearing from Alcest, Les Discrets, Deafheaven, as well as others. But with Neige, those albums created an unusual mix.
Blending clean vocals, shrieks, and the closest thing to growls Neige has ever done, it combined elements of shoegaze, doom metal, black metal, and even jazz, with its gorgeous soft moments before crushingly heavy riffs and drums drowning in reverb. It was a magical match, which makes the dissolution of it all the more curious.
For the next album, Markus was inspired by Neige’s performances to handle the vocals all on his own. In probably the nicest breakup letter ever written, he thanked his friend, and told him his services would not be required for the style of music he was writing. A style of music that had more in common with Smashing Pumpkins than the doom and gloom of the previous releases.
Like Sunbather by Deafheaven, the album cover is a dead giveaway that we’re not in store for something malicious. The bright pink album cover has very little to do with metal, and it’s track listing “Melting Sun Parts I – VI” makes you think you’re holding a Prog album in your hands. Each song also relates to a color, except for the lone instrumental subtitled “Oneironaut”, which a simple Google search defined as “one with the ability to travel within a dream on a conscious basis”.
How fitting for an album that can only be described as “dreamlike”.
From to opening notes of “Part 1: Azure Chimes”, we are caught off-guard to the upcoming elation that hits us like a ton of bricks when the full band comes in. Heavy, but not dark. Intense, but still beautiful. Taking the best influence that bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine have to offer, it builds at a mid-tempo pace that immediately gets the listener lost.
And that’s exactly where the album wants to keep you. This is why you might not be able to remember every note. You’re not thinking about the music. You’re not analyzing it. You’re simply enjoying it, and it might feel like a long time since an album has had that effect on you.
The vocals come in just shy of 2 minutes in, with a memorable vocal melody. The lyrics are simple, but it is the relationship between the vocals and instruments that captivates you. Heavy reverb, and a mix where the vocals are almost buried but appear just enough, it is calm and soothing, something so unique when distortion is in play.
The lyrics are short, and go by quick:
“I take the azure ladder into the sun colored haze”.
It’s chorus, repeated just two times, is just two words, and still somehow infectious:
After a second verse and a second chorus, we have an extended outro with a heavy riffs that could have been on a djent album. Yet in the context, it is not out of place. It doesn’t sound cliche. It evokes headbanging, but works after all the previous build up.
The second song, “Cherry Quartz” is the longest on the album at 9 minutes and 41 seconds. It follows a similar formula. Quiet in the beginning, full band comes in, and jam on emotional shoegaze riffs. It hints at the quiet jazzy parts found on their precious two albums. The vocals finally come in 5 and a half minutes in. It is more nostalgic than the first song. A hint of sadness, a hint of longing, and an epic outro after the third verse.
“Aquamarine Towers” almost starts with a drone element, and when the band comes in, Markus sings two lines twice:
“I’ve seen you. I’ve been through the sun”.
The rest of the song is instrumental, and continues to lull you into a false sense of security. The drums and guitar play off each other and there’s an excellent bass groove where the drums feel very free on top of it. Moments like these are sprinkled throughout the album and take multiple listens for full appreciation of the musicianship as well as the composition.
“Jade Fields” is slightly deceptive, with its full blown upfront mix after the soft intro. But the vocals return to the harmonious melodies that we saw in the first song. He sings:
“Let me go, let me go. Don’t feel sorry”.
It fades out into a short instrumental interlude, which builds into the guitar notes of the final song, providing a brief rest while also contributing to the atmosphere of the album.
“Golden Mind” ends the album on a lush and gorgeous ballad, with soft drums, spacious chords, and a great vocal performance. It sends the listener off to an almost dreamlike place, after the highs and lows they have previously encountered.
So is the album as good as I remember it?
The short answer, yes… yes it is.
This album is so filled with beauty. It is a delicate album that has so much power when it wants to. It is a full mix, where the soaked in reverb effect doesn’t drown it. You can still make out every note. And while the vocals are pushed too far back for some people’s tastes, I can’t complain about it.
The 6 song, 40 minute structure works to its advantage. It is compact, but it is also a unique mood. It is a one of a kind look and feel album. The artwork is so tied into it that it makes the music seem tangible, if that makes any sense.
I also have to point out the similarities in my mind of an album released by his former band mate Neige. In 2010 (4 years earlier), Alcest released their second album Ecailles de Lune. While look, feel, and sound wise, those albums are almost night and day of each other, it is their structure that triggers something in my mind. 6 songs long, with Ecailles de Lune being exactly 50 seconds longer (40 minutes 39 seconds against 41 minutes and 29 seconds).
As opposed to Melting Sun’s 6 part format, only two songs on Ecailles de Lune are multi-part. The first two songs on the album make up the title track. They contrast greatly, as part 1 shows the beauty of the album, and part 2 shows the dark and heavy side with screams. And even though Melting Sun has no screams, “Azure Chimes” and “Cherry Quartz” work similarly for Lantlos, showing the albums beauty before taking a more questioning approach on its second track.
“Aquamarine Towers” is kind of the odd song on the album with its two lines of lyrics, and Neige took chances with his 3rd track as well, as “Percées de lumière” is one of the heavier and more riff based Alcest songs. both albums contain a short drone like instrumental (“Oneironaut” and “Abysses”), and both albums second to last actual song are the lightest, prettiest, and most uplifting songs on the album (“Jade Fields” and “Solar Song”), though I acknowledge that those roles are reversed on each release:
And finally, both albums end on the “ballad of the album”, the lush and gorgeous compositions that best showcase each singers ability to strip down and let their vocals take the spotlight for a change.
So while it’s not the most direct comparison, and I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism or anything like that, I still find it interesting how Markus may have learned something from his old friend Neige on how to put an album together, so that it flows well and leaves a lasting and memorable impression.
Either way, these are both incredible albums. Ones you can listen to over and over again and continue to find new appreciation in the compositions, structure, and layering.
I explained this list in part 1, so there’s not much more to add. I would like to put a quick reminder that this is a “Favorites” list, not a “Best” list. And while how good a movie is has a lot to do with its placement, I’m also biased, and take cultural significance and current events into consideration, in addition to how much I actually enjoyed it.
The purpose of this list is to share and discover, more than to actually say what movies are better than other ones.
That being said, let’s get right to it. Starting at #22 and going down to #1.
22. Amores Perros (2000)
21. Borat Subsequentfilm (2020)
20. Tie – In the Mood For Love (2000)
20 Tie – Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
19. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982)
18. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
17. The Irishman (2019)
16. ¡Alambrista! (1977)
15. Shoplifters (2018)
14. Angst (1983)
13. Les Diaboliques (1955)
12. The Night Porter (1974)
11. Knife in the Water (1962)
10. Canoa: A Shameful History (1976)
9. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
8. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
7. Wait Until Dark (1967)
6. Burning (2018)
5. La Haine (1995)
4. Belle de Jour (1967)
3. Blind Chance (1987)
2. Carnival of Souls (1962)
1. The Night and the Hunter (1955)
A special shoutout to directors Ingmar Bergman (Hour of the Wolf, Wild Strawberries, Cries and Whispers, The Virgin Spring, Winter Light, The Magician, The Silence, Through a Glass Darkly), Dario Argento (Phenomena, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Tenebre), Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Michael Haneke (Cache, Funny Games (1997), Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher), and Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson, Only God Forgives, Pusher 1 – 3) whose films I deliberately left off to keep this list fair and even. I didn’t want to overcrowd it with too many films from the same directors, and many of them would have overtaken the top slots. I recommend checking the movies mentioned here, as some of them are incredible and worth it.
It’s no surprise that 2020 was a hard year on the film industry. Unlike many bands who had to option to rearrange touring plans in order to hurry up a new release during the lockdown, movies (like concert venues) came to a complete standstill. Everyone from the film studios themselves to the people running the concession stands at movie theaters felt the effects of COVID.
So, in the worst year for movies since, possibly during WWII (just a guess), this year’s end of year list is going to be different.
Instead of naming my favorite films released this year, here is my list of my favorite films that I saw for the first time this year. Over the lockdown, I had more time than ever before in my love to sit around and watch movies. I got the chance to watch many movies I had been wanting to see for a long time. And because of it, the amount of great movies I saw this year is an impressive list in of itself. Here are a list of my favorites:
His House (2020)
Ready or Not (2019)
The Top 50:
50. Night and Fog (1956)
49. Watership Down (1978)
48. Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
47. Fantastic Planet (1973)
46. Demolition Man (1993)
45. A Monster Calls (2016)
44. Blue Valentine (2010)
43. The Uninvited (1944)
42. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
41. Baskin (2015)
40. Black KKKlansman (2018)
39. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
38. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
37. Japón (2002)
36. The Treatment (2014)
35. Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
34. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)
33. The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
32. The Phantom Carriage (1921)
31. Eyes Without a Face (1960)
30. The Foul King (2000)
29. La Llorona (2020)
28. Possession (1981)
27. Insomnia (1997)
26. The Club (2015)
25. Border (2018)
24. Tenet (2020)
23. A Taxi Driver (2017)
Part 2 (with movies 1 -22) will be posted soon. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the list so far in the comments.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor might be one of my favorite bands to talk about. The name alone comes from a 1976 documentary about Japanese motorcyclists. Starting as a trio and playing occasional live shows, it grew to a collective of musicians who came and went as they pleased before settling in a 9 person lineup.
Despite a lack of lyrics, their albums (due to song and album titles, use of field recordings, and artwork and notes in the packaging) give off a very strong political message. It’s like a puzzle left up to the listener/viewer to decide. Their live shows use film loop projections to accentuate the music, and they are taper-friendly, allowing bootleg copies of all their shows.
This has given the band a cult following, as well as some brief moments of mainstream recognition. For instance, their song “East Hastings” made an appearance in the horror movie 28 Days Later, and director Danny Boyle said their music had an effect on the writing itself. They were also briefly mentioned as a joke by Seth Rogan in the movie Pineapple Express, as he made fun of his high school girlfriend for going to college during their “break-up” phone call.
After a limited release (33 cassettes) demo in 1994, the band began writing for their debut. Containing material from as early as 1993, this 1997 release was just two long (20 and 17 minute) songs. It caught the attention of Chicago independent record label Kranky, who offered the band to re-release it on CD. The band returned to the studio, added new material, reorganized the album, and it was eventually released on CD in 1998.
Now because of this, there are two different versions that exist in the world, the CD and the vinyl. I have listened to the CD version for many years, but thanks to a birthday present from my buddy Jimmy, I now own the vinyl version as well. We are going to do a side by side comparison of the two.
What the vinyl lacks for in length, it brings more to the experience with its little bag of goodies. There are three different vinyl covers in existence verses the one CD cover. The vinyl also contains a silk screen picture of a train, an old handbill of an early Godspeed show, a page with linear notes and album credits, an image of a hand-drawn image by guitarist Efrim Menuck, and a crushed penny, presumably by a train.
The vinyl contains no individual track names. The names of each side are etched into the dead wax. Side one is called “Nervous, Sad, Poor…”, and side two is called “Bleak, Uncertain, Beautiful…”.The CD contains track information for both the CD and the vinyl, the hand-drawn picture, as well as other pictures and linear notes. The CD’s album cover is a darker and enlarged version of the road sign vinyl cover. The three sections that are found on the CD are called “The Dead Flag Blues”, “East Hastings” and “Providence”, respectively.
Focusing solely on the music, the two versions start the same. What’s known on the cd as “The Dead Flag Blues (Intro)” begins with drone, and a voice setting the stage with its apocalyptic like poetry. This is followed by country inspired guitars. You hear one with twang, some with slide, and some tremolo picking that’s associated with post-rock. You also hear the wonderful use of violin. The voice briefly returns and you hear train sounds. This leads to the strange sounds of “Slow Moving Trains” and eventually the beauty of “The Cowboy”.
This leads us to our first major difference. While the cd would go straight into “The Dead Flag Blues Outro”, a short happy sounding segment, the vinyl goes into a segment called “Drugs in Tokyo” which is dark reverberated sounds. The vinyl then goes into “The Dead Flag Blues Outro” and then an untitled section not on the CD of just random vocals and banjos.
Looking at this difference, I prefer the CD version. The transition from “The Cowboy” and the “Outro” closing this piece feels more natural to me. The inclusion of “Drugs in Tokyo” here, then the “Outro” then the “Untitled” track feels more unsure, and uncertain, and not in a good way. Almost like the band didn’t know how to fill time.
Now we turn to side 2 on the vinyl, and the second of three segments on the CD. They both begin with ““…Nothing’s Alrite in Our Life…”/The Dead Flag Blues Reprise”. This contains bagpipes and someone yelling indistinctly as cars and people pass by. They both lead into “The Sad Mafiosa” the iconic section. However, there are some major differences on both versions.
The CD version is almost twice as long. It builds and builds to a heavy and climatic ending. The vinyl version introduces the ideas, and then softly and slowly drifts away. Again, the CD version feels like what the vinyl wants to be. Like the vinyl had good ideas, but didn’t know how to execute them properly. If it wasn’t for the CD version, the song definitely would not have had the same impact in 28 Days Later, or in live shows. And I wouldn’t consider it one of the greatest post-rock songs of all time (like I do with the CD version).
Still it’s an interesting take. It’s softer, airier. Doesn’t contain the wordless vocals, and the background effects are more present, unlike the CD which puts a lot of emphasis on the one guitar at the beginning. It’s great to hear it both ways, but definitely left me wanting more. The vinyl goes on to a haunting section called “Kicking Horse on Brokenhill” which brings with ghostly vocals before going into a big climatic section. This is definitely what the vinyl version has been missing so far since pieces like “The Cowboy” and “The Sad Mafiosa” have softly drifted away. This really ties the vinyl version together.
The vinyl continues with “String Loop Manufactured During Downpour”, which is self explanatory. Utilizing guitar sounds, rain sounds, and the return of the ghostly vocals repeating “where are you going?”, it eventually makes its way to a funeral procession-like section, with tape warbles, crackles, pops, and drone. It ends with a built in locked groove, that as the name of the album suggests, plays F# and A# forever.
On the contrary, after the 10 minute CD version of “The Sad Mafiosa” we get the “Drugs in Tokyo” section that came after “The Cowboy” on the vinyl. There’s also an addition spoken section (radio transmission) not found on the vinyl, as well as a dark drone section called “Black Helicopter” also not found on the vinyl. But it all works after that incredible band performance on the extended version of “The Sad Mafiosa”.
The CD’s 3rd section starts off with two pieces that are not found on the vinyl version. “Divorce and Fever” is a field recording of someone (who makes a later appearance on their next release) being asked about the end of the world while on a street corner, before going into the hauntingly beautiful “Dead Metheny”. It’s definitely sad that there is corresponding section of this on the vinyl. It builds up with great drum work and Spanish style trumpet leading the way, as well as emotional guitar work with just the right amount of delay.
8 minutes later it stops, but getting the “Kicking Horse on Brokenhill” right after it is a welcome double whammy. And like the vinyl, it goes straight into the “String Loop Manufactured During Downpour” section to close it all out. The CD obviously does not have the locked groove so this piece ends after about 4 and a half minutes. The CD version then has 3 and a half minutes of silence before a hidden track obviously not on the vinyl. “J. L. H. Outro” is 4 minutes is another looped section (piano this time) before a one final climatic section brings it all to a close with crashes and feedback.
Before the vinyl’s locked groove, it clocks in at about 38 minutes, while the CD’s total runtime is well over 63 minutes. Obviously, because of this the CD is the definitive version of you want to hear all that this era of the band has to offer. More material, more post rock climaxes, and smoother transitions. The only thing you’re missing out on is the short “untitled” section that closes the first half, which isn’t essential anyway, and the locked groove experience at the end. That being said, for any fan of the band, it is a fun experience to see the development of these songs as well as hearing sections in different places.
And for any fan of collecting vinyl, who can pass up on that kind of packaging?
The thrilling conclusion to the my last post. As stated in my previous entry (I suggest reading that one before reading this one), I have taken liberty with some terms, and essentially combined what some would call Neo-Prog (new bands influenced by 70s Prog) and Post-Prog (bands inspired by other styles that have progressive tendencies) together to make a more cohesive list.
Aside from that, Nothing else new needs to be said so let’s get right to it! Starting at #9!
9. Riverside – Second Life Syndrome
Riverside are Poland’s greatest progressive export, and picking an album by the was actually even harder than picking one by The Flower Kings. I love every album by these guys equally. Every album so far has shown a different side of this multi-faced band. So I tried going with the one that I felt covered all the bases, while still demonstrating the Riverside sound.
Their debut Out of Myself shows the boys at their most Pink Floyd with a soft and delicate sound on most tracks. Rapid Eye Movement introduced a dark electronic sound. Anno Domino High Definition was their most compact and frantically paced, while Shrine of New Generation Slaves was their most organically classic rock. And Love, Fear, and The Time Machine is probably their best choice as most balanced.
But Second Life Syndrome will always be the essential Riverside album in my mind. Taking the ambience from their debut and adding in inspirations from Tool and Dream Theater, this album is a monster of a listen. From the iconic intro (“After”) into an all out showcase of what this band is capable of (“Volte-Face”) and then bringing it down with a beautiful ballad like “Conceiving You”, they are only mentally preparing you for the 15+ minute masterpiece that is the title track. Divided into three parts, it is everything you love about the band: relatable lyrics, aggression, emotional soft spots, and an experimental jam session.
The second half is equally impressive with another ballad (“I Turned You Down”), a progressive instrumental (“Reality Dream III”), another epic track (“Dance with the Shadow”), and the fragile but intense outro “Before”. You can’t go wrong with this insanely talented band, but I always return to this one as my personal favorite by them.
8. Neal Morse – Sola Scriptura
I already made the Genesis connection with my Spock’s Beard review in part 1 of this list. But I’ll reiterate it here. When Neal Morse left the band, they got drummer Nick to replace him on vocals. And Neal’s solo career has done as well as “The Beard” as they’ve continued on their way, like Peter Gabriel’s did. The big difference is obviously that Neal’s solo career incorporates Christian Rock, after finding Jesus, detailed on his Testimony albums. And Neal has balanced his time between Christian solo albums, and Prog solo albums, among other projects.
I know many people who get turned off by the Christian aspect, but they are missing out on some really great music. And it doesn’t get better than his concept album about the life of Martin Luther. This 4 song album contains three epics (2 of them passing the 20 minute mark) and one lone ballad. Fans of Neal’s work won’t be surprised by either. He is a master of multi-part epics with all his projects (“So Many Roads” from Lifeline and “World Without End” from Momentum almost helped pushed their respective albums on this list alone!), and his albums usually contain at least one orchestral/emotional ballad to provide a breath between all the prog.
This particular albums contains some of the heaviest riffs and moments that Neal has ever been a part of, as well as some of the most incredible melodic and simultaneously technical musicianship that you will ever come across. This is thanks to an all star cast consisting of Randy George on bass, Mike Portnoy on drums, and Paul Gilbert on occasional guitar solos. Everyone gets their moment to shine. Neal gets his keyboard and piano solos, Randy has his aptly titled “jam”, and Paul’s three sections are among the highlights.
To try breaking down each section would be too long. This album is full of memorable melodies, brilliant transitions, and some of the best performances these musicians have ever put to record (and with their extensive individual histories, that’s saying something!). I invite you to get past the lyrics if Christianity or talk of God is not your thing, because the musicianship will astound you, and Neal’s sense of composition will leave you all feeling warm inside. From the overture to the last lines of the album, this album is perfection.
7. Frost* – Milliontown
How do I follow up such bold allegations on my last review? With the brilliant debut of one of the most under-appreciated bands on this list. That being said, this band might have the most to do (besides Marillion) with the actual definition of Neo-Prog, since many of the people who have played in it have also been members of Arena, IQ, It Bites, and Pendragon. So how did Frost* come to be?
It was formed by Jem Godfrey who is more known as a producer responsible for many British #1 hits such as “Whole Again” by Atomic Kitten. But Jem showed his own chops when Frost* released this album in 2006. Frost* has changed lineups, broken up, reformed, and changed sounds on each of their albums, and while their second one Experiments in Mass Appeal might actually be my personal favorite by them (I tend to flip flop back and forth), I can’t deny the mastery of the album that started it all.
It all starts with “Hyperventilate”, a 7 and a half minute jam session with equal parts of melodies and technicality. “No Me No You” starts off almost sounding punk before going into an explosive chorus. “Snowman” is a ballad that shows that what makes this album so brilliant is the production. The songs would sound simple if it wasn’t the ever present electronic elements filling up the empty space. And the tones Jem gets out of his keyboard are unreal.
The other brilliant trick is going back and forth between John’s warm vocals and Jem’s sharp ones. “The Other Me” picks it up again, starting with some interesting blues slides. “Black Light Machine” is a masterpiece, with one of the greatest guitar solos of all time (easily a top 10 for me) and its unique multi-part structure is a roller coaster of emotions. But it all leads up to the 26 and a half minute title track, that starts with a perfect movie soundclip to set the stage, and goes through a serious of memorable sections that rivals any of Neal Morse’s 20+ minute epics. Not bad for a band’s debut album!
6. Transatlantic – The Whirlwind
What is the formula for an album to beat some of the already incredible albums on this list? Easy. You make a supergroup featuring 4 band members that have already been on this list, with other bands of course. Transatlantic is the incredible combination of Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Pete Trewavas from Marillion and Roine Stolt of The Flower Kings. This is their third album, and honestly, their 2nd one, Bridge Across Forever could have easily been its place. That album is structure very similar to Sola Scriptura. 4 songs, 3 epics (2 over 20 minutes), repeated themes and motifs throughout, and the lone orchestral ballad. So, why did I choose this one?
The Whirlwind is something all its own. This 77+ minute epic song is split up into 12 parts, each of them memorable on their own, but of course this album is accomplished off of the sum of all its parts rather anything individually. Every member of this band is familiar with concept albums, and every member is familiar with “suite” composition. So it’s no surprise how well all the parts fit together.
From the “Overture” and the uplifting “Whirlwind”, to the gorgeous “The Wind Blew Them All Away”. Through the jam session of “On the Prowl”, the Flower Kings sounding “A Man Can Feel”, and the Spock’s Beard sounding “Rose Covered Glasses”. And onwards through the dark and emotional “Is it Really Happening?” to the grand finale of “Dancing with Eternal Glory” and the “Whirlwind Reprise”. It is an absolute ride.
It is a band that utilizes all the strengths of all the members. All 4 provide vocals at different times. Mike’s drums sound organic and full. Roine and Neal fully take command with their alternating vocal styles as well as their well thought out guitar and keyboard solos. And Pete always knows when to shine through, either with his warm vocal tone or standout bass tone. And for those of us in the year 2020, it seems like they will be revisiting this album’s style and structure on their next album in 2021, so be on the lookout for that!
5. Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning
Where do I start with summarizing my love for all things Steven Wilson? Most known for his work in Porcupine Tree, Steven has had a career some of us can only dream about. Between No-Man, Blackfield, Bass Communion, Continuum, IEM, Storm Corrosion, and his solo career (not to mention his guest appearance amd wonderful remixes of classic albums), he has had the ability to work with some of the greatest musicians on the planet, experiment, and satisfy all his creative desires in regards to different styles of music. From prog, to pop, to drone, he has done it all. And while his fans cry for the return of Porcupine Tree, his solo albums have pushed him into uncharted territory.
I struggled between this and Hand.Cannot.Erase, which would probably be the fan favorite. And why not? It was a brilliant concept album inspired by a documentary of a true story and contains some of the most exciting moments he’s ever done. However, Grace for Drowning is still my personal favorite, so I’m going for it.
The beauty of this album is that it is 2 albums, both around 40 minutes each. Steven listened to his own advice and didn’t make an album of emotional depth too long. Instead, he split up the songs, creating two well-crafted albums, each with their own unique flow. They both start with contrasting instrumental build ups (the gorgeous and lush title track and the haunting “Bella de Jour”, named after one of my favorite movies).
“Sectarian” is a dark and heavy jam session, showing off the chops of the incredibly talented musicians. I forgot to mention that Steven has quite the group of guys backing him up on these discs (Jordan Rudess on keys, Theo Travis on flute and sax, Tony Levin AND Nick Beggs on bass, Steve Hackett from Genesis, Trey Gunn AND Pat Mastelotto from King Crimson, as well as others). Each album has its own gorgeous title track (“Deform to Form a Star” and “Like Dust I Have Cleared From Eyes”), which are the first song with lyrics and the last song on the last album, respectively.
“No Part of Me” is an electronic based song with a dark and heavy second half. Similarly, “Track One” is an acoustic piece with a surprising dark ambient second half. “Postcard” is the typical gorgeous but sad Steven ballad. But it is the darkest moments that really set this album apart: The uncomfortable industrial sounding “Index”, the hypnotic dark jazz “Remainder the Black Dog” and the centerpiece, the 23+ minute “Raider II” about the BTK killer. Steven brilliant introduces the motif on disc 1 with its 2 minute prelude, which simultaneously acts as a break for that album. But when it comes back, it’s a full force song of heavy riffs, flute solos, anxiety raising quiet moments, and quite possibly Steven’s heaviest vocal delivery (aside from Porcupine Tree’s “Futile”).
If you haven’t heard this one in a while, it demands another spin. I guarantee, you’ve forgotten how good this one is.
4. Anathema – Weather Systems
I think the greatest irony of this album being so high is that Anathema has never considered themselves Prog. In fact, aside from Pink Floyd, the members admit to never growing up with bands like Rush or King Crimson. And yet, they constructed an album that is so perfectly a Prog-like concept album, that it became one of my top 2 favorite albums of all time. If I had to do “desert island pick”, BTBAM Colors would be my heavy pick and this would be my soft pick. Unfortunately, I had to leave behind my personal bias, and rate this fairly.
Anathema started out as a death/doom metal band, and over the years slowly transitioned from goth, to alternative rock, to this gorgeous blend of orchestral rock. Having more in common with Coldplay and Radiohead than Jethro Tull and Genesis, they released a string of albums from 2010 to 2014 that in my opinion is hard to beat. And while We’re Here Because We’re Here and Distant Satellites are just hairs below in my opinion, this album has a beauty that is just unmatched.
The overall theme simultaneously compares the the loss of a loved one with the changing of the seasons. Comparing the powerful emotions felt between two connected human being with the powerful effects of Mother Nature conjures up a ton of beautiful imagery. And the music and the lyrics work hand in hand to compliment the touchings of such a heartfelt subject. It starts with the two part “Untouchable”, in a brilliant format that they recreated on their next album with “The Lost Song”. Starting off with an in your face acoustic melody, it is a string of upbeat emotional melodies building up to a climax. When the song drops, part two comes in, and a ballad version based on the melody and lyrics is sung, first by Daniel (male) and then by Lee (female). This call and response is like a communication with the other side.
“The Gathering of Clouds” returns to the fast paced, almost frantic acoustic style and the transition into “Lightning Song” is genius. This song showcases Lee’s ethereal vocal style with some of the best harmonies and a huge ending. “Sunlight” brings it down for a bit, but the incredible balance of post rock, indie, hard rock, and folk keeps you on your toes. “The Storm Before the Calm” breaks all that with a dark turn from left field, with its hypnotic electronic element.
“The Beginning and the End” and “The Lost Child” counter all the brightness of the early songs, almost like the winter of the album. It shows their goth influence but in a more mature way than that of their early albums. They’ve got beauty, restraint, and a blistering guitar solo by Danny in the former, while the latter ends with some vocals in the stratosphere. This all leads to one of the best ending songs I can think of.
“Internal Landscapes” starts with a soundclip of a man recounting his “near death experience” before the band comes in and ties the album all together with its final lyrics, “I was always there, and I will always be there”, sending you off with a feeling of peace and hope. All in all, one of the most emotional experiences and one of the best ways to spend 55 minutes of your life.
3. The Mars Volta – Francis the Mute
One of the more well known bands on this list, The Mars Volto broke through the mainstream despite their eclectic and experimental sound. One of two bands formed from post-hardcore band At The Drive In, this new project allowed the band to branch out into more progressive territories. They famously stated wanting their debut to sound like Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and while that’s not the album that comes to my mind, an hour long concept album was not a bad start for them!
Utilizing the incredible flow of the first album, they tried a different approach with their second album, and this is where they really shined. Frances the Mute at heart is a 5 song album, though the title track did get left off and the last song was split up on CD and Digital versions. But this album’s structure has always reminded me of another classic Prog record: In the Court of the Crimson King. So if you’ll indulge me, let me explain.
Frances the Mute starts with a bang. After lulling you in, it surprises you with its blend of jazz, hard rock, avant-garde, and Prog. It alternates between English and Spanish lyrics and has some of the most unique dynamic transitions of any album on this list. There are long ambient transitions between each song, including analog style tape warping and loops. If “Cygnus” is this album’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” with its heavy jazz, then it brings things down with its 2nd track ballad “The Widow”.
And while it may sound nothing like “I Talk to the Wind”, it creates the same effect. At heart, “The Widow” is an ambient blues jam, with a ripping solo to prove it. Things pick back up with “L’Via”, a heavy but catchy song with Latin rhythms and a haunting soft section. And again, has nothing remotely to do with King Crimson’s masterpiece “Epitaph”, they both have that middle album boost, because track 4 in both cases, are where things get really similar.
“Moonchild” and “Miranda” both start off with few quiet lyrics before extended tinkering sessions, or in Volta’s case, their attempt at a Spaghetti Western. In both cases, an unexpected hit signifies the fifth in final track; in Crimson’s case, the epic title track, and in Volta’s case, the 33 minute “Cassandra”. Cassandra might not be the band’s signature song, but it is epic beyond all belief. Flute and saxophone solos that would make Crimson happy, multi-part sections, and a fusion of genres inspired by albums like Bitches Brew by Miles Davis.
The point of this comparison is not to show that they cheated. It’s to show that despite mainstream success, The Volta’s forward thinking approach and unique combination of sounds ties everything together, just like it did when Crimson came out with their groundbreaking approach in the late 60s. This is a monster of an album and deserves to be on a list alongside more “traditional” Prog bands like Marillion. Not to mention it has Flea from the Chili Peppers playing trumpet, John Frusciante on two guitar solos, and cover art by the late great Storm Thergerson. What more do you want?!
2. Radiohead – Ok Computer
If you were to look at the song lengths of this next album alone, you’d think I was crazy for putting this so high on a Prog list. But there’s just no denying the importance of OkComputer. Radiohead is without a doubt the most well known band on this list, but have always tried to find a way to push or reinvent themselves with every release. When this album came out in 1997, grunge and Brit pop were all the rage. And while this album has elements of both, it’s progressive tendencies introduced a whole new generation of music listeners to forward thinking styles of music.
Referred to as “The Dark Side of the Moon of the 90s”, it really does feel like a revamped version of the themes tackled on that classic album. To all the things that already made us go crazy (war, time, money, literal mental illness), we could now add the growing developments of computers and the foundations of cyber wars, fear of micro-chips, chat rooms and eventual social media groundwork, as well as substance abuse of any kind of mind altering narcotic, and so much more. And the music pushed all this.
Between Thom York’s slightly off, but also hypnotic vocals and the wide range of guitar tones and production techniques, the band was in the perfect balance between their early guitar-driven rock and their later experimental/electronic phase. Starting off with “Airbag”, drawing you in gently with a slightly upbeat rhythm the way “Planet Telex” did on their previous release, it is an introduction to the kinds of weird tones and unique melodies that you’re in for. But that all changes with “Paranoid Android”.
Possibly one of the greatest songs of all time, it is a dark, nihilistic journey through 3 distinct sections with some of the best transitions I’ve ever heard in my life. Think of it as a grunge “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Not operatic, but just as exciting. “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, a play on a Bob Dylan song name, is an ethereal tune with some of nicest use of octaves on a guitar (alongside “Killing in the Name of” by RATM). “Exit Music (For a Film)” is one of the saddest sounding songs I can think of, which is unusual placement before the catchy “Let Down”, but somehow works.
“Karma Police” is a classic everyone has probably heard with a chord progression straight from “Sexy Sadie” by The Beatles. Next is a brief interlude spoken by “Microsoft Fred” (Im dating myself by remembering this) before picking up with “Electioneering”, the most rocking song on the album. “Climbing Up the Ways” is a “wall of sound” style song with elements of drone, trip hop, dub, and punk. “No Surprises” is a ballad that plays around with pop music of the 50s and 60s, conjuring up the “white picket fence American dream”.
“Lucky” is another dark ballad, with beautiful use of Mellotron sounding choirs, tremolo, slide guitar, and a soaring solo, and in that sense, probably has the most to do with Prog aside from “Paranoid Android”. It all ends with “The Tourist”, which has a slight jazz feel to it. Like the lyrics, everything “slows down” and gently lulls the listener to a full and complete stop before it is ok to take off their seatbelts or lap bar restraint. And though the songs aren’t your traditional “prog songs” it’s hard to deny the diversity and thought process involved.
With influences ranging from Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, to Elvis Costello, to REM, to PJ Harvey, to CAN, The Beach Boys, even Ennio Morricone, Radiohead (as Steven Wilson once described) “snuck up” on music journalists with ambitious albums that proved that concept albums could be cool again. And if it wasn’t for Ok Computer, we probably wouldn’t have had this next one…
1. Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet
I tried to balance this list with influence, mainstream appeal, ambition, uniqueness, as well as personal bias. That being said, there was no way this wasn’t going to be #1. One of my top 5 favorite albums of all time, and Steven Wilson’s second appearance on this list. If Ok Computer was Dark Side of the 90s, here’s Ok Computer of the 2000s.
By 2007, Porcupine Tree had already released a string of great albums and were getting more and more popular with every tour. What once was a joke side project for Steven while he worked in No-Man had now become his main focus. In Absentia and Deadwing were already being viewed as modern classics and were going to be hard to top. But while both of those albums balanced the pop aspects with their new found appreciation for heavy metal (courtesy of working with Opeth and the discovery of Meshuggah), Fear of a Blank Planet (a nod to the famous album by Public Enemy) pushed them into darker territories.
Fear of a Blank Planet is a concept album based on the book Lunar Park by author Bret Easton Ellis (famous for Less Than Zero and American Psycho). It’s lyrics describe a lost generation stumbling around malls with no real direction in life. Self medicating with prescription pills or other forms of drugs, as well as alcohol and sex just to pass the time. It is a dark and nihilistic look at growing problems with a generation raised on social media and only knows of what they are shown. In other words, the album does justice to the Bret Easton Ellis writing style.
The 6 song album is paced beautifully, taking hints from the Court of the Crimson King structure I mentioned above. The first song is the title track, which might be the most punk rock sounding song the band has ever done. Aggressive guitar playing, in your face lyrics, a Robert Fripp style guitar solo, Gavin’s incredible drum fills scattered throughout, and Colin’s bass and Richard’s keys filling in all the empty space gracefully.
The second song is a simple ambient ballad called “My Ashes” providing breathing room between the monster third track “Anesthetize”. This three part song is “Paranoid Android” on steroids. They both start with mid tempo sections and unusual chord progressions, the middle section is by far the heaviest, with some truly crushing riffs seemingly coming out of nowhere, and the last section is the soft reflective moment.
“Sentimental” was originally going to be another multi-part song before being cut down to a second ballad to provide more rest before the last two songs. It is among the catchiest Porcupine Tree choruses. “Way Out of Here” starts out soft before blasting with a string chorus. impressive middle section, and another fantastic guitar solo. And “Sleep Together” is one of the darkest songs by the band, with its unusual sounds, Middle Eastern and Indian influence, and climatic buildup towards the end. A fitting finale.
I’m tempted to break it down more and talk about every little thing I love on it, but it is best experienced as a whole. It perfectly encompasses the pop sensibilities of bands like Coheed, Dear Hunter, Radiohead, and Mars Volta, while equally paying tribute to the Prog that has come before it. Influenced from 70s bands like King Crimson, Rush, and Pink Floyd, while balancing modern influences like Tool and Nine Inch Nails, and even incorporating electronic and industrial music like Tangerine Dream and Massive Attack. It is one of the most perfectly balanced albums I can think of.
My list of Essential Prog Metal Albums caused a bit of a stir, and so as a way to rectify that, I decided to create a new list of the albums that I ultimately cut to make a shorter, condensed, and more focused list.
My next list, The Essential Neo Prog Albums was extended to 18 albums to avoid this problem, and it actually seemed to work and flow better, so here are what would have been the honorable mentions had the Prog Metal list gone on.
In just a quick reminder, that these are strictly bands in the Prog metal genre, and there were many more bands I took into consideration before ultimately deciding on the 18 (these 3 and the original top 15).
With that said, here are album 16 – 18.
18. Circus Maximus – Arrival
I have to start this list with one of my favorite albums from high school. When this album came out, it seemed like Circus Maximus was gonna carry the touch padded by Dream Theater and Symphony X. Now we know that torch has actually been given to Haken for better or for worse, but there’s no denying the brilliance of this release.
In 2020 it seems like it’s all but been forgotten. But even a recent listen brings back good memories of the sheer amount of catchy melodies on this album. In addition to the two bands mentioned, you can also hear a good amount of power metal influence. From moments of classic influenced shredding to Helloween and Queensryche inspired hooks, this album has it all.
From memorable songs like “A Darkened Mind”, “Abyss”, and “From a Childhood’s Hour…”, to the instrumental track “Sane No More”, and its two epics “Ultimate Sacrifice” and “Mouth of Madness”, if you’ve never heard this album, it is a must listen to.
17. Shadow Galley – Digital Ghosts
Shadow Gallery had a lot to live up to on their 6th album. Every album thus far was getting bigger and better. Sadly, original singer Mike Baker passed away from a heart attack. Continuing with Brian Ashland, the boys were able to honor Mike’s memory, and then some.
They had already done two albums containing long songs, and three of their albums that flowed through as one. They even had James Labrie contribute vocals to their 3rd album. But Digital Ghosts is perhaps their strongest group of songs as a whole. 3 songs 9-10 minutes in length, and 4 songs 6-7 minutes long. This balance of splitting up the long songs flowed so nicely, and each song really demonstrated a different facet of the band.
“With Honor” goes from Queensryche like riffs to Queen like harmonies and demonstrates everyone’s ability to solo as well as some great drumming. “Venom” has an 80s groove with middle eastern sounding solos. “Gold Dust” is among the catchier tunes, and the final two songs (the title track and “Haunted”) are a strong conclusion.
16. Redemption – The Fullness of Time
Choosing a favorite Redemption album is a painful decision for me. Since high school, this band has meant so much to me. From seeing them open up for Dream Theater, to opening up for them at The Whiskey-a-go-go, I have always felt a strong connection to Nick and the boys.
Their emotional music has touched me deeply, and many of their albums are classic to me. But in side by side comparison, I had to go with their 2nd album, and debut with Fates Warning singer Ray Alder. After a debut with singer Rick Mythiasin, Ray stepped out of the role of producer/guest vocalist, and into the spotlight. And while it might have been their follow-up that was more noticed, this was the band firing on all cylinders.
From a fan favorite, “Threads” with its memorable opening of thrash riffs and piano/keyboards during the chorus, to a song about the innocent eyes of children when viewing tragedies such as September 11th, to the crushing riffs of “Scarred”, the songs increase in length and complexity. This is seen by the 15 minute epic of a relationship coming to an end, which would be referenced by songs on future albums.
But the album’s biggest accomplishment is the 4 song suite that acts as the stages of grief. From the anger of “Rage”, the depression of “Despair”, the bargaining of “Release” and the acceptance of “Transcendence”, it is brilliantly constructed from the opening soundclip to the counter melodies which tie all four songs together simultaneously.
Emotional lyrics and vocals, talented musicians, great songs. What more could you want?
Well, it looked like my last list caused a bit of controversy but also was helpful to a few people. So I’ve decided to speed up the process for my next list. The difference between Prog Metal and Neo-Prog Rock is essentially that while Prog Metal (as the name would suggest) is a combination of the progressive genre with heavy metal (that started with Dream Theater, Queensryche, and Fates Warning but has grown substantially from there), neo-Prog is essentially a resurgence of the classic 70s Prog sound of Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, and many others.
Neo-Prog started in the 80s with Marillion, and still continues to this day. I must admit (at the risk of losing my credibility) that I did not include albums from a lot of other founding neo-Prog bands, because they didn’t have the same widespread influence, so let me give them a shoutout right now (I’m so sorry Jadis, Pallas, IQ, Arena, Pendragon, Twelfth Night, and a few others. You all deserve better). The reason I choose to specifically focus on Neo-Prog is because…
Well… frankly…. the progressive genre has expanded so much that there are so many different kinds of Prog these days. Bands that have very different approaches and inspirations are all kind of lumped together, from Muse to Opeth, from Mastodon to King’s X, to Karnivool and Periphery, Prog has become kind of blurred. And that’s not a problem for people who are now learning of new bands that way. But for a reviewer making a list, I strictly want to focus on bands that created albums that have a very direct link to the 1970s classic Prog sound.
Now many of these bands may still have their own approach, and may have included techniques or styles that would never have happened in the 70s or appeared on a 70s album, but that’s ok. as long as the link is direct and make sense, I’ll allow it.
Also, I’ve decided to split this up into two parts because of how long the last list came out to be. So here we go! Here’s my list of the 18 essential Neo-Prog Rock albums!
18. Dredg – El Cielo
Dredg had one of the more interesting string of albums to look at (5 from 1998 to 2011). What makes them so interesting is how much they changed from album to album while still retaining the band’s character. From the harsh heavy sound of their debut, Leitmotif (which looking back isn’t too far off from that of their good friends Deftones), to the alternative rock on Catch Without Arms, to the electronic pop sound on their final album Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy.
But it was their 2nd album El Cielo that is considered a crowning achievement. A concept album about dreams and sleep paralysis, it is inspired by one of Salvador Dali’s most famous paintings. It is a diverse album with unique transitions (done mostly by a series of interludes). It ranges from pop, hard rock, and post rock influences, but is always focused. From the catchiness of “Same ol’ Road” and “Sanzen”, to darkness of “I’m Sorry But it’s Over”, and ends on the glorious high note of “Whoa is Me” and “The Canyon Behind Her”. It starts off strong, ends strong, and takes you through many wonderful places throughout.
17. The Dear Hunter – Act II: The Meaning of, and All things Regarding Ms. Leading
We continue this list with a band who is more likely to be called indie rather than prog, but that doesn’t take away from the truly progressive things that these guys are doing. Multi-album concept albums based on a story that the singer created, 9 EPs with 4 songs each based off of moods and feelings associated with each color in the color spectrum, live transitions/jam sessions between songs that would make any band jealous, and a lack of fear when it comes to attempting/incorporating new styles of genres into their already diverse sound.
Act II is the 2nd in a 5 album concept cycle. Musically and lyrically picking up where the first part left off, we follow a boy who travels to the city after the death of his mother. There he falls in love with a prostitute and encounters heartbreak, one of many tragic events in this characters life. The band compliment with hard rocking tunes like “The Procession” “The Church and the Di’e”and “Dear Ms. Leading”, vaudeville style songs like “The Oracles on the Delphi Express” and “Vital Vessels Vindicate”, progressive moments (“The Lake and the River” and “The Bitter Suite”), ballads (“”Evicted”, “Where the Road Parts”, “Black Sandy Beaches”, “Red Hands”), and even upbeat pop tunes like “Smiling Swine”.
It is a phenomenal record, worth every second of every listen, and blends genres like folk, rock, blues, and jazz like it’s nobody’s business. The lyrics are emotional and require multiple spin to full digest.
16. Coheed and Cambria – In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3
Like The Dear Hunter, Coheed is probably more well known as an indie or “emo” rock band due to the pop punk aspects of their first album. And while those aspects are still a part of the band to this day, they have more than proven their Prog credentials.
This second release (and continuation of their “Amory Wars” saga) by the band not only shows improved songwriting and production, but also longer songs, and concepts within concepts. Starting with the epic battle cry that is the title track, we are treated to a few shorter tracks ranging from upbeat happy tunes, to darker songs with great dynamics and transitions like “The Crowning”. And aside from the well-known hit single “A Favor House Atlantic”, the second half sees the band channeling the attitude of bands like Rush.
From “The Camper Velourium” Trilogy which gets darker and angrier with each song, to the two 9+ minute epics “The Light and the Glass” and “21:13”, the band shows their knack for melodies, harmonies, instrumental moments, riff-writing, chord progressions, and tie-ing stories together by bringing back motifs from earlier songs.
15. 3 – The Ghost You Gave to Me
Poor 3. This band has never been given the recognition they deserve. Perhaps they were cursed with the hardest band name to “google”. But anyone who’s seen them live knows that they are a talented group of musicians, who interestingly blend funk, flamenco, hard rock, and space rock, all in a tight package that sounds like no other band.
Going into this list, I thought I was going to put their 2007 release The End is Begun. That or 2004’s Wake Pig perfectly showcase the balance between the band’s early sound and their later darker and heavier style as well. But their most recent release (which is now 9 years old) is the most focused released in terms of their Prog side. With a string of catchy hard rock tunes, they showcase their odd times and syncopation. But the real champions of the album are “One With the Sun”, “It’s Alive”, and “Only Child”, which showcase the band’s transitions, bright and ambient tones, build ups, and songwriting.
Plus, ending with the brilliant all-encompassing lyrical ballad of “The Barrier” really brings the album closure, as it almost acts as a recap of everything the band had done so far. The world needs more 3!
14. The Flower Kings – The Sum of No Evil
Going into this list, I knew this was going to be one of the most challenging tasks: picking a single album by The Flower Kings. These prog masters not only have an extensive catalog, but consistent as well. Known for long albums, double albums (Paradox Hotel, Unfold the Future, Stardust We Are), albums that flow through like 1 long song (Flower Power, Space Revolver) it is impossible to pick an essential album by the band.
So out of pure bias, this one has always stood out in my mind as my personal favorite. The problem with most albums by the band is that with so much material and lots of short interludes, their albums can sometimes feel overbearing and all over the place. In my opinion, this is the band at their most focused. No filler. Just 6 great songs.
With only one song written by Thomas Bodin and the rest written by frontman Roine Stolt, it doesn’t have as much diversity as some of their albums do, but it is no slouch. The album is full of beauty, melody, technicality, musicianship, moments of flash, moments of much needed rest, and hints of the darker tone the band started using. This is one of the best starting points for a new fan and is still a fan favorite as well.
13. Beardfish – Destined Solitaire / Mammoth
Since this is unlucky #13, I’m gonna go ahead and cheat on this one. Actually it has nothing to do with the number and everything to do with the fact that I literally can’t pick a winner between this two. It’s not that these are the most perfect albums ever, but they are so equally matched together that it would be a great injustice to separate them. These two albums represent the band’s transition from their sprawling double albums to the dark and heavy albums they ended their career with.
Beardfish are a Swedish progressive rock band with traces of everything 70s. From Genesis and Zeppelin, to Deep Purple and Frank Zappa. Perfectly blending the hard rock elements with the quirkiness and technicality of their heroes, they reached acclaim with Sleeping in Traffic Part 1 and 2.
Both albums start with strong progressive instrumentals, “Awaken the Sleeping” harkens back to Gentle Giant and Focus, “The Platform” showing hints of modern metal like Mastodon. Both albums have their signature songs (“Destined Solitaire”/“And the Stone Said: If I Could Speak”) ballads (“Tightrope”), grooves (“In Real Life There is No Algebra”), and plenty of epics that showcase so many styles of the band. They always know when to bring it down with a short time, but there’s so any catchy melodies on these albums that it’s hard to even know how to summarize them.
RIP Beardfish. Many hopes that the world gets to see you again some day.
12. Antimatter – Fear of a Unique Identity
This might be a divisive choice. Some might say that this band isn’t even progressive. Some might say that this isn’t even the band’s most progressive album. Antimatter started out as a collaboration between Mick Moss and Duncan Patterson, formerly of Anathema. This album was the first without Duncan, and was Mick’s time to prove that he could lead the band all on his own.
He exceeded all expectations, with an album that was heavier than anything the band had done thus far. Combining the electronic, dark wave, gothic, and acoustic elements of previous albums, Mick tied it all together in a very Pink Floyd-like way. A clear and focused theme of modern life, excellent production, beautiful tones, emotional delivery, and a strong album from start to finish.
While it may not have anything to do with Yes or Jethro Tull like many of these albums do, it is a rare treat to hear such a well put-together album, and that is very 70s of Mick and the boys. One of my all time favorite albums and worthy of the recognition.
11. Spock’s Beard – Beware of Darkness / X / Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep
If you thought my answer for Beardfish was cheating, you’re gonna hate this one. Spock’s Beard is one of the most loved American progressive rock bands to be influenced by the 70s style. Coming out of Los Angeles in 1992, they had the talent, the counter-melodies of Gentle Giant, and a twisted/dark sense of humor. They’ve also been blessed with the ability to reinvent themselves multiple times.
After a string of successful albums with Neal Morse, they pulled a Genesis and had their drummer Nick become their singer. After he left, the band recruited Ted Leonard from Enchant. And so I give you my pick of the essential albums from each era of the band, because each accomplished singer deserves a shoutout for what they all brought to “The Beard”.
Beware of Darkness is their second album with Neal and the most balanced in my opinion. I could have picked any from the Neal era really because they are all so unique, but this one has always stood out to me. It features a George Harrison cover in their style, the quirky “Thoughts” which continued in parts on later albums, the epic “The Doorway”, a showcase of the band’s classical style guitar sounds, a ballad, a band staple in “Walking on the Wind”, and a heavy and epic closer with “Time Has Come Today”.
Nick took a while to fit in, if you ask me. Some of the albums drag on and don’t gel quite right. But X shows the band at the most confident that they had been in quite some time. Three epics full of introspective lyrics, technicality, and beautiful moments (“Edge of the In-Between”, “From the Darkness”, and “Jaws of Heaven”), a fun song in “The Emperor’s Clothes”, the excellent instrumental “Kamikaze”, and the remaining two or three songs (based on the version you get) are catchy and memorable. From start to finish it’s a joy to listen to.
Ted Leonard made quite the impression with his first album with the band. Continuing the confidence and strong songwriting of the previous album, it felt like he had been in the band for years. His emotional and heartfelt delivery highlighted the band’s playing. From Enchant sounding songs like “Hiding Out” and the ballad “Submerged”, to the Nick led Spock’s Beard sound of “A Treasure Abandoned” and “Something Very Strange” even back to the Neal era sound of “I Know Your Secret” and “Waiting For Me”. It even has another edition in the “Thoughts” saga.
If I had to pick just one I’d give the Neal album the nod for the classic sound, but I have to give props to all three eras/singers.
10. Marillion – Misplaced Childhood
Picking a single album from Marillion’s discography is not an easy task, and yet, Marillion fans would most likely gravitate towards this one. Despite its love and acclaim, it doesn’t truly show all sides of Marillion. The first two albums were straight Genesis worship. The next two was the band’s “classic sound”, the next few saw the band’s new singer trying to continue that sound while also trying to be more mainstream, and since then the band has balanced long progressive albums with the introspective alternative rock sound similar to U2, Coldplay, and Radiohead. And while not every album is a classic, they’ve adapted beautifully with the times.
And while I wanted to pick one album that showcased singer Steve Hogarth and all he’s done for the band, I just couldn’t pick one album that reaches the same level of acclaim of this Fish-era masterpiece. Breaking away from just their love of everything Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, the band showed that they were competent songwriters with Fish’s emotional lyrics and Steve’s Gilmour-like solos. The first of two Marillion concept albums written by Fish, the album looks at love, success, acceptance, and lost childhood.
The album starts with the gentle and delicate “Pseudo Silk Kimono” and travels through some of the band’s most memorable songs: its biggest hit “Kayleigh”, the touching “Lavender”, the multi-part “Bitter Suite”, and the triumphant “Heart of Lithuanian”. The second side flows as well as the first side, not as mainstream but equally as memorable. The upbeat “Waterhole” and “Lords of the Backstage” lead to the epic “Blind Curve” and the album ends on a high note with the title track and “White Feather”.
I would love to do an in depth review of this one and a few of the Hogarth releases such as Brave, Afraid of Sunlight, Marbles, and Somewhere Else. For now, enjoy this album and my in depth review of Clutching at Straws, which is also on this blog spot.
That’s it for part 1. Stick around for part 2 with albums 1-9. I should have it up soon.
I was recently inspired to start including lists on this blog, so I’m gonna start it with my favorite genre. When I talk about Prog Metal, I am talking about the genre starting in the 80s. Progressive Rock and classic 70s Prog albums will not be included. This is only focused on bands who combine Prog with the heavy metal genre. This includes bands that incorporate heavier styles such as death metal or sludge metal.
My decisions are made partly by their influence, but also because of me looking at the albums as a whole experience as well as personal bias. So my choices might not also be the expected album by a band. This is because some albums that others might consider to be classic contain songs that I don’t feel are at the same caliber as the rest of their album. Therefore, I chose other albums instead. I still might do a list in the future based on influential and/or personal favorite albums, but for now, this is strictly looking at albums I would deem as essential.
I also tried to focus on one album per band. Some bands could have obviously had multiple albums on this list. But I wanted to focus on the influence and diversity of the genre as a whole. And I stress again, this list is not necessarily in the order of best to worst or anything like that. A list of my “favorites” would be completely different. Think of this list as my gift for people who are trying to get into the genre and are just learning about these bands. Think of this as a roadmap on which bands and albums to approach next. So here it is, my top 15 essential Progressive Metal albums!
15. Evergrey – The Inner Circle
We start this list off with one of the more underrated bands on the list, but one of the most consistent. Evergrey is a progressive metal band from Gothenburg Sweden, and while their song lengths or structures don’t look progressive, it’s their attitude and approach that puts them in the genre. A blend of dark, melodic, conceptual writing, they turned heads with their 2001 album In Search of the Truth, which dealt beautifully with the ideas of alien abduction.
But their 2004 album The Inner Circle is their most balanced in my opinion. Dealing with themes of religion, cults, and child abuse, it has all the best aspects of the band. From the heavy and catchy songs like “A Touch of Blessing” and “Ambassador”, to the beautiful ballads of “Waking Up Blind” and “Faith Restored”, to the incredibly emotional ending of “When the Walls Go Down”. With guest appearances of female vocals, solos, and memorable riffs, this is the best album to introduce someone to Evergrey.
14. Haken – Visions
In 2011, it was a scary time for fans of Dream Theater. The band was going through their major lineup change from Mike Portnoy to Mike Mangini, a change that some fans still can’t get over. Fortunately, a Prog band in their style was ready to step up to the challange. Haken is an English Prog Metal band that formed in 2007 and released their debut Aquarius 3 years later. This concept about a mermaid was an incredible start for the band.
But the quickly released their next album Visions the next year. This masterpiece is a concept album about a boy who sees his death in his dreams, and spends his life trying to avoid it. Starting with the overture of “Premonition”, “Nocturnal Conspiracy” follows and showcases all this band is capable of. From technicality to emotional ballads like”Deathless”, it all comes together in the 22 minute title track, a satisfying and emotional roller coaster. The band’s follow up album The Mountain seems to be the fan favorite, but this one is perfect in my eyes.
13. Orphaned Land – The Never Ending Way of OrWarriOr
Orphaned Land are the undisputed masters of mixing progressive metal with Middle Eastern influence. Starting in 1991, they finally reached acclaim in the Western World with Mabool in 2004. Blending a variety of languages and musical styles, that album is an absolute classic and very easily could have been on this list instead of this one. So why did I go with its follow up?
Both albums are massive. This one is 15 songs and over 78 minutes. The amazing thing is that you never notice it’s length. Each song is so unique and important to the story. The flow from song to song is so well done, and you’re left to wonder how much of this was the band’s doing and how much of it was Steven Wilson’s doing.
Starting with the infectiously catchy “Sapari”, to the progressive “From Broken Vessels”, every long song is followed by a short interlude. And while I usually don’t like albums that rely on this idea, it is appropriate here, showcasing the band’s cultural influences as well as their metal side. Towards the end you are treated to some very heavy tunes before ending beautifully with “In Thy Never Ending Way”.
There are so many standout tracks and I’d love to give this a full review one day. For now, just know, this is a must experience.
12. Nevermore – This Godless Endeavor
From Seattle came one of the most unique metal bands. A band forged by thrash metal, hints of death metal, hints of Prog and power, but most interestingly, a byproduct of the grunge culture that surrounded them. From the pieces of the band Sanctuary came a band with an attitude all their own, and like Evergrey, they released a string of conceptual albums that left fans arguing over which one was the best one.
Some might say Dreaming Black Neon. I would even say that I personally prefer Dead Heart in a Dead World over this one. But regardless, no one would have anything to say against this one. Combining the brutality of Enemies of Reality with their melodic senses, this album produced some of the band’s most enduring work. From thrash classics like “Born”, “Final Product”, and “My Acid Words”, to the emotional ballad of “Sentient 6”, to the epic conclusion of the 9 minute title track. This is the band firing on all cylinders. RIP Warrel. We miss you.
11. Green Carnation – Light of Day, Day of Darkness
One of the defining characteristics of Prog is long songs. It’s the thing to do. Some bands have taken this to the extreme. And once in a while you’ll have the album length song. Some of these are more for the appeal, and some of them pull it off gracefully. This album is the best in that regard. A single 60 minute song, not broken into sections. No skips. Just the entire experience from start to finish. Thank goodness the music does it justice.
An album of life and death, inspired by the founding member’s own loss of a daughter and birth of a son. It contains memorable riffs, melody lines, choirs, heavy sections, occasional growls, and a middle section with a unique female vocal that is off putting to some, but creates tension a beautiful clash when the music returns in my opinion. One of my favorite albums to get lost in, and if you indulge in it, I think you’ll be glad that you did.
10. Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane
Ah Pain of Salvation. This Swedish band has been around since 1991, but really started in 1984 under another name. Through all the changes it’s been Daniel Gildenlöw leading the way. What started out as a funkier Dream Theater, or what you get if you cross Dream Theater with Faith No More (his love for Mike Patton’s vocal style does shine through) has grown into something all their own. From unique concept albums and even a play like album in the form of Be, to incorporating rap style vocals and a few classic rock and blues influenced albums.
But before the changes, they mastered their Prog sound with a pair of perfect albums. And while I have no issue with people who prefer The Perfect Element, Part 1, Remedy Lane has always spoken to me with its emotional lyrics and equally matched music. With a variety of themes such as love, sex, loss, lust, and self-understanding, it is a non-linear story. Like the previous two albums, it is all about self-discovery. From the frantic dance of “Fandango”, to the emotional ordeal of a stillborn child in “A Trace of Blood”, to love songs like “This Heart of Mine” and “Second Love”, ballads like “Undertow”, heavy tunes like “Chain Sling” and “Waking Every God”, to the massive ending that ties it all together. It is an incredible package of songs grouped and tied together.
So I invite you, like Daniel once said, to “take a walk down Remedy Lane”.
9. Cynic – Traced in Air
I have probably lost all credibility by choosing this particular album by this band. If I was really only focused on influence, I would have obviously chosen their debut Focus. That 1991 release which blended death metal and jazz was so ahead of its time that the band broke up, and essentially came back when their influence of countless bands was finally acknowledged. I might do a progressive death metal list to spotlight that album one day, but for now, let’s focus on their comeback album, 15 years later.
What band strikes gold twice after being out of the game so long? A band that blends lyrics of mysticism, technicality, beautiful tones, occasional growls, jazz guitar solos and the incredible rhythm section of Sean Malone on bass and Sean Reinert on drums. From the opening build up of “Nunc Fluens” to the emotional closing of “Nunc Stans”, every song is a hit. Every song serves its purpose. Complex songs like “The Space of This” and “Kings of Those Who Know”, straightforward songs like “Evolutionary Sleeper” and “Integral Birth”, to the heaviness of “Adam’s Murmur” and “The Unknown Guest”. There’s something for everyone and it goes by in a flash. The fastest 34 minute album you’ll ever hear.
8. Mastodon – Crack the Skye
If you had only heard Remission, Mastodon’s 2002 debut, you wouldn’t expect them to be on this list. But after a concept album about Moby Dick and the slower melodic songs and 2006’s Blood Mountain, it was inevitable. 2009 saw the band’s most progressive album to date. An album that was influenced by King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and the writings of Stephan Hawking. With a loose concept about an astral projector who gets lost in wormholes and spirit realms, and gets tangled up with Russian cults, Rasputin, and ultimately the Devil, the lyrics are as Proggy as you can get.
Musically it matches it with its blend of straight forward heavy tunes, its space-y tones, its progressive moments, its long songs, and also its emotional parts. Balanced by the absolutely heartbreaking title track about drummer Brann Dailor’s sister Skye who committed suicide at the age of 14, it is the full package of great lyrics, great musicianship, perfect pacing, and the imagery and story to go along with it. Plus, it was a commercial success bringing Prog not only to metal fans, but to the mainstream as well.
7. Between the Buried and Me – Colors
If this was just my list of favorite Prog Metal albums, this would be number 1, no question. Not only is it one of my favorite pieces of music to ever grace my ears, but it was also a major turning point for the band. Starting out as a progressive influenced metalcore band, a few lineup changes helped the band grow and develop over the next couple of albums. But it was Colors that helped people take notice of the band, who still had a bad association with “screamo” music cause of their long name.
Colors is a 64 minute album that flows through like 1 song. It is tied together by theme more so than story but does showcase the band’s improved lyricism as well as musicianship. It would be impossible to describe all the styles the band goes through. It is an incredible ride from the piano build up at the beginning, to the surprising transitions, random jazz moments, heavy breakdowns, to Middle Eastern and Indian influence, and that’s just the first 3 songs. There are waltz’s, hoedowns, Jaco inspired bass solos, classical inspired guitar solos. There’s emotion, talent, guest vocals by Adam Fisher of Fear Before the March of Flames. There is so much to talk about on this album that the best thing I can do is just let you experience it for yourself.
Not only is it a brilliant piece of music, but it laid the foundation for the band they have become today. Through their many concept albums and tours with bands like Dream Theater, Opeth, Meshuggah, Coheed and Cambria, and The Dear Hunter, they have broken away from just being a metal band. They are a well-respected Prog band that keeps pushing themselves and their fan base. Many fans would argue that Parallax 2 should be here instead, but there’s no way I would ever choose that one over this one.
6. Tool – Lateralus
You all knew this album (or at least this band) would be on here. Tool has become synonymous with Progressive Metal. They are the most mainstream of all the bands on this list despite their long and intricate albums. Called the modern day Pink Floyd they are known for the laser light live shows, and for their blend of heavy metal with Middle Eastern and Indian influences.
Lateralus continues with them pushing the boundaries of music that they started on their previous album Ænima. There are subtle hints of the aggressive alternative metal that made them famous, but there’s more of an art rock approach. The songs were longer, more varied, and the instrumental interludes in between had more purpose than strictly breaking up the long songs. Now they helped buildup and create moods, pushing the album along like the great progressive rock albums of the 70s.
Aside from the obvious hit “Schism”, which is one of the bands staples, it contains countless important songs for the band such as the hard-hitting opener “The Grudge”, the ambient “The Patient” with its melodic hooks, the “Parabol”/“Parabola” duality showing both sides of the band, “Ticks and Leeches” which is one of the heaviest songs the band has ever made, and it’s beautiful and memorable title track, which has been studied for it Fibonacci sequence rhythm.
I’ve always been more partial to the pacing of 10,000 Days because of its pacing towards the second half, which I feel is a tad long and drawn out on this release, but there’s no denying it’s influence. There are countless Tool rip-off bands nowadays, and it’s all because of the importance of this album. It was a huge resurgence in the Prog genre, and opened the door for new and old bands to either have new or regained attention.
5. Opeth – Ghost Reveries
Another album choice that might receive harass criticism about the merits of this list and its write. Any Opeth fan would say the choice is obviously Blackwater Park. And while I acknowledge the influence and amount of food material on that album, it has never been a “perfect album” to me. It was a turning point for the band. It did start to see more progressive influence to their already interesting blend of death, black, melodic, and doom metals with folk. This is partly due to Mikael’s unique taste in music, and partly due once again to the looming presence of Steven Wilson. And while that album does include some of the bands best songs, it does tend to overstay its welcome. I will happily admit that a few of the songs have never really clicked with me.
And while that album started the boost in the band’s popularity, this album initiated another boost as well, and I think most people forget that. It was also almost a return to the concept albums, until Mikael decided against the full concept to incorporate some unrelated songs, which might have been to its benefit. From the heavy songs about the occult and satanism, to the beautiful ballads that give some much needed downtime, the pacing is perfect.
“Ghost of Perdition”, “The Braying of the Hounds”, “Beneath the Mire”, “Harlequin Forest”, and “The Grand Conjuration” are among the group’s most lasting heavy tunes. Melodic, catchy, brutal, ambient. All of them twisting and turning over the course of 8 to 12 minutes. And “Atonement”, “House of Wealth”, and “Isolation Years” taking what the band accomplished on Damnation, learning from Blackwater Park’s one ballad mistake. “Hours of Wealth” also contains what is probably Mikael’s best guitar solo to date. A hint of jazz to add a cherry on top.
4. Symphony X – The Odyssey
Symphony X are the neo-classical masters of Prog metal. Usually, neo-classical is thought of as strictly 1980s guitar shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen or associated with power metal bands like Rhapsody of Fire. But Symphony X put it in a band form with long songs and concept albums. They gained attention with their 1997 album The Divine Wings of Tragedy, which would be most fan’s choice for this list. However, despite starting strong and ending strong, I find a few of the tunes to sound cheesy and dated.
This album on the other hand is right before singer Russell Allen started focusing predominantly on his “gruff” voice as seen by their last few albums. So this one is really the best of both worlds. The more melodic approach of the early albums. The heavier and darker approach of the latter ones. The neo-classical solos and the groovy riffs. The ballads and the beautiful compositions. It’s all here, and it’s all represented well.
From the thrash-y tunes like “Inferno”, “Incantations of the Apprentice”, and “The Turning”. to the off time grooves of “The Wicked” and “The King of Terrors”, to the lush compositions of “The Accolade II” and “Awakenings”. And of course, no review or listen of this album would be complete without the epic 24 minute song based on The Odyssey which is one of the greatest progressive songs of all time in my opinion.
3. Fates Warning – Parallels
Out of all the bands on this list, I knew this was going to be the toughest choice to narrow down to just one album. Being one of the big three of Prog Metal, these guys alongside the next two bands on the list pushed the whole thing in motion. Taking influence from the 70s Prog bands and adding the thrash metal tendencies that was popular at the time, these guys started in 1982 and had three albums with original singer John Arch. Ray Alder came in for 1988’s No Exit, and the progressive sound started to really take the forefront.
The band has had an extremely consistent career since then, and to choose just one album is difficult because of all the different sounds and stylistic changes that the band has been through. I could have chosen No Exit with its aggressive sound and 21 minute masterpiece “The Ivory Gates of Dreams”. I could have chosen 1997’s APleasant Shade of Gray”, a 53 minute album that flows through like 1 song and doesn’t even have titles for each section, forcing you to remember it! I could have chosen any album after that which has been a brilliant adaption of modern metal with the 80s Prog sound.
But Parallels is the album that pushed them into the briefly into mainstream, with it’s infectious mix of talented musicians and catchy songwriting. Every song on it is memorable. They are all hits in their own way. They all have their hooks while still showing the band’s musicianship and focus. 6 of the songs (the first six in fact are still in the bands live rotation, “Don’t Follow Me” is the closest the band ever got to sounding like Iron Maiden, and “The Road Goes on Forever” is a fitting closer, ending on a ballad after all the metal.
My advice is give this album a chance and move onto the other ones I mentioned as well. These guys never got the credit they deserve, but they still go strong to this day.
2. Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime
The album that started it all. Queensryche started out as a heavy metal band that balanced the razors edge between the punk influenced thrash metal and the radio friendly glam metal. They were the perfect band for the time, but that wasn’t enough, and the Prog influence that they showed glimpses of on their first two albums came front and center with the first progressive metal – rock opera.
Operation: Mindcrime is a concept album that follows the character Nikki who gets tangled up with a radical group led by Dr. X, whose main focus is assassinating political leaders. It’s lyrics of revolution, corruption, drug addiction, prostitution, living on the streets, women taken advantage of, killings, wars, and distrust of the government greatly contrasted with the glam mentality that flooded the airwaves. There were no parties, no glorifying strippers or drinking. There was the deep dark underbelly that people didn’t want to look at. A necessary album.
Musically, the Pink Floyd influence was strong with this album. It still had its thrash moments with songs like “Speak”, “Spreading the Disease”, and “The Needle Lies”. It had its anthemic songs like “Revolution Calling”, “Operation Mindcrime”, and its patriotic-like buildup “Anarchy-X”. It also spawned a few radio hits with “Breaking the Silence” “I Don’t Believe in Love”, and “Eyes of a Stranger”.
But it was the progressive elements that set it apart. Not only with the interludes and sound clips that helped push the story along and tie it all together. But also the beautiful, heartbreaking, and darker tones on “The Mission” “My Empty Room”, and of course the epic 11 minute long “Suite: Sister Mary”. That song, with its unique transitions, choirs, and female vocals, is one of the most accomplished songs I’ve ever heard.
If you haven’t listened to it yet, it’s a must.
1. Dream Theater – Metropolis 2: Scenes From a Memory
I’m sure everyone knew that this was the band that was gonna top the list. If Tool is the most mainstream Prog metal band, and Queensryche is the one who got it all started, Dream Theater is the band you immediately think of when you think of”Prog metal”. They have been carrying the flag of the underground Prog metal genre through all the dark years that forward-thinking music wasn’t cool. They achieved some mainstream success with their second album Images and Words in 1992. And they still draw large crowds to their shows to this day, 35 years into their career.
I easily could have chosen Images and Words as the number 1 slot of this list and no one would have batted an eye. It’s influential, it’s flawless, it’s still incredible after all these years. They did things during the era of grunge that no one else was doing. I really have no other reason for choosing this one over that one, other than just personal bias.
Scenes From a Memory is a sequel to a song from Images and Words that never actually ended to have a Part 2. “Metropolis Part 1” was titled jokingly. But the fans wanted it, and eventually, 8 years later, the band did it. The lyrics of “Part 1” were cryptic and never really explained. But the album was a full on concept album with spoken interludes, intros, and outros to help push the story along. The main character, Nicholas, has been suffering from strange dreams. Through hypnosis, he tries to find out what they mean. Eventually he learns of the murder of a girl named Victoria that occurred many years before.
Without too many spoilers, the 77 minute album (divided into acts like a play) deals with ideas of reincarnation, love triangles, affairs, drug and alcohol problems, gambling addiction, murders, and suicide. Musically it starts with its iconic intro before going into an overture. The album is Dream Theater at their best, with heavy upbeat tunes like “Strange Deja Vu”, “Fatal Tragedy”, the epic “Beyond This Life” (with its catchy chorus and Zappa-like middle section) and “Home” with its Middle Eastern influence. It’s got plenty of straight forward and beautiful ballads like “Through Her Eyes”, “One Last Time”, and “The Spirit Carries On”. It’s got one of the most intense and ridiculous instrumentals (“The Dance of Eternity”). And “Finally Free” ties the whole album together with its brilliant ending.
It’s technical, it’s emotional, and it’s so well thought out that it’s not possible for it to be overrated. I know people get tired of hearing about it, but it’s a classic for a reason. If you haven’t heard it in a while, sit down and enjoy the experience again. If you haven’t heard it at all, get ready to never look at music the same way again.
Fates Warning are the unsung heroes of the progressive metal genre. Never reaching the mainstream appeal of their peers such as Queensryche or even Dream Theater, despite being just as influential, they have continued throughout the years, releasing great album after great album.
With the announcement of a new album, we knew it would be no different. Even before their hiatus they had already adjusted with the times, and incorporated many modern elements to their 80s Prog sound. This was in part of the influence of Kevin Moore adding electronic keyboard elements, but is also a testament to their lineup,which has been a part of many other projects and find a way to bring all of those styles together in a cohesive sound. Despite the changes, it’s all still Fates Warning, and the fans wouldn’t want it any other way.
Long Day Good Night is their 13th release. It is 13 songs long, and if you add all the numbers in its length together (72:22 – 7+2+2+2) you get…… well you get the idea. It continues very much in the style of their last few albums. Combining heavy modern sounding riffs, big catchy, anthemic choruses, some electronic elements, at least a ballad, and at least one long song. And this formula works, because it showcases all the different sides of the band. The band even stated that was their particular goal for it.
Lyrically, it all deals with the idea of “home” which is very fitting for the state of the world that we are currently living in. During this Coronavirus Lockdown of 2020, we have spent more time at home than we ever have before, and the idea of the word changes. For bands, maybe home is being back on stage. Maybe the isolation means that home is just being back with your friends. Either way, this is the 2nd album in a row that I’ve reviewed that feels like it has been directly influenced by the quarantine, as Islands by The Flower Kings was as well.
Even the cover works on two fronts. Yes it fits the title and theme, but it also acts as a “return to home“ in the sense that it is their first album back with Metal Blade since FWX in 2004, and bears a striking resemblance to the cover for that one.
Musically, it takes a minute for the first track, “The Destination Onward” to get going, but once it does, it is followed by an excellent build up. The drums, guitars, and vocals are mixed beautifully and it gets you very excited about what’s to come. About 3 minutes in is where it really picks up and it keeps this heavy upbeat pace for the next 5 minutes. It is one of three long songs on the album, and showcases the bands technically, groove, and ability to write a memorable chorus. I can imagine them playing it live and everyone is singing along to the “I gave everything I had” lyric. Plus, it has one of the best guitar solos on the album.
Now if the first song showed glimpses of heavy with its start stop riff during the verses, the next two songs continue that and take it even further. “Shuttered World” might be one of the heaviest songs the band has ever done, in a groove that reminds me of the band Nevermore. This is counter-balanced with another melodic chorus that makes it an album standout. These first two songs will be fan favorites.
“Alone We Walk” closes out the opening heavy trio with a classic Fates Warning sound superimposed over a down tuned guitar riff. Less memorable than the first two, but still with its share of great lyrics and harmonies. This trio of songs starts the album off so strongly that you’d swear this was their best album so far!
But the problem is, there’s still a long way to go! So the band knows they have to change it up a bit. The next trio of songs is more focused on the softer ballad like moments. “Now Comes the Rain” sees the band doing their best Queensryche impression. No, it’s not a blatant rip-off, but it is a nostalgic late 80s early 90s sound that reminds me of classics like “Another Rainy Night” and “I Don’t Believe in Love”. A welcome change of pace to the album.
“The Way Home” starts off like a beautiful ballad, and makes you think you’re getting another song like “Pleasant Shade of Gray Part IX”, but then switches up to a more progressive second half, much like they did with “The Eleventh Hour” from Parallels. Unfortunately, the second half isn’t as memorable as its first and might have worked better as two separate songs. But maybe it needs a few more spins.
*Edit* it has grown on me with more spins!
The heavy section is important though cause it breaks up the previous ballads with another beautiful ballad, this time complete with actual string instruments. “Under the Sun” reminds me of 80s ballads that you would hear from pop bands or alternative rock bands, not necessarily just from metal bands. It is very emotional and can become quite the ear worm for the listener.
The next section of the album seems to be where it starts to lose some listeners. With the trio of heavy and trio of ballads, we get four classic heavy metal songs in a row, split up by one electronic influenced song. With the bands technicality and emotion leading the way, it seems kind of a step back to just do catchy heavy metal songs. But, as the band stated, there’s something for everyone on here. So let’s get through them.
“Scars” was the first single so many of us Fates fans had already heard it. It still holds up with its placement in the album. It is the classic Fates sound we’ve come to expect from their last couple of albums and holds well against tunes like “Pieces of Me”, “Simple Human”, and “White Flag”.
“Begin Again” starts off with a bluesy sounding riff. It’s got a decent pre-chorus and chorus, with hints of Tool and Porcupine Tree, but not the same melodic memorability as previous songs. The most unique section is the off time counter melodies right before the guitar solo, which I’m still not really a fan of.
“When Snow Falls” breaks up to sequence of heavy songs with one of the albums highlight performances. Sounding like an OSI song with Ray Alder on vocals, Gavin Harrison’s drumming fits in perfectly. The tones are brilliant as are the uses of effects such as delay. I always love when Fates steps into this territory and wish we got to see it more (either that or we just need another OSI album soon. Jim and Kevin I’m talking to you!).
But the album goes back to its comfort zone with the song “Liar”. In most of the reviews I’ve seen, people point out its length as its biggest weakness. They say that this track or “Begin Again” (or both) could have been cut and it would have been a more enjoyable experience. I agree, but it also depends on how you listen to it. In one sitting, yes it’s too much. But individually every song is good. So if you need a long album in the car or these songs are on shuffle in a playlist, you don’t mind them as much as you do all at once.
Either way, “Liar” has its moments and “Glass House” is a shorter more straightforward song with probably the catchiest chorus since “Scars” so it’s just enough before we get to the meat and potatoes of the album. “The Longest Shadow of the Day” (also the longest song of the record) is 11:30 seconds.
The majority of it comes from its extended intro where we get jazz style guitar licks, excellent bass solos, and shred guitar solos, while Bobby on drums and Joey and bass do what they do best and hold it all together. Once you get to the vocals, it is actually a pretty simple and straightforward song, with just a few verse and repeated lines. Still, one of the bands best moments in a long time.
The album finishes with the classical inspired ballad, aptly titled, “The Last Song”. This lulls the listener out after the technical mastery and showmanship of the previous tune, and leaves fans of the band hoping that they don’t mean the last one forever.
All in all, this album has me scratching my head where I would place it in my favorites by the band. There is a ton of great material on it. And the only thing it has going against it is it’s length. There’s not a bad song on it, but there are better songs on it than others. And because if that, the band does have better “put-together” albums. Still, it’s not gonna leave any fans upset at its existence. There’s more than enough material to hold people over, plenty of songs are gonna be great live, and everyone will have their own unique favorite song from the album.
It will hold well for many years to come. It doesn’t over take the spot of my favorite by the band (“Darkness in a Different Light”), but halfway through, I really thought it would. Definitely a contender for album of the year, and a must check out for any fan of metal and Prog, whether old or new.
By 1976, Genesis was already a leading figure in the Progressive Rock scene, thanks to 6 albums, 5 of which are Prog Essentials. After their commercial flop of a debut album, they began their streak with Trespass in 1970. These albums showcased that the band was able to put whatever they could possibly fathom onto a record. They created a number of Prog classic songs, and they were also able to establish themselves as a wildly entertaining and unexpected live act.
This was part of the somewhat flamboyant and over-the-top persona of Peter Gabriel, which like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull was prog’s answer to the emerging Glam Rock genre, which gave way for the likes of David Bowie. And it very much worked for Genesis, as the quirky singer matched their musical technicality and proficiency.
This was most obviously achieved in the form of their 1974 double album, and a Prog opera reminiscent of Tommy by The Who, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I won’t go too into this one because I’ll probably be tackling it soon, but it was the perfect example of the band’s cinematic and play-like stage performance coming to fruition through their music. Unfortunately it was not a big hit at the time, despite later achieving cult classic status, and may have played a very small role in the departure of Peter Gabriel, amongst other things.
So, with the band trying to follow up this album, they now had to prove that they could still write a hit even after the lineup change. They quickly got to writing new material and listened to many audition tapes for replacement singers. But it was the band convincing Phil Collins to sing the song “Squonk” that brought about his transfer from drummer to singer.
Now luckily, the music was still in the band’s style as some of the pre-Lamb albums, so the band found that the music came together quickly. Phil did his best Peter impression vocally while still finding and discovering his voice. But he was also inspired by Peter’s lyrical approach. The albums blends some songs of a tongue-in-cheek nature, with some that are fantastic and whimsical, and even some that are more serious and poetic.
This demonstrated all the facets of the band, and the music naturally followed suit. What this album does is kind of act as a showcase, not only acting as the transitional album between Peter and Phil, but also of Genesis past, present, and future. It has the progressive songs of the past but also greatly foreshadowed the pop sound of Genesis to come. Even though there was still one more Prog album left out of these guys before the drastic tonal change of …And Then There Were Three…. in 1978, it still has some of the bands poppiest, catchiest, and most melodic moments thus far into their career.
The album begins with an absolute classic. One of the best first songs on an album in my opinion. Listening to this, you instantly knew the band was going to be just fine. “Dance on a Volcano” has a memorable two part intro. Part playful, part orchestral, it has a unique transition to its frantic but controlled verse with gives way to its memorable “chorus” and “bridge” section. The song continues with some technical wizardry in the second half before transitioning smoothly into the second song.
“Entangled” is a beautiful ballad that provides some down time after the upbeat opening piece. It is 12 string driven acoustic song with a memorable verse and a beautiful chorus that is straightforward for its first 4 minutes. The last two and a half minutes are led by the synth, bass pedals, and the Mellotron. It’s hypnotic, and it’s simplicity is what makes it effective.
“Squonk” is a song about a mythical creature, but musically has been called one of the band’s heaviest songs. It is a deceptively simple song due to its subtle changes and its jam session ending, but it goes back and forth between two very catchy melodies, that can be seen as verse and chorus sections despite a lack of repeated lyrics. Phil has stated that his drums were inspired by John Bonham, and they definitely stand out on this track.
“Mad Man Moon” would be the other most progressive tune on this album aside from “Dance on a Volcano” in my opinion. Starting out as a simple and beautiful ballad with a bright uplifting sounding chorus, it takes a left turn with its middle section in the form of an extended keyboard part before Phil Collins comes in with his fast paced vocal delivery. The song returns to its verse and chorus and ends very strongly.
Side 2 is more straightforward than side 1, and therefore might have some of the most memorable songs for the casual listener. It starts with “Robbery, Assault, and Battery” which sometimes feels like the odd song out in my opinion. It’s a fun one on its own, does a great job of telling a story, and it’s got its moments of catchiness as well as its progressive middle section where the band goes all out, but to me it doesn’t match up with the more serious and delicate songs.
“Ripples” for example, might be one the most beautiful things Genesis ever did. This 8 minute masterpiece doesn’t stray far from itself. The middle section fits well with its verses and choruses, and despite being the longest song, is one of the more straightforward tunes on the album. A gorgeous and lush sounding ballad that hints at later Genesis, as well as Phil’s solo career.
This is followed by the equally catchy but more upbeat title track, which also hints at these things to come. A very Beatles-esque, playful tune, that returns to lyrics of beasts as “Squonk” did. But it’s hook might even have you forget all about this as you patiently await to sing along with “they’ve got no horns and they’ve got no tail” part. This two songs really balance the album well, giving something for everyone.
Having accomplished an album with some pop sensibility, some beauty, and lots of technical musicianship, all that’s left is to go out with a bang, and that’s exactly what “Los Endos” is. An instrumental grand finale with parts of “Squonk”, “Dancing on a Volcano”, and a song that didn’t make it onto the album but was released as a b-side. They even through a nod to Peter Gabriel at the end. A fitting tribute to the past, and a fitting closure to an album that was looking onwards and upwards. It provides a rest in the sense that it doesn’t throw too much new information at you, after having to digest so much already, but properly closes out the album after the simplicity of the title track.
So, my overall thoughts on the album?
Revisiting it on vinyl a few times has made me appreciate songs that didn’t use to stand out to me. I always loved “Dancing on a Volcano”, “A Trick of the Tail”, “Entangled”, and “Ripples”. I now have more appreciation for “Squonk”, “Mad Man Moon”, “Los Endos”, and even for “Robbery, Assult, and Battery” despite what I said about it above.
There is a lot happening on this album. They cover a lot of ground and everyone gets their moment to shine. For a band who’s future was uncertain, they passed the test with flying colors. Many fans still view this as their favorite album and rightly so. The production was much better than previous albums and you get the best of both worlds with Phil paying tribute to Peter while showing his own strengths. The band is at the top of their game and their songwriting really shows it, with its balance of melody, harmony, and showmanship.
Off the top of my head, this is always my go to as favorite albums by them, but we’ll see if some in depth revisits of their older albums change that. As a whole, my only gripe is that I usually start to fatigue around the midway point, but the last three songs pick up so strongly that it quickly hides any of that away. Otherwise, this is probably the closest Genesis got to a perfect album…