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Part 1 of 2.
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 start this list off 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.