Hello, ladies and gentlemen! I have been largely inactive on this blog recently, owing to tumultuous personal events that may or may not be my own fault. However, this has been such an amazing music year that I believe this post is absolutely necessary! Top tens get lots of clicks, of course, so I figured I’d be basic and write one. Without further adieu…
10: Devin Townsend – Empath
This was just one of those albums that left me thinking, “What in the depths of Sheol did I just listen to?” Spacey, eccentric, beautiful at times, practically un-listenable at other times, and with absolutely mind-blowing guitar work throughout, this album is a musical journey for the open-minded. The strange blends of djent, EDM, reggae, classic prog, musical theatre, and other genres make this one of the most eclectic albums in recent memory. I can’t say I’m always in the mood for it, but on those occasions that I am, it’s a very rewarding listen. Love it or hate it, there’s no question of the sprawling creativity and intimidating talent of the hands that prepared Empath.
Favorite track: “Borderlands”
9: The Resonance Project – The Resonance Project
Instrumental progressive metal doesn’t always strike a nerve with me. That said, the Resonance Project is an awesome band worth getting very excited about. Made up of guitarist and bassist Yas Nomura, drummer and keyboardist Lang Zhao, and a host of special guests, The Resonance Project makes exciting, technical music. Their eponymous debut is highly recommended for any fan of The Aristocrats, Dream Theater, Joe Satriani, or other such artists.
Favorite track: “A Progression To Infinity”
8: Dream Theater – Distance Over Time
My favorite Dream Theater album, up until early 2019, was Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory. However, their newest effort, Distance Over Time, leaves everything they’ve done previously in the dust (in my opinion). With riffs evoking more Jimmy Page and Alex Lifeson than Joe Satriani, keyboard sounds both retro and modern, and (best of all) DT’s best songwriting since Images & Words, it takes their classic sound and progresses it into further directions. I think the big difference between this one and Dream Theater’s earlier masterworks is the production. I usually hate the production on their albums; it’s so tinny and shiny and guitar-focused. This album, however, sounds amazing! (Also: cover art points for Hugh Syme. This might be his grooviest album cover since Rush’s Test For Echo.)
Favorite track: “Barstool Warrior”
7: Soen – Lotus
Lotus was the first album I reviewed this year, and as I said in my original review, it set the bar high for the rest of year. Featuring plodding, mysterious buildups, fantastically catchy melodies, and mind-blowing riffs, it’s a well-made and inventive progressive metal album. Soen masterfully avoids many of the main pitfalls of prog metal (over-the-top mixing, technical wankery, cheesy themes, et cetera) to create an album that infuses the spirits of Porcupine Tree, Tool and 90s/2000s King Crimson.
Favorite track: “Lotus”
6: Alan Parsons – The Secret
Don’t let Alan Parsons’ geeky and inaccessible reputation fool you: this is a pop album. Featuring vocalists such as contemporary star Jason Mraz and Foreigner veteran Lou Gramm, as well as Parsons himself, the melodies and beats are instantly hummable. Parsons is probably better known as a producer than as a musician, having been involved in the making of Abbey Road, The Dark Side Of The Moon, and The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), and so it was no surprise that The Secret had the richest, most satisfying production of the year.
Favorite track: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”
5: Borknagar – True North
Now this is metal! The sweeping keys, crystal-clear production and stirring melodies evoke feelings of long journeys, vast landscapes and seas that stretch on forever. Vortex’s clean vocals are a highlight, as are Lars Nedland’s fantastic, almost Steely-Dan-esque synthesizer chords. I haven’t owned this album for as long as these others, but I fully expect it to grow on me.
Favorite track: “Tidal”
4: Skylake – In Orbit
Oy vey…here’s where we get to the really, really freaking amazing records. In Orbit is a fabulous debut by a young, though superbly skilled, band. Suzan van den Engel’s voice is one of the best in prog-rock, full stop. Bart Laan, the band’s primary composer, is a killer rock’n’roll guitarist in the vein of Gilmour and Lifeson. Skylake is a melodic band; the instruments are there to support the melody. This is rare in a progressive band, but I dig! Add the stellar rhythm section of Charlie Feld and Arjan Laan (who I fully expect to become one of the great prog drummers) and you have one heck of a band. They are fantastic songwriters and instrumentalists and I don’t believe I have been this excited about a debut since Jarod Fedele’s masterful electronic statement last October. I am really looking forward to a long career for what should be one of the best prog outfits of the Roaring Twenties!
Favorite track: “Prisoner”
3: Mindspeak – Eclipse Chaser
Space…the final frontier. These are the voyages of Mindspeak: to express musically the outer regions of the universe, to make albums with stellar musicianship and thrilling production, to bring joy to those life forms who can appreciate their talent, to boldly go where no band has gone before. Besides evoking images of colorful nebulae, glittering stars, vast planets, and voyages through outer space, I’m almost certain Mindspeak used a time machine in the making of Eclipse Chaser. It seriously would not sound out of place betwixt Yes’ Close To The Edge and King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic in a prog hippie’s record collection in 1979. This band may have the highest overall musicianship of any that I’ve heard this year, but the star of the show is keyboardist Christoph Kasparovsky. His sweeping strings, funky organs and delicate piano pieces tie the album together, in many ways making it what it is. Also, they made my all-time favorite version of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” For the love of prog, buy this album now!
Favorite track: “Tetrachrome”
2: Opeth – In Cauda Venenum
I’ll repeat myself: Opeth never stopped being heavy metal. If a mad scientist in some castle somewhere decided to fuse Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality and Steven Wilson’s classic The Raven That Refused To Sing, and threw in bilingual lyrics and 70s-retro organ sounds for good measure, he’d create something very like In Cauda Venenum. Doomy, hummable riffage, solid timekeeping by bassist Martin Mendez and drummer Martin Axenrot, and a production that would make Alan Parsons proud all come together to form an album which pays tribute to the forefathers of prog without once becoming derivative. Unlike the aforementioned Mindspeak record, nobody would place this in any decade but the 2010s-and some may say it’s ahead of its time. It’s one of those albums that make you think, THIS is what prog should be like!
Favorite track: “Next Of Kin”
1: Jon Anderson – 1,000 Hands (Chapter One)
I’m biased, but this was my album of the year from the day I first heard it. Jon’s voice has not faded at all; indeed, it’s arguably better than it was for much of Yes’ heyday. And his songs are every bit as good as always! Featuring ex-Yes members Steve Howe, Alan White, and the late Chris Squire, as well as such prog-rock luminaries as Chick Corea, Ian Anderson, and Billy Cobham, the musical performances and production are flawless. There’s so much to hear on this album, from EDM to violin solos and everything in between. Best of all, Jon is clearly having a great time! My dad, who got me into music, has a motto: “Music should always be fun.” 1,000 Hands (Chapter One) exemplifies that motto as much as any album I’ve ever heard. It’s an instant classic.
Favorite track: “Come Up (1,000 Hands)”
MUSICIANS OF THE YEAR
I want to take a moment to recognize some of my favorite musicians from this year on each instrument; sort of an “All-American” band, to borrow a college football term. I have decided to hold the band to one musician per group, and bands such as Soen and Skylake have made that difficult. (You know what? I’ll borrow another page from college football. Let’s have a “second-team” all-star band!)
Male Vocals: Jon Anderson, solo
Second-Team: Vortex, Borknagar; Joel Ekelöf, Soen
Female Vocals: Suzan van den Engel, Skylake
Second-Team: Viktoria Simon-Lukic, Mindspeak; Rocky Kuner, YYNOT
Bass: Tim Starace, YYNOT
Second-Team: Yas Nomura, The Resonance Project; Stefan Stenberg, Soen
Guitar: Cody Ford, Soen
Second-Team: Bart Laan, Skylake; Mikael Åkerfeldt, Opeth
Keys: Christoph Kasparovsky, Mindspeak
Second-Team: Joakim Svalberg, Opeth; Lars Nedland, Borknagar
Drums: Lang Zhao, The Resonance Project
Second-Team: Martín Lopez, Soen; Arjan Laan, Skylake
Thanks to all the musicians for making it a great year in prog, and thanks to all our readers for your support and encouragement! I hope I led y’all to some new music this year.