I don’t think I’ve ever had this much trouble choosing my favorite albums for the first half of the year. The variety and quality of albums I’ve heard is pretty astounding, and many of them are staying with me. It pained me to cut several albums from this list, such as the new albums from Trope, Mariusz Duda, John Holden, Nad Sylvan, Ghost Echo, Moonspell, Aphexia, Keor, and Jean-Michel Jarre. And that’s just the short list, as I could list several more. So, through my blood, sweat, and tears, here are my top 25 of 2021 thus far.
25. Lord Helmet – Get Back to the Ship
This sophomore album from LA alternative proggers Lord Helmet took me somewhat by surprise. It is head and shoulders above the debut, and the sheer strength of the writing is impressive. This is definitely an album to blast in your car.
24. Empyrium – Über den Sternen
Empyrium might not be for everyone, but this new offering of dark, organic folk and doom sounds really grabbed me. Some of the tracks are truly mysterious and poetic. Fans of subtlety and shadows will really like this.
23. Breaths – Lined in Silver
This album from Breaths was also a surprise for me. I remember playing it and being floored by how strong the writing, vocals, and atmosphere are. I love the doomgaze sound, and I especially love it when paired with hopeful lyrics.
22. Atravan – The Grey Line
This record from Iran’s Atravan is something special. Their progressive metal style has an open, free sound to it, and the vocalist has such rich character in his voice. This album takes it time to be as tight and well-constructed as possible.
21. Ra – Intercorrupted
I was so happy to see Ra return, as I’ve been following them since their 2002 debut. This album combines the hardened edges of their old style with pop sensibilities and really strong choruses. Sahaj sounds as good as ever, and he is one of the best.
20. Rose Riebl – Do Not Move Stones
Rose’s debut has really allured me more and more as time has passed. This piano and cello album is full of luxurious textures, riveting and fomenting climaxes, and subtle melodies. It may not be an album that gets your blood pumping, but it will certainly appeal to those who appreciate quiet power and mystery.
19. Justin Stewart Cotta
– Melodies for Eulogies
Discovering that former Memento vocalist Justin Stewart Cotta is still in the music business has been a highlight of 2021 for me. This fantastic solo record has everything from alternative metal to acoustic ballads, but the lyrical content and ferocious vocal performance really steal the show.
18. Perfect Storm – No Air
Now, this Perfect Storm debut really swept me away more than I expected. This band simply has a way with melodies, and the entire album is soaked in them. Fans of Porcupine Tree will love this display of groove, melody, and quality prog rock.
17. Lowxy – Unequal
I’m a big fan of ambient, and this Lowxy album captured my imagination. I think this is because of the cyberpunk sound that is accented by other genres, such as hip hop and pop. It feels mysterious, urban, and futuristic, and I feel the need to play it at least once per week, if not more often.
16. Nine Skies – 5.20
When making this list, I kept moving this album higher and higher. No one can deny that this third Nine Skies offering has great character and some truly stunning melodies. And with Steve Hackett and Damian Wilson guesting, the album just gets better and better.
15. Tony Piccoli – Mercury at Dawn
Tony Piccoli, vocalist for Imminent Sonic Destruction, has a gentler side. His solo work is ambient, and it is truly beautiful. This Mercury at Dawn album has some of the best overall structure, texture, and fleeting memory I’ve ever heard on an ambient record.
14. John Carpenter
– Lost Themes III: Alive after Death
John Carpenter is well-known for his horror movies, but probably lesser known for his music (though it has always been a huge part of his work). His new solo albums have aimed to gain the musical legacy that he deserves, and I happen to agree with him. This album is electronic with colorful, haunted melodies that scream “horror”, but still come across as adventurous, gorgeous, and memorable. I’ve listened to this album probably a few dozen times.
13. Fragment Soul – Axiom of Choice
I’ll readily admit that I only listened to this album because of Heike Langhans’ involvement. But this album is so much more, too. The vocals are wonderful, especially Heike’s, and the music is an excellent mix of doom and progressive metal, with plenty of ambience and mood to boot. I find myself listening to this one quite often.
12. Frost* – Day and Age
Frost* is a legendary band, especially because of their debut Milliontown. I think this new record approaches the debut’s greatness, though, with some truly inventive and interesting tracks, and that signature kinetic groove that I identify with this band specifically. I still hate that they cut the title track from 12 to 4 minutes for the single version, though.
11. Grorr – Ddulden’s Last Flight
Grorr’s latest is a real treat. Their hefty, voluptuous metal sound pairs so well with the Asian melodies and tender moments. I’ve been listening to this one a lot.
10. The Emerald Dawn
– To Touch the Sky
I’ve liked everything that The Emerald Dawn has produced, and it is obvious that these musicians play at very high level. I was surprised, then, by an album that is moodier and more ambient than I expected, like mist and mystery. And for what little singing there is, the vocals have improved and the vocal lines are quite addictive, too. I love this album.
9. Lake of Tears – Ominous
I never expected to hear a new Lake of Tears album, especially one this good. It is a dark one, too, with kinetic tones on some tracks, and hovering, shady tones on others. Some tracks threaten to swallow the listener whole. It is quite an experience.
8. The Vicious Head Society
– Extinction Level Event
Graham was afraid I would hate this album, but he was wrong to feel that way. This is a monster record, sprawling and vibrant and alive. With a well-constructed concept, vicious guitars, and bright melodies, this is an album that every prog metal fan needs to hear.
– Burning in Heaven, Melting on Earth
Sunnata have such a dark, ritualistic sound, but they really know to coax wonderful songs out of those deep tones. I think that comes from obvious grunge/Alice in Chains influence. This album can feel melancholy and unsettling at times, but I never fail to be entranced by it, and I simply want to hear more.
6. Kauan – Ice Fleet
This Kauan record took me off guard. When I heard it for the first time, I couldn’t believe how deeply moving it felt, and each subsequent listen has only increased that feeling. The record flows and moves in shadows and fog, but the melodies and sparse vocal portions really bring it to life, especially the second half.
5. Giant Sky – Giant Sky
Giant Sky is the brainchild of Erlend of the band Soup. This is a perfect example of an album that oozes meaning in every note and every second. The music is ethereal, electronic, ambient rock, very artsy and poetic. This one needs headphones to be appreciated fully.
4. Mission Jupiter – Talk to Me
Mission Jupiter should be taking the world by storm, I’m convinced. Their debut album of pop-infused progressive rock was fantastic, but this sophomore effort is even better. Listening to it is like starting one long crescendo of emotions, giant vocals, and fiery instrumentals, and it doesn’t end until the album does. This record will give you goosebumps, I guarantee.
3. Epica – Omega
I’ve been an Epica fan for over a decade, but I wasn’t super impressed with their last couple albums. Omega changes all of that, though, being one of the best albums of their career. With addictive choruses, gutsy compositions, amazing choir vocals, and a vibrant new “Kingdom of Heaven” track, this is quickly becoming my favorite Epica album.
2. ISON – Aurora
I only discovered ISON in early 2020, but I’ve come to consider this project one of my favorite bands. With the departure of Heike on vocals, Daniel was left alone, but has made the best of it. With high profile and superb guests on each track, Aurora is probably the most “progressive” and “metal” ISON album yet, not to mention how vulnerable and cosmic the whole affair feels.
1. Evergrey – Escape of the Phoenix
This is my only 10/10 for the year so far. Everygrey quite simply made a perfect record with Escape of the Phoenix. In preparation for this list, I listened to it again just to make sure, and I came away with the same towering opinion. This razor-edged, melodic, and expressive offering is one of the best records they’ve ever made, and it’s the best album I’ve heard this year so far.
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Let me suggest to have a listen to the concept album “The Blue Dawn” by italian prog metallers ODD DIMENSION