(Wil Cifer continues his series of year-end lists with a Top 10 ranking of progressive metal releases.)
Progressive means you allow your music to progress. If you are putting out the same album of indulgent noodling, I don’t care if it is under the guise of a rock opera or not, your sound is not evolving; you are not progressive.
So these are not albums serving as bookends to keyboard solos, and are all more focused on the songs rather than trying to just make musicale bukkake. Many genres are touched on within this list. Some are more black metal than others, some are death metal, some are hard rock, but they all break the mold and embody progressive metal even without operatic vocals and frilly shirts. Here are my choices for the top 10 progressive metal albums of 2016.
10. Fallujah – “Dreamless”
This is the follow-up to 2014’s The Flesh Prevails. While these guys are technical death metal, they pull it off in such a way that it doesn’t just come across as dazzling you with chops; they create an atmosphere.
The first song seems like a movement more than a song on its own, even though I like the fact that it carries more ambience than anything I remember from the first album. “Adrenaline” ebbs down into an almost jazzy landscape, but caters more to fans of death metal, as it is about the propulsion.
The vocals are forceful growls on the lower side of mid-range. A more progressive color is added that creates a more Dream Theater-like feel before they blast off into the more rapid-fire attack. The drummer is really killing it coming off of fills into punching grooves. The bass player is not too far behind him in terms of prowess. The shredding solos of course reach out and grab, but it’s the other textures, like the female vocals of Tori Letzler and Katie Thompson, tossed into this one that make a difference.
9. Hawkwind – “The Machine Stops”
Not all bands can keep up the kind of streak that the likes of Bowie and Zappa had. Things have changed since the days when Lemmy was in the band. The sci-fi element was not toned down, instead it was allowed to run wild. If you do drugs and are not doing them when you listen to this album, that needs to change.
This concept album is based on the E.M. Forster book of the same name. So here is a case of where this album did not get as much air time from me since I no longer drop acid… or do any drugs… but if I am going to relapse on the more mind-expansive drugs, then this would be on tap. I really like how they maintained their sense of identity while dabbling in newer sounds.
8. Thy Catafalque – “Meta”
Kátai is back handling things on this own once again. There is more of a conventional metal groove to the opener and less black metal, though the end result is a good song, so what genre he is delving into here doesn’t really matter much to me. Kátai does get some help by the second song, “Sirály”, as female vocals coast over the slightly slower-than-mid-tempo waltz of distorted guitar. Things get more experimental, with bells ringing out before a thrashing attack.
This album does take more chances than most metal releases and is not tied hard and fast into any genre it feels the need to play it safe and conform to.
7. Hail Spirit Noir – “Mayhem in Blue”
I loved this band’s last album, so I won’t lie — it’s a surprise to hear them go from progressive black metal into groovy ’60s-tinged black ‘n’ roll. Some blast-beats do crop up, but I am not sure I would say they give the end result a more black metal feel; you know that this is going to be a weird ride.
The title track finds them bringing back more of the prog feel, and going all-out into the wake of Poseidon with an Opeth-like melodic section before bringing some smack-down. The sung vocals are well-executed, and these guys are incredible musicians, so it’s hard to argue against any of their creative choices so far.
6. Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – “Mariner”
On the 8th release by this band I thought it was high time they did something to switch it up a bit so the same old sludge didn’t get stale, and they did. The first song stays fairly close to home, though they have opened up a more expansive sound with a greater range of melody. While some of the songs might go to excess in terms of length, they keep my attention. There is not a fast-forward classic on this one, some points are just more powerful than others, but it all balances out.
5. The Von Deer Skulls – “The Rest is Silence”
They cover a lot of ground in the eight minutes of the first song. If I am really going to nit-pick the genre lines, I would say this falls closer to sludge than doom. The slow heaviness places more emphasis on oppression than on mourning. The spoken section going into “The Fall of the Raven” makes it clear these guys are from France. The more oppressive mood is the driving force of this song as it lumbers along a more droning course.
4. Pensées Nocturnes – “A Boire et A Manger”
“How experimental do you like your metal?” is the first question you have to answer when going into this one. French metal bands have never played it safe. This takes that to a new extreme with something you might hear in the Big Easy; they pull from a style of jazz that later influenced the creole jazz of New Orleans, and it flips into metal that is noisy and dissonant.
This is dark enough to make me happy, but after hearing it called depressive black metal my expectations were something more like Lifelover or Totalselfhatred. Instead of anguish and emoting, we get something more like death metal, even though there are crooned clean vocals that come off like something from a Mike Patton project.
This is totally original despite the comparisons to John Zorn that could be drawn. The guitar playing might sound disjointed at times, but I think this is all done very purposefully. The blast-beats come in spasm-like bursts, lingering when the New Orleans street jazz returns.
3. Ihsahn – “Arktis”
Ihsahn has brought back the metal in a big way on his 6th solo album. You won’t forget Ihsahn was in Emperor. I suppose he felt he took the experimentation as far as he could without losing sight of where he came from.
This makes for an album that is in line with his earlier solo work. It captures more of an Opeth-like feel… that is, when Opeth actually played metal. The electronic elements are still there, just set back behind the guitars. The guys from Leprous are still around, with Einar Solberg helping out with vocals, among other guests.
Overall, he is back in fine form and proving himself to be one of the best creative minds in metal, or any genre.
2. Voivod – “Post Society”
Voivod have always been light years ahead of their time. Since Target Earth the band have locked into a sound that takes the classic tones from Dimension Hatröss and pushed it forward in a modern production.
This EP has the quality of both the songwriting and the production of Target Earth; in fact the arrangements might be even more progressive, like the surreal breakdown on the title track that kicks the EP off. They have always been able to shift in a very organic manner from one movement to the next.
What amazes me more upon hearing this is how true they are to their legacy even though half of the original members are not on this recording. Chewy and Rocky did complete the live band on their last pass through the states with Napalm Death, and both really do justice to the Voivod legacy.
This is only an EP, but it is Voivod, and even their passing fancies are better than what your favorite band can muster.
1. Purson – “Desire’s Magic Theater”
While summoning a retro vibe is part of their sound, there was once more of a hard-rock undercurrent to their sound which this new full-length turns away from in favor of something that is supposed to be a rock opera aiming for Sgt. Pepper and Ziggy Stardust.
Right from the get-go it feels like it has more in common with T-Rex before colliding into more of a folkish, hippy haze of second-hand smoke. They throw a ton of colors at you, so it can be overwhelming at first, but at the end of the day I found this album stuck and stayed more than the others on this list. So that is why it earned the top spot.