Here we are at the end of another year. As you’re probably well aware, 2019 has been the latest in a string of great years for progressive rock and metal. Overall it didn’t blow me away like other years have (a few particular albums did however), but I think that’s more because of how my year has gone. I finished up grad school in the spring, and I spent the entire year job-searching before finally starting a new job at the beginning of this month. A couple of important people in my life died this year as well, so overall it has been a year full of challenges. My ability to properly soak in all the great music that has been released understandably suffered. But nevertheless, I found much to enjoy this year, and the following are some of my favorites. They are in no particular order except for my top three down at the bottom of this list.
Rise Twain – Rise Twain
The first album by Philadelphia-area duo Rise Twain is a stellar example of what popular music should be. Brett Kull and J. D. Beck are excellent songwriters and equally talented musicians. They combine the simplicity of a good song with the more technical aspects of prog. While it may be hard to call this a “prog” album, it certainly has many varied influences that make this a solid showing. Check out my review and interview with Brett Kull here: https://progarchy.com/2019/08/30/a-conversation-with-brett-kull-of-rise-twain/
Soen – Lotus
This is a magnificent album. Beautifully heavy, as any metal album should be, it retains an ability to move int0 peaceful contemplative spaces. When this album rocks, it rocks hard, and it keeps an upbeat tone that so many metal albums often lose. “Lotus” delivers musically, lyrically, and vocally. Check out Time Lord’s review here: https://progarchy.com/2019/01/09/album-preview-soen-lotus-soenmusic/
The Neal Morse Band – The Great Adventure
I enjoyed “The Great Adventure” a lot more than “The Similitude of a Dream.” I just think it is a better album. The Neal Morse Band as a unit get better and better with each album and tour. They play so well together, and their vocal harmonies are absolutely fantastic. It feels like they really enjoy playing together. Of all of Mike Portnoy’s many many many bands and projects, this one feels the most natural because there is so much talent that blends so perfectly. “A Love That Never Dies” is easily one of the greatest tracks of 2019. Check out Rick Krueger’s review here: https://progarchy.com/2019/01/29/the-neal-morse-band-the-great-adventure/
Flying Colors – Third Degree
I’m a little torn with this album. I like it a lot, but I don’t like it as much as their first two albums. “Crawl” may be the best track the band has ever released, but the album leans too heavily on the band’s pop elements and not enough on their prog laurels. There is a huge Muse vibe on this album, which isn’t a bad thing because I love Muse, but that influence shines a lot brighter on this album than in their others. Great album worthy of a “best of” list, but I don’t think it is their best.
Moron Police – A Boat on the Sea
At a minimum this album makes my list because of the fantastic album artwork. That has to be the best album cover of 2019. Beyond that, this Norwegian band released an album that is simultaneously fun and insane. It is just a joy to listen to this album because it is so playful. If you missed it, definitely check it out. https://moronpolice1.bandcamp.com
Nad Sylvan – The Regal Bastard
I absolutely loved this album! In my opinion it is the best of Sylvan’s Vampirate trilogy. His voice seems to get better with each album, and the mix of styles, both musically and vocally, work so well here. Nad is such a great songwriter. His lyrics manage to work their way into your head and make you sing along with them, yet his music is still complex and interesting. Plus the guest musicians: Guthrie Govan, Steve Hackett, Nick D’Virgilio, Jonas Reindgold, Tony Levin, and all the wonderful folks who contributed. I loved every minute of this album – it’s truly one of the best of this year. Check out my review and interview with Nad here: https://progarchy.com/2019/06/30/the-vampirate-speaks-a-conversation-with-nad-sylvan/
Bjørn Riis – A Storm is Coming
I was completely captivated by this album. I love it for the same reason I love both of Oak’s albums (Bjørn Riis has guested on some of their songs). I don’t know what it is about Norway, but it is producing some fantastic contemplative prog. I think Steven Wilson would get along well with Riis and Oak. This is one of those albums that leaves you craving for more at the end. It is sparse yet full. His voice is haunting and his guitar soaring. Don’t miss it. https://bjornriis.bandcamp.com/album/a-storm-is-coming
Cocoon – Richard Henshall
Richard Henshall’s solo album is like a subdued version of Haken. It’s clear that he has an immense influence over Haken’s sound because some of their signature moves pop up in this album. If you haven’t been able to get into Haken because of how heavy they can be, give “Cocoon” a chance because it has that same playfulness without all the grit. Check out Time Lord’s interview with Henshall: https://progarchy.com/2019/07/26/richard-henshall-interview-the-progarchy-podcast-richhaken/
Dream Theater – Distance Over Time
In my book, Dream Theater have redeemed themselves after that not-to-be-named pile of crap from 2016. The band said they were heavily influenced by their revisiting “Images and Words” during the 25th anniversary tour for that album while they were writing “Distance Over Time.” You can definitely hear it in this album. The band rented a cabin in the woods and wrote and recorded the album together – very Rushian of them. I enjoy the outcome. It’s heavy. Yeah it has the ballads, but they’re not as sappy as they have been lately. Mangini seems to be blending more seamlessly into the band. Labrie still sounds good. I don’t know what to tell you if you’re a Dream Theater fan and don’t like this one. People pine for the Mike Portnoy days, but let’s be honest – not everything they released with him was all that great. People rant and rave over “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence,” and I don’t think it’s all that great. “The Glass Prison” is by far the greatest track… oh wait that was written by Portnoy. Hahaha maybe all of their good songs were written by him and everything else sucks (only kidding). Whatever – Distance Over Time is still solid. Portnoy isn’t coming back, so learn to appreciate the band now for what it is when they make a decent album. Feel free to malign them when the music actually sucks.
Vanden Plas – The Ghost Xperiment – Awakening
This came out in October, but cash was low at the time so I didn’t get this one until this past week. Fantastic album, although I expected no less from them. Vanden Plas have their own sound, and it is a shame that they aren’t more popular in progressive metal circles. They’re consistently top notch, which cannot be said of other more popular bands.
Tool – Fear Inoculum
I’m no Tool expert. I have only the most cursory knowledge of their catalog, which is strange because I like what I’ve heard and I’m a huge fan of Chevelle, which is far too often compared to Tool. I guess the expense of going out and buying all their albums has been a barrier to me. Regardless, I really enjoy this album. Fantastic bass work and overall musicianship. Was it worth the wait for diehard Tool fans? I can’t say, but I do know that it is a great album.
Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind
I’m a weird Slipknot fan. I like what I hear when I listen to their music, but I haven’t gone out and bought all their albums. The only album I own is 2004’s “Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses,” which I consider to be a masterpiece. It is heavy, progressive, and altogether wonderful. I think it is one of the finest albums of all time, in fact. Nothing else they’ve done has matched that album for me, including “We Are Not Your Kind.” However, they have somewhat returned to the heaviness of their early days. It isn’t entirely that heavy, but the songs that are really deliver. I was going to buy the album, but Amazon is only selling their own crappy knockoff version on CD… although I don’t know why that stopped me because I’ve basically stopped using Amazon altogether because they’re owned by a jerk and they have a habit of selling fake Chinese goods instead of the real thing… But back to Slipknot. “Solway Firth” is probably my favorite track of the year. It showcases everything that Slipknot does best, and Corey Taylor is at his absolute best on it. Probably not for the kiddos though, so be forewarned on that.
3. Big Big Train – Grand Tour
You probably could’ve guess this would end up on this list. I love Big Big Train, and even though I thought this album didn’t stray far enough from their last few albums as it could have, I still think it’s great. It is interesting to compare this album (and their previous three) with The Underfall Yard to hear how their sound has changed. They’re much more pastoral, but this album still includes some heavy rock moments. I hope to be able to see this band live someday. I know they’re coming to America in 2020, but I can’t afford to make it to Rosfest. Maybe someday though. Check out my Dutch Progressive Rock Page review of Grand Tour: http://www.dprp.net/reviews/2019-037. Check out Rick Krueger’s Progarchy review here: https://progarchy.com/2019/05/04/big-big-train-grand-tour/
2. Steve Hackett – At The Edge of Light
Steve Hackett is a legend, and legends tend to rest upon their laurels without continuing to innovate. Well throw that idea out the window when approaching Hackett’s latest effort. He has arguably made his greatest solo album to date with “At The Edge of Light.” It is absolutely brilliant. I gave it a 10/10 over at the DPRP, and I stand by that rating. Check out that review here: http://www.dprp.net/reviews/2019-005, and check out Rick Krueger’s Progarchy review here: https://progarchy.com/2019/01/27/steve-hackett-at-the-edge-of-light/
1. Devin Townsend – Empath
I was floored by this album. It is stunningly beautiful and brilliant. I’m so glad Devin Townsend moved away from the Devin Townsend Project and made this as a solo album. It perfectly combines the heaviness he is most well-known for with the calmness and beauty of some of his calmer side projects. The orchestral arrangements (expertly brought to life at the live shows by Diego Tejeida of Haken) take his music to new heights. I’m amazed how in a symphonic song like “Why?” Townsend can still use his growling vocals and it works perfectly! He has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, and he takes full advantage of it on this album. He goes from operatic highs to his signature screaming, and he proves he’s the best in the world at both. I am not exaggerating when I say this album is a masterpiece. There’s a reason it was voted the number 1 album of the year by the DPRP, a rating which was based upon its inclusion in all of our individual top 10 lists. There is so much going on in “Empath” musically and lyrically. Townsend put his soul into it and it shows. What is truly amazing is the special edition comes with a CD of demos and those demos by themselves are better than most of the music released in 2019. Only Devin Townsend could release a CD of outtakes that aren’t even finished that are good enough to make a year-end “best of” list in their own right.
Long list I know. I guess I did listen to a lot of music this year after all. I only saw two prog concerts this year, but they were both fantastic and they were both first times for me. I saw Riverside in Chicago back in May (review: https://progarchy.com/2019/05/20/concert-review-riverside-rock-chicago-5-19-2019/), and I was blown away. They are so talented it’s not even funny, and sometimes it takes seeing a band live to realize it. After that I went and completed my collection of their back catalog, and for much of the summer Riverside’s music dominated my listening.
I also saw Steve Hackett for the first time back in October. He’s been at the top of my bucket list for a while, and I got to see him play the best album of all time! – Genesis’ “Selling England by the Pound.” (My review: https://progarchy.com/2019/10/05/steve-hackett-sells-england-by-the-pound-live-at-20-monroe-live-grand-rapids-mi-10-3-19/ ; Rick Krueger’s review of the same concert: https://progarchy.com/2019/10/06/in-concert-steve-hackett-at-the-edge-of-spectral-mornings-light/). The crowd wasn’t the greatest (very loud and very drunk), but Hackett was excellent. It was really cool to finally get to see Nad Sylvan as well, who performed exceptionally well. It was particularly neat to see Nick D’Virgilio walk past me at intermission. Great show. If you haven’t seen Hackett live before, you need to. If you have seen him live then go see him again.
Well there you go folks. 2019 is just about over, and I look forward to another great year for music in 2020. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!