Bryan’s Best of the Decade, 2012-2022

As we here at Progarchy continue to celebrate our tenth anniversary, we’re moving from talking about our favorite artists of the decade to our favorite albums. Since 2014 I’ve compiled a “best of” list highlighting my favorite music of the year. Looking back, I still stand behind my lists because they represent where I was with music at the time. But now as I look back and try to compile a top ten for 2012-2022, my list looks a little bit different. The following list reflects my views and tastes regarding the last ten years as they sit right now. It’s all very fluid and subjective.

But enough blathering. On with my top ten. The only limit I put on myself was I didn’t want to repeat artists, because otherwise it would all be Big Big Train or Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy. Limiting myself to one album from each of those artists was difficult, but I’ll steer you back to my yearly best of lists at the end of the article, for those artists abound in those lists.

[Headline links, for those that have them, link to Progarchy reviews, articles, or interviews associated with the album.]

10. Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light Of Day (2017)Pain of Salvation - Passing Light of DayI missed this album when it came out, although I remember reading about it in Prog magazine. I came to appreciate Pain of Salvation with their 2020 album, Panther, which was my top album of the year. I finally started to dig into their back catalog this summer, and I’ve been blown away. In The Passing Light Of Day is a brilliant tour-de-force of emotions. Some of the lyrics I think are too sexually explicit, which is primarily why I rank it at number 10 and why I almost kicked it off my top ten. But the music and melodies are so good, and most of the lyrics are incredibly profound. I also think Ragnar Zolberg brought a lot to the table and was a great balance to Daniel Gildenlöw.

9. The Neal Morse Band – Innocence and Danger (2021)
The Neal Morse Band Innocence & DangerIt was hard to pick one of the MANY albums made by Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy  over the past decade. They’re all just so good, so I took the easy way out and picked the most recent. I think this is the most well put-together of all the Neal Morse Band albums. “Beyond the Years” is one of the finest pieces of music to come out of the last several years.

8. TesseracT – Portals (2021)
tesseract-portalsPortals is a brilliant album. It is unique on this list for being a live release, but it is also unique for being a live-in-studio release – a product of the pandemic. I suppose that’s why I don’t rank it higher on this list, but I’ve been listening to it a ton since it came out. I even broke down recently and bought the fancy deluxe CD/DVD/Blu-ray edition. I think most of the tracks on here sound better than they do on the original albums. The album also introduced me to the band, as well as to the world of djent. The way the band blends djent riffs with Floydian spacey motifs is just perfect. One of the finest bands in the world right now.

7. Haken – The Mountain (2013)
haken mountainI go in spurts when listening to Haken (like I do with many bands). The Mountain has a magnificent blend of metal with splashes of 70s golden age prog. Songs like “Atlas Stone,” “The Cockroach King,” “Falling Back to Earth,” and “Pareidolia” have become prog metal classics, in my book. I’ve come to think Haken isn’t as compelling in their quiet tracks as bands like Riverside of TesseracT, but this entire album is still very listenable nine years later.

6. Marillion – F.E.A.R. (2016)
arton33729Marillion’s F.E.A.R. was my introduction to the band, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed diving back into their catalog. I’d have to say I think this is one of their best with Hogarth. Their latest album, “An Hour Before It’s Dark,” comes very close to it, but “Reprogram the Gene” knocks it down a peg for me. F.E.A.R. combines musical prowess with cultural critique to wonderful effect, even if I may disagree with Hogarth at points.

5. Riverside – Shrine of New Generation Slaves (2013)
riversideI had a hard time deciding which of Riverside’s three studio albums from the past decade to choose. Love, Fear and the Time Machine and Wasteland are both brilliant, and if I had allowed myself to choose multiple albums from the same artist in a top ten, Wasteland would probably be here too, but I think Shrine edges both of them out. It’s heavy, both musically and lyrically. Several of the songs turn into real earworms for me, and I’m never disappointed when I return to this record. And it’s another one on this list that I discovered several years after its release.

4. Oak – False Memory Archive (2018)
Oak false memory archiveOak is my favorite new band of the last decade. Both their 2013 (2016 release on CD) album Lighthouse and 2018’s False Memory Archive are brilliant albums, if not perfect. This record was my top album of 2018, and Lighthouse was my top album of 2016 (I didn’t realize at the time it had been released digitally earlier). The Norwegian melancholic aesthetic is dripping from both albums. It was hard to pick one of the two, but the closing track on False Memory Archive, “Psalm 51,” is one of the finest album closers I’ve ever heard. I think that gives this record the edge.

3. Devin Townsend – Empath (2019)
Devin Townsend - EmpathI was blown away by Devin Townsend’s Empath when it came out – so much so that I bought the 2CD deluxe version that year and the super deluxe version when Inside Out funded that project the next year. The record masterfully blends all the aspects of Devin’s career into a truly unique and truly Devin experience. It has the heavy bombast of Strapping Young Lad at points, yet it’ll soar into orchestral and even operatic highs elsewhere – or even at the same time. Pure musical theater in the best way. Devin’s vocal performance on “Why?” is stunning, and the message of hope on “Spirits Will Collide” is always a pleasant reminder that life is worth living. The production side of things, with Devin’s famed “wall of sound,” is unmatched in his career, or anyone else’s for that matter.

2. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)

Steven_Wilson_Hand_Cannot_Erase_coverHere we come to one of the truly great albums of our time. I would certainly rank this in a top 10 best albums of all time. Back in 2015, this album was my number 3 pick, with The Tangent’s “A Spark in the Aether” coming in at number 1. Now I still think that’s a great record, and I wrestled with whether or not to include it in my top 10, but I think over time Wilson’s masterpiece has proven to be a generational album. Both the music and the story sound fresh, even seven years and many listens later. The themes of isolation and loneliness in city life (or life in general) will always be relatable. Someone 100 years from now could listen to this record, and while they may miss some of the references (even I still miss some of them), the underlying theme will still connect. That’s what places this record up there with the likes of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

1. Big Big Train – English Electric: Full Power (2013)
Big Big Train English Electric Full PowerThe defining band and defining album for the last decade of prog. Looking back, this record was the one that got me into the contemporary progressive rock scene. Returning to it today is a special treat, as I hope it always will be. It contains everything you might want out of a quintessentially “English” progressive rock band. It has the rock, the folk elements, the complex musicality, the well-told stories. And then there’s David Longdon’s voice, showing us his command of the material and his command of the upcoming several years in the prog scene. When I traveled to England in 2015 (which to me felt like a longer distance between its release than it feels between now and that visit – it’s weird how your perception of time changes as you grow older) I really wanted to listen to this album while being out in the hedgerows and fields. I can still remember sitting on a bus traveling between towns listening to English Electric (I wrote more about this in a piece back in 2016). There are a lot of good emotions connected to this record for me. But beyond that, Big Big Train showed us all that they were THE powerhouse in the new generation of prog bands. They were who all the younger bands were going to look up to for the next decade, and they did it all themselves. Sure, the journey began when Longdon boarded back in 2009 for The Underfall Yard, but English Electric was where they really picked up steam. Every album since has been magnificent, with many topping my best of lists in the ensuing years, but this one will always be the quintessential Big Big Train album for me.


As a coda to this review of the past decade in the best of prog, I want to give you the albums I picked as my favorites for the years 2014-2021 (I didn’t start my best of lists until ’14). I’ll include links to those lists as well. I find it interesting how I’ve “discovered” albums and bands even within the last year that have soared up my list, even if I missed them when they came out. Better late than never.

  • 2014Flying Colors – Second Nature  – I saw them live right after this was released. It’s a great record and a great band, but the poppier edge doesn’t stick with me as much as the records on my list above do.
  • 2015 – The Tangent – A Spark in the Aether – I shared above how Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. has grown in my estimation. I still think this is one of The Tangent’s finest records.
  • 2016 – Oak – Lighthouse – Even if its original release was 2013, this record still dominated my listening in 2016 and was my album of that year.
  • 2017Big Big Train – Grimspound, The Second Brightest Star, London Song, Merry Christmas EP – Enough said. Brilliant band. Brilliant music. Brilliant year for them.
  • 2018 – Oak – False Memory Archive
  • 2019 – Devin Townsend – Empath
  • 2020 – Pain of Salvation – Panther – I still think this is a great album. I listened to it yesterday at work, in fact. It was my intro to the band, and maybe I was shocked by how different it was from everything else I had been listened to in the genre. I’d still rank this record extremely highly, but I don’t know if I would put it at the top of the list if I were making a 2020 list today.
  • 2021 – Big Big Train – Common Ground – What can I say? I like Big Big Train.

Thanks for reading through all this. If you’ve been a prog fan throughout this past decade, I hope this brought back some good memories. If you’re new to prog, consider every album mentioned in this post as your homework over the coming weeks. Prepare to be blown away.

Here’s to hoping the next decade is even better.

Bryan’s Best of 2020

Looking back at 2020, it’s hard to believe that we lost Neil Peart at the beginning of the year. That loss hit me pretty hard, since Rush’s music has been central to my life from an early age. I talk more about that in my tribute to Peart: https://progarchy.com/2020/01/12/neil-peart-a-misfits-hero/. I start off my year-end review list with a reminder of the loss of Neil because it seems like a fitting way to remember 2020. Peart’s loss represents what so many people have lost this year, whether it be family members and friends due to the virus or jobs lost due to draconian forced business closures that haven’t actually accomplished anything in slowing the viral spread. Not to mention the emotional distress that physical separation is causing many people.

Another thing we lost this year was live music from our favorite bands. Big Big Train had their first North American tour planned for late spring this year. Canceled. Devin Townsend was in the middle of a glorious North American tour with Haken when everything blew up. Canceled. Obviously this list could be expanded to every band that tours. Losing live music makes it even more difficult for bands in a niche genre to spread their music to more people.

But enough lamenting. We still got a lot of great music this year. The following list is in no particular order apart from my number one album at the end. I include both new albums and live records.

Haken – Virus
I was a little surprised that I was the only person over at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page to include this one in my top ten list for their annual list. Maybe people were really sensitive about the name of the album, but it was clear that the album was written and completed before the novel coronavirus was a known entity. The music is fantastic. It’s probably their heaviest album to date, but it still has some of their calmer moments. It’s Haken through-and-through, and it makes a wonderful companion to 2018’s Vector. We also get to hear some more about our old nemesis, the cockroach king. It’s pretty cool how they worked in some of those themes. Fantastic album that should’ve received more attention than it did. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2020/07/23/haken-goes-viral-virus-album-review-haken_official/

Continue reading “Bryan’s Best of 2020”

Paint of Salvation band members

Healing Our Time: Pain of Salvation’s “Panther”

Pain of Salvation PantherPain of Salvation, Panther, Inside Out Music, August 28, 2020.

Tracks: 1. Accelerator (05:31), 2. Unfuture (06:46), 3. Restless Boy (03:34), 4. Wait (07:04), 5. Keen to a Fault (06:01), 6. Fur (01:34), 7. Panther (04:11), 8. Species (05:18), 9. Icon (13:30) 

Members: Daniel Gildenlöw – lead vocals and lots of stuff; Johan Hallgren – guitar and vocals; Léo Margarit – drums and vocals; Daniel Karlsson – keyboards, guitars, and vocals; Gustaf Hielm – bass and vocals 

Apparently I’m about two and a half decades late to the Pain of Salvation game. Better late than never, I suppose. I know I’ve listened to some of their more recent work when it came out, but at the time it didn’t grab me. Panther grabbed me, and now listening to a bit of their back catalog I’m starting to get it. Pain of Salvation have their own unique corner of the progressive metal market. No one else sounds quite like they do, at least on this new album. Pain of Salvation is just more proof that Scandinavia has the best bands.

Panther deals with tensions between those who fit into society and those who don’t. As someone who probably fits with the latter (and I imagine many progressive rock fans and musicians also would), the overarching concept certainly appeals. There are also dystopic overtones throughout, especially on “Unfuture.”

Welcome to the new world… a better and improved world for our mankind. – “Unfuture”

On the concept, Daniel Gildenlöw comments, “Because we live in a time where we’re more aware of people not fitting the norm and we’re doing everything we can as a society to acknowledge all of these individuals, but at the same time, they’re more disowned than ever, more medicated than ever. The album is painting pictures of a world, I guess. If this was a movie it would be scenes from a city. It’s set in one city, and it’s populated by dogs and the panthers, the so-called normal people and the spectrum people. That’s the setting for the entire album.”

Conceptually this is an album that will stand the test of time. It deals with timeless issues, in a similar way to Steven Wilson’s lyrics from both his Porcupine Tree and solo careers.

Continue reading “Healing Our Time: Pain of Salvation’s “Panther””

Coming from Inside Out Music …

Hardly breaking stride, Inside Out Music ramps up their summer schedule with a fistful of new releases (some of which had to be rescheduled due to manufacturing delays).  Unless otherwise noted, links go to CD versions of these upcoming albums available at Burning Shed; LP and download editions will also be available.

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July

August

September

 

— Rick Krueger

PAIN OF SALVATION Works On New Concept Album

Swedish progressive rock innovators Pain of Salvation have kept busy working on various new recording projects ever since their latest release, the semi-acoustic album “Falling Home” from November 2014. Having just returned from some successful shows in Russia, Pain of Salvation have now also announced a next string of shows in The Netherlands and Italy. Here are…

http://www.prog-sphere.com/news/pain-salvation-works-new-concept-album/

A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress

I balked for a few moments at the temptation of writing an indulgent, long, complex, and idiosyncratic post about my journey to and into prog, and then realized: hey, this is Progarchy.com! If I cannot string together tenuously-related, semi-mystical concepts and conceits imbued with mythical overtones, quasi-autobiographical meta-narratives, and intertwining (and purposely confusing) philosophical musings here, then what’s the point of this wonderful blog? (No need to answer that, as I’m already soloing  on my inner Moog without regard for the boring 4/4 time signature others might wish to force upon me.) Actually, much of what follows was already presented in a long-ish comment I left on a previous post below. But Brad, as he often does, inspired me to do more, even at the risk of embarrassing the shy and retiring Olson clan. So here goes.

I was oddly oblivious to most music until my early teens. This was due in part to being raised in a Fundamentalist home and church, both of which largely frowned on rock music as the rhythmic spawn of the devil, meant to corrupt good morals and encourage bad haircuts. Yes, the stereotypes do hold, at least to some degree.  I heard a lot of church music (classic Protestant hymns, some of them very good) and mostly bland to bad contemporary Christian music. Then, around the age of fourteen or so, I started listening to the radio (one station, weak signal) and began to slowly accumulate a few tapes. My road to prog went through AOR acts such as Journey, REO Speedwagon, Loverboy, Foreigner, and Styx, with a helping of popular mid-80s albums by ELO, Elton John, Toto, and Queen. I found the standard rock of the day (including some of the stuff above) to be rather dull; I was fascinated by the more extended songs of Elton (the early 1970s albums especially), Queen, Asia, and the Moody Blues. I’m happy to say I was hooked on “Bohemian Rhapsody” long before “Wayne’s World” re-presented it to my generation. Also, I thought the usual popular, party music about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll was mostly shallow, even if occasionally diverting. Which is another way of saying I secretly listened to my share of Van Halen while playing some laughable air guitar (oh, wait, all air guitar is laughable). I did not, however, ever party. Seriously.

Around 1985 or so, I bought a copy of “The Best of Kansas”. That opened the door to prog. There was something about the mixture of Livgren’s lead guitar, Steinhardt’s violin, and Steve Walsh’s amazing voice, along with lyrics soaked in spiritual longing and Americana, that grabbed me by the scrawny neck. Over the next three or four years, I ended up collecting everything by Kansas, Kerry Livgren (solo and with AD), and Steve Morse (solo, Dixie Dregs, etc.). My favorite Kansas albums are “Song for America” and “In the Spirit of Things”, although they weren’t the chart-toppers that “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture” were. I also went on a serious Moody Blues binge, focusing on the early stuff, prior to their more pop-oriented work of the mid-’80s. Then I really got into Yes (both Rabin-era and the early classic albums with Howe), Rush, and Pink Floyd; in fact, while in Bible college (1989-91), I freaked out some of my more staid classmates with my obsessive interest in Pink Floyd, Queen, Queenrÿche, and King’s X (and, yes, I also listened to Petra, David Meece, White Heart, White Cross, Russ Taff, and Margaret Becker). King’s X was a major revelation, especially the brilliant, crunching, melodic beauty of “faith hope love”, which was a masterful blend of hard rock, metal, prog, blues, and Beatle-esque harmonies. And I recall very clearly driving across the Montana plains to school in Saskatchewan, blaring “Fly By Night” and other brilliant Rush tunes. Ah, to be young again.

A quick aside here, in the spirit of musical indulgence: while in high school, I also developed a semi-secret soft spot for country artists such as Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, and Jim Reeves. And two composers: Mozart and Brahms. I tried to get into opera (our family doctor, who owned a massive classical collection, gave it his best shot), but couldn’t get there. I would try again in the late 1990s, failing again. And at one point I must have listened to Eric Clapton’s 1989 comeback album, “Journeyman”, about a thousand times. Go figure, as it’s the only Clapton album I’ve ever fixated on. Okay, back to prog.

In my early-to-mid twenties (1989-1995), I launched into Van Morrison, Seal, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and jazz, five of my big musical loves ever since (I’ll eventually write some disturbingly long posts about each, I hope). My interest in prog advanced in fits and starts. Yes was a constant, as I worked through most of the band’s catalog, with excursions into solo projects by Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, and Steve Howe. The next big breakthrough was Dream Theater in the late 1990s, followed by Spock’s Beard, then Porcupine Tree and a bunch of others. Then, around 2004, I “discovered” Frank Sinatra, which led to the purchase of about 1,000 Sinatra tunes (favorite album: “In the Wee Small Hours”). I mention Sinatra because I have the semi-crazy idea of writing a blog titled, “Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog?”, that will either get me ejected from Progarchy, or enshrined in the Progarchy Hall of Fame.

I fully agree with Brad: we are living in a new, golden age of prog. There is such a stunning array of prog and prog-ish music to be had, I’ve long given up hope of keeping abreast of it all. Current favorites, in addition to the already mentioned acts, include Pain of Salvation, Threshold, Riverside, Muse, Animals As Leaders, Big Big Train, Anathema, Devin Townsend, Three, Astra, Blackfield, The Pineapple Thief, King Crimson, Headspace, and Mars Volta. But there are still huge holes in my prog knowledge and experience. I’m making prog-ress, but the road continues to rise and wind ahead. Which is exciting, as it means there is more to discover and hear.