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A Year In Review: The Best Progressive-Metal Albums of 2017

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Progressive metal can mean a lot of things. If you take the most accepted definition you would hear something like “a blend of heavy, guitar-oriented metal music enriched with compositional innovation and complex arrangements, usually expressed through diverse instrumentation and often with odd-time signatures. Similar to progressive rock, progressive metal draws influences from other genres, such as jazz/fusion, ethnic, classical and symphonic music“. Nonetheless for many bands the term simply describes an approach to songwriting that focuses on what can be done with technicality, bringing it far beyond what listeners would hear in average contexts. Angular solos, driving drums and off-beat patterns creating a kind of sound that’s infinitely thrilling and incredible to hear. At it’s core, “progressive” should mean something that drives the music forward beyond cliche conventions and average songwriting into otherworldly art.

This year we did not mix the progressive-rock albums with the ones included in this list, but created two separated articles; therefore you can take a look at our humble attempt to rank the prog-rock releases by visiting A Year In Review: The Best Progressive-Rock Albums of 2017 – Part I. The list below caters to our personal taste and to the spectrum of albums we listened to during 2017. We do not rank albums based on pure musical instrumentation ability or sonic clarity but using many other criteria, one of them being the ability of the music to draw us back again and again to play a specific record. At the end music is a subjective listening experience and our opinions are no more valid than yours if we are on opposite sides of the fence. Naturally, we welcome your feedback in the comments, as lists like these always stir up plenty of discussion (and even a bit of controversy, which is fine as long as you keep it civilized). Let’s take a look…

10. Ayreon – The Source (Music Theories Recording)

As with most Ayreon albums, “The Source” is a rock opera, with each singer playing a different character. This double-album delivers everything Ayreon fans had been hoping for. Classic progressive rock influences from the sixties and seventies in the key of Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Queen and Yes meet vivid heavy, power and progressive metal elements. The seventeen new songs are highly diversified, energizing and intellectual. The twelve main vocalists are some of the best and brightest in metal and every line is passionately composed and executed whether the characters sing to themselves, harmonize in groups, or engage one another in rock opera combat. The concept is as bombastic as ever and it stands out for being one of the most “metal” albums that Arjen has ever recorded. The songs show more riffs than usual and have a guitar crunch hasn’t been this dominant since 2000’s “Flight of the Migrator“. From the instrumental work and performances of the guest singers over the lyrics and story line to the production and design of cover artwork and booklet, this album is fully convincing and ranks among Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s best works to date.

9.  Leprous – Malina (InsideOut Music)

Starting as a backing band for the black metal icon Ihsahn, Leprous have gradually managed to build a reputation of one of the most fresh and exciting progressive metal acts in recent years. The band has undergone stylistic change from a frantic slightly avant-garde style to a more melodic and atmospheric sound. “Malina” brings that change to its more refined state. A record full of witty and subtle progressions, it exudes creativity yet it is at the same time simple and even fun, providing great enjoyment for both casual and deep listens. In so many ways it remains faithful to the core Leprous sound but it is bound to raise the eyebrows of many existing fans at the same time. The more rhythmic, staccato guitar work remains, as does the flair for the deceptively complex compositional and instrumental work. An album that is definitely a grower and really leaves us curious about where the band will go next.

8.  Sons Of Apollo – Psychotic Symphony (InsideOut Music)

The following words say it all, really: Portnoy, Sheehan, Sherinian, Bumblefoot and Scott-Soto. Due to its line-up of obvious musical “super-heroes”, Sons of Apollo’s debut album was bound to be anticipated with nothing short of frenzy. Teaser releases were gobbled up hysterically, and the musical nature of the forthcoming album became the subject of extensive fan speculation. In fact, the advance videos, which featured the more straightforward songs, belied the fact that this album features a serious amount of unbridled prog-rock mayhem. The belligerent power of “Psychotic Symphony” is one thing, but the mind-boggling complexity of some of the arrangements is quite another. With only a few exceptions, this album is highly cerebral music, and it is a clear declaration that these five musicians intend to stage a prog-metal coup, with guns fully loaded. The album is heavy, packed with power, innovative, progressive (in all senses of the word), and yet very attentive to the members’ childhood influences, such as Van Halen and Deep Purple. A passion project if ever there was one.

7.  Threshold – Legends Of The Shires (Nuclear Blast)

Threshold remains the most consistent prog-metal band perhaps of all time with this, their 11th standard full-length release. “Legends of the Shires” is poppy yet heavy; visceral yet gentle; technically proficient yet restrained; riff-loaded yet never overbearing. If there is a single word that could properly sum up the nature of this opus, it would be philosophical. With exuberant and powerful pieces as “The Man Who Saw through Time”, “Stars and Satellites” and “Trust the Process” the album is truly go-getting and organically balanced. In essence, “Legends of the Shires” is an album that is both excellent yet also stylistically conservative, largely relying upon familiar elements. That being said, longtime fans of this band will have zero difficulty in heralding this as a worthy, if not the best of their output since Glynn Morgan had his original run with the band. (You can read our own review of this album here)

6.  Need – Hegaiamas: A Song for Freedom (Self Release)

Hailing from Greece, Need gained massive popularity after the release of their third LP, “Orvam: A Song for Home“, and grand touring across Europe and America, opening for big names, such as Symphony X and Candlemass. On their 2017 release “Hegaiamas : A Song For Freedom” the band displays a clinic on the execution of time signatures, chord progressions and heavy progressive atmospheres. Every riff is interesting and unique; every song paced and purposeful. There is nothing not to like for the prog-metal lover among the seven-song track-list which clocks one hour and four minutes: a listening experience which flows smoothly and becomes captivating after a couple of spins. The combination of the finest elements of modern progressive metal – high musicianship, intriguing compositions, passion, melody, you name it – is what makes this album truly shine. The epic closing title track is worth the price of admission alone. (The guys from MetalPaths published a great review of this album, which you can read in this location)

5.  Mother Of Millions – Sigma (ViciSolum Records)

Another Greek band unheard of for many, “Sigma” is Mother Of Millions sophomore release, emphasizing their atmospheric, rhythmic-focused prog rock/metal style dripping with melancholic, soothing yet haunting atmospheres and punctuated by fantastic riffs. The entire album is loud, audacious and packed to the brim with a considerable variety of different progressive and other world musical styles and altogether embroiled with an abundance of movement and pace entwined with time changes galore. Very immersive sounding music that is predominantly about mood but as you scratch your way past the veneer you’ll hear all the progressive elements that are lurking underneath. Sophisticated songwriting embodying a rich palette of sonic tapestries topped off with a pensive and somber approach, these guys are one of our favorite discoveries of 2017.  (You can read an excellent review from our friends at ProgRadar in this location)

4.  Caligula’s Horse – In Contact (InsideOut Music)

Caligula’s Horse unique embroidery of progressive metal laced with raw rock power is in full display in their 2017 release “In Contact“. Fluid, monumental, and striking, offering a broad palate of unforgettable moments wrapped up with expert songwriting and composing, its ten tracks range from two-minute acoustic folk ballads to accessible, melodic rockers to spoken-word poems all the way to quarter-of-an-hour-long, experimental suites. A magnificently polished and immaculate production, which unapologetically demands your full-fledged attention, “In Contact” is destined to be considered Caligula’s Horse’s greatest musical achievement to date and a relevant, absolutely outstanding progressive-metal release. (You can read a review from The Prog Report in this location)

3.  Subterranean Masquerade – Vagabond (ViciSolum Records)

Imagine what would happen should such bands as Pink Floyd, Dream Theater, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, Opeth, In The Woods, King Crimson, and David Bowie all get together in one room… well, this album could probably give you that feeling. US formed, Israel based band Subterranean Masquerade is a melting pot of other bands as well with members of Green Carnation (Kjetil Nordhus as lead vocalist) and Orphaned Land (drummer Matan Shmuely). This is not an album just for prog-rock fans – anyone who appreciates great music will find plenty to like here  –  beautiful melodies, a strong Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ‘essences’, sudden changes of music styles, female vocals, menacing growls, saxophone solos, chugging riffs, powerful drumming and strong 70s-inspired keyboard sounds all make their mark in an opening song that is utterly glorious. A record that ventures into the peculiar and unorthodox territories, it has enough melody, eclecticism, uniqueness and complexity to satisfy the most demanding ears. Our only gripe? At 40 minutes it ends way too soon, leaving us wanting for more. (You can read the Metal Wani comprehensive review in this location)

2.  DayDream XI – The Circus Of The Tattered and Torn (Laser’s Edge)

Mixing rock, hard rock and progressive rock with heavy metal and power metal influences, Brazil’s Daydream XI is a band with no self-imposed boundaries. In their sophomore release, “The Circus Of The Tattered And Torn” the band embraces the progressive side of their music in a dark concept album. The concept is a metaphor to express that we are drawn to each other more by our weaknesses and our flaws than our strengths and virtues. A true awesome journey filled with brilliant playing from start to finish, “The Circus Of The Tattered And Torn” sports passionate vocal with a soulful approach paired with both complex and varied harmonies: a roller-coaster of tempos, acoustic passages, and building crescendos with an identity and flavor all its own. Hard to pick a favorite song between so many gems, the title track is just massively epic. To be honest it was hard not to put this record in the number one spot. (You can read our own review of this album here)

1.  Pain Of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day (InsideOut Music)

In The Passing Light of Day” was written as a direct result of Daniel Gildenlöw’s very serious brush with death in 2014 (he was almost killed by a critical flesh-eating bacterial infection.) Facing his own mortality, Gildenlöw takes the band and the listener through every contemplation and emotion he encountered during the ordeal, including anger, reconciliation, loss, capitulation, resistance, acceptance and ultimately, hope. The album is therefore inevitably, heavy, dark and introspective. It is filled with power, weight, melody and intensely detailed arrangements, such that only Pain of Salvation can deliver (try the staccato vocal counterpoints in “These Are The Reasons”, for example.) Not clinging exclusively to old formulas of the past, the disc runs like a tempestuous journey through a troubled and disturbed mind, full of fear and despair. A flood of emotions transposed into sometimes complex and irascible arrangements others simply and touching. With fantastic vocals and compositional contributions from former guitarist Ragnar Zolber, “In The Passing Light of Day” is an absolutely honest and visceral work, one that succeeds at being an enticing and compelling journey this has its own identity, influences and coherence, hence it’s our pick for the best prog-metal release of 2017. (You can read detailed review courtesy of The Progressive Aspect in this location)

COMEBACK ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Galactic Cowboys – Long Way Back To The Moon (Mascot Label Group)

Seventeen years is a long time between albums, but late is always better than never. Criminally overlooked prog-metal act Galactic Cowboys landed back on Earth in 2017 with their third album “Long Way Back to The Moon“. The album’s sound is alternately heavy, whimsical, charging, and crunching, combining inescapable atmosphere with the drive of a band on a mission. Old fans will feel at home, but hard rock fans who have never heard Galactic Cowboys before will also be instantly hooked. As with all Galactic Cowboys albums, the songs are emotional in topic, and often including a large dose of ironic humor. Each song is performed, sung, and written with intense passion. A graceful and well-constructed musical effort, which brings a sorely missed band back into today’s musical landscape, “Long Way Back to The Moon” is a long-overdue comeback: once the fans were longing and will be thankful for. (You can read our own review of this album here)

INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Nova Collective – The Further Side (InsideOut Music)

A group made up of instrumental superstars from a few very well-known progressive bands Between the Buried and Me, Haken, Trioscapes, and Cynic, Nova Collective‘s music can be described as fusion, weaving progressive rock influences with world music, jazz and classical. Songs like “Dancing Machines“, display the band’s dizzying prowess and ability to beautifully weave multiple influences into something entirely new and it is simply pure aural candy for fans with prog/jazz leanings. It is immediately clear that this album is a labor of love for all involved, and that enthusiasm shines throughout. Full of technicality and virtuosity, but whilst still retaining strong song-writing prowess and drawing hooks, these six tracks are a wonder to experience.

SURPRISE ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Innerspace – Rise (Private Release)

This one frankly could have been included in the list of progressive-rock releases as well as included here, as it flirts with neo-progressive rock as much as it does with symphonic rock. The sophomore release by Canadian band Innerspace, “Rise” is a 70-minute-long concept album, about a dystopian future, which is dark, melancholic, but beautiful and melodic at the same time. The music bears a cinematic feel going into some different mood with piano and acoustic guitar through some prog-metal parts with crunchy of electric guitars. All this music is embellished with classical arrangements and Latin chants and when the mood slows down, I am reminded of post 90’s Pink Floyd, and the fact that singer Phil Burton at times sounds like David Gilmour, adds to that feeling. Unfaltering execution both musically and lyrically which creates a collection of diverse, challenging and evocative soundscapes for the modern world. Make sure to check out this album.

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