Let’s set the record straight right from the start: we love lists. Despite the innate subjectivity nature of them, we enjoy to rank, and furthermore to discuss about it. Ranking music albums when the year is coming to a close always feels sort of unwise, like pretending they’re race cars instead of representations of other people’s hearts, views and sentiments; yet here we are at it again. This year though we have taken a different approach: we have decided to separate this list into two: one for the progressive rock albums and one for the progressive-metal ones. Why? Simple answer: despite they are obviously related sub-genres, they are essentially two different animals. And if you are reading this article is because you are somewhat aware of the differences, therefore we won’t get into details. If you enjoy your progressive tea served with the right dosage of heavier guitars, you can jump straight to A Year In Review: The Best Progressive-Metal Albums of 2017.
Our customary “clarification”: This list 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. Last, but not least, we obviously did not listen to every single prog-rock and prog-metal release. If your favorite album did not make our list, we might simply haven’t listened to it. 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). Without further ado…
17. Eloy – The Vision, The Sword & The Pyre (Part 1) – (Artists Station Records)
Long-standing German proggers Eloy returned with a bang in 2017. (An Eloy release is truly an event of note in the Prog world, bearing in mind that their previous two albums were released in 2009 and 1998 respectively.) This release, a rock opera about Joan of Arc, features many accomplished vocalists delivering dramatic performances under the direction of Eloy founder Frank Bornemann, who has harboured the idea of this release for several decades. This first version of the work is now to be released as two separate albums. Neither the band nor the stage production contain the type of sung dialogue common to most musicals and rock operas, and this decision, according to Frank Bornemann, distances it from all previous works in the genre and frees up more powerful and expressive possibilities. The historical figures express their thoughts through song with poetic and lyrical refinement. The few spoken passages are likewise accentuated by correspondingly atmospheric music. All the titles of course contain vocal contributions that lead the listener through the action, from brachial choirs á la Carl Orff to delicate children’s voices. A further innovation is surely the involvement of numerous and illustrious guests on the band album. This makes for many truly exceptional and surprising moments on the band album. A work of panoramic scope and proportions, “The Vision, The Sword & The Pyre (Part 1)” is a worthy vehicle for the long-awaited return of this legendary band. Here’s to the arrival (sooner rather than later) of Part 2.
16. Steven Wilson – To the Bone (Caroline International)
At the same time poppy, proggy and rocky, Steven Wilson’s 2017 album, “To The Bone”, is significant in that it broke him into the mainstream, with major chart success and significant commercial sales. The ever-evolving King of European Prog is known to be an ardent seeker of new directions with every release, and the general consensus is that “To The Bone” is Wilson’s foray into the world of 80’s pop. While this may to some extent be true, this should not be construed as any kind of abandonment of the Maestro’s proclivity for complexity and innovation. The album does indeed boast several straightforward pop songs (such as ‘Permanating’), but there are also several moments of Porcupine Tree-like grandeur and lush art-rock. The singular moment of most distinction has to be ‘Pariah’, Wilson’s heart-wrenching duet with wildly talented vocalist Ninet Tayeb. (You can check our own review of the album here)
15. Steve Hackett – The Night Siren (InsideOut Music)
Never one to rest on his laurels, Steve Hackett released an edgy album in 2017. “The Night Siren” boasts a strong theme (the historical plight of refugees and the hope for a more unified world), delivered with a very international flavor. This is the kind of album that’s really great to just wrap yourself in, and let wash over you; is rich and full of warm, lush musical arrangements, diverse world music influences, and a very song-oriented compositional style. While Hackett’s guitar is omnipresent, he lets the other musicians on this album have their own moments in the spotlight as well: there is an orchestra, a choir and most of Hackett’s live band. Flamenco guitar, flute and mandolin are all to be heard. Therefore, while there is Prog and Rock, there is a mixture of styles, and, very dominantly, there is world music. There is also an urgent message. Expect to be transported to the East (or Middle East) from time to time, but expect your Prog hunger to be satiated as well. Perhaps Hackett’s darkest work, ”The Night Siren” reminds us of the fact that Hackett is far from spent. (You can read a detailed review by our friends from The Prog Report in this location)
14. Magenta – We Are Legends (Tigermoth Records)
The highly-regarded leaders of Welsh Prog returned in 2017 with an album that needed to scale some very lofty heights to eclipse its brilliant predecessor, 2013’s “The Twenty-Seven Club”. While somewhat different in approach to the latter, “We Are Legend”, comprising one 27-minute epic and two shorter songs, was an extremely worthy successor. Filled to the brim with variation and innovation, the album, while sometimes departing from the Magenta of old, is brilliant in a different, yet still familiar way. Innovative and modern, it somehow remains faithful to the band’s classic roots, and is in all respects spectacular. The stand-out track has to be the 27-minute sci-fi epic ‘Trojan’. This record is a sublime forty-nine minutes of musical bliss and sees Magenta back in the top echelon of progressive rock acts where they deservedly belong. (You can read a detailed review by our friends from The Prog Report in this location)
13. Nau Aletheia – Los Misterios de Eleusis (Viajero Inmóvil Records)
Every year there’s a release which comes out of the right field and hits you like a ton of bricks. The debut album “Los Misterios De Eleusis” from the Argentinian quartet Nau Aletheia is a little gem, a warm musical paradise built upon several combined styles. Rock, art rock, jazz, alternative, experimental, ambient, symphonic and eclectic, you can hear sporadic similitude with bands like Univers Zero, Änglagård and King Crimson, mostly surfacing in the first half of the record, meanwhile the second half veers into more classical and jazz oriented waters. The music formulae an emotional architectural structure saturated with colors: orchestral moments, wind instruments, piano segments and electric sections conform a full gamut masterfully combined into an artistic and dramatic context. The album keeps an overall aura of serenity and melancholy – one that surprises and delights at the very same time. Very artistic and brilliantly imaginative, this is a real progressive rock release for the open-minded music lover.
12. Arabs In Aspic – Syndenes Magi (Apollon Records)
Arabs in Aspic is a progressive rock band from Norway, and “Syndegenes Magi” is their sixth studio album – and the first to feature Norwegian sung lyrics. It consists of three epic length tracks filled with Hammond organ, Mellotron-ish sounds, plenty of synth flourishes and heavy guitars; brewing a delicious and unique sounding melting pot of progressive rock with a sound of the seventies. Think along the lines of Uriah Heep, Anekdoten, Il Balletto di Bronzo, and maybe even Deep Purple but with elements of Pink Floyd. Sort of like “The Magician’s Birthday” filtered through “Meddle” and “Starless and Bible Black” would be an appropiate description. From the opening slow-build crescendos and Hammond tsunamis of the title track to the euphoric, Floydian sweep of sleepy-eyed closing epic “Mörket 3”, this is yet another stunning retro-progressive Norwegian masterpiece.
11. The Tangent – The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery (InsideOut Music)
In 2015, Andy Tillison suffered a heart attack after which he took some time to recover. Some worried that he might not return to his previous levels of musical productivity and quality, but they need not have worried. On the contrary, “The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery” is easily the best Tangent release since 2003’s debut “The Music That Died Alone”. The album is complex, adventurous and clever, and it succeeds in blending traditional progressive-rock and jazz-fusion with the best type of inventiveness. From the literary perspective, the album approaches the difficult lyrical themes of refugee politics and migration with an aggression so bold that it borders on pure poetry. From the musical perspective, it is simply masterful, as one would expect from musicians of this caliber. Groove, catchiness, complexity, sophistication, meaningfulness, experimentalism – all attributes will apply regarding this album. The Tangent are indeed back! (You can read a detailed review by our friends from The Prog Report in this location.)
10. Cosmograf – The Hay-Man Dreams (Cosmograf Music)
A retrospective album in both theme and style, Robin Armstrong’s 6th album harks back to the sound and feel of the classic prog-rock era fused with the raw energy and darkness of a rock behemoth. Once again he masterfully melds impeccable musicianship with thoughtful and compelling story-telling to produce another must have album for serious progressive-rock fans. The theme presents as a mythical tale of a farm labourer meeting an early death, and leaving a loving wife and young family. His widow builds a scarecrow effigy as a shrine to her loss, and this ‘Hay-Man’ spends his weather beaten days in eternity, dreaming beyond his field. At times ominous and suspenseful, confident and assured, intelligent and beautiful “The Hay-Man Dreams” is an incredibly emotional rolle-coaster drenched in sublime and contrasting musical landscapes. Much more evocative and personal, loaded with emotional resonance and subtlety, this is an album which reveals more and more with every listening.
You can continue reading our selection of the best progressive-rock albums of 2017 by visiting A Year In Review: The Best Progressive-Rock Albums of 2017 – Part II