The 2016 Progressive Rock Extravaganza – Part II (Final)

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In what can be considered a fantastic year for the progressive-rock genre, classic bands returned with some of the best work in years; newer bands took their music to the next level, and some concept albums saw the light of day. This is actually the second and final part of this compilation article. You can read the first part by clicking here.

07.- Haken – Affinity

Despite The Mountain remains atop the list of my Haken favorite albums, Affinity comes very close.  Haken are the latest truly prog-metal band to take the world by storm, and arguably the best exponent of the current generation of bands in a genre which has evolved from anonymity to overcrowding. They combine the required level of instrumental virtuosity with a degree of song-craft and compositional skills unmatched by most of their peers. Superb vocal harmonies, intricate guitar melodies and solos, splendid keyboard soundscapes, killer drumming passages: they are all present in Haken’s music, and they are all combined differently for the utmost degree in terms of musicality. They are capable of writing a 9 minutes long song and you’ll be surprised how fast it goes. Their style is an amalgam of interesting, progressive tendencies that could be referenced from all over the prog-map, yet the result is something reinvented for the twenty-first century rather than a reverential pastiche of the music from a generation ago, and all of these characteristics are in perfect display throughout Affinity.

“Affinity” Album Cover

06.- Anderson/Stolt – The Invention of Knowledge

Invention of Knowledge is a brilliant album that showcases the talent of two legends, coming together for the first time and merging two significant eras of Progressive Rock. One could say that there is something for everyone on the album but more importantly, there is something that we all could take from the album. For many prog-rock aficionados this record could probably be the equivalent to that missing recording Yes never produced during their heyday in the seventeen. This is not a “one listen” album — this an album that grows with you in time, becoming an ever more rewarding musical experience as you gradually come to terms with its immense magnitude over repeated listens. It builds a wonderful soundscape of carefully arranged instrumental and breathtaking sophisticated vocal harmonies for the listener to get lost in, fact in which I find certainly similarities with –the love it or hate it– Yes album “Tales from Topographic Oceans“. Again four long songs, four exquisite sets all unique in their own way, four sets of delightful music complexities. A project that sounds fresh, yet familiar; musically and lyrically a truly magnificent experience. I’ll be proud to store the splendid limited vinyl edition of this record in the same shelf where my classic Yes albums defy the test of time. You can read my own review of this wonderful album here.

“Invention of Knowledge” Album Cover

05.- Big Big Train – Folklore

It was going to be hard to follow “The Underfall Yard” and the “English Electric” albums, yet from its anthemic title track, through the bizarre yet strangely inspiring and touching tale of “Winkie” the pigeon, to the bucolic “Telling the Bees”, this album is an absolute winner. With all the pieces now in place (former members of XTC, Genesis and Beardfish are now in) it will be exciting to see where they go from here. Subtle, not bombastic, the music is rich, complex and full of layers that are hard to perceive at first listening, or second. Like 70´s Genesis, Big Big Train is a band that takes you in a gentle way, with a music that seems to be simpler that it really is, even banal if you don’t pay close attention. But if you do, you’ll find pure gold. Pastoral but never boring, melodic but never delicate “Folklore” has it all: brass choir, flute, achingly lovely melodies and lots of rocky bits. A rich tapestry of folk tinged progressive rock; lyrically intelligent and insightful, conveyed with integrity and emotion, and played with consummate skill and passion. You can read the excellent album review written by my good friend Roie Avin at The Prog Report website visiting here.

“Folklore” Album Cover

04.- Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone

All That You Fear Is Gone is another milestone in the journey of Headspace. Is perhaps softer than its predecessor I Am Anonymous, although it still has plenty of bite. Clocking in at well over an hour, the album could have been a staggering task to sit through, but the band’s expert sense of construction and pacing kept me spellbound. Many tracks flow seamlessly from one to the next while others end in an intentional pause, signalling a shift in mood or tone. The massive amount of content and variation is impressive. The epic ‘The Science Within Us’ (Which is worth the price of admission alone) is the longest composition on the record and is truly ‘progressive’ in its 13-minute construction. It is a wonderfully intelligent piece of music that’s as quirky as it is memorable, challenging the listener with a huge number of different ideas all the while managing to sound cohesive and homogenous. If the immense and intricate song-writing skill of Headspace was ever in need of being underlined, this is the track to do it. A true opus, that easily justifies the four-year incubation period, this is not an album to take lightly, or with low expectations, because once again , Headspace has delivered a progressive metal giant. You can read the excellent album review written by my good friend Prog Nick at The Prog Report website visiting here.

“All That You Fear is Gone” Album Cover

03.- Karmakanic – DOT

A handful of albums into their career, DOT marks another notch on the Karmakanic’s belt as well as a foreseeable array of musicianship and finesse. There is a care and precision in the whole record that separates the band’s musical ability above and beyond many of their contemporaries. DOT is not a pure symphonic-prog album – it’s more – rich of different impressions and approving much experience based on a high level of musicianship and compositional skills. It has a fantastical edge to it that will take you on a journey that does not necessarily answers any questions at the end, and that is part of its inner beauty. A journey into many, non-existent places, full of moving, innovative and challenging expectations, seductive meditations and ultimately riveting and uplifting sentiments. Some might say it might not be as a perfect album as Who’s the Boss in the Factory was, but musical excellence does not require perfection, and quite frankly, perfection is rather boring. You can read my own review here.

“DOT” Album Cover

02.- Fates Warning – Theories of Flight

Fates Warning has returned with a record that emphasizes guitar interplay, aggression, atmosphere and enough riveting time changes to satisfy even the most demanding progressive metal fan. From the opening track “From the Rooftops”, it is apparent they are back and in a big way. This album is a magnificent journey, one which proves worthy of every listening second and truthfully showcases a legendary band that has gotten even better with time. One single listen to the textures, momentum, mix of melodic finesse, high-level performance, attack and brooding melancholy of this record and it’s pretty evident these veterans are still plenty of energy and aiming for the future. “Theories Of Flight” is as progressive as it gets. An essential pickup for any lover of extremely well crafted infectious prog-metal plenty of intricacies, warmth and emotion. I couldn’t be happier! You can read my own review here.

“Theories of Flight” Album Cover

01.- The Neal Morse Band – The Similitude of a Dream

There’s really no much more that needs to be said about this album, and the fact that it takes the grand prize in my list of the best prog-albums of the year. Neal Morse is a genius. Not because he can write great songs, but because he has stitched together an eclectic and extraordinary collection of musicians as the vehicle for his latest albums. This time there’s no epic song but many ideas throughout this long adventure, resulting in a true masterclass of progressive rock. This is an incredible album. It’s a lengthy, complex, emotional, and pretty much perfect example of modern progressive rock, with occasional flashes of driving metal. Flawless in every way it deserves to be in the conversation with the best concept albums ever made. You can read my own review here.

“The Similitude of a Dream” Album Cover

REVELATION BAND OF THE YEAR:

Witchwood – Handful of Stars

I discovered this band just by mere coincidence, as a suggestion from Rock at Night‘s  Editor in Chief, Chyrisse Tabone. I will be forever grateful to her for sending that email.  Handful Of Stars represents an hypothetical band’s cycle as it contains also music based on ideas developed during the recording sessions of “Litanies From The Woods”, but left behind because that album was already almost 80 minutes length. “Handful of Stars” features 3 brand new tracks written for this release, 2 covers (“Flaming Telepath” of Blue Oyster Cult and “Rainbow Demon” of Uriah Heep, a sort of homage and tribute to these two great bands, so important for Witchwood‘s musical journey) and an unreleased version of suite “Handful of Stars” (from “Litanies from the Woods”) with a new breathless intro, for 45 minutes of music. A well balanced mix of hard rock, progressive, psych and southern rock with an obscure and vintage 70’s attitude, the sound of this Italian band includes musical references to American Southern rock along with progressive and hard rock bands from the 70s and 80s. You can hear Jethro Tull, Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eloy, Kansas, Styx (Wooden Nickel era), Rainbow and more. It pushes all the right buttons for me!

SURPRISE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR:

Tryo – Órbitas

Órbitas is the new and long awaited album of the outstanding South American band Tryo (Chile), with nearly 30 years of extraordinary artistic career in their home country and abroad. I was complately unaware of the band’s extensive catalogue (Yes, it seems I had been living under a stone). This amazing record; (the first completely conceptual in their discography) represents a journey through the Cosmos (macro cosmos – universe) and the Being (the micro cosmos that each of us is). The voyage is a metaphor for a human, spiritual, and transcendent experience, a learning path that will take us from ignorance to wisdom, darkness to light, and from an ego to a soul culture, all expressed through the universal language of music”. Órbitas is a really fantastic album, and one which surprised me greatly. One of the most important Prog – Fusion comebacks of the year and also between the best Latin American albums of 2016. Clocking in 43 minutes, the band shows all of its great power, sensibility, creativity, virtuosity and versatility, in electric-acoustic formats and instrumental – vocalized songs. A fluid work, which takes the necessary time without spreading in useless variations. Each one of its parts acquires a common sense where there are no commitments with a certain style, but they are liberated between progressive, jazz, learned and ethnic, with complex arrangements that are easily absorbed and enriched in every listening. Highly recommended for those of open musical minds.

Bad Dreams – Déjà vu

I knew about Bad Dreams when I witnessed their live performances aboard Cruise to the Edge in 2015.  Hailing from Argentina they began their prolific career performing Genesis’ music for a period of more than 10 years, venture in which they attained worldwide recognition by fans and Genesis members alike. They released their first album with their own original music entitled “Apocalypse of the Mercy” in 2014. The album garnered worldwide recognition among classic and progressive rock fans, and Bad Dreams opened for Steve Hackett and played alongside Steve Rothery and his band during their South American leg. However “Déjà vu” finds these fine musicians taking a whole new level in composition and musicianship, resulting in one of the most beautiful and enjoyable albums of the year. “Déjà vu” is an album that will stand the test of time and is a great achievement for Bad Dreams. What makes it stand out even more is the way the music becomes almost part of you and can make you stop what you are doing and just listen for the sake of it and that, my friends, is what truly great music can do to you.

The Fringe – S/T

This one is one of the albums I’ve listened to the most during the last few months. The Fringe brings together drummer Nick D’Virgilio from Big Big Train, Lo-Fi Resistance’s Randy McStine, and Karmakanic’s Jonas Reingold. In this power trio format, the sound and vibe recall King’s X, although it’s D’Virgilio and McStine who put the strongest stamp on the music, with Reingold’s bass often mirroring the guitar riff. They incorporates the more alternative rock side of prog into a garage band, stacked with deep grooves, vocal harmonies, and tasty guitar solos. Nick, Jonas and Randy are simply on fire, bringing the best of them to the table and flirting with progressive rock sounds while keeping the core of a power trio. The Fringe are too good to remain a side-project, so I am truly hoping that I hear more, and soon. I’ve seen them twice live and they put out a helluva show. You can read the excellent album review written by my good friend Roie Avin at The Prog Report website visiting here.

BEST LIVE SHOWS OF THE YEAR:

This is an even more personal chapter, based in my impressions while attending to the brutal amount of shows my wife and I go each year. My three favorite performances of 2016 were (In no particular order):

  • Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian (Live at Progpower USA XVII) – Read my review here.
  • Rikard Sjöblom’s Band – Live at Progtoberfest II – Read my review here.
  • Dave Kerzner’s Band – Live at RoSfest 2016 – Read my review here.

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