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 its core, “progressive” should mean something that drives the music forward beyond cliche conventions and average songwriting into otherworldly art.
Again 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 2018 Best Progressive-Rock Albums. The list below caters to our personal taste and to the spectrum of albums we listened to during 2018. 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. In 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 album release of 2018. If your favorite album did not make our list, we simply might not have 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). Let’s dive in!
10. Witherfall – Prelude to Sorrow (Century Media Records)
Second album by this excellent “dark melodic metal” band as they describe themselves. The record reflects the vivid pain and anger felt by primary music visionaries Jake Dreyer and Joseph Michael as they watched their friend and former Witherfall drummer Adam Paul Sagan fall prey to cancer. The title of A Prelude to Sorrow is in tribute to Adam’s name. The music shifts between moving melancholy, frenetic guitar play, blazing solos, undeniably powerful choruses and catchy vocal melodies. An album that conjures emotion, sorrow, intimacy and spine-tingling moments, all meshed in a fitting sonic epitaph to their fallen brother.
9. Redemption – Long Night’s Journey into Day (Metal Blade Records)
The announcement that Evergrey singer and masterplanner Tom S. Englund would be the one taking over the mic duties in long running prog-metallers Redemption – replacing none other than Fates Warning‘s Ray Alder – raised eyebrows and led to questions among the genre fervent lovers. While we were unsure how Englund would fit with the band’s style, he nailed it and brought a new dimension to the material. A less thrashy and certainly more varied proposition than Art of Loss, with the melodic sensibilities creeping out to the epicenter of the music, the energetic and challenging riffs, complex drum patterns, killer rumbling bass work and tantalizing keyboard landscapes make up for a devastating musical journey. Long Night’s Journey Into Day rewards listeners who offer it repeated listens with some of the most poignant, penetrating, and indeed human heavy metal they’re likely to hear from the 2018 offerings. (Check out our extensive review here).
8. Seventh Wonder – Tiara (Frontiers Records)
A phenomenal record sporting great songwriting, exceptional singing and instrumental musicianship, enough variety and innovation to keep it interesting, and an absolutely phenomenal job of mixing and production. This album really does it all, it’s a thrilling ride from the instrumental introduction, through well-crafted melodies, gritty riffs, great walking bass lines, thundering drums, and solos of both keyboard and guitar variety, all the way to the last thundering chord of “Exhale”. Between this excellent album release, and Seventh Wonder headlining Progpower USA XX next year, it seems that the constellations may finally be in alignment for this criminally underrated band. This may be a new pinnacle for the band, and judging by Tiara, they have more than rightfully earned it. (Our review of the album can be found at this location)
7. Ostura – The Room (Minos EMI)
This Lebanese progressive metal band has been one of our best discoveries of the year 2018. The Room is their sophomore album, and they knocked it out of the park without question. A concept album of mesmerizing proportions, this is ambitious and cinematic progressive music of larger-than-life scale, which will satisfy the most exigent listener if she/he takes the time to grasp the vastness of the production, the unique and adventurous songwriting, the unquestionably challenging musicianship and a centerpiece story that doesn’t rely on the usual clichés of the genre. These guys managed to get the attention of Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon, Guilt Machine, Stream of Passion, The Gentle Storm), plus secured the services of a few dozen of additional guest performers from 12 countries. An imaginative and lavish soundscape painted out of a harsh world with a faultlessly arranged, and perfectly executed musical performance. (You can read our own review of this album here)
6. Haken – Vector (InsideOut Music)
One of the most talked over bands in the progressive-metal scene nowadays, Haken produced their heaviest and more -in-your-face record with Vector, accentuating their fascinating, and intrepid aura throughout forty-five minutes of intense and quirky ferocity counterbalanced with moments of vibrant serenity. The band seemed to go with quality over quantity in delivering a brilliant album that might be their best sounding to date, showing off some fresh new styles, and bringing the instrumentation to the forefront one more time, succeeding in finding new sonorities and rhythmic approaches, all of course centered around the group’s always-solid songwriting. There is no reason to believe that Haken won’t continue to expand their audience and reach while continuing to please most of their fans already along for the ride. (Our review of the album can be found at this location)
5. Between the Buried and Me – Automata (I & II) (Sumerian Records)
Releasing their album split into two shorter parts months apart was kind of an odd choice (or maybe a business-oriented one). Whatever the reason was, each part served up a different flair to the listener: while Automata I offered a deadly mix of melodic, aggressive, keyboard-infused, trepidating progressive metal with beautiful transitions from heavy to soft passages, which somehow felt a bit too close to previous offerings, Automata II complemented its predecessor bringing a more melodic, proggier and experimental vibe, showcasing how the band is capable of balancing their influences to pen arguably one of the boldest musical statements in their inventive and relevant catalogue. (You can read a couple of insightful reviews of each album from our friend Jordan Blum if you head over to PopMatters and visit here and here)
4. Kingcrow – The Persistence (Sensory Music)
Italy’s prodigal prog-metal sons Kingcrow returned in 2018 with another exuberant album, this time around upping up the ante even more in their mission of creating music that can’t be easily categorized. Describing Kingcrow today is quite a difficult task, but one could state that the influence of different kinds of music, from progressive rock, ambient music, alternative rock and metal are all present. Dark, passionate and drenching in atmosphere and catchy melodies, The Persistence reveals musical prowess and the beauty in its musical arrangements while also pulling at our heartstrings. (You can read our review of The Persistence in this location)
3. Michael Romeo – War of the Worlds Pt. 1 (Mascot Label Group)
This album could have also taken the spot of debut album of the year, but there was no way we didn’t include it in the main list. “War of the World Pt. 1,” has enough different elements and flashes of diversity in it that it clearly can’t be called a Symphony X release, yet it still retains enough familiar writing, riffing, soaring solos and orchestral aspects that it should more than satiate the fan base waiting for another Symphony X release, and possibly pick up a few stragglers along the way. Insane prowess on electric guitar, along with tasteful vocals and inhuman drumming and bass lines, paired with strong sense of melody and lush orchestrations, all make this a very good and unique listen for those who appreciate the more complex heavy material. (You can read our comprehensive review in this location)
2. Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs (Century Media Records)
At some point this Orphaned Land album was knocked out of the first spot of the year by the one coming below, but believe us when we say it was by a VERY slim margin. “Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs” is an album fueled by righteous anger at the state of humanity, and inspired by the writings of Plato and the frustrated aspirations of peaceful revolutionaries throughout history. It takes the listener into a musical voyage scattered with shades of darkness and light, and embalmed with refinement and the essence of a group in the search for perfection through the ultimate redefinition of their own style. The last effort from one of the most interesting bands to ever grace a stage – one that is now at the peak of their game – this is an album to go back to, time and time again. (You can read our own review of this album here)
1. Amorphis – Queen of Time (Nuclear Blast)
Pretty much as Southern Empire reigns supreme among the votes for progressive rock, Amorphis only faced the competition of Orphaned Land for the throne of the progressive metal album of the year. So, what does Queen of Time sound like? It’s definitely Amorphis, the sound of a band penetrating deeper into the dark, mysterious and sublime majesty of the Finnish’s poetry, delivering a more dramatic and cinematic sound, anthemic vocal melodies, and memorable instrumental passages, conveying some sort of massive combination of a near-perfect melding of death metal, folk, prog, hard rock, orchestral and choral music, all of the above cooked as a cohesive and enchantment-infused recipe. One of the very few albums that cracked a 9.5 score in our review system during 2018. Just go and buy it, you can thank us later. (You can read our detailed review at this location)
SURPRISE PROG-METAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Lost In Thought – Renascence (Opus Arise Records)
Formed in 2007, Swansea, Wales’ Lost in Thought followed 2011’s Opus Arise with their sophomore 2018’s album Renascence, and truth be told we were unaware of this band’s endeavors until now. Atmospheric and driven by exotically poignant vocals, Renascence manages to pull at the heartstrings in a very effective way. It is downright heavy and crunchy whilst melodic and utterly memorable, and the songs are structurally and instrumentally complex but there is a conscious effort to keep the compositions haunting and remarkable. A powerful effort that pulls from the best of modern progressive musical cosmos, I hope they take less to deliver a follow-up.
INSTRUMENTAL PROG-METAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Semantic Saturation – Paradigms (Independent Release)
Semantic Saturation does a great job of reinventing the wheel with Paradigms. Instrumental progressive rock/metal can feel very stale and uninspired in the wrong hands, but with Shant Hagopian in charge, the songwriting is memorable after just one or two listens, but with enough chops and instrumental adventure to make diehards go a little weak in the knees. High marks for originality, as changing the lineup every album is a very clever idea that could be a downfall for some, but is a boon due to the talented players with which he works. It’s an album that succeeds on multiple levels, and should please most fans of this style of music. Read more here.
DEBUT PROG-METAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Cyberiam – The Cyberiam (Independent Release)
The Cyberiam is a new progressive rock / metal band from Chicago that boasts some of the top musicians from The Windy City. Their debut and self-titled effort is a very interesting and well-constructed set of ten tracks, bursting excellent modern progressive-metal delivered in dynamic fashion, highlighting a solid slab of technical songwriting dexterity. Ranging from emotional to purely technical – and everything in between – and featuring a deep variety of styles, feelings, time signatures and sentiments, this is undoubtedly a promising band that will surely achieve international recognition and deserves your attention.
COMEBACK PROG-METAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Voivod – The Wake (Century Media Records)
The Canadian thrash/prog veterans return after five long years of absence, continuing their post-apocalyptic, sci-fi creations across eight expansive conceptual tracks. Voivod have progressed exponentially since their raw punkish days, and The Wake honors their musical legacy hearkening back to the 1988-1993 stretch, fusing the high science fictional concepts of Dimension Hatröss and Nothingface with the accessible, cleaner, prog-friendly presentations of Angel Rat and The Outer Limits. Progressive yet accessible, heavy yet psychedelic, harmonious yet aggressive, intricate yet concise, The Wake strikes a perfect balance of old and new elements and can easily be considered one of the band’s most magnificent achievements.
If you are still here, and you are curious about the most melodic and symphonic spectrum of the progressive rock genre, make sure to check the our progressive-rock picks in the link below!