Yes, the pain in the lower back task, also known as the end of year lists is back. And as we continue saying, year after year: everybody loves lists. Despite the innate subjective nature of them, we all enjoy to rank, and furthermore to discuss 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.
The year 2018 germinated some truly delightful progressive rock albums from both top artists and emerging acts. As mentioned earlier these lists are always a giant agony to make, as there are many albums that definitely deserved recognition, but with different genres to cover (We thought it would neither be fair nor logical to mix Behemoth with Stryper) we were forced to cut them short to ten records in each category. As you can see at a glance, the boys from InsideOut Music seem to be doing something right. Make sure to check all our selections and especially the section at the end where we included live releases, debuts, comebacks and more. Without further ado, here are our staff’s picks for the most agreed upon progressive-rock albums of the last 12 months.
Our customary “clarification”: This list 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. We Came From Space – While You Were Away (Independent Release)
This album/band came out of left field and surprised almost everyone. The collective is comprised of Bill Hubauer (mostly known as the keyboardist/singer with The Neal Morse Band), Dave Buzard, Tim Malone, and Dave Hawk. A well crafted hybrid between the golden age of classic progressive rock – with nuances that reflect an influence of the Canterbury scene – and the more modern prog-rock scene, sprinkled with some almost-metal moments. While You Were Away is an exciting and interesting mix of styles and genres, created and performed by veteran musicians at the top of their game. The influences are apparent – not rehashed, but presented in intriguing songs that stand on their own. Read more in our review here.
9. Arena – Double Vision (Verglas Music)
Arena put out another excellent album, striking a balance between accessible modernism and classic enjoyment. The combination of Mitchell and Nolan handling instrumental melody is top-notch, and Manzi‘s vocals are arguably the best since he joined the band. “The Legend of Elijah Shade” is a 22-minute progressive-rock epic with a fantasy theme that combines theatrical, macabre, dramatic moments and uplifting moments, bizarre carnival quirkiness, and sincere and righteous anger. Arguably the best prog-rock epic of the year, this song is worth the price of admission alone. Learn more in our review here.
8. Evership – II (Independent Release)
Evership‘s sophomore record is another masterclass in how to take the past and make it relevant and fresh in the present. A band that truly belong alongside the stars of this genre, the partnership between Shane Atkinson’s admirable skills in storytelling and melodic songwriting and Beau West’s high tenor soaring vocals is a true force of nature. Instrumentally solid, yet focusing more on rich layering than on flashy soloing; and maintaining the finesse, majesty, grandeur, and depth of the admirable debut album, Evership II is definitely a worthy successor and one that certainly deserves your attention. Read more in our review here.
7. Mystery – Lies and Butterflies (Unicorn Digital)
These Canadian prog-rockers have released another lush, spectacular album that will appeal to fans of well-produced, hook-filled modern progressive rock. Mystery are synonymous with records that sound splendidly rich and lavish, and Lies and Butterflies is no different. The logical suite to Delusion Rain, you get the whole nine yards here: bombastic and atmospheric melodies, fantastic singing, heart-wrenching symphonic keys, tasteful and wonderfully controlled guitar solos, and walloping chunky bass lines. This band’s line-up is arguably the best they have ever had, and it shows in the polished production and the beauty the music exudes. Learn more in our review here.
6. KAYAK – Seventeen (InsideOut Music)
KAYAK‘s sound on Seventeen does not align only with progressive-rock, but shares an AOR side which emphasizes big, melodic as well as anthemic gestures and focuses on the song as such, spiced up with all sorts of progressive elements to make even the most sophisticated tracks sound entirely fresh. The album flows through your ears smoothly, blurring the genres lines with a softness that sometimes is sort of dreamlike, and turning the listening experience into an emotional ride between excellent brio and blissfully mind-blown. If you overlooked this one, now is the time to correct that! Head over to our full review to get more details.
5. Riverside – Wasteland (InsideOut Music)
“Riverside doesn’t play progressive metal. We play melancholic rock.” – Mariusz Duda. With a melancholia that is both familiar and fresh, Riverside proved that the sun rises again over Wasteland and over their career. The perfect album for this moment in their evolution, it oozes an ingenious balance between heavy and light pathways, with some standout passages ranking among the top Riverside moments ever. Richly emotional and vibrantly eccentric, its somber aura and overarching atmosphere take hold of your attention and don’t let go. Just two years on from the tragic loss of an integral band member Riverside give us a beautiful musical statement which combines fragility, grief and emotion like only they can do. Read more in our review here.
4. Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly – Friendship (InsideOut Music)
Friendship delivers what Rikard Sjöblom does best – creative, intricate melodies with catchy hooks – and tops it with a beautiful, heartfelt, nostalgia trip of a lyrical concept with which anyone can identify. Very approachable for casual listeners, but complex enough to impress prog-rock fanatics, Friendship combines the best of what made both Beardfish and early Gungfly so special: brilliantly crafted, thought-provoking, prog-tastic tunes blended with genre-hopping, yet sensible and straightforward harmonies, showcasing a deep love of and appreciation for 70s prog-rock, served with gusto and peppered with a modern touch. Head over to our full review to get more details.
3. The Sea Within – The Sea Within (InsideOut Music)
The celebrated melding of prog-rock heroes named The Sea Within fulfilled its promise with their debut album, offering more than the sum of its parts. This collection of songs succeeds in expected musical directions but also explores new terrains, which turns the final output into something fresh and unexpected. Beautifully produced, The Sea Within is powerful, bold and intense, combining a sharp contrast of brooding moments, wrapped in poignant lyrical verses, with bombastic, energetic and exuberant passages, all of them backed by stellar musicianship. Art/prog-rock that won’t reveal its true colors unless you are willing to invest your time in repeated listening, there’s a lot to discover here. Read more in our review at this location.
2. Spock’s Beard – Noise Floor (InsideOut Music)
The Beard get lucky with album #13, continuing their arc as one of contemporary prog-rock’s most celebrated bands after 23 years of existence and several membership changes. Exquisitely performed and produced, Noise Floor features plenty of hooks and earworms, amidst their usual quirky approach. Highly melodic and plenteous of technical prowess, melding trippy psychedelic pop, a laid-back sensibility, carefully constructed prog grooves and lengthy instrumental sections – with the usual incredibly tight playing – Noise Floor is a feast for the senses. The transcendental finale of “Beginnings” with Ted Leonard’s soaring vocals showing off all his strengths and finishing the album proper on an uplifting note, is enough reason on its own to buy this record. Read an in-depth review by visiting here.
1. Southern Empire – Civilisation (Giant Electric Pea)
Almost unanimously selected as the number one progressive-rock album of the year by our writers, Australian Southern Empire surpassed all possible expectations with Civilisation. Focused virtuosity and technically brilliant musicianship lay the groundwork for an album, the main strength of which – despite exuding energy and creativity – is the bold songwriting and the immaculate composition, a tandem that succeeds in fleshing up the sounds of the 70’s with a bright layer of stamina and spirit. Coalescing epic and daring structures, a catchy modern patina and wonderfully constructed musical ideas, Civilisation is a lavish and majestic ride, one that ultimately leaves you with a huge smile painted in your face, and with no other choice than to press play again. If you feel compelled to know more, here’s our review.
SURPRISE PROG-ROCK ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
All Traps Of Earth – A Drop of Light (AMS Records)
This one would have certainly made it to one of the three (or even higher) echelon in the list above, should all our writers had time to digest it. It cracked the progressive rock album of the year in ProgArchives and it was a personal favorite for a couple of us. A better promotional campaign would have helped it to reach a wider audience, given the fact it was released late in the year. Nonetheless it is a monster of a record which we wholeheartedly recommend, and arguably one of the most musically complex and challenging albums we listened to in the whole year. Bass player Johan Brand, known as a founding member of the acclaimed nordic prog band Änglagård, on this occasion ventures to move on his own feet, bringing onboard a couple of familiar faces from his main – and now dormant again – band, with Thomas Johnson (keyboards) and drummer Erik Hammarström. Admittedly gloomy at times, yet full of dark appeal, A Drop of Light offers sixty unpredictable and gripping minutes of sheer beauty, in a new milestone of Scandinavian symphonic prog. The amount of music happening on this record is almost too much to be contained within two channels, but it’s truly fantastic from start to finish. You can reach our review at this location.
Ring Van Möbius – Past The Evening Sun (Apollon Records)
This one will show up in very few lists around. They describe themselves as “Progressive rock straight from 1971, but made today” and that sentence couldn’t be truer. Some sort of a progressive-rock power-trio, made up of Hammond organ, bass and drums, the guys at Progressive Music Planet define their music as well as anyone could have: “a jam session that featured the full original King Crimson lineup: Robert Fripp on guitar, Ian McDonald on mellotron, Greg Lake on bass and Michael Giles on drums, who decided to team up with Van der Graaf Generator members, Peter Hammill on vocals and David Jackson on sax”. Curiously enough this one is also a debut album, but it surprised us so much that we decided to include it here instead. The album consists of three tracks, two of which are epics, with the first one running over 22 minutes. A no-brainer for fans of progressive rock from the Golden era.
INSTRUMENTAL PROG-ROCK ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Methexis – Topos (Independent Release)
Methexis is the project of ex-Verbal Delirum guitarist Nikitas Kissonas. Topos is an epic instrumental work consisting of two parts. There is a symphonic rock element but the styles shift frequently. Old school keyboard sounds like Mellotron appear and then are blasted to the side of the road while trumpet and then shredding guitar leads take hold. Some aspects of the album have an ECM contemporary jazz feel but those moments tend to be fleeting. By choosing a wide and modern production the band constructs an environment that equally relates to prog, contemporary classical and cinematic music. Topos is an album that has to be checked out by everyone who believes that music has to be an adventure and something more that simple or refined amusing experience.
DEBUT PROG-ROCK ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin (KScope Records)
Gleb Kolyadin‘s debut and eponymous album shows, in less than an hour, that the awards and accolades received by iamthemorning are not a fluke. He shows us he is not someone shredding away on their instrument. He shows tremendous depth, maturity, mystery, and vulnerability in both performance and composition. And he shows us how respected he is becoming in the world of progressive music by the company he keeps. This album makes the listener’s breath and heartbeat hasten, as it alternates between languid beauty and total urgency. If you are ready for a long and comprehensive review of this record, you can head over here.
The Paradox Twin – The Importance Of Mr Bedlam (White Star Records)
We love emotion in music. When great music moves you it is more than just a rush, it is therapeutic. A stellar debut album from a band with a clear love for conspiracy theories, The Importance Of Mr Bedlam explores the enormity of space, alien plot schemes and all sorts of ghostly ideas through contrasts, instrumental developments and varying use of vocals. A very atmospheric record, with delightful soundscape textures and evocative mood pieces, it grows on the listener, showing an impressive compositional maturity paired with striking levels of musicianship. If you missed this one, now’s the right time to correct that mistake.
Lux Terminus – The Courage to Be (Independent Release)
The Courage to Be is the debut album from this young and very talented band based out of Cleveland, Ohio, made up of bassist Brian Craft, drummer Matthew Kerschner, and keyboardist Vikram Shankar, who was most recently added to the lineup of veteran prog-metal supergroup Redemption. The Courage to Be overcomes real-life restraints of day jobs, crowdfunding, and the lack of courage to be what you want in this life, even at the risk of apathy from close-minded genre fans unwilling to give a new band a chance, to create a statement of art, beauty, storytelling, and plainly rocking out for the sheer fun of it. High marks to the band for attempting such a lofty work with the lineup of instruments involved, and only relying on vocals and guitars (usually the stars of the show) for a few spare moments at the end, reminding us that prog-rock can be what you make it. It’s one impressive debut that deserves a complete listen, and begs for an immediate second one. Learn more in our extensive review at this location.
If you are still here, and haven’t satiated the urge of reading about music, and you like your progressive melodies served up with a generous dose of crunchy guitars, make sure to check out our progressive-metal picks in the link below!