Too often progressive music is credited as simply being “beautiful.” Stunning, awe-inspiring, as intricate as a quilt woven by hand, each note the result of expert placement and sure intention. But such an elementary description forgoes the darker, heavier side of progressive music that has the power to chill listeners to the bone, to stay with them as a spectre long after the music has finished playing. Sometimes, it may be haunting, and at others it may be terrifying to those that dare let their guard down. Some albums may rise to a level of cinematic mystery complete with burning intrigue. The melodies that rise at the hands of metal musicians are not merely beautiful, and it would be shallow to consider them as nothing more than that. This year has given rise to an incredibly vast realm of tumultuous atmospheres crafted by musicians combining the explosive and brutal qualities of metal with the imploring sensitivities of prog.
There is no reason that “progressive” must be synonymous with pretentious or inaccessible: as many of the following releases prove, even prog-metal has a little something for everyone that gives it a chance. Some of the best albums of the year used the progressive elements as a palatable vehicle for the harsher bite of metal’s fire, while others allowed the familiar splashes of more classic bright guitars to frame the sometimes daunting complexity of technical progressive elements. Most importantly, as is the nature of progressive music, each album that came through Sonic Perspectives this year was of its own unique artistry.
Music is highly subjective, particularly within a genre that relies so heavily on listener experience of the finished work. There is no one right way to view a piece of art, and progressive metal is very much the same. Whether the albums evoked excitement or despair in our contributor’s ears, each album was judged as fairly as possible on the many qualities that came together to form the finished product. A combination of artistic vision, originality, musicianship, and production quality came together to form this year’s list of favorites, as well as the staying power of the album as time went on.
This was a year of incredible progress and imagination in the world of prog-metal, with new and familiar faces creating memorable releases that were enjoyable from start to finish. Below is just a short offering of our favorites, and we can only hope you enjoy reading about them as much as one can enjoy listening to them.
TOP 15 PROGRESSIVE METAL ALBUMS OF 2019
15. The Night Watch – An Embarrassment of Riches (Anamnesis Art)
It may seem nigh impossible for an instrumental, highly acoustic album that includes a violin as one of the key instruments to make the end of year list for best progressive metal releases. Yet the emotionally evocative playground that The Night Watch craft in their thundering drums that roll like waves, and thoughtful guitar riffs that cut like knives, truly strike to the heart of what makes metal so breathtaking. As the music tells the conceptual tale of an explorer who ends up on a deserted island, the artists weave together inspiration from many subgenres of metal. The violin pulls in strong elements of folk metal, while slower passages give appropriate nods to the pioneers of doom and black metal. The ever-shifting and highly diverse landscape that makes up the rich and satiating textures of “An Embarrassment of Riches” make for an epic musical journey that is captivating from start to finish.
14. Tool – Fear Inoculum (Tool Dissectional / Volcano / RCA)
Opulent, dark, and profound “Fear Inoculum” is precisely the album Tool needed to live up to the enormous expectations of their die-hard fans after more than a decade without a studio release. It’s perceptible that every note has been re-evaluated at least fifty times over and that a lot of music was thrown away and rearranged to mount in exactly what is heard in the final album. The whole opus is crowned by the familiar organic production and striking mix that marks any work as a Tool original. Long-awaited and highly anticipated by fans of rock and metal alike, this is an album that earned Tool a warm welcome back to the scene, one that many had been waiting to arrive for more than a decade. Our take on this album can be appreciated here.
13. Wilderun – Veil of Imagination (Independent)
To conquer the unknown in the world of progressive metal, the unknown must first be created in a feat of both imagination and musical prowess. This is a rare accomplishment, but one that Wilderun has quietly released to a cacophonous reception. To toy with human emotions and craft a cinematic experience that rivals no other, Wilderun has created a work of lavish orchestral dynamism and a rarely found grace in an ever-intriguing pace that pulls listeners effortlessly through the album. Within the walls of “Veil of Imagination,” A dream has been brought to life in a visionary work of art that is both terrifyingly beautiful and strikingly surreal. With unparalleled orchestral grace and dynamic songwriting structured around the timeless core tenets of progressive metal, Wilderun has unleashed an exceptional exploratory epic of indescribable magnitude. Check out our thoughts at this location.
12. Mother of Millions – Artifacts (ViciSolum)
There is no reason that metal cannot also be poetry, and the latest opus from Mother of Millions certainly proves as much. Stepping like a dancer from imploring soft passages to shrieking speed and intensity allow the album to take its course naturally, telling a story at its own pace, and allowing listeners to adjust their emotions accordingly. Keyboards are an unexpected backbone to a work that seems to be driven with a tactical precision, creating a finished product that is not just highly focused, but entirely concentrated on the final message that the artists wished to deliver. Succinct, to the point, yet still explorative enough to effortlessly captivate, “Artifacts” is a strong release from the up-and-coming Greek quintet.
11. Voyager – Colours in the Sun (Season of Mist)
Voyager’s exact brand of progressive metal has been in flux since their inception, going through a phase where they relied on speed and grit to carry their unique pacing, and occassionally giving credit to the softer and more exploratory roots of progressive metal. However, they have never ceased to sound brilliantly vibrant, no matter how they have explored the darker conflicts of the human mind. That said, it is “Colours in the Sun” which has come to shine most brightly of all, casting a stunning veil of opulence across racing guitars and vocalist Danny Estrin carrying a sound that is some of the most transcendent Voyager has ever delivered. The pop influences are merely a front for some of the most complex layering the band has offered to date, but is accessible enough to appeal to listeners of all genres who will find themselves helpless as they are drawn into the dark and crunchy base that makes up the music’s irresistible core. Our interview with the band’s guitarist Scott Kay can be listened here.
10. Sweet Oblivion – Sweet Oblivion ft. Geoff Tate (Frontiers Music SLR)
For those who often crave a guilt-free return to the golden age of metal, this particular Wonka bar has one hell of a golden ticket inside. Three Italian metal musicians, including Simone Mularoni, with a real-deal ear for the heart and soul of 1990s melodic metal with a twist of prog, joined forces with the one and only Geoff Tate. The result is a product that is the most Queensryche thing listeners have heard since 1994. This is a reverently authentic return to the roots of modern progressive metal: the drumming is huge, the keyboards walk a tasteful line between respectfully old-school and ostentatiously prog-metal, and the bass guitars carry the tracks dependably from beginning to end. For anyone that listens to metal and hals a pulse, this album is worth a shot, particularly for anyone craving the revolution of Dr. X or the occasional moment of Silent Lucidity. Our full review at this location.
9. Darkwater – Human (Ulterium Records)
After almost a decade of waiting (they could have also been included in the comeback of the year category), Darkwater has made a noteworthy reappearance with an album that walks the line between epic and thoughtful, often trading places between the two. Vocalist Henrik Bath has a voice incomparable in strength, and continues to be the centerpiece of an album comprised of melodies that twist and turn in an air of almost celestial mystery. Darkness is punctuated by teasing glimpses of light, striking like lightning in the midst of a storm. Running nearly eighty minutes long, there is no question of the time or dedication required to make “Human” such an all-encompassing and spectacular final work of art, one which will appeal to new and old fans alike.
8. Myrath – Shehili (earMusic)
Not content to rest on their laurels, Myrath has done the unthinkable and perfected the exotic sounds that made “Legacy” such a treat not by amplifying what worked, but eliminating what didn’t. “Shehili” raises the bar even higher, shedding many of the flairs that brought attention away from how serious and unique their compositional approach consistently delivers. Though they are not the only band which infuses elements of Arabic folk alongside metal music, they have arrived at a delicate balance of serious cultural folk elements and progressive songwriting that has begun to pull them away from accusations of merely striving for an adventurous take on their earliest work. “Shehili” is the work of serious artists who take their work seriously, and command serious attention with a new album that is rich, textured, and complex to its very core. See how much we enjoyed this release by reading our full review here.
7. Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal (Metal Blade)
“Winter Ethereal” emerges from the veteran musicians John Arch and Jim Matheos (former and current members of Fates Warning) with a work that is both dynamic and balanced. Arch’s vocals often have the chance to shine, taking listeners through the emotions of love, loss, and despair in a harmonious, moody, and rarely reserved grace. The drumming is somewhat restrained, focusing on technical intricacies rather than flurries of double kick blasts, accented by fanciful cymbal work. Metal overtones dominate with a raw power that make the metal influences of this album unmistakable, but the technical precision and storytelling still place this work of two musical geniuses firmly on the list of albums that have made this year one to remember. Learn more about this terrific album at this link.
6. Ray Alder – What The Water Wants (Inside Out Music)
The musical genius of Fates Warning persists even decades after their inception, and not just in the current Fates Warning lineup or in Arch/Matheos, but in the ceaseless musical ambition of the multi-talented Ray Alder. His distinctive voice leads the charge in a tale that strikes not just to the listener’s heart, but to the very center of what has given Alder the strength to push forward so strongly throughout his musical career. With the help of Fates Warning band-mate Mike Abdow, Lords of Black’s mastermind Tony Hernando, and Ignite drummer Craig Anderson, Alder has created the most personal record of his storied career. This is a piece that effectively merges the directness of Engine, the precision of Fates Warning, and the terrifying intimacy of Redemption while never stealing or even borrowing from them. “Wait” is certainly one of our favorite songs of the year. Read our review here.
5. Dream Theater – Distance Over Time (Inside Out Music)
As far as progressive metal album goes, it is hard to ever really go wrong with Dream Theater, the reigning world heavyweight champions of the genre. After the mixed press the band received after “The Astonishing,” a name now infamous among progressive metal fans, it is understandable why the band released an album that is somewhat more of a traditional Dream Theater flavor. Just because the band played it safe with this album is no reason to think that it’s anything less than a definitive return to what they have done well, and even done better than many others, for decades. All elements that have given Dream Theater their fame persist in “Distance Over Time” with a few eclectic reminders of the current era to maintain its modernity, and have earned it a memorable spot in the ever-growing Dream Theater discography. Our in-depth review is at this location.
4. Queensrÿche – The Verdict (Century Media)
“The Verdict” continues the positive trend of releases that have sprung forth from Queensrÿche’s creative genius in the seven years following Geoff Tate’s departure. This is an inspired album that is bound to please the most demanding of fans without delivering a product that can be enjoyed by both newcomers and veterans to the genre of progressive metal. Far from a weak attempt to rekindle former glory, “The Verdict” is a breath of fresh air from the tired and well-tread waters that they explored so many decades ago, recapturing their old magic and reinvigorating their sound with a hint of new and adventurous ambition. The cohesion that prior albums had lacked has finally appeared, and made an album that has reached the ranks of an instantaneous classic. Here’s our full dissection of this album.
3. Evergrey – The Atlantic (AFM Records)
“The Atlantic” proves itself to be the spiritual successor to “In Search of Truth.” This is the sound of Evergrey 2019 and it is arguably their final step on a tumultuous road, a gradual evolution leading to the path of the progressive metal throne. They have licked their wounds, learned their lesson, and primed for this glorious return. In a voice that is rarely forgettable, front-man Tom Englund leads the charge on an album that is sometimes urgent, yet other times pondering, pulling from the darkest intrigue that made their earlier work so definitive in a rapidly growing subgenre. Sensitivity and tender emotions are the backdrop to even the heaviest and most progressive tracks, manipulating the hearts of listeners effortlessly and captivating the unsuspecting. This is the redemption that Evergrey has been seeking, and it is the album that progressive metal desperately needed. Venture yourself into “The Atlantic” waters here.
2. Soen – Lotus (Silver Lining Music)
One of the densest and richest albums on this list, “Lotus” is a four-course meal that takes both time and a sensitive palate to digest. The pure artistry is the image of decadence, enticing choruses serving as the most delectable brightness to an album otherwise devoted to heavy contrast between loud guitars and intricacy. Though splashes of pop and tantalizing hooks kick off many of the album’s songs, each stand as unique, complex, and unparalleled works of art that somehow come together to form an album so comprehensive that it can be put on repeat and enjoyed anew again and again. There is not a wasted moment on this album, and not a single breath seems to be misplaced in delivering a picture of darkness and technical mastery over a genre that is often broad and threatening in its ambition. Get your right dosage of “Lotus” at this location.
1. Devin Townsend – Empath (InsideOut Music)
Devin has done the unthinkable and created the perfect career retrospective not by looking back, but by looking forward. Simply put, “Empath” is the culmination of Devin’s life work multiplied by fifty, creating yet another intimidating apex in a career rife with stratospheric highs. There are segments that are mellow with the smoothness of free-form jazz drumming, but also moments where the aggression of raw metal unleashes in unforgettable climaxes that accent an eccentric and artistic take on all that Devin has attempted to accomplish before. The absolute punishing heaviness here must be heard to be believed: the sometimes goofy progressive weirdness is merely a cherry on top that does nothing to detract from the album’s gravity. Read our progressive-metal album of the year full review here.
COMEBACK ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Comeback stories are incredibly satisfying, and watching a band return from silence or near sonic destruction can be either devastatingly disappointing or excitingly enthralling. The following album is the dazzling returns to center stage from an artist who deserves attention for his musical skills and perseverance in the genre.
Lance King – ReProgram (Nightmare Records)
Drawing from the lofty reaches of power metal as inspiration, Lance King delves deep into the progressive passions that form the spiritual artistry that is “ReProgram.” With consistent work across genres since the mid-80s, this is a summation of the experiences that King has acquired in many roles across many sects of the genre. Though he has been at the game for quite some time, his voice still maintains its intensity and strength, with a vibrato that is wide and rather relaxed, never accelerated too much within his longer notes. “ReProgram” has double bass sections, fun production with glitch beats at times, lush keyboard layering that never becomes a synth lead overload, and accenting piano work. Never venturing too darkly, this is an album that shows off the many amazing things that King has learned and makes it into a memorable and comprehensive volume. Check out our in-depth review here.
SURPRISE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
These following albums snuck out of the shadows and were propelled into the spotlight by their stunning originality, unique creative vision, and stellar musicianship. Unpredictable and unprecedented, these are the two albums that surprised us the most this year.
Mind Key – MK III – Aliens in Wonderland (Frontiers Records SLR)
This album struck our contributors when they were least expecting, and blew them away with a sound that was both familiar and foreign in the same breath. From the hooks, the melodies, the amazing instrumental work to the feel-good elements of AOR nostalgia, the band has really whipped up something incredible and unique. The vocals are powerful, versatile, and commanding. The guitar is superbly balanced, delivering both outstanding rhythm work as well as impressive leads. The drums and bass sound great, and are in exactly the right pocket at all times, with the bass getting expressive and groovy only when perfectly appropriate. Well-produced to tie it all together, there is almost no end to the good things to say about this record. Read the full review here.
Artificial Language – Now We Sleep (Independent)
If one word were to describe this album, it would be intensity. The complexity and technical execution of a wide array of styles gives the impression of a slightly haunted atmosphere, one tainted by urgency and anxiety even in the more mellow and atmospheric tracks. Short songs bring an unusual taste to the usually long and imploring tracks that are so definitive of progressive metal, but this structure works to the favor of a band that is still settling into their particular style of songwriting. The musicianship is undoubtedly skilled, and the execution is done with the vision and strength of genre veterans. Never allowing themselves to become too consumed with any particular segment, this is a mature step in the right direction from a relatively new band in the progressive metal scene.
DEBUT ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Richard Henshall – The Cocoon (The Burning Shed)
“The Cocoon” is the first solo album from Haken guitarist and all-around multi-instrumentalist Richard Henshall. Whether one is a contemporary prog-metal aficionado, or a curator of the classics, one will find several delectable courses to enjoy within this album. Beautifully mixed, and so triumphantly different in its own right, this record serves as one of the rare and brilliant examples of a solo artist creating something every bit the equal of their full-time band. No matter one’s inclinations towards other bands in the progressive metal sphere, the production quality and unique accents make this debut album one that is difficult to compare. Fusions with both funk and jazz fill out this album with a pleasant texture and musical complexity that blends together the work that Henshall has pursued in the later albums from Haken with a certain introspection that creates music that is purely driven by his own desires. Check out our own review of this album at this location.
If you are still here, and you are curious about our picks in some other genres, make sure to check out the lists below!