After all that 2020 has already dished out with merciless abandon, it’s only appropriate to face the often turbulent waters of progressive music with a welcome embrace. It’s time to bring on the strings and the saxophones, and prepare to be thrown headfirst into tender crooning contrast against anguished howling. Rich melodies and complex compositions bring as much warmth as they do ice, offering a comfortable bed for listeners to sink in to just before they are jarred by novel presentation – such variety is all part of the journey. With its limitless intricacies and penchant for introspection, it seems only natural to gravitate towards a genre which seems to so acutely capture the human condition when tensions surround us. Whether seeking the comfort of an artist whose sound feels like the presence of an old friend, or diving fearlessly into the rippling waves of a striking debut, there has been no shortage of opportunities this last year to see talent defining the modern era of progressive metal.
Be it striving to create variety within the deepest depths of metal’s extremity, or adding an edge to the beloved quirks of progressive rock, the unique flair each of the bands below bring to the table play a role in reinforcing the importance of stylistic evolution. Weaving a cloak of something more than the sum of simple brutality or melodic grace has been approached with ambition, a hunger for growth which exceeds the bounds of any one definition of excellence. In the list below there are artists who took risks, charging ahead with sure footing on unstable ground, and in turn have found great dividends. From crushingly cinematic heights to the lulls which shine in their simplicity, the albums below offer a home to be found for any wandering heart which has lost its way.
Music is as highly subjective as any art, 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. The Sonic Perspectives team worked to judge each album as fairly as possible on its many qualities as they came to form a 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.
As usual we do 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 selections in the realm of pure progressive-rock sounds releases by visiting A Year In Review: Our 2020 Favorite Progressive Rock Albums.
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 2020
15. Pyramid Theorem – Beyond the Exosphere (Independent)
The third album from the Pyramid Theorem camp packs just as much confidence and fearlessness as their debut, masterfully combining more traditional influences from progressive rock with metal’s intensity, polished further by the magic of modern production. “Beyond the Exosphere” has an immediately attractive sheen at first glance, which then opens up to a deeper appreciation of the complexity and craft that went into its indulgent melodies. Remarkably accessible as well as intricate in the same fashion as many of progressive metal titans have come to be, Pyramid Theorem offer an opus which in unapologetically full of their established identity as musicians while still maintaining an evolutionary drive to hone their craft ever further.
14. Scardust – Strangers (M-Theory Audio)
One of Israel’s new breakout bands and highly virtuosic progressive metal powerhouse reprises their pursuit of sonic excellence with a high grade conceptual effort that combines the technical extravagance of Dream Theater with the melodic charm of Ayreon. Though “Strangers” is billed as an elaborate conceptual work that works best when heard from start to finish, each individual song is a force unto itself that can stand alone for any whom like their noodling progressive anthems in smaller doses. It’s a highly cathartic middle ground between elite technical showmanship and an accessible mainline symphonic affair that has an ironic sense of joyfulness in spite of its lyrical pursuit of alienation, i.e. a masterpiece of musical irony that will fit in quite well with the intellectual crowd to which it plays. Our take on this album can be appreciated here.
13. Protest the Hero – Palimpsest (Spinefarm Records)
Chaos and narrative grace coalesce in the gripping and enthralling romps of Protest the Hero‘s latest opus “Palimpsest.” Charged with even more vigor and aggression than 2016’s “Pacific Myth,” and rivaling that of “Fortress” and all of its jagged teeth, there is no question “Palimpsest” is Protest the Hero at the top of their game. The tender instrumental lulls punctuate a rapid series of punches directly to the heart of heaviness, swinging like a pendulum between fleeting tenderness and the fire of agony. Pure emotion bleeds from each track, gripping listeners in a vice that won’t release until long after the last note fades. Complex songwriting which is layered to the point of indescribable depth creates an ocean of artistic revelry begging for a deep dive, one which proves irresistible for prog and metal fans alike.
12. Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void (Inside Out Music)
Yet another comeback story in the progressive metal scene leaves Psychotic Waltz standing victorious, emerging with “The God-Shaped Void” as their first album in almost twenty-five years. This opus is presented with such skill and confidence it is as though listening to the natural successor of “Bleeding,” with the same youthful vigor and fearless inventiveness of progressive metal as it grew into the late 1990s. Inspired in its production and confident in its identity, Psychotic Waltz remain unflinching as they present “The God-Shaped Void” as a product of labor, time, and an incredible amount of creative energy. The wait and the agony appear to have paid dividends, as eyes turn once more to the progressive giants whose reputation has persisted all these years. Catch a conversation with Devon Graves here.
11. Dyssidia – Costly Signals (Independent)
Dyssidia’s debut album comes bursting through the door with enough variety to satisfy any fans on the prog-metal spectrum, including deviations from the brooding and ominous to the poetically beautiful. Harnessing the full force of progressive metal while still pulling out infectiously catchy melodies, each song grows and evolves on itself to tell a story in an organic and captivating rhythm. The listener is pulled through track to track, enthralled yet unable to look away as Dyssidia commands their attention through numerous shifts and displays of superb musicianship. “Costly Signals” may be the first full-length opus Dyssidia has delivered, but it is a strong promise that the face of prog music will have a considerable bite in the future, with this band standing at the helm.
10. Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant (Inside Out Music)
Although it may not seem like that at first glance, this is arguably Caligula’s Horse at their heftiest. On the other side, this is also an album that exudes melody in large volumes. The Australians have come upon an enigmatic method that makes their intriguing progressive metal sound reveal just what is it made of. “Rise Radiant” brings to the table what the previous releases in a way missed; a sense of standalone character. At this point, Caligula’s Horse are one of the most “radiant” stars of modern progressive metal. It may be that the band hasn’t yet achieved progressive metal perfection, but this record comes as close as possible to that achievement. Even if not, their dedication to constant self-improvement and exploration means it can’t be far away. Our full review at this location.
9. Pyramaze – Epitaph (AFM Records)
One of power metal’s more progressive wildcards delivers a massive opus, bubbling over with triumphant anthems and nuanced grooves to rival their grand accomplishments from their formative years. This album has actually managed to surpass 2006 classic “Legend of the Bone Carver,” drawing upon the same creative well, and even bringing back the original impresario to lend his unique singing style and narrative prowess to rain down the nostalgia on top of what is a present day affair. Pyramaze has crafted a work which delivers mid-paced, prog-infused majesty, but never shies away from the heavy bite which makes “Epitaph” both iconic and impactful. Read our review here.
8. DGM – Tragic Separation (Frontiers Music SRL)
2020 has been a mixed bag for music, like it has for most everything else. “Tragic Separation” by DGM is firmly in the “good things” category; in fact, it’s in the great things category. The mix and production are great, the songwriting is superb, and the keys and guitars of Signori Mularoni and Casali are backed flawlessly by the bass of Andrea Arcangeli and the drums of Fabio Costantino. Marco Basile delivers outstanding vocal performance from beginning to end, with his usual versatility and great metal timbre. This is just a really great Euro prog metal album, and we cannot recommend it more. We expected a solid prog metal album, but we got all that and then some. See how much we enjoyed this release by reading our full review here.
7. Chaosbay – Asylum (Timezone Records)
Music as an art should seek to transmit deep emotions and relevant messages that resonates within every human being. With their latest album “Asylum,” Chaosbay undoubtedly succeeds in this venture. Artistic nuance resides beneath the intensity dominating the album, building with vigor and technical skill. Adept compositions tie together tracks which resonate with an instant and accessible appeal, and musicianship which gives this debut a strong identity. With the significant ability to understand when it is crucial to unleash their highly technical skills, Chaosbay manage to create a record full of emotions, meaning, and substance that should place them as one of the most exciting prog metal acts in the coming years. Learn more about this terrific album at this link.
6. Fates Warning – Long Day Good Night (Metal Blade Records)
A spin or two will convince any metal-head with a discerning set of ears that “Long Day Good Night” is a beast of a record, and repeated listens only make it all the more compelling. There is little question that the latest opus from Fates Warning is a deserving addition to the band’s acclaimed discography, serving as a strong piece of music for the modern era while still serving as a spiritual successor to some of their earliest work. “Long Day Good Night” captures the essence of what has given Fates Warning such staying power of the years, with music that is both punishingly heavy and exactingly personal. Undoubtedly fresh, and instantly a classic. Read our review here.
5. Green Carnation – Leaves of Yesteryear (Season of Mist)
Fourteen years after their last release, Green Carnation has conclusively announced that not only are they back, they’re even more solid than they were before. “Leaves of Yesteryear” shows all of the flavor which makes Green Carnation so impressive: emotive in its doom, engaging in its prog-rock, and absolutely overflowing with the sense that this is the human experience interpreted as song. Revisiting old material as well as bringing in new original work to demonstrate their unwavering strength as artists, there is no question that “Leaves of Yesteryear” is a strong step in Green Carnation re-establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with in progressive metal and beyond. Our in-depth review is at this location.
4. Novena – Eleventh Hour (Frontiers Music SRL)
Packed to the brim with artists from across metal and prog, Novena have used their debut album as an opportunity to prove that they are a force to be reckoned with, and reaffirm the reputation they had been building since their initial EP. “Eleventh Hour” shows a band that sounds surprisingly mature, with the courage to take risks whilst also being wise enough to combine their experimentations into a consistent structure. Styles both clash and combine across tracks, using dynamic composition to build out a sound which is cohesive and compelling throughout. In the end, the listener is left with a sense of completeness, but also already longing for what’s next in this group’s career. Here’s our full dissection of this album.
3. Oceans of Slumber – Oceans of Slumber (Century Media Records)
Cataclysmic sonic violence and awesomely evocative instrumental beauty thrive alongside one another in Oceans of Slumber’s self-titled album “Oceans of Slumber.” The album sways between discord and tranquility, highlighting the vocal prowess of front-woman Cammie Gilbert while resting on the strong foundation crafted by songwriter and drummer Dobber Beverly. Every member of Oceans of Slumber works together in harmony to deliver an extensive opus fir for both savoring and celebrating. Capturing the untamed and visionary creative hearts behind the band in unparalleled splendor, this album is one that fans of gothic darkness and vocal grandeur cannot afford to miss. Venture deep into “Oceans of Slumber” here.
2. Haken – Virus (Inside Out Music)
Following up the acclaimed “Vector” with its second half “Virus,” Haken have created a double-decker of gargantuan proportions, one that every future album of the progressive metal genre will have to compete against. While every album by this six-headed monster of a band explores new territories, “Virus” still sounds unmistakably like Haken. By now, the complexity of their creations has reached a head-spinning level – yet apparently not a plateau – which is basically unreachable for a normal human being. Every note seems to be thought over ten times, every single hit on a drum is in its place for a reason. From this album’s depth and complexity through its execution, Haken have once more proven their mastery and relevance in the scene. Get your full dose of “Virus” at this location.
1. The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic (Pelagic Records)
With “Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic”, The Ocean delivers an astonishing and ambitious record that concludes the Phanerozoic journey brilliantly. Knowing how fragile humankind is on a planetary scale is overwhelming, just as some thoughts about our own existence might be. The music here certainly conveys such feelings, wrapping the listener in the unmistakable sensation of beholding the events. The broad-ranging composition allows for a stunning amount of intricate musical passages to develop the record’s excitement, freshness, and unexpected elements. After eight studio albums, it is impressive how The Ocean amazes with innovative, unexpected, and daring musical turns that wraps the creative blend between a paleontology concept and overwhelming philosophical perspectives. Read our progressive-metal album of the year full review here.
PROGRESSIVE METAL EP OF THE YEAR
Though shorter than a full-length release, the following EPs still pack a punch with an impressive show of musicianship and songwriting, all in a bite-sized collection of talent and splendor.
Lör – Edge of Eternity
“Edge of Eternity” offers the full spectrum from haunting instrumental interludes through a blinding combination of screams and blast beats that resonate in an unparalleled thunder, making each second an invaluable moment of art. Words alone cannot do the pure transcendent fire and passion of this album any justice: Lör have created a world entirely their own with airtight musicianship and superb technical execution. Straddling the line between power metal and progressive metal while digging into the quirky textures of folk, Lör have eclipsed classification and are well on their way to becoming purely legendary. A volatile and evocative snaposhot of what they have to offer, “Edge of Eternity” proves that Lor have the tenacity to climb their way to the very top. Check out our in-depth review here.
Ihsahn – Telemark (Candlelight Records)
In an inventive EP that proves to be breathtakingly cold, Ihsahn continues to refute assertions of what belongs in black metal while giving a more personal look at his musical and cultural roots. The first part of a dual set of EPs the legendary artist has released in 2020, “Telemark” is a return to the vision first glimpsed in Emperor and later expanded upon in Ihsahn‘s solo work, and further refined through the lens of experience. Filled to the brim with the dissonant solitude of black metal, “Telemark” is the pure expression of an indomitable creative spirit, one whose vision has carried Ihsahn to one of his most diverse works to date. Take a deeper dive into “Telemark” with our review here.
PROGRESSIVE METAL LIVE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
Voivod – Lost Machine – Live (Century Media Records)
Voivod brings their sonic chaos into a much anticipated live release, with a no-holds-barred performance in front of fans and family in Quebec. “Lost Machine – Live” is a perfect display of what their set is like, with zero overdubs, the unexpectedly amusing blend of sci-fi, vampires and war, and an abundance of dissonant chords. Overall, “Lost Machine – Live” is a vibrant and vivid snapshot of a band at the height of their powers. Through its 74 minutes, this register deftly captures the kaleidoscopic, mutant adrenaline rush of the band’s shows, balancing old school classics and epic new material. The alchemists who first promoted the caustic clash between proggy concepts and metal rawness close a victorious chapter in their career, and open the door for more dystopian adventures. Read the full review here.
Devin Townsend – Order of Magnitude: Empath Live, Volume 1 (Inside Out Music)
Made possible by a full cast of musicians which swell the roster to more than twice the size of the Devin Townsend Project, “Order of Magnitude” is the bombastic performance “Empath” always deserved. A band unparalleled in skill even by Devy’s standards finds itself unshackled only to converge with furor that’s somehow matched by his lovably grotesque sense of humor. Spirits indeed collide, and in so doing they somehow deliver on the bold promise of this album’s title. Delivered without the assistance of click tracks and clearly the product of incredible labor, both the rough edges and superhuman precision make “Order of Magnitude” all the more impressive. Dive into our full review of the album here.
Dream Theater – Distant Memories – Live in London (Inside Out Music)
“Distant Memories – Live in London” serves as the pixel-perfect photograph of what Dream Theater has to offer nowadays. Driven by the band’s ambitious and mostly flawless performance, this expertly filmed event captures the best moments of the band latest outing, “Distance Over Time”, plus a very powerful rendition of the historic “Scenes From A Memory”. Fueled by an enthusiastic audience and charisma which spills over every inch of the stage, the passion and love for the art propel each electrifying passage ever higher. The band also strikes a careful balance between the excitement for new material and the never-ending pull of nostalgia for their early work. Every moment of this release comes across as a love letter to fans, who will treasure this release for years to come. Read our full review of the album here.
PROGRESSIVE METAL INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR
John Petrucci – Terminal Velocity (Sound Mind Music)
“Terminal Velocity” is an uplifting release, with a diverse musical approach. Through an abundance of riffs, the listener is led on an epic and grandiose journey that matches the status of acclaim Petrucci has climbed to. Funky and pop in places, aggressive and heavy in others, it is an impressive showcase of fretboard wizardry, as it is of feel and penchant for melody. Overall, this is both a cohesive and diverse effort that exhibits Petrucci’s boundless musical evolution throughout the years, undoubtedly proving him as one of the most influential axemen of his generation. Throughout this thrilling musical roller coaster ride, his playing is sensitive, dynamic, aggressive, dark and comical, with his exquisite tone being the absolute star of the show. Check out our own review of this album at this location.
PROGRESSIVE METAL SURPRISE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
Etherius – Chaos. Order. Renewal. (Independent)
The first full-length offering from instrumental progressive metal band Etherius, this album brings both speed and technicality into play without sacrificing the depth of progressive textures. Building out a unique identity behind their stylistic balance of contrast is still in its early steps, but the album strides forward without hesitation, and this boldness is what makes it stand out from the pack. Each of the musicians seem perfectly attuned to one another’s needs, growing and shifting alongside one another within each of the seven tracks in practiced unity. Taking steps to assert a more definitive style without a voice to guide them, the riffs of “Chaos. Order. Renewal.” take center stage and are undeniably delectable. You can read a full review at this location.
Cryptex – Once Upon A Time (Steamhammer)
Defining originality and inventiveness in the diverse field of progressive music may just begin with the latest Cryptex release, “Once Upon A Time.” The German trio delivers yet another showstopper that proves to be watertight in its songwriting and delivery, held together by the bright sheen of spectacular production. Folding a heavy dose of progressive rock into the mix elevates the album’s distinctiveness even further, tied together by infectious melodies that serve as irresistible hooks. Poignant and multi-faceted, the versatility demonstrated by “Once Upon A Time” is enough to capture the attention of even the most weathered prog fan and entice them to stay until the album has reached its conclusion.
If you are still here, and you are curious about our picks in some other genres, make sure to check out the lists below!