Progressive rock began the year with a devastating blow by the passing of legendary Rush drummer Neil Peart. Artists from all genres unleashed a tidal wave of tributes to this pillar of prog, but perhaps the greatest tribute of all is the numerous strong releases falling beneath the progressive rock umbrella in the past year. The legacy begun by such legendary titans as Rush and their contemporaries stands stronger than ever in the modern age, and the current scene holds a wealth of familiar faces alongside adventurous newcomers eager to prove their chops. Despite its many challenges, 2020 has proven above all else that the inheritance of progressive rock is left in capable hands, shown by a pool of talent overflowing with drive and passion.
Inventive and evolutionary by its nature, this last year has seen the benefit of modern stylistic ventures standing as welcome partners to more classic textures, borrowing inspiration and artists from across projects to further diversify just what each album has to offer. The list below sports a number of rapid follow-ups and a handful of behemoth double-albums to contrast against long-awaited successors and short sonic forays. There are a number of novices reaching for the stars and laying bare their inspirations as they strive for greatness, giving listeners a demonstration of risk and reward. Weaving an even greater web of support are creators and musical contributors who span across albums, each leaving their unique mark in the continued story of prog. This is a tale of musical growth which marches on despite loss, and has yet to shy away from its inevitable expansion in its quest for greatness.
From captivating debuts to eagerly anticipated additions to already expansive discographies, this year offered fans a vast catalogue of progressive rock to choose from. The Sonic Perspectives team tackled the challenge head-on, combing through a year of stellar releases to create a list that shows some of the most interesting and exciting that the genre has to offer.
Years ago we decided to separate this list into two: one for the progressive rock albums and one for the progressive-metal ones. Why? Simple answer: despite they are obviously related sub-genres, they are essentially two different animals. And if you are reading this article is because you are somewhat aware of the differences, therefore we won’t get into details. If you enjoy your progressive tea served with the right dosage of heavier guitars, you can jump straight to A Year In Review: Our 2020 Favorite Progressive Metal Albums.
The following list is the result of our contributor’s highly subjective opinions, and is based on no one particular formula. Qualities considered include, but are not limited to, production value, originality, musicianship, and overall composition. Most important of all, each of the following albums was found to be incredibly enjoyable to listen to. May you enjoy the following list just as much!
TOP 15 PROGRESSIVE ROCK ALBUMS OF 2020
15. Arabs in Aspic – Madness and Magic (Karisma Records)
After 15 years of creating colorful and heavy progressive rock from Norway, Arabs in Aspic hit their stride with a more acoustic outing which loses none of their immediacy. With two percussionists well-blended into the mix, “Madness and Magic” is a fanciful and at times terrifying journey through pastoral prog, not shying away from plenty of dark turns and engaging instrumentation. Whether the listener is brand new to Arabs in Aspic, or a seasoned traveler in these realms, “Madness and Magic” offers an ideal doorway into the band’s unique world. With an organic production that deftly supports the mix without too much sheen, the full impact is satisfyingly felt. Get yourself familiar with the nitty-gritty of this album at this location.
14. Fish – Weltschmerz (Chocolate Frog Records)
“Weltschmerz” stands as the final album from accomplished creator Fish, long heralded for his work as a writer and musician for many decades. The opus stands as a firm goodbye, but also serves as a celebration of just what Fish is still capable of after so many years heading creative endeavors. This is an immersive album, one which fearlessly tackles the human condition with the benefit of wisdom and experience as its canvas. There is as much warmth as there is exploration, and each passage proceeds with a high degree of confidence that comes across as unique brightness. “Weltschmerz” is a demonstration of passion as much as it is an exercise in progressive rock, and seamlessly ties together many eras in a single outing which gives this storied artist a fitting finale.
13. The Pineapple Thief – Versions of the Truth (Kscope)
The Pineapple Thief takes an unexpected turn down a darker road, yielding a recording that feels like a product of these confusing times, one that might leave the listener a bit perplexed on whether to praise the way it accurately depicts the current state of affairs, or to conclude it sinks a bit too deep into a fragile climate of uncertainty and fear. The record strikes a slightly eerie, melancholic vibe throughout, once again producing shades of sadness, bitterness and struggle for self-reclamation. Much of the world is feeling held down by fear, misinformation and the threat of violence, and the lyrical content delves right into all of this, exploring the damage that ensues when relationships crumble, perspectives differ and the truth is obscured. Check out our thoughts on the album at this location.
12. Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly – Alone Together (Inside Out Music)
Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly remains at the top of their game with an impressive streak of evoking and remarkable albums. For the release of their new record titled “Alone Together,” RSG performed as a trio, in which previous collaborators and brothers Petter and Rasmus Diamant, respectively, played drums and bass, while Rikard took care of every other instrument. Once again, Rikard portrays real-life situations, with delight and sorrow to be found in a raw, sincere, and emotional way which appeals to listeners of all preferences. With human relationships as its central theme, “Alone Together” displays meaningful and heartfelt songs with mesmerizing, intricate, creative, and innovative musicianship. Our review of this wonderful record is here.
11. The Tangent – Auto Reconnaissance (Inside Out Music)
The Tangent has surpassed themselves this time around, creating a compelling album that keeps pushing every musical boundary while honestly depicting human nature. “Auto Reconnaissance” feels like the most personal album created by Andy Tillison yet, definitely portraying the vision of a unique group of artists that masterfully crafted a dazzling collection of songs. The listener is invited to take a look inside themselves and reflect about their own lives. It is a musical canvass about human nature; inviting to redefine who we are, what we would like to achieve, and how we relate with people, not only those close to us, but also with our neighbors. With a unique concept of what progressive rock is, they elevate their musical proposition to new heights. Check out our take on the album here.
10. McStine & Minnemann – McStine & Minnemann (Independent)
A full-throttle debut, this collaboration between two over-achieving artists will keep the listener’s head buzzing with nary a chance to catch their breath in between tracks. Minnemann’s relentless pounding on the drum-kit is matched by McStine’s attack on guitars and searing vocals. Deceptively brief in running time, there’s enough material here to fill an album of twice its length. Bright moments flourish against its darker moments for a wealth of variety and talent on full display. The clear product of both inspiration and artistic chemistry, the duo show a skillful marriage of their respective strengths. It’s an engaging collaboration which demands repeat listens to take it all in, made all the more gratifying by the concise writing and skilled delivery Our full review at this location.
9. Gazpacho – Fireworker (Kscope)
How can a piece of music hold such beauty and impending dread at the same time? For nearly 20 years, Norwegian sextet Gazpacho have excelled at creating atmospheric meditations on somewhat challenging or disturbing themes. With “Fireworker” they have outdone themselves, creating a concept which in some ways encompasses all that has come before and pushes the envelope even further. As usual, the premise is conveyed via achingly exquisite soundscapes, at times beguiling in their ever-changing nature. Their satisfying blend of longer and shorter pieces channels the strengths of the band in atmospheric, gut-wrenching beauty. An album which challenges and soothes the listener, just as a Fireworker is meant to do. Find the threads of the Fireworker in your life by reading more here.
8. The Flower Kings – Islands (Inside Out Music)
Having been resurrected by a “Miracle” in 2019, The Flower Kings cement their benevolent reign of modern prog with the 21-track “Islands”. A band firing on all cylinders, the Kings display their creativity, quirkiness, skill and performance throughout this double album. As lush with variety and talented musicianship as it is extensive, there is something for every fan (be they new or old) in this double-decker masterpiece. Though its length may be intimidating for some, the extensive web of inspired passages with classic inspiration offer a welcome and comforting embrace. Fall in love with The Flower Kings once again, or for the first time if this is your introduction to their kingdom. See how much we enjoyed this release by reading our full review here.
7. Pain of Salvation – Panther (Inside Out Music)
For their eleventh record, the enigmatic Swedes once again hit the reset button on their sound while diving deep into a further facet of our species. “Panther” toys with a fresh palette of sounds and textures while keeping the heavier edge 2017’s “In the Passing Light of Day” reintroduced and, in typical Pain of Salvation fashion, doesn’t settle for an easily pigeonholed sonic identity. Tying in elements of metal and hip-hop into the mix, there is no doubt that this is one act that is fearless when it comes to the evolution of their sound. Much like the subject matter of the album and those who live with it, “Panther” is an entity unto itself. “Panther” further continues in Pain of Salvation‘s other unwavering commitment – that to excellence. Learn more about “Panther” at this link.
6. Pendragon – Love Over Fear (Toff Records)
Having recently celebrated their 40th Anniversary, Pendragon are one of the few bands of progressive rock’s second wave to have persevered and weathered the changes that several decades have thrown at them. Judging by their new release “Love Over Fear”, the aging process is only ripening their creativity and performance, resulting in a supremely satisfying listening experience and one of the jewels of their discography. “Love Over Fear” finds Pendragon experiencing a renaissance in their songwriting and performance. Featuring a delightful mix of inspirations old and new, the band serve up ten songs which take the listener on an inspired journey, reflected in the beautiful artwork on the cover. Certainly a high point of their 42-year history, an achievement which few bands can say at this stage of their career. Read our review here.
5. Nick D’Virgilio – Invisible (Sweetwater Studios)
A long-time coming, Nick D’Virgilio’s first full-length solo album in nearly twenty years is an ambitious production which succeeds on every level. Rock instrumentation from an endless stream of special guests is tastefully enhanced by string and brass sections recorded at Abbey Roads. D’Virgilio’s singing and drumming are impeccable, the musical guests are inspired, the symphonic and brass layering is pristine, the production immaculate and the songwriting extremely solid. The mix allows for the instruments to blend together seamlessly with the traditional rock instruments, all of which serve to highlight D’Virgilio‘s drumming across numerous kits. As a result, each track stands as a unique part of a comprehensive whole which show just what such an experienced artist is capable of. Read our full dissection of this album.
4. Neal Morse – Solo Gratia (Inside Out Music)
Neal Morse returns with somewhat of a follow-up to his popular “Sola Scriptura” album, featuring his core musical partners Mike Portnoy and Randy George despite the distance between them as a result of quarantine. Rooted in outstanding musicianship, sterling production and an array of diverse and engaging material, the album offers plenty to please long-time fans and newcomers alike. Following a strong storyline with vivid imagery, “Solo Gratia” concludes with a bombastic closer that fits the star-studded reputation Morse has built with his artistry. Undoubtedly a strong addition to the steadily expanding Neal Morse legacy, this latest opus is another one of the year’s standout offerings. Get your dose of “Solo Gratia” at this location.
3. Pattern-Seeking Animals – Prehensile Tales (Inside Out Music)
Wasting no time after releasing their debut album last summer, Pattern-Seeking Animals return with a vengeance, upping the bar on every level with an ammo of material bound to stay on heavy rotation. Not only does “Prehensile Tales” easily eclipse their well-received debut, it was a clear contender for album of the year lists from the day of its release. No longer a Spock’s Beard offshoot, the band have confidently stepped into their own expansive identity and more than proven that the sky is the limit for their ambition. One of the strengths of “Prehensile Tales” is the seamless mix of styles and genres, creating a journey that is technically adept while joyfully adventurous. Check out our in-depth review of this album here.
2. Kansas – The Absence of Presence (Inside Out Records)
Kansas in the year 2020 is a satisfying blend of original members, long-time veterans, and new blood who deliver fresh and relevant material while maintaining a classic Kansas sound. “The Absence of Presence” is a worthy follow-up to 2016’s acclaimed “The Prelude Implicit” and cements the band’s reputation and future longevity. Their new songwriting is not just potent, but strong enough to carry the band well into the next decade of their storied career. Simultaneously classic and modern, the album opens with a strong momentum that carries throughout a well-balanced tracklist, one which explores Kansas‘ fiery and melodic sides with comfortable variety. Honestly this album could have perfectly be our favorite of the year. Check out our in-depth review is at this location.
1. Wobbler – Dwellers of the Deep (Karisma Records)
Two years ago Wobbler topped our prog-rock list with their magnificent “From Silence to Somewhere”, and in 2020 they’ve done it again. “Dwellers of the Deep” is a thrilling ride into the depths of classic progressive rock sounds. Its warm and engaging production allows the vintage keyboards to shine at their best. Wobbler’s intoxicating sonic environment and relentlessly musical arrangements grab the listener and don’t let up for a solid 46 minutes, leaving the listener well-satiated while still wanting more. When it comes to Wobbler, they weave a lush web which dwells on the organic textures of earthen prog, drenched in swirls of organs, stabbing bass lines and mythological lyrics. While acclaimed “From Silence to Somewhere” re-established their legacy in 2017 after a long pause, “Dwellers of the Deep” prove that the band are only getting stronger, more focused and creative. Read our full review of progressive-rock album of the year here.
PROG-ROCK INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Derek Sherinian – The Phoenix (Inside Out Music)
Releasing an album of instrumental music in 2020 is in and of itself an act of faith, but also of tremendous trust in one’s potential, something that Derek has clearly demonstrated throughout his career. The opening and title track is as close as you can get to a lost Van Halen song from 1979, and it carries a foreboding aura since this album was released before Eddie Van Halen left us. Once again at the helm is his longtime partner in crime, drummer extraordinaire and revered producer Simon Phillips. Together, they honed the initial ideas that Derek brought and made them into full songs, with the help of an all-star cast of guitar players: Bumblefoot, Steve Vai, Zakk Wylde, Kiko Loureiro and Joe Bonamassa leave their mark throughout the eight tracks of this release. Unashamedly organic and original, ‘The Phoenix” is a worthy addition to Derek‘s catalogue, which will solidify his place in the highest echelons of keyboard players. Do yourself a favor and read our in-depth review.
PROG-ROCK EPS OF THE YEAR
We Came From Space – Reason in the Rhyme (Independent)
“Reasons in the Rhyme” follows up the band’s full-length album “While You Were Away,” which came almost two years prior. It is clear that We Came From Space spent this time honing their craft even further, as with this latest opus they’re even more confident in their own skin. They are more cohesive, more compelling. “Reasons in the Rhyme” is a delight, from first to last notes in this compelling twenty-minute adventure; and “Seize the Day” might as well be in the top 5 of our favorite prog-rock songs of the year. If there’s a disappointment, it’s that the EP is just three songs. But the band promises more music is coming in the not too distant future. In the meantime, before our orb rotates one more time, pick this one up and let your spirit and mind soar to the cosmos. Check out our own review of this album at this location.
Sweet Invention – Streaming Out the Day (Independent)
Husband and wife duo Randy and Pamela George offer a warmly engaging recording filled with musical dexterity and inviting vocals. Like a long-lost gem from the 70s, their sweet invention should please a wide range of rock fans who appreciate catchy, well-written and performed music. The fact that it remained unwritten for over 40 years is of no matter as long as it finally has its day in the sun. And it arrives just in time, as what the world needs right now is uplifting and engaging music, suggesting brighter days ahead while having enough musical muscle to enjoy the here and now. “Streaming Out the Day” may only be an EP of four songs, but in a short span of time it opens up a bright, wide vista of new music rooted in vintage years. Check out the full review of the EP at this location.
PROG-ROCK LIVE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
The Cyberiam – Forging Nations LIVE! (Independent)
The Cyberiam will be a new name to many and a welcome discovery well-worth time taken for a deeper dive. With only one studio album and follow-up EP to their name, this quartet already has the talent to offer a flawless live performance as “Forging Nations” clearly documents. Their well-crafted songwriting is an equal match to extended instrumental prog passages with near-virtuosic musicianship. Beautifully mixed, “Forging Nations LIVE!” captures the vibrancy of a live show (at Progstock, nonetheless) without making many concessions in its production. Boasting the production quality of a studio album with the energy of a fiery stage show, this is an ideal place to start for newcomers. Read the full review here.
Neal Morse – Jesus Christ the Exorcist: Live at Morsefest 2018 (Frontiers Records)
“Jesus Christ The Exorcist: Live At Morsefest 2018” captures the only performance of Neal Morse‘s prog-rock opera about Jesus Christ with great care to the artist’s vision for the work. Morse’s endearing ability to move the listener, to shake his foundations, and make him feel deep emotions through music, succeeds once again by presenting “Jesus Christ The Exorcist” in full, bringing with it the spirit of a triumphant prog-rock opera full of diverse musical approaches ranging from prog, blues, power ballads, choral tunes, and rock. With the aid of an exceptional singer’s cast and a superlative group of musicians, Morse delivers a heartfelt, epic and superb live show that maximizes his artistic vision of rendering glory to God through the invaluable gift of his unmatched musical talent. Learn more about the magic of Morsefest and everything else about this album here.
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Adventour – Live in Brno 2019 (Inside Out Music)
After a number of other placements on this list by the far reaches of Neal Morse‘s discography, The Neal Morse Band narrows the focus of their latest tour to deliver prog’s most infamous cliche: the double-concept album. Played in full during the course of their two-hour concert – plus an epic thirty-minute encore medley – what is startling about “The Great Adventour” is that they not only convincingly pull it off, but that this is the follow-up to a previous double-concept album and tour as well with “The Similitude of a Dream”. Also edited by bassist Randy George, it is plainly apparent the advantage of production being done in part by one of the musicians intimately familiar with the performance. Well filmed and expertly mixed, this concert is a keeper for Neal Morse fans, whether they attended the tour in person or not. Read the full review here.
SURPRISE PROG-ROCK ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Maciej Meller – Zenith (Independent)
The first solo album from Riverside guitarist Maciej Meller, the welcoming sonic embrace of “Zenith” impresses with its depth while opening its scope for an introspective listening experience. Both concise and memorable, every minute of “Zenith” is valuable in its richness and intention. Filled to the brim with spectacular musicianship and a stellar guiding voice, this album carries with it a steady forward momentum that never overpowers the opportunity to savor each note as it passes. A strong and pleasant vocal lead pulls the listener from track to track, dancing alongside deep and vibrant bass notes and a rumbling storm of percussion. Careful layering gives way to reliable structures which build the album’s strong foundation, and allow for the depth to build within each track naturally.
COMEBACK PROG-ROCK ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Nektar – The Other Side (Cherry Red Esoteric Records)
Welcome back, Derek “Mo” Moore, Ron Howden and Mick Brockett – Nektar has returned. Classic psychedelic proggers Nektar update their sound while staying rooted in their origins for a surprisingly fresh release. Despite the passing of Roye Albrighton, which is honored on the album, various Nektar co-founders and alumni collaborate to bring the band back for a well-deserved new round in their legacy. The material offered on “The Other Side” is a sterling collection of songs and jams in its own right, containing over an hour of material which confidently brings the band into the 2020’s, and this is a true cause for celebration. With both classic approaches and more modern inspirations, this is both a strong return from silence and an assertion of a legacy. Take a deep dive into this revival here.
If you are still here, and you are curious about our picks in some other genres, make sure to check out the lists below!