A Year In Review: Our 2021 Favorite Progressive Metal Albums

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Each new year gives progressive metal a new dawn, an untouched bed of snow for musicians to tread upon as they strive to make their mark. Questions swirl like a tempest, pondering where the genre will travel for this journey around the sun – will musicians harken to a more nostalgic flavor, or will they tend towards the avant garde? Will aggression dominate with brutal technicality, or will a meandering tenderness find favor? There is also the joy in watching musicians step boldly out of their comfort zone, opting to release solo albums after building a legacy elsewhere, or returning to a band they had once stepped away from. Another year of sinking our teeth into these many pleasures and surprises, all unfolding in real time. 

As global strife entered its second year, familiarity and peculiarity stood alongside one another as worthy companions to offer comfort and joy. Where juggernauts Mastodon dished out a heavy helping of their signature sonic brilliance, Iotunn impressed with their ambition and fresh vision. Where Dream Theater stood triumphant at the top of the world with another bright jewel in their crown, Soen lingered in somber melancholy. For every wayward heart there was a cure to be found, and the sheer amount of talent on display made culminating the most impressive albums a difficult task indeed. After facing an onslaught impressive progressive metal records from titans and newcomers alike, Sonic Perspectives gathered our top 15 progressive metal albums of 2021. Continue reading below to see them all, and more. 

OUR TOP 15 PROGRESSIVE METAL ALBUMS OF 2021

15. Diablo Swing Orchestra – Swagger and Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole (Candlelight Records)

  With this album Diablo Swing Orchestra carries out the culmination of their unique artistic vision, resulting in their most ambitious record to date. These Swedes do not recognize any musical barriers, which allowed them to freely navigate the infinite sea of possibilities that music provides. This album shows no limits to their creativity or constraints on their innovative essence, allowing listeners to embark on one of the most unique and liberating musical experiences of 2021. Read the full review of the album here.


14. Terra Odium – Ne Plus Ultra (Frontiers Records SRL)

Terra Odium takes listeners back to prog metal basics with debut album “Ne Plus Ultra.” In the place of dancing keyboard melodies and exotic instruments, Terra Odium has brought the guitar front and center for a guitar-focused style built from the ground up. This harkens back to progressive metal in its earliest days, drawing heavily from technical influences to make compositions that are as complex as they are intriguing. And although “Ne Plus Ultra” is a debut, the rhythm section includes the wisdom of accomplished bass player Steve DiGiorgio (Testament) to keep the guitars grounded. DiGiorgio is far from the only experienced member, as the other contributors to the releases have had time with the likes of Borknagar, Spiral Architect, Dragonforce, Moonspell, and more.  Without tying themselves to strict modernity, Terra Odium has given themselves more than enough room to soar, and have laid the foundation for a strong career to come.


13. Mercury X – Imprisoned (Frontiers Records SRL)

Landing at the end of the year, Mercury X’s latest studio album “Imprisoned” drives deep with its emotive strength and classic stylings. Yet another offering in the vein of classic prog metal, this third studio album is a decadent treat on all fronts. Vocal prowess emerges as an eye to a hurricane of technical skill, allowing the guitars to dance across melody and the sweet kiss of violin to delicately grace verses. The album was built around the twenty-minute epic “Imprisoned,” with an additional four songs added to the mix for a proper studio album. Each step of the journey across “Imprisoned” is a step through a vast imagination, one which culminated in a collection of modern classics.


12. The Stranger – Kaleidoscope (Octane Records)

With their second album “Kaleidoscope,” Brisbane-based prog metallers The Stranger present a unique and exciting blend of djent, prog metal, and dark synth-wave. As if it were a kaleidoscope, The Stranger’s newest record presents several elements that converge throughout the album, making it riveting from start to finish. At times it creates contrasts between them, and on other occasions they complement each other, generating a feeling of intrigue within the listener. This most recent outing places them firmly in the fold of the thrilling and ever-growing Australian prog metal brood. Check out our full review here.


11. Twelve Foot Ninja – Vengeance (Volkanik Music)

Twelve Foot Ninja’s “Vengeance” may be the most musically adventurous thing we’ve experienced since Jolly Many groups claim to bend and merge genres. With “Vengeance,” Twelve Foot Ninja have actually done it, and in spectacular style. Guitarist-writer Stevic MacKay has put together a body of work which is anything but “same old, same old.” The instrumentation is tight, the production is far better than average, and the vocals are refreshingly listenable, covering a variety of styles quite capably. Musically adventurous (tying in disco-funk alongside metal mainstays) but measured in the expanse of its scope, “Vengeance” proves to be enjoyable and incredibly intriguing to any listener lucky enough to stumble upon it. Read more of our thoughts on the album at this location.


10. Dvne – Etemen Ænka (Metal Blade Records)

Drenched in themes of horror and science-fiction’s allure, the sophomore outing from Dvne proved to have the spirit of musicians still developing their precise signature, but with the level musicianship of raw talent. With more resonant atmospheric textures than their debut, “Etemen Ænka” dips deeper into sludge while still calling upon more progressive structures to drive a sense of mystery in every track. The dynamic flow contrasts moments of heavy brutality against soaring clean vocals, with poignant harmonies to craft the sparkling stars on a canopy of darkness. Temperate in its mood and poised to take the metal world by storm, this output should not be overlooked.


9. Wheel – Resident Human (OMN Label Services)

     This album sees Wheel making a deep impression within the progressive metal word, placing them as one of the most exciting acts nowadays. Their ability to create a sonic atmosphere that combines heartfelt moments with hulking passages, where intricate riffs and complex time signatures are displayed, keeps the record thrilling and unforeseeable. By adding a profound, philosophical, and compelling concept as the human condition or our mortality, the album turns essential in our quest to continue deciphering who we are, what is important, and what we would like to achieve. Check out our full review here.


8. Iotunn – Access All Worlds (Metal Blade Records)

Much like the giants of their namesake, Iotunn have released an album that is magnanimous and crushing in every dimension. “Access All Worlds” is the first solid taste of this Danish progressive metal act to follow their 2016 EP, and it paints a picture of worlds beyond measure. This imaginative output is one of cosmic proportions, following explorers to the furthest reaches of space while showering listeners in decadent riffs and dynamic tempo changes. As grandiose as the reach may be, Iotunn never falter in pursuing their creative ambitions. The result is an album of incredible scope packed with pure talent, ready for any space-loving death-prog aficionado to devour whole. A monstrous debut of an amalgam of progressive, melodic, extreme, power and death metal.


7. Mastodon – Hushed and Grim (Epitaph Records)

This far into their career there is little question that Mastodon know what they are doing, and can do so with laser-like precision. Tucked away in their studio seems to be a template for progressive metal mastery, one which has allowed them to lay down album after album of pure brilliance since their inception in 2000. “Hushed and Grim” is no exception to their storied history, allowing a darker and moodier progression through a rich assortment of varied tracks that occasionally veer towards alternative rock. Its length allows the listener to traverse myriad emotions and commit themselves to the story, one which sticks to the soul far after the last note is played.


6.  Between the Buried and Me – Colors II (Sumerian Records)

If any band could successfully write a sequel to one of their most pivotal albums, it would be Between the Buried and Me. And that is exactly what they did with “Colors II” – a sequel to the cult success of 2007’s “Colors,” the band manages to not just meet, but exceed expectations of longtime fans. This extension of their earlier work blissfully incorporates the unique blend of genres that earned them their reputation, but also includes the growth that has allowed them to become a household name in progressive metal. Old and new collide for beautiful fireworks of structured chaos, peppered with callbacks to the album’s predecessor. At a mammoth 80 minutes long, “Colors II” gave 2021 (and the years beyond) something incredible to devour.


5. Dream Theater – A View From The Top Of The World (Inside Out Music)

There is little surprises to see Dream Theater sitting comfortably towards the top of “Album of the Year” lists again (and again, and again, and again…) With the release of “A View from the Top of the World,” Dream Theater have confidently reasserted themselves as the kings of progressive heavy metal. The album has heart, and its genuine nature is apparent in the diverse and creative songwriting found in this record. All four instrumental musicians remain at the top of their game, and while it’s hard not to think the writing might have benefited from that old Portnoy presence, the writing remains strong and solid. A fitting addition to Dream Theater‘s legacy, with our additional thoughts on the record here.


4. Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen (Nuclear Blast Records)

Amorphis co-founder Esa Holopainen indulges in a wish-list of lead singers to grace his skilled compositions and the resulting album is impressive indeed. Calling vocalists from across the metalsphere, and in all number of styles, there is little question that Holopainen’s talents extend far beyond his consistent presence in Amorophis. Holopainen has crafted an engaging showcase of competence in songwriting and musicianship that extends far beyond the limitless dreams of a solo-happy instrumentalist. From the choice of guest vocalists to the ambitious stylistic range, the attention to detail and pure passion poured into Silver Lake make this debut effort extraordinary in every sense of the word. From its heavenly heights to its oceanic depths, “Silver Lake” is a brilliant display of contrast, virtuosic songwriting, and above all else, unbridled creativity. With a journey so immersive, and musicianship so enthralling, the joys of “Silver Lake” feel as though they pass in but at instant. Read our full review on the album at this location.


3. Liquid Tension Experiment – Liquid Tension Experiment 3 (Inside Out Music)

After 14 years of hibernation in the recording studio, one of the wildcards in the American progressive metal scene marks its revival with an expansive collection of heavy, rhythmically intricate compositions for the contemplative ear. LTE3” is fast, fun and restless, and strays towards the heavier side compared to their first two releases. It is also jam-packed with badass riffing, groovy bass lines, some big melodies – and the much-missed chemistry between Portnoy and his former band-mates. In an hour of relentless shredding and reminiscing, LTE has come back in serious style. To read our full thoughts on the record, click here.


2. Soen – Imperial (Silver Lining Music)

Probing for a follow-up to the breathtaking album “Lotus” was all but an impossible ask, yet Soen managed to deliver. “Imperial” sees Soen furthering their unique soul, allowing them to create a complex and compelling album that weaves together heavy and intricate passage with subtle and elegant movements. This balance endows it with a rigid toughness enveloped in unmistakable warmth, speaking softly to the heart that dares to listen. Soen carries out a poetic, heavy, and emotional dissection of our human condition through eight songs that encompass reflective and provocative lyrics as well as heavy, haunting musicianship. After five albums they have crafted and entrenched a unique trademark sound that superlatively blends heavy, emotional, and subtle melodic passages, managing to remain consistent in this approach throughout the record. Read more of our thoughts on the album here. 


1. Evergrey – Escape of the Phoenix (AFM Records)

Undaunted, undeterred, and unwavering, Evergrey takes the top spot for this year’s best progressive metal album. The masters of dark progressive metal offer another demonstration of their unstoppable talent with their twelfth studio album “Escape of the Phoenix.” Captured by heartfelt lyrics and a ceaseless sense of sincerity, countless fans around the globe have been touched by the sweet melancholy of Evergrey’s majesty. “Escape of the Phoenix” is the next step in an increasingly impressive legacy, an artistic masterpiece which artfully balances the beauty of vulnerability on a sharp metallic edge. From enticing hooks to lofty choruses, this album brings with it the very best Evergrey has to offer through a riveting listening experience. With both light and shadow to define their craft, Evergrey offer yet another timeless sonic adventure for eager fans around the world. Read our progressive metal album of the year full review here.


PROGRESSIVE METAL COMEBACK ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Cynic – Ascension Codes (Season of Mist)

Cynic’s comeback comes in the wake of devastating loss, as 2020 saw the deaths of longtime drummer Sean Reinert and on-again/ off-again bassist Sean Malone. Cynic persisted nonetheless in a testament to the strength of perseverance in art.  “Ascension Codes” sees Cynic forgoing the earthier, more organic approach of its predecessor in favor of the group’s heavier past. Several moments on this monster of a record sound like a more fully realized take on what Cynic did on those incredible first two albums. Wholly complete and fully-formed in both concept and musicianship, there is little question that this serves as a strong pillar to memorialize two impactful musicians. Instead of giving up, Paul Masvidal offers us so mighty a testament to endurance and so gallant a triumph of resolve over devastating loss that we almost feel as if we as a species do not deserve it. Read the rest of our thoughts here


PROGRESSIVE METAL SURPRISES ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Molybaron –  The Mutiny (Inside Out Records)

This album came out of nowhere and hit us like a ton of bricks. France’s MolyBaron self-released the “The Mutiny” back in May and somebody at Inside Out Music liked it enough to pick it up for a formal release in late October. MolyBaron’s sound is some sort of a mix between prog-metal and alternative rock, that at points remind of a cleaner Mastodon or a less technical Tool. Gary Kelly’s wonderfully impassioned and theatrical vocals pair seamlessly with dynamic and groovy riffs that often pushes the energy into modern melodic thrash territory, and the rhythm section bashes and bounces and rolls and strolls all over the place. A band that clearly understands that rhythmic variety is necessary to keep the music interesting and unpredictable. Executed with massive precision and palpable energy, “The Mutiny” is a true musical roller-coaster and definitely a bold statement from a band with a bright future.

Times of Grace – Songs of Loss and Separation (Wicked Good Records)

Following distantly from parent band Killswitch Engage is Times of Grace, bringing with it the wisdom of its predecessor but the variety that could never be afforded to such a well-defined staple. “Songs of Loss and Separation” stays true to the Killswitch tradition of reading like love poetry and sounding like metal, and does so with a keen enough pop sensibility to possibly translate well into contemporary mix of progressive and country-rock. “Mend You,” is a damn near perfect rock song that showcases an almost uncanny use of texture and harmony, “Far From Heavenless” draws from clear prog-rock tendencies paired with notoriously uplifting lyrics, and if we live in a just world the emotional outpouring that is “To Carry the Weight” would be today what “Black Hole Sun” was in summer 1994. Ready for radio while still complete with the progressive complexities so many ears are keen on, “Songs of Loss and Separation” is a surprisingly touching journey from established musicians. Check out the rest of our thoughts here. 


INSTRUMENTAL PROGRESSIVE METAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Aziola Cry – The Ironic Divide (Sensory Records)

Chicago power-trio outfit Aziola Cry take to the endeavor of progressive metal with instrumentation alone, relying on composition and chemistry to carry them to the same heights as their vocal-endowed counterparts. In contrast to the heavily technical displays often encountered with a typical progressive metal release, this outfit opts to focus less on flashy solo passages and allow the elaborate character of their handiwork to be reflected in the series of gradually evolving offerings where all three instrumentalists act as one.  It’s a sort of ironic combination of complex sound groupings being used to convey a very simple message of disquiet, exposing the divided nature of the world it depicts. For the full review, click 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!

Our Favorite Progressive Rock Albums of 2021

Our Favorite Metal Albums of 2021

Our Favorite Metalcore Albums of 2021

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