While some are certainly dusting off prog-rock records from boxes stacked in their parents’ attics as though they were little more than antiques, there is something music fans know with certainty: progressive rock is alive and well. 2021 has proven yet again that there is freshness and modernity in the genre, and that this is anything but an old dog’s game. New names and faces surface alongside familiar favorites, including relative newcomers The Cyberiam proving their chops alongside Styx, both with artistic merit in equal measure. There has also been a brilliant showing from independent artists, news of their output spreading by reputation rather than the social media pages of record labels. Brilliant gems have been uncovered left and right, leading for yet another fruitful year of prog-rock evolution.
For all of the joy in music, this has been another year dotted with sorrow. The progressive rock scene suffered a sudden and unexpected loss in the passing of Big Big Train‘s vocalist and multi-instrumentalist David Longdon in November. The loss came just months after the release of “Common Ground,” and before the band was set to go an extensive tour. But as with all of the losses suffered in music each year, the artist continues to live on in their music and the legacy it leaves. Below is the top 15 records that Sonic Perspectives sees as not just having left a mark on this year, but as building timeless additions to countless musical legacies.
OUR TOP 15 PROGRESSIVE ROCK ALBUMS OF 2021
15. Evership – The Uncrowned King, Act I (Independent)
Evership are driven by visionary Shane Atkinson (keyboards, drum, vocals) and singer extraordinaire Beau West. More importantly, they have already established themselves as a prog-rock tour de force thanks to their first two excellent releases over the past five years, combining excellent voice and musicianship with compelling songwriting. Third album “The Uncrowned King – Act 1” employs these strengths into a concept album regarding the search for Truth. With enjoyable work on the guitar, along with fiery organ soloing and more melodic story-lines thrillingly delivered throughout, there’s plenty here to enjoy. The bulk of the album’s songs run well over 9 minutes apiece and by and large that is Evership’s sweet spot, and serve as a strong delivery mechanism for the poignant storytelling. Don’t get discouraged by the subpar cover design and read our in-depth analysis of the album here.
14. Downes Braide Association – Halcyon Hymns (Cherry Red Records)
Easily their best album yet, this fourth outing from Geoff Downes and Chris Braide is a brilliant showcase of catchy songwriting and lush arrangements. The strong foundational material of Downes realizes its full potential in the hands and voice of Braide, an artist who deserves much more recognition. Their partnership is formidable, especially when teamed up with an ace band of musicians including Dave Bainbridge on guitars. The brilliant cover art of Roger Dean is as warm and inviting and the material herein. Of the innumerable off-shoot bands and albums that have included Yes personnel over the years, “Halcyon Hymns” ranks among the best. With excellent supporting musicians on hand, all the pieces are in place for success. Be sure to check out this bounty of riches. Check out the full review here.
13. Dave Bainbridge – To The Far Away (Independent)
The fourth studio album from multi-instrumentalist Dave Bainbridge (Lifesigns) is a project showing even further passion for the genre he has dedicated his life to. And it is a worthwhile addition indeed, as “To The Far Away” is penned with the depth of personal emotion for yet another masterpiece. Instrumentally driven without forgoing lyrical depth, this 70-minute journey proves to be both immersive and expressive with a heavy helping of personality. Its charisma is muted but ever-present, and carries with it some noticeable motifs and influence from Bainbridge’s other projects spanning back to the 90s – certainly enjoyable for fans of classic and modern progressive rock alike.
12. Lifesigns – Altitude (LML Records)
Lifesigns is one of those fortunate bands who seem to effortlessly make fans for life. Album number three, “Altitude”, has been long-awaited by the faithful and their patience has not gone in vain. A band that doesn’t know how to do wrong, Lifesigns stay the course by delivering a third triumph in their star-studded discography. The solidified lineup of Dave Bainbridge and Zoltan Csörsz’s joining John Young, Jon Poole and Steve Rispin brings a confident musical prowess to songs new and old from Young. With the addition of special guest vocalist Lynsey Ward throughout the album, all the ingredients are in place for one of the year’s top releases as Lifesigns flies again. “Altitude” is a high-flyer from the get-go, and its tracks take listeners on a journey through the clouds before touching down, satisfied. Read our review of “Altitude” by heading over here.
11. Frost* – Day And Age (Inside Out Music)
Frost* convincingly triumph with “Day and Age”, guaranteed to satisfy their longtime fans while providing a perfect entry point for the newcomer. Their layered arrangements pack a punch while stopping short of being overwhelming. Jem Godfrey, John Mitchell and Nathan King have found an ideal sonic balance which is propelled by three powerhouse guest drummers. The pace is often relentless, but listeners are in no hurry to arrive at a destination, absorbed in the performance as they enjoy the ride. Despite the ever-changing drumming personnel, the band have managed to deliver their most consistent and impressive release yet, an energetic but dark observation on the cold, patronizing attitudes of the powers that be. What a triumph of an album. Frost* has found their groove, guaranteed to make their listeners enjoy “theirselves”. Click here for a full review.
10. Agusa – En Annan Varld (Kommun2)
Two tracks, just less than forty-five minutes of music, and not a voice to be found. In this instrumental minimalism, Agusa have proven that there is no strict formula to sonic success in the realm of progressive rock. Each instrument dances and entangles with the other in careful choreography, balanced The presence of a flute throughout adds an air of delicacy alongside the keyboard for a well-rounded melodies that weave throughout “En Annan Varld” with a psychedelic texture. At both its heavier moments and at its most melodic, each of the two tracks are complete stories that rush in like cold ocean water and take the listener on a journey through space and time.
9. Sylvan – One To Zero (Gentle Art of Music)
German prog-rockers Sylvan relied on their unfaltering chemistry and youthful energy to bring “One To Zero” to the masses. A slight reversion to their roots, Sylvan brings together a loose concept album with a gentle touch and nostalgic melodies. This album is driven by the musicianship with the concept buried within its lyrics, allowing the instrumentation to shine through with brilliant light. The instruments each stand apart in a clear mix, with production and emotive storytelling that allow even the most gentle moments to remain dynamic. Modern touches drive the sound of “One To Zero” as Sylvan returns after a six-year absence, and one that prog fans certainly shouldn’t miss.
8. Cast – Vigesimus (Progressive Promotion Records)
“Vigesimus” is impressive on many counts – not only has Cast been an outfit for more than forty years, but this record marks their twentieth studio release. Rather than being bound to the past, Mexico’s Cast have released an album that is full of modernity and new life, with uplifting melodies that reach the listener’s soul effortlessly. Reliable percussive backing and smooth bass build the foundation for soaring guitars and technically proficient keyboards, keeping this album firmly in the present. Each musician flexes their muscles across a gamut of style, calling back to the band’s evolution across the years, while remaining comprehensive and grounded throughout the nearly eighty-minute journey.
7. Big Big Train – Common Ground (English Electric Recordings)
Four months before vocalist and multi-instrumentalist David Longdon‘s unexpected passing, Big Big Train released their most definitive statement yet with “Common Ground.” Following a relentless battery of releases, “Common Ground” is a testament to artistic strength and creativity that has allowed this group to soak up the prog-rock spotlight in recent times. In this latest album, Big Big Train continue their musical journey beyond their native England, with the band’s four core members collaborating remotely to connect with each other as well as their audience. Widening their scope with additional voices and songwriting contributions, the band takes more chances on a few tracks which reflect the tumultuous times we’ve collectively been through. Still rooted in the longstanding strengths of Big Big Train, “Common Ground” results in a more diverse and ultimately satisfying album as the band continues to evolve. Read more of our thoughts on the album here.
6. The Cyberiam – Connected (Independent)
Sophomore slump will never be a phrase used for The Cyberiam’s second full-length studio album “Connected,” as they easily match and surpass their well-received 2018 debut. This Chicago-based quartet knows how to wield their considerable talent into accessible, engaging songwriting filled with virtuosic musicianship. Taking their influences from many of the most lauded bands of the past decades, The Cyberiam serve up sleek, modern prog at its best. This is a collection of songs that are built upon strong melodic verses and choruses with lots of muso moments underneath, generous on the virtuosic drum and bass fills. Judging by “Connected”, there’s will be no shortage of inspiration and more than enough talent to go around with these youngsters. Read our review here.
5. Transatlantic – The Absolute Universe (Inside Out Music)
After a lengthy absence, Transatlantic finally return with their most jam-packed album yet. The overflow of ideas takes an interesting twist in its presentation as not only is there a double-album offered but also a shorter single-album version with different arrangements of the material. This truly original approach offers more perspectives with which to enjoy Transatlantic’s prog adventures than ever before. Featuring emotional songwriting, radiant harmonies, and some of the best guitar, bass, keys and drums in the business, Transatlantic continues to impress. Most Transatlantic fan will find plenty to dig their teeth into and “Whirlwind” fans will be ecstatic to find a worthy “spiritual companion” to that album. The performance and production is top tier, and they do get extra originality points for their unprecedented presentation of the material. See our in-depth analysis of “The Absolute Universe” at this location.
4. Styx – Crash of the Crown (Alpha Dog 2T/UMe)
The road tested warhorse of STYX shows remarkable resilience and capacity to generate energized new music that retains the proven classic elements of the band’s signature sound and straddles the lines of American prog, arena rock and a little bit of acoustic folk. Do the songs on “Crash of the Crown” often sound or feel like older Styx songs? Absolutely, and that’s why it works. The songs are a collection of light and shade, either painting a picture of struggle, isolation, repression, or celebrating life, hope and better days to come. The band have honed in on the elements that made their best records so strong and in doing so, have made a surprisingly relevant record in the later stages of their career that all involved should be proud of. Read our in-depth analysis here.
3. Leprous – Aphelion (Inside Out Music)
Since the release of their last album, Leprous have evolved such that they have comfortably earned their place on the progressive rock list after a past that was far more aggressive and metallic. Seventh album “Aphelion” sees the band continuing this evolution, delivering a riveting collection of songs which will likely be embraced by the majority of their ever-growing audience. From symphonic strings to crunching guitars, wailing falsetto to even a touch of growl, Leprous once again serves up an addictive combo, increasingly hard to put down once you’re sucked in. This is a refined artistic product that while progressive from past material, still stays true to Leprous’ emotionally evocative heart. Truly, the world needs bands like Leprous who engage, animate and challenge their audience as we wrestle with this time of “Aphelion”. Check out our thoughts here.
2. Neal Morse Band – Innocence & Danger (Inside Out Music)
NMB’s fourth album could be called the best of their career, were it not for the deserved accolades received during their previous three releases. Rankings aside, these five master musicians have woven one week’s worth of songwriting into a treasure trove of pure gold for their audience which will take months to fully digest. From half-hour epics to pop feel-good tunes to acoustic solos to fiery musical muscle, there’s something here for everyone. Bountiful contributions from the entire band lead this to be perhaps the most diverse and accessible release Neal Morse has been involved with in decades. With “Innocence & Danger” they have delivered something for everyone and perhaps even nudged the bar a little higher. As always, Rich Mouser’s production ensures that everyone comes out sounding their best. Get your full dose of innocence (and perhaps danger) at this location.
1. Subterranean Masquerade – Mountain Fever (Sensory Records)
Although they lean towards the heavier side of progressive fare, there is little question that Subterranean Masquerade was due to take the top placement this year. “Mountain Fever” opens with that bouzouki/ frame drum combination so beloved by rock bands who tamper with the exotic, and pretty soon gets into the loud guitar and double kick combo more commonly heard in metal. But even with the more metallic elements in play much of the time (including a modest amount of growling), Subterranean Masquerade maintain an airy, eclectic, and not particularly brutal sound that will certainly earn them a few prog rock fans who generally avoid heavier music. “Mountain Fever” is not merely a collection of songs, but a collection of journeys, or better said: is a genre unto itself, a wondrously unblemished beast that arranges its many disparate identities into a vortex that devours both disbelief and attention. Read our progressive rock album of the year full review here.
PROGRESSIVE ROCK DEBUT ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Ross Jennings – A Shadow of My Future Self (Graphite Records)
Best known for his place at the helm of progressive metal group Haken, as well as his place in up-and-coming act Novena, Ross Jennings turned heads this year with his debut solo album “A Shadow of My Future Self.” While many-a-band’s lead singers have offered solo projects over the years, Jennings’ debut confidently establishes him as an artist in his own right with the potential to chart whichever course he wishes in the future. Diverse, engaging, expertly performed and produced, “A Shadow of My Future Self” is one of 2021’s true gems. Based on this overflowing solo release, Ross owes it to himself and his audience to develop his considerable skills further, even as he continues to successfully front Haken and Novena. This is more than a solo project, this is the birth of a career. Read our full review of the album here.
PROGRESSIVE ROCK SURPRISE ALBUM OF THE YEAR
MEER – Playing House (Karisma Records)
Comprised of equal parts indie, prog, rock and chamber pop, the 8-piece Norwegian ensemble MEER have created a little masterpiece in “Playing House”. The strengths of MEER are multi-faceted. To begin with, there are not just one but two lead vocalists, each one surpassing what you’ll find in most of MEER’s peers. Their delivery is impassioned, artful and convincing. Then we have the additions of violin and viola to the traditional instrumentation of piano, guitar, bass and drums. A full orchestra indeed, rounded off with a well-balanced production which can make each member’s contributions sparkle. All of this promise would be beside the point without inspired material and in that regard MEER unquestionably succeed, having laid down 11 sumptuous original compositions and one re-invented cover song as a bonus track. “Playing House” sounds great upon first listening and only gets increasingly addictive with repeated plays. Read more here.
PROGRESSIVE ROCK INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Jane Getter Premonition – Anomalia (Cherry Red Records)
Listening to an album that simply sounds amazing is such a pleasurable experience. Beyond the songwriting and performance there’s a quality available in the sonic landscape that just “feels right”, and when an artist finds that spot then everything they do turns to gold. Jane Getter Premonition’s “Anomalia” hits that mark from the opening track and never looks back. Exquisitely produced, “Anomalia” boasts an all-star cast of musicians weaving magic over an album of skilled songwriting. Rock albums with this level of quality are exceedingly rare these days, embracing elements of blues, jazz, folk…what we could call “progressive” tendencies. The sticker on the CD cover self-proclaims that it is a “Stunning new album” and in this case there’s very little argument that can be made to say otherwise. Check out the full review at this location.
PROGRESSIVE ROCK COMEBACK ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Cyan – For King and Country (Inside Out Music)
2021 sees the old 90s band Cyan transform from a Robert Reed solo project into a fully rebooted all-star band. Re-imagined, re-written and re-recorded, this 2.0 version of “For King and Country” not only eclipses the original several times over but makes for one of the year’s most compelling releases in a “classic prog” vein. Packed with mini-epics and expert musicianship, this record has countless moments of inspired clarity and creativity. For fans of Magenta, Genesis, Unitopia, Southern Empire and more, this is required listening. As a full-throttle 2.0 version 30 years later, it can stand proud as one of the best of 2021. It’s taken quite a journey to get to this point, but it’s been worth the wait. Not only does this album reveal Reed’s early talent from a young age, it now establishes Cyan as a new force to be reckoned with. Read the full review for the album ad catch an interview with Robert Reed himself 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!