It’s once again nearing the end of another year, and that means it’s time for all good (and any number of not so good) review sites to start putting out their Top 10 lists of best albums, bands, concerts and so forth. And most music fans do it themselves. We at Metal Wani are no different. And so I’m setting forth with the unenviable task of selecting my Top 10 Prog Metal/Rock Albums of 2016. Prog fans being what they are, this means pissing off scores of them by not selecting their favorite, or putting something somewhere they think is wrong. All we can say is they’re more than welcome to start their own website, and make their own list. For our purposes I’m only working with albums that we reviewed on the site over the past 11 months. This of course means that there were a goodly number of worthy albums I’ve had to ignore and not consider. Be that as it may this is my list, made for my own tastes, and my own reasons.
- The Neal Morse Band – ‘The Similitude of a Dream’
This is a very recent album, which as of this writing still won’t be released for several weeks. However I reviewed it recently, and declared it then not only my favorite album of the year, but also the best album of Neal Morse’s rather lengthy career. And nothing has caused me to change my mind in the past week. ‘Similitude…’ is hands down the highlight of Neal’s long partnership with drummer Mike Portnoy, and on every front the entire band was at their very best for this progressive juggernaut. Hype is a literal and figurative 4 letter word, and for once an album actually lives up to it. A double, 100 plus minute concept album, it embodies everything special, exciting, and long lasting of about progressive rock and metal. A modern masterpiece.
- Opeth – ‘Sorceress’
I’ll say right now that Opeth is my favorite band. So I have a bias for this album, which as it just so happens is also their best album since 2005’s ‘Ghost Reveries.’ As always, any Opeth album these days is going to be controversial among their loyal and often fanboyish fan base, and the metal community as a whole. But they delivered an engaging album of progressive rock and metal that was at the same time new, and also finally brought back the feel of vintage Opeth that has been missing over the past few albums. Obviously I love the album, and it’s one of my favorite albums of the year. Like its mysterious namesake, ‘Sorceress’ reveals its secrets over successive hearings, and it simply gets better with each one.
- Haken – ‘Affinity’
Haken are a fairly new band to the prog metal scene, and ‘Affinity’ is only their fourth full length album to date (although they did release a phenomenal EP as well). They’re also arguably the brightest and most talented young prog metal band on the planet, and this release is absolutely stellar. Honestly, for me it goes toe to toe with the above Opeth album as my second favorite prog album of the year; it’s a wild, technical, and very fun ride. While it’s not my favorite of their albums (that would be either ‘Visions’ or ‘The Mountain’) this was an early highlight of the year for many prog-heads around the world, and needs to be checked out by any self respecting fan of brilliantly played, forward-thinking metal.
- Katatonia – ‘The Fall of Hearts’
I have seen it argued that since they don’t concern themselves with technical fireworks and prowess, and are more interested in creating atmosphere, Katatonia is not a proper prog band. I will simply say that the same things can be said for both Anathema and Pink Floyd and only an idiot would argue the progressive elements of those bands. Regardless, by my definition (and that of plenty of others) Katatonia are an atmospheric and dark prog metal band, and have long been one of my favorites as well. ‘The Fall of Hearts’ is their first proper metal album in several years, as they’ve recently been focusing on their lighter, proggier, and more atmospheric arrangements of their back catalogue, both in studio and live performances. This focus is obvious on this album, while at the same time being one of their heavier releases in recent years. And as always Katatonia remains consistent and excellent in their song writing. The result: a more than worthy album for anyone’s collection, and one I return to often.
- The Devin Townsend Project – ‘Transcendence’
Devin Townsend has been one of my favorite musicians of any genre for quite a long time now. From his Strapping Young Lad albums, to the myriad of solo outings, he has always produced high quality, and interesting music. Be it straight, angry, brutal metal, complex, and often humorous prog metal, or even ambient and Gothic country albums, he’s constantly consistent. Which is why, I knew when making this list I had to finally acquire his newest to see if it lived up to my expectations. It did. ‘Transcendence’ has proved to be one of Dev’s best in recent years, certainly surpassing all but ‘Z2’ (confession: I LOVE Ziltoid, so I’m biased) for this current project’s output since ending the initial four album group concept. The album also produced “Higher” which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite songs from any of his albums. Yes, parts of the album drag with a bit too much of his recent signature ambiance (hard to describe, but anyone hearing anything from ‘Epicloud’ on knows what I’m referring to) but the heaviness and quality of writing elevate this release on pretty much every level.
- Gorguts – ‘Pleiades’ Dust’
I only got into Gorguts this year, after repeatedly reading that they are one of the most unique, complex, original, and brutal tech/prog death metal bands currently operating. After hearing this EP, and their previous album ‘Colored Sands,’ this was more than confirmed. ‘Pleiades’ Dust’ is a exhilarating and brilliant EP comprised of a single half hour composition dealing with the rise of ancient Baghdad and its rich library and academic legacy. Certainly not a typical subject for a death metal album, but as all their earlier albums have long showed, there is nothing typical about Gorguts’ work. The result of all this is an often beautiful, richly, and mind bendingly complex album with monster riffs and vocals that any fan of technical and progressive death metal should run to buy. I was slightly hesitant to include it on this list as it is only an EP and not a proper full length album. But after repeated listens of it and other albums I was considering, it proved to be borderline criminal to exclude it.
- Ihsahn – ‘Arktis’
Ihsahn is a name that shouldn’t need any introduction to any fan of extreme metal, and black metal in particular. The founding vocalist/guitarist for famed Emperor he has been a fixture of that community since the early 90s and has since the dissolving of that band been putting out solo albums of progressive black metal ever since. In truth, however, calling ‘Arktis’ a black metal record, or strictly a metal record at all, is highly misleading. It’s certainly a heavy album, and Ihsahn’s trademark screams and heaviness are very present, but this is largely a very progressive and often experimental album. There are large doses of (surprisingly fun) electronic music that bounces and moves, much of which you could even dance to if you felt the urge. It is as a whole a very engrossing and solid album, and despite the chilly figure of a man skiing through the Arctic, a warmly recorded one as well. Perhaps not for fans of his more straight forward work, but one the adventurous listener will find enjoyable.
- Meshuggah – ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason’
No list of top prog related albums can be complete without a Meshuggah album when they release one that year. And their albums are always one of the most anticipated and frequently over-analyzed albums whenever they are released. I’m not going to attempt to do that with ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason.’ I will, however, say that Meshuggah have once again lived up to their reputation as being one of the most influential and engrossing metal bands on the planet. While taking their signature sound even further, and in new directions, they’ve released another massive and massively heavy album, which I think surpasses their last album ‘Koloss’ by a good margin, and shows once again that they are the innovators in their genre and undisputed kings of their realm.
- What Escapes Me – ‘Egress Point’
Before I joined the Metal Wani team back in April I had no knowledge of the Indian metal scene, or that they even had one for that matter. So when I was assigned What Escapes Me’s self funded debut album as my second album to review I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a highly mature, complex, and highly melodic example of modern prog metal at its finest. The skill, flair, and musical maturity for a band’s first album is very impressive, on par with what TesseracT did with their debut. This album has stuck with me since first hearing and reviewing it. When I came back to it listening through albums to create this list I was struck again with how good it is and knew I had to include it. I actively look forward to seeing what this band does next, and hope they can garner some attention on the international stage.
- Hammers of Misfortune – ‘Dead Revolution’
By far the hardest album to pick for this list was the last one. There were so many worthy albums released this year that narrowing it down was more than a little difficult, but I kept coming back to this release by a relatively little known band. While not one of the ultra technical prog metal bands, Hammers of Misfortune certainly have more than enough prog to please a prog fan, and the riffs and grooves to please a more straight forward metal fan as well. One could argue this has more metal than prog, and that is perfectly fine because it’s a solid; and enjoyable example of both. Being a reviewer it’s my job to be critical, and I typically have no problem finding something to gripe about with an album, but every time I come back to this album I really can’t find anything. It doesn’t put on pretentions to be anything more than it is, and while not a prog masterpiece is regardless one of my favorite albums of the year, and that is more than enough reason to have it round off my list.
And that does indeed end my little list. Some of my choices are perhaps less than typical, but it represents my favorites, and I feel the ten best prog metal and rock albums of what has been an abnormally excellent year for progressive music (about the ONLY good thing about this year). Feel free to gripe, I certainly won’t lose any sleep if you do. It’s been fun, and here’s hoping that 2017 doesn’t disappoint. Until then; prog on my friends.