By Joel Barrios, Rock At Night’s Progressive Rock Reviewer
The 2016 curtains are closing today and despite the losses of so many greatest artist during the last 12 months (I don’t even feel like mentioning their names here to prevent myself from getting overwhelmed again by the sadness of their absences) the leap year 2016 has been exceptional in the progressive-rock realm. Pretty much beaten down in the eighties, Prog-Rock never quite died and the nineties saw a revival – first in Sweden (with bands like Änglagård, Landberk and Anekdoten) and then in America (with Spock’s Beard, Echolyn and Dream Theater). Since then it has been a long climb back to relevance, and nowadays Prog-Rock has evolved from a somewhat underground scene to become home of some of the most exciting music being recorded today. I got sidetracked during the last couple of weeks, and completing a list of my favorite picks of the year became a daunting task, yet I managed to finish it only mere hours before the dawn of 2017. This list caters to my personal taste and to the spectrum of albums I listened to during 2016. I do not rank albums based on pure musical instrumentation ability or sonic clarity but using many other criteria, one of them being the ability of the music to draw me back again and again to play an specific record. At the end music is a subjective listening experience and my opinion is no more valid than yours if we are on opposite sides of the fence. Without further ado…
17.- Anima Mundi – I, Me, Myself
Extremely proud of including my fellow Cuban countrymen in this list. After the release of many good albums (Most of them completely unknown for the first world prog lovers), Anima Mundi is back with another symphonic adventure of epics songs. A modern symphonic prog-rock album with heavier moments, the music has a lot of quiet and beautiful atmosphere where the melody is carried slowly. “The Chimney, the Wheel, and the War” is an 18 plus minute epic that is absolutely mind-blowing. An album where the emotions flow perfectly accompanied by the musical lines, make sure you hunt it down and enjoy it!
16.- Iamthemorning- Lighthouse
An impressive combination of creative instrumentation and heartfelt songwriting this is not an album for everyone. The Russian duo of vocalist Marjana Semkina and pianist Gleb Kolyadin have created a suite of music that coheres in a deeply compassionate and empathetic way around the story of their central protagonist, a character navigating the depths of an unspecified mental illness. Lighthouse is a rich and eclectic album, with echoes of classical music, the Canterbury scene, northern folk, jazz and electronic sounds.
15.- Glass Hammer – Valkyrie
Veteran American prog band Glass Hammer continues to prove its importance by making a gigantic leap forward with this splendid effort “Valkyrie”. With some delightful departures from what some would call their signature sound the band continue to evolve into one of the world’s foremost Progressive Rock bands. A masterclass example of current progressive music that perfectly fuses vintage and modern sounds with an equally on-point balance of subtlety and bombast “Valkyrie” shows us a more earthbound Glass Hammer but one that still wields the force, power, and musical alchemy that they’ve always used to create mighty prog epics from the most unexpected places – even from the heart and mind of a wandering soldier.
14.- The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness
This Bruce Soord-led project is now eleven albums in and as their name grows in stature they eschew the trappings of the more polished edges of their last couple records and go for a more standard Prog sound. The inclusion of drummer Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree, King Crimson) proves to be pure magic as his percussive touch is all over this release. Each of the songs found on Your Wilderness utilize the band’s penchant for lush instrumentation to full effect, often creating a mood and atmosphere that builds into a goosebump-raising climax. The music carries the themes of isolation in a vast, empty space from its slow-build opener “In Exile” all the way to its pensive closer “Where We Stood”. There are some heavy moments throughout, including a galloping riff in the middle of “Tear You Up”, but on the whole the record is a hushed affair from the Pineapple Thief. Immaculately produced and beautifully executed, “Your Wilderness” serves notice to the world that The Pineapple Thief is no mere baby Porcupine Tree. Their best days still lie well ahead of them.
13.- John Wesley- A Way You’ll Never Be
John Wesley, who is known as a live session guitarist and singer for Porcupine Tree over the years, is a true exponent of forward thinking progressive rock. A Way You’ll Never Be shifts between heavy and smooth passages with a near-cinematic grace, sometimes giving the impression there’s less complexity at work than there really is. The music draws from a variety of sources, including a surprising number of nods to the alternative rock of the early nineties resulting in an album that is elegant, heavy when it needs to be, and full of emotion.The perfect prove that progressive rock can be accessible and even catchy.
12.- Opeth – Sorceress
Sorceress marks a third and definitive attempt in the metamorphosis of the band’s sound initiated with Heritage and further developed with Pale Communion. It comes full circle with their foray into a drastically different musical territory, where straight ahead 1970’s-influenced prog-rock marries analog synth driven jazz-infused soundscapes sprinkled with psychedelic guitars and medieval-folk melodies. The Blackwater Park days are long gone, and the band is clearly unwilling to return to their stylistic roots, but moving towards to explore uncharted territories, developing an intricate palette of styles and ideas and pushing them to the extremes of its expressions. “Sorceress” bears the imprint of a band broadening its influences rather than transcending them, while inviting the listener to follow them throughout a truly defiant and bold musical journey.
11.- Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence
Cosmograf is a progressive rock project lead by Robin Armstrong, a British multi instrumentalist progressive rock musician who has released five albums under the name since 2009. Robin’s cast of distinguished guest performers includes Nick D’Virgilio (drums), Nick Beggs (bass), Dave Meros (bass), Rachel Hawnt (vocals) as well as a number of voice acting contributions. The Unreasonable Silence is an existential concept album with an alien theme, based on The Myth of Sysiphus by the French philosopher Albert Camus. The imaginative story is unnerving whilst the music is captivating on a human level but cinematic in scope – ranging from crunching Deep Purple riffs, through atmospheric acoustic passages to sweeping Floydian soundscapes. There isn’t a weak moment here, as its plot, melodies, effects, and arrangements enchant from beginning to end. High on concept with thought provoking story lines, outstanding musicianship, lots of tasty sampling… all converging to make an utterly pleasurable listening and re-listening experience: this album is simply stunning.
10.- Aisles – Hawaii
Hawaii is a double concept album inspired on a post apocalyptic world where human colonies were established in space after the destruction of Earth. But before the extinction of the planet Earth a project was initiated to make sure human race would survive. And this exactly where the album takes you during its almost 82 minutes: into a sci-fi Prog-Rock adventure. Over twelve tracks the music explores the dilemmas and challenges of such a scenario. The stock in trade of this beyond excellent Chilean band has its foundation in melodic rock, then finds itself infused with everything from prog rock to AOR rock, art rock to jazz fusion. Many instrumental elements weave through their tunes: gentle piano and guitar, yet brisk guitar solos also, melodic and smooth vocals and vocal arrangements, and an emphasized bass line. A record that requires some commitment from the listener up front, before it will reveal the intricacies of its emotional core, “Hawaii” is a beautiful and emotionally- laden journey.
09.- Evership – Evership
This one really floored me. This band is a rock music juggernaut whose audacious exploration of their instruments limitations, challenges everything you may have come to know about this genre. To label them as “progressive rock” is equal parts accurate and unfair. On one hand, the musical influences are undeniable, with several nods to prog pioneers such as Rush, Yes, The Moody Blues and Queen. On the other hand, the music never falls prey to the often inherent pitfalls of prog (self-indulgent soloing, meandering interludes, obscure and unrelatable lyrics, etc.). Instead, the band somehow manages to easily straddle the line of presenting a timeless and remarkably accessible record that never feels pretentious, all while dressing it up with a familiar and nostalgic tapestry. You can read my own review here. Can’t wait for them to release this album on vinyl!
08.- Kansas – The Prelude Implicit
Sixteen years since their last album, Kansas comes back with a vengeance – and three new members: vocalist Ronnie Platt, guitarist Zak Rizvi and keyboardist David Manion. The Prelude Implicit is excellent in every sense of the term. Kansas shows what it truly means to be timeless and quite literally defy aging in their music. This is a band with renewed life, a new attitude and the desire to create once again. Everything here takes you back to their glory days without really copying themselves: the music is different, yet so familiar and refreshing you cannot help but loving every minute of it. Please Kansas – don’t wait another 16 years to present us with another offering from your muse.
07.- Haken – Affinity
Despite The Mountain remains atop the list of my Haken favorite albums, Affinity comes very close. Haken are the latest truly prog-metal band to take the world by storm, and arguably the best exponent of the current generation of bands in a genre which has evolved from anonymity to overcrowding. They combine the required level of instrumental virtuosity with a degree of song-craft and compositional skills unmatched by most of their peers. Superb vocal harmonies, intricate guitar melodies and solos, splendid keyboard soundscapes, killer drumming passages: they are all present in Haken’s music, and they are all combined differently for the utmost degree in terms of musicality. They are capable of writing a 9 minutes long song and you’ll be surprised how fast it goes. Their style is an amalgam of interesting, progressive tendencies that could be referenced from all over the prog-map, yet the result is something reinvented for the twenty-first century rather than a reverential pastiche of the music from a generation ago, and all of these characteristics are in perfect display throughout Affinity.
06.- Anderson/Stolt – The Invention of Knowledge
Invention of Knowledge is a brilliant album that showcases the talent of two legends, coming together for the first time and merging two significant eras of Progressive Rock. One could say that there is something for everyone on the album but more importantly, there is something that we all could take from the album. For many prog-rock aficionados this record could probably be the equivalent to that missing recording Yes never produced during their heyday in the seventeen. This is not a “one listen” album — this an album that grows with you in time, becoming an ever more rewarding musical experience as you gradually come to terms with its immense magnitude over repeated listens. It builds a wonderful soundscape of carefully arranged instrumental and breathtaking sophisticated vocal harmonies for the listener to get lost in, fact in which I find certainly similarities with –the love it or hate it– Yes album “Tales from Topographic Oceans“. Again four long songs, four exquisite sets all unique in their own way, four sets of delightful music complexities. A project that sounds fresh, yet familiar; musically and lyrically a truly magnificent experience. I’ll be proud to store the splendid limited vinyl edition of this record in the same shelf where my classic Yes albums defy the test of time. You can read my own review here.
05.- Big Big Train – Folklore
It was going to be hard to follow “The Underfall Yard” and the “English Electric” albums, yet from its anthemic title track, through the bizarre yet strangely inspiring and touching tale of “Winkie” the pigeon, to the bucolic “Telling the Bees”, this album is an absolute winner. With all the pieces now in place (former members of XTC, Genesis and Beardfish are now in) it will be exciting to see where they go from here. Subtle, not bombastic, the music is rich, complex and full of layers that are hard to perceive at first listening, or second. Like 70´s Genesis, Big Big Train is a band that takes you in a gentle way, with a music that seems to be simpler that it really is, even banal if you don’t pay close attention. But if you do, you’ll find pure gold. Pastoral but never boring, melodic but never delicate “Folklore” has it all: brass choir, flute, achingly lovely melodies and lots of rocky bits. A rich tapestry of folk tinged progressive rock; lyrically intelligent and insightful, conveyed with integrity and emotion, and played with consummate skill and passion. You can read the excellent album review written by my good friend Roie Avin at The Prog Report website visiting here.
04.- Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
All That You Fear Is Gone is another milestone in the journey of Headspace. Is perhaps softer than its predecessor I Am Anonymous, although it still has plenty of bite. Clocking in at well over an hour, the album could have been a staggering task to sit through, but the band’s expert sense of construction and pacing kept me spellbound. Many tracks flow seamlessly from one to the next while others end in an intentional pause, signalling a shift in mood or tone. The massive amount of content and variation is impressive. The epic ‘The Science Within Us’ (Which is worth the price of admission alone) is the longest composition on the record and is truly ‘progressive’ in its 13-minute construction. It is a wonderfully intelligent piece of music that’s as quirky as it is memorable, challenging the listener with a huge number of different ideas all the while managing to sound cohesive and homogenous. If the immense and intricate song-writing skill of Headspace was ever in need of being underlined, this is the track to do it. A true opus, that easily justifies the four-year incubation period, this is not an album to take lightly, or with low expectations, because once again , Headspace has delivered a progressive metal giant. You can read the excellent album review written by my good friend Prog Nick at The Prog Report website visiting here.
03.- Karmakanic – DOT
A handful of albums into their career, DOT marks another notch on the Karmakanic’s belt as well as a foreseeable array of musicianship and finesse. There is a care and precision in the whole record that separates the band’s musical ability above and beyond many of their contemporaries. DOT is not a pure symphonic-prog album – it’s more – rich of different impressions and approving much experience based on a high level of musicianship and compositional skills. It has a fantastical edge to it that will take you on a journey that does not necessarily answers any questions at the end, and that is part of its inner beauty. A journey into many, non-existent places, full of moving, innovative and challenging expectations, seductive meditations and ultimately riveting and uplifting sentiments. Some might say it might not be as a perfect album as Who’s the Boss in the Factory was, but musical excellence does not require perfection, and quite frankly, perfection is rather boring. You can read my own review here.
02.- Fates Warning – Theories of Flight
Fates Warning has returned with a record that emphasizes guitar interplay, aggression, atmosphere and enough riveting time changes to satisfy even the most demanding progressive metal fan. From the opening track “From the Rooftops”, it is apparent they are back and in a big way. This album is a magnificent journey, one which proves worthy of every listening second and truthfully showcases a legendary band that has gotten even better with time. One single listen to the textures, momentum, mix of melodic finesse, high-level performance, attack and brooding melancholy of this record and it’s pretty evident these veterans are still plenty of energy and aiming for the future. “Theories Of Flight” is as progressive as it gets. An essential pickup for any lover of extremely well crafted infectious prog-metal plenty of intricacies, warmth and emotion. I couldn’t be happier! You can read my own review here.
01.- The Neal Morse Band – The Similitude of a Dream
There’s really no much more that needs to be said about this album, and the fact that it takes the grand prize in my list of the best prog-albums of the year. Neal Morse is a genius. Not because he can write great songs, but because he has stitched together an eclectic and extraordinary collection of musicians as the vehicle for his latest albums. This time there’s no epic song but many ideas throughout this long adventure, resulting in a true masterclass of progressive rock. This is an incredible album. It’s a lengthy, complex, emotional, and pretty much perfect example of modern progressive rock, with occasional flashes of driving metal. Flawless in every way it deserves to be in the conversation with the best concept albums ever made. You can read my own review here.
REVELATION BAND OF THE YEAR:
Witchwood – Handful of Stars
I discovered this band just by mere coincidence, as a suggestion from my Editor in Chief, Chyrisse Tabone. I will be forever grateful to her for sending that email. Handful Of Stars represents an hypothetical band’s cycle as it contains also music based on ideas developed during the recording sessions of “Litanies From The Woods”, but left behind because that album was already almost 80 minutes length. “Handful of Stars” features 3 brand new tracks written for this release, 2 covers (“Flaming Telepath” of Blue Oyster Cult and “Rainbow Demon” of Uriah Heep, a sort of homage and tribute to these two great bands, so important for Witchwood‘s musical journey) and an unreleased version of suite “Handful of Stars” (from “Litanies from the Woods”) with a new breathless intro, for 45 minutes of music. A well balanced mix of hard rock, progressive, psych and southern rock with an obscure and vintage 70’s attitude, the sound of this Italian band includes musical references to American Southern rock along with progressive and hard rock bands from the 70s and 80s. You can hear Jethro Tull, Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eloy, Kansas, Styx (Wooden Nickel era), Rainbow and more. It pushes all the right buttons for me!
SURPRISE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR:
Tryo – Órbitas
Órbitas is the new and long awaited album of the outstanding South American band Tryo (Chile), with nearly 30 years of extraordinary artistic career in their home country and abroad. I was complately unaware of the band’s extensive catalogue (Yes, it seems I had been living under a stone). This amazing record; (the first completely conceptual in their discography) represents a journey through the Cosmos (macro cosmos – universe) and the Being (the micro cosmos that each of us is). The voyage is a metaphor for a human, spiritual, and transcendent experience, a learning path that will take us from ignorance to wisdom, darkness to light, and from an ego to a soul culture, all expressed through the universal language of music”. Órbitas is a really fantastic album, and one which surprised me greatly. One of the most important Prog – Fusion comebacks of the year and also between the best Latin American albums of 2016. Clocking in 43 minutes, the band shows all of its great power, sensibility, creativity, virtuosity and versatility, in electric-acoustic formats and instrumental – vocalized songs. A fluid work, which takes the necessary time without spreading in useless variations. Each one of its parts acquires a common sense where there are no commitments with a certain style, but they are liberated between progressive, jazz, learned and ethnic, with complex arrangements that are easily absorbed and enriched in every listening. Highly recommended for those of open musical minds.
Bad Dreams – Déjà vu
I knew about Bad Dreams when I witnessed their live performances aboard Cruise to the Edge in 2015. Hailing from Argentina they began their prolific career performing Genesis’ music for a period of more than 10 years, venture in which they attained worldwide recognition by fans and Genesis members alike. They released their first album with their own original music entitled “Apocalypse of the Mercy” in 2014. The album garnered worldwide recognition among classic and progressive rock fans, and Bad Dreams opened for Steve Hackett and played alongside Steve Rothery and his band during their South American leg. However “Déjà vu” finds these fine musicians taking a whole new level in composition and musicianship, resulting in one of the most beautiful and enjoyable albums of the year. “Déjà vu” is an album that will stand the test of time and is a great achievement for Bad Dreams. What makes it stand out even more is the way the music becomes almost part of you and can make you stop what you are doing and just listen for the sake of it and that, my friends, is what truly great music can do to you.
The Fringe – S/T
This one is one of the albums I’ve listened to the most during the last few months. The Fringe brings together drummer Nick D’Virgilio from Big Big Train, Lo-Fi Resistance’s Randy McStine, and Karmakanic’s Jonas Reingold. In this power trio format, the sound and vibe recall King’s X, although it’s D’Virgilio and McStine who put the strongest stamp on the music, with Reingold’s bass often mirroring the guitar riff. They incorporates the more alternative rock side of prog into a garage band, stacked with deep grooves, vocal harmonies, and tasty guitar solos. Nick, Jonas and Randy are simply on fire, bringing the best of them to the table and flirting with progressive rock sounds while keeping the core of a power trio. The Fringe are too good to remain a side-project, so I am truly hoping that I hear more, and soon. I’ve seen them twice live and they put out a helluva show. You can read the excellent album review written by my good friend Roie Avin at The Prog Report website visiting here.
BEST LIVE SHOWS OF THE YEAR:
This is an even more personal chapter, based in my impressions while attending to the brutal amount of shows my wife and I go each year. My three favorite performances of 2016 were (In no particular order):
Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian (Live at Progpower USA XVII) – Read my review here.
Rikard Sjöblom’s Band – Live at Progtoberfest II – Read my review here.
Dave Kerzner’s Band – Live at RoSfest 2016 – Read my review here.
His shots have graced many Rock at Night articles, as part of his press and photo coverage for music events throughout the US and big music festivals like Cruise to the Edge 2015, RosFest 2016, Morsefest 2016 and Progpower 2016 to name a few. His work has been also featured in the prestigious UK magazine Prog.