If you’re a fan of art rock, progressive rock, or progressive metal, 2008 has been good to you. This past year was filled was excellent prog albums, many of which rank among the absolute best albums released in 08. Nearly all of the albums in this category are essential, even if you’re not a huge fan of the genre.
In what was an incredible year for progressive music, the third album from Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia is a great album that was almost left off of this guide. Even though The Scarecrow is the tenth most essential prog album of 2008, I highly recommend getting all ten. This isn’t nearly as good as The Metal Opera albums that Avantastia are known for, nor does it come anywhere close to matching Ayreon’s 01011001, the other progressive metal opera released last year, but it’s still a great album with an interesting story and some very impressive musicianship. Although Tobias Sammet is the leader and songwriter of the group, he’s not the only talent involved. Nearly every musician involved in the project pulls their weight, and unlike Ayreon’s latest, The Scarecrow does not suffer from having too many vocalists. There is far less coherency than what one would expect from a prog opera, but there’s still a number of solid progressive power metal tracks featuring some of the most talented musicians in metal. To fans of progressive music, it comes highly recommended.
It’s easy to compare Ayreon’s latest metal opera to 2004’s brilliant masterpiece The Human Equation, and focus on this album’s faults in the process. Yes, there are too many vocalists, the lyrics are often cheesy, and the story drags in the middle, but this is still one of the absolute best progressive metal operas available. If you’re looking for a story on the same level as Arjen Lucassen’s best, you’re in for a disappointment. However, if you’re looking for a musically varied album with outstanding vocal performances and epic prog metal songs, this album is for you. It’s not The Human Equation, but it’s still one of the most creative albums of the past year, as well as one of the most underrated and overlooked. Far too few copies of this album have been sold, so support great music and give Ayreon’s latest a purchase this Christmas.
Traced in Air
It’s taken 15 years for a follow up to Cynic’s classic Focus, and while not a whole lot has changed, Traced in Air is a worthy follow up that belongs in the collection of every metal and prog fan. Cynic’s unique combination of technical death metal and jazz fusion is just as impressive now as it was 15 years ago, and finding a more instrumentally complex album as this is just about impossible. However, it’s not just the music itself that makes Traced in Air a great album. The emotion the band has put into their music is staggering, and it’s safe to say that Traced in Air is the most passionate and emotionally involving technical death metal album since Focus. Whether it’s for a fan of progressive rock, death metal, or even a jazz fan that doesn’t mind the occasional growl, Traced in Air is one of the best albums you can get this holiday season.
The Way of All Flesh
If you like music, buy this album. It’s as simple as that. The Way of All Flesh is a masterpiece that is filled with 75 minutes of truly unique progressive metal. From the absolutely stunning lyrical content to mind blowing musicianship to the incredibly varied and practically unclassifiable blend of genres, this album is incredible. Few albums reach the heaviness and brutality that Gojira perform almost effortlessly here, but the focus is on the progressive elements and intelligence that the band displays throughout the album. When an album is as heavy as The Way of All Flesh, rarely is it as creative. Comparisons can be made to Meshuggah and Strapping Young Lad in the way that Gojira is creative within their heaviness, but even compared to their influences Gojira takes it a step farther. This is a masterful record that builds off the groundwork laid by Meshuggah and other extreme and progressive metal bands, and in a year where Meshuggah released what may be their own masterpiece, The Way of All Flesh stands up to it and even surpasses it in many ways. Metalheads or even general music fans should not start 2009 without hearing this album.
The second solo album from Emperor frontman Ihsahn, is far better than the first. angL has all of the ambition and creativity of his solo debut, but this time around Ihsahn has lived up to his ambition in just about respect. This is a progressive black metal masterpiece that expertly blends genres and sounds in ways that no one could have expected. As part of Emperor, Ihsahn has made some of the best and most iconic black metal albums ever released. This, however, his is masterpiece to date. angL is a stunning and unique album that is a perfect combination of extreme and progressive metal. It’s unlike anything else in music, and is a must buy for any fan of metal or progressive music.
No-Man, a collaboration between Tim Bowness and Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, has become a prog band worthy of being called one of the best in the genre. Stylistically, it’s very different from Porcupine Tree, as Schoolyard Ghosts is an atmospheric album that ranges from dream pop to post-rock to more ambient progressive rock, but it still contains much of what makes Porcupine Tree great. As one would expect, the songwriting is superb, and the album as a whole makes for a deep and challenging experience. No-Man is far more than just a Porcupine Tree side project, and Schoolyard Ghosts is far more than just another Steven Wilson album. This is a brilliant record full of beautiful ambiance, deep lyrics, and moments of sheer amazement. Any fan of progressive rock should give this album a strong look this holiday season.
Oceans of Sadness
The Arrogance of Ignorance
Oceans of Sadness are another odd experimental metal band in the spirit of Mr. Bungle, uneXpect, and Diablo Swing Orchestra. Their style is far more serious and contained than the aforementioned groups, but the use of unusual instruments, constantly changing styles, and moments of pure oddity work to a far greater extent than they should. The Arrogance of Ignorance could be described as what a heavier Mr. Bungle would sound like if they decided to record a serious album. Somehow it works, and it works beautifully at that. For those who like their metal unique and inventive, Oceans of Sadness have put out a great record. It may be difficult to find, but it’s worth tracking down.
Even for an Opeth album, Watershed is outstanding. Words cannot describe the mastery at which Opeth works, and Watershed is Opeth at their best. The contrast of soft and heavy, beautiful and brutal, and lyrical and musical poetry, is one that is at a level of high art few bands are ever able to achieve. This is an album that is dark, beautiful, and poetic, and one that is built on individual moments. Each moment is masterful within itself, but comes together to create a series of masterful tracks that also come together to create a powerful masterpiece of an album. Watershed is simply as good as music gets. It takes many listens to fully appreciate, but it’s a beautiful and powerful experience that is among the best this critic has had the honor of being a part of. I can’t recommend this album highly enough, and in a world where garbage floods the market and dominates album sales, it’s depressing that a truly beautiful magnificent piece of art like this one goes unnoticed to many. Even most critics have denied Watershed a place on their top 10 lists, and I honestly believe there is no excuse for that. This is an album that makes me proud to be a critic and music lover, and I urge and plead any and all fans to treat yourself to Watershed this Christmas.
Steven Wilson already made this list with his side project No-Man’s incredible Schoolyard Ghosts, and he’s created masterpiece after masterpiece in Porcupine Tree. With his first solo album, Insurgentes, Steven Wilson has created another unbelievable masterpiece. Insurgentes features more alternative focused music that is reminiscent of Porcupine Tree, but also very different in that it's is a more personal album that could not be done under Porcupine Tree. This is a different but equally artistic side of Steven Wilson that anyone, even cynics of Porcupine Tree, should purchase. This is one of the best albums of the year, and while the only way to order it is through Steven Wilson’s website, it’s an absolutely essential addition to any prog fan’s collection.
When Times Fades…
Listening to Suspyre’s When Times Fades… is an absolutely mesmerizing experience. Even within the progressive genre, this album is immensely creative and unlike anything else out there. With influences ranging from progressive metal bands like Opeth and Symphony X to various classical musicians, Suspyre’s sound is both varied and beautiful, but it also surprisingly polished. Musically, this is one of the tightest metal albums released this past year, and it also happens to be one of the most unique. Much like Opeth, brutality and melody are intertwined seamlessly, and the use of choirs, grand pianos, and even a saxophone are superb. This is one of 2008’s best releases, and just about any fan of beautiful music would love it.