2011, the undisputed year of Prog!
by Patrick Saad
Each year, hundreds of Metal albums are released worldwide, spanning a large variety of genres and subgenres alike. So why is 2011 the undisputed Prog year? Well in case you haven’t been following our activity lately, we’ve been focusing on Progressive Rock and Progressive Metal, simply because those two genres in particular are currently related to several of the world’s most renowned Metal bands. The facts are that 70′s Progressive Rock, a genre that hasn’t died out since that era, is finding its way into the music of all major Prog artists.
Here’s an overview of Prog releases that helped mark 2011 as Prog year (releases listed in no particular order) :
Probably the most solid example of Prog Rock’s current reign in the Metal world is the newest Opeth release, Heritage. You might say that 70′s Prog Rock was already a part in Opeth’s sound, and you’re totally right, but it was never the sole most important part, mainly because they’re also known for their Prog Death Metal side, with Mikael’s growl/clean vocals. The thing is Heritage is all clean vocals, with raw sound recording quality characterizing the 70′s era distortion and recording ambiance. In Metal Hammer’s September 2011 issue, Mikael said that “… in Heritage we did exactly the right thing in progressing forward and developing our sound” and “Our audience has been getting a lot more diverse of the years anyway”, and Metal Hammer’s Alexander Milas reviewed the album as “Heritage is no mere prog record, it’s a progressive vision of metal’s limitless possibilities when placed in the hands of our generation’s greatest musicians, and it’s an absolute masterpiece.” So there you go, not only has Prog Rock become the most vital element in Opeth’s sound, but apparently it’s a necessary element for the continuity of the band itself!
After their successful 2010 release Road Salt One, Pain Of Salvation released Road Salt Two on September 2011, further expanding their march into 70′s Prog Rock territories. For those of you who’re unaware of the band’s previous catalog, it has always been a testament to real Prog music, always presenting fresh material spanning several genres without sounding too experimental. It can be said that Pain of Salvation are one of those who launched the 70′s Prog Rock mania in early 2010, and they are sticking to the genre with Road Salt Two, also characterized by a raw 70′s recording sound while still keeping an intense vibe throughout the whole album, with no growls (as always) and heavy guitar distortion. Similar to Opeth, Pain of Salvation’s fans are also diverse listeners, and the band makes sure that with each album, they evolve more and re-define the misinterpreted idea that Progressive music only means technically challenging music.
Also one of the main modern references of Prog Rock are Riverside, a band which has always been rooted in Progressive Rock, certainly relating more to the atmospheric Pink Floyd side of the spectrum, but also showing an ability to progress and evolve, especially with the giant leap they took with Anno Domini High Definition in 2009, which in my opinion is one of those major albums in the 21st century. Recently, the band released a 3 song / 33 minute EP that also stays true to Progressive Rock while recalling the band’s earlier atmospheric sound from their first album. The songs also show more experimentation and a soundtrack-like approach in the form of lengthy song intros and outros, further building that wall of sound and turning each song into a movie experience on its own. There are also clean vocals on this release as well as guitar distortion and a well composed musical flow that smoothly goes from serene to intense within a single song.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the 21st century are Mastodon, a band which gained success playing Sludge Metal and releasing huge albums such as Leviathan and Blood Mountain. In 2009, the band ventured into Prog territories by releasing Crack The Sky, a must-listen-to Prog album that shocked the world with its complexity, creativity and overall unique sound. Old Mastodon fans felt betrayed by the band dropping the Sludge, or in my opinion, flavoring Sludge with the best of Prog Metal ingredients. After that highly acclaimed release, Mastodon are back this year with The Hunter, an album that, as all ‘different’ music tends to be like, will take a few listens to fully grasp and appreciate. Whatever way you think about it, Mastodon have done well for their own musical maturity by getting more into their Prog Rock / Metal, and The Hunter will definitely shoot for the top spots in this year’s top Metal releases!
Now this is totally unexpected! Actually, Steven Wilson speaks, dreams, eats and probably shits Prog Rock ever since he stood on both feet, and this solo project of his is turning out to be a real ear-candy for 70′s Prog Rock fans. Taking the more experimental Van Der Graaf Generator / King Crimson Prog Rock path, Steven’s solo project also takes inspiration from Jazz and Classical music. Grace For Drowning is “A double album (‘two 40-45 minute albums in the same package’) Wilson has described it as “my biggest project to date”". Surely of the most hardworking musicians in music today, Steven also produced Opeth’s Heritage, so it’s fair to say that he’s one of the main spreaders of the Prog Rock mania, and the mania is really catching fire now!
In my opinion, Leprous’ Bilateral is one of 2011′s Prog gems. It’s easier to credit the above-mentioned artists for their musical ingeniousness since they have been around for more than a decade, with more than 5 albums each, while Leprous’s first album was released in 2006, and with Bilateral being their third to date and their first with InsideOut Music. Mind you, their earlier albums also had a distinctive Prog sound with Avant-Garde and Classical influences, but Bilateral is definitely their best effort yet, because they have managed to shove Prog Metal with Avant-Garde into memorable and intense songs, while keeping their earlier sound intact. Opinions all over the web are already saying Bilateral is 2011′s top Metal album, and I believe that the band deserves that kind of respect from the Metal community.
One of the modern icons of Prog Rock, Neal Morse released the second part of the Testimony album series, a double disc release with 2 hours of Prog Rock music. Neal Morse might not shock his fans with sudden genre twists, but he always writes music with a message, and that shines through his song writing and vocals. Testimony 2 also features Mike Portnoy on drums and Randy George on bass guitar, and a contribution from Spock Beard’s members on the song Time Changer (also keep an eye out for the 26 minute Seeds of Gold song on disc 2). Testimony 2 will surely end up on several Top Metal releases of 2011 lists.
Currently one of the most respected bands in the Middle East region, Myrath plays Oriental Metal with a significant Progressive Metal influence, and their recent 2011 release Tales Of The Sands is quickly gaining recognition in Europe and the Middle East for its crafty fusion of oriental melodies with Prog Metal riffs from the likes of Symphony X. All songs on the album have memorable choruses and are well structured with an average 4 minute song length. Perhaps Myrath aren’t risking their earlier sound by exploring new grounds, but they are definitely delivering great albums, each with better orchestrations and musicianship.
Pulse might appear to be a surprising addition to this list here, but if you’re a real music fan, you would know what Prog stands for. Thomas is a member of Between The Buried And Me, and this solo project of his is a masterpiece. This is by no means Prog Rock or even Prog Metal, there are no 70′s prog rock influences and no Prog Metal time-bending riffs, but it’s definitely Prog as in exploring new musical grounds. The album might be best referred to as Prog Art Rock (?), with similar artists being world renowned band Radiohead. Thomas knows how to compose beautiful melodies and experiment with electronic vibes and layers. The album is dark, joyful and crazy but it never fails to deliver interesting material. If you’re looking for fresh Prog, this album will impress and surprise you.
I was first reluctant to post this album on this particular list, but I then realized that I wasn’t posting my top Metal releases, merely a list of notable 2011 Prog releases. That being said, I remember enjoying the creativity of The Diving Wings of Tragedy and headbanging to the intensity of Paradise Lost, knowing that while Symphony X is one of the world’s most known Prog Metal bands, they are one of those bands that don’t change their composing approach over the albums, and that alone makes the band less Proggy in my definition of the genre, giving them a more appropriate Technical Metal tag. Iconoclast was met with positive reviews worldwide, after all Michael Romeo is still composing those neo-classical heavy riffs, and Russell Allen is considered as one of the best vocalists in Metal, so there’s a winning formula right there, but the question remains, when are they going to release something totally fresh and groundbreaking? Perhaps they won’t, but that’s not stopping them from releasing quality albums, even when they are not going outside of their safe zone.
That’s the end of my list right here, I realize that more artists should be on this list, but I’ll leave that to you to add in your comments!
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