LOUDER FEATURES: Albums to Get You Into Modern Prog
Progressive Rock has a storied history. We associate the genre with acts like Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes. They dominated the 70s with their attempts to bring rock into the classical realm. Still, Prog has changed, adopting tricks from metal, pop, and even punk. Part of its appeal is that the genre challenges you, yet inspires, and while not every choice here promises immediate accessibility, I’ve tried to demonstrate the scope and breadth of the style. Few massively notable names are listed, as spaces are (mostly) reserved for records that don’t get the same recognition. Therefore, I’ve included some honourable mentions. Everything here is worth your time and if anything takes you on a new musical journey, enjoy the experience!
Coheed and Cambria – ‘Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV: From Fear through the Eyes of Madness’:
Coheed and Cambria act as a blueprint for bringing together scale and approachability. From the opening ‘Welcome Home,’ the piece seethes with sentimental ambition. A desire to combine impassioned theatrics with the raw emotion of the alternative scene. Intricate time signatures permeate ‘The Writing Writer’ and ‘Crossing the Frame’ yet gratifying hooks counteract. On ‘The Suffering’ multiple layers of vocal harmonies provide a bombast in preparation for an exalting chorus. Comprising stories of love, disquiet, and a debate with a sentient bicycle, lyrics aren’t lucid yet are strangely introspective. The closing ‘Willing Well’ suite unfurls as a psychedelic journey where the emotion and musicianship reach fascinating heights, leaving the listener spellbound.
Oceans of Slumber – ‘Winter’
Both cinematic and brilliantly textured, Oceans of Slumber are an entrancing act, bringing together cerebral darkness, with epic majesty. ‘Winter’ and ‘Turpentine’ are brilliant pieces of blues-laden melancholy, charming you with their graceful ebb and flow while enthralling with the way they turn sadness into beauty. They contrast this with the riveting ‘Devout’ or the seething ‘Apologue’, wherein lie burning anger which transfixes and enraptures with the conviction. There’s also an amazing version of ‘Nights in White Satin’, and while for many an act introducing such an obvious ode to one of the classics halfway through an experience would seem cliché, this brilliantly compliments the themes of seasons changing as a metaphor for change in one's life.
Haken – ‘Affinity’
Although prog by no means dominated the ‘80s, that didn’t dissuade progressive acts from employing revolutionary production techniques and glistening synthesizers through the following decades. 'Affinity' stands out as memorable, with notable retro flair. Far from oblivious to the opportunities for fun, the album is appetizingly amusing. ‘Initiate’ and ‘The Endless Knot’ combine Haken's skill for darkness and illusionary atmospherics. ‘The Architect’ is one of the journeying centrepieces, the other being ‘1985’. The former captures that ominous style of synth-wave, while the latter provides an aspiring ode to sci-fi, encapsulating the sensation of being trapped inside a simulation. Guitars and keyboards alike reject self-indulgence, instead melding into futuristic soundscapes.
Anathema – ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here.’
Before their hiatus, Anathema beguiled with beautiful musical textures. Their 2010 piece proves magnificent. Decorated with the artwork of sunlight reflected against the emptiness of a desert or ocean surface, ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Angels Walk Among Us’ appear as a tapestry of sensations, reminding us that even in life's most desolate spaces, there are emotions to be felt. All the sorrow, optimism, and resolve are carried through subtlety – a rush of strings, a flutter of keys, a cascade of harmonies. There are moments where the music spills over into a profusion of melodrama, yet even they seem gorgeous, like scratches of anxiety and sadness that allow us to grow. For all these musicians left behind, this may be their remembrance. After all, “life is eternal.”
Ayreon – ‘The Theory of Everything’
Arjen Lucassen has dedicated his life to rock operas and works with titans from across genres in conceiving them. Taking inspiration from Steven Hawking, this is an exploratory work. Perceiving worlds of opportunity in the scientific scope, the diverse instrumentation takes us on an experiential quest through the thought processes of a genius. Images of galaxies are painted in our minds, complementing the astonishing story. Describing a sonic landscape is difficult, except to say you are carried through our character's discoveries and doubts, right up to that amazing principle that nothing can be perfect. Similar to science, music evolves and influences our understanding of reality. It’s that imperfection, which allows scope for discovery.
Bent Knee – ‘You Know What They Mean’
Despite being one of the most distinctly weird acts listed, Bent Knee is impossible not to be intrigued by – if only for how talented they are! Often erratic and impulsive as on the chaos inspired experiment ‘Lovemenot’ or the response-seizing ‘Bone Rage’, these musicians won’t sell you short on excitement. Don’t misunderstand, despite having one foot firmly planted in avant-garde they are also distinctly catchy and dare I say danceable as cleverly demonstrated by the rhythmic ‘Give Us the Gold’ and the almost funky ‘Cradle of Rocks’. The intricacies and nuances here make themselves noticeable in a way that is both fascinating and perplexing.
Baroness – ‘Purple’
Wild yet multifaceted, Baroness bears the ferociousness of a metal act and the intrigue of an experimental one. ‘Morningstar’ or ‘Kerosene’ may strike a deeply impressionistic tone with the fuzz-laden production and the colossal performances. And yet, how significant would they be without the intricate rhythms, rousing melodies, or indeed the animated instrumental textures which rise and fall like the crests of a wave in a raging storm. ‘Shock Me’ and ‘Try to Disappear’ achieve that same experiential effervescence, staying raucous yet retaining a sweet nostalgia that glistens through the harmonies and the rising and falling crescendos. A mesmerizing piece of unique prog in presentation and production.
Steven Wilson – ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’
With this choice, my rule of not including any huge acts is being tested. Anyone already interested in contemporary prog will certainly have a familiarity with Steven Wilson. Even so, ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’ had to end on the main list for reshaping this writer's love of music. Loosely based on the story of Joyce Carol Vincent – a woman who died in London, and was not missed or found for two years – the work brilliantly lends music to sensations of isolation and loneliness. Through hearing the beautiful story weaved on ‘perfect life’ or the heart-breaking distillation of loss portrayed on ‘routine’, you come to have a deeper appreciation for the genre. Wilson defines prog as ‘telling a story’. With a record this convincing, you’ll be seeking more music to embroil you in a narrative.
Cellar Darling – ‘The Spell’
Tell me, dear reader, do you believe in sorcery? How about after hearing 'The Spell'? Formed by former members of the symphonic act, Eluveitie, they bring an intriguing concept-led approach. Capturing in vivid, enchanting, and mystical detail, the ritualistic concepts they experiment with, you feel subtle hypnosis overtaking you as you listen. Many of the sounds are reminiscent of Celtic folk, neo-classical, or indeed early metal, yet the fervour with which they combine those concepts proves truly enthralling, even throughout all the melodies, all the up’s and downs, all the mysterious lyricism, it always proves a journey worth taking.
Thank You Scientist – ‘Stranger Heads Prevail’
There are many variations on progressive rock. However, a gross oversimplification would be that there are two types: The prog which is accessible and influenced by easier to broach music, and the prog which is difficult, and inspired by Jazz or Classical. Plenty of acts don’t fit into that analogy and plenty have brought those influences together in the past. However, by committing to the idea so wholeheartedly, Thank You, Scientist, have established themselves as one of the finest acts in the modern prog movement. Their second full length provides a blueprint in how to make progressive music that is both memorable and captivating.
· Dream Theater – 'Metropolis pt. 2 – Scenes From a Memory'
· District 97 – 'In Vaults'
· Opeth – 'Deliverance and Damnation'
· The Mars Volta – 'Frances the Mute'
· Royal Thunder – 'Crooked Doors'
· Devin Townsend – 'Ocean Machine: Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre'
· The Dear Hunter – 'Act III: Life and Death'
· Karnivool – 'Sound Awake'
· Tool – '10,000 Days'
· The Pineapple Thief - 'Magnolia'
What are your favourite modern prog records? Let us know in the comments below!