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Progressive Minds, Granite Spirits: 2019 Prog-Rock Albums That Seriously Ruled


My overlooked death metal round-up published last month was a bit of an experiment. I don’t tend to write so loosely or conversationally in pieces; the looser structure as well was a bit of a gamble, one that wasn’t guaranteed to work. But everyone seemed to dig it! Having some concise and digestible suggestions of killer records that slipped under the radar seemed to resonate well. After all, we can wage intense wars in the comments section and on social media, and sometimes those are warranted and fruitful wars, but ultimately we do that because, frankly, we give a shit about music. We care about it and we want more killer records.

So, the next slate of some overlooked records this time will focus on progressive rock. There aren’t too many genres that are demonstrably not heavy metal that still make sense in the context of a metal website, but progressive rock is one of them. For a brief history lesson, progressive rock was part of the fabric of heavy metal from the very beginning, with proto-metal hard rock groups like Cream, Blue Cheer, Atomic Rooster, and Mountain being associated with the roots of progressive rock, while staple metal bands from Black Sabbath to Sir Lord Baltimore to Judas Priest were deeply shaped by the structural and sonic ideas of progressive rock. Bands like Yes, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson remain as influential now as they were the day their key records were released, inspiring groups from black metal to death metal to, of course, progressive metal.

We even have groups such as Presto Ballet, a contemporary progressive rock band formed by the founding guitarist of Metal Church and others such as Kaipa, a returned traditional symphonic progressive rock band from Sweden who now features the lead guitarist of Scar Symmetry. The two were even born within 12 months of each other, with less than a year passing between King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King and Black Sabbath’s acclaimed debut which just turned 50 this year. The legacy of both genres is so deeply intertwined they are better viewed as two trunks of a single great tree rather than two entirely separate species entirely. So, in that spirit, here are a few progressive rock albums from 2019 that were overlooked.


It’s clear from the first brush of distorted guitar that Resistance is shaped at least in part by heavy metal. IQ are a long-standing neo-prog band, a particular flavor of progressive rock that surfaced in the 1980s following the initial commercial collapse of the genre, and one that favors the kind of sonic palette that Genesis in particular was exploring in the early to late 1970s. But most of the neo-prog bands who actually formed in that era, save for Marillion, have skewed substantially more metallic as time goes on, with groups like Pendragon, Arena, and more toughening up their guitars and creating a sonic palette that wouldn’t feel out of place on a modern-day Iron Maiden record (a group who themselves have leaned more and more to progressive rock as time moved on). Resistance is another in a long run of records by IQ that have been majorly successful in prog-rock circles, a run that has lasted since 2000’s The Seventh House but arguably goes back even to 1993’s Ever. Resistance is the group’s third double-disc in their career but their second in a row, following one two-hour record with another. But it’s a winning formula; IQ knows not only how to craft a hell of a good song but also how to pace those longer stretches, with each of the discs flowing like a continuous piece of music of immense programmatic intent. Resistance was not just a criminally overlooked album, prog-rock or not, it was one of the very best records of last year, and one that metalheads would find deeply compatible with their tastes especially if they skew toward traditional heavy metal, power metal, or prog metal.

The Tea ClubIf/When

It’s hard not to look at the album cover for If/When, featuring an emaciated and seemingly melting human body cloaked in gold and reduced to nothing but a ribcage, and not get a sense of heavy metal. The music is admittedly a little lighter, but it’s hard to resist the six digestible songs and one absolute behemoth of a 30-minute epic that closes out this record. That final song is a particularly keen achievement, one of the absolute greatest songs released of the past year. It’s great not just because it recycles elements of the previous six songs, a common composition trick, but because the harmonies and melodies are winning, because the movements feed into one another in a clear sense of emotional continuity. What begins as an inventive and approachable take on progressive rock not unlike Radiohead develops into a filmic and expansive musical statement that feels akin to the majesty and encompassing grandeur of groups like Spectral Lore or Krallice when they spread way, way out albeit in a less metallic register. On the subject of understanding and appreciating heavy metal, it is important not just to know the heavy metal touchstones and ideas that groups draw from but also the elements from outside that they pull in, from folk to industrial to orchestral music to progressive rock, of which this is a stunning example. But more importantly, on the basis of incredible songs, this was a vastly overlooked record worthy of time and attention.

Modern-Rock EnsembleNight Dreams & Wishes

With a group name like that, it’s unfortunately not a major mystery why this was overlooked by as many as it was. But, questionable branding decisions aside, Modern-Rock Ensemble deliver a rich and imaginative set of progressive rock on their second full-length Night Dreams & Wishes. Or, rather, he delivers, as Modern-Rock Ensemble, like many a great black metal band, is a one-man project by a multi-instrumentalist virtuoso who farms out some specific instruments such as drums to get a more human feel to his compositions. Both of his records under this moniker are well-received within progressive rock circles but seem to have little penetration outside, a fact that feels mystifying when listening to the dreamlike procession of songs in miniature. The tracklist is 11 songs long but with 38 movements spread over the 80-minute runtime, giving an average of just a bit over two minutes per musical thought before it evolves into the next statement. This rapid-fire continuum of ideas is fitting given the subject matter of this concept album is dreams, here tracking a specific symbolist dream of medieval warfare in particular. It’s hard not to get lost in the composition which is sequenced and proceeds like a film-length musical conceit, a formal structure that shouldn’t be too atypical for the average metal fan, and the tasty melodic ideas throughout the record should appease anyone especially on the Baroness side of the contemporary heavy metal world.

The Flying LuttenbachersShattered Dimension + Imminent Death

This is technically cheating since Shattered Dimension and Imminent Death comprise two albums, but they were both released in 2019 and account for less total time than the IQ record that started this list, so it counts. The Flying Luttenbachers are the no-wave/avant-jazz RIO group led by drummer Weasel Walter, a player who’s performed with groups as far afield as Lair of the Minotaur, Behold… the Arctopus, Glenn Branca, and US Maple. The Flying Luttenbachers, who once briefly had Krallice’s avant-garde guitar genius Mick Barr join them, are hyperbolically intense jazz in the same manner as John Zorn’s famously metallic groups Naked City and Painkiller. They released a series of psychotically brilliant and deeply influential avant-garde jazz records that expanded the ideas explored by those Zorn bands only to break up in 2007. Then, 2019 saw their return with not one but two brilliant discs of music that blends the intensities of hardcore, grindcore, and free jazz into extended rhythmic exercises that make Meshuggah look tame, forsaking groove for something like Dillinger Escape Plan played by a band have a nervous breakdown in jazz instrumentation. The final track of Shattered Dimension is a 20-minute schizoid nightmare, a near-continuous blast beat punctuated by the shrieks and skronks of saxophones like a psyche undergoing total mental collapse. All told, this is a killer set of records by a killer band that elaborates on a lot of the ideas the more avant-garde fringe of extreme metal has been playing with for the past 30-ish years.

Arch/MatheosWinter Ethereal

It may seem odd to see this here considering that, depending on where you looked, it actually appeared on a number of year-end lists, but the reception seemed to be clustered primarily around only a certain set of listeners and not the broader listenership this record deserves. The two main players here are, of course, two central figures of the seminal progressive metal band Fates Warning, a group that’s one of the most influential and yet commercially underserved bands in heavy metal. It isn’t just progressive metal that was touched by Fates Warning but all of it, with major figures in the early history of death metal citing them as influential, thrash bands being open admirers in liner notes, and a continuous influx of traditional and power metal bands drawing from them. If you were hesitant to approach this record based on the now-distant debut of this Fates Warning spin-off group, don’t be; their 2011 debut Sympathetic Resonance was composed with the intent of it being the next Fates Warning record but, when scheduling conflicts didn’t permit this to be so, original Fates Warning vocalist John Arch stepped in to record new vocal lines. The results were still a strong progressive metal album, but not precisely either the ideal meeting of the primary writers of Awaken the Guardian or a follow-up to John Arch’s underrated and painfully brief two-song solo EP that came out in the early 2000s. Winter Ethereal finds the duo writing for each once again for the first time since that solo EP, producing a set of material that feels like an alternate history where Fates Warning never saw Arch’s departure and instead remained the biggest progressive metal band on the planet (even displacing you-know-who). This is to many people the very best album of last year; it’s well-worth your time if you haven’t checked it out, a true masterclass in progressive metal delivered by two of its finest practitioners in history.

For space’s sake, the following records deserve an honorable mention, representing other high-points in progressive rock in 2019 but perhaps represent steps a bit further afield of the central core of heavy metal where some listeners may not resonate as much. Those records include Amazingous by Cheetos’ Magazine, Grand Tour by Big Big Train, The ? Lie by Seven Steps to the Green Door and, as mentioned previously in overlooked death metal records of 2019, Wilderun’s incredible and AOTY-worthy record The Veil of Imagination, a record I foolishly passed over the chance to review and now am condemned by wicked curse to constantly praise whenever even remotely justifiable. Last year was chock full of overlooked records that we either didn’t get time to do proper reviews for or just slipped through the cracks entirely; we look forward to continuing these sorts of highlights for the enjoyment of all.

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