Progressive music was the first genre that really captured my interest, although I had been listening to far more mainstream rock music for several years before I came across any of the albums in this list. It was doubtlessly the originality that first attracted me to prog, progressive metal in particular, because so far I had never managed to find any music that I still enjoyed after several listens. Even though it took me quite a while to appreciate many of the albums in this list, there isn't a single entry that hasn't remained fresh - in fact I still find myself enjoying these albums more with each listen.
It's near impossible to create a definitive list of the best progressive metal albums because of the incredible variety that exists within the genre. The ten which I have eventually settled on are all albums which I love, and which show the all the extremes and the diversity of the genre; I've included softer albums, which feature a lot of progressive rock, and heavier albums that are interlaced with death metal elements. There is of course a lot of personal bias in this list; I love albums with stories or strong themes, so I’ve favoured some concept albums.
Ayreon - The Human Equation
This was the sixth album from Ayreon, a project of the immensely talented Arjen Lucassen, and seemingly the first that was completely devoid of a sci-fi theme. It is an incredibly complex and well-structured concept album, although at first glance the story is deceptively simple: We're taken into the head of a man in a coma, known simply as 'Me' as he is confronted by his strongest emotions, each portrayed by a different singer, which gives them all very unique and evocative sounds. We are also occasionally shown a glimpse of the outside world, where Me's wife, Best friend and at one point, his father, talk to him from his bedside. Slowly, over the course of 20 days, one day per track, secrets are revealed as we discover the events that caused and the repercussions that result from Me's coma.
The brilliance of this album is in the variety, especially the excellent choice of singers. The incomparable Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth brings his visceral tones to the character of Fear. Although he primarily uses the warm and compelling side of his voice, there are a few grunts thrown in for good measure (including an incredible scream on the final track). Devin Townsend plays Rage, as well as writing his own lyrics. His sections are possibly the most distinct, and it was his parts which stood out the first time I heard the album, specifically 'Day Three: Pain' and 'Day Eight: School'. The other emotions present are Reason (Eric Clayton - Saviour Machine), Love (Heather Findlay - Mostly Autumn), Passion (Irene Jansen), Pride (Magnus Ekwall - The Quill) and Agony (Devon Graves - Dead Soul Tribe). The music is composed and performed by Arjen, with the exception of wind Instruments, Violins, Cellos and several guest soloists. The drums are once again performed by Ed Warby, who has established himself as Ayreon's official drummer following his flawless drumming on Flight of the Migrator. There is a wonderful mixture of harmonious and melodic passages, which provide a distinct compliment for emotions such as love, and dark and mysterious passages, which are perfectly suited for Fear, Rage and Agony. The instrumental sections are exquisite, and the truly exhilarating opening of 'Day Eighteen: Realization' is my particular favourite.
As for the human characters, James LaBrie, of Dream Theater, brings his talent to the central character, while Marcela Bovio, who has since worked with Arjen in the symphonic metal band Stream of Passion, plays his wife. Arjen also sings on the album, playing Best Friend, and there is even a 'cameo' from Mike Baker, of Shadow Gallery, who plays the twisted character 'Father' in the austere, folk metal meets Alice Cooper track 'Day Sixteen: Loser'.
If there is one criticism, it is that it lacks the sci-fi theme that Arjen does so well, and as a result some of the music has a down-to-earth quality that just doesn't quite seem right for Ayreon. Regardless, as far as prog metal goes, it doesn't get much better than this. Its a long album with lots of depth to it, incredible ambition, variety, talent, innovation, and a dramatic twist at the end. This is easily one of my favourite albums of all time. Be sure to check out other Ayreon albums, especially the new album, 01011001, which is released in January and should provide an answer to the ambiguous ending of The Human Equation.
Best Tracks: Day Eleven: Love, Day Sixteen: Loser, Day Three: Pain, Day Twenty: Confrontation.
Dream Theater - Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory
This is without doubt Dream Theater's Magnum Opus. It is a masterpiece of storytelling and technical prowess that is told in two acts, composed of 12 songs in total that weave together so well that they could almost be seen as two songs. Although the immense talent of Dream Theater's musicians has never been in doubt, they exceed all expectations with this album. Their skill is evident on the album's two instrumentals, in particular the meticulously performed 6 minute long track 'The Dance of Eternity', which features over 100 time signature changes.
This album is a marvel of storytelling. It begins with Nicholas, the album's central character, speaking with a hypnotherapist. We discover that he has been having dreams about a woman called Victoria, who was murdered in 1928. Through the course of the two acts and nine scenes of the album we learn about the connection that Nicholas shares with Victoria, and we follow his attempts to uncover the truth about her murder and the events that preceded it. The album alternates between Nicholas in the present day and 1928, where we follow Victoria's fateful love triangle until it culminates in her death.
I've already mentioned the instrumentals, 'Scene Two: Overture 1928', and 'Scene Seven: The Dance of Eternity', which are effectively a playing ground for the technically gifted band members John Myung (Bass), John Petrucci (Guitar), Mike Portnoy (Drums) and Jordan Rudess (Keyboard). There are three tracks that exceed 10 minutes in length, the longest of which is 'Scene Six: Home', which is 12:53 in length. It shows many similarities to 'Metropolis, Part 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper', the song, from the album Images and Words, to which this album is a sequel. The final track of the album, 'Scene Nine: Finally Free', is another which exceeds the 10 minute mark and is a perfect way to end the album. As with The Human Equation this album ends with a unexpected twist. Amidst the intensely complex and heavy songs, such as 'Home' and 'Finally Free', there are softer songs like 'Scene Five: Through Her Eyes' and 'Scene Eight: The Spirit Carries On', which provide perfect mediums for the soft side of James LaBrie's sublime voice.
I don't think there is an album that I have heard which I have enjoyed more than this, it truly is spectacular. Although they are still releasing extraordinary works, Dream Theater have not come close to equalling their crowning achievement, and I suspect they never will. The album was also recorded live, in its entirety, and released on DVD, entitled Metropolis 2000: Scenes from New York. It includes commentaries from the members of Dream Theater and a behind the scenes documentary, and is well worth buying if you enjoy the album.
Best Tracks: Scene Five: Through her Eyes, Scene Six: Home, Scene Nine: Finally Free.
Pain of Salvation - The Perfect Element
Pain of Salvation are fronted by the multi-talented Daniel Gildenlöw, who provides vocals and guitar as well as writing the lyrics and much of the music. The band was founded by Gildenlöw in 1984, when he was only 11, under then name Reality. The Perfect Element, Part 1 was their third album, following their first two acclaimed albums, Entropia and One Hour By The Concrete Lake. This is the first Pain of Salvation album that I heard, and I'll readily admit that this album grew on me over time. My first impressions of it were not overly positive, however, it was an intriguing piece of work with enough creativity to justify a few extra listens, and the critical acclaim that it had amassed within the prog community convinced me that there I was missing something spectacular, and I was.
This is yet another concept album, although it is slightly more cryptic than the last two. The story focuses on a Boy and a Girl and the and the emotional experiences that they encounter during their traumatic childhood. To say this album is ambitious is an understatement when you factor in all the emotions and themes which are included: violence, regret, loss, society and the soul, as well as all of the emotions that these children experience in their adolescence. I get the sense that Gildenlöw extracted from his personal experiences when writing this, the evidence of which is in his empathetic vocal performance. The album is divided into 3 chapters, each with 4 songs. Chapter I is called "As these two desolate worlds collide", Chapter 2: "It all catches up on you when you slow down" and Chapter 3: "Far beyond the point of no return"
The opening track, 'Used', involves some dark, almost spoken word, vocals and its only on the chorus that Gildenlöw's stirring voice comes into play. The highlights of Chapter 1 are undoubtedly 'Ashes' and 'Morning on Earth', two entrancing songs with a great chorus that keep popping up during the album's 74 minute length. There are parts when the vocals become dominant over the music, which can be a shame as the band are very capable of producing brilliant instrumental sections, 'Her Voices' being an excellent example.
Overall, this is a stunning and highly original piece of work and when it gets into its stride it is truly exemplary. The second part of the planned trilogy of albums, Scarsick, was released earlier this year and, despite falling short of the quality of The Perfect Element, it is an accomplished album and a worthy follow up.
Best Tracks: Ashes, Reconciliation, Idioglossia.
Queensrÿche - Operation: Mindcrime
I've only rediscovered this album recently, after I stopped listening to Queensrÿche after a series of meagre albums left me disillusioned with them, especially the dismal attempt to recapture the glory of the early days that was Operation: Mindcrime II. The story is a tangled web of love, murder and brainwashing in 80s America. We begin with a short narrative track that introduces us to the protagonist, who is seemingly in some form of hospital. We are soon transported to the past as the protagonist, Nikki, is suddenly plagued by forgotten memories. We see how Nikki, then a desperate heroin addict, was lured into anarchistic organisation, where his is brainwashed and used unwillingly as an assassin by the villainous Dr. X. Nikki's inner turmoil reaches a peak after he falls in love with Sister Mary, a former prostitute, and begins to question the society to which he belongs. Without spoiling the plot, the ending is left deliberately ambiguous with many unanswered questions. Although the sequel to this album provides many of these answer, I still would not recommend it.
The album is full of political statements, and a complex story that requires the use of narrative interludes in order to really make it work. This does not detract from the overall quality of the album with the album's 'cast' performing their roles very well, with special mention due to the immensely talented Pamela Moore, who plays Sister Mary. Although the music on the album is first-rate, with 'Speak' providing a real musical highlight, it is Geoff Tate who steals the show with his vocals. The ease and skill with which he manages the demanding vocals required is evident from the very first line of 'Revolution Calling', and the memorable choruses of 'Spreading the Disease' and subsequent song 'The Mission'.
Flaws are few and far between, though they do exist. The story, while excellent, causes the songs to become somewhat convoluted in moments. I'm also a fan of experimentation and this album is lacking somewhat in musical variety, nevertheless what it lacks in variety it makes up for with sheer quality.
Best Tracks: Revolution Calling, I Don't Believe in Love, Eyes of a Stranger.
Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet
It was perhaps Steven Wilson's time with Opeth that brought Porcupine Tree, until then a strictly 'progressive' rock act, into the eyes of the metal community. Since then, Porcupine Tree's albums have all shown Wilson's willingness to adapt to his new fan base by ingraining large amounts of progressive metal into Porcupine Tree's traditional sound, a process that has been met with much critical and commercial approval. I love absolutely everything that Porcupine Tree have produced, from the psychedelic early albums of the Wilson-only era, to the melodic offerings of The Sky Moves Sideways and Stupid Dream, however I felt that Fear of a Blank Planet was best suited to this list, as it is another step away from the generic mainstream sound of rock music today.
The album is an engaging journey, first minute to last. The album opens with title track, 'Fear of a Blank Planet', which, in keeping with their recent material, is probably the heaviest track on the album. It sets the tone of uncertainty that the album revels in with the catchy riff and Wilson's trademark vocals used to perfection . The overall concept of the album is inspired by the novel Lunar Park, the influence of which is particularly prominent in the powerful ballad that is 'My Ashes'. Porcupine Tree collaborate with Robert Fripp (of progressive rock legends King Crimson) on the track 'Way Out of Here'. Fripp's soundscapes are put to good effect and are perfectly in keeping with many of the ambient sections of the album, such as the closing sections of the epic 18 minuter track 'Anesthetize', a prodigious track which also features a guitar solo by Alexander Lifeson (of the equally legendary progressive band Rush). The piano driven opening of 'Sentimental' is one of my favourite parts of the album. It continues with a great chorus and employs several acoustic sections that are eerily reminiscent of Porcupine Tree's classic song, 'Trains'. At only 50 minutes, it is short for a Porcupine Tree album with 6 tracks and no filler material. An EP, entitled Nil Recurring, was released later in the year with 4 tracks recorded during the Fear of a Blank Planet sessions, any of which could have made a worthy addition to the album.
The album has several thematic similarities to The Perfect Element, in that it deals with adolescence, however Fear of a Blank Planet is far more focused on the consequences that may result from a technologically heavy society's influence on children - the title track in particular has some strong and focused lyrics on the subject. There is very little to dislike about Fear of a Blank Planet, and in my opinion, this is the best and most enthralling album of 2007.
Best Tracks: Fear of a Blank Planet, Anesthetize.
Ark - Burn the Sun
Burn the Sun was Ark's second, and sadly last, album. It shows huge advancements from their first album, in quality of the compositions and musicianship while the production gives the album a very crisp sound. Although the album has a very modern feel, Ark show their versatility by lacing the music with many unorthodox styles, whether it is Latin, 80s style rock, or the breathtaking Spanish guitar on 'Just A Minute'. The sheer range of styles and sub genres that they incorporate is clear from the numbers of bands that Ark have been compared to, from Dream Theater to Rush, Whitesnake to Deep Purple, Guns N' Roses to Journey, and even Led Zeppelin have been mentioned.
Jørn Lande's powerful and dynamic vocals are a real focal point of the album, and make for some memorable choruses on the title track, and the riveting opener 'Heal The Waters'. The sheer diversity of his voice has to be heard to be believed, with the album's closing track, the tender 9-minute power ballad 'Missing You', showing the emotional capacity of his voice.
Tore Ostby's guitar parts are phenomenal, proving himself equally adept at creating classic metal grooves as he is with creating a beautifully melodic Spanish guitar part. Not to forget the Drummer and bassist, John Macaluso and Randy Coven, both of whom are at the top of their game on this album, as evidenced by the complexities of songs such as 'Noose'.
Ark disbanded after this album with Jørn Lande going on to achieve success with power metal band Masterplan, and I am genuinely saddened that they never recorded a third album together. However, if you want to go out on a high, this is a great example of how to do it.
Best Tracks: Heal The Waters, Burn the Sun, Just A Little.
Evergrey - The Inner Circle
In 2003, Evergrey released Recreation Day, an incredible album in its own rights. It featured a song called 'Unforgivable', which dealt with the use of religion to cover up atrocities such as child abuse. The Inner Circle sees Evergrey return to the theme of religion, and their stance against religious fanatics, but this time they take it much further with an ostentatious concept album that deals with religious fanatics and cults. The album is not anti-Christian, but Evergrey show their devout opposition to corrupt spiritual leaders and cultists, and at times the lyrics become quite intense.
Tom Englund's voice brings the album alive, he has a gift for emotional and compassionate vocals, and without him the band simply could not pull off songs like the balladic 'Waking up Blind' or the exemplary 'Harmless Wishes'. There are a few criticism I have to make of this album. Firstly, the length. 48 minutes just isn't long enough for a concept album of this variety, meaning that the final product lacks some of the depth of the other albums in this list. Secondly, there is not quite enough variation. Despite frequent line-up changes, Evergrey developed their own unique sound over the course of their 5 previous albums, and the album is full of their characteristic heard hitting riffs, however this does cause the sound to become quite monotonous at times. There are exceptions, such as the morose but poignant closing track, 'When The Walls Go Down'. This song features some superb piano and some wonderfully integrated orchestral arrangements. Gradually as the song progresses the anger builds in the spoken vocals as we observe the loss of hope and faith in the individual, and soon the metronomic drums kick in, leading to the albums explosive culmination.
Criticisms aside, this is an exceptional album with an unorthodox charm that grew on me with each listen. The sentiments and moods of the album are stunning. Melancholy in places, with powerful vocals and melodies, The Inner Circle is dazzling, and becomes vastly more meaningful as the themes and concepts which the album covers become more apparent on subsequent listens.
Best Tracks: A Touch of Blessing, Harmless Wishes, When The Walls Go Down.
Katatonia - The Great Cold Distance
Katatonia have flirted with numerous different genres in their 16 year history. Their first album, Dance Of December Souls, was Doom metal, with black and death metal elements also present. When their lead singer, Jonas Renkse, became unable to grunt properly, Mikael Åkerfeldt provided the guttural vocals, with Renkse providing the clean vocals, changing the bands direction to a more straightforward death metal act. Their latest album, The Great Cold Distance, is the zenith that many years of mastering their softer sound has produced. It stays true to the stylistic origins of Katatonia, with strong doom and Gothic overtones, whilst improving on their melodic and atmospheric sound of recent albums.
Renkse is an extraordinary lyricist, and despite losing his ability to grunt, he has maintained his impressive array of clean vocals. 'My Twin' is the album's peak, with a beguiling chorus, an alluring melody and a few Gothic nuances, it really incorporates the essence of Katatonia. Although the album is predominantly focused on its soft and bitter tone, The Great Cold Distance is not without heavy sections. The opening track has a powerful riff that is one of the heaviest moments on the album, while 'Rusted' gives the middle of the album a perfectly timed heavy interlude. 'In The White' brings about the album's denouement, and is a intriguing song which somehow embodies the albums bleak nature despite having an abundant charismatic allure.
I can't find a fault in this albums production. The sound is spot on, giving generous time to the docile and hypnotic riffs while saving plenty of room for the blistering riffs that dominated their earlier work. Katatonia are on top of their game here, and have released a captivating album that is worthy of high praise and success.
Best Tracks: Leaders, My Twin, In The White.
Amorphis - Silent Waters
This is the heaviest album in the list so far, and also the most recent. It is a blend between the death metal of Amorphis' early albums and the far more melodic metal of heavy metal / rock era. Stylistically, it is similar to their last album, Eclipse, though it improves on many of the key elements. There is a much better arrangement of death grunts and clean vocals, it certainly shows a degree of similarity to Opeth, and there are some excellent sweeping and striking riffs on the album.
Tomi Joutsen proves himself a very able front man. His singing and effortless flair is one of Silent Water's strongest points; his clean vocals have a wonderful Gothic quality that defines the album's title track, while his dark, almost doom metal, grunts give a new-found depth to tracks such as 'Weaving the Incantation'. It is also excellent to behold that, 14 years since the bands first album The Karelian Isthmus, they retain glimpses of the Folk metal that first propelled them into the eyes of the metal community. The opening two tracks provide a very heavy start to the album, almost in the same vein as tracks from their death metal days, however the mesmeric piano-heavy title track introduces a sense of calm that is present in the middle of the album. This atmospheric section, which is significantly aided by the superbly polished sound of the album, builds up throughout the tracks until it reaches the climactic peak that is 'The White Swan'. Comprised of an excellent riff and instrumental and equally stunning vocals, with callous death grunts that lead into a powerful clean chorus, the penultimate track on the album is really the culmination of the album.
Amorphis are renowned for basing their lyrics on stories from the Finish national epic, the Kalevala (Although I am rarely enticed into reading poetry, I have enjoyed reading several stories from the Kalevala, which can be seen in its entirety here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/ Even though it isn't in its native language, it has translated well.) Silent Waters is no exception to this, remaining true to the themes that have graced nearly all of Amorphis' albums. This really is Amorphis back to their best.
Best Tracks: Weaving the Incantation, Silent Waters, The White Swan.
Opeth - Still Life
The hardest decision I had to make in writing this article was which Opeth album to include. They have been so consistent in releasing brilliant albums that I could probably justify including any of their albums. In the end I decided on Still life, just narrowly beating Blackwater Park. Still Life is very dark concept album, rife with all the complexities that define an Opeth album. Mikael Åkerfeldt is magnificent, not just because of his hybrid of gutteral grunts and clean vocals, but we also see a mixture between his deeper grunts and the violent, shrill screams that recent Opeth albums seem to have been lacking in. This was probably Opeth's best line up, (Lindgren, Mendez, Lopez and Åkerfeldt) and the band gels really well on the album, and despite the experimentation the album feels really polished.
The first two tracks on the album are exceptional. 'The Moor' kicks the album off to a heavy start, with a real emphasis on the more harsh side of Åkerfeldt's voice. The broad-layered 'Godhead's Lament', one of my personal favourite Opeth tracks, really shows the versatility of Opeth, and contains one of the most beautiful choruses of any of their songs. 'Benighted' was another advancement for Opeth, a Camel-influenced all acoustic track that is completely devoid of death vocals, while 'Face of Melinda' shows Opeth's growth as a band with the song's gradual increase in momentum, eventually reaching an incredibly atmospheric climax. 'Serenity Painted Death' has some incredibly haunting and mournful vocals and is the heaviest song in the album, and although there are a few melodic interludes, it really communicates the anger and hate of the central character in the story. 'White Cluster' wraps the album up nicely, with a strong array of vocals and intricate, dynamic riffs that are present throughout the seven tracks.
The story involves an atheist, who has been violently shunned from his community, and his doomed love affair with a nun called Melinda. Even though, in my eyes, the story takes a back seat to the music, I still feel that it gives the songs that little bit of extra depth that transforms this from an excellent composition, into a masterpiece.
Best Tracks: The Moor, Godhead's Lament.
The albums that I have named here are ones that I have enjoyed, and ones which I feel accurately represent all ends of the huge spectrum of music that is progressive metal. I'd love to hear your comments, whether you agree with me or not, and I am very open to recommendations for bands which I may not have heard. Most of the albums in this list are quite recent, the oldest being Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime, which was released in 1988, so I've probably ignored a lot of earlier, genre-defining albums, although I did contemplate a few, such as King Crimson's Red and Uriah Heep's Demons & Wizards, both of which I consider to have played significant roles in the birth of progressive metal music.
I really was spoiled for choice in making this list, and I've had to leave out albums by some of my very favourite albums: Devin Townsend's Terria, Riverside's Second Life Syndrome, countless Symphony X albums, and the one song masterpieces that are Light Of Day, Day Of Darkness, by Green Carnation and A Pleasant Shade of Grey, by Fates Warning to name a few.