Monday, April 26, 2010

Essentials of the last decade: Progressive Rock

Seeing as how everyone else has been making end of decade lists (whether you regard the decade as having been 2000-2009 or 2001-2010 is irrelevant), I decided in the shower this morning I wanted to do the same.  

However, in the name of shorter articles, I'm going to do this by genre, therefore making it a less daunting task.  These are albums that I feel every music fan should have in their collection.  Eventually I'll write one of these for each big genre of music I listen to (metal/prog metal, indie, jazz, etc.) but first up: Progressive Rock!

Rush: Snakes and Arrows

Snakes & Arrows
A band that has always been evolving, some of the nineties/early 2000s sound - while still Rush and still wonderful - just wasn't up to the snuff of their earlier efforts of musical euphoria (banner albums such as Moving Pictures and Signals).  However, 2007's Snakes and Arrows changed all of that - Rush was back and they meant it.  A sprawling effort with no less than three instrumentals, the boys from Canada proved that progressive rock was as relevant as it ever was.  The production is impeccable, the instrumentation is awesome, the lyrics are thought-provoking - it's simply a perfect disc.

Dredg: El Cielo

El Cielo
A case of the "sophomore slumps" being the opposite of what happened, the stars aligned and dredg put together an album that runs the gamut from melodic to rocking, from esoteric to traditional, from spacey to solid.  Everything is exactly where it needs to be, and while it's a concept album of strange origin (it's about sleep paralysis, and was inspired by this famous Dalí painting), the songs flow into one great whole, filled with vibrancy and effuse with musical brilliance.  While the last two albums from dredg haven't been up to the snuff of this record, it's good to know that sometimes great things just happen.

Porcupine Tree: Fear of a Blank Planet

Fear of a Blank Planet
It was hard to decide what was the best Porcupine Tree album of the decade (they having put out three great albums and one really good one), but ultimately Fear of a Blank Planet clinches the spot.  A concept album about our interconnected and disconnected twenty-first century, its lyrical themes are depressing and frightening.  It is bleak and unmoving, remaining a monolithic album from the preeminent British progressive rock band.  Moreover, the guitar solo from Rush axeman Alex Lifeson in the middle of the monumental "Anesthetize" is a fascinating counterpoint in style to Steven Wilson's guitar styles.  Add to that the fact that the album's name is a nod to Public Enemy's inimitable Fear of a Black Planet is simply icing on the cake.

The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute

Frances the Mute
The Mars Volta hit the ground running with their debut album (De-loused in the Comatorium) unlike almost any other band I've ever heard - one that didn't need to find its legs, but was already sprinting along with the best prog groups out there.  Sure, Cedric Bixler-Zavala has a gratingly high, sometimes off-putting voice, but the music flowed in such a way to make the occasionally unpleasant singing to shame.  Enter Frances the Mute - a frenetic, sprawling, cacophonous second record that took everything great about the initial formula and pared it down to just the essentials.  A mix of diverse genres such as jazz, latin, and heavy rock (among others) that is as beautiful as it is befuddling, this album resonates with uniqueness.  Too bad they've followed it with two rather disappointing albums and one trainwreck.

Guilt Machine: On This Perfect Day

On This Perfect Day
I know, I know, I know.  Of all the Arjen Lucassen projects I could pick to put on this list, why Guilt Machine?  Because this is a list of albums that EVERY music lover should have, and (stone me if you disagree) I think On This Perfect Day is a perfect album, where everything belongs and is exactly WHERE it belongs.  None of the gleeful pompousness of the overstuffed Ayreon albums (which I love, don't get me wrong) and a tighter focus than either Ambeon or Star One.  The lyrics are rightfully dark, and emote in a way that none of his self-lyricized projects have before.  If this is the calibre music Arjen decides to release now, I'm comfortable that we'll have more awesome albums to come.  It's effulgent with the emotions that it evokes and translates into aural ecstasy - it's simply flawless.

Mew: No More Stories...

No More Stories Are Told Today Sorry...
This was my favorite album from 2009 for a reason - it shines above and beyond in a year filled to the brim the great new releases.  Alternately called shoegaze, indie, art rock, alternative rock, and many other things, Mew is at heart a progressive band - one that evolves and changes, creating music that seems better with each release.  No More Stories... is everything Death Cab for Cutie would be if Ben Gibbard would make the progressive rock he's always hinted he wanted to make but has never had the guts to do.  From its backtracked-in-places opener to its sprawling five-songs-in-one "Sometimes Life Isn't Easy", it's an album that oozes honesty, humility, and even a bit of naivety.  Even in its slowest parts it still moves in a way few albums can.  And so much of it is filled to overflowing with talent, guts, and zazz.  Yes, this record has zazz.


  1. I actually recognize/own 4 of these albums. That's a big deal for me. :D

    Human Equation is better that On The Perfect Day.

    Just sayin'.

  2. Argh, previous comment was lost.

    Great write-up. Mew is the only I am not familiar with. I will have to remedy that.

    As far as Guilt Machine, I am thrilled that you love it as much as me.

    Natalee: I would actually disagree with you. The Human Equation is a better rock opera (duh, since On This Perfect Day isn't a rock opera). As an Arjen fan, I may (some days) think THE is a better overall work. However, in terms of the purposes of this article: essential progressive rock recordings, I, too, would place On This Perfect Day above THE.

    It is just a perfect album to introduce someone to some, but not all, of Arjen's musical tropes.

  3. Ultimately, I chose On This Perfect Day because I asked myself the question:

    What Arjen album would I take with me if I could only take one for the rest of my life?

    It's Guilt Machine. All the way.

    Peter: I hope you enjoy Mew - that album has been a constant buoy to my soul since I stumbled onto it a few months ago.

  4. I've heard of Rush... But that is it. You may as well have been speaking Catalan for all I knew. Still, well written, though. Looking forward to your more, uhm, commercially-orientated listings.


  5. YourZ: I would highly recommend checking out some of these. Guilt Machine and Porcupine Tree are particularly brilliant. I, however, would recommend In Absentia by Porcupine Tree over FoaBP.

  6. Thanks Peter, I'm going to check them out and get back to you.