Nine Circles ov…Prog Rock in 2019

rick wakeman

Sometimes you want those blast beats and cavernous riffs to pound your skull from the inside…and sometimes you just want to float away on layers of keyboards, odd time signatures, and a plethora of instruments you’ve never heard of.  ‘Round these extreme parts we tend to only look at progressive music when it’s attached to the word “metal” but there’s been some excellent releases this year where the “prog” takes command of the music and allows its freak flag to shine.

Sometimes they’re not even Opeth.

So for this edition of Nine Circles ov…. I wanted to take a look at 9 prog releases from the Year of Our (Dark) Lord 2019 that have kept me moving in strange waters when I tired of the bludgeon of more extreme music.

herd instinct - incantation

Hmmm…a prog album with a cool cover?  You don’t say!  My first listen to Incantation, the latest album from Texas prog outfit Herd Instinct was “80s King Crimson meets Porcupine Tree” and this (mostly) instrumental outfit lives up to the hybrid in my brain.  There’s a brief moment in “Prey 4 Winter” that ominously feels like the beginning of a lackluster Joe Satriani song, but the ship quick rights itself with some righteous noodling and takes off into beautiful passages.  Modern and classic meet and have a good time here.

IQ - resistance

I know…you want your prog a little heavier, right?  Well, IQ have you covered on their latest album Resistance.  You want those soaring vocals?  My man Peter Nicholls has you covered, laying down something akin to a slightly grittier James LaBrie.  The music definitely hits some heavy riffing, but it’s more laid back in service to the vocals and keyboards as opposed to some of the guitar wankery from a Symphony X or a Dream Theater.  At over 20 minutes “The Great Spirit Way” has every classic prog moment you can hope for and nicely fills out the “opus” criteria for a proper prog album.

flower kings - waiting for miracles

25 years and The Flower Kings are still rolling, and still putting out some of the best classic prog rock you can find.  Coming six years after Desolation Rose the core until of Roine Stolt, Hasse Fröberg and Jonas Reingold have crafted a massively intricate and fun album in Waiting for Miracles.  This is blown out 70s prog in the best way, and whether you’re grooving on the analog riffage of something like “Black Flag” or into the more orchestral moments like “Ascending to the Stars” there’s something to love here.  if you long sprawling guitar solos over massive keyboards, there’s even more to love.

neal morse band - the great adventure

Since we’re not going to have Dream Theater represented on this list, there’s room for some Mike Portnoy in the form of the strangely addicting Neal Morse Band’s The Great Adventure.  I say “strangely” because if you told me I’d love a 2-disc concept prog album that’s a sequel to a previous 2-disc concept prog album and it heavily features uplifting spiritual/Christian themes, I’d probably laugh at you…until you told me it was Neal Morse.  The former leader of Spock’s Beard has a killer band featuring Portnoy and longtime partner Randy George, the music jumps from style to style seamlessly, painting a vibrant picture that isn’t afraid to jump from Broadway music to pounding progressive rock, sometimes in the same song.  This is ambitious stuff, flawlessly executed and blast from start to finish.

tides from nebula - from voodoo to zen

Sometimes it’s hard to make the distinction as to where “progressive” ends and “prog” begins.  Especially when it comes to instrumental music.  Polish trio Tides From Nebula don’t seem to care about that distinction, and I don’t, either.  Moving in and out of post-rock, ambient, and – yes – prog, From Voodoo to Zen manages to weave a dense atmosphere of sounds that can chill in the background or bring your mind forward as you chart its reverb-laden lines on songs like “Ghost Horses” or standout track “Nothing to Fear and Nothing to Doubt.”  It may not have the complexity of the other albums on this list, but maybe it’s that simplicity that makes it so progressive?

richard henshall - the cocoon

Time to jump back into heavier waters, where the notes are plentiful and so are the staccato jumps of syncopated drums.  The name Richard Henshall should be no surprise to the progressive metal crod, as his work in the band Haken speaks for itself.  On The Cocoon, his solo debut, the multi-instrumentalist engages in a wide tapestry of styles and energies, all of which are exciting and a technical marvel.  “Cocoon” is the first proper track and in addition to touting his guitar prowess we also get to hear his vocals for the first time, and while maybe not as strong as the rest of the music, it fits the vibe he’s going for.  There are moments where you can hear shades of Haken, but the surprising thing is how unique Henshall made his solo debut.  I love Haken, but I definitely want more of this.

marco minnemann - my sister

I don’t like to to throw judgement out there too often, but here goes: Marco Minnemann is one of the best drummers in the world.  Period.  Whether he’s auditioning for Dream Theater, collaborating with amazing musicians with his Normalizer 2 series, or killing it as part of the super trio The Aristocrats, the music he creates is always formidable even as it isn’t afraid to embrace some lovely melody.  My Sister is a massive double album where he plays almost everything, telling through music personal stories of his life and travels.  Oh, it also helps immensely to have some killer talent showing up, like Alex Lifeson from Rush, Dug Pinninck from King’s X and my beloved Mike Keneally.  Hit the 1-2 punch of “Arrogance” and “Radical Radicals (Men Are…Woman Are) to see if this kind of crazy suits you as well as it does me.

thank you scientist - terraformer

 Take a bunch of dudes, some horns, and a hankering for the kind of musical passages that can simultaneously recall Jethro Tull and The Mars Volta?  That’s kind of Thank you Scientist in a nutshell, and their latest album Terraformer hits those influences but also has a sparkling pop slant that is ridiculously infectious.  Check out the chorus to “Fxmldr” and tell me I’m wrong.  Vocally there’s more than a passing nod to Three (3), a band I always turn to when I want some prog rock I can sing along to.  Thank you Scientist is a new discovery for me, one I expect to be obsessing over for a while.

dream theater - distance over time

 Hell…you didn’t REALLY think I was gonna leave them off, did you?  After the sprawling oddity that was The Astonishing, a name I still laugh at every time I see it, Dream Theater scaled back to focus on rocking some songs with Distance Over Time.  And it pretty much works like a damn good modern Dream Theater album.  Is it a classic?  Is any Dream Theater a classic?  There are fewer bands more divisive in the metal community purely for whether you like them or not.  I do, and I like Distance Over Time.

Until next time, keep it heavy.



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