Can we say that progressive music is dead? That’s one of the questions that’s been troubling me ever since we started this column (OK, way longer than that but that’s not the point right now). On the one hand, there are plenty of good albums which get released every year that fit under the “progressive” moniker. On the other, is the genre really, you know, a genre? Or do only the subdivisions that “receive” the progressive label deserving of analysis? I feel like that’s one way in which we can say that progressive music is “dead”: the standalone status of progressive music, which it enjoyed in heydays like the 70’s (when progressive rock was one of the main, and most bestselling, genres) or the 90’s (where progressive metal was having its explosion) is no longer a given.
But, on the other hand, “progressive” was always a modifier so why would relegation to that role be something bad for it? And, at the end of the day, do we really not feel that progressive music stands out? Do we think there isn’t a major difference between, let’s say, progressive death metal and death metal? That they both deserve the same sort of analysis or approach? I don’t think anyone arguing in good faith would say something like that. So, that line of thinking becomes a “no” to the original question; progressive music is not “dead” and, in fact, sort of can never die because it lives on as long as it continues to modify existing genres.
I think my approach for this list and, indeed, for the existence of this entire column, is to not answer these questions and “stay with the trouble”, as the great Donna J. Haraway recommended that we do. We’ll probably never answer these questions and at least a part of any answer is opinion and liable to constant change. So, instead, we’ll just leave them open, keeping the contradictions in mind, as we use “progressive” simply as a direction towards more great music, a path through which to consider works of art that we might consider in other places as well. I think most of the albums on this list appear elsewhere on the blog/Missive and that’s totally fine. Progressive becomes an approach, a mindset, and I think that’s my favorite definition of it in this post so far. Let’s get to it with my unranked Top 5 progressive albums of the year so far!
Cara Neir – Phase Out
Honestly, if you had told me that an 8-bit, grindcore, science fiction, gaming focused concept album would work this well, I would have raised several eyebrows in your direction. Phase Out shouldn’t work; by all rights, it shouldn’t work! There’s too much going on and too much ambition and it should fall felt on its face. But under the careful husbandry of both members of the project, the album blossoms in every direction at once. The concept is super solid, well written, and surprisingly deep. When the music goes hard, it goes extremely hard, channeling grindcore chaos into structures that are hard to follow but very easy to feel. And when the ambient beats kick in, they perfectly contrast with that chaos and create a deeply pleasing counterpoint.
All of that also means that the album just keeps giving. Cara Neir have created a true work of art with this album and the surest sign of that is how much you can keep getting out of it. I’ve listened to it dozens of times and I still find new sounds, new ideas, and new ways in which to love this album. It’s dense, it’s intricate, it’s flamboyant and extravagant but it has just the right amount of charm to make it all work. It’s just jaw-droppingly good.
Azure – Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks
I’ve already written a whole-ass review of this album for this drop but I can’t not include it in this list. It’s, simply put, my favorite “heavy” progressive album of the year, even though it has a lot going for it that comes to us directly from the heyday of progressive rock. I’ll spare my words here and send you to my quite in-depth review, but this is your reminder that Azure are one of the most exciting bands in progressive music today and if you’re sleeping on them you are messing up. Stop it! Listen to Azure!
Glass Kites – Glass Kites II
Sometimes an album comes along that reminds you why you first fell in love with the genre it’s part of. It’s really hard to say exactly why but there’s something about it that just strikes to the core of why you like a certain style. It’s even more powerful when the album comes from a genre you’ve sort of left behind or that your heart has become cold towards. Then, the album strikes you deep, chipping away at the layers of experience and cynicism and makes you feel like a kid all over again. Or, at least, that sometimes happens to me and it happened to me this year with Glass Kites Glass Kites II.
When I was a teenager, I was introduced to Porcupine Tree, The Pineapple Thief, and Katatonia. In short, I was introduced to the dark, somber, melancholic sound of European progressive rock and I was hooked. Glass Kites is very much of that sub-genre, even though it comes to us from Canada. It strikes all of the same notes: it has somber guitars, soaring strings, agile but gentle drums, and a sort of dejected air as it describes a darker world, somehow still filled with unstoppable hope. Even though it doesn’t exactly break the mold on this style, it executes it with piercing perfection, creating the sort of “hopeful melancholy” that the sub-genre is so good for.
It does that so well that it reminded me why I used to love the style, especially now that many of the greats of the genre (and specifically Steven Wilson) have either moved on from the style or disappointed me greatly. If you’re looking for that fix of intelligent, emotional, and evocative progressive rock then look no further than Glass Kites II. It has everything that’s good about this sub-genre, amplified to the maximum. What it doesn’t have is pretense. It’s not afraid to love its music without airs and without condescension, loving it for what it is.
Boss Keloid – Family The Smiling Thrush
This is another album on this list that I’ve spent a lot of words discussion on the blog so let me just say that I love how no one can agree on a genre for Boss Keloid. Is it stoner metal? The tones will definitely agree with you. Is it doom metal? The tempo hints in that directly. Is it sludge? There’s definitely several moments where the drums and the feedback threaten to drown you. Is it rock? There is a lot to its sensibility which would agree with that classification. But there are two things that everyone agrees on: first, Family The Smiling Thrush is so excellent that it hurts and, second, that Boss Keloid make progressive music. For that and, of course, for how good the album really is, they have earned a firm spot on this list.
black midi – Cavalcade
“Excuse me, what?” is the reaction you really want to get when listening to a progressive album of any sort. The genre’s genre-bending is exactly the point so if you’re finding us predicting the next move, something has definitely gone wrong. That sort of element of surprise doesn’t have to come from something super complex; it can also be a very specific vibe, where the album just constantly throws you off. That’s exactly still how I feel when listening to black midi‘s Cavalcade, even though I’ve heard it a few dozen times at this point.
The album just sounds like nothing else; it’s like a troubadour, 60’s singer-songwriter style show crashed into an orchestra and, in the ensuing chaos, they decided to make a math-rock album. The end result is an album that’s sometimes extremely loud and chaotic (like on the opening track, “John L”) and then sneaky and subtle (like on “Chondromalacia Patella”). And then sometimes it’s both, quiet and loud mixing together to create some really weird vibes. In short, it’s a progressive album as a progressive album should be: unpredictable, wild, and wholly its own.