Inspired by a thread at Doomed To Rock, I decided to pick some of my favourite progressive rock albums from the ’90s to the present. A lot of my choices reflect a time when I was discovering a lot of new bands and labels—the same time, funnily enough, that I first got on the Web. It was 1997. The "progressive revival" of the early '80s hadn't left me with anything but a few treasured Marillion and IQ albums. I'd become pissed off with indie rock's apathetic lack of craft and was enthusiastically catching up with the metal scene. Then, prompted by a few magazine articles and the much-maligned Billboard Guide to Progressive Music, I found a whole new vein of underground music... I got out my credit card and began clicking "Confirm Your Order." I got up to date in no time, and was overjoyed to hear that progressive rock was thriving, free from major label tyranny and the notion of having a "hit" that killed the '70s and '80s bands. The new bands were making music for all the right reasons.
For this list, I decided to stay within the boundaries of what I consider the classic prog sound, so a lot of these albums are unabashedly retro (I don’t want to get into the retrogressive progressive rock debate—I'll just say that the issue doesn’t keep me awake at night). Other albums on the list might push the boundaries a little more. As a general rule, I steered clear of heavy metal, which is often the most complex, progressive music in existence. Progressive metal albums like Gorguts’ Obscura and River of Corticone by Sacramentary Abolishment might have to wait for another list to get their fair dues.
In chronological order, then…
1. Landberk – Lonely Land (Laser’s Edge, 1992)
Right before Anglagard’s epoch-making debut album, Landberk arrived, a very different but no less remarkable band who released three studio albums then tragically vanished. Lonely Land is the English-language version of their debut album (some say they prefer the original Swedish version, which I’ve never heard). There’s nothing off-puttingly indulgent about their music, in fact it rocks in a gently headbangable way. Landberk prefer to groove rather than slam you around the room with dozens of rapid-fire changes. They’re accessible in the same way a band like Katatonia is. Their overwhelming melancholy is their own worst enemy—or most valuable asset, depending on your POV. Landberk’s sound revolves around Stefan Dimle’s barbed-wire bass, a swathe of Mellotron, and the stürm and twang of Reine Fiske’s guitar, whose seething tone I find so compelling I’ve sought out a number of his recordings, from the amazing Morte Macabre album, to the debut EP from Paatos, to his current contributions to the ultra-hip psyche band Dungen.
2. IQ – Ever (Giant Electric Pea, 1993)
After an abortive two-album major label foray, IQ added new bassist John Jowitt and old singer Peter Nicholls, and returned stronger than ever with…Ever. While their contemporaries Marillion fought to distance themselves from the progressive rock genre, IQ embraced it, favouring their audience with a string of quality releases up to the present day. As a result, they’ve found themselves the flagbearers of “neo-prog” a virtually meaningless, often pejorative, label that’s become common use in the years after Ever. I have a real soft spot for these guys, and Ever remains (ever-so-slightly) the best of their post-80s output—stately, confident, and dramatic.
3. Anglagard – Epilog (Private label, 1994)
These Swedes sent shock waves through the community (such as it was in 1992) when their debut Hybris was released. Much as Metallica took earlier metal influences and ramped them up to new levels of mania, Anglagard took the “good bits” of '70s progressive rock and built a better beast. The turn-on-a-dime epic instrumentals on Epilog are marvels of tight, intricate playing, dynamics, and melodic exploration. And the band's rich, organic sound—heavy on the flute, Mellotron and Hammond—must have been a revelation to ears longing for relief from the blocky, overblown production that ruled the '80s. They released only two studio albums, but their influence lives on in bands like Norway’s Wobbler. The crack cocaine of progressive rock, Epilog still delivers a satisfying jolt.
4. White Willow – Ignis Fatuus (Laser’s Edge, 1995)
This Norwegian collective’s debut album has a very pastoral feel, heavy on the acoustic guitars, flute, soothing Moog tones, and female vocals. Amazingly White Willow have kept it together enough to release three more albums, each with an increasingly extreme light/heavy dynamic. Ignis Fatuus has its aggressive moments, as heard on the fiery keyboard solo in “Lord of Night” and the powerful doom-crunch of “Cryptomenysis.” Elaborate madrigals like “The Withering of the Boughs” and “Now In These Fairy Lands” (quiet in the back, please) dominate the album, though, making for a pleasant (though never bland), listen located somewhere between Harmonium and Jethro Tull, suffused with melancholy that colours a lot of Scandinavian music. Don’t be deceived by the fiercely subtle nature of this album. Leader Jacob Holm-Lupo is down with the black metal, so he’s in touch with the dark side.
5. Spock’s Beard – Beware of Darkness (Radiant, 1996)
The Beard are loved and loathed equally, with “fanboy” and “progsnob” the discussion board epithets of choice whenever their music is debated. Whatever—they did a lot to rejuvenate interest in the genre in the '90s. Neal Morse is an ace songwriter, able to stir The Beatles, Yes, and Gentle Giant into an infectiously catchy prog soup. Sure, they’re sometimes sappy, and they’re not taking the music anywhere new, but when I want to hear something to pick up my mood, I put on the Beard. BoD gets the nod over debut album The Light (1992) and V (2000) for the presence of "The Doorway" and “Time Has Come,” my all-time favourite Beard epic.
6. Happy Family – Toscco (1997, Cuneiform)
Zeuhl-inspired instrumental madness from this Japanese quartet, who beat the tar out of their instruments for the length of this album. With songs like "The Sushi Bar (with bad face, bad manners, and bad taste)" and "He is Coming at Tokyo Station," the music really captures the feeling of a frenetic urban existence. I find it a lot more palatable than Ruins (the widely accepted benchmark for Japanese avant-rock craziness) because there’s more space in the music, more grooving, and more drama. This album flat-out rocks.
7. Present – Certitudes (Cuneiform, 1998)
Dark and twisted nightmare music from Belgians with ties to legendary chamber rock outfit Univers Zero. Present are far more guitar-centric than Univers Zero, with a sound approaching Voivod performing Philip Glass compositions.
8. Anathema – Alternative 4 (Peaceville, 1998)
Anathema went from being an okay doom metal band to an excellent hard-driving progressive rock band with this breakthrough album. The emotional overload and sense of continuity of these songs reminds me a lot of Marillion’s Clutching at Straws, and Vincent Cavanaugh’s vocal delivery recalls Roger Waters. My friend Smash and I logged a good many hours with this album when it came out, and it's never grown old.
9. Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dream (1999, Snapper)
Band leader Steve Wilson would probably have an aneurysm if he saw his band sharing space with certain others on this list, but what roundup of progressive rock from the last decade and a half could omit Porcupine Tree? Stupid Dream is just one of a string of excellent releases from these guys, probably the one that set the standard until their latest masterpiece, Deadwing. From orchestral pop songs to epic Floydian excursions, P. Tree has it covered. Wilson’s musical and lyrical depth is constantly amazing, and from a production standpoint, he makes some of the best-sounding records you’ll ever hear these days.
10. Kevin Gilbert – The Shaming of the True (2000, KMG)
Kevin Gilbert was an LA-based songwriter/musician and a member of the Tuesday Night Music Club, the songwriting workshop that unleashed Sheryl Crow upon the world. I would guess that the circumstances behind Crow’s rise to fame generated a lot of the bitterness that fuelled The Shaming of the True, Gilbert’s concept album about the dark side of the music business. (Gilbert passed away before the album was finished. Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard and others assembled the album from demos, live recordings and other sources—not that you can tell.) The story follows a promising young artist, Johnny Virgil, as he’s chewed up and spat out by the industry. The genius of this album lies in its songs. They're actually very commercial and radio friendly, ironically reflecting the hit-factory mentality that the album rails against. They’re a diverse lot, at times recalling Peter Gabriel's rhythm-based style (Gilbert once staged a full-length live version of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). And check out the incredible vocal tapestry of "Suit Fugue (Dance of the A&R Men") and the scathing "Fun," which includes a memorable verse about a certain “Sheryl”. It’s an inspiring album—a labour of love and an incandescent purging of spite.
Morte Macabre, Symphonic Holocaust; Guapo, Black Oni; Anekdoten, From Within; Tiamat, Wildhoney; Djam Karet, Live at Orion