Let’s cut right to the chase: 2019 will go down as one of the best years for progressive rock and metal, easily. I can’t remember a year in my lifetime where so many absolutely incredibly records came out, seemingly one right after another. While there are only 10 albums on this list (and another five in the honorable mentions), I could easily take this list to 15, 20, or even 25 without even having to think about it.
But let’s get right to it. Here are my top ten progressive metal/rock albums of 2019:
The Top 10 Progressive Metal/Rock Albums of 2019
Swallow the Sun – When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light
Genre: Death-doom, progressive metal
Must-listen track: Upon the Water
Distilled melancholy. A record that, as it spins, seems to suck the serotonin out of the room. A 52-minute-long sigh passed through a scratchy throat.
And the most devastating of all: forgotten.
Swallow the Sun’s seventh album is a crushing experience that dug its way into my mind all the way back in January. Yet, unfortunately, releasing an album so early in the year is a bit of a faux pas if you want to make most critics’ top ten lists. While doing a bit of meta top ten list complaining is also a bit of a faux pas, I can’t let this one go — When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light is just far too good to be ignored.
If that intro didn’t clue you in, this is a miserable record: and for good reason. This is Swallow the Sun’s first record after the death of Juha Raivio’s partner, Aleah Stanbridge. The entire album deals with that loss — though “deals,” is perhaps a little too straightforward. Every track on this album feels perverse, like you’ve snuck into a funeral for someone you don’t know. It’s beautiful, hauntingly so — you know there was (and is) love here, but it doesn’t feel like you should be witnessing it.
It’s hard to describe the album past that, earnestly. It’s a beautiful piece of art — one that you absolutely must listen to — but bring tissues. You won’t make it through without them.
Dreadnought – Emergence
Genre: Progressive metal, post-metal, black metal,
Must-listen track: Besieged
In many ways, Dreadnought has continuously reminded me of a (slightly) chiller, more feminine Wolves in the Throne Room. Much like Wolves, their songs twist between passages of lush, almost psychedelic post-rock landscapes and absolutely brutal, shrieking evil.
Emergence is, ultimately, a fairly laid-back affair. No — that doesn’t mean that this is a light listen, by any means. This is a very heavy record, it’s just not pummeling. It’s heavy — but more like a blanket than a brick being dropped on your head. It’ll smother you in layers of sound, but it won’t beat you to death.
While all four members of Dreadnought shine on Emergence, my ear can’t help but be drawn to both the vox and keys. Kelly Schilling’s vocals are utterly perfect — as are Lauren Vieira’s piano accents.
Often, on metal records — especially heavier ones — keys only really find a place in interludes, or between heavier bits. In Emergence, this isn’t the case. They’re present throughout the album, and they genuinely hold the spotlight.
White Ward – Love Exchange Failure
Genre: Progressive/experimental metal, post-black metal
Must-listen track: Uncanny Delusions
All too often, when we talk about “jazz” in metal, we’re referring to a layer of complexity heaped on top of metal. It’s no wonder that metalheads (and progheads) are more than happy to invite elements of the genre into their own — after all, we’ve all had *those* discussions with metalheads. There’s a certain elitism in difficulty, as if finger dexterity = good ear juice.
Often, I feel like one of the things that’s lost is the feel of jazz — the smokiness, the playfulness, the (dare I say) seductive bits that are, well, more than a bit lusty. Sure, the groove might make it in, but the groove doesn’t.
That’s not the case with White Ward’s latest album, which meshes black metal, jazz, and a little bit of extra spice.
Earnestly, I don’t think I could describe this band better than they describe themselves: “White Ward perform intensely deviant music of a noir shade.”
That’s what this album is. If that sounds interesting to you, check it out.
Heilung – Futha
Genre: Neo-folk, experimental
Must-listen track: Norupo
As a band (a collective? An experiment?) Heilung is an interesting thing. If you haven’t heard them before, let me suggest watching this. Now look, I’m a writer. I believe in the power of words. But sometimes you just gotta watch a video, right? Seriously.
I could tell you that there’s a whole band up there dressed in a modern recreation of pagan-era clothing, banging on animal skins and bones, and chanting in a variety of languages — including a few “extinct” ones — but like, maybe you should just watch it?
Now that you’re acquainted, you need to understand that while Futha is very much that, it’s also very much not.
Futha essentially takes the formula that they created with Ofnir and twists it to be more, well, electronic. That isn’t to say that you’re going to hear a wall of synthesizers here — not at all! Nary a trifle! Instead, the chanting, drums, and everything else tend to be slower, more hypnotic, gentler. While they might get some strange looks at first, I think a lot of this stuff would fit in at trance or progressive house festivals.
All of this really serves to reinforce a central theme: If Ofnir was conflict, then Futha is peace — both will draw you into a trance, but Futha’s is more introspective. It forces you to be present.
With all of that said, the real reason Futha is on this list is this: when I listen to this album, I’m ripped to what I have to imagine is the exact headspace they want me to be in: mindful in the present, but conscious of the past.
Herod – Sombre Dessein
Genre: Sludge metal, progressive metal
Must-listen track: Fork Tongue
Last year, I wrote this: “My top 10 this year is filled with heavier stuff — and there’s a good reason for that. 2018 was tumultuous. It was dim. It was draining. It’s only natural, then, to seek refuge in music that reflects that. It feels authentic.”
2018 wasn’t a great year, but it was for music.
2019 was like that, but angrier.
Herod captured that perfectly.
So often, music reviewers come up with all kinds of silly shit to describe heaviness. “This record will smash your skull in!” Yeah, okay. Sombre Dessein is the sole endpoint of all of those metaphors. It is the endgame of heaviness. It is a black hole whose singularity crushes and sucks and tears and ignites every molecule of oxygen in the room.
But all of this anger, hatred, and contempt has a purpose. That’s why it’s on the list.
You’ll see what I mean. I’ll leave you with the lyrics of Fork Tongue:
Segregation, separated, annihilation,
Behold the junkie denial of consumption
To think that living is fighting against others
The words are said but spoke with fork tongue
Spoke with fork tongue
See the numbers rise to please
As quick as the germ of doubt
A superficial gang bang of liberalist economy
We’ll ride the ship then sink it down
Ride the ship then sink it down
Ride the ship and sink!
Opeth – In Cauda Venenum
Genre: Progressive rock, progressive metal
Must-listen track: The Garroter
ICV is the most honest album that Opeth has ever released. From Watershed on, in Mikael’s own words, his lyrics have gotten more personal — less concept-y and occult-cool, and more a direct reflection of the things happening in his life. I first started to feel that directness on Sorceress, but on ICV it really matures into something palpable and utterly captivating.
ICV is perhaps Mikael’s first album in his voice. Yes, this album (depending on your version) is in both Swedish and English, but that’s not quite what I mean. No, these songs reflect Mikael’s take on the world. Whereas that could easily spin into a Steven Wilson-esque cultural slap on the wrist, it instead seems, well… distinctly Opeth.
But none of that would matter if the songs weren’t good!
ICV has that covered — to the extent that, for the first time since maybe Ghost Reveries, I can’t really pick out a favorite simply because I can make an argument for so many of them. By listens, though, I’ve played The Garroter/Banemannen more than any other track.
If you’ve avoided Opeth since Heritage — well, first get your head out of your ass (got ’em!) — but then seriously listen to this album.
Thank You Scientist – Terraformer
Genre: Progressive metal
Must-listen track: Swarm
Okay, so let me be clear — this isn’t Cabinets of Curiosity’s top ten, it’s mine. I’m sure there are plenty of albums that would make (or be excluded) from this list if I just straight up polled the band.
But Terraformer? It would make it, hands down.
As an album, Terraformer is a surprisingly long, exhilarating, and just wonderfully written collection of songs. How do you point to one standout track (or — god forbid — a specific moment) when literally every second of music is just so tight?
More than all of that, though, it’s just so fun. This list is littered with albums that are, to be honest, a bit of a drag. But Terraformer? Look — I know there’s a lot of depth in this album. The lyrics explore themes of self-regret, self-acceptance, mindfulness, and defiance. All that said, I can’t help but just have a blast listening to it.
Seriously — how does one listen to Chromology without just doing some lame ass groove in their chair? Anyone?
I’m not a musician, but no album this year has made me want to become one more — if I could just capture a single electron of Thank You Scientist’s energy, god damn. God damn. God damn.
Bent Knee – You Know What They Mean
Genre: Art rock, progressive rock
Must-listen track: Bone Rage
Everything that I just said about Thank You Scientist applies to Bent Knee, except they are cuter, which musically means something important and is why they are one higher on this list.
Bone Rage is such a jam, man.
And that’s where the album starts.
The fact that Bent Knee isn’t trending around the world is proof that life isn’t fair and that art isn’t a meritocracy. The kids that were eating up Radiohead in the 90s should be slamming this. The weird zoomer kids with IV drips of some sleepy indie/80s revival mix should just have Give Us the Gold blasted into their skulls. It’s in the same vein, just better.
You Know What They Mean is experimental, it’s fun, it’s twisted and weird. It’s a bunch of musicians just doing weird shit and having fun while also somehow making it all extremely catchy. It’s art rock, or pop prog, or whatever-you-want-to-call-this-kinda-thing at its very best.
Iapetus – The Body Cosmic
Genre: Progressive metal, melodic death metal
Must-listen track: I Contain Multitudes
It’s so very rare that an album inspires in me the sort of feelings that The Body Cosmic does. When I listened to this record for the first time, I was totally enraptured. I could feel it my chest. It was almost a mystical experience — a sort of beauty that only really shines through (for me, at least) with this sort of metal.
So often death metal — and especially melodic death metal — is dark and brooding and, well, just death. Yet, there’s so much potential there for more. I believe Ne Obliviscaris really touched on that with their first album, especially with Forget Not. Iapetus hits on that very same energy here, and not just because they’ve brought NeO drummer Dan Presland along for the ride.
Yes, the guitars and vocals on this album are incredible, but no specific element is pulling my attention at a given time — it’s more how each part interlocks with the next. There are so many moments where I’m just sucked into the music, where I’m forced to feel awe.
I try not to point out specific moments or timestamps, as I feel like it’s best to just find ‘em for yourself, but how everything comes together with the vocals at about 2 minutes in on I Contain Multitudes is just so beautiful that I feel compelled to point it out here.
This was a total surprise for me. I’d never heard of Iapetus before this record, but after just listening through the album once, it immediately climbed my list.
This album is magical.
Devin Townsend – Empath
Genre: Progressive metal
Must-listen track: Singularity
Empath is the culmination of an entire career — of a lifetime. It’s an astonishing, towering album that’s stacked with talent. There’s just so much here. No one else could’ve created this album, and it’s not just a matter of talent. The vision here, and the experiences that had to happen to create that… it’s mind blowing. I can’t even fathom it.
And then, to redirect all of that to a singular message — to just encouraging you to stay alive.
That seems so cheesy, like an inspirational meme telling you to keep your chin up, or suggesting yoga to someone who is suicidal. It may seem, from how I’m describing it, like it should be insulting.
But it’s where it’s coming from — Devin Townsend, to be clear — and how.
There are bits of this scattered throughout the whole album, but I’m going to just focus in on Singularity.
Singularity is an absolute masterpiece.
This is a song that’s a microcosm of the entire album. It’s Devin Townsend screaming — literally — at you that life sucks, it’s painful, it’s sometimes torture, but it can get better. At no point does that ever feel forced. Why? Because of that lifetime of experience, you’re not having rainbows blown up your ass. No, this is a 23-minute long epic that rips you through pain, anger, rage, uncertainty, the evolution of technology… and papaya.
You can’t fast forward. I mean, you could, but you shouldn’t. It’s an entire career condensed into one song.
And after you’ve been dragged kicking and screaming through the whole thing, Devin fuckin’ Townsend awaits you at the other end with a hug.
Here’s the truth: 2019 was a miserable year. It was a year brimming with pain for me, my family, and my loved ones. Yet, hearing Devin Townsend tell me to hang in there (with Anneke in the background) got me through it. I’ve listened to this song countless times this year, and yet I still can’t make it through that last bit without crying.
I think top ten lists are often pretty silly — in truth, I think most music reviews are. They talk about sound with some seeming weight and objectivity that just seem absurd to me. Ultimately, I care about how the music made you feel. What impacted you? Tell me that. Tell me in your review how the damn thing made you feel. That’s all music is, after all. Strip away the chords and scales and time signatures and everything else, and it’s just another way we communicate with one another.
And to that extent, really, all I want you to take away from this list is that Empath was the single most meaningful album I heard in 2019. Past that, I think it’s maybe the most meaningful album released this year, period. I know I needed it — and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
Honorable/Notable Progressive Metal/Rock Mentions
Elder – The Gold & Silver Sessions
Genre: Psychedelic rock/stoner metal
This EP only didn’t make the list because… well, it’s an EP! With that said, The Gold & Silver Sessions is a fantastic listen. The three songs on this EP are considerably chilled out (and lean more toward the psychedelic) compared to their typical fare. Whereas Elder tends to produce a slightly proggy stoner metal, this is more akin to a psychedelic jam.
I would probably get tired of a whole album of this stuff, for 30 minutes? Sure, I’ll take it.
Leprous – Pitfalls
Genre: Progressive rock/pop prog
Pitfalls isn’t a bad album, but it is a very limited one. Don’t take this to be a knock against Leprous for being “catchy,” “poppy,” or electronic. I have no problem with any of those things, especially when done well.
My main issue with this record is that it’s mostly just the Einar show.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Einar’s voice, and I also love his taste in music — but his vocals more or less carry every track here. The rest of Leprous is ludicrously talented, so it’s disappointing to hear them shine so little on this album.
That keeps it out of the top ten, but it absolutely should still be an album you listen to. Below, Observe the Train, and Foreigner are all fantastic. The Sky is Red is great, too — if it ends a little anticlimactically.
Cheeto’s Magazine – Amazingous
Genre: Progressive rock/progressive metal
Progressive rock just often isn’t that fun. There, I’ve said it. Fight me.
Seriously: concept albums that hammer home very specific or overwrought ideas, an absolute obsession with perfection, fandoms so elitist that you’re somehow reaching beyond gatekeeping to something even more perverse. Everything is just so serious, so ruthlessly pretentious that even as someone that listens to a ton of this stuff every year… it can burn you out, you know?
And then there’s Cheeto’s Magazine.
Amazingous was only a record I ended up listening to two or three times, but I had a huge smile on my face every time I did. These guys are every bit as talented as the folks in the top ten — it’s just that they’re having more fun.
Check ‘em out!
Mortanius – Till Death Do Us Part
Genre: Progressive metal, power metal, symphonic metal
Mortanius reminds me a bit of a proggier, early-era Kamelot — and honestly, that’s a sound that I just don’t hear enough of anymore. Somewhere along the line symphonic metal basically turned into gothic metal with operatic female vocals. Which, like, cool — but I wish there was more diversity there.
On top of that, it’s just as catchy as Kamelot ever was. I can’t tell you how many times a line from this album has gotten jammed into my skull for DAYS. Seriously: major props to both of these guys.
So why didn’t they make the cut? Easy: Jesse Shaw, Mortanius’s bassist, also became Cabinet’s bassist in 2019. He’s been helping us record our next album, which… well, now you know about?
Cabinets of Curiosity – The Chaos Game
Genre: Progressive rock, progressive metal, avant-garde rock
Literally a M A S T E R P I E C E.
But seriously, even if I wasn’t married to Natalie, The Chaos Game would top my end-of-year list. It’s just a fun, well-written, engaging album that combines so many styles of music into one cohesive whole. (PS: You can STILL buy the album here!)
I’m super excited for what they’re cooking up next!
Anyway, that’s it for me. I hope y’all had a great 2019 — if you liked this list, please be sure to share it with your friends.
(Interested in what the best progressive metal/rock albums of 2018 were? Check out our list from last year!)