Every year, I put together a list of my favorite albums from that particular year. This year, though, Natalie — Cabinets of Curiosity’s singer (and, you know, my wife) — asked if I could put together a similar list for the Cabinets website.
I said sure!
To keep things genre-friendly, I limited my choices to my favorite progressive albums of the year, meaning that any album that could be fairly called “progressive” was game. That includes progressive metal and even avant-garde, as in my musical head canon, avant-garde is just progressive but, like, done by musicians who read art history instead of the Dungeons & Dragons monster manual.
Anyway, on to the list!
Want a Spotify playlist of our favorite songs of the albums below? Click here!
The 10 Best Progressive Rock/Metal Albums of the Year
Human behavior, growth, and death through the metaphor of geologic time.
Lyrically, that’s what Phanerozoic I is about. Musically, though? Phanerozoic is stacked with thundering riffs that chug along mercilessly. To be blunt, this album sounds like what I wanted Gojira’s Magma to sound like.
As is appropriate, the album starts with a series of songs that sound like tectonic plates crashing against each other. You can almost hear the granite and iridium splintering and weaving together — and then, with “Silurian,” the atmosphere present on previous The Ocean records surges back.
Yes, Phanerozoic I is a heavy record — this is the strange zone between post-metal and modern progressive metal, after all — but it isn’t without plenty of lush texture.
My favorite track on the album, “Devonian,” highlights this beautifully. Featuring Jonas Renkse of Katatonia, “Devonian” starts with a slow atmospheric build before Renkse’s vocals immediately take control of the track. While Renkse is the only member of Katatonia on this track, you could easily be fooled into thinking that this was an equal split between both bands.
And that mischievous, rumbling synth bit at 6:59? Yes, please.
Must-listen tracks: Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence, Devonian: Nascent, Permian: The Great Dying.
Amorphis is just one of those bands that you’re basically constantly exposed to if you’re into any kind of European metal. I’m not sure you can go on a metal forum and ask, “Hey, I like X, what should I listen to next?” without having someone answer “Amorphis.”
And if you’ve listened to any of their catalogue, it’s easy to see why — there’s basically an album for everyone, regardless of the kind of metal you happen you like.
Except me — and that doesn’t really make any sense.
See, I’ve always been a fan of the specific mournful, folky sound that Finnish melodic death metal brings to the table. Wintersun, Insomnium, and even Kalmah all sound distinctly Finnish compared to their other Nordic counterparts. As much as Gothenburg has as distinct sound, so does Helsinki.
But for whatever reason, Amorphis just never clicked — but Queen of Time changed that.
If I’m honest, I think Tomi Joutsen’s vocals are one of the reasons why — his performance here is just so much better to my ears than on past records. Likewise, the songwriting just seems so much more playful. Something interesting is always going on, which leads to tracks that don’t just have one or two moments you wait for — the whole experience is memorable.
Must-listen tracks: The Bee, Amongst Stars, The Golden Elk
Amr — the seventh solo album by the Norwegian black metal/progressive metal legend — is, in my opinion, his most complete work. Amr (which Wikipedia tells me means “black” or “loathsome” in Old Norse — fitting) is an incredibly sinister record, but not in a bombastic way. It always seems like it’s right behind you. It’s plotting your demise.
The synths on this record deserve special note. There’s just something so twisted about them, even if the noises that they’re making aren’t all that weird. There’s just something constant about them — they’re everpresent, lurking behind you, just waiting to strike — to crawl into your synapses and lurk there for the rest of your life (or at least the rest of your day).
But, like I said, this isn’t a purely bombastic, bone-crushing affair. Yes, there are chugging, oppressive riffs. (See Arcana Imperii or Lend Me the Eyes of Millenia.) Yes, you can absolutely hear Ihsahn’s black metal roots. But there are also soaring, catchy choruses and calm — almost peaceful — interludes that break things up. Samr, for one, is literally a balad. (And Twin Black Angels sounds like a modern-era Ghost song.)
While there are some moments that don’t really hit for me, overall, I found myself listening to Amr a ton since it came out.
Must-listen tracks: Arcana Imperii, Where You Are Lost and I Belong, Wake
One of the reasons why I love progressive rock (or metal) is that it often genuinely feels like you’re listening to something different — something that hasn’t been done before. There are just so many progressive bands that do something in such a way that kinda makes you jump out of your seat — that makes you assign a specific sound with a specific band.
When you jump to avant-garde metal, though, all bets are off.
And considering that progressive rock has been stuck in a bit of a djent-or-70’s loop for a hot minute, that’s a good thing.
Geometria is one of the most unique records I’ve heard in years. Elements of jazz, post-metal, black metal, and Hungarian folk music are all spun together to build a record that is filled with moments that just rip your lungs out — and then make you stare at them.
Opener Hajnali Csillag is an atmospheric delight that builds through layers and layers — and I know, given the description I’ve given thus far, you’re probably imagining something post-metal-y and spacey, adding layers over time. That’s not what this is. Layers come, layers go. Genres are folded in, then they leave. Vocals float in, then linger, then they’re gone.
And just when you think you know what you’re in for, Szamojed Fresko just comes straight for your soul.
On Geometria, no song has a twin. Every sound is unique — every moment beautifully crafted. And yet, it all comes together as a coherent whole.
Must-listen tracks: Hajnali Csillag, Sárember, Töltés
So, you can thank Spotify for this one.
I don’t really spend a lot of time in the crossover space between technical death metal and progressive death metal. I love death metal — and I love progressive metal — but for whatever reason, most tech death just doesn’t hit with me.
This year, though, that changed — and Alkaloid is the reason why.
This album is so fucking good, guys.
Liquid Anatomy starts with Kernel Panic, which, like, starts sounding like the cheesiest Dream Theater song you’ve ever heard (earnestly, it even calls forth Italian Power Metal — we’re approaching mozzarella levels of cheese here, my dudes).
And then the growls come in and nails are lodged right under your jaw, your flesh ripped off and thrown to the pavement. That’s what you’re in for here.
This album is heavy — it hammers you, but it (sometimes) does let you come up for air. Those briefs moments of cheese oxygen are glorious, amplifying the hammering just that much more.
Must-listen tracks: Kernel Panic, Azagthoth, Rise of the Cephalopods
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.
Yet, Weend’o is very much not that. On their bandcamp page, they describe the theme of the album:
“Time of Awakening is a call to humanity to keep faith and hope despite the appalling events currently afflicting the world.”
This isn’t a heavy album — sure, there are a few killer riffs in here — but that really isn’t the point. There’s plenty on this list that’ll kick your skull straight off your spine, but you just won’t find that here. No — this album is an oasis. It’s lush, calm, and just earnestly beautiful. Laetitia — the band’s vocalist — is earnestly perfect.
There’s a lot of Steven Wilson’s influence here, especially on Angel Dust, which sounds Porcupine Tree-esque. But don’t think that this is a band that’s entirely tied to their influences. While you can hear familiar elements, the end product is unique. It’s modern, tight, unique, and ethereal.
Must-listen tracks: Time of Awakening trilogy, Angel Dust
When I first heard this record, I was absolutely fucking positive that it’d make virtually every critic’s end of year list. Now, I can’t say that I’ve seen it on everyone’s list, but basically anyone who doesn’t have this album listed is wrong. (Don’t @ me.)
This isn’t the sort of record I listen to — yes, it’s a bit progressive, but this is one of those albums that comes square out of the strange mixing of math rock/metal and 2000s-era emo. I’m sure someone will impale me on a keyboard for saying that, but come on, no one that lived through that era will be able to listen to this record without hearing it.
And truthfully, that’s the heritage Rolo Tomassi comes from, so it ain’t surprising.
Yet, throw in a special kind of heaviness and earnestness, and you’ve got a recipe that I just couldn’t stay away from in 2018.
Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It builds slowly — the first track of the album, and the large majority of the second track, all seem to be just one giant elevator. You’re dragged up and up, layers and layers of sound cascading against you — but it just never reaches the top. You can’t see it. You don’t know where you’re going.
And then, Rituals starts. It’s eerie. The atmosphere is gone. And then those thick, thumping chords come in.
And then Eva Spence rips through the mix with a piercing growl (and a note here, her distorted vox on this album are probably my favorite of the year). Strap in, chief.
(One more note here: frequently I hear people who aren’t fans of screams say that they’re lazy, or that they aren’t really necessary to deliver a certain emotion — Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It is my new reply for why they’re full of shit.)
Listen to this record, front to back.
Must-listen tracks: Rituals, Alma Mater, Contretemps
When I was a teengaer, I really loved In Flames. Like, I really loved them. I had a Jesterhead flag hanging in my room. Seriously.
Yet, In Flames didn’t take the path that I wanted them to. Instead of growing with my evolving taste, they ended up basically continuing on in the direction of something that a fourteen-year-old would want.
See, Barren Earth is kind what I always wanted In Flames to become. This is melodic death metal — but progressive. It has the folk tinges of early In Flames (Specifically, everything Whoracle and back, including Lunar Strain), but amped up, Finnish-ized (?) and mixed with an entire vat of progressive spice.
That’s been their MO for a bit now, but with A Complex of Cages, they’ve gotten to a point where I just can’t help but suggest them — and this album — to everyone I meet.
Barren Earth’s unique mix of melodic/progressive/folk metal is essentially the precise opposite of Amorphis. Whereas Amorphis has almost went in a symphonic-folksy-catchy direction, Barren Earth have dived deeper into death metal, while still retaining moments of calm and plenty of melody, to boot. Both are awesome — and both got a ton of play from me this year — but I have a feeling that this particular record will be one I “rediscover” ten years from now and wonder how I didn’t just, I don’t know, relocate outta this hellscape and move to Helsinki.
While I can’t say I love every track on this album, the second half of it is absolute pure gold.
Must-listen tracks: Solitude Pith, Dysphoria, Zeal
Look, Vector is a good record and you should listen to it. You’ve probably heard of Haken, right? Just listen to the record.
Honestly, though, the whole album could be shit and it would still make this list, because A Cell Divides is a straight banger.
Just listen to A Cell Divides.
Must-listen tracks: A Cell Divides. And, like, the rest of the album too I GUESS.
But Chris, that’s black metal! That’s not prog! A-bloo-bloo-bloo!
Okay first off, it’s avant-garde metal, and it’s art.
If I had to compare Vile Luxury to anything else, it’d probably be one of the albums in Blut Aus Nord’s 777 trilogy.
Sometimes it’s lush. Sometimes it sounds like funeral doom. Sometimes it sounds like someone took a lawnmower to your utensil drawer.
Basically, ask yourself this: have you ever been listening to some nice jazz on a crisp winter night, a fire going in the background, logs crackling somewhere behind you — and then you accidentally drop a spoon into the garbage disposal and as it’s screaming at you to please stop its torment, you look down into the drain and think to yourself, “Yes, yes, let the gilded tools of the bourgeois be ripped asunder into the dirt and grime and refuse we all really are in our hearts”?
Cool, me too, you’ll probably like this record.
Must-listen tracks: Swarming Opulence, Chernobyl Blues, Mother Machine
In a nutshell: This is what I wish Ghost evolved to be. I just think it’s a slight step back from Conduit, that’s all! Still, an incredible record.
Look, okay, I’m writing this list for a prog band’s website, and if I include any more death metal they might kill me. This is the best straight up death metal that’s been released in years, though. A must-listen for fans of the genre.
See above, but replace “death metal” with “blackened death metal.”
Oh no, my face has been melted off and because of that I cannot put this in the top ten, but that’s dumb and I should make it top eleven to fit it in but I cannot for rules exist that are STUPID.
Orphaned Land is a band I really should like, but just can’t get into. They’re good, they just aren’t for me. Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs is the closest they’ve come to worming their way into my heart, though.
See above. Voice of Trespass, though, is like the best song of the year though so it’s all alright.
If Steven Wilson was weird in a different way (like, he enjoyed LARP’ing more than staring at pictures of dead children) then this is probably the kind of music he’d make.
So, here’s the deal: the concept behind Zeal & Ardor (and this album in general) is incredible. That said, this was one of those albums that, for a week, I thought was incredible… and that after that, I kinda forgot about it. So yeah, check it out, but maybe don’t run it dry like I did.
…and that’s it!
2018 was an incredible year in progressive music, and honestly, there were a ton of albums I listened to this year that probably deserve a spot (or at least a mention) on this list. That said, I have a feeling 2019 will be even better — not that I’m biased, or anything.
Chris Hornyak is a writer from South Jersey, and also Cabinets of Curiosity’s de-facto manager/PR guy. Want to tweet at me? Hit me up at @cmhornyak!