As someone who leans heavily towards the prog side of music in general, it’s not surprising that my favorite metal albums of 2017 fall into that category. Of course, the remarkable thing about progressive metal is that it can encompass so many different approaches and divergent styles, including jazz, folk, classical, industrial, synth, and even a bit of indie rock. For those reasons and more, the following ten LPs—from both established icons and newcomers/cult favorites deserving a bigger spotlight—struck me the most this year.
10. IN THE PRESENCE OF WOLVES – OF TWO MINDS, STAGES 1-2: THE APE AND THE CAGE
It’s often difficult to judge the creative output of your friends, but I can say without any bias that my buddies in In the Presence of Wolves have outdone themselves here. The follow-up to their 2014 debut LP, Thalassas, this five-song cycle recalls influences like BTBAM, Incubus, Coheed and Cambria, The Dear Hunter, and Mastodon while simultaneously showcasing how much the quartet has grown as players and composers. In particular, bassist/singer Vini Stamato successfully melds an almost entirely new vocal style into the advanced techniques of drummer Mason Ingling and guitarists Chris Capitano and Jim Ellis. It’s a reinvigorating, wide-ranging, and completely confident work that illustrates how some of the best modern progressive metal is being made under your radar.
9. ENSLAVED – E
I’m an admittedly new convert to the Enslaved camp, as I’ve never really given their catalog the attention it always seemed to deserve. That changed with E, their fourteenth outing in nearly twenty-five years. Picking up from the gentler and more polygonal leanings of 2015’s In Times, E is a captivating journey all-around. The multipart introductory track, “Storm Son,” evokes modern Alcest with its spellbinding riffs and angelic harmonies; later, “Sacred Horse” provides hypnotic percussion and strong contrasts between terrifying and tranquil scores, while “Hindsight” offers some of the most vibrant timbres in the entire Enslaved discography. Clearly, E makes for a superb entry point into what makes Enslaved so revered.
8. XANTHOCHROID – OF ERTHE AND AXEN (ACTS I AND II)
Released in two parts earlier this year, Of Erthe and Axen, the latest conceptual opus from California’s Xanthochroid, is a justly ambitious, riveting, and diverse bit of black metal. By channeling artists like Opeth, Jethro Tull, Renaissance, and Agalloch in their incorporations of folk, classical, opera, and other styles—as well as offering a deep rustic lore in the guise of Game of Thrones—the group manages brightness and bleakness with masterful alterations of simplicity and density. Act I offers a stronger balance between those elements, whereas Act II contains more intricate arrangements and a grander scope; together, they culminate in one of the best epics the genre has seen this year.
7. PERSEFONE – AATHMA
Andorran outfit Persefone has spent nearly two decades building a sizeable following for its relatively spacey take on progressive death metal. With their fifth LP, Aathma, they’ve hit a new high in terms of blending crushing growls, chords, and syncopation (“Prison Skin,” “No Faced Mindless”) with ethereal majesty (“Cosmic Walkers,” “Vacuum”). Arguably the standouts of the whole sequence, however, are starter “An Infinitesimal Spark” (for its prophetic classiness) and the four-part “Aathma” suite, which closes the record with tons of epic variety. As a result, Aathma is the best example yet of why Persefone deserves to be a household name within the metal community.
6. THE CONTORTIONIST – CLAIRVOYANT
It’s fairly common—and reasonable—for a metal band to polarize its fanbase by transitioning into a calmer sound; such was the case with Indiana sextet The Contortionist’s third record, 2014’s Language, and especially with this year’s Clairvoyant (which features almost no harshness at all). However, the transformation proved worthwhile because the album is filled with sophisticated, sentimental atmospheres, gripping vocals, and an overarching sense of unity. In a sense, it’s a bulk of heavenly desolation whose superlative moments (“Clairvoyant,” “Godspeed,” “Return to Earth,” and “Reimagined”) reveal how heartrending, beautiful, and dynamic The Contortionist has become.
5. LEPROUS – MALINA
Feeling very much like a continuation of 2015’s The Congregation, this latest entry from Norway's Leprous once again delivers an exceptional balance of light and dark that feels like the musical lovechild of King Crimson, Tool, Meshuggah, TesseracT, and Gazpacho. Naturally, the title track serves as a dreamily mournful highlight that truly exemplifies the subjected power of Einar Solberg’s voice; in contrast, “Bonneville” adds industrial jazziness into the formula, “From the Flame” is immediately engrossing thanks to its impassioned, layered singing, and closer “The Last Milestone” soars with symphonic heartache. From start to finish, Malina stands as a symbol of progressive metal at its most emotive, stylish, and thought-provoking.
4. CALIGULA'S HORSE – IN CONTACT
This fourth studio work from the Australian quintet maintains everything that makes them great (fascinating rhythms and riffs, ambitious tonal shifts, and enthralling melodies) while also presenting a stronger and more transparent focus on storytelling. For instance, opener “Dream the Dead” is among their most hard-hitting, chameleonic, and attractive songs, while “The Hands Are the Hardest” and “Love Conquers All” showcase how great they are at crafting bittersweet gems. Easily the most promising aspect of In Contact, however, is the Shakespearean allusions found within “Capulet” and (especially) “Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall.” They demonstrate best how striving Caligula’s Horse remains.
3. PAIN OF SALVATION – IN THE PASSING LIGHT OF DAY
Sweden’s Pain of Salvation has always been a very special band, as mastermind Daniel Gildenlöw ceaselessly prioritizes earnest and weighty narratives, as well as poetic instrumentation, over verbose technicality. That standard remains intact on In the Passing Light of Day, a remarkable return to form inspired by how he could’ve lost everything—especially his wife—as he battled a flesh-eating virus in 2014. Both thematically and musically, it also acts as Remedy Lane Pt. II, channeling both the complex, multifaceted structures and gorgeous, heartfelt odes that made that record, like all of the earliest Pain of Salvation full-lengths, so special.
2. MAJOR PARKINSON – BLACKBOX
What do you get if you combine the husky elegance of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave with the colorful, genre-shifting lunacy of Diablo Swing Orchestra, Mr. Bungle, uneXpect, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum? Blackbox, the fourth LP from Norwegian septet Major Parkinson. From beginning to end, the sequence is a tour-de-force of addictingly memorable and gorgeously eccentric compositions both in-your-face (“Isabel – A Report to an Academy,” “Baseball”) and wonderfully tranquil (“Strawberry Suicide,” “Scenes from Edison’s Black Maria”). Of course, there’s also “Madeleine Crumbles,” quite possibly the most original metal song of the year.
1. AYREON – THE SOURCE
Dutch visionary Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s Ayreon records have always set a benchmark for how to incorporate multiple guest vocalists and instrumentalists into captivating concept albums whose virtuosic arrangements are matched by some of the best songwriting in the genre. This year’s The Source lived up to those expectations and then some, as guest appearances from James Labrie, Russell Allen, Floor Jansen, Guthrie Govan, Mark Kelly, and Tommy Rogers—among others—made this immediate prequel to 2008’s 01011001 a whirlwind of catchy melodies, astonishing musicianship, and ingenious callbacks to the Ayreon universe. Like its predecessors, it’s a masterpiece.