As promised, here are some of my choices for top progressive rock albums of the past year:
Neal Morse: Sola Scriptura
I’ll give this one a full review soon, and for now I’ll just say it’s absolutely glorious, and soli deo gloria. Neal Morse is one of the great popular music composers of our time, and this is the best work he has done since the Spock’s Beard album V, which was released in the year 2000 and is one of the greatest rock albums of all time, in my view.
(Our friend Carl Olsen gets a mulligan on Sola Scriptura, as it was not yet released when he wrote his article mentioned below.)
The Rocket Scientists: Revolution Road
The Rocket Scientists are one of my favorite bands, and it’s a pity that they only manage to release an album every five years or so. (Brutal Architecture, from 1999, is one of my absolute favorite albums. I still listen to it regularly.) The Rocket Scientists produce a strongly Beatles-influenced, highly melodic form of prog rock, driven by Mark McCrite’s warm voice and precise guitar and Erik Norlander’s great keyboard virtuosity. (Norlander is truly in a class with Emerson and Wakeman.)
The band moved away from their more melodic, almost pop form of prog that made Brutal Architecture so unusual and beautiful, toward a heavier, harder-edged, more guitar-oriented approach for the 2003 album Oblivion Days, which took away some of the uniqueness of their sound but still made for a very good album. With Revolution Road, the band has reconciled these two sides splendidly. With additional vocals by David McBee on the more metal-oriented cuts, Revolution Road is more overtly melodic and pretty than Oblivion Days while replicating that album’s power in all the right places. The music varies from acoustic-guitar-led ballads to melodic metal to Norlander-led symphonic grandeur, with several other interesting stops in between. The album is more enjoyable with each listen.
Glass Hammer: The Compilations
Available on ITunes only. Steve Babb and Fred Schendel purvey a great form of symphonic rock with classical and medieval touches. This release collects GH tracks not released on official GH albums during the past few years. "The Narrow Way" has some of Fred’s great Hammond playing. "A Is A" is unusually heavy and guitar-based for this band and is a nice, tuneful change of pace. "The Morning Song" has some nice piano arpeggios from Fred and appealing harmony and counterpoint vocals by the band. The symphonic version of "Heroes and Dragons," employing only voice and orchestra, is very pretty indeed and even more moving than the original version on Lex Rex. The epic song "In the Court of Alkinoos" is one of the band’s best compositions.
Spock’s Beard: Spock’s Beard
Spock’s Beard has weathered Neal Morse’s 2002 departure rather better than one might have expected, and this, their ninth album, has a
ll the things we expect from the Beard—great melodies, inventive arrangements, passionate singing and smart harmonies, superb musicianship, provocative and interesting lyrics—and all without Neal Morse.
Akacia: This Fading Time
Very good 1970s-style symphonic prog. The musicianship is topnotch, though the band would benefit greatly from stronger vocals. The compositions and lyrics, however, are sufficiently intelligent and salutary to overcome this deficiency.
A terrific rock opera by one of the great prog bands of all time, the Italian group PFM.
Focus: Focus 9: New Skin
The stupendously talented 1970s Dutch band Focus (remember "Hocus Pocus"?) returns with a new guitarist and their classic blend of mostly instrumental progressive rock with strong classical and jazz influences. (Thijs Van Leer plays a mean jazz flute, even better than Ron Burgundy.)
Focus 9: New Skin is a worthy addition to this band’s catalogue, with plenty of their customary tunefulness, instrumental virtuosity, sheer performance energy, and jovial sense of humor. The songs don’t break any new ground, basically reprising the styles of their best compositions of the past, but they’re very nice variations on classic Focus themes, and the album is just great fun to listen to.