My judgments of these albums are subject to change as I listen to them more - this is just a snapshot take!
- Kingcrow, _The Persistence_
Atmospheric and emotionally varied progressive rock/metal. “Closer” has a corker of a guitar solo, but for the most part this is mid-paced or even down-tempo music, the appeal of which is based on sonic textures and little vocal and guitar hooks. Every single song on this album is superb; how often do you see that? This was the only album that truly blew me away this year.
Favorite track: “Perfectly Imperfect” https://lasersedge.bandcamp.com/track/p ... mperfect-2
- The Messthetics, _The Messthetics_
Occasionally technical instrumental rock/metal featuring Anthony Pirog on guitar and Fugazi’s rhythm section. Not as punk-y as one might expect. Pirog is sort of a post-rock take on _Discipline_-era Fripp/Belew - lots of buzzy, off-kilter runs and loops.
Favorite track: “Crowds and Power” (one of the most punk-y tracks) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86LSRQUrCjw
- Koenjihyakkei, _Dhorimviskha_
Zeuhl- and RIO-influenced avant-garde jazz-rock from Japan features chamber and rock instrumentation, polyrhythms, unusual time signatures, atonality and semitonality, and, yes, singing in a made-up language. Also some Balkan gypsy horn music thrown in! This is the best Koenjihyakkei album I have heard; it’s less zeuhly and more jazz/RIO.
Favorite track: “Vreztemraiv” https://koenjihyakkei.bandcamp.com/album/dhorimviskha
- Subsignal, _La Muerta_
Hooky, radio-friendly, chorus-driven prog rock resurrects Yes’ _90125_ album but does it way better. This is not usually my sort of thing, but they do it so well it’s just irresistible. (The notion that my #3 and #4 albums could fit under the same “prog” label would be ludicrous if it weren’t true.)
Favorite track: “Even Though the Stars Don’t Shine” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOUU6RhwYhg
- Thy Catafalque, _Geometria_
One-man electronic experimental black metal band. In his early days, I was allergic to the electronic elements, but those have become less of the central focus over time, and I have probably also mellowed in my aversion to them. This might not be quite his best work, but it’s still really excellent and innovative. Not without hooks and plenty of atmosphere.
Favorite track: “Hajo” (but this is atypical for the album, much mellower) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRNa2wB6dpY
- Redemption, _Long Night’s Journey into Day_
Genre progressive metal without being truly generic. Their best album in my view. Fantastic guitar solos, very high-energy throughout. I liked Ray Alder’s vocals, but Tom Englund does an excellent job here. I enjoy the lyrical concepts very much, which are mostly quite personal and sincere and occasionally veer into light-touch social critique. However, the execution of those concepts occasionally leaves a bit to be desired; for instance, I don’t think it’s quite right to describe a “distance” as “profound” (“gulf” or “chasm,” yes, but not “distance”).
Favorite track: “Long Night’s Journey into Day”
- Haken, _Vector_
Haken is doing an excellent job blending the “classic” and “modern” styles of progressive metal without falling into standard genre tropes. This might be their best album as well. I’m not a huge fan of the vocals, but I don’t dislike them to the point that I would prefer listening to the instrumental disc.
Favorite track: “Puzzle Box”
- Silent Stream of Godless Elegy, _Smutnice_
I have a weakness for central and eastern European metal bands (see also Thy Catafalque, Arkona, Without Face, Even Song, etc.). This is Czech folk metal with female and male vocals (occasionally growling). This is an enchanting and delightful album throughout, though it doesn’t quite measure up to _Navaz_ and falls far behind the stunning _Relic Dances_ album - the more sophisticated, complex influences from Bartok are mostly gone here in favor of straightforward hooks.
Favorite track: “Synecku” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYER7M3F1G0
- Imarhan, _Temet_
Berber-Tuareg rock from Algeria. The rock sometimes harks back to ‘70s funk, which isn’t really my thing, but for the most part this is basically just folk rock of a North African vintage with electric guitar and traditional percussion. Ranges from mellower, introspective pieces to high-energy rockers.
Favorite track: “Tumast” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSJeterkKzA
- Amorphis, _Queen of Time_
Long-running Finnish folk metal band whips out one of their very best albums! This album is chock full of hooks and melodies. No, it’s not jawdroppingly original, but it is a really fun listen and impossible to dislike for anyone who’s into this general style of music. Had they released this right after _Elegy_ it would be acknowledged as their best album and an all-time masterpiece.
Favorite track: “The Bee” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xf_4uvymwRw
- Deafheaven, _Ordinary Corrupt Human Love_
“Hipster” black metal band continues to progress & impress. What makes them “black metal for people who don’t like black metal” is their frequent use of major keys and generally “uplifting” affect. Plus, for American listeners, there’s a Pacific-coast tang that reminds ineffably of the _Twin Peaks_ soundtrack and Tom Waits.
Favorite track: “Honeycomb” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU8g0XNyHRw
- Orphaned Land, _Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs_
Israeli folk metal band continues to return to form with this energetically melodic and fluid album. _Mabool_ remains the masterpiece, but this is also a very solid album. Not super-high highs, but generally good quality throughout.
Favorite track: “In Propaganda” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmXh3Q47pEU
- All Traps on Earth, _A Drop of Light_
This is like last year’s Wobbler album: an excellent rendition of retro, early 70s prog. But this album manages to avoid mere nostalgia: it leans toward the most “progressive” in the original sense sounds of that era, referencing the experiments of Van der Graaf Generator and King Crimson and jazz-rock of Soft Machine and the Canterbury scene. Mood-wise, it also reminds me of Univers Zero - it can be dark, even bleak - but it lacks the stringed instruments.
Favorite track: “All Traps on Earth” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7XS0to2YT0
- Karmic Juggernaut, _The Dreams That Stuff Are Made Of_
Experimental hard rock/metal that captures some of what makes Diablo Swing Orchestra’s last album so special: a dizzyingly diverse buffet of styles energetically bashed together in unexpected and often humorous ways. Singer is at times a dead ringer for Jon Anderson.
Favorite track: “Goons, Buffoons, & Carnival Barkers” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6tP9QFaU-c
- Arkona, _Khram_
Pagan extreme metal from Russia. Not my usual cup, but they do what they do very well. The “base” of the music is in the _Storm of the Light’s Bane_ meets _Filosofem_ vein. Not super-complex, but “vast,” sweeping, and often surprising with melodic folk-y bursts. This might be their best album. I saw these guys open for Korpiklaani in Quebec City, and they tore it up.
Favorite track: “Tseluya zhizn’” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csJF3jctFWY
- Rivers of Nihil, _Where Owls Know My Name_
Technical death metal so often falls into that samey-sounding trap (“I heard Theory in Practice do this 20 years ago”). Rivers of Nihil doesn’t completely avoid the trap, but they do in part, and there are some real moments of sublimity here. Interesting sax playing on several songs with mellow, jazzy interludes. There are also a few good guitar solos. I listened to several of this year’s popular tech-death releases, and in my view this one stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Favorite track: “The Silent Life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6_WKGTeWH8
- Alfredo Rodriguez, _The Little Dream_
Piano-led trio of accomplished musicians (Alfredo is from Cuba). My favorite pure jazz album of the year, though it’s dissatisfying at points too. I enjoy the energetic, up-tempo Latin jazz pieces, but the mellow, chill tracks are flat-out skippable. Why don’t any jazz artists put out albums of pure allegro? Too “unsophisticated”? Hm...
Favorite track: “Dawn” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOxCOMtJbC8
- Voivod, _The Wake_
When I say that this is their best album since _Nothingface_ and maybe even _Dimension Hatross_, you might say that’s damning with faint praise, and I might even agree with you. Voivod is a band that has put out a lot of individual good songs over the course of their career but never really put together a full album that I would count as a masterpiece. _The Wake_ has a lot of above-average, interesting, tech-y-thrash-y songs and an orchestra on the final track, which was really surprising.
Favorite track: “Sonic Mycelium” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QC-A1y3vuwM
- Riverside, _Wasteland_
Emotional progressive hard rock band returns with an album that left a lot of fans cold. I think it’s underrated. The restrained use of keys gives this music less tonal complexity than we are used to from this band. But the songs have “good bones,” and despite the murky, dark lyrical themes, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
Favorite track: “Vale of Tears” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=001IMO53JwY
- Madder Mortem, _Marrow_
Once considered “avant-garde metal” with female vocals often described as “schizoid,” Madder Mortem have toned down the madness some over time. The vocalist is now more restrained, and the music as a whole could be described merely as “odd.” It’s reasonably accessible metal built on mid-tempo guitar riffs and those wandering vocals with their radical pitch changes.
Favorite track: “White Snow, Red Shadows” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5hHY4XeBQ4
- Widek, _Dream Reflection_
Fluid, technically impressive, instrumental metal with post-rock and djent elements. Strongly recommended to fans of bands like Scale the Summit.
Favorite track: “The Mind’s Journey” https://widekmusic.bandcamp.com/track/the-minds-journey
- RUR, _RUR_
My black metal jag of a few years ago must not have completely dissipated, because I find myself still enjoying stuff like this: not terribly original but very well-done black metal in a sweeping, atmospheric, melodic vein. It’s sort of like Dawn’s _Slaughtersun_ meets Katatonia’s _Dance of December Souls_ in a field laid waste by Burzum.
Favorite track: “IV” https://rurdomain.bandcamp.com/track/iv