By now we have turned our attention to the new year and fortunately we have already enjoyed a first group of really nice and interesting new discs. However, the story of the year that has passed is still to be completed and there some albums released in 2017 that it’s essential to mention for completing the assessment of the year that has concluded a few weeks ago.
I present in this article the selection of the ten best albums of 2017 within the progressive and art rock category. The albums that belong to this musical genre are always in risk to remain trapped in the mere replica of the sound and the dynamics of the golden period of prog rock (that’s located almost 40 years ago), but those few bands who escape this trap are able to convey the more poetic and profound music in modern rock. The ten LPs that you will find in this ranking belong entirely to this second category and they have given us some of the best songs of 2017.
Before starting with the presentation of the albums, let me remind you that there is a dedicated playlist on Spotify which I created to assemble in one single place the best progressive and art rock songs of the past year, but which actually evolved to become the living repository of all the best songs that are released for this musical genre. Check it out and follow this playlist because it’s updated periodically with new songs.
TO THE BONE by Steven Wilson
It was one of the most anticipated and awaited albums of the year, and at the end it delivered. Legendary prog rocker Steven Wilson, who had already left his mark among the most appreciated musical releases of 2017 with his side-Project Blackfield, released also the new album of his solo-career, named To The Bone, which is the fifth released after the brilliance experience as leader of the Porcupine Tree.
Wilson’s new album confirms that the English musician is a complete and talented composer who keeps pushing further the boundaries of his personal musical exploration, this time showing a remarkable pop sensibility together with the curiosity of manipualting the typical elements of electronics music. As a matter of fact, To The Bone isn’t just a new collection of songs from one of the most appreciated musicians of our time but rather it’s so complete and engaging to become a testimony of the versatility of modern rock.
You can thus listen to this album at different levels. You may appreciate the single tracks as stand-alone pieces, enjoying the elegance of the arrangements and the particularity of the musical lines created by the artist. But you can also live the experience of a unique, varied and exciting journey into a world where the different genres are able to merge every time in a differnet way, like permutations of a single language that uses rock, electronics and pop as instruments to transfer an universal musical message
CHALICE HYMNAL by Grails
Grails are an American instrumental experimental rock band founded by Alex Hall and Emil Amos (who’s also the drummer of the legendary doom stoner band Om). The band is active since early 2000 and they have released in 2017 the tenth album of their career, named Calice Hymnal.
Those who happened to listen to the last few albums by the band had the possibility to see how the band evolved and improved with the time, both for what concerns the quality of the sound but also in terms of songwriting technique. The last album from Grails is maybe one of the best the released so far, in particular for the special atmosphere that permeates all the songs of the record. Throughout the different tracks of the album there is a constant feeling of anger and mistery, further enhanced by the introduction of many evocative and cinematic moments.
As is typical in the case of instrumental albums, the songs of Chalice Hymnal rely on quite a good number of different musical ideas and also changes in dynamic and atmosphere. There are a few tracks that stand out for their particular quality, but the overall value of the album is definitely good and because of the relatively limited duration and the alternation between different moments, the album may be also appreciated as a single conceptual musical travel, something that’s not always true for rock instrumental works – which sometimes result too much flat and monochord and are thus more suitable to be enjoyed in separate moments.
FLYING MICROTONAL BANANA by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard is a band of crazy Australian rock musicians who had launched in early 2017 year the challenge of publishing – in the same year – five LPs, each one dedicated to a different concept. In the end they did it, with the last album released on December 31st. But at the end of this rush we can say that of all the 5 records dropped by the band in 2017, the one that resulted the most various and complete was basically the first of the five.
Flying Microtonal Banana, the first album released by King Gizzard in 2017, deals with the concept of microtonality, which is about the adoption a special musical scale with more than the standard number of 12 tones, with the result that the separation between adjacent sounds is smaller than what we are accustomed to hear. Beyond this particular aspect, the songs of the album present an energetic and explosive mixture of progressive and alternative rock with frenetic rhythms and very funny melodies that really stick in your head since the first time you hear them. It’s an album full of joy and played with verve and great technical ability. Sometime we hear a guitar solo which seems slightly out of tune, but now we know that it’s the effect of microtonality!
At the time it was released, this was the ninth album released by the Australian experimental rockers since their formation in 2010.
IN SPADES by The Afghan Whigs
I was just a teenager when I heard for the first time a few songs from the american alternative rockers The Afghan Whigs. At that time, however, I was too much involved into the fantastic metal scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s to give enough attention to the elegant and complex architectures from these skilled and talented musicians.
Eventually they broke up in 2001, just when I was starting to really discover and appreciate their music. After almost ten years, the guys from Cincinnati started composing and recording new material together. But if the first album of the reunited band received mixed reviews from both critics and fans (I also wasn’t too much excited from their 2014’s Do The Beast), with their following release, In Spades, they have managed to match the beauty and the quality of their first releases.
In Spades is the eight album in The Afghan Whig‘s discography. Musically speaking the album is full of progressive rock references, with passionate and engaging motifs, and the disc stands out effectively as one of the finest works from the band, even considering their entire production since 1986. There are a few noir anthems in the album which are among the best rock songs of the past year, and the record has all the cards in place to win both the old fans and to capture the attention of the new generations.
DETACHMENT by Barock Project
Barock Project are a talented rock band from Modena, in Italy, which has the declared objective to mix together ’70s progressive-rock with classical music. In their musical career, which is now over 10 years long, these musicians have already released a good number of studio albums and one live disc The latest album from the band, Detachment, was published on March 2018 and it’s the fifth studio LP of their discography.
The album is clearly reminiscent of the standard tradition of Prog Rock, both in terms of the overall sound (they spent one year in the studio to refine and record the LP) and also for the classical “suite-structure” of most of the songs. But such reminiscence of the past glory of progressive rock is limited to the form of the music they play, because beyond the external cortex there are beautiful and very interesting songs which show an undeniable creative vein and also a remarkable unique ability in the combination of elements coming from different musical experiences.
THE OPTIMIST by Anathema
Anathema started their musical journey more than 25 years ago as a doom metal band. Through the years their sound has significantly evolved leaving away the most metallic elements and and gradually embracing the canons of progressive rock, with a path that has become particulary evident in the last ten years once they recruited prog legend Steven Wilson (former Porcupine Tree) to produce their works. I personally consider that the most beautiful and memorable works of the band are those released in the 10 years time period from 2003, the year of release of the magnificient A Natural Disaster, until the early years of the current decade, up to the 2012 album Weather Systems. What I partially object to the more recent works from the band is not the adoption of a more soft and melodic approach, which is legitimate and also appreciated in its essence. What I didn’t get, in fact, is how the songwriting seemed really petrified on a single compositional solution, which can be summarized as follows: take a simple and expressive melodic line and begin to repeat it over and over to the bitter end, slowly adding other layers of sounds (first the piano, then the bass, then the synthetizers, then the drums, then the voice, then there is an escalation of the guitar, then the sound becomes a little heavier, and so on….).
I must say that the first listens I made of the new work from the English band were not encouraging, although with a little more patience I could appreciate how the music in The Optimist managed to find a point of balance between the mono-melody style of the last phase of the band and minimum acceptable level of sonic evolution within each song, something that’s somehow reminiscent of the glories of the past. In this respect, the new album from Anathema opens the way to a new start, a phase where the different experiences of the past can merge together in something new and – at least – exciting again.
BLACKFIELD V by Blackfield
Blackfield is the interesting and fascinating musical collaboration started more than 10 years ago by legendary and prolific British rocker and producer Steven Wilson (founder of Porcupine Tree and who’s also present in this chart with his latest solo work) and Israeli songwriter and musician Aviv Geffen. As the title of the album says, Blackfield V is the fifth album generated by the duo and it comes four years after their previous release which is named, with a shot of originality, Blackfield IV.
Blackfield V was written and recorded over a period of 18 months, both in Israel and England. It is no coincidence, then, that all the songs on the disc show a remarkable attention to detail and a clear sense of maturity. We feel in fact that some of the musical ideas on the album were left to age without rushing and possibly reworked over time.nd it is also clear that both the two musicians drew extensively into the reserve of ideas they accumulated in their careers, but always with the desire to adapt them the new context and enjoying the result of a fusion of different inspirations.
One of the characteristics of the album that I appreciated the most has been the ability of the two artists to compose a truly accessible, immediate but at the same time deep and inspired collection of songs, proving that it is still possible to produce exciting progressive music without necessarily having to inventi some kind of conceptual and articulated superstructure.
A BLACK MILE TO THE SURFACE by Manchester Orchestra
A Black Mile To The Surface, the 5th full-lenght album by Manchester Orchestra, was immediately recognized by many ciritisc, as soon as it was released, as one of the best art-rock albums of the year. That’s because the American rock band has put in this album such a fantastic sequence of good songs that you have even the difficulty to indicate which tracks are more beautiful than others. It is not wrong to say that this album is one of the most successful of the band up to this moment of their career, and that the album will remain a reference point for their future.
From a musical point of view, A Black Mile To The Surface meshes togheter in a beautifully and natural way all the different stylistical elements that the guys from Atlanta perfectioned in their last few productions: gorgeous rock melodies, ambitious and elegant arrangements, layered harmonies and evocative lyrics. And whether you pick up single songs or you deal with the entire album, this work won’t disappoint. That’s a must have for rock lovers.
THE TOWER by Motorpsycho
When I was a student at the University, more than 20 years ago, Motorpsycho reached for me the status of a cult band and every year or so they repeated the rite of releasing a new album, which for me used to become a new relic to be worshiped. Between 1994 and 1998, in particular, this trio of Norwegian rockers released 4 albums that marked the renaissance of progressive rock in the ’90s. Their music was just wonderful. They played a genuine, engaging and exciting rock, a music gifted by a level of creativity that was really outside the boundaries of the human being, with a powerful and devastating sound. In short, a myth. The story tells that at some point in their career the band faced a musical turn and the magic of those years was never to be repeated, probably not only because of their music, but also because it was also my life that changed. Through the years I have continued to follow their steps, perhaps with less transport and passion but always with great interest. Their prolificity has been somewhat slowed, but they have continued to produce albums with a certain frequency.
In the past few years, however, their music started again to move in the direction of the best works of their discography and eventually last year, with their latest work The Tower, it seems that the Norwegian masters of rock decided to resume that fantastic musical journey they had started twenty years ago.
The current lineup of the band features only two members of the original formation: Bent Sæther (lead vocals and bass) and Hans Magnus Snah Ryan (guitars). In 2016 the drummer who supported the previous 7 albums of the band decided to quit and was replaced by Tomas Järmyr from Zu, who was presented as the new permanent drummer of Motorpsycho. But as it sometimes happens in music, the arrival of a new member apparently activated a new vein of creativity in the band. As anticipated, in fact, the latest work from Motorpsycho is so amazing and full of many different musical ideas that it really seems to be back to the magical period of their career.
The Tower is a must have LP, there are not doubts about that, and this applies to both long-term fans of Motorpsycho and for those who have never come across this incredible band. At the end of the day we’re talking about one of the most influential formations for contemporary rock, and with their new record they confirmed once again the reason why.
For those who want to deepen the knowledge of this group, I recommend the special retrospective that was proposed a few months ago on the pages of this site.
KAHIO by KAUAN
Kauan are a typical case of a band who had to face a long and articulated journey through different genres before landing on the shores which proved to be the best suited to convey the poetry of their music. Started as a black and doom metal band, this group of musicians from Chelyabinsk, in Russia, first transformed their sound into a blend of post-rock and neo-folk, and eventually arrived to play an incredible combination of ambient music and atmospheric minimalism.
The abandonment of metal and doom sounds was already initiated by the band with the spectacular 2015’s album Sorni Nai, which is still one of the most incredible and thrilling LPs of the decade (and the album is available for free at high quality on Kauan’s bandcamp page, as most of their discography).
This year, with Kaiho, the process is completed. I find quite difficultto find a proper category for the music that is being played by these poets of modern music. But this is a little problem with almost no importance. What really matters, in fact, is that we are in front of a musical masterpiece, an album that is capable to make you fly into magical soundscapes and feel pure and breathtaking emotions.
As a side note, one of the songs of the album was also selected here in this blog as the Best Song of 2017.
I will always express my gratitude to Kauan. What they have given to me in the recent years with their music is something unique, special.