Tag Archives: Opeth

Top Ten Songs of 2011

We’ve had my ten top albums of the year, here’s my top ten songs. Not being a fan of top-40 style singles, almost all of these are album tracks – in fact there’s only one single on the entire list.

As is usual for this sort of thing, it’s a completely personal and subjective list. But I’d much rather listen to any of these than any X-factor bollocks, and so should you. So there!

10: Yes – Fly From Here
The title track of Yes’ most recent album saw the “Drama” team of Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn return with a much-expanded version of what started life as an unrecorded Buggles song. I suppose calling a five-part prog-rock epic taking up half an album a “song” is cheating, but I’m setting the rules here, and this is certainly the best thing Yes have recorded for years.

9: Journey – Edge of the Moment
One of the standout songs from “Eclipse”, this classy hard rocker is a great example of the other side of Journey’s music from the radio-friendly ballads.

8: Blood Ceremony – Daughter of the Sun
The ten-minute epic that closes track of their second album “Living With the Ancients” is a great example of why I’ve described them as sounding like Black Sabbath fronted by Angela Gordon, with it’s combination of bewitching flute and doom-laden guitar.

7: Mostly Autumn – Questioning Eyes
It’s not a completely new song (It originally appeared on Breathing Space’s 2008 album “Below the Radar”), but the powerful live version on “Still Beautiful” rises to even greater heights. It shows the extent to which Olivia Sparnenn has grown as a vocalist in the past three years.

6: Mastodon – The Sparrow
The multi-layered ballad with it’s rich harmonies is my clear favourite from “The Hunter”. Probably because it’s the most prog thing on the album.

5: Liam Davison – Heading Home
Liam’s long-awaited solo album “A Treasure of Well-Set Jewels” was one of the surprises of 2011, a well-crafted album with a very capable supporting cast. This song is a standout with it’s wonderful interplay between Liam’s soaring lead guitar, Iain Jennings’ swirling Hammond organ and Paul Teasdale’s propulsive bass riff.

4: Panic Room – O Holy Night
A welcome and unexpected end-of-year surprise was this spine-tingling version of the traditional carol released as a free Christmas download from their website.

3: Heather Findlay – Seven
Heather’s solo EP “The Phoenix Suite” took quite a few listens to fully appreciate, and once the record finally clicked, this atmospheric and brooding number became the firm favourite.

2: Opeth – Folklore
The dramatic closing section on this song with the galloping bass riff has to be one of the most exciting pieces of music I’ve heard all year.

1: Steven Wilson – Raider II
Another lengthy prog epic is my “song” of the year. With its swirling Mellotron and spiralling sax and flute it sounds like a cross between 70s King Crimson and Canterbury-scene jazz-rock dragged into the 21st century, and the heaviest sections are the bits without guitars. Amazing piece of music.

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Top Ten Albums of 2011

2011 has been an incredible year for new music. In fact, I can’t remember another year when I bought so many new release, which makes the traditional end-of-year list especially hard this time round.

So, after much deliberation and consideration, here’s my completely personal and subjective list of ten best albums released in 2011.

10: Uriah Heep – Into the Wild
70s veterans Uriah Heep have undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. Even if this album doesn’t really break any radically new ground for them, with their trademark combination of searing guitar and Hammond organ they rock far harder than any band in their fifth decade of existence has any right to.

9: Steve Hackett – Beyond the Shrouded Horizon
Much like Uriah Heep, the former Genesis guitarist has hit something of a purple patch recently, with his third album in two years. It’s a rich, ambitious album that combines some heartfelt songwriting with his distinctive symphonic liquid guitar style that has rightfully made him the godfather of prog guitar.

8: Anathema – Falling Deeper
A largely instrumental set by Liverpool’s Doom-metallers-turned-proggers, containing radical orchestral reworkings of material from their earlier metal years. It’s an album for which you should sit back and let the huge atmospheric soundscapes wash over you.

 

7: Touchstone – The City Sleeps
The rising stars of the British female-fronted progressive rock scene deliver a strong third album, with a highly melodic mix of prog, hard rock and metal than builds on the success of their previous album “Wintercoast”.

 

6: Within Temptation – The Unforgiving
In which the Dutch band opt out of the symphonic metal arms race in favour of a far more rock-orientated album that emphasises Sharon den Adel’s incredibly powerful vocals over overblown arrangements. More varied than previous albums, there’s an emphasis on big anthemic choruses that ought to have a lot of crossover potential.

5: Chantel McGregor – Like No Other
Chantel’s debut album proves she’s far more than just a virtuoso guitarist, and far more than just a blues artist. It’s a hugely varied album demonstrating her talents as a singer-songwriter who can do hard rock, folk and pure pop as well as she can do blues-rock guitar wig-outs.

4: Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events
The band which more or less invented prog-metal deliver their best album for years, proving that Mike Portnoy’s departure, far from finishing the band, has given them the kick up the backside they needed, with more emphasis on composition than instrumental showboating.

3: Liam Davison – A Treasure of Well-Set Jewels
The solo album from Mostly Autumn’s second guitarist was an unexpected surprise, with some great songwriting and big atmospheric arrangements reminiscent of the early years of Mostly Autumn. Great guest performances from supporting cast including Iain Jennings, Gavin Griffiths, Anne-Marie Helder and Heather Findlay, but none steal the spotlight from Liam’s own contributions.

2: Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning
With his second solo release, Steve Wilson has taken a step away from the metal stylings of recent Porcupine Tree albums in favour of swirling Mellotrons and spiralling saxophones. The resulting jazz-tinged album sounds like a cross between 70s King Crimson, Canterbury-scene prog, and the ghost of Porcupine Tree past.

1: Opeth – Heritage
Sweden’s finest drop the death metal growls and go all-out prog with perhaps the most musically ambitious album they’ve done to date. Far more varied than their earlier non-metal “Damnation”, it manages to sound both gloriously retro and absolutely contemporary at the same time.

With such a strong year, there are many more great albums that would have appeared in many years’ top tens, so honourable mentions for Also Eden’s progtastic “Think of the Children” Magenta’s excellent “Chameleon”, Matt Stevens unclassifiable instrumental “Relic”, very solid releases from veterans Yes, Journey and Megadeth, and Mastodon’s “The Hunter”.

I’ve also made the decision to exclude live albums, but I will mention Mostly Autumn’s powerful “Still Beautiful”, Heather Findlay and Chris Johnson’s beautiful “Live at the Café 68″, and The Reasoning’s hard rocking “The Bottle of Gettysburg”.

And there are a few albums I’ve yet to hear, and since it’s too close to Christmas to be buying albums for myself. So the reason for the absence of Nightwish’s “Imaginaerum”, Kate Bush’s “50 Words for Snow” and Morpheus Rising’s “Let The Sleeper Awake” is not that I don’t think they’re good enough, only that I haven’t heard them yet. Perhaps, for the purposes of end-of-year lists, the year should run December to November, so that late-year releases count as next year?

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Opeth – Brixton Academy, 13th Nov 2011

Sweden’s Opeth have come a long way in the past twenty years. Starting out playing death metal with growling vocals on the heaviest songs, their ambitious music mixed light and shade from the beginning. Recent albums “Ghost Reveries” and “Watershed” showed an increasingly strong 70s British progressive rock influence with Mellotron and classic 70s keyboard sounds. This year’s impressive “Heritage” took things far further in that direction with an album that was far more prog-rock than death metal. So there was a lot of anticipation when they came to London’s Brixton Academy. At a far bigger venue than they were playing a few years ago, the huge snaking queue outside the building was testament to their growing fanbase.

Support act, fellow Swedes Pain of Salvation impressed a lot, with a tight and energetic set mixing metal and hard rock with echoes of music as diverse as the quirky 70s proggers Gentle Giant to moments from Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks. They’ve been going quite a few years with several albums to their name, and it showed.

From the opening serpentine guitar riff of “The Devil’s Orchard” onwards, Opeth’s set drew very heavily from “Heritage”, eschewing the death metal side of their music entirely in favour of their progressive rock leanings and mellower material. There wasn’t a single cookie monster grunt to be heard all evening. They still reached back to earlier in their career with the atmospheric “Face of Melinda” from the 1999 album “Still Life”. A early highlight was an excellent “Porcelain Heart”, which even the lengthy and unnecessary drum solo towards the beginning of the song failed to ruin.

A three-song semi-acoustic interlude went back to some of their very early work, including “Credence” from “My Arms Your Hearse” (Is there a more Goth album title than that?), alongside the obscure “Throat of Winter” from a recent video game soundtrack.

I love Mikael Åkerfeldt’s completely deadpan manner between songs, with self-deprecating quips engaging with the audience while avoiding most of the typical rock frontman clichés. Although he did get the audience chanting Dio’s name to introduce the deliberate Rainbow tribute “Slither” featuring guitarist Fredrik Åkesson’s Blackmoresque solo.

A powerful “A Fair Judgement” and a thunderous rendition of “Hex Omega” from “Watershed” ended the main set. After the predictable encore ritual which Åkerfeldt proceeded to ridicule when they came back, they launched into what he announced as ‘some Swedish folk music’, in other words, the epic “Folklore”, undoubted highlight of “Heritage”, the incredible closing section a good candidate for one of the most exciting pieces of music I’ve heard all year.

The one big downside was the amount of chatter; I really don’t understand why people pay good money for a gig, only to talk all the way through the headline act. The somewhat muted sound didn’t help. Opeth have always gone for clarity rather than volume, but when you’re hearing between-song chants of “Turn it up”, perhaps this was a gig which I felt might have benefited from upping the volume a notch, if only to down out the talkers.

While it lacked the intensity and intimacy of many smaller club gigs, big corporate venues are the price you pay when a band you’ve followed for years have finally hit the big time. Although it seemed a few dyed-in-the-wool death metal fans weren’t so happy with Opeth’s recent direction, and I heard one dismissing the gig using Anglo-Saxon language on the way out. But for me, seeing five thousand people attending an out-and-out progressive rock show and the vast majority enjoying every minute was a joy to behold.

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Opeth – Heritage

Sweden’s Opeth have proved themselves one of the most original and creative prog-metal bands of the past decade. On recent albums such as “Ghost Reveries” and “Watershed” Mikael Åkerfeldt and his band balanced moments of delicate beauty with moments of brutal heaviness, and it was the way they seamlessly combined the two that was a big part of the appeal.

With their tenth album they could have taken the easy option of trying to repeat a successful formula. But instead they’ve taken an abrupt turn, and done something completely different.

Gone are the death-metal growls. While it still has it’s heavier moments it’s can’t really be described as a metal album. The whole thing has a warm, retro 70s vibe, with echoes of artists as diverse as King Crimson, Frank Zappa and Uriah Heep. There is still much here that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the quieter moments of the last couple of albums, and they still eschew traditional song structures in favour of complex epics with constantly shifting moods. Mikael Åkerfeldt again shows how good a vocalist he can be when he sings in a ‘clean’ style, and he’s got a keen ear for unorthodox but beautiful melodies.

Even with death-metal stripped out, it’s an enormously varied album. It begins with a very simple unaccompanied classical piano piece, a gentle lead-in for the delights to come. The hard rock of “Slither” with it’s barrelling rhythm comes over as a very deliberate homage to Deep Purple, with a riff and solo that’s pure Ritchie Blackmore. Then there’s the strongly jazz-tinged “Nepenthe” and “Hāxprocess”. An undoubted highlight is the penultimate track “Folklore” with a dramatic closing section which has to be one of the most exciting pieces of music I’ve heard all year. It ends, as it began, with an instrumental. The semi-acoustic “Marrow of the Earth” starts out sounding like a Blackmore’s Night piece, but builds to assume a melancholic grandeur beyond the scope of anything that band have done.

While this is likely to disappoint some out-and-out metal fans, this is still a very impressive release, and a strong candidate for progressive rock release of the year. There is endless debate in prog circles as to whether the term should refer to bands who try to capture the actual sound of classic 70s progressive rock, or for bands who evoke the same spirit of adventure of music without boundaries. Opeth are a rare band that fulfil both of these, sounding both unapologetically nostalgic and absolutely contemporary at the same time. Almost nobody else can pull that off as well as Opeth can.

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Credit Where Credit’s Due

For years I’ve complained about The Guardian’s woeful coverage of metal and progressive rock. Major releases are either overlooked entirely, or worse still, given a cursory dismissal by someone with no knowledge or respect for the genre. Dave Simpson’s attempt to review Yes is a prime example. Even their most positive reviews came from the viewpoint of an outsider looking in.

Which is why it’s good to see Dom Lawson, of Metal Hammer and Classic Rock Presents Prog fame reviewing Opeth’s Heritage. It’s not a long, detailed review, but it certainly doesn’t read like Tony Blackburn attempting to review The Fall.

One swallow does not necessarily make a summer, but I hope we get to read more reviews by Dom Lawson in the future.

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Why they review what they review.

An article on The Guardian Media Site has turned into an interesting tangential discussion on exactly how The Guardian decides on what to and what not to review.

Film and Music editor Michael Hann came up with this gem:

Other albums that “have to be reviewed” are the ones that are achingly hip, or from artists one would expect to see reviewed in the Guardian – the likes of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, for example.

This drew a wonderful spleen-filled response one noted metal fan, to which Hann responded.

And features are actually a better way of contextualising minority interest musics than reviews are, especially when accompanied – as our features usually are – by a playlist.

Which ignores the fact that hipster-indie is as much a minority interest music as metal. Except that the groupthinking Guardian writers don’t seem to be able to realise this.

So far, I haven’t had a response to exactly why they “have to review” Bonnie “Prince” Billy, but did not have space to review Opeth’s “Watershed”. A cursory glance at the sorts of tour venues the two artists play suggests both are of similar standing in terms of audience style.  While I know popularity isn’t everthing, I cannot see how the relative merits of progressive death metal vs.lo-fi indie folk are down to anything other than purely subjective taste.

Or is it simply Opeth are further from their comfort zone than hipster-indie?

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Another 2009 Roundup – Live Music

Yet another end-of-year roundup, this time live music.

  • Best Gig – Has to be Progressive Nation at Manchester.  A great performance from headliners Dream Theater, a superb one hour set by co-headliner Opeth, and good supports from BigElf and Unexpect, neither of whom I’d seen or heard of before.
  • Worst Gig – Pure Reason Revolution playing in an awful venue that really didn’t do them justice.
  • Strangest GigBreathing Space playing a sold-out village hall in Nottinghamshire in snowy February.
  • Biggest Disappointment – Not seeing Karnataka at the Cambridge Rock Festival due to PA company snafu.
  • Band of the Year – Has to be Mostly Autumn, of course.  I saw them no fewer that twelve times over the year, always good, with their Halloween show at Burnley possibly the best of the year.  They recorded the whole of the spring tour, of which I saw several gigs, and the recordings make up the excellent Live 2009 pair of albums. A great band, and a lovely group of people too.

The overall verdict for the year can be summed up with the word “Progtastic”.

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Top Ten Albums of the Noughties

Loads of other people are doing subjective lists of best albums of the past decade – here are mine.  I always think personal lists are much more interesting than the sorts of bland lists of CDs you can get in Tesco’s compiled by committees that you’ll see in the mainstream.media  But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

In order to keep it varied I’ve imposed a rule that no artist may appear more than once in the top 10.

  • 10: Nightwish - Dark Passion Play
    There are so many female-fronted symphonic metal bands coming from various parts of Europe that it’s very difficult to single out just one. Finland’s Nightwish throw choirs, orchestras, Uilleann pipes and kitchen sinks into a gloriously over-the-top album mixing metal and opera with a touch of celtic folk, with new singer Anette Olzon adding a touch of warmth to lead vocals that’s missing from some bands in the genre.
  • 9: The Pineapple Thief – Tightly Unwound
    The Pineapple Thief describle themselves as ‘indie prog’, whatever that’s supposed to mean.  Some sonic similarities with pre-Kid A Radiohead, but with more traditional style rock vocals, and a extremely strong sense of melody, which is what makes this album stand out.
  • 8:  The Mars Volta – Deloused in the Comatorium
    After a string of disappointing albums over the past few years it’s easy to forget just how great their incendiary debut was. What’s been described as a mix of speed-metal and free jazz somehow combines the raw energy of punk with the complexity and technical skill of progressive rock.  It’s all completely bonkers, but in a good way.

  • 7:  Breathing Space – Below the Radar
    The York band really come of age with their third album. They may have dropped the jazzier elements of their sound in favour of a harder rock edge, but they still find room for some atmospheric ballads and big soaring epics which showcase Olivia Sparnenn’s amazing voice.  Iain Jennings production job gives the lie to the idea that you need a major-label budget to come up with a great-sounding album.
  • 6: Porcupine Tree – In Absentia
    It’s difficult to choose a single Porcupine Tree album out of several great ones they’ve recorded over the past decade. Indeed, with the possible exception of 2005′s slight misstep of Deadwing, all their albums in the noughties have been classics. If the 90s charted their progress from ambient Floydian soundscapes to a more song-orientated approach, 2002′s In Absentia saw them add some metal to the mix.  The combination of some Zeppelineque riffing and some darkly ambiguous lyrics may have lost them some older fans, but introduced them to a younger audience of metal fans.
  • 5 Karnataka – Strange Behaviour
    Some may say including a live album in the decade’s top ten may be cheating, but this is my blog, where I make up the rules. Strange Behaviour caught the atmospheric celtic-tinged prog outfit  just when they seemed poised for a major breakthrough, the live dynamics making the songs far more powerful than the studio recordings.  Sadly this double album turned out to their magnificent swansong, and the band were to implode shortly after it’s release.
  • 4 Marillion – Marbles
    Marillion are a rare example of a veteran act who can still make great new  music more than two decades into their career. Their output in the noughties may have been uneven, but this double album shows the Steve Hogarth incarnation of the band at their best; a hugely varied work which goes from experiments with drum loops and dub rhythms to huge soaring epics filled with Steve Rothery’s trademark sustain-drenched guitar. Ignore the single-disk retail edition; you need the double album available only from the band’s website.
  • 3 Fish – 13th Star
    Marillion’s former frontman’s career seemed to be petering out by the middle of the decade after a couple of disappointingly weak albums.  But he bounced back very strongly indeed with this one.  Musically it’s far removed from the ornate neo-prog of 80′s Marillion, a mix of metallic grooves and heart-on-sleeve ballads, lyrically it’s just about the most intense and emotionally charged thing he’s even done.
  • 2 Opeth – Blackwater Park
    Sweden’s Opeth combine death metal with 70′s style pastoral prog-rock to produce the perfect antidote to anyone who thinks heavy metal hasn’t progressed since Toni Iommi started playing tritones through a fuzzbox way back in 1970.  Blackwater Park, produced by Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, marks the point where they established their signature sound, Mikael Åkerfeldt switching back and forth between ‘Cookie Monster’ and ‘clean’ vocals, and the music switching back and forth between dense swirling heavyness and reflective acoustic passages. Metal has never quite been the same since.
  • 1 Mostly Autumn – The Last Bright Light
    As I said at the very beginning, this is a personal list. And this is the album which has changed my life more than any of the preceding ones. This was very much the coming-of-age album for York’s finest progressive rock band, and marked the high point of their celtic-prog phase of their career, full of soaring and emotionally powerful epics making use of flutes and even crumhorns alongside traditional rock instruments. Although they subsequently moved to the more polished commercial sound of the follow-up Passengers, even now their live sets still draw heavily from this album.

There are plenty of other great albums just outside the top 10; Therion’s totally bonkers choral metal Gothic Kabbalah, Muse’s recent The Resistance, IQ’s neo-prog masterpiece Frequency, Pure Reason Revolution’s hypnotically captivating The Dark Third, either of The Reasoning’s two albums, and Dream Theater’s recent return to form Black Clouds and Silver Linings.

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Progressive Nation – Manchester Apollo, 09-Oct-2009

The Progressive Nation tour is an ambitious package tour highlighting the best of prog-metal.  Effectively a double headliner of Opeth and Dream Theater, plus two support bands, doors opened at 5:30, with the music starting just after six, making it a real marathon if you were standing.  And the early start meant it was straight to the gig from work, without having time to have anything to eat.  The things I do for rock and roll.  Or rather prog.

Openers Unexpect were a completely bonkers female-fronted seven-piece including a fiddle player.  While they played with high level of energy, unfortunately poor sound meant a lot of the intricacies of their music were lost; the vocals especially being lost in the mix. Such is the fate of opening acts in large venues, but they still impressed enough for me to buy their album,

Four-piece BigElf took the stage with a Hammond organ, a Mellotron and an analogue synth centre-stage. They played a sort of psychedelic stoner-prog, very reminiscent of Atomic Rooster with elements of early Uriah Heep. Impressive live band despite poor sound.  Top-hatted lead singer Damon Fox playing the Hammond in one hand and the Mellotron in the other had to be the image of the evening.

The sound improved dramatically when Swedish death-metal/prog crossovers Opeth took the stage. Tonight they emphasised the ‘progressive’ emphasis of the evening by opening with “Windowpane” from their decidedly un-metal “Damnation” album. The six-song hour-long set mixed their progressive and metal sides, which a powerful rendition of “Deliverance” one of the metallic standouts. “Harlequin Forest”, not played live in Britain before, was stunningly beautiful, the highlight of the entire evening. Only downer was the constant buzz of background talking from Dream Theater fans that was audible throughout the quiet bits.

It’s seven or eight years since I’ve seen Dream Theater live.  Love them or hate them, Dream Theater have more or less defined the genre of muso prog metal, playing insanely complex music in wierd time signatures with plenty of extended solos.  Bassist John Myung in particular is as interesting to watch as to listen to, his fingers flying up and down the fretboard as if he’s playing lead guitar, and John Pettruci and Jordan Rudess played enormous numbers of notes. Only vocalist James LaBrie let the side down in places, and I have to say too much of his singing is rather ordinary.  The setlist drew heavily from the new album “Black Clouds and Silver Linings”, opening with “A Nightmare to Remember” and “A Rite of Passage”. They also played quite a bit from their superb “Scenes From a Memory” including the completely over-the-top instrumental workout “The Dance of Eternity”, and 80s-style power ballad “The Spirit Carries On”, complete with a sea of lighters in the air. They encored with a stunning rendition of the epic “The Count of Tuscany”.

Gig of the year?  It’s definitely a candidate.

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Top Ten Albums of the Year 2008

I wasn’t originally going to arrange these in order, but in the end I did it anyway, just to annoy those people who hate ranked lists.

10. Van der Graaf Generator – Trisector
Reduced to a trio after the departure of David Jackson, this album proves the slimmed-down version of the 70s progressive rock veterans can still deliver an album in the same league as their 2005 comeback album “Present

9. Magenta – Metamorphosis
Magenta are very much old-school Prog, wearing their Yes, Genesis and Mike Oldfield influences on their sleeve, playing 20 minute epics with titles like ‘The Ballad of Samual Layne’. They get away with it though superior songwriting and arrangement, and stunning individual performances from Christina Booth on vocals and Chris Fry on guitar.

8. Josh and Co – Through These Eyes
This solo album from Bryan Josh of Mostly Autumn appeared out of the blue at the end of November. Has a similar sound and production to Mostly Autumn’s last album, but the songs are looser and more contemporary-sounding. Quite dark in places, playfully self-indulgent in others, and Bryan cuts loose on the guitar in a way that shows how much he’d been holding back on recent Mostlies releases; I haven’t heard him shred like that for ages. Although Bryan naturally handles most of the vocals, there are also some quite stunning contributions from Olivia Sparnenn which really make me look forward to the next Breathing Space album

7. Uriah Heep – Wake the Sleeper
Nine years since their last studio album, and the mighty Heep are back with a powerful statement that the hard rock veterans are very much in business. Ironically for a band who have spent much of their career in the shadow of the much bigger and more successful Deep Purple, they’ve now come up with something that blows away anything Purple have done in the last nine years. It compares very favourably with their best output from their 70s heyday, and I don’t think they’ve ever rocked harder than this.

6. Panic Room – Visionary Position
The debut from the band that grew out of the ashes of Karnataka, fronted by Anne-Marie Helder. Three years in the making, it’s a rich multilayered album with a real mix of styles from hard rock, folk, pop and full-blown prog which was well worth the wait.

5. Pineapple Thief – Tightly Unwound
Pineapple Thief are one of the new generation of progressive rock bands who mix elements of 70s progressive rock with more contemporary influences to give a streamlined modern sound rather than produce a pastiche of older bands. You can hear the influence of both early Radiohead and Porcupine Tree on this album, although thankfully we’re spared Thom Yorke-style whining vocals, and there is definitely no shortage of tunes.

4. Mostly Autumn – Glass Shadows
A strong release which is a marked improvement on the patchy and badly-produced “Heart Full of Sky” even if it doesn’t quite match their best work. Written entirely by Bryan Josh and Heather Findlay this time around, it’s more mainstream melodic rock than the celtic-tinged prog of their early work, but retains the 70s vibe that’s still a major element of their sound. Musically it has hard rockers, shimmering piano ballads, dreamy atmospheric numbers and soaring guitar-driven epics. Lyrically they’re certainly not singing about Hobbits any more, this is a true life story about heartbreak, joy, tragedy and hope.

3. Opeth – Watershed
2005′s “Ghost Reveries” wasn’t an easy album to follow, but Opeth managed to equal it with “Watershed“, which contains all their trademark elements; piledriving heavy passages alternating with delicate guitar harmonies, Mikael Åkerfeldt’s vocals swapping back and forth between harsh ‘cookie monster’ and heartfelt clean vocals, typically all in the same song. It’s not an easy listen, songs average ten minutes, and don’t have anything as crassly commercial as conventional verses or choruses. But when you get what they’re doing, the result can only be described as ‘symphonic’.

2. Marillion – Happiness is the Road
This double album is a vast improvement on last year’s patchy “Somewhere Else“. The two disks are conceived as two separate single albums; the atmospheric “Essence“, and the rockier “The Hard Shoulder“. Both contain plenty of gems and very little filler. Stylistically it’s the same contemporary sound as recent albums rather than a reversion to an earlier sound. Steve Hogarth is on great form, using his voice as much as a musical instrument rather than solely to express the lyrics, and Steve Rothery demonstrates in many places why he’s one of the best rock guitarists out there.

1. The Reasoning – Dark Angel
It’s difficult to choose just one album as my album of the year, but in the end I’ve settled for The Reasoning’s second album. Last year’s debut “Awakening” was one of my top albums of last year, a great mix of melodic hard rock with progressive flavouring, with three-part vocal harmones and a powerful twin lead guitar attack. This one takes things to another level, adding some metal to the mix, full of melodies that get stuck in your brain, sublime vocals from Rachel Cohen, and some amazing but never self-indulgent playing from new guitarist Owain Roberts.

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