#5: Anathema – Distant Satellites
Any album that makes me want to dissolve into a fit of tears deserves a spot in a year’s-end list. For many more reasons than I could go into here, Distant Satellites is an incredibly personal album for me. But the part you’re most interested in is the quality of the music, so once again I’m pleased beyond words that Anathema have continued their winning streak here. As a follow-up to the masterful Weather Systems, it’s certainly successful. But rather than resting on their laurels and turning out the same album, the band decided to branch out in new directions. Periodic forays into electronica elevate this album and prove that this band’s pioneering spirit is as intact as it’s ever been. You can expect moments of exhilarating beauty and overwhelming darkness alike.
I had no idea who IQ was before I got wind of this album. Turns out they’ve been cranking out world-class prog for about three decades. I’ve listened to only a small sampling of their earlier work, and I have to say that The Road of Bones feels like a coming of age, despite the band’s already storied career. The music on this album is anything but by-the-numbers prog. Unorthodox song structure, brilliant turns of phrase, and the greatest final three minutes of any album ever all combine to make this one of my favorites of the year. You can read my full review here.
I’m long past being surprised by Mr. Townsend’s prolificity or his sheer talent. With that in mind, it’s difficult to call Casualties a surprise. We already knew that this guy can hop genres with almost no effort, but to hear him sustain an aesthetic best described as progressive bluegrass for the entire length of an hour-plus-long album – and nail every single second of it – is nothing short of a miracle. Together, he and Ché Aimee Dorval make a great songwriting team, offering up beauty and grace alongside moments of sheer menace. This album is not to be missed; for those uninitiated into Hevy Devy’s world, this is a great place to start.
If Opeth had let me down this year, Gazpacho would have taken the top spot. I had only a passing familiarity with this group’s music before Demon dropped, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I have a feeling that going into this album without expectations contributed to my fondness for the record, but make no mistake: this is a completely unique album on its own merits. With just four tracks, it nevertheless clocks in at nearly 50 minutes. What these tracks lack in brevity they more than make up for in weirdness and sheer audacity. It not only totally defies genre classification, but proves just what’s possible from a narrative standpoint. The story gives up its secrets reluctantly, but the delivery is such that you hang on every word like mana from heaven, hoping that each emotive syllable sheds some kind of light on a spooky story about obsession, hostile supernatural entities, and the enduring quality of love.
I love absolutely everything about this album, and I proudly name it among my favorite albums of the last decade. Despite Gazpacho taking the award for most unique album, Pale Communion gets my nod for most important. I feel strange writing that, considering how heavily this album plunders the sound of ’70s prog, but it’s true; this album sounds like an entire genre awakening to its own possibilities. When so many bands seem content to paint by numbers, Opeth have always been restless, effortlessly combining the heart and soul of genres such as folk rock, jazz, and death metal. Pale Communion might not sound like a metal record, but I think its place in the ever-changing zeitgeist of metal is all but assured; this is Mikael Åkerfeldt proving that metal is more than downtuned guitars and blast beats.
Final Thoughts (And an Honorable Mention):
If you haven’t guessed yet, I was simply blown away by the quantity of awesome music released this year – under the prog rock banner and beyond. The young and the old alike enjoy complaining that modern music lacks soul, but I say they’re just looking in the wrong places.
My honorable mention goes to Haken’s Restoration EP. It didn’t qualify for a spot in my top five, despite it being a longer EP than many full-length albums, but it nevertheless deserves a mention.
Haken feels like the band most likely to carry the torch for Dream Theater when they finally call it quits. Dream Theater rewrote the rule book back in the early ’90s, and that’s exactly what Haken is doing now. There are few bands that exhibit this level of songwriting fearlessness, nor lyrical inventiveness. With only three full-length albums under their belt, I simply can’t wait to see where the coming years take these guys.
With that, I wave a very fond farewell for another amazing year in music. Here’s to 2015.