As a genre, prog metal's natural inclination is towards pushing boundaries and exploring the outer reaches of creativity within heavy metal. That in mind, its not entirely surprising to see prog metal bands often topping critics' (and fans') end of year lists, its bands effectively having chosen to base their entire careers around the concept of advancement and innovation.
Names like Opeth, Gojira and Mastodon have become go-to bands that have managed to transform the look and shape of metal over the past 20 years, whilst their ascension to arena-sized rooms proved that creative ambition need not exclude a band from mass consumption. That in mind, here are the 10 finest prog metal records released in 2021 that have helped elevate metal to new levels, seeding a bright new future in the process.
10. Evergrey - Escape Of The Phoenix
Evergrey's twelfth studio outing also marked their first since concluding a five-year conceptual triptych on 2019's The Atlantic. The Swedes were no less lyrically ambitious on Escape Of The Phoenix however, delving into the idea of what would happen if the album's titular phoenix - a symbol of rebirth - decided to remain in the land of the dead. Reviewer Dave Ling weighed in, ruling "Evergrey make music that is crisp, accomplished and often polished with a gleaming commercial edge. With luck, maybe [frontman Tom S] Englund’s duet with Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie on The Beholder will introduce them to a few more newbies".
9. La Morte Viene Dallo Spazio - Trivial Visions
Italy's cosmonautical prog expansionists La Morte Viene Dallo Spazio pushed their stylistic inclinations further out than ever before on their second full-length, Trivial Visions. Making use of instruments instruments ranging from organs and Theremin to synth, flute and sitar, the band didn't so much craft a sonic landscape as an entire universe, Hammer reviewer Alex Deller noting, "rather than throw in their lot with one specific subgenre, La Morte Viene Dallo Spazio have filtered their sound through the very idea of metal – a feat that lends their squelch-edged riffs and bangover-friendly moments a sense of familiarity while also rendering them undeniably other."
8. Leprous - Aphelion
Twenty years since taking their first strident steps into the prog expanse, Leprous continue to scale new heights with each new release, album #7 Aphelion proving to be no exception to the rule. Hammer reviewer Dom Lawson was particularly effusive, in a glowing 8/10 review, noting that "Aphelion’s sense of liberation has led the Norwegians to make one of the most varied and emotionally potent records of their careers."
6. Four Stroke Baron - Classics
Four Stroke Baron tore ahead with the follow-up to their 2018 debut Planet Silver Screen, their second album's title (Classics) proving to be somewhat prophetic in describing just how much of a leap the band had made. In his Hammer review, Dom Lawson wrote, "the Nevada trio's sound has mutated into something extraordinary," before going on to call it "an audacious display of ingenuity and originality".
6. Dream Theater - A View From The Top Of The World
In a genre like prog metal, it almost goes without saying that there are inherent challenges to forging a career around continually pushing creative boundaries and reinventing the sonic identity of metal as a whole. And yet, over 35 years and 12 albums into their career, Dream Theater's A View From The Top Of The World proved that such artistic leaps were not beyond their reach. "The most priceless attribute of Dream Theater is that, for all the complexity of their compositions, they make everything sound so goddamn easy," read Dave Ling's 9/10 review. "A View From The Top Of The World is simply the sound of the band reclaiming what it does best, [John] Petrucci's warm and fulsome production sharpened by a gleeful mix from Andy Sneap."
5. Between The Buried & Me - Colours II
In Hollywood, belated sequels usually betray the death of creativity, but prog metal maestros Between The Buried And Me showed the same isn't true in the realms of prog. Picking up 14 years after the original Colours, Colours II re-affirmed the band as once-in-a-lifetime masterminds. Matt Mills' 9/10 review concurred, "it’s the marriage of confusion and charm that makes Colors II so replayable. By the time you’ve asked, “How does Fix The Error smoothly switch from bass-led jazz to a Mike Portnoy-style drum solo?”, Never Seen/ Future Shock has already ensnared you. The centrepiece sees virtuosity dissipate into a rare, accessible refrain, rocketed to triumph by Tommy Rogers’ soaring voice."
4. Dvne - Etemen Ænka
Considering the smash-success of the Hollywood film Dune, perhaps it is entirely appropriate that Scottish prog metallers Dvne - also inspired by Frank Herbert's 1965 novel - would also step into the spotlight in 2021. "Seemingly from nowhere, Dvne have struck gold with their second album," wrote Hammer review Stephen Hill, who awarded the album 9/10. He went on to describe the album as "a sprawling, emotional and superbly dynamically vast set of songs that work both individually as riffy progressive metal bangers and, even more so, as part of a breathtaking whole."
3. Cynic - Ascension Codes
With Cynic, nothing can be taken for granted. The prog metal master's fourth record Ascension Codes proved as much as they pushed the boat even further than their usual jazz/extreme metal combo would suggest, striking through to a sense of immersive beauty that completely enraptured Hammer reviewer Dom Lawson. "With ugliness and horror all around us, a new Cynic album has never been more welcome," Dom wrote, before summarising the record with "one of our finest bands have conjured another blazing tribute to music's restorative powers".
2. Mastodon - Hushed And Grim
Ever the masters of transforming adversity into some of the most incredible and moving compositions in the metal sphere (regardless of genre), Mastodon again plunged the depths of tragedy and grief for Hushed And Grim, their eighth studio album. Written in tribute to fallen manager Nick John, the record's incredible emotional journey proved too large to contain to just one disc, instead being spread across a sprawling 86-and-a-half minute double-disc epic.
Described by Hammer reviewer Emma Johnston, Hushed And Grim was another instance of Mastodon defying expectations which offered "ebeauty and beastliness in equal measure". "All of the touchstones fans treasure remain," she wrote. "Tooth-rattling riffs; three equally powerful but individually unique vocalists combining to create a beautiful, intensely masculine melodic tapestry; tricksy time signatures and wild flights of musical fancy ensuring we never quite know where the journey will take us. And yet, despite all the thunder, Hushed And Grim is the most delicate record to date, filled with emotion, doubt, grief, regret and sorrow."
1. Gojira - Fortitude
As Hammer's overall album of the year, perhaps it was inevitable that Gojira would also take top spot as the greatest prog metal release of 2021 with Fortitude. Considering just how seismic 2016's Magma was, its follow-up could be nothing less than a titan in the genre, justification that the band were among metal's brightest stars and more than ready to make the leap into arenas.
Hammer reviewer Alec Chillingworth was in no doubt as to the significance of the band's seventh effort, writing: "For album number seven, Magma’s experimentalism is channelled into what can only be described as The Fucking Hit Factory. Everything works immediately, even when it shouldn’t[...] It’s wholly transportive and hammers home that earthly, human quality they’ve always managed to hide beneath the blastbeats. Their innate knack for pathos shines, whether that be on Another World’s plea for human beings to stop being massive shitbags, or Into The Storm’s show-stopping refrain." He then summarises, "Fortitude is everything you wanted from Gojira and more: a breathtaking showcase of heaviness and dedication to the craft, teasing out tones, passages and emotional resonance other bands just can’t access. It’s metal for the masses, and Gojira’s crowning achievement."
Even Lamb Of God frontman Randy Blythe couldn't resist joining the chorus of praise for the record, writing: “Gojira’s seventh studio offering, succeeds in achieving what very few metal albums do: without sacrificing a single ounce of earth- shattering heaviness" as part of a larger review for Hammer. To see one of metal's most beloved names take such confident steps towards an even grander future encapsulates everything about why Gojira are so revered in the first place, utterly deserving of every accolade lauded on them.