1. Phideaux – Snowtorch
I’ll just begin bluntly; I have never been so immediately and overwhelmingly impressed with an album as I was the first time I heard Snowtorch. Released in January, it was the first masterpiece of 2011 (at least to me), and I was just about positive that nothing would surpass it in the coming months. Now, looking back over dozens of other fantastic records as the year concludes, I can say with absolute confidence that nothing has.
What makes Snowtorch so special is its perfection; while countless bands have emulated Progressive Rock pioneers such as Yes, Genesis, and Jethro Tull over the decades, none could ever top the originals. The musicianship is always incredible, the harmonies are always lovely, and the songwriting is usually catchy; however, as phenomenal as these newer bands are, in the end, they appear merely as a synthesis of what’s already been done.
Phideaux is different, and Snowtorch is arguably their greatest work. Conceived as a 45 minute piece broken into four parts, mastermind Phideaux Xavier and his musicians brilliantly interweave wonderful songwriting into astounding complexity. Because it is an epic track, motifs and melodies are reprised repeatedly using different timbres and dynamics. While the influences are apparent, Phideaux blends them together with such unique originality, the end result is a work that surpasses many of its inspirations. In fact, “Snowtorch (Part One)” is likely the single greatest piece the genre has seen in almost forty years.
2. Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning
English musical genius Steven Wilson is arguably the busiest man in the Progressive Rock. As the mastermind behind Porcupine Tree, he’s almost single-handedly revitalized the genre. By blending all sorts of styles into a melting pot of intricate riffs, affective atmosphere, and some of the best songwriting I’ve ever heard, Wilson has cemented his place as the king of the community. With Grace for Drowning (his second solo LP), he weaves his many facets into a hauntingly honest, addictive, and cohesive masterwork.
Wilson’s recent preference for brutish, industrial rhythms and bombastic guitar work shines through on tracks like “Sectarian,” “Remainder the Black Dog,” and “Index,” while gems like “Deform to Form a Star,” “No Part of Me,” and “Postcard” rank as three of the best songs he’s ever written. Elsewhere, the title track opens the album by showcasing Wilson’s wonderful harmonies, and “Raider II” is twenty-three minutes of blissful insanity. Every track earns its place by helping to complete the sorrowful intensity Wilson exudes on Grace for Drowning.
Interestingly, the album is also a modest homage to Wilson’s idols and influences; guest musicians include Steve Hackett, Jordan Rudess, Trey Gunn, Tony Levin, and Theo Travis. While the influences and timbres are a bit too familiar at times (King Crimson’s Lizard, anyone?), Wilson is careful to make sure his signature sounds claim the spotlight.
3. Devin Townsend – Deconstruction
Few words can do justice to the unapologetic genius of Devin Townsend and his music. A master of dynamics and production, his records are truly in a world of their own. His ability to switch from crushing ferocity to angelic sensitivity (often in the same song) is astounding, and on Deconstruction (the third entry in his four album “Devin Townsend Project”), he truly outdoes himself.
While Deconstruction may not rank as his absolute heaviest record (his third, Physicist, probably is), it is certainly his most technically impressive. Utilizing choir and orchestration at times, Townsend takes his usual zany theatrics to another level. Combine this with incredible time signature shifts, blistering guitar work, and one of the most versatile voices in the genre (his range must be several octaves) and you have one of the best records he’s ever made.
In typical Townsend fashion, the silliness of the story of Deconstruction [formerly …of a Cheeseburger] helps make it special. Just as Ziltoid’s voyage to earth for coffee resulted in sublime songwriting, Deconstruction often breaks away from the madness to reveal more great melodies. Just as Frank Zappa masked complex arrangements with humorous, immature lyrics, Townsend’s superficial goofiness adds charm to the compositions of a madman.
Finally, Deconstruction is remarkable for how it’s the polar opposite of the simultaneously released fourth entry in the series, Ghost. Much like the duality of Opeth’s Deliverance and Damnation, Deconstruction conveys hell while Ghost is pure musical heaven. In fact, it’s almost inconceivable that both records were made by the same man, but then again, that’s what makes Townsend a truly unique and important musician.