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Continuing from our last year’s series on the best prog albums from the 1980s, and after the one-year break, we continue with the year 1988. By many, 1988 was the year when progressive metal started to shape up.
Albums from Queensryche, Voivod and Fates Warning have created a starting point for many international prog acts from that moment on. The regular prog heralds from the 1970s and early 1980s have not returned with new records in 1988, but there have been quite a few surprising releases.
More on the 10 Best Prog Albums of 1988 below.
10. Sieges Even – Lifecycle
Sieges Even are one of the many often over-looked progressive metal acts from the late 1980s, overshadowed by contemporaries like Queensryche and Fates Warning. With their debut album, despite never truly gaining prominence in the metal community and eventually moving towards a more standard-yet-modernized progressive rock sound in the ’90s, they solidified themselves as one of the most technically proficient and talented bands on the planet, taking obvious inspiration from their contemporaries and blending that heavy metal sound with the progressive forefathers of the 1970s in a fashion that many of their contemporaries failed to achieve.
While bands like the aforementioned Queensryche and fellow prog-metallers such as Crimson Glory were certainly progressive and had complex and thoughtful music, they were still primarily heavy metal bands at their core. In a band like Queensryche, however unique they might have been, there was more Judas Priest or Iron Maiden influence to be heard than, say, Genesis, King Crimson, or Rush. And this is what separated Sieges Even from their fellow prog metallers – they wanted to have equal parts progressive rock and metal, making them more similar to Watchtower, but even more complex and progressive.
Any fan of progressive metal, or technical music in general, should pick this up. It shows the heavy beginnings of a group that would go on to make some of the best progressive music of their era, and if you’ve ever once wondered why those damn prog metal bands couldn’t just sound a little more proggy than metal, this album should satisfy you.
09. Ozric Tentacles – Sliding Gliding Worlds
Sliding Gliding Worlds (also known as “the blue one”) is the fifth of Ozric Tentacles‘ first six independent releases on cassette, each one with a different background color. Released by the band in 1988, it was reissued on CD by Dovetail Records in 1994. This album is the most accessible of the first six, the most “easy listening.” Crunchy riffs are few (only “Kick Muck” represents the Hawkwind side of the band) and the whole thing falls into a pleasant trippy mid-tempo pace. Ed Wynne‘s writing is more melodious and less jam-oriented. World music colors (Chinese, African, Amazonian) can be found in the four last tracks. Highlights include “Soda Water,” “Sliding and Gliding,” and “It’s a Hup Ho World,” plus the comical “Yaboop Yaboop” which includes aboriginal-esque vocals. The sound quality is better than on the other releases in this series, as is the overall quality of the songs and, even though it lacks the fast-paced energy found on some material on There Is Nothing and Live Ethereal Cereal, it remains overall the best album from the band’s early days. Recall, a division of Snapper Music, has reissued the album as a two-CD set (including new artwork) with The Bits Between the Bits under the title The Bits Between the Bits/Sliding Gliding Worlds.
08. Cassiber – A Face We All Know
This album, the last studio album from Cassiber, is their most complex. For their first two albums (Man or Monkey and Beauty and the Beast), they entered the studio with prepared texts and improvised the music. On their third album, Perfect Worlds, Cassiber preconceived the pieces ahead of time and did the final arrangements in the studio. Here, not just the pieces, but the album’s “plot” and some of the texts were written by Chris Cutler in the summer of 1988, six months prior to recording and two years before the final mix was complete.
The length of gestation and the attention to detail show in the finished product. There is a great deal more overdubbing and sampling than in any previous album, especially in the voices. Christoph Anders‘ voice is perhaps an acquired taste, as he passionately declaims texts by Cutler, American novelist Thomas Pynchon, and German playwright Rainald Goetz, but his delivery is unique, and ultimately gripping. Cutler also recites some of his own texts, and the voices are layered in many places to the point of unintelligibility. Goetz‘s texts in German are another difference from their previous work, where all texts have been in English. The tracks here are divided into three long pieces, two related suites sandwiching a third with texts taken from Thomas Pynchon‘s great novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Themes and texts recur in the first and third parts, providing a unity that makes this the group’s most powerful album.
07. Last Exit – Iron Path
Last Exit‘s major-label release, their first studio recording, and a record that iconoclastic critic Chuck Eddy considers one of the 500 greatest heavy metal albums in the history of the universe. But that doesn’t mean you should invite all your Deep Purple and Iron Maiden loving friends over for a listening party; they won’t be amused. Using the studio to their advantage, Last Exit explores sonic texture on “Prayer” and “The Fire Drum,” but never loses sight of the power and energy that makes their live recordings so memorable. If you were to have one Last Exit recording, this might well be the one. But any one of their live records would enhance your appreciation of this great record immeasurably.
06. Marty Friedman – Dragon’s Kiss
Guitarist Marty Friedman unleashes his virtuosic six-string fury on the excellent Dragon’s Kiss, which may be the most definitive sampling of Friedman‘s talents available. Spiking his supersaturated heavy metal sensibilities with texture, imagination, and a flair for the exotic, Friedman proves to be a distinctive modern metal soloist. This all-instrumental offering marks the end of his more indulgent, progressive solo artist phase, as he was recruited to join Megadeth‘s ranks shortly after its release.
05. Crimson Glory – Transcendence
Unjustly qualified as one of the ’80s best American-made progressive metal albums, Crimson Glory‘s Transcendence is actually one of the decade’s best pure metal albums by an American band, period. Sure, they shared many sonic traits with fellow ’80s metal bands like Queensrÿche and Fates Warning, but Crimson Glory‘s songwriting was relatively straightforward by comparison, and generally shied away from ultra-complex prog rock arrangements employed by their peers. In fact, barnstormers like “Lady of Winter” and “Red Sharks” are almost ordinary in their no-frills headbanging intensity, and even the band’s more “progressive” material, such as the ambitious “Burning Bridges” and the very eclectic “Eternal World,” don’t venture out that far.
Instead, Crimson Glory show commendable restraint in their songwriting, and it is singer Midnight who ends up drawing the most unwanted attention due to his now dated, painfully strident delivery. On the other hand, not even the intervening years have managed to dull the sheen of nuggets like the majestically sparse title track or the impressive “In Dark Places,” which remains one of the group’s crowning achievements, thanks to its instantly recognizable riff. And although their Iron Maiden influences sometimes get the best of them (the Eastern-flavored “Masque of the Red Death” is a near remake of “Powerslave”), Crimson Glory still prove their worth with this excellent release. Sadly, the band wouldn’t capitalize on its promise, following it with the disappointing Strange and Beautiful.
04. Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden
Compare Spirit of Eden with any other previous release in the Talk Talk catalog, and it’s almost impossible to believe it’s the work of the same band — exchanging electronics for live, organic sounds and rejecting structure in favor of mood and atmosphere, the album is an unprecedented breakthrough, a musical and emotional catharsis of immense power. Mark Hollis‘ songs exist far outside of the pop idiom, drawing instead on ambient textures, jazz-like arrangements, and avant-garde accents; for all of their intricacy and delicate beauty, compositions like “Inheritance” and “I Believe in You” also possess an elemental strength — Hollis‘ oblique lyrics speak to themes of loss and redemption with understated grace, and his hauntingly poignant vocals evoke wrenching spiritual turmoil tempered with unflagging hope. A singular musical experience.
03. Fates Warning – No Exit
Usually regarded as the finest release from Fates Warning‘s early years, when their progressive leanings were tempered with no small amount of classic metal riffing, No Exit is a typically difficult album to come to grips with. As was often the case on prior releases, the band has a hard time reconciling its ruthless experimentation with the need to construct coherent songs, leading to any number of awkward passages in which melodies and riffs are recklessly spliced together. Still, the album is another step forward, and tracks like “Anarchy Divine,” “Shades of Heavenly Death,” and “In a Word” rank among the best of their career thus far. Side two is entirely taken by the daunting “The Ivory Gate of Dreams,” which at over 20 minutes and eight separate parts, finds the band in its most extreme and complex progressive metal mode. Like his predecessor, new vocalist Ray Alder‘s piercing screams are something of an acquired taste (coming off like a less disciplined version of Queensrÿche‘s Geoff Tate), but the rest of the band perform to their usual high technical standards.
02. Voivod – Dimension Hatröss
Released nearly two years after the transitional Killing Technology, Dimension Hatröss is the first album where Voivod‘s experimental metal is explored from beginning to end. Shedding the clichéd lyrics that the band relied on for their first two releases, they’re thankfully replaced by much more thought-provoking lyrics. The group has also grown as musicians — guitarist Denis d’Amour is one of metal’s finest, the rhythm section of Michel Langevin on drums and Jean-Yves Theriault on bass is tighter than ever, and vocalist Denis Belanger sings more conventionally (no more shrieking).
The band’s sudden songwriting maturity becomes evident from the opening track, “Experiment,” when futuristic imagery collides head on with heavy sounds. “Macrosolutions to Megaproblems” contains impressive, busy interplay between the bandmembers, while “Tribal Convictions” is a simpler, Sabbath-like number that opens with some primitive drumming courtesy of Langevin (who also designed the album’s cover). Dimension Hatröss is Voivod‘s first fully realized album and sets the stage for their best ever, 1989′s major-label debut, Nothingface.
01. Queensrÿche – Operation: Mindcrime
Queensrÿche scored their breakthrough success with the ambitious concept album Operation: Mindcrime, which tells the story of a fortune hunter whose disillusionment with Reagan-era American society leads him to join a shadowy plot to assassinate corrupt leaders. For such a detailed story line (there is also a tragic romance thrown in), the band keeps its focus remarkably well, and the music is just as ambitious, featuring a ten-minute track with orchestrations by Michael Kamen. Those experiments don’t tend to work as well as the tighter, more melodic prog metal songs, which are frequently gems, especially the singles “Eyes of a Stranger” and “I Don’t Believe in Love.” Granted, the lyrics and political observations can sometimes be too serious and intellectual for their own good (few bands, metal or otherwise, can make lines like “There’s no raison d’être” work). But despite the occasional flaws, it’s surprising how well Operation: Mindcrime does work, and it’s a testament to Queensrÿche‘s creativity and talent that they can pull off a project of this magnitude.