I wouldn’t say I have my finger on the pulse of anything. In fact I’m lucky when my fingers manage to find my zipper before I head out of the john and back into the Target. I do a pretty good job of paying attention to progressive music, though, and it doesn’t take a jeweler’s eye to see that this year just hasn’t been a strong one for prog metal, even if heavy metal generally has flourished with progressive ideas. It has, however, been a very strong year for that niche of heavy progressive music that sits right on the border of prog rock and heavy metal; what the cool kids these days might call metal-adjacent prog rock and that the dustier among us have always just called heavy prog.
Heavy guitars playing complex riffs within intricate songs arranged in dynamically composed movements per the art music style, layers of organic and synthesized harmonies, and a premium placed on fine melody. These are the (typically recognized) hallmarks of heavy progressive rock and exactly what the United Kingdom’s Kepler Ten offers up on A New Kind of Sideways, their second album since the band’s founding in 2016 and a late but strong entry in end-of-the-year discussions for prog fans.
To get an idea of the wares Kepler Ten is peddlin’, sample the new album’s lead single. There’s a wonderfully wide variety across the span of A New Kind of Sideways and “Falling Down” is an excellent cross-section, featuring bits of all the variously awesome things about the album in a trimly packaged song.
You didn’t have to listen too long to catch the Rush vibes there, did you? Well, that might have a little something to do with the fact that this Southampton power trio was a Rush tribute band before they became Kepler Ten. The influence isn’t grossly obvious but it’s clear to anyone familiar with Rush’s output, especially in the time from Signals to Hold Your Fire. Of course, they aren’t a tribute band anymore so there’s lots more to Kepler Ten’s sound, including aspects of and similarities to other great heavy prog bands like Dream Theater, modern but classic prog-minded bands like Presto Ballet, and even prog-related pop acts like Muse. Mostly, though, Kepler Ten sounds like Kepler Ten, particularly so on A New Kind of Sideways where they’ve opened up the songwriting and slung themselves further into their own identity.
Even as all three players are abundantly talented and they and their various and assorted instruments contribute roughly equal shares to the whole, Alistair Bell’s lead guitar shines most brightly. Bell’s riffing sounds modern and yet somehow feels vintage, like a chromed out Fat Boy screaming across an orange gradient mesa. All through the album, he adds color and texture in sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic ways, often elevating good passages to great with efficiently meted detail. During “Clarity,” for instance, after Durand and Hales have built things up slowly through the front half, Bell storms the stage all the way from left field with a frenetic, jazz-inspired, very modern solo that shows the band understands that what works best is what feels right.
And what feels right is sort of what Kepler Ten is all about in the end. A New Kind of Sideways is something of an emotional response to 2020. The band calls it a semi-conceptual album focused on humanitarian and philanthropic themes. In other words, these songs are about treating each other well and yes, of course, we could all use more of that.
Kepler Ten dropped their new record a bit late in the year, but its message is timely and the skill and passion with which they deliver it makes A New Kind of Sideways everything a heavy prog fan should be looking for in assessing the great music of the year.