Though this blog is only about a year old, I’ve been publishing music-oriented year-end lists on my personal Facebook since 2010. Those lists have usually covered all releases—albums and EPs—as well as music from genres outside the progosphere. Since starting this blog, I listened to more new music in 2019 than I had in any previous year, and it was even more skewed toward prog and prog-related output than in years past.
To save myself from having to write (and you from having to read) a 100-plus-entry list full of mediocre releases, I’ve instead opted to publish TheEliteExtremophile’s Top 50 Prog Albums of 2019. This post will cover entries 50-26. Part 2, covering the top 25, will be published on Monday.
I’m not publishing album scores here, and past album scores should not be read into too much. Reviews generally reflect something of a first impression, and after months of listening, albums’ standings rise and fall. This list also features some very good albums which I just never reviewed in full.
As a disclaimer, I’m sure there are some excellent albums not included. This is a one-man operation (in relation to reviewing, that is; my editors, Kelci and Dan, have been tremendously helpful), and I simply cannot listen to everything that gets released. I also have my personal biases against some rather popular trends in prog, which affected the composition of this list. But if you’ve got recommendations, do not hesitate to shoot them my way, either through this site, via email, or through my Facebook page.
#50: Tamam Shod – Yek | Heavy psych, Post-metal | Bandcamp
This Polish quartet present an especially cosmic take on sludgy, stonery, heavy psych. The big, looming riffs have a certain spacey quality to them, which is augmented by dramatic vocals on tracks like the opening epic “Gardens”. Many of the guitar lines are more complex than one first realizes. It wasn’t until my second or third listen of this album that I realized just how many strange, technical riffs were presented in unassuming ways. I’m sure that is a large part of why Yek—an album more based in stoner metal tropes than I’m normally fond of—has continued to hold my attention.
#49: Põhja Konn – Hetk. InSpereeritud Tüürist | Progressive rock, Art pop | Bandcamp
Põhja Konn’s particular brand of progressive rock is poppier than that of most acts I listen to. In the opening track, there are strong disco flavors with the guitar tone, funky bass, and the integration of strings and brass. However, the rhythm is complex, and the melody, while strong, is distinctly un-disco-like. From there, the rest of the album displays impressive diversity, ranging from art pop balladry to organ-fueled prog to classical music. Several songs feature only classical instrumentation. The 10-minute “Päikesevene” is one such piece, and it utilizes some striking dissonance.
#48: Sonora Sunrise – The Route through the Canyon | Psychedelic rock, Krautrock | Bandcamp
Hailing from Altai Krai, Russia, deep in Siberia, Sonora Sunrise evoke images of the sun-drenched, dusty American Southwest with their brand of expansive, meditative psychedelia. Electric desert blues provide the basis for much of the album, but at different points it’s run through the filters of krautrock, stoner metal, and drone. Many of the songs could best be described as almost syrupy: they flow smoothly, yet slowly. The band will often focus on one musical theme as solos slowly swell and minor changes in the backing accrue until a climax is reached.
#47: Inanimate Existence – Clockwork | Death metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Clockwork is a great throwback to the world of ‘90s tech/prog death metal in the vein of acts like Death and Atheist. This album charges along at a blistering pace for most its 40-minute runtime. The riffs are inventive and in a constant state of flux. Frequent clean/distorted contrasts keep the textures interesting, as well. The songs are impressively focused for how many riffs they managed to cram in; the band avoid needless detours and disjointed structures.
#46: Saor – Forgotten Paths | Post-metal | Bandcamp
Saor’s particular brand of post-metal is rooted in black metal, with significant Scottish folk flourishes. The three extended pieces on Forgotten Paths take their time to unfold, leading the listener down paths of intriguing Celtic metal fusions. The music is imbued with a sense of grandeur and majesty, and the inclusion of traditional instruments, such as whistles and fiddles, evoke uniquely Caledonian imagery.
#45: Oh Sees – Face Stabber | Psychedelic rock, Krautrock | Bandcamp
Punk, psych, jazz, and krautrock converge on Face Stabber to make a twisting, smoky record which utilizes both straightforward aggression and drawn-out repetition. On an album this long (running nearly 80 minutes), some lackluster moments are nearly unavoidable, but the bulk of this album succeeds at being fun and engaging. The weirdly-aggro title doesn’t exactly match the tone; most of the album has a wonky, jazzy feel, though the occasional burst of unobscured punk does arise.
#44: Arctic Sleep – Kindred Spirits | Doom metal, Post-metal | Bandcamp
Arctic Sleep’s latest album is not a groundbreaking venture into new territory, but Keith D, the sole member of this band, has continued to evolve his distinct sound. Doom metal and post-metal blend to form impressionistic riffs that wash over you. The music has a warm, welcoming, reassuring quality to it, which is rarely heard in metal, and this is achieved without coming off as sappy. The rare acoustic interludes are some of the strongest moments on this album, demonstrating the breadth of Keith D’s abilities as a composer.
#43: Richard Henshall – The Cocoon | Progressive metal, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Haken guitarist Richard Henshall’s latest solo album has many of his main group’s hallmarks while maintaining a sense of uniqueness. The Cocoon, as would be expected, is highly melodic and straddles the line between progressive metal and rock. However, it is far jazzier than anything I’ve heard Haken release. That jazziness, combined with Henshall’s frequent use of a vocoder, gives off very strong Cynic vibes. Henshall shows impressive range in his songwriting, and I especially like the diverse sound palette he deploys in his guitar and keyboard tones.
#42: An Isolated Mind – I’m Losing Myself | Experimental metal, Ambient | Bandcamp
After a brief intro, the first proper song on this album is titled “Afraid of Dissonance”, which is somewhat ironic since this album is the opposite of that. This one-man project embraces dissonance and some of the oddest chords out there, and it’s all played over irregular drum patterns. The songs evolve in genuinely surprising ways, with ugly, raging black metal giving way to soft interludes which draw from jazz and classical music. Ambient and electronic music is put to use as well, with the final two tracks consisting of quiet drone. I’m not the biggest fan of drone music, so this finale keeps the album lower on this list than it might have otherwise placed.
#41: Guy Hatton – I Am Concentric | Jazz-fusion, Jazz | Bandcamp
I’ve heard a lot of albums that sprawl, and I Am Concentric is right up there with some of the top sprawlers. Clocking in at nearly 70 minutes across five songs, this is a somewhat daunting album. But if given a chance, I Am Concentric is also a highly rewarding album. Each of the five songs has a distinct flavor, ranging from the bouncy title track, to the ‘80s rock-infused “Nitrogen Neck” to the smooth and gentle “Flurries”.
#40: Híbrido – I | Progressive rock, Heavy psych | Bandcamp
Híbrido’s debut is a promising start. The members of this Spanish four-piece artfully blend desert rock, post-metal, psychedelia, math rock, and even black metal into something distinctly their own. The mood frequently shifts from dreamy to hard-edged without being jarring, and the instrumental excursions are good at maintaining their focus. The closing “Ente” is one of the best songs from any act this year.
#39: Cosmocracy, Inc. – A Ride across Your Mind | Bandcamp
Cosmocracy, Inc.’s debut album has a charming, rough-around-the-edges, garage rock feel. The vocals are a bit weak, but beyond that, this is a great album. Light touches of blues, jazz, and even soul are deployed to great effect, and the bass playing has a fantastic, funky bite to it. Stylistically, this album is rooted in the earliest era of progressive rock, c. 1969-1970. If you’re a fan of Atom Heart Mother, I’d highly recommend this album.
#38: Merlin – The Mortal | Heavy Psych, Stoner metal | Bandcamp
The Mortal demonstrates Merlin’s continued musical evolution. The root sound is still derived from stoner metal, but the inclusion of saxophone, like on the last album, adds a fresh element. Many slower moments have overt jazz influences, and there’s no shortage of complex, twisting riffs woven in throughout. Acoustic instrumentation isn’t deployed too often, but when it is, it’s effective at adding a haunting aura to the music.
#37: Fen – The Dead Light | Black metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
This eight-song, hourlong album from British black metallers Fen is downright terse by their standards. No song even tops 10 minutes! Long behemoths in the realm of atmospheric black metal, on The Dead Light, Fen tightened up their sound and injected a new sense of urgency into their songwriting. The riffs hit harder and faster, and the percussion is consistently more propulsive than on past releases. This new (relative) directness benefits them greatly. The songs are engaging, yet still ambitious; and they’ve managed to retain their trademark epic feel.
#36: Dizzy Mystics – Wanderlost | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This album sounds a lot like someone listened to a lot of Tool and then did a bunch of amphetamines. Wanderlost is a collection of techy prog rock which borrows heavily from late ‘90s-early ‘00s alt rock. The songs are full of blistering arpeggios and speedy, jittery drums. Mandolin and acoustic guitar are smartly contrasted against distorted guitars. Folk and jazz elements are deployed throughout. This album is a little longer than it needs to be, but that bit of bloat is made up for by the sheer amount of good material, most notably the 11-minute title track, which closes Wanderlost with a bang.
#35: Shadow Limb – Burn Scar | Sludge metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
It’d been bothering me ever since I first saw this album cover. I knew the design reminded me of a cartoon character I had seen, but I only figured out who while writing this best-of list. It was the minor Venture Bros villain Le Tueur with his weird elephant get-up. Onto the substance of Burn Scar, Shadow Limb play a complex, slightly bluesy variety of progressive sludge metal full of big guitar lines and crushing, crunchy bass. The slower moments on this album are full of menace, while faster riffs are adrenaline-pumping. Every song on Burn Scar is full of complex instrumental theatrics while also managing to stay focused and on-point.
#34: Inter Arma – Sulphur English | Sludge metal, Post-metal | Bandcamp
This album grew on me a lot. I wasn’t crazy about it when it was initially released, and I thought it would likely sound better live than it does in the studio. I still stand by that second point, but my feelings on this studio recording have warmed considerably in the months since its release. Black metal and sludge metal mix with experimental and avant-garde influences, and the band’s increased incorporation of acoustic instrumentation has proven to be effective at differentiating their sound palette.
#33: Farmhouse Odyssey – Fertile Ground | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Farmhouse Odyssey play one of the gentlest varieties of progressive rock that you’ll find on this list. It’s light and replete with flavors of folk and jazz. When the band members get a chance to flex their abilities, they prove themselves to be skilled musicians, but they’re smart enough to not make that the focal point. Instead, the band carefully develops melodies, allowing songs to build and morph. For all the gut-rattling death and black metal I love, it’s nice to have a band like Farmhouse Odyssey in my library when I’m craving a folky idyll but still want complex, ambitious songs.
#32: Howling Sycamore – Seven Pathways to Annihilation | Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Howling Sycamore’s sophomore album, as I noted in my initial review, is both a worthy spiritual successor to their phenomenal debut and an interesting series of contrasts therewith. Unlike their rapidfire debut, this album has songs that unfold more gradually over the span of seven or more minutes. That deliberate pace does not feel plodding or drawn-out. The music is relatively spare in many places, but that austerity only serves to enhance its intensity. Jason McMaster’s distinct semi-shriek fits in beautifully with the unique mix of thrash, doom, and black metal that the rest of the band lays down.
#31: Ro Panuganti – Metal Trainer | Progressive metal, Video game music | Bandcamp
Presumably, every musician aims to be the very best (like no one ever was) when they set out to record an album, and this interpretation of music from Pokémon Red & Blue is one of the best bits of video game music I’ve heard. That original 8-bit soundtrack has been cleverly reimagined in the form of progressive metal. Even if you’ve never played the games and lack the nostalgia that I have, the strength of those original compositions shines through in Panuganti’s arrangements. “Pokémon Hospital” has a gentle, dreamy quality; the Lavender Town theme manages to be nearly as creepy as the original; and the closing “Gym Battle” is an intense, adrenaline-pumping piece.
#30: Moon Letters – Until They Feel the Sun | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Moon Letters’ music is firmly rooted in that of progressive rock’s early giants, with Genesis clearly being the biggest influence. Thankfully, unlike many modern prog acts, this Seattle quintet demonstrate that they’re able to add their own unique touches to that classic Anglo-prog sound. The songs skillfully move from soaring, synthy, instrumental theatrics to gentle, folk-inflected interludes. The music is also effective at storytelling without words, especially on longer tracks like “Sea Battle”.
#29: Perséide – Parmi les arbres | Psychedelic rock, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
I’m a big proponent of regional sounds in rock music (and other popular music, more broadly speaking). I like regional sounds even more when they’re given a fresh injection of creativity, like the Quebecois band Perséide have done here. Mixing the strange theatricality of 1970s Francophone prog with late ‘60s psychedelia and dashes of modern indie rock, Parmi les arbres is a thoroughly engaging record. The melodies are strong, the instrumental skills on display are impressive without being indulgent, and songs evolve in inventive yet natural ways.
#28: Avandra – Descender | Progressive metal | Bandcamp
It’s been a decade-and-a-half since Dream Theater’s last good album. Naturally, other bands have stepped in to fill that niche in the progressive metal scene. Avandra, a quartet based out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, are the latest act to put out such an ambitious slab of highly-melodic prog metal. The songwriting on Descender is creative, and the musicianship is virtuosic without being masturbatory. Many of the songs here are long and multi-parted, but they’re far from imposing. This album could easily please both a dyed-in-the-wool metalhead and someone relatively new to the genre.
#27: Adrift – Pure | Sludge metal, Post-metal | Bandcamp
Spain’s Adrift released one hell of a punishing, dense album this year with Pure. Vocals are belted out in hoarse shouts, matching the raw intensity of the instrumental elements. The riffs are tight, dark, and surprisingly melodic, while the songs are constructed in inventive ways. Extended instrumental detours slowly morph as intensity ebbs and flows. Though not as overtly proggy as most entries on this list, Pure unquestionably fits the adventuresome spirit of this site.
#26: IER – うずまき | Experimental metal | Bandcamp
This album is absolutely monolithic. The sole track is a behemoth that blends death metal, black metal, folk, jazz, noise, and more. It’s a constantly-churning maelstrom that never lingers on one idea too long. There’s even a direct homage to Edge of Sanity’s classic album, Crimson. With an oppressive atmosphere, うずまき commands the listener’s attention. The sheer number of musical themes and motifs boggles the mind, and doubly so when considering just how cohesive it all is.
Check out Part 2 here!