Welcome to Part One of TheEliteExtremophile’s Top 50 Prog Albums of 2020, this site’s second-annual best-of list. It’s also my tenth year of writing year-end music roundups. The first eight were posted on my personal Facebook. Check out Part 2 here.
2020 was a banner year for progressive rock and progressive metal. There were so many fantastic albums released, and paring this list down to just 50 was often a painful process. Even more difficult was deciding on the exact order of these albums.
Like I said last year, I’m sure there are some excellent albums not included. This site 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.
#50: Aridonia – Aridonia | Progressive metal, Stoner metal | Bandcamp
Stoner-y grooves, progressive song structures, and all-around solid musicianship converge on this Argentine act’s debut full-length, blending to make something infectious and complex. This amalgam is best encapsulated by the multi-part album opener, “Abismos”. This record has a raw, endearing, rough-around-the-edges feel which only serves to augment the individual tracks’ grittiness.
#49: Cthulhu Rise –Last | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
I debated putting this on the top EPs list, but it felt enough like a full-length album that I included it here instead. These three instrumental cuts are energetic, jazzy, and occasionally metallic. One is reminded of Liquid Tension Experiment but with less pointless indulgence. Piano and guitar constantly vie for supremacy as weird chords and wonky rhythms crash underneath.
#48: Rannoch – Reflections upon Darkness | Death metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Reflections upon Darkness is both brutal and lush, often at the same time. The riffs are technical without being distracting, and the tones snarl and snap in a way that is nearly reminiscent of djent. Big synth pads provide frequent contrast, filling in the few gaps to make everything feel fleshed out and full.
#47: Qüassi – Mareas | Progressive rock, Jazz-fusion | Bandcamp
Qüassi–hailing from Argentina–presents an energetic and sonically diverse set of music on their debut record. Mareas is full of inventive playing and clever inclusions, ranging from skillful improvisation to jangly indie rock. Jazz-rock and prog are the dual backbones of this album, but this instrumental quartet proves skilled at avoiding being pigeonholed.
#46: VASA – Heroics | Math rock, Post-rock | Bandcamp
VASA’s brand of math rock is bright and punchy. It’s bounding with energy and an undeniable sense of fun. Amidst the twisting and bouncing exercises in fretboard gymnastics, there are more mellow, contemplative moments of slow post-rock that build to majestic crescendi.
#45: Kekal – Quantum Resolution | Avant-garde metal | Bandcamp
Kekal’s 25th anniversary saw them release Quantum Resolution. These stalwarts of avant-garde metal stuck to their guns on this album, blending electronic music into their blistering brand of black metal. It’s a harsh and abrasive release, but there are also adequately gentle contrasts. Some experiments are more successful than others, but if you’re a fan of their general sound, it’s worth looking into this album.
#44: Ulcerate – Stare into Death and Be Still | Death metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Ulcerate does not pull any punches on Stare into Death and Be Still. Each song is a scouring blast of technical, unpredictable death metal powered by some fantastic drumming. The riffs are odd and alluring, and the individual songs are all strong. When taken as a whole, this album feels somewhat overlong, but the raw quality of the music largely makes up for that flaw.
#43: Babel Trio – The Martyr | Progressive folk, Stoner metal | Bandcamp
The custom-made electric lute used by this Greek trio gives their brand of intelligent stoner metal a uniquely Eastern Mediterranean flair. It’s interesting to hear stoner metal fuzziness deployed in a style with little overt bluesiness. The individual songs display deft instrumental skills and tasteful arrangements.
#42: Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions | Progressive metal | Bandcamp
The playing on Fluid Existential Inversions is top-notch, alongside some really intriguing rhythmic and metrical experiments. Irregular riffs somehow flow naturally, and the big grittiness of the main riffs is counterbalanced with spacier passages. Some of the songs do run together a bit or carry on too long, but despite some of these shortcomings, it’s an overall worthwhile release.
#41: Homunculus Res – andiamo in giro di notte e ci consumiamo nel fuoco | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Jazz flavors are prominent on andiamo in giro di notte, and there’s a general sense of light playfulness present here. Even the occasional moment of minor key gloominess is quickly undercut by a return to the band’s usual sunniness. Homunculus Res incorporates a significant amount of Canterbury influence (especially in their tonal choices), but there is some of that difficult-to-describe Italian prog character blended into the mix as well.
#40: Hail Spirit Noir – Eden in Reverse | Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Hail Spirit Noir has always been shamelessly retro. That wholehearted embrace of late-’60s psychedelia has served them well and made HSN one of the most distinctive bands out there. Eden in Reverse sees them pull influences from the 1980s, though. This record is cleaner than their past releases. It feels more polished, and the synths glimmer and shine more than they have in the past. I personally prefer their earlier, harsher sound, but this record has plenty of strong cuts. “Incense Swirls” is a fantastic, furious piece of disorienting black metal, and the closing “Automata 1980” features their boldest electronic experiments to date.
#39: IER – 妖怪 | Death metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Like all of IER’s output, this album is a pummeling, exhausting, satisfying release. 妖怪is a long record full of long songs, but buried within these massive tracks, beneath the crushing heaviness, is a varied and diverse set of musical influences. Aspects of folk, jazz, and classic prog are all evident. Sometimes these elements subtle, and sometimes IER will tone down the usual brutality to allow them to shine through to the forefront.
#38: Onségen Ensemble – Fear | Post-rock, Psychedelic rock | Bandcamp
This Finnish act artfully blends stoner metal-like fuzz with jazzy brass, proggy compositions, and even some zeuhl-y weirdness to craft something truly their own. Rhythms are often wonky, and lush Mellotron adds a wonderful contrast to some of the coarser tones. Guitar lines are often quite abstract, and songs meditate and elaborate on one or two ideas.
#37: Luna’s Call – Void | Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Between the Buried and Me is the most obvious influence on Void, but these guys are hardly a BTBAM clone. The music is tight and technical without feeling soulless, and the contrasts of harsh and melodic are deployed very well. The album can feel a little long at times, particularly during instrumental passages, but it’s still a strong piece of (semi) melodic prog-death.
#36: Jargon – The Fading Thought | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Greek singer-songwriter Jargon mixes piano-heavy art-rock and chamber music with Porcupine Tree-style heavy prog on his solo debut. The result is a greatly enjoyable album. Guitar plays a minimal role on The Fading Thought, but piano and violin are more than capable of taking the lead. The constant oscillation between chamber music and progressive rock is an enchanting stylistic choice that keeps everything fresh.
#35: Dysylumn – Cosmogonie | Black metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
The three enormous suites on Cosmogonie demand the listener’s dedication. The music is dense and murky; it’s churning and growling; it’s menacing and mournful. The tonal vocabulary of atmospheric black metal is deployed effectively here. Expansive, plaintive lead guitar cuts through blurry walls of down-tuned distortion, and the compositions evolve in ways which draw the listener in without leading them on.
#34: Wobbler – Dwellers of the Deep | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Dwellers of the Deep feels somewhat like Wobbler resting on their laurels. The first two songs are underwhelming apings of Yes’s classic sound, and “Naiad Dreams” is a lethargic slog of acoustic guitars. What saves this record is unquestionably “Merry Macabre”, which might be the best song they’ve ever recorded. And with Wobbler’s reputation and proven prowess, that’s saying something.
#33: Space Druids – Weird Tide | Space rock | Bandcamp
Hawkwind’s influence is obvious but not overbearing on this succinct album. The guitarwork is impressionistic and emotional, and the swirling atmosphere lends everything strong forward momentum. Twinges of post-rock and garage rock show up throughout, and those variations help keep this record engaging.
#32: Acid Mess – Sangre de Otros Mundos | Psychedelic rock, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Sangre de Otros Mundos is an energetic, engaging blend of heavy fuzz, intergalactic prog, and bold Iberian flavors. The band takes their time in developing ideas. The unhurried pace adds to the tension and the drama as songs progress. Intercut with this astral exploration are moments that are tight, groovy, and immediate.
#31: The Light in the Ocean – The Pseudo-Scientific Study of Oceanic Neo-Cryptid Zoology | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
TPSSOONCZ is a very pretty record. Piano, clean guitar, and snappy bass converge to make something that feels polished without feeling synthetic. Space rock and psychedelia mingle with touches of folk and jazz, making the occasional heavier moment just that much more impactful.
#30: Lespecial – Ancient Homies | Progressive rock, Indie rock | Bandcamp
This New York trio has some of the freshest and most interesting genre fusions I’ve heard in a while. Indie rock is the base sound, stretched over a proggy framework of complex and innovative structures. Mixed in with this, though, are hip-hop inspired samples, synth tones, and rhythms. Groovy bursts of fuzzy metal crunch against some of the sparser passages. It’s not hard to find bands that claim to draw influences from all over the musical spectrum, but it’s rare to find one that actually does. Lespecial is that rare band.
#29: Bobby Shock – The Unforeseen | Progressive rock| Bandcamp
The Unforeseen is characterized by its lush textures, gentle vocals (lying somewhere between Rick Wright and Chris Squire), and varied influences. This work touches on art pop, jazz, classic prog, folk, and many more genres. These disparate elements gel cohesively into something which, at first blush, may seem unassuming, but it’s full of exciting, unpredictable twists and asides.
#28: Xander Naylor – Continuum | Progressive rock, Post-rock | Bandcamp
NYC-based composer Xander Naylor’s debut record is a refreshing blend of progressive rock, jazz fusion, and math rock. The guitar lines are weird and angular, and they’re often complemented by saxophone and ethereal wordless vocals. The licks are technical, the textures are inventive, and the album is exceptionally paced, especially for an instrumental release.
#27: Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi | Black metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
This album spends much of its runtime in a hazy, groaning, disorienting fog, punctuated by sharp guitars and gurgling vocals. This nearly-droning quality works well to build a menacing ambiance. Krautrock-inspired synth lines and jazzy bass flourishes add further depth. At the other extreme, there is some truly blistering black metal and death metal present here, often cut through with Floydian psychedelic flourishes. Psychedelic metal outside of stoner metal is rare, but this Finnish act pulls it off very well.
#26: Sweven – The Eternal Resonance | Progressive metal | Bandcamp
The Eternal Resonance, Sweven’s debut record, is beautiful. Gentle acoustic passages provide gorgeous contrast against the furious, scourging death metal. Moments between those extremes are handled skillfully, and the songs’ disparate elements feel as if they’re part of a greater whole. I would almost describe this as a middle ground between Opeth and Agalloch. The production is stellar, as well. Everything comes through cleanly and clearly without feeling too glitzy or slick.