Top 50 Prog Albums of 2020, Part 2: 25-1

Welcome to Part Two of TheEliteExtremophile’s Top 50 Prog Albums of 2020. In case you missed it, Part One is here.

#25: Garcia Peoples – Nightcap at Wits’ End | Progressive rock, Psychedelic rock | Bandcamp

Garcia Peoples dialed back the scale of this album, eschewing 32-minute krautrock opuses in favor of terser compositions. That change doesn’t mean they moderated their adventurous spirit, though. The music on Nightcap at Wits’ End is varied and exciting, ranging from King Crimson-y riffs to mild folk interludes. The album’s second half flows together seamlessly while also managing to make each track feel distinct. What I mentioned in my original review still holds true, though. What prevents this album from placing higher on this list is its relatively limp ending.

#24: The Grand Astoria – From the Great Beyond | Progressive rock | Bandcamp

The Grand Astoria considers their latest release to be an EP. Normally, I’m respectful of bands’ classifications of their releases, even if they’re much longer than the usual length of an EP. For example, the 60-minute Tulimyrsky from Moonsorrow is absolutely an EP, with its weirdly scattershot collection of covers and re-recordings. This 33-minute release, though, feels cohesive enough to be a short album, which is why I’ve placed it here, and not on my Top EPs list. Addressing the substance of this release, it’s a stellar slab of space-psych suffused with stoner spirit. Folky acoustic guitars and banjo mesh effortlessly with the astral atmosphere of the title track, and the 10-minute “Njanatiloka” showcases the band’s strength at blending stoner metal with complex prog riffs and arrangements. This might be the band’s most explicitly spacey release yet, and it’s an angle which suits them well.

#23: The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic | Progressive metal | Bandcamp

The Ocean successfully blended intelligent melodicism with bombastic, sludgy riffs on this release. The music manages to be both austere and enveloping through smart textural and tonal choices, giving this record a distinct feel. Phanerozoic II’s strongest moments are those when the band is straddling the line between metal and rock, often evoking latter-era Porcupine Tree.

#22: Vinyl Dial – Oceanic Electron Harvest | Progressive rock, Space rock | Bandcamp

This pair of 20-minute epics manages to be lush and interstellar, while also retaining grounded, earthy, and organic instrumental tones. It’s an impressive balancing act, and this album is one of those rare occasions where a slightly lo-fi aesthetic works in the music’s favor. It feels warm and endearingly homemade. The suites themselves are well-structured and skillfully played, channeling many classic prog sounds and tropes but presenting them in a unique way.

#21: Frogg – The Golden Path | Progressive metal | Bandcamp

Do not confuse this band with the identically-named New Yorkers on my Top EPs list. The centerpiece of The Golden Path is its half-hour, three-part “Hostile Forces” suite. This behemoth composition highlights all of this Italian band’s strengths. The music is simultaneously crushingly heavy and melodic. It’s huge and dramatic, a general feeling only augmented by the clean vocals. Death, doom, and post-metal converge to make something varied, different, and rewarding to revisit.

#20: J.G. Thirlwell & Simon Steensland – Oscillospira | Avant-prog, Zeuhl | Bandcamp

This is an album for fans of Univers Zero. Strings and reeds play a prominent role in this gloomy, oppressive record. Bassy brass adds a sinister growl to most tracks, and the drumming is nothing short of virtuosic. Compositions on Oscillospira sprawl comfortably, occupying massive amounts of space and fostering anxiety within the listener. Atonality is also deployed to impressive effect. Industrial, metal, and modern classical influences all get their moments to shine here. This album is disorienting, confusing, and stressful in the best ways possible.

#19: Chief Bromden – Slunovrat | Progressive rock, Post-punk | Bandcamp

This Czech act blends some of the harshest, noisiest elements of post-punk with progressive rock instrumentation and structures to make something distinct. The band sometimes verges on video game music with its piercing clean synths and rapid patterns. There’s a certain harsh austerity to this record which frequently comes across as beautiful. The instrumental cuts on this record are consistently strong and showcase some of Chief Bromden’s best attributes.

#18: Mildlife – Automatic | Jazz-fusion, Krautrock | Bandcamp

Automatic is a mellow piece of space-jazz which glides along smoothly. Synth tones are lush, the percussion is subdued but precise, and there’s some really impressive bass work. Krautrock-like repetition is utilized to great effect, particularly on the title track. When the band finds a good groove, they know how to work it and develop their ideas. I’d recommend this equally to fans of Steely Dan and Kraftwerk.

#17: Obskyr – Obskyr | Progressive rock, Zeuhl | Bandcamp

This record combines the weird, dark atmosphere of zeuhl with jangly, idiosyncratic guitarwork that feels almost folky. Overall, that gives this album the feel of walking through some dark, haunted forest. The compositions are hazy and spooky but filled with sharp guitar passages that cut through to the fore. Dashes of jazz and electronic music show up occasionally too, adding some fantastic textural contrast.

#16: Louise Patricia Crane – Deep Blue | Progressive rock, Art pop | Bandcamp

Deep Blue is a smooth, rich record which blends dreamy art pop with sharper progressive rock influences. Jakko Jakszyk’s guitarwork lends this album a distinctive atmosphere, and his backing vocals are a lovely complement to Crane’s powerful lead performance. Themes are revisited throughout Deep Blue, giving the whole release impressive continuity and coherence.

#15: Once and Future Band – Deleted Scenes | Progressive rock, Art pop | Bandcamp

The sophomore release form this Bay Area art-pop act took the strongest elements of their debut, trimmed the bloat, and added some exciting new elements. Jazzy keyboard tones most often take the lead, along with plenty of guitar embellishments. The vocal melodies are smart and artful and complement the lush arrangements. This album’s instrumental cuts are its strongest, though. “Several Bullets in My Head” is a smooth piece of astral jazz, and the closing “The End and the Beginning” is their most experimental song to date, conspicuously channeling Magma at points in the piece.

#14: Ring Van Möbius – The 3rd Majesty | Progressive rock | Bandcamp

I’ve often struggled to articulate why some retro-prog bands resonate with me while others simply do not strike my fancy. Listening to this album showed me that a good portion of it has to do with tone and timbre–specifically that of the keyboards. I might be showing some of my biases as a keyboard player, but this record is packed with tones I wish I could recreate on my own. The organ swirls and is full of a textural quality often lacking in other ultra-smooth modern acts. The synthesizers–rather than sounding like a less-legato-y version of the solo from “Lucky Man”–have character, often incorporating fifths and uncommon waveforms. The compositions are strong and coherent, too, but it’s the tones that made me fall in love with this album.

#13: Huntsmen – Mandala of Fear | Post-metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp

This sprawling, diverse record plays to all the strengths of post-metal as a genre. The looming walls of guitar are imposing, and the long songs use their time to build atmosphere and a sense of menace. Huntsmen frequently incorporate Americana influences, most often in the songs’ melodies. The contrast of modern metal timbre and tone with such a decidedly old-fashioned genre as Americana creates a unique combination. It’s almost like if Neil Young decided to record an atmospheric sludge record.

#12: Dai Kaht – Dai Kaht II | Zeuhl | Bandcamp

In my initial review of this album, I unfairly maligned it as simply a more guitar-centric Attahk. But that mischaracterization is part of the risk of writing a review after only a listen-and-a-half. There are plenty of blatantly Magma-ish moments (rapidfire Kobaian-inspired gibberish, scatting over jazzy background), but those are some of the record’s weakest elements. Dai Kaht thrives when they put forward a sound that is their own. Jazz, metal, blues, and even Southern rock flavors are obvious in the guitar lines, and the songs twist in strange ways. The two tracks which top 10 minutes are especially praiseworthy for their cohesion and dramatic builds. In particular, “Mōa Orgata” is one of 2020’s best individual songs.

#11: Arcade Messiah – The Host | Progressive rock, Progressive metal | Bandcamp

This one-man project out of Ireland blends melodic hard rock, electronic elements, and unpredictable song structures to craft something which is both easily accessible and multi-layered. The Host follows in the tradition of acts like Porcupine Tree and Riverside while maintaining a distinct identity all its own.

#10: Howling Giant & Sergeant Thunderhoof – Turned to Stone Chapter 2: Masamune & Muramasa | Progressive metal, Stoner metal | Bandcamp

Split records, while sometimes a nice little treat, often feel unfocused–effectively acting as two (often similar) bands simultaneously releasing EPs. Masamune and Muramasa, though, is a more collaborative effort. These two bands worked together on their suites to ensure that this album would feel like one unified whole. Howling Giant’s “Masamune” is more in the vein of traditional prog, though still rooted in stoner metal. Rich Hammond organ lends depth to the swirling guitars and clever vocal melodies. The song’s evolution is brilliant, with perfectly-timed peaks and troughs in intensity. Sergeant Thunderhoof’s “Muramasa” veers into a more post-metal direction. Big riffs echo out, and this song focuses more on atmosphere. It’s still an impressive multi-part suite, distinct from and yet complementary to this album’s first half.

#9: Zopp – Zopp | Progressive rock | Bandcamp

The Canterbury scene of the early 1970s was one of prog’s most recognizable and most idiosyncratic movements. It’s been experiencing a small revival as of late: Homunculus Res (featured in part one of this list) utilizes many Canterbury tropes, and other acts incorporate Soft Machine or Gong influences semi-regularly. Zopp wholeheartedly embraces the Canterbury sound and invigorates it with a fresh and modern energy. The retro organ tones are delightful, and a driving, jazzy energy sucks the listener right into the first proper song, “Before the Light”. Each song is distinct. Some feature dark, discordant moments and others feel light and sunny. Most songs deftly blend both sides. What makes this even more impressive is that this is an instrumental record.

#8: Mother’s Cake – Cyberfunk! | Progressive rock, Funk rock | Bandcamp

This Austrian act’s latest release is brimming with pure, fun energy. They seamlessly blend Rage Against the Machine-style funk metal with Mars Volta-y prog, the smart catchiness of early Muse, and a healthy dose of influences as disparate as space rock and disco. There’s a certain tongue-in-cheek irreverence often missing from the famously self-serious prog scene, and it pays dividends in keeping this album both accessible and artful. Ranging from the aggression of “Toxic Brother” to the over-the-top psych-balladry of “Love Your Smell” to the prog-disco “Hit on Your Girl”, Cyberfunk! is an endlessly enjoyable release.

#7: Slift – Ummon | Krautrock, Garage rock | Bandcamp

These French kings of modern motorik have reached new highs on Ummon. Acidic, piercing guitars lead the way over a skilled, driving rhythm section. Jazzy flourishes complement the cold austerity of this record. The individual tracks are usually long, but patience is rewarded with gradually accruing developments which often resolve in an explosive climax, like some Ionian volcano spewing its molten contents into the starkness of space.

#6: Nord – The Only Way to Reach the Surface | Post-metal, Post-hardcore | Bandcamp

This album covers a crazy breadth of territory, considering its runtime. These Frenchmen throw in influences as diverse as post-hardcore, indie rock, black metal, prog, and art pop. This variability is best encapsulated in the transition between the first and second songs, when willowy synths suddenly give way to black metal shredding. Somehow, it all manages to hold together. The band knows when to be harsh, when to be melodic, and when to make a sudden left turn.

#5: Shaman Elephant – Wide Awake but Still Asleep | Progressive rock | Bandcamp

Wide Awake but Still Asleep is a charging, attention-grabbing album. This record barrels along at a pace that makes it feel shorter than it is. The songs are full of masterful instrumentalism, and the vocals are impassioned. There’s an excellent balance between some stylistic ideals of classic ‘70s prog mixed with modern sensibilities that keeps work this fresh, even after multiple listens.

#4: Custard Flux – Oxygen | Progressive rock, Psychedelic folk | Bandcamp

Oxygen is Custard Flux’s most mature, most cohesive, and overall best record yet. The acoustic constraint bandleader Gregory Curvey put on himself came across as gimmicky on some of the weaker tracks on previous releases, but on Oxygen it feels much more organic. The rare electric embellishments are that much more impactful here as well. The album ranges from doom-laden, Van der Graaf-y saxophones to summery, late ‘60s psych-pop. Despite such wild tonal variation, the listener is never left with a feeling of whiplash or disorientation.

#3: Wills Dissolve – Echoes | Death metal, progressive metal | Bandcamp

Echoes is a truly monumental slice of experimental metal. The textures and atmospheres deployed on this record masterfully evoke the cold vastness of space. The production is clean and clear without being overly glossy. Wills Dissolve shifts between plodding death-doom, jazzy space-psych, and disorienting, blackened riffs. Even beyond the frequent utilization of vocoder, this album often feels like a loving tribute to Cynic–something inspired by but wholly distinct from those early prog metal masters.

#2: Thy Catafalque – Naiv | Avant-garde metal, Hungarian folk | Bandcamp

Naiv might be my happiest musical surprise of 2020. I’d never heard of Thy Catafalque before running across this album in a record store, and I bought it on a whim based largely on the cover art. The music here is an enthralling, engaging blend of black metal, Hungarian folk, and electronic elements. Multilayered vocal harmonies meld to create unique textures, and surprising influences are always hiding just around the corner. Even if you’re not a fan of metal, I’d recommend giving this album a spin.

#1: Moura – Moura | Progressive rock | Bandcamp

From the moment I heard this album’s ominous, opening notes, I knew I was in for a fantastic trip. This psychedelic blend of progressive rock and Galician folk weaves an occultic web that entices the listener with a murky yet alluring aura. Fuzzy guitar lines, swirling organ, and vocals with palpable levels of reverb converge to make what will surely be one of the best prog albums of the decade. Firmly in the vein of many past prog giants, Moura somehow manages to stay fresh and invigorating, and each new musical twist brings something juicy and attention-grabbing.

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