Welcome to the third installment of The Elite Extremophile’s Top Prog Releases of 2021. We’re starting off with the Top 5 Prog EPs of 2021. The Two-part Top 50 Albums list will be posted next week.
I listened to more EPs than usual this year, but it was still a relatively small crop, so I decided to keep this list limited to five entries.
As I have stated in the past, I’m sure that I’ve missed some excellent releases. This site is my personal pet project, 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, email, or my Facebook page.
As I referenced in my Scheduling Note back in November, this list only addresses EPs put out between January 2021 and November 2021. Next year’s list will cover December 2021 through November 2022.
#5: Waqas Ahmed – A Perpetual Winter | Progressive metal | Bandcamp
It’s pretty common for me to gripe about overlong instrumental records on this site, but that’s all the more reason for instrumental acts to focus on putting out more concise, shorter releases. A Perpetual Winter is a prime example of this brevity. This 17-minute EP of dazzling, speedy riffs hits that sweet spot of technical mastery, good song structure, and just a little bit of cheese. Ahmed is clearly indebted to Dream Theater, but he’s got the chops to back it up. The three short scene-setting pieces do a good job of nonverbal storytelling, while the three meatier compositions are dramatic, engaging, and simply a lot of fun.
#4: Aaron Laughlin – Lost Coast | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Classic prog, folk, and jazz mingle freely on this EP. Smart, intriguing melodies ensure that this release is easily-digestible. Beyond that, the songs feature progressive structures with a wide array of musical ideas in each cut. The two-part title track and the eight-minute closer are both highlights which demonstrate Laughlin’s ability to craft a complex song that doesn’t get bogged down in its own internal intricacies.
#3: Christian Cosentino – Lawn | Atmospheric black metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
“Lush” is the best word I can use to describe this release. Even when shredding guitars and gurgled vocals are in the foreground, the string and piano arrangements fill every little nook in the mix. The balance between the sweetness of the strings and the biting guitar parts is robust. The frequent breaks in intensity let those more orchestral elements stand on their own, and each of the four songs on this release runs a whole gamut of moods.
#2: Mindwork – Cortex | Progressive metal, Death metal | Bandcamp
This Czech act draws heavily from the early ‘90s prog/extreme metal scene. Their sound, though, is unmistakably modern; it’s a 21st Century interpretation of acts like Atheist, Coroner, and (early) Cynic. The music is intricate and technical, but it’s far from simply being an exercise in ornate flashiness. The songs are smartly structured, shockingly melodic, and internally diverse. Chugging riffs with growled vocals are paired seamlessly beside gentler passages, and the interpolation between these two modes is always smooth and natural.
#1: Birth – Birth | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This murky slab of retro-prog clearly cribs heavily from fellow San Diegan proggers, Astra. Synthesizer and Mellotron dominate the soundscapes, vocals are airy, and the guitars exhibit an interstellar quality. The instrumental “Cosmic Wind” highlights some jazz and blues flavors alongside some overt krautrock touches, and the closing “Long Way Down” sounds like the lovechild of early ‘70s Black Sabbath and Yes.