Welcome to the first installment of The Elite Extremophile’s Top 50 Prog Albums of 2021. This article will cover places 50-26 on my list, with the top half set to follow on Thursday.
As I always say, I’m sure there are some excellent albums not included in my list. 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.
As I referenced in my Scheduling Note back in November, this list only addresses albums put out between January 2021 and November 2021. Next year’s list will cover December 2021 through November 2022.
Though it felt as if it started off fairly slow, 2021 wound up being a very strong year for progressive rock and metal. Finalizing this list took longer than usual, especially nailing down the specific order.
Considering the strong crop of releases, I thought I might include a very brief honorable mentions section before launching into the meat of things.
- Gotanda – Огонь по своим: Driving, jazzy prog with an energetic punk pulse and smart melodic choices.
- Meer – Playing House: A smart, enjoyable blending of progressive pop and chamber music.
- Maragda – Maragda: Fuzzy, ambitious heavy psych/prog out of Spain.
- Fanatism – Inverted Evolution: Dark, jazzy prog which draws from post-punk and gothic rock.
- Dream Theater – A View from the Top of the World: If they had only cut down on the bloat, this probably would have made the list proper. This release is their best album since Octavarium.
Now, on to the list!
#50: Prisma – Gold | Progressive rock, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
This Swiss act is the latest in a long line of acts heavily influenced by Tool. They’re not just a clone, though. The riffs are muscular and have their own unique character. Prisma’s alt metal often has tinges of doom and sludge, and the overall sound is more grounded than Tool’s.
#49: Nebulous Sun – First Tale | Zeuhl, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Nebulous Sun isn’t breaking any new ground on First Tale. There’s plenty of thumping, Magma-style zeuhl, as well as mellower cuts of jazzy prog with some avant-garde ideas. That said, this album is plenty enjoyable. The songs don’t linger longer than they should; zeuhl tropes are smartly deployed; and the album demonstrates a pleasant variety.
#48: Mythic Sunship – Wildfire | Progressive rock, Psychedelic rock, Krautrock | Bandcamp
Wildfire is a blistering, charging instrumental release. This Danish act expertly weds the art of engaging jams with tactful structural evolutions. Each track has a clear throughline, and they always wind up somewhere distinct from where they started. The paths to these conclusions are organic and avoid whiplash, though. Jazz, blues, krautrock, psychedelia, and space rock all intertwine to weave a powerful musical tapestry. The solos are searing, the grooves are hypnotic, and the instrumentalism is top-notch.
#47: Primaleón – Systems of the World | Progressive rock, Progresive metal | Bandcamp
Though my initial critique about the mastering on this album still stands, the compositions on Systems of the World are strong enough to overcome that flaw. The songs are complex, and the structures are intelligent. The playing is incredibly skillful, and there’s a clear love for the best prog of the ‘90s. Though strongly evocative of acts like Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard, Primaleon succeeds at carving out their own niche.
#46: Paradigm Blue – Transist | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This North Carolina act came out of a twenty-year hibernation to release Transist. It’s an album which moves along at a relaxed but determined pace. There’s a laid-back confidence to much of this music. It’s richly-layered and cleanly-produced. The lightly-processed vocals remind me a lot of Avandra, and the riffing is often reminiscent of Rush. This is a pretty long album, but there is a lot of really strong music here.
#45: Chafouin – Toufoulcan | Progressive rock, Math rock | Bandcamp
On Toufoulcan, Chafouin displays tonal restraint with their individual instruments. Instead, they let the compositions do the talking. The songs on this album are fairly terse, with the longest barely cracking five minutes. Guitar parts are tight and complex, and elements of krautrock and post-punk fluidly bleed into this album’s math rock core.
#44: SEIMS – Four | Post-rock, Math rock | Bandcamp
SEIMS has a distinct set of guitar and keyboard tones which makes them instantly recognizable, and those tones are well-utilized on Four. The riffs are rapid and complex, and the band often cultivates a tense, anxious atmosphere. The occasional inclusion of trumpet adds an unusual textural element to the music. The album perhaps runs a hair long, but it’s a minor issue when the underlying compositions are so strong.
#43: Little Jimi – The Cantos | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This French act blends hazy, abstract stoner and post-rock influences with progressive rock to make a strong debut. Many of these tracks have a certain amorphousness to them; they surge and ooze and never feel particularly constrained or hurried. Ty Segall-style psychedelia is prominently incorporated in The Cantos as well, particularly in the distant, echoing vocals. There’s a sense of doom hanging about much of this album, but it’s captivating.
#42: Fever Dog – Alpha Waves | Glam rock, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Alpha Waves is a distinctive mix of two significantly different sounds. On the one hand, this California duo pays homage to many ‘70s glam rock and hard rock acts, like T. Rex, The Sweet, and Thin Lizzy. On the other, there are synth-laden excursions and Gilmourian guitar lines aplenty. This is a varied record that knows when to change things up, when to launch into the stratosphere, and when to dial things down a notch. Alpha Waves blends the fun of early ‘70s hard rock and glam rock with adventurous structures to make something quite unique and enjoyable.
#41: Сѣта – Новъгородъ (Sieta – Novgorod) | Black metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Sieta plays a melodic, symphonic variety of folky black metal that makes use of some complex structures. There are lots of subtle little flourishes to the music, and a plethora of wind and string instruments is incorporated organically. I also love the use of Old East Slavic and Old Church Slavonic to represent the two warring factions of the story.
#40: Wippy Bonstack – Wippy Bonstack’s Dataland | Progressive rock, Pronk | Bandcamp
Dataland is full of weird, complex, jazzy guitar and piano lines. The playing is absolutely stellar, and the compositions are overall quite strong. There’s lots of Zappa and Cardiacs-style goofy weirdness, and much like those acts, this one-man act has the chops to back it all up. Amid the stranger, more RIO-inclined elements, there are plenty of fun, accessible passages.
#39: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000 | Psychedelic rock, Progressive pop | Bandcamp
Butterfly 3000 is not the proggiest release of the year by any means, but I’ve always made a point to have pretty fuzzy edges when it comes to what I consider appropriate for this site. KGLW have continued to push their own boundaries on this synth-forward album of psychedelia. It’s mostly fairly sunny, but there are lots of clever little inclusions, ranging from jazzy bass licks to sharply contrasting synth tones to unorthodox melodies. “Blue Morpho” and “Black Hot Soup” almost sound like they could be from the Polygondwanaland sessions.
#38: The Mask of the Phantasm – New Axial Age | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Guitarist and composer Omar Ghaznavi draws from the devastation of his father’s murder for this project, and the raw, emotional catharsis is evident on New Axial Age. There’s a visceral intensity on this album not heard often in the world of progressive rock. The compositions are mostly fairly terse, but they’re smart, inventive, and often surprising. Post-hardcore is leveraged powerfully, and Thomas Pridgen’s aggressive drumming is especially praiseworthy.
#37: Vayu – Wrath | Progressive electronic, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Vayu treads a line between electronica and rock without clearly falling into either camp. The version of electronica they dabble in is close to something like chiptune or vaporwave, much like Vinyl Dial (an act I’ve highlighted a couple times). The compositions on Wrath are highly varied and mostly maintain a bouncy, insistent tempo. A multitude of keyboard tones and textures keep things interesting, and though I dislike the synthesized vocals, everything else is strong enough to make this album worth your time.
#36: Moriya – Atma | Post-metal, Doom metal | Bandcamp
The four massive tracks on Atma are a bruising collection of distinctly Siberian post-metal. Buddhist chants and percussion are incorporated seamlessly into the metal backing tracks. The closest comparison I could make would probably be the Singaporean death metal band Rudra, which incorporates Carnatic music into their records. Atma is full of dramatic builds. Tension is amped up impressively, and the Eastern and Western sounds meld in a way which feels purposeful and well-thought-out. The last few minutes of the closing track, “Гамая”, are an especially potent example of Moriya’s signature fusion.
#35: Pete Peterson – Synchronized Seasoning | Progressive metal, Death metal | Bandcamp
Synchronized Seasoning is full of chunky, knotted riffs and pummeling percussion. Speedy technicality is one of the primary foci of this album, but it’s not an end unto itself. The individual songs are smartly crafted, diverse, and surprisingly accessible. The compositions are bursting with energy and drama, and it’s all evocative of some of Devin Townsend’s best stuff.
#34: Writhing Squares – Chart for the Solution | Space rock, Krautrock | Bandcamp
This bass-and-sax duo out of Philly channel the cosmic minimalism of Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come and the jazzy jamming of Hawkwind. These elements all sum to make something which stands out in the current prog scene. Looping synths and simple drum machine patterns grant the music an undeniable momentum, and Writhing Squares somehow manage to use the thin production to their benefit. This album does suffer from a bit of bloat, but like I stated in my initial review, I’m not sure which songs I would have trimmed. There are no glaring weak spots, so maybe I just don’t have the fortitude necessary to stomach this much lo-fi space rock in one sitting.
#33: Kuunatic – Gate of Klüna | Psychedelic rock, Zeuhl | Bandcamp
Gate of Klüna is one of the lighter albums on this list. There’s a loose, fun sense to much of this music. The vocals are somewhat unpolished, but that only serves to complement the shamanistic, ritualistic feel to many of these cuts. The drums are thumping and driving, and the multitude of keyboard effects create a disorienting atmosphere. Musical ideas are repeated and iterated upon to reach ecstatic states.
#32: Æthĕrĭa Conscĭentĭa – Corrupted Pillars of Vanity | Progressive metal, Black metal | Bandcamp
Space rock, black metal, and jazz influences converge on Corrupted Pillars of Vanity to form a diverse, doom-laden musical experience. Sterile black metal guitars shred icily against the warm reediness of saxophones. The five epic tracks on this album take their time to unfold and tell the story of an alien civilization. Despite their length, the ideas presented here are clear, and the dense layers of bombast effectively underscore the gravity of the story.
#31: Between the Buried and Me – Colors II | Progressive metal | Buy
Colors II doesn’t see BTBAM stray too far outside their wheelhouse. That’s not necessarily a problem; they’ve got a distinct sound, and it suits them well. However, this album is slow to get going, and much of the first 20 minutes is generic. Fortunately, the remaining hour of Colors II is strong enough to lift it past its unengaging opening. The best songs here are the ones where BTBAM are enthusiastically weird, like the strangely-upbeat “Fix the Error” or the ‘80s-influenced “The Future Is Behind Us”.
#30: Perilymph – Tout en Haut | Progressive rock, Psychedelic rock | Bandcamp
Perilymph is a band whose sound balances the contrasts between lush synthesizers and pared-back acoustic passages. Much of this album draws from space rock and loungey jazz, which gives it a laid-back and warmly nostalgic feel. The songs are clever and complex, and even though I don’t speak French, the emotions behind the vocals are clear.
#29: Kesem – Post-Terra | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Though cleaner and more polished sounding than last year’s self-titled EP, Post-Terra is still an engaging, energetic full-length release. Garage rock elements are plentiful, and Hawkwind-y space rock influences are frequently apparent. Weird moments tinged with jazz, punk, and krautrock crop up often, sometimes within the same song. The instrumental “Let Go” is one of my favorite tracks on the album, featuring echoing piano, trilled guitar lines, and buzzing, Middle Eastern synth tones. It’s a microcosm of the best elements of the album.
#28: Agusa – En annan värld | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
The two instrumental epics on En annan värld demonstrate a surprising amount of restraint. Yes, they are long songs, but they’re meticulously structured with careful consideration for how the different elements will interact. Camel is the most obvious influence here, and it’s nice to hear a reinterpretation of a classic sound other than the major acts, like Yes or Pink Floyd. Even at twenty-plus minutes with multiple internal divisions, each song sounds like one unified piece from start to finish.
#27: Ehsan Gelsi – Ephemera | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Ephemera was commissioned as a celebration of the grand organ in the town hall of Melbourne, and it’s obvious. Organ dominates both of the sprawling epics on this album, though it’s not the only star. Glimmering synthesizers often get moments to shine. Elements of classical and new-age music mingle with more traditional prog, making this album something of a mashup between Rick Wakeman and Mike Oldfield. These songs are well-constructed, with movements that complement one another. It’s often drifting and atmospheric, but there is no shortage of showy synth solos, either.
#26: K’mono – Return to the ‘E’ | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This band plays a keyboard-forward variety of progressive rock which is unashamedly rooted in the genre’s earliest days. The playing is often restrained, though there’s an underlying sense of tension as some inevitable climax approaches. “Feel You Pulsing” does feature some more modern, mildly electronic influences, and the closing track is charmingly all-over-the-place.