Welcome to Part 2 of The Elite Extremophile’s Top 50 Prog Albums of 2021. In case you missed Part 1, it can be found here.
#25: Diagonal – 4 | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Diagonal’s fourth full-length release is both their most guitar-centric and also most krautrock-influenced work to-date. This stylistic shift suits them well, and the extra muscle provided by these guitar-forward compositions is a welcome improvement over the sometimes-languorous Arc. Jazz, of course, still plays a prominent role in Diagonal’s music, and the band is able to skillfully shift between (relatively) hard-rocking passages and mellower lulls.
#24: WEEED – Do You Fall | Psychedelic rock, Psychedelic folk, Krautrock | Bandcamp
WEEED has toned things down a bit for Do You Fall, but they make it work. There’s still a good amount of cosmic, kraut-y jamming, but it’s interspersed with contemplative, psychedelic folk. The end result is an album which will meditate on loose, relaxing musical moments on one song and then showcase an extended, driving jam session on the next.
#23: Soup – Visions | Progressive rock, Post-rock | Bandcamp
This Norwegian act plays a rich, cinematic version of progressive rock. It’s often slow-moving and deliberate. Strings, keys, and dramatic soundscapes are wedded harmoniously on Visions to conjure emotive moments. The music deftly shifts from hopeful and soaring to anxious, edgy, and everything in between.
#22: Accordo dei Contrari – UR- | Italian progressive rock, Zeuhl | Bandcamp
Brooding, dark, and jazzy, this instrumental album is full of stormy saxophone and rumbling, bassy piano. The compositions can vary in feeling from heavy and plodding to sunny and whimsical. Classical influences are prominent here, as well. Odd, jerky riffs are often juxtaposed against lighter sections, and the instrumentalism is nothing short of virtuosic across the entire album.
#21: Chromatic Aberration – Trial of the King | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This album is an unabashed love letter to the music of Rush. It’s high-energy prog with no shortage of technically impressive riffs, fun synth tones, and multi-parted compositions. Thanks to the vocalist sounding nothing like Geddy, though, it’s easy to appreciate this album on its own terms; it’s heavily Rush-inspired, but they’re not a Rush cover band. There is a bit of bloat, especially in the closing suite, but that’s relatively minor. This was the first album I found this year that I really loved, and it’s stuck with me since.
#20: Wizzerd/Merlin – Turned to Stone Chapter III: Wizzerd vs. Merlin | Stoner metal, Heavy psych, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Wizzerd’s 19-minute “We Are” is a gorgeous, swelling piece of music which evolves naturally and smoothly. The gentle acoustic opening eventually gives way to something fuzzy, meditative, and astral. There’s some tasty jamming tossed in for good measure, and occasional keys and sitar are included in for nice contrast. “Merlin’s Bizarre Adventure”, on the other hand, is a knowingly-insane piece which shows the band actively pushing away from its stoner metal roots. The band’s Facebook page is full of memes about their recent weird experiments, and this song more than lives up to the promise of those memes. Stoner, jazz, funk, disco, and dark psychedelia are all touched on in this charmingly disorienting opus.
#19: Squid – Bright Green Field | Post-punk, Krautrock | Bandcamp
This jittery, energetic album is one of the best fusions of post-punk with proggy influences that I’ve yet to run across. The guitars are angular and dance oddly around each other, while the vocals are over the top in their emotion, and the synths deployed in a supremely effective manner. These songs sprawl and take their time to build up. Riffs are repeated in a way which legitimizes them and makes their eventual resolution that much more satisfying.
#18: Cynic – Ascension Codes | Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Despite half the tracks on Ascension Codes being sub-one minute interludes and scene-setters, this work from Cynic is still a decidedly strong release. The decision to have the bass parts played on synths was admirable, and it lends this release a unique character within the context of their discography. Though not as strong as Cynic’s nigh-unassailable first two albums, Paul Masvidal is a creative enough songwriter and composer that even a middling album in the context of this band is quite strong. Jazz, death metal, and progressive rock live harmoniously on this record, and Masvidal’s unique synthesized vocals mark it as unmistakably Cynic.
#17: A Formal Horse – Meat Mallet | Progressive rock, Avant-prog | Bandcamp
Meat Mallet is the sophomore album from this British avant-prog outfit. The riffs are often pummeling and metallic, as best demonstrated on the opening “This One’s Just a Warning”. This heaviness is paired alongside unorthodox structures and dramatic vocals to arresting effect. The band nimbly shifts between atmospheric backdrops; they’re relatively light one moment, only to wallow in a sense of impending doom the next. This record keeps you on your toes with its ever-shifting nature and rather terse track lengths.
#16: Thy Catafalque – Vadak | Avant-garde metal, Hungarian folk | Bandcamp
Vadak continues in a path similar to last year’s release, Naiv. Black metal, Hungarian folk, electronic, and avant-garde elements are melded together on this sprawling record. Certain individual songs may occasionally run a little long, but the uninterrupted flow of new and unique ideas makes up for that added length. The second half of this album is stronger than the first (and the first isn’t exactly weak), and the title track is especially noteworthy.
#15: Bantamweight – Sounds + Haptics | Experimental rock, Electronic rock | Bandcamp
Bantamweight is one of the more uniquely-composed acts I’ve run across. A duo consisting of a bassist/vocalist and drummer/keyboardist, this distinct ensemble is utilized smartly. They play an intense electronic-influenced brand of prog that expertly balances bombast and gentleness. Sounds + Haptics is full of dense, loud, impactful songs, but these pieces remain accessible. It’s a short album, and it does leave the listener wanting more, but it doesn’t leave the listener feeling cheated. The dramatic cuts “Hellion” and “Fall Away” are especially praiseworthy.
#14: Stone Healer – Conquistador | Progressive metal, Post-metal | Bandcamp
Stone Healer plays a brand of music which straddles the line between rock and metal (or at least between extreme and non-extreme metal). Their music has the rawness of black and sludge metal, but it’s often blended with melodic influences and folky passages. Conquistador is an album which unashamedly embraces such contrasts. The undisguised emotional intensity suits both the scourging metal and the bare-bones acoustic passages. The compositions themselves are skillful, intelligent, and captivating.
#13: Suburban Savages – Demagogue Days | Progressive rock, Progressive pop | Bandcamp
Demagogue Days is a sunny album full of bright synthesizers and clever lyrics. The mood on this record is more lighthearted than most releases on this list. Structurally, each of the eight songs shows a high degree of creativity and versatility. It’s not all sunshine, though. Darker passages are woven in deftly at times, and the rich keyboard tones are always alluring.
#12: Regal Worm – The Hideous Goblink | Progressive rock, Space rock | Bandcamp
Regal Worm’s latest album blends spooky ‘60s sci-fi synths with ambitious, jazzy, psychedelic prog. This album is full of restless kinetic energy. Synthesizers cascade in shimmering arpeggi; rubbery bass bounces forward chaotically; and fuzzy guitar leads cut through to the fore. The Hideous Goblink opens with an inventive mini-suite of three linked yet distinct songs and closes on the incredible drama of the 19-minute “The Satan”.
#11: Caligonaut – Magnified as Giants | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This album is a lush, flowing collection of three big suites (and one smaller acoustic cut). The songs are well-structured and full of engaging, inventive riffs and hooks. The dramatic build within each piece is executed superbly. The layers of music are dense, but they’re assembled smartly. It feels rich and purposeful, never smothering or muddy. The contributions from members of Wobbler are obvious, especially in the backing vocals, but this is better than that band’s last release. Magnified as Giants is a prime example of what “classic” style prog can be in the modern age.
#10: Neptunian Maximalism – Solar Drone Ceremony | Drone, Experimental metal | Bandcamp
Solar Drone Ceremony is a massive, lurching cultic hymn. This Belgian ensemble masterfully builds an ominous atmosphere with plodding drums, groaning saxophone, and twisting guitars. The build in tension is sublime. Over the first forty minutes of its runtime, this enormous track adds layers upon layers, becoming denser and more urgent; and in its final ten minutes, it explodes into a frenzied climax befitting of its buildup.
#9: Atvm – Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless | Death metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
The debut album of this London-based quartet is an ambitious, impactful, and highly effective record. Famine is an auditory onslaught that also demonstrates impressive compositional maturity. Across seven songs and nearly an hour of music, the album evolves fluidly, and a parade of new themes keeps things fresh while also maintaining a sense of continuity.
#8: Kayo Dot – Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike | Experimental metal | Bandcamp
This album is oppressive and bleak. It’s an icy blend of black metal, gothic rock, and assorted avant-garde influences. The music is sinister and imposing, and it might just be Kayo Dot’s best album yet. The individual tracks sprawl and unfurl at their own pace, and the contrast between the lush clean elements and the moments of burning distortion play off each other perfectly.
#7: Creature – Eloge de l’Ombre | Avant-garde metal, Black metal | Bandcamp
The music on this record is some of the most creative and fresh black metal I have ever heard. In many ways, Creature is an act similar to Thy Catafalque, blending avant-garde black metal with progressive rock, electronic baubles, and other influences. Eloge de l’Ombre is nonetheless a distinct album. The songs are brilliantly structured, the playing is top-notch yet subtle, and the movements always keep you guessing. There are even some surprising hip-hop inclusions which mesh with the overall sound shockingly well.
#6: Bobby Shock – Street Angels | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
I was introduced to Bobby Shock’s music through his 2020 album, The Unforeseen. Street Angels demonstrates a sonic continuity in instrumental tone and composition, but this album feels more refined and focused. The 20-minute title track shows off all of Shock’s best tendencies as he blends progressive rock with arty pop, jazz, and new wave into something dramatic and enthralling. The other four songs, while not as expansive in scope, are no less smartly crafted or expertly executed.
#5: Frummyrkrið – Dauðans Myrkri | Black metal, Progressive metal | Listen
This band purported to be from Iceland, but when people with connections to Iceland’s black metal scene began asking around, no one could independently corroborate their existence. Combined with what are (according to Icelanders) Google Translate-style grammatical issues in the song titles, the rumor that this band actually hails from Brazil seems like it could be true. They’ve effectively vanished from the Internet, which is unfortunate. While not Icelandic themselves, the band members forged a distinctly Icelandic black metal sound and then supplemented it with spooky organs and ethereal synths. There’s a Misþyrming-meets-Amorphis vibe to this record. Dauðans Myrkri is an incredibly strong album, and I really hope the band eventually resurfaces.
#4: Nolan Potter – Music Is Dead | Progressive rock | Bandcamp
The six songs on this album span a wide array of music, ranging from dreamy psych-folk to fuzzed-out acid rock, to vaguely Zappa-esque weirdness. Music Is Dead has a beautiful flow to it, and its diversity is one of its strongest virtues. Jazz and psych and folk and more mesh surprisingly naturally. Potter’s lyrics are also often clever, adding another layer of enjoyment within a dimension of music I often deemphasize.
#3: Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon | Progressive metal, Math rock | Bandcamp
In my initial review, I described this as cybergrind, but upon looking into that pico-genre more carefully, it doesn’t really fit. Dream Weapon is a tough album to categorize. Certain songs–such as the title track–feature pounding, unrelenting metallic riffs, but most move along at a somewhat more relaxed pace. The synth tones are fantastically lush and futuristic, while also somehow maintaining an austere sterility that befits the album’s overall vibe. This is an album I liked a lot on first listen, and I’ve kept coming back to it and finding new things to love.
#2: black midi – Cavalcade | Avant-prog | Bandcamp
Anxious, mathy, jazzy guitars and squealing violins converge on the opening “John L” to form a madcap Zappa-meets-Magma descent into musical madness. Cavalcade is full of punishing, experimental math rock balanced against lighter moments of sweet folk. black midi walks a razor’s edge expertly on this record. On one side are techy, weird riffs shot through with jazz and modern classical influences, and on the other is the foil of more subtle, acoustic music. These two aspects of Cavalcade play off each other perfectly.
#1: Papangu – Holoceno | Progressive metal, Zeuhl | Bandcamp
Now here’s a Brazilian progressive metal band that embraces where they’re from! Papangu has put out what is, hands-down, the best fusion of zeuhl and metal I’ve ever run across. They blend visceral, earthy sludge riffs with haunting, otherworldly synth textures. Combined with the unusual rhythms and overall sense of impending doom, I can absolutely understand how this album is about an environmental apocalypse, despite not speaking Portuguese. This is a record I have come back to over and over and over, and I swear it gets better with each listen. This album is so multi-layered that I find something new to love with each spin.