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.
Welcome to the first installment of my 2020 best-of lists, TheEliteExtremophile’s Top 5 Prog EPs of 2020. Expect the two-part Top 50 Prog Albums list next week.
Prog is a pretty long-winded genre, so the number of EPs I listened to was low, somewhere in the 12-15 range. However, there were some absolutely killer releases, and trimming this list down to 5 was tough.
As I stated last year, I’m sure there are some excellent releases not included. 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.
Wobbler are indisputably one of the top dogs of the modern progressive rock scene, and I quite like them. However, I view them as one of the most overrated acts out there. They’re certainly not bad, not by a wide margin. Nevertheless, From Silence to Somewhere (their 2017 release) is ranked 28th all-time on Prog Archive’s list of the top prog albums, which is ridiculous. It’s a very good record which cracked my personal Top 10 that year, but it certainly ain’t the 28th-best prog album of all time. At time of writing, Dwellers of the Deep ranks 52nd on that same list, and that’s even more egregious. (That list, aggregated off user reviews, has all kinds of other odd inclusions and exclusions, and I’ve got my own gripes about that site’s users’ biases.)
I also find the progosphere’s eager deference to this band off-putting, and I’ve witnessed an awful lot of hand-waving at just how Yes-y they’ve become over their last few albums. Their Yes-iness isn’t an inherently bad thing. Rites at Dawn is my favorite of their records, and that is arguably their most blatantly Yes-like release. But after a while, such obvious aping of another act’s sound does begin to wear thin, and Yes varied their sound more than Wobbler have. To reiterate: I like Wobbler, but I don’t view them through the same irreproachable lens that many other prog fans seem to hold.
Now that I’ve gotten my expository rant out of the way, I can address the album at hand. Dwellers of the Deep is this Norwegian quintet’s fifth full-length release. Upon first listening to it, I was struck by the fact that I could identify no appreciable differences between this album and From Silence to Somewhere. The sound palette hasn’t been shaken up, the albums’ structures are similar, and the melodies feel too familiar—bordering on re-trod. However, the strength of Wobbler’s baseline sound is such that even with these considerations in mind, Dwellers of the Deep is still a pretty good record. Not amazing, but pretty good and worth listening to.
I’ve discussed Spinda Records and their consistently high-quality underground prog and psych before. Moura’s self-titled debut—released by Spinda in March—might just wind up being my album of the year, but my year-end list is still taking form. The latest release from this label is the third album from Acid Mess, Sangre de Otros Mundos (Blood of Other Worlds).
The album opens with “El Reflejo de Su Piel” (“The Reflection of Your Skin”). The first half of this song is slow and atmospheric: clean guitar echoes as a squiggly, fizzy synth line winds its way beneath. That suddenly erupts into a distinctly Spanish guitar riff imbued with metallic aggression. Handclaps add a distinct textural element, and swirling organ, though low in the mix, makes everything feel fleshed-out.
There is no shortage of instrumental EPs and albums put out by guitarists. Many of these releases tend to be self-indulgent and focused on technical soloing. Because of that trend, it’s always a refreshing change of pace when I run across someone like Xander Naylor, who functions more as a composer who just so happens to play guitar, rather than a guitarist composing pieces for his instrument.
Continuum is Naylor’s debut full-length record, and it reminds me of Steve Hackett’s solo material. Not so much in sound, but more so in that while there’s plenty of skillful instrumentalism, it isn’t to the neglect of structure or vision.
Nightcap at Wits’ End—the fourth album from Garcia Peoples—shows the band’s continued evolution and refinement of their sound. Their first two albums were psychedelic garage rock pieces with some underlying prog leanings. One Step Behind (their third release) was centered around a 32-minute krautrock opus. This record dials back the scale of things, with only one song topping seven minutes.
The sound presented here is also something of a middle ground between their first three releases. This is undoubtedly a progressive rock album, but it hearkens back to the very earliest days of progressive rock, when the lines between psych and prog were even blurrier than they currently are. It draws a great deal of influence from those first prog bands, such as The Moody Blues, the first King Crimson lineup, and early Canterbury acts like Egg/Uriel.
Album-long songs have a rich tradition in progressive metal. Edge of Sanity’s 1996 album Crimson is the best-known of these, but Inter Arma, Meshuggah, and others have dabbled in this format. And that’s not even touching on the countless albums where the individual tracks flow together. And while any band can put a 30-plus-minute track to record, it takes another level of skill to make it consistently good. A good album-long song needs to make sense as one song, as opposed to feeling like a handful of short songs smooshed together.
Echoes—the second release from Houston-based quartet Wills Dissolve—consists of solely the 32-minute title track. The swirling, psychedelic black hole cover art is fitting for this record. The music is huge and intergalactic, yet immensely heavy and crushing.
I’ve got mixed feelings on the term “folk metal.” On one hand, you can have some genuinely creative fusions, while on the other hand you have schlock like Korpiklaani. (Korpiklaani are very fun in a live setting, but there’s no denying they are extreme schlock.) Over the last decade or so, there have been some uniquely American attempts at folk metal. Almost all of these have been made with a straight face, in contrast to many of the campier European acts (the aforementioned Korpiklaani, Finntroll, etc.). Panopticon, with their intertwining of black metal and bluegrass, is likely the best-known example, and I’d argue for including Zeal & Ardor’s Satanic spirituals under the “folk metal” umbrella.
Huntsmen’s Americana influences are less in-your-face than either Panopticon or Zeal & Ardor, but they’re nonetheless present in the band’s vocal arrangements, melodic choices, and electric-acoustic contrasts. This Chicagoan quintet also bases their sound in doom metal and post-metal, as opposed to the more common folk metal template of black metal.
I found this album in a record store and was struck immediately by the cover art. After quickly consulting the Internet to make sure this wasn’t going to be something I’d hate, I decided to gamble and bought it without first listening to it. And boy, am I glad that I did.
Thy Catafalque is a one-man project based out of Hungary, and Naiv is this act’s ninth full-length album. By the way, this is a catafalque; I’d never heard that word and needed to look it up. On it, sole full-time bandmember Tamás Kátai blends black metal, electronic elements, and Hungarian folk music into something distinctive.
Back in the early days of progressive rock, Italy was second only to the UK in the scope and vibrancy of their prog scene. The Italians infused Anglo-originating prog with native folk and classical influences, they sang in their native language, and their use of uncommon scales and modes made them stand out. Not many of these bands found success beyond Italy’s borders, though, perhaps due to just how intensely Italian the music was.
Homunculus Res, then, have somewhat subverted prog tropes. Andiamo in giro di notte e ci consumiamo nel fuoco (We Go around at Night and Consume Ourselves in the Fire) is Homunculus Res’s fourth full-length release. This Sicilian quintet plays a variety of progressive rock strongly inspired by the Canterbury scene. The sound of the Canterbury scene was intensely English, and that’s why it was so surprising to find an Italian act in that vein.