Cynic is one of my absolute favorite progressive metal bands. They’ve got a singular sound that weaves together death metal, jazz, and astral progressive rock. Though they have drifted away from explicit death metal after their 1993 debut, their evolution has been natural, and they’re still recognizably the same band.
Ascension Codes is the band’s fourth full-length album and the first since the untimely deaths of founding drummer Sean Reinert and longtime bassist Sean Malone. These two are sorely missed, but the musicians assembled by guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal pay fitting tribute to the unique styles and incredible skills of their predecessors. Notably, instead of utilizing a bass guitarist, the bass parts here are all played on a synthesizer, which lends a unique character to this album in the context of Cynic’s discography.
France has long embraced a distinct weirdness and experimentalism in their rock music. Magma are probably the most germane example for this site, though there was a whole microcosm of uniquely French prog acts in the ‘70s, such as Ange, Memoriance, and Mona Lisa. This spirit can be seen today in numerous extreme metal acts, like the bizarre symphonics of Öxxö Xööx or blackgaze pioneers Alcest.
Creature, the one-man project of Raphaël Fournier, has put out a striking, bold release that continues in this tradition of adventurous Francophone rock and metal. (It’s also another strong release from Italy-based experimental metal label I, Voidhanger; I strongly recommend checking out their catalogue.) The music is dense and replete with synthesized vocals and engaging rhythms. Fournier is also quite verbose, demonstrating downright Springsteenian levels of wordiness. So, if you speak French, there’s likely a lot for you to analyze here.
Kayo Dot are back with their tenth full-length release two years after the totally-okay Blasphemy. That album continued the band’s recent trend away from metal and toward Gothic rock with some experimental leanings. Kayo Dot has always been difficult to nail down with precise genre descriptors, frequently operating in nebulous grey areas between assorted experimental rock and metal subgenres.
Bandleader Toby Driver has often worked with a rotating crew of musicians for Kayo Dot, but for Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike, he recorded with the original lineup of his previous band, the critically-beloved maudlin of the Well. The musicianship is expectedly top-notch, and the fusion of experimental metal with subtler influences is sublime. This might just be my new favorite Kayo Dot record.
Regal Worm is a solo project by Jarrod Gosling, one half of the duos I Monster (trip-hop) and Cobalt Chapel (psychedelic rock). Regal Worm blends Gosling’s usual psychedelic leanings with more progressive and ambitious song structures. His last release under this moniker, 2018’s Pig Views, was my favorite album that year, so I naturally had high hopes for this release.
The album cover for The Hideous Goblink lives up to its name. It is an ugly piece of art and not nearly as enchanting as the art on his past releases. However, this is an instance where that old axiom about book covers and judging them holds true. Regal Worm’s fourth full-length release is a fantastic collection of songs which sound like one unified whole. The six compositions here all work in harmony with each other to deliver something fantastic.
Well, it’s been two years. Time for a new Dream Theater album. A View from the Top of the World is the too-many-th release from these prog metal stalwarts. After the passable but unremarkable Distance over Time, I wasn’t really expecting much from these guys. Then again, I didn’t get into them until I was in college, after their prime, so I’ve never really expected much from them.
Dream Theater has their very specific sound, and with the exception of the bafflingly terrible The Astonishing, they have been super consistent and predictable. Everything is always masterful from a technical standpoint. However, it often comes off as soulless, and I frequently point to Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci as some of the most masturbatory musicians in the notoriously onanistic field that is prog metal. Much of their output over the last two decades has been uninspired, but now and again we have gotten the occasional flash of brilliance.
Nolan Potter is a Texas-based multi-instrumentalist, and Music Is Dead is his second full-length release. His 2019 debut was a strong collection of tracks which blended together a healthy melange of influences, like psych, folk, pop, prog, and experimental music. Music Is Dead further improves on that strong debut, and Potter demonstrates some serious instrumental and compositional chops.
Yes have returned after a seven-year absence to deliver an album no one was asking for. 2014’s Heaven and Earth was a terrible, ignominious end to Chris Squire’s impressive career. That record sounded like Air Supply doing a Yes cover album. In a contemporaneous review on my personal Facebook page, I remarked that that album “… is beyond bland. It makes milk seem spicy. This is beyond paint-by-numbers. This has less soul than a ginger.”
Unfortunately, The Quest continues in a pretty similar vein to its predecessor. This album is an improvement over their last release, but that is a pretty low bar to clear. Yes brings absolutely nothing new to the table here. The ills which plagued Heaven and Earth also hobble The Quest, a trend which seems to imply that there are inherent problems with this version of the band.
Vocalist Jon Davison appears to be a big part of the problem, but he’s not the only problem. As much as I would love to blame Glass Hammer (Davison’s former band and my favorite contemporary prog punching bag) for all of Yes’s ills, I cannot do so in good faith. Some of the worst songs on the album were written solely by longtime Yes guitarist Steve Howe.
Diagonal had a quick turnaround between this album and their previous release, 2019’s Arc. Compare that timeline to the five-year gap between their self-titled debut and their sophomore album, or to the seven-year hiatus following that. Needless to say, I’m glad they’re putting out music at a brisker pace than they have in the past
I’m also glad that 4 is an improvement over Arc. Arc wasn’t bad by any means, but good chunks of it felt unfocused or needlessly drawn-out. On this new release, the band sounds energized and full of new ideas, and that musical vigor shines through in the five compositions present here.
Kesem’s debut EP was my EP of the year for 2020. It was a mind-bending trip of 21 minutes that blended progressive rock and space rock with the rawness and energy of classic garage rock. The songs on that EP feature sudden shifts in tone, texture, and mood; and the ample deployment of trumpet made them stand out.
Their first full-length-release, Post-Terra, follows in the same path as their self-titled EP. It feels more polished with smoother edges than its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean the sound is watered down at all. There’s still plenty of astral odysseys and surprises packed into this album.
It is likely unsurprising that the author of a progressive rock blog is not the biggest fan of punk. Post-hardcore is a variety I’m particularly not fond of (mostly due to the vocals), but post-hardcore is also the variety most often melded with prog. There have been some successes in the realm, most notably The Mars Volta’s earliest releases, but a lot of it fails to tickle my fancy.
The Mask of the Phantasm’s debut is one of those uncommon records which uses post-hardcore in a way which I like. There’s an emotional rawness to New Axial Age, as well, which is absent in a lot of prog. Thomas Pridgen (formerly of The Mars Volta) provides drums on this album, and the raw intensity he brings serves it well. All the members of this band perform excellently, from the impassioned vocals to creative keyboard parts, to the strong compositions provided by their guitarist.