Japan often gets stereotyped as having a lot of bizarre media. We’ve all seen those clips of insane Japanese game shows. I’ve never been to Japan, so I can’t personally vouch for the country, but I’ve got a feeling that’s an unfair, unrepresentative slice of their media landscape. I’ve heard enough dull Japanese jazz-rock to be confident they’ve got their own anodyne TV shows. However, sometimes that reputation for weirdness is warranted. Those insane game shows do exist, after all. And musically, it was Japan that revitalized zeuhl in the 1990s. The latest release from GEZAN falls firmly into that tradition of strangeness.
「あのち」(“Anochi”) is a striking record. It’s distinctive in its sound, and I somewhat struggled when thinking up artists for the “For fans of” section of the header. This album contains a dizzying blend of punk, prog, jazz, art rock and more. It touches on an impressive number of genres while also maintaining a sense of purpose about itself.
Witch Ripper is one of my favorite local acts from the Seattle scene. They play a heavy, sludgy variety of metal, but it’s shot through with complex melodies and artful subtleties. I’ve seen them live a few times, and they always put on a fantastic show. So if you’re in the Pacific Northwest and you get a chance to see them, I’d strongly recommend the experience.
Despite being around since 2012, the band didn’t put out its first full-length release until 2018. Homestead is a solid album with some great moments. It’s more sludge-with-prog-elements than vice-versa, but it still holds its own. Their new album, The Flight after the Fall, has more explicitly progressive leanings.
After nearly a decade of silence, British math/progressive rock band Plank (alternately stylized as Plank! on Spotify) returns with a new record. Their last release was 2014’s Hivemind, an insect-themed album with some absolutely killer tracks on it. “Grasshoppers from Mars” demonstrated the band’s ability to be flashy yet catchy and melodic, and “Khepri” was a beautiful example of how to execute a build-up.
Their new release, Future of the Sea follows in a similar sonic palette. This instrumental record is built around weird, complicated riffs, where both crunchy guitar and glimmering synths get their chance to shine.
After four years, PoiL returns with another daring, angular, madcap album. 2019’s Sus was a fantastic release, and it saw the band both focus its songwriting after the sprawling Brossaklitt and stretch out with a pair of 20-minute suites. On this release, the band has teamed up with biwa player and singer Junko Ueda.
I’m hardly an expert in traditional Japanese music. I knew what a biwa was before writing this review, so I’m probably ahead of most Americans, but not by much. According to Ueda’s website, she specializes in “biwa storytelling” and shomyo, a type of Buddhist chant. My primary source of knowledge of Japanese folk music prior to this was Osamu Kitajima’s seminal Benzaiten, a sublime synthesis of progressive rock and an array of Japonic styles.
Much like Sus, PoiL Ueda is made up of a pair of large suites, each of which typifies one of Ueda’s professed specialities.
I’ve discussed the Canterbury sound on this site a number of times. Its heyday–like much of progressive rock–was back in the early 1970s, but even then it was somewhat niche. Despite that, there are a few acts still keeping this sound alive, and Zopp is one of the best ones.
Zopp’s 2020 self-titled debut wound up being one of my top albums for the year, though I never reviewed it before my year-end best-of list. It wasn’t some late-in-the-year surprise for me; I just never got around to covering it. But I don’t want to have that be the case again. The two pre-release singles for Dominion had both been great, so I went into this record with pretty high hopes. On their Bandcamp, the band describes this album as being closer to Yes or Marillion than any Canterbury act, but I have to disagree. If I’m looking for good comparisons, I’m still going to cite Soft Machine, Gong, and (especially) Caravan.
Lil Yachty is now the most-unexpected artist I’ve ever covered. I could have feasibly seen myself covering other hip-hop artists at some point. Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition is a masterpiece that extensively samples progressive, psychedelic, and krautrock; and his experimental spirit made him someone I thought could have shown up on this site eventually. Lil Yachty’s usual trap stylings made this album a complete left-field surprise, though. (I can’t say I’m exceedingly familiar with his previous work, nor do I know much about hip-hop, more broadly speaking. But I’d heard a few of his songs, and in general I don’t like trap. So please excuse my illiteracy of his other work.)
Let’s Start Here. is fairly comparable to the Kanye West-Kid Cudi collaboration, Kids See Ghosts. But where that duo was still firmly rooted in hip-hop, Yachty’s new release is primarily rock-focused. There are also ample soul and Motown flavors, and hip-hop crops up on occasion. The whole record is dense and lush, and it’s got an engrossing, enveloping quality to it. Autotune is used as an instrument unto itself here. The robotic tones are slathered in reverb, and it complements the dreamy, Afrofuturist tone of this record perfectly.
Riverside is one of the bigger names in the progressive music world. They’re a progressive metal act based out of Poland that came to prominence in the early 2000s. Their first decade or so of existence was great, with 2009’s Anno Domini High Definition being one of the best records of that decade. Moving into the 2010s, though, the band faltered a bit. Shrine of New Generation Slaves didn’t quite land, in my opinion, and I disliked Love, Fear and the Time Machine so much, I didn’t even give their 2018 album, Wasteland, a listen. So, when I saw they had a new record coming out (their first since I started this site), I was viewing it comparably to how I view Dream Theater: something I’m pretty much obligated to cover; something I’m not that jazzed about; but something I’m willing to be surprised by.
When I first heard “Friend or Foe?”, the album’s opening track and leadoff single, I had a rather negative reaction to it. Those blooping faux-80s synth lines usually summon a visceral revulsion from me. I don’t like synthwave or most of the other ‘80s pastiches that have been in vogue for what feels like at least a decade at this point. It can be fun as an interlude to switch things up, admittedly, like BTBAM did on Colors II. “Friend or Foe?” isn’t even a bad song; I’ve warmed up quite a bit to it. But there’s a difference between tossing in some contrast two-thirds of the way through an album versus leading an album off with such a decision. I was worried this would wind up being something of a mission statement for the record, but thankfully it isn’t.
Years ago, I ran across a poll on the ProgArchives forums asking what the most important instrument in a (progressive) rock band is. It’s obviously not guitars or keys, as ELP and mid-career King Crimson demonstrate, respectively. Neither Van der Graaf Generator nor Atomic Rooster had a bassist in their classic lineups. So that’s why I ultimately chose “drums” in that poll. What makes rock music rock music is its rhythm. Ditch the percussion, and it’s difficult to make something feel like rock music.
I bring this anecdote up because for about the first twenty-ish minutes of Light’s debut album, The Path, there is almost no percussion. (Side note, the generic nature of the names of both the band and the album made this a bit of a challenge to find.) This album opens in a manner which feels more like classical or chamber music. As the record progresses, though, more traditional prog influences are brought in.
Hammers of Misfortune is a progressive thrash four-piece currently based somewhere out of Montana. Every source outside of their Bandcamp listed their location as San Francisco, but Bandcamp said they’re based in Montana. So I’m guessing a relocation occurred somewhat recently.
Geographical unclarity aside, they’ve got a distinctive sound. Female-fronted acts outside of power and traditional metal are somewhat rare, and this band is quite keys-forward, especially for a thrash band. The vocals remind me a lot of Detente, and the rich synths and organs could fit in perfectly with any classic prog band. The riffs are fast and complex, though, and the music overall is uncompromising.
Elder is a big enough name in the world of progressive rock and progressive metal that I figured I could probably safely exclude the “For fans of” section from my header. Their sound is a distinctive mix of heavy psych, progressive rock, and stoner metal that is (usually) smart, technical, accessible, and expansive.