Over the last few years, I’ve run across a number of bands which fuse the harsh aggression of black metal with more melodic influences and often-clean vocals. Acts like Howling Sycamore and Antisoph were my primary introduction to this style, and Stone Healer is a recent discovery who might be my favorite of the bunch, so far.
Not only do they meld the more extreme end of metal with something a bit more accessible, they often toss in post-metal, folk, and alt-rock touches. This results in a rich, varied record that also feels like one cohesive work.
“Retro-prog” does not necessarily need to be a negative term. It usually is, and I most often deploy it when describing unoriginal Yes and Genesis clones. But there are acts who manage to successfully evoke certain elements of the first wave of progressive rock without being derivative. The most enjoyable of these draw from oft-overlooked corners, such as the Italian scene and progressive folk acts like Comus and Gryphon.
Harvest is the third record from Greek septet Ciccada, and it is easily my favorite of theirs so far. All the prog tropes are here—long and obtuse song structures, retro-futuristic synth tones, and top-notch musicianship—but they’re blended with under-utilized and unexpected influences. The eclectic inclusions range from jazz to Greek folk to the Canterbury scene to Baroque music, and beyond.
Bobby Shock is a New Jersey-based composer and multi-instrumentalist, whose last album—The Unforeseen—was a pleasant surprise for me last year. It was lush, diverse, and bass-forward. The compositions were unquestionably smart and progressive, but the music was still accessible.
Shock’s latest release continues with that general trend. The obvious focal point of this album is its 20-minute title track, but the other four songs are no less enjoyable.
Progressive rock and progressive metal are notorious for high-minded concept albums which feature dense, intricate worldbuilding full of invented names and esoteric jargon. Ranging from the complex, Kobaïan mythos of Magma to Dream Theater’s multiple over-the-top multithreaded stories, you often don’t need to range too far afield to find a record which sounds like it started off life as an idea for a sci-fi novel.
Æthĕrĭa Conscĭentĭa is a French quartet which uses saxophone-infused progressive black metal to tell their tales of astral mysticism. Their 2018 debut, Tales from Hydhradh, is a powerful record which marries jazz, prog, and metal elements beautifully. Their 2021 follow-up, Corrupted Pillars of Vanity, takes that strong base and improves on it.
Edit: This band’s Bandcamp page has vanished, and there does not currently seem to be a legit way to acquire this album. There are also rumors that this band is actually Brazilian, but I have not found any confirmation on that. I will update this as more info comes out.
I’ve previously talked about countries punching above their weight in musical influence relative to their population. Arguably, no country does this better than Iceland. With a population smaller than most mid-sized cities, this island nation has an impressive crop of musical ambassadors representing post-rock (Sigur Rós), black metal (plenty of acts, but most notably Sólstafir and Misþyrming), and whatever the fuck Björk is (Björk).
Frummyrkrið (Icelandic for “Primordial Darkness”) is a new band composed of three siblings. Dauðans Myrkri (The Darkness of Death) is an impressive debut which skillfully weaves influences such as traditional prog, ambient music, and “Viking metal” into distinctive Icelandic black metal. (I could write a whole rant on my distaste for the term “Viking metal,” but it does conjure up a specific style of music which is applicable here.)
Part of the reason these reviews have been less frequent as of late is that I’m simply having a harder-than-usual time finding new music which really speaks to me. Unless it’s a fairly big-name act, I don’t have much motivation to write 400-800 words on a record where the score will be in the 50s. Thankfully, Dream Weapon came along and snapped me out of that funk.
I’d never heard of Genghis Tron before this album, and I can see why that might have been. They were initially active in the mid-2000s before taking a 13-year hiatus. I’d also never heard of the cybergrind genre, but it’s a fitting name. It takes the aggression and energy of genres like mathcore and grindcore and pumps it through synthesizers galore. (Interesting sidenote: “mathcore” is considered a real word by MS Word, but “grindcore” is not.)
What this record almost reminds me of is Justice’s debut album. Where † is an electronic album with a significant hard rock/heavy metal substrate, Dream Weapon feels like it’s coming from the other direction. It’s definitely a metal album, but electronic music thoroughly imbues its DNA.
Over the last two decades, Scandinavia has become one of the most prolific producers of prog in the world. Big-name acts (by prog standards) like Wobbler, Opeth, and Beardfish have made huge waves in the scene. Meer, a Norwegian octet, continues in this trend, blending complex compositions and arrangements with accessible, catchy pop tendencies (another Scandinavian tradition, which I’m considerably less fond of).
The eleven songs on Meer’s sophomore album, Playing House, show intense structural ambition. The music is densely layered, and the band utilizes dynamics to great effect.
I covered Toboggan’s debut EP back in 2019, and I really liked what I heard. It was jazzy, funky, and high-energy instrumental zeuhl. Toboggan’s guitar/keyboard player, Etienne Mazoyer, is in another zeuhl band, ZWOYLD, which draws more heavily from traditional prog and psych tones. There’s a lot of shared DNA between these acts, so if you like what you hear here, I strongly recommend checking out ZWOYLD. (Especially their 2016 album, ZGOND.)
The cover art of Première Descente suits the music quite well. The twisting, spiral slide gives a sense of the wild, swerving nature of the songs. Structurally, the individual tracks follow a long-short pattern, with long cuts running 9-14 minutes, followed by sub-two-minute breathers.
Steven Wilson, likely the biggest individual name in the current world of prog, returns with his sixth solo album. After making a name for himself with his longtime prog metal/rock band, Porcupine Tree, he struck out on a solo career (which I’ve documented here) that has tacked increasingly poppy over his last few releases.
Wilson had commented that he currently does not feel inspired when playing guitar, and his continued gravitation toward synthesizers is evident on The Future Bites. I have to give him kudos for following his musical heart and not kowtowing to prog traditionalists demanding another Deadwing or Hand. Cannot. Erase. I really respect him for broadening his horizons and playing what he wants to play. I wish more artists had that sort of integrity and adventurous spirit.
Happy 2021, folks! I took a couple weeks off, but now I’m back to my usual (mostly) weekly posts. I’ve got a queue of EPs and other releases for an upcoming Odds & Ends. I’m also nearing completion on my next Deep Dive, so expect that in early spring. I haven’t posted a full-length review in over two months, though! So, I’m shaking off the rust and highlighting a fantastic two-piece out of Cleveland.
There’s not much about this band online. They’ve got no presence on Facebook or Twitter or anything beyond their Bandcamp page that I can find. That’s a shame, because The Trial of the King is a great way to start off the year. This record feels like an alternate universe where Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee were members of Yes. The overall sound palette is rich and full of retro synths, but the guitars are usually angular. The bass has a satisfying, snapping bite to it more akin to Geddy’s tone than Chris Squire’s usual overdrive.