The Mars Volta, along with acts like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater, helped revive the world of progressive rock in the early 2000s. They were one of the most beloved and influential prog acts of the 21st century. Their 2003 full-length debut–De-Loused in the Comatorium–and its 2005 successor–Frances the Mute–are two of the best prog albums of all time, irrespective of era. In addition to past prog influences, they incorporated post-hardcore, jazz, and electronic elements. Their classic sound is striking and immediately recognizable.
Now, ten years after their last album–2012’s Noctourniquet–they’ve reunited to put out their seventh full-length release. The core of the band remains the same; Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is still on guitar, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala is still the vocalist. Beyond that, though, there has been churn in the lineup. Bassist Eva Gardner has returned to the band after last appearing on their 2002 Tremulant EP. Omar’s younger brother Marcel–formerly the band’s percussionist through 2010–covers keyboard duties. (Longtime TMV keyboardist Ikey Owens passed away in 2014, though he did not appear on Noctourniquet.)
In reading about this album’s background, I found that Omar (always the lead (and usually sole) songwriter) consciously made an effort to move away from prog. This strikes me as a perplexing move. Just because Omar and Cedric are recording together, that does not make it The Mars Volta. Prior to forming TMV, they were both in the post-hardcore band At the Drive-In; and the two had collaborated in the one-off band Antemasque in 2014. If they wanted to make a non-prog album, reviving this band’s name doesn’t strike me as a smart move. They’ve got enough clout in the modern music world that they could have announced a new project and built hype off their reputations.
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.
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.
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.
One moment this album is brimming with squirmy, atonal synthesizers with eerie vocal arrangements, and the next it’s mellow, artful pop rock. Despite hailing from Chicago, there’s a very British sense of weirdness to Cheer-Accident’s work, most comparable to the inimitable Cardiacs. Strains of post-punk and folk merge seamlessly with progressive and pop rock to create something truly distinctive.
Band: Dai Kaht | Album: Dai Kaht II | Genre: Zeuhl | Bandcamp
I like Magma a lot. They’re one of my favorite bands, and I’m positive I’ll eventually do a Deep Dive entry on them. However, their shadow is nearly inescapable in the world of zeuhl (outside Japan, at least). Dai Kaht are a Finnish act who draw a huge amount of influence from Magma. Their sound is more guitar-centric than Magma ever were. On a technical level, the musicianship and compositions are complex. For all its oddness, it’s surprisingly catchy, and it is somewhat unusual for a zeuhl act to have guitar as its main instrument. But in the end, this release mostly sounds like an updated version of Attahk. If you like zeuhl, give it a listen, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking.
Normally, I try to cover albums released within the last year or so on this site. I do make exceptions, with my occasional entries in my Deep Dive and Lesser-Known Gem series. This particular album, however, falls into something of an odd spot. Released in mid-2014, Muzykal’nye Vibratsii isn’t quite old enough for my completely arbitrary cut-off date of 20 years for Lesser-Known Gems. But it is certainly lesser-known, and it’s definitely a gem.
Looking at this album cover and listening to the music on this record, it’d be understandable if you mistook this for some underground, avant-garde release from somewhere between 1978 and 1985. But that is an aesthetic multi-instrumentalist Konstantin Zed purposely cultivated on his debut album. The Bandcamp page for this album describes it as art-punk, which, despite few punky moments, is oddly fitting. It draws heavily from the artsier side of post-punk and new wave.
Though this blog is only about a year old, I’ve been publishing music-oriented year-end lists on my personal Facebook since 2010. Those lists have usually covered all releases—albums and EPs—as well as music from genres outside the progosphere. Since starting this blog, I listened to more new music in 2019 than I had in any previous year, and it was even more skewed toward prog and prog-related output than in years past.
To save myself from having to write (and you from having to read) a 100-plus-entry list full of mediocre releases, I’ve instead opted to publish TheEliteExtremophile’s Top 50 Prog Albums of 2019. This post will cover entries 50-26. Part 2, covering the top 25, will be published on Monday.
I’m not publishing album scores here, and past album scores should not be read into too much. Reviews generally reflect something of a first impression, and after months of listening, albums’ standings rise and fall. This list also features some very good albums which I just never reviewed in full.
As a disclaimer, I’m sure there are some excellent albums not included. This 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, either through this site, via email, or through my Facebook page. Continue reading “Top 50 Prog Albums of 2019, Part 1: 50-26”→
Welcome to the third installment of Deep Dive, where I take an in-depth look at the studio discographies of some of the giants of progressive rock and progressive metal.
For those who don’t feel like reading this massive entry, I’ve included a TL;DR and ranking of albums at the end. I’m opting to explore albums chronologically, as opposed to a ranked-list format. The context in which albums were made is important, and this is an element often missed in a ranked list.
My first two entries in this series focused on some of the giants of progressive rock’s 1970s heyday. For this entry, I wanted to focus on something heavier, which means someone more modern. After weighing a few options and starting Deep Dive entries on a couple other artists, I settled on Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson.
Porcupine Tree covered a wide style of music until their disbandment in 2010, ranging from space rock to art pop to progressive metal. Wilson has maintained that experimental spirit in his solo career, covering similar ground across his five solo albums. The early-21st Century progressive rock renaissance we’re currently enjoying may not have happened at all, had it not been for the wide success of Porcupine Tree, which opened the door for many, many other acts.
As a disclaimer, this essay does not cover all of Steven Wilson’s myriad musical projects. The man is too prolific for me to reasonably address all those projects in this one essay. I am solely focusing on Porcupine Tree and his solo material. No-Man and Bass Communion don’t fit this site’s purview; and while Blackfield and Storm Corrosion may fall under the margins of progressive rock, I simply don’t like their output and would not enjoy reviewing them in-depth. I also do not plan to discuss his remastering work on classic prog albums. I do highly recommend his King Crimson remasters, though I’d avoid his work on Too Old to Rock n Roll: Too Young to Die!, as mentioned in my Jethro Tull Deep Dive. Continue reading “Deep Dive: Porcupine Tree & Steven Wilson”→