I hesitate to use a label more restrictive than “rock” to describe King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. These astonishingly prolific Aussies have one of the most diverse back catalogs in modern popular music, ranging from garage rock to prog to thrash metal to synthpop to microtonal music and beyond. Their latest release is a dizzying encapsulation of their always-shifting style. The appropriately-titled Omnium Gatherum (a faux-Latin phrase meaning “a collection of many different things”) is a sprawling, 80-minute record that has a bit of everything.
Welcome to the first installment of The Elite Extremophile’s Top 50 Prog Albums of 2021. This article will cover places 50-26 on my list, with the top half set to follow on Thursday.
As I always say, I’m sure there are some excellent albums not included in my list. 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.
As I referenced in my Scheduling Note back in November, this list only addresses albums put out between January 2021 and November 2021. Next year’s list will cover December 2021 through November 2022.
Though it felt as if it started off fairly slow, 2021 wound up being a very strong year for progressive rock and metal. Finalizing this list took longer than usual, especially nailing down the specific order.
Welcome to the third installment of The Elite Extremophile’s Top Prog Releases of 2021. We’re starting off with the Top 5 Prog EPs of 2021. The Two-part Top 50 Albums list will be posted next week.
I listened to more EPs than usual this year, but it was still a relatively small crop, so I decided to keep this list limited to five entries.
As I have stated in the past, I’m sure that I’ve missed some excellent releases. 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.
As I referenced in my Scheduling Note back in November, this list only addresses EPs put out between January 2021 and November 2021. Next year’s list will cover December 2021 through November 2022.
Band: Band of Rain | Album: The Sun King | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This is decent, mid-tempo prog that goes more for atmosphere than technicality. (That’s not to disparage the bandmembers’ instrumental chops, though.) The overall sound is lush, and the band skillfully layers different textures and melodies. I also appreciate the many touches of jazz scattered throughout this record. The vocals come off as fairly weak, unfortunately, which does hamper this release, along with a general sense that everything here is too long.
Inverted Evolution has an unhurried pace which allows the band to stretch out and weave wonderful atmospheres. This Swedish act draws heavily from ‘70s hard rock in a lot of their musical vocabulary, but elements of jazz, post-punk, and gothic rock are readily evident, too. Eerie synths, hypnotic rhythms, and progressive song structures are hallmarks of this album. The ending is a little weak (though not bad), but beyond this hiccup, it’s a strong release.
Artist: Waqas Ahmed | Album:A Perpetual Winter | Genre: Progressive metal | Bandcamp
This is a fun little EP from Pakistani-born, Romania-based guitarist Waqas Ahmed. It’s a bit cheesy, but in such a small dose it’s pretty enjoyable. Sometimes, I’m just in the mood for some flashy guitar work over a solid instrumental backing. A Perpetual Winter is strongly reminiscent of Dream Theater, so if that’s your cup of tea, I’d recommend this release as well.
Band: Chafouin | Album:Toufoulcan | Genre: Krautrock, Progressive rock, Math rock | Bandcamp
Toufoulcan overall has a stark sound, relying on ragged (mostly) clean guitars and odd, imposing riffs and rhythms. The mood varies from sinister to sunny, but those extremes never feel out of place. Synth embellishments flesh out the sound, and Chafouin utilizes repetition well to give each song a clear sense of build and direction. The individual tracks tend to be fairly short, and that adds a strong feeling of forward momentum.
Band: Devour Every Star | Album: Antiquity | Genre: Progressive metal, Trip-hop | Bandcamp
This is certainly one of the more distinctive genre fusions I’ve run across. Buzzy black metal merges with spacey instrumental hip-hop passages to forge a distinctive sound. It’s spooky and laid-back, and it’s definitely worth looking into. As a whole, it feels a little long; I think this style may be better suited to a 20-minute EP. Nonetheless, it’s quite unique, and this act shows ability beyond simply being a curiosity.
This instrumental piece was commissioned by the city of Melbourne to celebrate Melbourne Town Hall’s 150th anniversary, thus it prominently features the town hall’s grand organ as its primary instrument. Ephemera is grand and majestic in its harmonious marriage of reedy organ and lush, liquid synthesizers. The whole album is quite warm, and it feels midway between Mike Oldfield and Rick Wakeman. Elements of classical and electronic music are regularly incorporated, making this a surprisingly diverse record despite its limited sound palette.
Band: BaK | Album:Crater | Genre: Progressive rock, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
BaK is a bombastic Australian act which blends the sound of acts like Pain of Salvation and Dream Theater with Middle Eastern instrumentation and rhythms. The closest parallel to BaK is probably the Tunisian power metal act Myrath, though some of the weaker moments on this EP do remind me of Grorr. The integration of those more exotic influences is done better than most acts who attempt similar genre fusions, but it’s still really tough to not come off as corny.
Artist: Christian Cosentino | Album:Lawn | Genre: Progressive metal | Bandcamp
This proggy atmospheric black metal album makes extensive use of lush, programmed orchestration. Many parts of this record feature piano as a co-lead instrument alongside guitar, and strings are almost always present. Normally I’m not the biggest fan of this type of arrangement, but I credit the success here to the fact that he went in a more atmospheric direction, instead of something more traditionally proggy, technical, and overblown.
Band: Børeal | Album:Las Mariposas Agitan Sus Alas | Genre: Progressive rock, Alt-metal | Bandcamp
The debut EP of this Colombian four-piece combines the gritty, dirty guitar tones of early-‘00s alt-metal with engaging melodies, and diverse song structures. “Homo Homini Lupus” is a highlight, with its rolling rhythm and descending chorus. The band’s eponymous song closes out this brief release, and it’s my favorite of the bunch. This song is weird and draws the most heavily from modern metal. Some moments on this EP are a bit too evocative of the weaker elements of alt-metal, and some of the catchier melodies feeling incongruous against the harsh backing. Overall, it’s an enjoyable release.
Band: Dancing Sun | Album:Heart Tales | Genre: Progressive metal, Psychedelic rock | Bandcamp
There’s a lot of variance in the styles and discernable influences on these individual tracks. While a somewhat heavy album overall, some songs go all-in on metal influences, while others draw from jazzier corners. Heart Tales’ longer songs are the obvious high points. The extra space allows Dancing Sun to have the most fun with structure. I’m not wild about the vocals on this album, but if you’re able to move beyond it (like I was), or if you wind up enjoying them, there’s some very good music here.
Artist: Andre LaFosse | Album:Karma Suppression Index | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This instrumental album is full of twisting, groovy guitar lines and pulsing electronic rhythms. I’d recommend this album to fans of later King Crimson, especially The Power to Believe. However, despite the strengths of this album—I love the various tones LaFosse utilized, and it’s very well-produced—it does fall victim to the same pitfall as many other instrumental albums: it winds up feeling too long. Most songs don’t have a particularly clear arc or momentum, and a good groove will only carry you so far.
Band: Days Between Stations | Album:Giants | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Though technically not a member of the band, ex-Yes multi-instrumentalist Billy Sherwood produced and contributed heavily to this album. This band is extremely Yes-y, almost to the point of distraction. It’s a skillful aping of Yes’s sound, but it does leave me wanting a bit more originality at moments. I’m also not wild about Sherwood’s production; this album sounds thin and washed-out. However, if you’re craving something in the vein of (good) ‘90s Yes, these guys are a decent way to scratch that itch.
Band: Enslaved | Album:Utgard | Genre: Progressive metal | Bandcamp
This is certainly an Enslaved album. It’s melodic black-ish metal with frequent intrusions of harmonized clean vocals and prominent keyboards. Enslaved’s albums tend to grow on me over time, but they’re also often structured significantly differently. This record feels like Enslaved are trying to be more accessible. The songs are shorter than usual, and the band’s black metal background is played down. When RIITIIR (my favorite release from this band) came out, it didn’t click with me at first, but I felt the itch to revisit it. I don’t think I’ll be having much urge to put this album on repeat.