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.
Phaneronaut is a one-man project out of Germany with an inclination for weird, experimental electronics and sharp contrasts in tone. In the three years the project has been active, they have been quite prolific, so I have not listened to their whole back catalog. What I have heard, though, is strongly reminiscent of early krautrock acts, often landing somewhere between Neu! and The Cosmic Jokers.
This album, then, marks something of a shift in Phaneronaut’s sound. Originally envisioned as having two contrasting halves–a “wood” side and a “metal” side–the project evolved into something else, though the “metal” concept remained. Thus, where previous works are synth heavy and quite electronic, Anabasis features sounds (synthesized or otherwise) that use metal in their production. So the celestial synths of earlier works are reduced, and now there are much earthier tones, meant to portray a (possibly hallucinatory) journey to heaven.
Louis de Mieulle is a multi-instrumentalist and composer I’ve previously coveredtwice on this site. Since his last outing, there have been a few changes. He’s moved from the US back to France and rebranded as “Louison.” His new album, Magnetic Feel, is much more electronic and synth heavy than either of his Sideshow albums. He also performs (almost) all the instruments, whereas those two prior releases were recorded with bands. This solo approach has also forced him to be more structured in his songwriting, and considering some of my comments on Sid€show 2, that’s probably a net good.
Not everything is different on Magnetic Feel. Though de Mieulle bills this album as “cyberprog” and “retrofuture,” there is a grounding in jazz-rock, math rock, and the contemporary prog scene. Like the two Sideshow albums, this is entirely instrumental, and there’s a strong sense of sonic continuity across the ten songs here.
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.
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: Antinode | Album:The Canary the Named the Stars | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
The three songs on this long EP/short LP are solid, spacey progressive rock with subtle touches of jazz, metal, and indie rock. I’m a big fan of the instrumental tones and textures, and despite the songs’ lengths, they never feel like they’re dragging. There’s significant internal variation on all three tracks, and there’s a natural flow to the way the compositions evolve.
Band: Big Big Train | Album:Common Ground | Genre: Neo-prog, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
I have never understood the appeal of Big Big Train. They’ve got the occasional decent song here or there, but I’ve never enjoyed an entire BBT album. They often come off as saccharine and glossy, like a worse version of Spock’s Beard. Maybe I’m too much of a dour Debbie Downer to enjoy such unashamedly major-key music, but the opening “The Strangest Times” exemplifies my lack of fondness for this act. It’s bright, sunny piano-pop that doesn’t strike me as particularly proggy in any definition of the word. Successive tracks are significantly better, though it’s still not exactly my cup of tea. Much of this album comes off as soulless and plain, to say nothing of the bloat. The band sounds stuck in the mid-’90s’ prog scene, a sound which was fine for its time but was rightfully cast aside at the turn of the century. The lushness hobbles the band’s ability to make any real splash, and everything on here has been done much better previously by other artists, often half a century ago.
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.
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.