Band: Grorr | Album:Ddulden’s Last Flight | Genre: Progressive rock, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Grorr are clearly trying to conjure up vaguely “Eastern” aesthetics on this album. The band’s logo evokes Chinese seals, and the album art draws from Chinese and Japanese styles. This continues in the music, though the influences are muddled and slapdash. The opening track is mostly scene-setting, but it give the listener musical whiplash by swirling together the entire continent of Asia. It’s got throat singing (from Mongolia and southern Siberia), sitars and tablas (from the Indian subcontinent), and the melodies are stereotypically “Chinese.” (Instruments which sound like guzhengs and erhus can be heard later on the album.) Moving beyond this mish-mash, Ddulden’s Last Flight is an alright album. The metal is melodic, and there are some inventive riffs. I’m especially impressed with the textures and timbres deployed here. After a while, though, the Oriental instrumentation becomes distracting. I absolutely hated the sitar by album’s end. And that’s unfortunate because Grorr demonstrated that they’ve got a creative vision and that they’re capable of composing some strong cuts. Ultimately, this record’s overbearing and half-baked Asiatic flare is what does it in. I really wish they would have toned it down a bit, or at least shown a bit more geographic restraint.
Artist: Jean Pierre Louveton (JPL) | Album:Sapiens – chaptire 2/3: Deus ex Machina | Genre: Progressive rock, Progressive metal, Jazz-fusion | Bandcamp
When I saw JPL is the leader of the band Nemo, I didn’t get my hopes up. Nemo is an alright act, but I classify them in the same group Spock’s Beard and other schlocky, overblown retro-prog acts. Thankfully, this album wound up being a pleasant surprise. Sapiens is a bit more metallic than Nemo’s usual fare, and while there’s plenty of pomp and show-off-y instrumental moments, it mostly avoids needless indulgence. Jazzy touches are present throughout, and the overall bloat is minimal.
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.
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.
After this band’s stellar debut last year, Skylighting has come as something of a disappointment. This is still a metal album, but only barely. They went in harder on ballads and gentle pieces, and the distinctive vocals—one of the strengths of Descender—wear thin on this record. All in all, much of the album’s atmosphere comes off as mushy and indistinct. There is some very good music here, particularly in the album’s second half, but this turn toward gentleness is disappointing.
This churning maelstrom of an album relentlessly pushes forward with its crashing walls of distortion, enticing melodies, and unpredictable structural turns. Dysylumn blend the best textural elements of atmospheric black metal with a more urgent undercurrent. This is a pretty long record, clocking in at nearly 80 minutes, but it feels like it needs that length. It doesn’t meander or lose focus, but Cosmogonie does require patience.
Band: Alustrium | Album:Insurmountable | Genre: Death metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
The music on this EP is played with incredible precision, and the density of riffs-per-minute is impressively high. However, it also feels like this band’s main goal was to play as fast as possible, and even across such a short EP, that gets exhausting. There’s also nothing particularly unique about this release; this is rather boilerplate tech-death.
This band heavily channels Porcupine Tree in just about every regard. It’s a skillful facsimile, right down to the tones of the individual instruments, and the songs are well structured. There is also the occasional outside influence, such the odd jazzy lick here or there. On the downside, this album is pretty long-winded. Only one of the six songs comes in under eight minutes, and most cuts could have benefitted from some trimming.
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.
When I first ran across Parisian quartet Nord’s second full-length album, The Only Way To Reach The Surface, I was initially leery, due to some of the genre tags on Bandcamp. “Djent” is something that always causes me a lot of apprehension, and “post-hardcore” indicates there’s a good chance I’ll hate the vocals. However, the djent influences are minor, and the way the post-hardcore manifests itself is mostly in the instrumental elements, much like The Mars Volta’s early work.
Structurally, this album follows a loose pattern for its first eight songs. Starting with its first track, “I. Love”, the album establishes a dreamy atmosphere. A soft synth pad drones under synthesized vocals, occasionally embellished with clean guitars. The transition to “II. Violent Shapes” is a sharp one, though, as that song explodes with black metal fury out of the gate. Blast beats and evil-sounding shredding smoothly mutate lighter post-punk tones, but the music shifts back and forth between those two poles, with ample math rock fills along the way. Continue reading “Album Review: Nord – The Only Way To Reach The Surface”→
Slift are a French trio who combine the ethos and aesthetic trappings of garage rock with cosmic atmosphere and mantra-like repetition. I was introduced to them via their 2018 album, La Planète Inexplorée. That album was great, and Ummon took everything I loved about it and cranked it up even harder.
Ummon is not a record for the faint of heart. It’s 72 minutes of garage-kraut-doom (or maybe doom-garage-kraut) with barely any breathing room. Huge, abrasive walls of guitar dominate this record, while chaotic bursts of noise pummel the listener. The band members themselves give fair warning on how key repetition is to this album’s sound on their Bandcamp page (or, as they phrase it, “r r e e p p e e t t i i t t i i o o n n”). With all this in mind, if you’re willing to give it a shot, this album is highly rewarding. Continue reading “Album Review: Slift – Ummon”→
Band: Guranfoe | Album:Sum of Erda | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Guranfoe are an instrumental act who draw heavy inspiration from the ‘70s prog giants, most notably Genesis and Camel. They’re good at keeping the momentum up on this album, and the songs are chock-full of neat little flourishes and some great solos. Folk and jazz touches are deployed to great effect. However, as with many instrumental albums I cover, most of these songs feel too long, and some of the extended solos, in particular, leave me looking at my watch. If the band were to tighten up the songs a bit, I think they could put out a really great album.
Band: Karfagen | Album:Birds of Passage | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Antony Kalugin is an incredibly prolific Ukrainian composer and multi-instrumentalist, and Karfagen is one of his myriad projects. Birds of Passage is Karfagen’s 11th album in 14 years, and most of it is focused on the 44-minute title track. It’s mostly bright, sunny prog in the style of acts like Spock’s Beard and Moon Safari. Organ and synthesizer dominate on the first half, while the second half reduces the bombast (initially, at least). It can feel long-winded at times, but the songs have enough distinct movements that that’s only an infrequent issue. If you’re a fan of the 21st Century brand of symphonic prog, definitely check this album out.