This Hong Kong-based act plays a variety of music very heavily inspired Magma. This zeuhl is relatively dark, and its most evocative of Üdü Ẁüdü.It’s fine overall–well played, with some interesting motifs. However, Athak does nothing to differentiate themselves from Magma. A lot of this simply sounds like a rough draft of a Magma record.
The second full-length album from this French act consists of three massive epics bookended by a pair of brief, gentle pieces. The first two of the epics are enjoyable, if somewhat typical, prog-black metal. There are lots of twisting riffs and thundering guitars, and it is very good. There’s just not much that makes it stand out. The third epic, though, leans more into death-doom, which simply isn’t that common of a genre.
Hamtaï! Welcome back to Deep Dive, my series where I explore the extended studio discographies of the giants of progressive rock and metal. I’ve got a weird one for you today: Magma, the founders of zeuhl.
For those who don’t feel like reading massive entries in their entirety, I’ve included a TL;DR and ranking of albums at the end of this piece. 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 contextual element is often overlooked in many ranked-lists.
Magma has always been a weird band. I’ll delve into what exactly zeuhl is below, but even beyond the structural strangeness of their music, the band’s composition has varied wildly over the years. At the time of writing, Wikipedia lists 12 current members and 22 former members; and Rate Your Music names 11 current members with a staggering 89 former members. Much of this can be attributed to their frequent shifts in sound, ranging from their very wind instrument-heavy first albums, to mid-career funk experiments, to later albums which prominently featured vibraphone. Multiple vocalists have always been a signature element of their sound as well.
Magma has been incredibly consistent across their career, in terms of the quality of their work. Even their worst album isn’t all that bad. I’ll also give a quick shout-out to their live performances. I saw Magma on their 2016 US tour, and that was one of the absolute best live shows I’ve ever seen, only seriously challenged by my experiences seeing Rush and Moonsorrow. This column only covers studio output in any depth, but the live albums Hhaï and Retrospektïẁ (I-III) are some of their best work. I’m a big enough fan that I personally own the 12-disc live box set Köhnzert Zünd.
Before we get going, though, I’m sure those of you unfamiliar with Magma are asking…
One of the great things about the decentralization of the music industry has been the ability of niche record labels to proliferate. As evidenced by the minuscule amount of good zeuhl from the 1980s, if you played an unpopular genre of music, it was tough to get your recordings a proper release. Now, though, I can name several labels that either specialize in or put out a significant amount of zeuhl. Soleil Zeuhl is the oldest of these, founded in 1999. More recent ones include Dur et Doux, Guerssen (primarily doing reissues of obscure past releases), and today’s focus, Baboon Fish.
Baboon Fish Label is a French zeuhl label that, lately, has averaged about one release a year. What this label lacks in quantity, they make up for in quality. They released an album by Nebulous Sun last year, which made it onto my year-end list; and I also am quite fond of their 2017 release from The Orvalians. The most recent release from this label is the self-titled debut from self-described “angular rock” band Cratophane. That “angular” label describes a lot of what Baboon Fish specializes in, and it’s especially fitting for this experimental instrumental act.
Besna hails from Slovakia, and they play a variety of melodic black metal and post-metal which artfully weaves together multiple musical ideas. Each of the six songs on this album sprawl without being overlong. The passages blend together seamlessly, and the emotional intensity makes these tracks that much more impactful. I’m also glad that this band sings in their native language, as I quite like the sound of Slovak (and Czech, since they sound so similar, aside from that terrible ř sound the Czechs have).
Artist: Tanshuman Das | Album:Progress Report | Genre: Progressive metal, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Tanshuman Das is a bassist and composer from India who writes music in the vein of ‘90s Dream Theater and similar acts. The music on Progress Report is epic, dramatic, and cinematic. The compositions are intelligently-assembled, and the playing is skillful. This album is a bit longer than it needs to be, but that’s a pretty common issue in this style of music. Overall, though, this is a fun, enjoyable release.
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.
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: Agusa | Album: En annan värld | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This instrumental Swedish act does a great job of weaving themes and ideas together into a coherent, engaging whole. The first of these two epics draws noticeably from the rich jazziness of Camel, and there’s an engaging blues jam which hearkens back to Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother era output. The second song starts as a slow organ jam, again reminiscent of early Pink Floyd. Swedish folk motifs are woven in artfully, and the whole listen is quite satisfying.
Band: A Formal Horse | Album:Meat Mallet | Genre: Progressive rock, Avant-prog | Bandcamp
The sophomore album from this English act has plenty of strange musical passages and striking vocals. Progressive metal influences are obvious in the powerful, hard-hitting riffs. Many of these songs have a sense of impending doom to them, with their vague lyrics and aggressive atmospheres. Despite the many unorthodox riffs, strange word choices (look no further than the song “I’m a Lasagne”), and overall unpredictability, I don’t think this album would be off-putting for someone new to this style of music. The band clearly has a good ear for catchy hooks and surprising twists that keep the listener invested.
France has long embraced a distinct weirdness and experimentalism in their rock music. Magma are probably the most germane example for this site, though there was a whole microcosm of uniquely French prog acts in the ‘70s, such as Ange, Memoriance, and Mona Lisa. This spirit can be seen today in numerous extreme metal acts, like the bizarre symphonics of Öxxö Xööx or blackgaze pioneers Alcest.
Creature, the one-man project of Raphaël Fournier, has put out a striking, bold release that continues in this tradition of adventurous Francophone rock and metal. (It’s also another strong release from Italy-based experimental metal label I, Voidhanger; I strongly recommend checking out their catalogue.) The music is dense and replete with synthesized vocals and engaging rhythms. Fournier is also quite verbose, demonstrating downright Springsteenian levels of wordiness. So, if you speak French, there’s likely a lot for you to analyze here.
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.