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: 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.
Back in the early days of progressive rock, Italy was second only to the UK in the scope and vibrancy of their prog scene. The Italians infused Anglo-originating prog with native folk and classical influences, they sang in their native language, and their use of uncommon scales and modes made them stand out. Not many of these bands found success beyond Italy’s borders, though, perhaps due to just how intensely Italian the music was.
Homunculus Res, then, have somewhat subverted prog tropes. Andiamo in giro di notte e ci consumiamo nel fuoco (We Go around at Night and Consume Ourselves in the Fire) is Homunculus Res’s fourth full-length release. This Sicilian quintet plays a variety of progressive rock strongly inspired by the Canterbury scene. The sound of the Canterbury scene was intensely English, and that’s why it was so surprising to find an Italian act in that vein.
Band: Abstracción | Album:Abstracción | Genre: Progressive rock, Psychedelic rock | Bandcamp
The debut EP from this Spanish septet draws heavily from the sound of Jethro Tull’s early material, and the liberal inclusion of sitar adds a late-‘60s psychedelic folk feel to the mix. Swirling Hammond organ and echoing electric guitar lines keep the atmosphere lush, while vocalist Catalina Requena’s willowy delivery occasionally bleeds into the instrumental elements. Each song is distinct, but the tonal continuity between the pieces keeps this recording cohesive and coherent.
Band: Ars de Er | Album:La Métamorphose | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
I’ve run across more Belarusian prog bands while writing for this site than I ever anticipated. The latest of these is the one-man act Ars de Er, which incorporates hefty doses of classical and jazz. Strange harmonizations predominate on La Métamorphose, drawing comparisons to the original big names of avant-prog and RIO. Heavy, metallic guitar lines underpin moments of furious soloing and chaotic rhythms. The atmosphere on this record is oppressive. The strange, diminished chords and haunting keyboard textures make for an anxious, claustrophobic feel.
Pink Floyd is one of those bands with no shortage of imitators and near-clones. Less-blatant aping and influence are nearly inescapable in modern psychedelia and prog. Pink Floyd had many distinct sounds throughout their career, though, giving modern acts plenty of material to draw inspiration from. Alcànatara—a quintet hailing from Italy—is one of those acts that doesn’t try to hide their Floydian roots.
I tried to think of other acts to list in the “For fans of” section of the review header, but this band draws from late-70s Floyd so clearly, I couldn’t think of a more apt recommendation. This is not to call the music here derivative or unoriginal, though. Pink Floyd is a heavy, heavy influence, but I’d never mistake any of these recordings as some discarded track from The Wall’s recording sessions. Continue reading “Album Review: Alcàntara – Solitaire”→
Italy has a proud history of producing some of the best progressive rock out there. At its peak in the early 1970s, the Italian scene was arguably on par with the British. The Italians carved out a unique sound for themselves, drawing heavily from jazz, classical, and folk and singing in their native language. Even now, a few bands play in this distinctly Italian style. Ananda Mida are not one of those bands.
That’s by no means a swipe against Ananda Mida. I’ve listened to and thoroughly enjoyed both their albums, but if you had played their music for me and asked me to guess, I would’ve told you they sound like they come from the American Southwest. They’ve got that sunny, desert-y stoner vibe commonly found in bands from the region. Blues riffs loomed large on their debut, 2016’s Anodnatius, interspersed with spacier interludes and a handful of more adventurous moments. Their new album, Cathodnatius, keeps that desert vibe, but they’ve amped up their experimentation, drawing influences from sources as diverse as early 1970s Pink Floyd, new wave, and math rock. Continue reading “Album Review: Ananda Mida – Cathodnatius”→