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.
Band: Artificial Brain | Album:Artificial Brain | Genre: Technical death metal, progressive death metal | Bandcamp
I remember there being a lot of hype around this band’s last album–2017’s Infrared Horizon–but it just never quite clicked with me. Their new self-titled album, though, is great. The riffs are blistering, dizzying, and mind-bendingly dissonant. The songs are well-built and feature some wonderful hairpin turns. Amid the mucky morass of gurgling vocals and growling guitars, lead guitar lines are often surprisingly melodic.
Band: Bess of Bedlam | Album:Dance until the Crimes End | Genre: Psychedelic folk, Canterbury sound | Bandcamp
This album varies between idyllic folk with psychedelic tinges and some Canterbury-leaning prog-pop. There’s a lot of good music here, but unfortunately, there’s also a fair amount of unspectacular indie-folk-pop. The weak moments are never bad, per se–just dull. And it’s usually quickly counteracted with a good song. If you’re looking for something arty but light, this isn’t a bad option.
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.
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: Duke Grey Fox w/ The Striped Bananas | Album:A Trilogy of Six | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
This instrumental record has interesting textures, ideas, and rhythms in spades. I’m especially fond of many of the synthesizer tones. However, like most instrumental records, this one feels too long. This release indeed feels like a trilogy of six; almost every song which tops three minutes feels dragged-out.
This is a fuzzy, buzzy psych record that is heavily inspired by the early works of King Gizzard and similar acts. The individual cuts are all fairly enjoyable, with a lot of folky inclusions. Certain instrumental excursions are better-plotted than others, though. My main issue is that this album feels somewhat aimless. There’s very little on this album that I’d consider unenjoyable, but more focus and cohesion would have been beneficial.
Band: Ars de Er | Album:Other Side | Genre: Progressive rock, Avant-prog | Bandcamp
Ars de Er’s last album leaned heavily into avant-prog and RIO, but Other Side is a little more grounded in “traditional” prog. There are especially strong echoes of Porcupine Tree’s heavier stuff, like Fear of a Blank Planet. This album still has plenty of influences from jazz and modern classical music, which makes the overall palette well-balanced and diverse.
This is a loud, unsubtle record. The mixture of metal, rock, and electronic elements are utilized to pummel the listener. It’s an intense listen, so in this case the album’s short runtime (only 29 minutes) is a virtue. A runtime of more than 30 minutes would have run the risk of becoming too exhausting. Beyond the intensity, the compositions are creative and full of great textural contrasts. The vocals are powerful and impassioned, and the array of synth tones are able to conjure a wide ray of moods and emotions.
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.