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.
Wobbler are indisputably one of the top dogs of the modern progressive rock scene, and I quite like them. However, I view them as one of the most overrated acts out there. They’re certainly not bad, not by a wide margin. Nevertheless, From Silence to Somewhere (their 2017 release) is ranked 28th all-time on Prog Archive’s list of the top prog albums, which is ridiculous. It’s a very good record which cracked my personal Top 10 that year, but it certainly ain’t the 28th-best prog album of all time. At time of writing, Dwellers of the Deep ranks 52nd on that same list, and that’s even more egregious. (That list, aggregated off user reviews, has all kinds of other odd inclusions and exclusions, and I’ve got my own gripes about that site’s users’ biases.)
I also find the progosphere’s eager deference to this band off-putting, and I’ve witnessed an awful lot of hand-waving at just how Yes-y they’ve become over their last few albums. Their Yes-iness isn’t an inherently bad thing. Rites at Dawn is my favorite of their records, and that is arguably their most blatantly Yes-like release. But after a while, such obvious aping of another act’s sound does begin to wear thin, and Yes varied their sound more than Wobbler have. To reiterate: I like Wobbler, but I don’t view them through the same irreproachable lens that many other prog fans seem to hold.
Now that I’ve gotten my expository rant out of the way, I can address the album at hand. Dwellers of the Deep is this Norwegian quintet’s fifth full-length release. Upon first listening to it, I was struck by the fact that I could identify no appreciable differences between this album and From Silence to Somewhere. The sound palette hasn’t been shaken up, the albums’ structures are similar, and the melodies feel too familiar—bordering on re-trod. However, the strength of Wobbler’s baseline sound is such that even with these considerations in mind, Dwellers of the Deep is still a pretty good record. Not amazing, but pretty good and worth listening to.
Band: Arcade Messiah | Album:The Host | Genre: Progressive rock, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Arcade Messiah is a one-man project out of Ireland that mixes progressive rock and metal with earworm melodies and intriguing electronic touches. Hints of post-rock and stoner metal permeate this album, and each song works wonderfully with the next. This release reminds me a lot of ADHD-era Riverside with its strong hooks, varied textural palette, and adventurous spirit. The Host artfully threads the needle in a way that many acts are unable to. This album strikes a balance of metallic bombast and smooth melodicism.
I’ve previously discussed this Cretan trio, and I found their blend of Greek folk melodies, progressive songwriting, and sunbaked fuzz truly refreshing. In lieu of guitar, the lead instrument in this band is a modified electric lute, which imbues the songs with a unique timbral quality. The Martyr took a bit longer for me to get into than their previous album, but it gradually grew on me over several listens. This distinctly Hellenic stoner metal kept drawing me back in with its uncommon melodies and well-structured compositions. Compositions range from charging to plodding, and that diversity of atmosphere serves this record well.
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.
Band: Chaos Over Cosmos | Album:The Ultimate Multiverse | Genre: Progressive metal | Bandcamp
This album is packed to the brim with tight, technical riffage and lush synth pads. Chaos Over Cosmos draw heavily from melodic death metal and classic prog metal, and they blend it into something exciting and complex. It’s perhaps not the most inventive or original bit of prog metal you’ll hear this year, but it’s engaging, fun, and shockingly accessible for a genre like death metal.
Band: Inter Arma | Album:Garber Days Revisited | Genre: Sludge metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
This is Inter Arma’s covers album. There are some interesting experiments on here. It opens with a Ministry cover; I’m not familiar with the original, but the feeling is both pummeling and atmospheric. Their cover of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” is an absolute gem. The blackened sludge fury lends itself to this track so naturally. This middle of this album sags a bit for me, as I’m not a fan of any of the originals, though hearing Inter Arma’s takes is interesting. They cover “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, and that’s just disorienting. Tom Petty was not sludgy in the least, and these guys play this song pretty clean. The non-shrieked vocals were almost distracting. It’s a serviceable cover, but it doesn’t do anything noteworthy. The album ends on a cover of “Purple Rain”. It closes strong, but the vocals in the first half feel strained, and that sort of instrumental gentleness doesn’t suit these guys too well.
Welcome to the first of three planned installments for this site’s best of 2019. Starting things off is TheEliteExtremophile’s Top Prog EPs of 2019. The vast bulk of what I listen to for this blog is full-length albums, and the assorted prog-related genres tend to be long-winded. As such, this list contains only five entries, but all five are highly recommended.
As a disclaimer, I’m sure there are some excellent releases not included. This site is my personal pet project, 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, either through this site, via email, or through my Facebook page. Continue reading “Top Prog EPs of 2019”→
Band: Legendry | Album: The Wizard and the Tower Keep | Genre: Power metal, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
For all the hackneyed, cliché, sword-and-sorcery heavy metal imagery Pittsburgh’s Legendry evoke in their artwork and lyrics, the music is ambitious and inventive while remaining surprisingly accessible. They walk a fine line straddling traditional metal, power metal, and progressive rock with their speedy riffs, dramatic vocals, and soaring solos. The Hammond organ adds a distinct character that helps Legendry stand out from other traditional metal acts.
Band: Chaos Over Cosmos | Album:The Unknown Voyage | Genre: Progressive metal | Bandcamp
Chaos Over Cosmos’s debut album draws heavily from acts like Fates Warning and Symphony X. The music is fleshed out with lush synths. There’s no shortage of power metal cheese, both vocally and instrumentally. The songs themselves tend to be pretty long, but they do a good job of keeping the momentum up and not overstaying their welcome.
Artist: Richard Henshall | Album:The Cocoon | Genre: Progressive metal, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
The latest album from Haken’s guitarist/keyboardist is exactly what you’d expect. There are tons of speedy, intricate riffs, and smart contrasts of metallic heaviness with moments of jazzy and poppy levity. The soloing is restrained, avoiding the common pitfall of virtuosic masturbation that you often find in this corner of prog. My one real complaint here is that Henshal’s vocals are pretty weak. His chops as a guitarist are solid, but his voice is often weak or strained.