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.
Artist: Stewart Clark | Album:Journeys | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Stewart Clark draws noticeably from the classic prog giants, most obviously Yes and Genesis. The music is rich and grand, and though the playing is hardly flashy, the songs are creatively and thoughtfully structured. The folk elements are especially nice. Some cuts do drag on a bit, but this is an overall enjoyable release.
Band: Cyril | Album:Amenti’s Coin – Secret Place Pt. II | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
If you’re looking for some well-made progressive rock in the vein of acts like Transatlantic or The Flower Kings, these guys aren’t a bad choice. It’s highly melodic with a lot of strong instrumental performances. The band does occasionally veer into overwrought balladry, and I can’t say there’s anything particularly novel being said here. Despite that, sometimes you just want some lush, classic-style prog.
An Isolated Mind is a one-man project based out of San Francisco. This act plays a chilling, lonely-sounding variety of experimental rock and metal. At one moment, the music may be a screaming wall of Arctic-cold guitars; and the next, it may be a gentle acoustic passage with alluringly warm keys and woodwinds.
I covered their debut album, I’m Losing Myself, in 2019, and I quite liked it. I was not the biggest fan of the pair of long drone experiments at the end of that record, but the preceding music was strong enough that I still put it on my year-end best-of list. A Place We Cannot Go is in the same musical vein, but there are obvious distinctions. This new release is less metallic, more contemplative, and better-focused.
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: 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.
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.
Band: Børeal | Album:Las Mariposas Agitan Sus Alas | Genre: Progressive rock, Alt-metal | Bandcamp
The debut EP of this Colombian four-piece combines the gritty, dirty guitar tones of early-‘00s alt-metal with engaging melodies, and diverse song structures. “Homo Homini Lupus” is a highlight, with its rolling rhythm and descending chorus. The band’s eponymous song closes out this brief release, and it’s my favorite of the bunch. This song is weird and draws the most heavily from modern metal. Some moments on this EP are a bit too evocative of the weaker elements of alt-metal, and some of the catchier melodies feeling incongruous against the harsh backing. Overall, it’s an enjoyable release.
Band: Dancing Sun | Album:Heart Tales | Genre: Progressive metal, Psychedelic rock | Bandcamp
There’s a lot of variance in the styles and discernable influences on these individual tracks. While a somewhat heavy album overall, some songs go all-in on metal influences, while others draw from jazzier corners. Heart Tales’ longer songs are the obvious high points. The extra space allows Dancing Sun to have the most fun with structure. I’m not wild about the vocals on this album, but if you’re able to move beyond it (like I was), or if you wind up enjoying them, there’s some very good music here.
There is no shortage of instrumental EPs and albums put out by guitarists. Many of these releases tend to be self-indulgent and focused on technical soloing. Because of that trend, it’s always a refreshing change of pace when I run across someone like Xander Naylor, who functions more as a composer who just so happens to play guitar, rather than a guitarist composing pieces for his instrument.
Continuum is Naylor’s debut full-length record, and it reminds me of Steve Hackett’s solo material. Not so much in sound, but more so in that while there’s plenty of skillful instrumentalism, it isn’t to the neglect of structure or vision.