After four years, PoiL returns with another daring, angular, madcap album. 2019’s Sus was a fantastic release, and it saw the band both focus its songwriting after the sprawling Brossaklitt and stretch out with a pair of 20-minute suites. On this release, the band has teamed up with biwa player and singer Junko Ueda.
I’m hardly an expert in traditional Japanese music. I knew what a biwa was before writing this review, so I’m probably ahead of most Americans, but not by much. According to Ueda’s website, she specializes in “biwa storytelling” and shomyo, a type of Buddhist chant. My primary source of knowledge of Japanese folk music prior to this was Osamu Kitajima’s seminal Benzaiten, a sublime synthesis of progressive rock and an array of Japonic styles.
Much like Sus, PoiL Ueda is made up of a pair of large suites, each of which typifies one of Ueda’s professed specialities.
Years ago, I ran across a poll on the ProgArchives forums asking what the most important instrument in a (progressive) rock band is. It’s obviously not guitars or keys, as ELP and mid-career King Crimson demonstrate, respectively. Neither Van der Graaf Generator nor Atomic Rooster had a bassist in their classic lineups. So that’s why I ultimately chose “drums” in that poll. What makes rock music rock music is its rhythm. Ditch the percussion, and it’s difficult to make something feel like rock music.
I bring this anecdote up because for about the first twenty-ish minutes of Light’s debut album, The Path, there is almost no percussion. (Side note, the generic nature of the names of both the band and the album made this a bit of a challenge to find.) This album opens in a manner which feels more like classical or chamber music. As the record progresses, though, more traditional prog influences are brought in.
Welcome to the first half of The Elite Extremophile’s Top 50 Prog Albums of 2022. This article covers spots 50-26, and the top 25 can be found here!
Full disclosure: the label of “2022” is not entirely accurate. The music featured here covers December 2021 through November 2022. Trying to find new music in the month of December is a fool’s errand, as much of my time during that month is occupied with writing and editing this list.
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 affects the composition of this list. But if you’ve got recommendations, do not hesitate to shoot them my way.
2022 wound up being a decent overall year for prog. It felt as if the year started off slowly, and there definitely were fewer albums that truly knocked my socks off, as compared to other years. However, there was still a lot of super-solid prog, psych, and otherwise-weird and experimental music to be heard. And I listened to more albums than ever before, which allowed me to draw from a larger pool. That meant I had to make some tough decisions about the final composition of this list, and deciding on the final order was challenging. Outside of the top 7 or 8, most of these albums could have easily been placed several spots higher or lower, depending on my mood.
Band: Ahleuchatistas | Album:Expansion | Genre: Math rock, RIO | Bandcamp
Ahleuchatistas are something of an outlier when it comes to bands I like. I’m often not a fan of improv-heavy acts that sound like they’re constantly on the verge of falling apart, but this trio always manages to thread the needle of tight, complex riffs and wonky, off-kilter meters with loose improv. Expansion feels a bit more composed than some of their past work, and that pays dividends here. The riffs are weird and wild and wiry, and the songs have an odd, shambolic energy to them. This is a bizarre and rewarding album.
Band: Fren | Album:All the Pretty Days | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Had I known Wiosnawas a single off an upcoming album and not an EP, I wouldn’t have reviewed it. But alas! All the Pretty Days is Fren’s second full-length album. Much like their debut, it’s melodic and dramatic instrumental prog. The songs are engaging and attention grabbing, and despite their length, there is very little bloat here. This reminds me of Änglagård’s best work while also being distinct. Hints of jazz pop in from certain piano lines, giving flashes of Magma’s lighter moments.
Band: Arkheth | Album:Clarity Came with a Cool Summer’s Breeze | Genre: Progressive metal, Psychedelic metal | Bandcamp
I’ve run across a number of acts claiming to be psychedelic metal, but not many actually pull it off. This Australian act manages to deliver on that promise, though. Psych, folk, and jazz are blended with blazing black and death metal to make an alluring sound. The album drifts along with gentle atmospherics at some points, but there’s no shortage of metallic aggression. Hints of Agalloch-ian post-metal crop up on occasion, and this whole release is very well-put-together.
I covered Gospel’s 20-minute single “MVDM” earlier this year, but this album came out about two months before that. The Loser is Gospel’s second full-length release, following their 2005 debut. In that 17-year hiatus, it’s evident the band crafted the best songs they could. The blending of top-notch instrumental skills, complex but concise compositions, and the raw power of their post-hardcore roots makes for a deeply engaging listen. Every song on this album is an exhilarating thrill ride. If the disappointment of the new Mars Volta album left you with an itch for aggressive, engaging prog, then this album should help out.
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.
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.
I mostly find my music through searching tags like “progressive metal,” “krautrock,” or “zeuhl” on Bandcamp, and I’ve found that’s a pretty good way to stay abreast of new releases. Some bands, though, put only low-effort, insufficiently descriptive tags on their Bandcamp pages (if they have a Bandcamp presence, at all), so about once a month, I’ll browse through the charts on RateYourMusic and ProgArchives to see if I’ve missed anything which might fall under the purview of this site.
The tastes of RYM’s prog fans tend to skew in favor of the avant-garde and harsh, so when I saw that (as of writing), that site’s #1 record of 2021 so far was an avant-prog release from a band I’d never heard of, my curiosity was piqued. Avant-prog and brutal prog (a yocto-genre often featuring overbearing saxophone and aggressive, obtuse structures) are often hit-or-miss for me. Some of it is really daring and inventive, but a lot of it just strikes my ears as masturbatory weirdness and dissonance for the sake of weirdness and dissonance.
Cavalcade, the second full-length release from London-based band black midi, is an exciting, enthralling album that artfully blends the bizarre and bombastic with the restrained and melodic.
Band: The Garin | Album:The Garin | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp
The Garin hail from Kazan, Russia, and the band mixes prog, psych, and indie rock into an enjoyable package. This EP has four songs which bounce and twist energetically. Jazzy rhythms frequently crop up, and cosmic synthesizers often get a starring role. The vocals are a bit weak, but beyond that, the compositions are strong. “Yurei” is simultaneously influenced by shoegaze and ‘80s thrash metal, which makes for a unique experience, and “Duomo” closes the recording out with a guitar solo that evokes the best moments of ‘90s Pink Floyd.
Band: Hail Spirit Noir | Album:Eden in Reverse | Genre: Progressive metal, Progressive rock | Bandcamp
Hail Spirit Noir have been one of my favorite metal acts since they debuted with Pneuma in 2012. Mayhem in Blue, their 2016 release, was the only album to give Terminal Redux a run for its money in my personal best-of list for that year. Their unique synthesis of black metal and late-60s psychedelic rock and folk has been nothing short of brilliant. On Eden in Reverse, HSN has brought their sound up to the mid-1980s, with rich, creepy synthesizers taking over where swirling organ once dominated. While most of the album is quite strong, it’s definitely their cleanest album to date. I really missed the raw, abrasive black metal fury which was more prominent on their earlier records. The glossy synthesizers often only underscore just how slick everything sounds.