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.
Band: Giraffes? Giraffes! | Album:Rite of Summer | Genre: Post-rock, Math rock | Bandcamp
Giraffes? Giraffes! is one of my favorite math rock bands, and this EP—consisting of just one 15-minute song—more than lives up to expectations. As is to be expected from this duo, the guitars are nimble, the drumming is deft, and the multi-parted composition keeps you guessing. The sounds range from blazing, finger-twisting licks to mellow psych-folk, and it all works beautifully.
Band: Firelink | Album: Firelink | Genre: Atmospheric black metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
I like Firelink’s self-titled sophomore album, but it doesn’t do too much to stand out from similar acts. The songs are well-constructed and well-played proggy black metal with atmospheric leanings, but nothing about it differentiates it from the rest of the rather saturated black metal field. Every now and then, I’m just in the mood for some good ol’ black metal shredding, and this is great for that. Just don’t go into this expecting anything all that distinctive.
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.
JG Thirlwell is an Australian-born, Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist best known as the man behind the industrial act Foetus. He also acts the composer for the TV shows Archer and The Venture Bros, the latter of which is one of my absolute favorite shows. (It also made progressive rock a central plot element in one episode.) Simon Steensland is a Swedish multi-instrumentalist and composer with a long history in modern avant-garde rock music.
In addition to avant-garde and progressive rock influences, this duo makes extensive use of orchestral music. Much of this album sounds like it could have been the score for a creepy arthouse film. Atonal strings and minor key woodwinds dominate on this record, filling up most of the space not occupied by traditional rock instrumentation. Continue reading “Album Review: JG Thirlwell & Simon Steensland – Oscillospira”→
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.
In Mourning are a Swedish metal band who play in a style very similar to that of their fellow countrymen, Opeth; but they’re distinct enough to avoid the label of “Opeth clone,” something for which the current prog-metal scene does not want. Opeth’s classic material is some of the best progressive metal ever recorded, and there’s been a yawning, Opeth-shaped hole in the scene ever since they switched to playing unimpressive, unimaginative retro-prog.
In Mourning have been around for nearly two decades, giving them plenty of time to develop their own unique flourishes within the framework of progressive melodic death metal. Garden of Storms is their fifth full-length release and a noticeable step up in quality over 2016’s Afterglow. The songwriting is strong, and there is a smart degree of interplay between distorted and clean sections. Continue reading “Album Review: In Mourning – Garden of Storms”→
Band: Handwrist | Album: The Golden Swan | Genre: Progressive rock, Zeuhl, Avant-garde rock | Bandcamp
The Golden Swan was originally envisioned by its composer to have a choir sing in Basque and for there to be symphonic orchestration. Due to budgetary and logistical constraints, these ambitions had to be shelved, but the result is a distinct blend of rock, jazz, and classical music, nonetheless. The four movements of this album flow together seamlessly. Elements of the Canterbury sound are evident, and the jazzy atmosphere makes me think this would have been even better had it been recorded as originally intended. Moments on this album do meander, but those shortcomings are well worth it.
Odds and Ends is a segment where I do brief reviews of albums I either didn’t prioritize for longer-form reviews, or ones for which I don’t have that much to say.
Band: BLASTAR | Album:Construct | Genre: Progressive rock, Jam band | Bandcamp
I really loved BLASTAR’s debut album, so I was very excited when I saw them announce their latest release. On Construct, they’ve opted to go fully instrumental. The music is cosmic and high-energy, and the overall sound has shifted more in the direction of jam bands like Aqueous or Umphrey’s McGee, with jazz and folk tones. As I’ve frequently said, it can be tough to make an instrumental album consistently engaging, but this does a good job of holding the listener’s attention. That’s not to say it doesn’t have faults, but it’s enjoyable on the whole.
Any discussion of All Traps on Earth requires at least briefly discussing Änglagård, the band’s progenitor.
Änglagård were one of the best (read: one of the few good) progressive rock acts of the 1990s. They put out two classic albums, Hybris (1992) and Epilog (1994). These releases brought the sounds of classic ‘70s prog acts like Yes and Gentle Giant into a new era with a fresh twist and breathed new life into the long-out-of-favor genre. Those two albums deserve every bit of the praise they get. In 2012, 18 years after their last one, Änglagård put out their third album, Viljans Öga, to much acclaim. (I like it overall, but I think it’s too long and doesn’t do anything too special.)
Based on their past release schedule, Änglagård’s next album won’t be out until 2030, so in the meantime, the band’s bassist, keyboardist, and drummer have formed All Traps on Earth. This band’s debut, A Drop of Light, feels very much to be the spiritual successor of Viljans Öga. Both albums are mostly-instrumental, feature vast, Mellotron-soaked suites, and display a high degree of complex songcraft. But both also feel like they’re lacking some impact. Continue reading “Album Review: All Traps on Earth – A Drop of Light”→