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: Alustrium | Album:Insurmountable | Genre: Death metal, Progressive metal | Bandcamp
The music on this EP is played with incredible precision, and the density of riffs-per-minute is impressively high. However, it also feels like this band’s main goal was to play as fast as possible, and even across such a short EP, that gets exhausting. There’s also nothing particularly unique about this release; this is rather boilerplate tech-death.
This band heavily channels Porcupine Tree in just about every regard. It’s a skillful facsimile, right down to the tones of the individual instruments, and the songs are well structured. There is also the occasional outside influence, such the odd jazzy lick here or there. On the downside, this album is pretty long-winded. Only one of the six songs comes in under eight minutes, and most cuts could have benefitted from some trimming.
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: 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.
I’ve been indulging in the lighter side of progressive rock lately. I’ve got a big backlog of black and death metal I need to cover, but progressive folk and art-pop have been scratching my musical itches lately. While not strictly a pop album by any means, Louise Patricia Crane’s solo debut, Deep Blue, draws heavily from acts like The Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush. The music is rife with psychedelic Pink Floyd-isms, and folk influences are liberally scattered throughout this record. King Crimson guitarist and vocalist Jakko Jakszyk was recruited for this project, and his distinct playing style and backing vocals augment the music. Continue reading “Album Review: Louise Patricia Crane – Deep Blue”→
It’s often interesting to see acts evolve across successive albums. Even within the realm “progressive” genres, some bands don’t change their sound very much. Meanwhile, others engage in wild genre-hopping on the regular. More often, you find something like you do with Orange Clocks. Their 20-song 2017 debut album was chock-full of narration and brief interludes. The music was also somewhat unfocused, drawing heavily both from early Pink Floyd and the broader world of funk.
Metamorphic, the band’s second studio album, alleviates many of the issues of their debut. The sound is more consistent, and the distracting narration is gone, giving their sophomore release a more mature feel. The presence of stoner/desert rock is considerably more pronounced as well, and elements of krautrock and drone have begun to be worked in. Continue reading “Album Review: Orange Clocks – Metamorphic”→
Vinyl Dial has had an unusual creative trajectory. The Flight of the Crown Hawk was originally recorded and released on MySpace in 2009. However, in 2019 it got a remaster and was officially released on Seaside Tapes, a label focused primarily on DIY-electronica and vaporwave. In the intervening years, this one-man project has put out a handful of electronic and vaporwave releases, in addition to other space rock/prog rock releases.
The Flight of the Crown Hawk is not shy about just how much of the music is inspired by Porcupine Tree’s early work. The first proper song, “Shapes in the Clouds”, begins with spare acoustic guitar, airy synth pads, and murky, effects-laden vocals. It slowly slithers along for its first half, and the guitar solo sounds like it’s straight off Porcupine Tree’s Signify. The song’s second half plays with stranger rhythms, heavier guitar tones, and cosmic synth leads. Continue reading “Album Review: Vinyl Dial – The Flight of the Crown Hawk”→
Welcome to the third installment of Deep Dive, where I take an in-depth look at the studio discographies of some of the giants of progressive rock and progressive metal.
For those who don’t feel like reading this massive entry, I’ve included a TL;DR and ranking of albums at the end. I’m opting to explore albums chronologically, as opposed to a ranked-list format. The context in which albums were made is important, and this is an element often missed in a ranked list.
My first two entries in this series focused on some of the giants of progressive rock’s 1970s heyday. For this entry, I wanted to focus on something heavier, which means someone more modern. After weighing a few options and starting Deep Dive entries on a couple other artists, I settled on Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson.
Porcupine Tree covered a wide style of music until their disbandment in 2010, ranging from space rock to art pop to progressive metal. Wilson has maintained that experimental spirit in his solo career, covering similar ground across his five solo albums. The early-21st Century progressive rock renaissance we’re currently enjoying may not have happened at all, had it not been for the wide success of Porcupine Tree, which opened the door for many, many other acts.
As a disclaimer, this essay does not cover all of Steven Wilson’s myriad musical projects. The man is too prolific for me to reasonably address all those projects in this one essay. I am solely focusing on Porcupine Tree and his solo material. No-Man and Bass Communion don’t fit this site’s purview; and while Blackfield and Storm Corrosion may fall under the margins of progressive rock, I simply don’t like their output and would not enjoy reviewing them in-depth. I also do not plan to discuss his remastering work on classic prog albums. I do highly recommend his King Crimson remasters, though I’d avoid his work on Too Old to Rock n Roll: Too Young to Die!, as mentioned in my Jethro Tull Deep Dive. Continue reading “Deep Dive: Porcupine Tree & Steven Wilson”→
Diagonal’s 2008 self-titled debut is one of the strongest progressive rock records of the ‘00s. And the ‘00s were the best decade for progressive rock since the ‘70s, so that’s saying something. It was an enthralling blend of folk, prog, jazz, and Canterbury sounds presented with a fresh and modern energy. Their 2012 follow-up saw the band going almost fully instrumental after a personnel shake-up, much to their detriment. Alex Crispin’s vocals were one of my favorite elements of their debut, being far more soulful than most other vocalists in the genre.
I wasn’t even aware Diagonal were still together—it had been seven years since their last album. So, it was a pleasant surprise when I learned about their forthcoming third album, Arc. I was even happier when I listened to the first pre-release song and found they’d decided to reintroduce vocals to their music. The jazz influences on Arc loom large, in both the rhythms and the textures. The drumming is deft and often light, while organ and electric piano tend to be the lead instruments. Continue reading “Album Review: Diagonal – Arc”→
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: Cosmocracy, Inc. | Album:A Ride Across Your Mind | Genre: Progressive rock, Psychedelic rock | Bandcamp
This is a delightful album. It’s a high-energy, progressive garage rock piece, and it’s a ton of fun. The guitars have a distinctly bluesy twinge, and the keyboards lend a wide, galactic atmosphere. The bass tone used here comes across as downright funky. The vocals are a little rough and weak, but I’m hoping that’ll be improved on future releases. This band have some room for improvement, but they’re starting off strong.