Well there you are, another year just like that. I was going to joke about how time doesn’t have any meaning post-pandemic and just kind of floats by unnoticed while you do your silly life stuff, but I’ve realised that that field seems quite saturated, so maybe it’s better just to ignore it and not think about it too much.
I’m going to use this intro piece to reflect on a few things—music and non-music related—that have defined this year for me, for good and for bad. I won’t lie, listening to music, taking it all in, enjoying it, and thinking about it, have been quite difficult tasks for me this year and I still haven’t quite put my finger on why. The pandemic initially affected my focus and concentration quite substantially, on work, but also on almost anything in my life that required a slightly-more-than-surface-level of introspection. It was just draining and I was constantly driven to distraction, unable to put even an inch of my mind to hobbies.
This year, this morphed into what I’d probably call a prolonged period of low mood, and thus anhedonia set in like a spectre and music became flat and drab to me, as if the transfer of emotion through music was hitting some kind of barrier or suppressor and I was only receiving some frail version of music. It was an unnerving feeling. What if I never enjoy music again? What if my body just doesn’t respond to it anymore, and doesn’t give me that ineffable feeling? Am I the only one to ever feel like this? Maybe 2021 is just a less-than-banner-year for music? Am I going mad? Like these things often do, the spectre has largely lifted thanks to a few positive life changes: I’ve finally finished the degree I’ve been working towards for so long, my partner is in a good place and we won’t have to be long distance anymore, and I’ve got a new job in a field I’m interested in. All of those doubts and questions I had circling my mind were wrong. For that reason, music just hasn’t quite done it for me this year, although the moments where those blissful feelings come rushing back are even more sought after than ever, and still feel like nothing else on this earth. It’s been a sort of “it’s not you, it’s me” situation with music, but I’m not calling it quits just yet.
On that note, myself and Eden give you our benchmark progressive records of 2021
Joe’s Standout Prog Albums of 2021
Meer – Playing House (indie prog, progressive pop)
There hasn’t been another prog record this year that has instilled as much beauty, wonder, and well… swagger, in me as Meer’s Playing House. Once again, it’s Scandinavia leading the way in making retro-sounding progressive music that carries the spirit of old with a crucial contemporary sensibility. Meer does this with a veritable orchestra of members, 8 to be exact, and songs that sweep you off your feet as well as just make prog feel badass again.
By far the best aspect of Playing House is its ever-unwinding layers and rewarding engagement. On initial listens, I was immediately pulled in by the more instantaneous, rock-centric tracks, the ‘heavy-hitters’ if you will, songs like “Picking Up The Pieces”, “Beehive”, and “She Goes” with sweeping string-backed choruses that both lift you to the skies and vanquish your doubters, putting an ear-to-ear smirk on my face every single time.
But it’s the more understated tracks like “All At Sea” and “Songs Of Us” that I’ve gravitated to more as the year has progressed. These two form an emotional whirlwind of a duo, one that has revealed its power and meaning over time compared to the songs that precede them. The sense of brooding on “All At Sea” brought on by the apprehensive guitars and strings and the detailing of a soul-sucking relationship (‘Pull me like the moon does the ocean…/…Lead my leaking ship through your waters’), gives way to a almighty sense of clarity and indignation on “Songs Of Us”, like the storm has all of sudden cleared and everything is brighter. The radiant strings and synths burn through the clouds with a euphoric feeling of release, but also of loss. This is even reflected in the lyrical through line between the two songs: ‘Are you there to hold me/Are you there to hold me down/Were you there to hold me/Were you there to hold me down’. It is but one example of how Meer masterfully command your emotions and deliver catharsis in a flick of the wrist, but Playing House has these moments in spades, and my god did I need those in a year like 2021.
Dvne – Etemen Ænka (progressive sludge metal)
Hearing Dvne for the first time earlier this year I was reminded of my initial impressions of Intronaut and how acrobatically yet gracefully they pulled off a track like “Fast Worms”, that charges in with galloping riffage and winds down with playful and teasing jazzy passages, before circling back for a final assault. I remember feeling hugely gratified by how the band managed to craft such a meandering track that never once trailed off into aimless technicality.
That was 6 years ago, but when I sat down and spun “Sì-XIV” from Dvne’s second album Etemen Ænka, I was flashed right back to that moment, because Dvne were doing exactly what I adored about “Fast Worms”, setting you up with an idea, a motif or a riff, leading you down the various logical tributaries of those ideas and then hammering it home to the finish. Dvne do that and also many more things, and very well. Etemen Ænka was certainly the most challenging and dense of the three prog records I’ve written up here, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still picking through its fibres and learning its lore (I won’t be going into that here, Eden’s fantastic *prognotes details the story of the album).
I’ve encountered bloated and aloof concept records before, but Etemen is certainly not one of them. At over an hour long, before you even start the record it’s a daunting proposition, but Dvne have nailed the structure and sequencing of the album, interspersing lengthy opuses like “Omega Severer” with shorter mood pieces or atmospheric interludes that prevent fatigue and also serve as a guide through the album. While you wouldn’t exactly call it accessible, the balance the band strikes between a myriad of contrasting tones is actually incredibly inviting. This might come as a shift from a textured post-metal portion to a gnarlier riff-laden section, or a more ponderous electronic soundscape to an anthemic section like the transition from “Adræden” to “Sì-XIV”. The fact is, Dvne can pull off all of those facets and make it exciting and engaging, which is mighty impressive for a band on their second LP.
Rivers of Nihil – The Work (progressive metal)
To follow up an album with as much gravitas and undisputed acclaim as 2018’s Where Owls Know My Name, was bound to be a monumental feat. Even after just 4 years, the record has the glow of a future classic, and hence its successor was anticipated with enormous expectation for the band to up the ante once again but also remain grounded and uniquely themselves. I know, I know, this conundrum is so ubiquitous in music that it’s almost not worth mentioning, but in Rivers of Nihil’s case, this very predicament of the post-success artistic identity crisis was the central concept of The Work, the follow up to Owls.
You could perceive Rivers’ concept here as banal and/or with an air of ‘woe is me’-ness, which might warrant an eye roll or two, but it’s wrapped up in a mystical wintery metaphor and Adam Biggs’ lyricism is esoteric enough to keep my eyeballs from rolling. My heart does tend to waver a bit though throughout The Work. Owls was a very emotional record and one which I still hold in high regard in that arena, whereas my emotional reaction to The Work remains a little stilted. I went through a similar process when Haken released Affinity, I struggled to be moved by it compared to The Mountain, which was by contast more direct. These days, however, I consider the two records on a par in terms of their emotional impact.
Let’s make this clear though. With The Work, Rivers have raised themselves up to be a household name in modern prog metal. Yeah, they’re a prog metal band now. The band haven’t abandoned their death metal roots, those tendrils are still there providing an arm of support, but they’ve withered away noticeably and are no longer the foundation of their sound. Once again in the move from Owls to The Work (as was the case in the jump from Monarchy to Owls) they’ve captured even more inspiration from their radius of influences. There’s a gothic gloom to tracks like “Focus” and “Episode” that is chilling, and Biggs’ vocals on the former are plain wicked. In fact, Biggs’ larger role as a clean singer is one part of what makes the overall product have a grander, more operatic feel. His vocals have definitely improved and they bring out the sense of hopelessness and longing on the record’s two main theme tracks, as well as bringing a tear to the eye on the Floydian ballad “Maybe One Day”. Could anyone have foreseen Rivers of Nihil writing ballads two albums prior to this, let alone doing them this successfully? I doubt it.
Going back to my Haken comparison, I expect The Work to—at some point—match the one-of-a-kind power of Owls. But, even if that doesn’t happen, The Work is a statement all of its own and it will no doubt open the band up to further explorations. It is on this list after all.
Eden’s Standout Prog Albums of 2021
Malady – Ainavihantaa (progressive rock)
Simply put, Malady is one of the most pleasing and exciting names in progressive music today. We’ve talked before about the Finnish (and Scandinavian at large) progressive rock scene but it bears repeating. Not only did the Scandinavian scene have a large, and underappreciated role, in the proliferation and creation of progressive rock’s most historical albums but they continue to house a passion and talent for the style.
Malady is just one example of this excellence; on Ainavihantaa, they’ve mellowed out their style to further channel the brooding, smooth, and full of texture vibes of mid-era King Crimson. Some of the more epic expression of their sound has been removed from this album but replaced with an even more rewarding and enchanting understatement to the sound. This means that the album takes more time to fully manifest itself, demanding that you listen to it over and over in order to figure out its little quirks and turns.
But this is fine, even great, because Ainavihantaa is such a listenable album. The production is crisp to an incredible degree and the compositions draw you in, using that understatement we cited above to beguile and cajole you deeper into its embrace. After a few listens, you’ll find yourself longing for its warm embrace, the caress of the synths, the crooning of the vocals, the murmurations of the drums and bass, and the expressions of love emanating from the guitars.
Azure – Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks (progressive rock/metal)
It absolutely delights my heart that Azure are no longer an overlooked band. While they certainly deserve even more recognition, I feel as if this release (and the absolute banger single that was Mistress) is getting more of the attention that this band absolutely has coming its way. It’s especially delightful because Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks isn’t an easy album to digest; it’s by far Azure’s darkest and most complex work yet. So to have this release blow up the way that it has tells me that there are great things coming in the band’s future.
But Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks stands on its own, of course. It showcases Azure digging deep into their past and bringing to light old creations. The end result is sort of a break from some of their previous sounds, although the core Azure personality (namely an emphasis on heavy metal/progressive rock vocals coupled with skilled guitar and drum work) is certainly here. But everything is painted darker; there are blast-beats, screams, glitchy electronics, and other, even more outgoing, additions to the Azure sound.
When it all coalesces into an album, Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks ends up being a demanding but rewarding listen. Like most of the albums on this list, mine and others’, it requires that you work to decipher its structure and what it’s going for, perhaps more than the (also excellent) Redtail which preceded it. But there’s also more to sink your teeth into here as a result, with the emotional gamut running wide and deep across the album. The more “traditional” elements of Azure conjure the same sort of hope and wonder that first drew me to their music while the darker, heavier elements add anger and frustration into the mix. This makes the album a rollercoaster of emotions, all delivered with Azure’s uncompromising penchant for engaging and evocative music.
Stone Healer – Conquistador
This is, by far, the strangest album I’ve heard in 2021. Don’t get me wrong, there was stuff out there that was way wilder, hectic, or chaotic. In contrast, Stone Healer’s album isn’t that extravagant or flamboyantly ambitious; it is, on the surface of it, a death metal album. But even writing that feels wrong, because Conquistador sounds like so few death metal albums you’ll have heard. Ever. Some have addressed this by adding a “stoner” genre tag to the album (and also “black meta”) but, while it fits some of the added tones and ideas on it, that also don’t really hit the mark. There’s a sound, a quality to this release that is very much its own.
Which, of course, firmly lends it in the category that isn’t a category called “progressive music”. In Conquistador’s case, I actually like this fallback idea because it captures what is so great about the album: it’s very experimentality. That is, Conquistador is so fascinating because of the off-kilter, unique, and uncompromising fusion of styles that it pulls off with such a “quiet” and understated style. The allure here is exactly that “progressive” tendency to ignore genre limitations and restrictions, searching far and wide for what else might be added to Conquistador’s sound to make it more unique.