Welcome to the January Progress Report, and Happy New Year to everyone out there. It seemed like 2021 was just a repeat of 2020, but we still had some great music to get us through the tough times. Here we are with a new year, the same issues, and hopefully some more great albums to bring us joy. If this month is any indication, we’ve got a good year in store for us, as every album in this column is a worthy addition to anyone’s collection. Let’s get going and remember, if you like the music support the bands however you can – Bandcamp Fridays are a great way to do so.
Ratings are on a five star scale.
Aethereus – Leiden (The Artisan Era)
It has been almost four years since American prog-death outfit Aethereus graced these pages, and we were very impressed with Absentia. Fast-forward to today and the band has released Leiden, their fourth album of massive technical death metal. Completed last May, it finally comes to light this month and is worth the wait.
Aethereus show a ton of skill when it comes to balancing brutally heavy passages with super-technical riffs, solos, and drumming. Over nearly an hour they both bludgeon and amaze, displaying a deft hand when it comes to creating melody and devastation – often in the same song, as in “The Living Abyss.” A must-have for the prog-death fans amongst us.
Perhaps the oddest name of the month goes to Swedish musician Petter Karlsson’s solo project, Alvablot. A veteran who has worked with acts such as Diablo Swing Orchestra and Therion, Alvablot’s debut Harmonic Dystopia is an indulgent romp down progressively tinged roads of power and alternative metal. Karlsson plays and sings everything here, which when one listens to the quality of the output is exceptional.
Opening track “Blind Man” confused me, as it seems more nu-metal than anything as it opens, but get that out of the way and we’re left with a highly addictive blend of power and progressive metal, with plenty of outstanding performances and modern hooks. Alvablot still have plenty of room to grow, which makes Harmonic Dystopia even more enjoyable in some ways.
Big Big Train – Welcome To The Planet (English Electric)
This is a bittersweet entry if ever there was one. Welcome To The Planet, Big Big Train’s 14th album, was completed late last year before tragedy struck and the band lost singer David Longdon in November. This is the ninth album to feature Longdon on lead vocals, and while it was of course never intended as a send-off, one can’t help but listen to it with Longdon’s passing in mind.
I’m not sure if Big Big Train have ever released a bad album, and Welcome To The Planet is no exception. As with last year’s superb Common Ground, this album is full of lush, wonderfully-produced progressive rock songs, each one a compelling listen. Longdon sounds great (no surprise) and the band’s playing is impeccable. Welcome To The Planet is a fitting swansong to an artist who left us too soon.
Jethro Tull – The Zealot Gene (InsideOut)
Wow, where did this come from? Legendary ’70s folk-prog rockers Jethro Tull are here with a new album. The Zealot Gene is their first in 23 years (not counting a Christmas album) and 22nd studio album overall. This album has been in the works for a few years now, and one listen is all it takes to hear the painstaking effort the band has put into it.
Ian Anderson’s voice has aged nicely, and combined with his flute playing lends an air of laid-back jovial comfort to the music. That might not always be the aim of the songs, as there are plenty of more sinister elements at play throughout this questioning of biblical themes, but combined with strong songwriting and crack performances by the band (none of whom have been on a previous Tull album), Jethro Tull deliver a surprisingly strong and cohesive album.
Toundra – Hex (InsideOut)
Spanish post-rock outfit Toundra are a favorite of yours truly, as evidenced by our review of their last album, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari back in 2020. As with that release, the band has high ambitions with their eighth album, Hex. The first side is a single song, “El Odio,” a song that aims to explore what drives humanity to hatred.
It’s an excellent and engrossing track, and the four songs that make up the back half of Hex are strong in their own right. Instrumental post-rock is not a genre that sees widespread popularity, as it is exceedingly difficult to create consistently engrossing material, but Toundra have become masters of this and are certainly a band whose output is worth exploring, even for those who aren’t normally fans of this style of music.
Wilderun – Epigone (Century Media)
Critical darlings Wilderun are back with their fourth release, Epigone. Three amazing independent releases garnered them a ton of label interest, resulting in this album being their first with Century Media. Huge fan expectations coupled with the move to a big label have never disappointed, have they? Will they here?
Luckily, not. Epigone might take a while to get going (it is alarmingly subdued for the first eight minutes) but once it does oh boy, hold on to your hats. It is far too early to say if this is the album of the year, but I’m confident in the declaration that this is the most ambitious album we’ll get from anyone. Soaring, epic, all-encompassing, full of folk influences, Opethian moments, and sprawling yet engrossing compositions, Epigone could very well be the epitome of epic progressive metal. Hands down, it’s our album of the month.