3.22.2017

Whatever Happened to the Prog-Men of Tomorrow?


I wanted to take a non-exhaustive look at the later work of some of the bands discussed last time around before moving on to other musical pastures. As with before, this is not a sincere attempt to evaluate everything, just some thoughts and observations as filtered through the albums I had or have listened to. When someone pays me to be objective, hey, I'll pretend otherwise.

Until then! Let's look at the post-70s careers of some of the folks from last time. The 80s began with prog rock going mega-commercial with:

1.
ASIA

Formed from the ashes of Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer and fronted alternatively by John Wetton, Greg Lake, and John Payne, Asia hit the bigtime with their debut album, but I first heard them via their Don't Cry video, a Raiders-parody of sorts and still my favorite Asia tune. My second ("True Colors") is also from this second album, but Alpha was not as popular as the band's debut, something repeated with each subsequent release.

Not to say they faded away into obscurity; they've certainly kept busy over the years. Just that for a brief period of time at the beginning of the 80s, Asia was a legit huge deal. "Heat of the Moment" and "Only Time Will Tell" will forever play on the same stations that play any other huge 80s hits. On a personal note - and as if my life did not reference 80s movies/mythos enough already - "Days Like These" played at my high school graduation party, and everyone cheered. (And then there was the freezeframe where I kissed the girl and announced that this was going to be the best summer ever.)

Steve Howe left Asia the first time to join up with ex-Genesis-axeman Steve Hackett for a whole different prog supergroup, GTR. I mention that one because I had the vinyl for years and never listened to it but hit play on this the other day. Yep. That right there is the 80s all right. 

2.
 ELP

ELP broke up in 1979, and Keith Emerson moved into soundtrack work, such as the soundtrack for Nighthawks. It's pretty good; here's the title track. I must have watched that movie a hundred times on VHS in 1982 / 1983. As I got older I wondered how my parents let that one fly. They were pretty strict on R-rated movies, but somehow Nighthawks was okay. Not that I'm complaining. As recently as a month or two ago, I got this in mind and laughed for days. I'm easily amused, especially with things that have this kind of longevity in my life.

Carl Palmer worked with Keith and Cozy Powell on Emerson Lake and Powell for a decent record, notable in my own chronology for first bringing Holst's Mars Bringer of War to my attention.

Greg Lake put out some solo stuff, worked with Ringo and Asia, then ELP got back together in the early 90s. 1992's Black Moon isn't bad; I caught them on the tour, and it was right around the time I was getting out of prog and almost didn't go. Looking back on it from 2017, though, with two-thirds of the band no longer with us, I'm quite happy I went.


3.
GENESIS

The conventional wisdom on Genesis is that they were uber-prog when Peter Gabriel was fronting the band, then Phil Collins corrupted the band with his radio-friendly ways. The broad strokes are somewhat accurate, but the actual story is more complicated. 

It was only with the release of Invisible Touch in 1986 that the band fully turned the corner into radio stardom; they had plenty of hits before this, just not the radio and MTV domination that IT brought them. But even so commercial a work as it has stuff like "The Brazilian" on it. Plus, say what you will about the radio-friendliness of something like "Throwing It All Away;" it's still a beautiful song. (One of the smoothest little guitar riffs ever.) 

Granted, by the time of 1991's We Can't Dance, most semblance of the old Genesis was gone, but anyone who wants to pretend Invisible Touch isn't one of the 80s best records is free to go on kidding him(or her)self.

Still have never listened to the band's (to date) last studio album from '97. I could have thrown that in for this final edit of this post. But did I? Nope.

Anyway, in addition to the commercial sensibility of the band slowly manifesting itself, the albums immediately leading up to Invisible Touch showcase how great of a keyboardist Tony Banks was/ is. Abacab, especially - that title track has gotten a lot of airplay over the writing of these posts - but Duke and their self-titled one, as well. Fantastic keyboard albums. My favorite song from this era is "Keep It Dark" - what a cool damn groove. 

4.
KING CRIMSON

After disbanding the group in 1974 and doing some pioneering work with Brian Eno, Robert Fripp reformed Crimson with Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew and Tony Levin in 1981, and the four have formed the core of the group ever since. They explored a very New Wave-y sort of prog in their early 80s work (which includes the wonderful duality of "Discipline"and "Indiscipline") and got increasingly diffuse over the 90s, right on down to now. Impossible to really summarize the past few decades of the band except to say, like Zappa or Tangerine Dream or Prince, they have become their own genre.

For years they put out these "Collectors Club" releases of select live shows, and I belonged to the mailing list for them. You signed up and they mailed you something from their vault every month. Not cheap but always so good and the liner notes were always amazing. They have such terrific design aesthetic; it augments the precision and boldness of the music perfectly.



It's difficult to restrain myself with links, since I've been such a close fan of these guys for decades and have accumulated dozens of favorites. They've also released so many great side projects, such as Robert Fripp's Soundscapes, or his work with the League of Crafty Guitarists (more on them in a second) or any of the ProjeKcts stuff, like Heavy Construkction

And still they find time to record brand new regular ol' KC classics like Happy With What You Have To be Happy With ("And for a second verse / I brew another pot / of am-bi-gu-it-y-y-y!" and "And this would seem to be as good as any other place to sing until I'm blue in the face!" always get a chuckle from me) or experimental stuff like 1996's Thrakattak. (For Madmen Only!)

Check this out, though, from one of Fripp's side projects, the League of Crafty Guitarists. It's called "Asturias" and is based on the old tune by Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz. I've been trancing to this for years and show no sign of stopping. By this point, I've developed an elaborate mental movie to accompany the music, and if I ever get the funds to do a series on Captain Cook's First Voyage and the Endeavour almost coming to wreck on the Great Barrier Reef, this will be the musical centerpiece of the series. I get serious goosebumps when I picture this and would give quite a bit to actually be able to watch it for real.

(Producers with deep pockets: you know where to find me.) 

5.
THE MOODY BLUES
 

I mentioned in the other post how the Moodies put out a whole lot of other prog than the one I included (Days of Future Passed.) I've never been able to hang with the group much outside that album, their radio tunes, and that "Timmy Leary's Dead" song. I'd be most grateful for anyone in the know to leave a list of recommended listening as I suspect the band has a lot of deep tracks I'd enjoy but simply don't know. 

I wanted to mention this video for "In Your Wildest Dreams," though, which my younger self found quite agreeable and my older self relates to on levels the former both could and couldn't imagine. I was the sort of kid who was very conscious of "Someday I'll look back on this..." moments. So, the video had that sort of appeal to me, I guess, but one thing I didn't imagine was looking back fondly on those days of imagining looking-back-fondly-on-something. I apologize for the mental pretzel, there, it's just a mirror maze of nostalgia around these parts and now I wonder if someday there will be a nostalgia-for-nostalgia-blog. You remember those days when I remembered those other days? Those were awesome.

Speaking of nostalgia, "Veteran Cosmic Rocker"is another fun one, from 1981's Long Distance Voyager. It covers the same sort of terrain as George Harrison's "When We Was Fab" or other 60s-rockers-recalling-their-youth-in-whimsical-British-fashion.

6.
 PINK FLOYD

Like you need me to tell you what Pink Floyd got up to after the proggy days of the 70s!

Some don't like the Waters-less Floyd albums (1987's A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1994's The Division Bell, and 2014's The Endless River) but I do. They're a different flavor of the band, but that's the same story as any other band that started out in the 60s or 70s and their later material. (Except maybe Motorhead.) The Endless River received mixed reviews, but in some ways it's my favorite of all the post-Waters albums, just an unpretentious, mellow smooth, listening experience. (Said Gilmour upon its release: "Unapologetically, this is for the generation that wants to put its headphones on, lie in a beanbag, or whatever, and get off on a piece of music for an extended period of time. You could say it’s not for the iTunes, downloading-individual-tracks generation.") Here's a representative example. I like the jammy side of that record more than the lyrical, though really, I've no objection to any of it.

Less remarked upon are the solo bands put out by Floyd members. Radio KAOS might be the best of the lot, despite Waters' increasingly-agitated Mercedes-Marxist schtick. (Artists really need to just stay as far away from Marxism as possible. People in general, but these rich artistic types more than anyone. They just cannot handle it.) But Richard Wright's Broken China pleasantly surprised me. Not the cheeriest affair but quite well done.

7. 
YES

I mentioned how Asia will always be in rotation on the 80s-hit stations, just not my favorite songs. The same can be said for 80s Yes. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" is a great tune, admittedly, but that it gets all the attention over equally 80s-sounding-radio-friendly Yes hits like "Love Will Find a Way" or "Rhythm of Love" or "Changes" is ridiculous. 

Big Generator has the distinction of being an album I've loved, for three decades now, no matter what other musical phase I was in. A couple of years after Big Generator came out, four of the members of "classic" Yes (Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe) put out (wait for it) Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe. I loved it at the time and still enjoy it every once and awhile but, by contrast, there is literally never a time where I'm not in the mood for Big Generator.

Is it my favorite Yes album? Well, not really. My favorite Yes stuff is the 70s prog mentioned last time. But in a way, it sort of is my favorite, as I occasionally need a break from even the awesome-70s stuff, whereas I never need one from BG. Songs like Shoot High Aim Low and I'm Running continue to hit my ears as just perfectly performed and produced pieces of music.

And now, a special treat for you. I don't really know any Yes post-ABWH, to be honest. Outside of Crimson, I didn't really keep up with any of the prog bands I loved in high school. But my buddy Kevin has, so I asked him if he'd care to review them for the blog. Kevin's someone whose musical opinion I trust pretty much across the board. Even when we disagree, I learn more from why or how he likes something than I would just listening on my own.

He provided some generous commentary and so without further ado, let's look at the subsequent output of Yes. Take it away, Kevin: 

Union (1991) and Talk (1994)

"Perhaps stronger than anything that's come since, Union is often outright dismissed among fans as illegitimate, because of all the extra studio musicians, because it wasn't collaborative really, and because the tour was "so much better". But it's got that cool slick late-80s/early 90s production sheen that you can only get with that era, and they really deck it out, sonically speaking. It might sorta date it, but you can see how they're trying to bring new sounds to the overall idea of Yes. And then, I personally find the record to be under-rated as pure songs. There are one or two that kinda stink ("Dangerous" and "Miracle of Life" for me) but the last three tracks are a great run of music. The first three as well, come to think of it. I'm good w/this album except those two tunes basically. It's really ABWH 2, and I liked ABWH just fine.

(As for Talk) how can this album not piss you off? All the promise of the CTTE/Fragile lineup returning to Yes thrown in the trash, along with the return of Roger Dean; all gone in favor of the hope of another "Owner of a Lonely Heart" which of course never came. Instead we get this love-it-or-hate-it album that only a Trevor Rabin fan can truly love. I have long complained about the art, a problem unto itself IMO. And the album is just not as good as the others from this lineup, except from a sort of technology standpoint. Yes, it's sonically neato. Otherwise it tries too hard where it shouldn't, and doesn't try hard enough where it should. I've been trying with this record the entire time, not growin' on me too much you might say.


Keys to Ascension (1996) and Open Your Eyes (1997)

"The mid-nineties is my favorite Yes era to hate on, so forgive me. There's no way to not see the Keys stuff as a total clusterfuck. You got the basic classic Yes lineup back but can't seem to truly get these same ol' ingredients to produce a great meal. Dean art reinstated, check. Wakeman/Howe noodling? Check. No 80s hit attempts, no Rabin; check. But what do we get? Two live albums with "bonus studio material", that is really like a near double-LP's worth of forced new studio stuff. Between its weak songcraft and weird live album presentation situations, this project is just plain weird and unsatisfying. Unless, you know, I happen to be on a wicked Yes bender, and then I actually kinda love the Keys shit.
 

Like Union, Open Your Eyes collects lots of hate. It's no worse than those last two projects, but somehow gets all the hate; not exactly sure why. Probably because Wakeman left and Billy Sherwood became a member. I really like it, despite some blatantly bad writing moments. It's just a pleasant record. "Universal Garden" is the standout, to me. I'm not sure if its underdog status has effected my opinion, but I generally defend this album. I guess it sounds more purposeful than Talk or Keys, to me. Songs are better. Doesn't piss me off, lol.

The Ladder (1999) and Magnification (2001)

"Bruce Fairbairn produced The Ladder, and it's obviously an attempt to focus the band and make a great record, after a series of missteps. It's pretty great, although its "epic" near the end is kinda lame IMO ("New Language") The rest of it is generally inspired and positive, and "It Will Be A Good Day (The River)" is still a goosebumps-type track. I am pretty fond of The Ladder. It's a very strong later-period effort, by any measure.

Magnification is maybe my personal favorite post-heyday work. A logical next step from the last several releases, and the last of a pretty busy run. This album is best appreciated as a whole, not as individual songs. When you can get into it that way, it's a very satisfying work and maybe even better than The Ladder.

Here's where you get into the weird zone.


Fly from Here (2011) and Heaven and Earth (2014)

"Fly From Here (has) Benoit David on lead vocals, but it's otherwise the Drama line up making a sequel to Drama. Pretty light and fluffy compared to Drama actually, but a reasonably decent effort all things considered. Probably too safe though. A little bit too AOR and not enough space hippie.

I like
Heaven and Earth but admittedly only for what it is. It's got a couple moments but I'm not particularly into their new singer. I had high hopes for the guy. Seems like a good dude, I guess. I got a great vinyl edition of this album, which honestly helps. Two basic problems with this record: 1) too lite-rock sounding, no edge whatsoever, and 2) half the songs are good, the other half are pretty dreadful. And I fuckin' never use that word if I can help it."

~
Kevin Silvia is an old friend, bandmate, and one of my favorite songwriters and guitarists; he currently plays bass with The Grass Gypsies. Thanks for reviewing these later Yes albums, bud!

So long from Prog-land. Next stop: ZZ Top-ville. See you then.