The recent deaths of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and John Wetton prompted me to break out some old records - so to speak, their external hard drive equivalent anyway - and re-acquaint myself with the wonderful, oft-maligned world of Progressive Rock. As per usual, this led in a few more directions than I'd intended and resulted in taking some notes and plugging numbers into a spreadsheet. Et voici!
The header up there uses an image of Roger Dean's, who was to Prog Rock what Derek Riggs was to Iron Maiden. I think half of the reason I initially got into Yes was just for the album covers.
|We'll see some of those albums in the countdown to come, but here are some additional images. Google image the guy if you never have; you won't regret it.|
|Of course, that brings up another point - nowadays you can just google image it. |
But what is prog, exactly? Is it just fantastic themes and lots of solos? It's somewhat difficult to define. Two lists I looked at (here and here) do as commendable a job as you can probably do. Some criteria / confessions up front:
- You'll notice some of the genre's heaviest hitters well-represented below, otherwise known as "the usual suspects sucking up all the air in the room." Guilty as charged - I can't pretend those classic Yes and Crimson albums aren't my sincere personal favorites, so I didn't try.
- Prog grew out of psychedelic rock and morphed into fusion and its own plank of heavy metal. The "pure" prog probably is limited only to one decade (the 70s). Those albums produced in the 80s and beyond will be dealt with in a subsequent post. (Here.)
- Beyond whether or not it was a personal favorite, my criteria for the below was a) Does it have a mellotron? b) Did it come out in the 70s? c) Does at least one song take up a whole album side? d) Does at least one song title resemble a Table of Contents? (Example: Rush's "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" from Caress of Steel: I) At the Tobes of Hades * II) Across the Styx, III) Of the Battle (further broken down into iiia - Challenge and Defiance, iiib - 7/4 War Furor, iiic - Aftermath, iiid - Hymn of Triumph), and IV) Epilogue. And e) Is at least one guy in the band a freak on his instrument? His or her, of course, but the prog under consideration is all dudes. Sorry, I guess.
* When I was a teenager I assumed Rush was just laying down some fancy unknown-to-me vocab; turns out, though, he was just making up words.
- Even within these parameters, though, it's a total judgment call. Pink Floyd is usually referred to as progressive rock. But I only consider a handful of their releases to actually be prog. Dark Side is one of the best albums ever made, but to me it's just radio-friendly rock. Essential and exceptional radio-friendly rock, but not the stuff of "Sound Chaser." (Or Atom Heart Mother for that matter.) Beyond that, some things that aren't normally considered prog (such as most of Miles Davis' 70s work or Gary Moore's earlier stuff like "Flight of the Snow Moose" or so many others) fit my criteria comfortably enough. But, they didn't look right on the list, so I took them off. Conversely, my original list did not contain a few bands/ albums that don't fit said criteria but had to be included anyway. So what we have here is what we always has: a list that only makes perfect sense as to yours truly. As per tradition, I
- Ditto for Tangerine Dream and Frank Zappa. But I'm of the opinion that when you put out something like 500 albums, you become your own genre.
Feel free to submit your own counter-list in the comments. Let us begin.
WARRIOR ON THE EDGE OF TIME (1974)
In addition to their abundance of groovy music, Hawkwind is distinguished by a) being an intermittent collaborator of Michael Moorcock, whose body of work informs a lot of the band's output, b) once having Lemmy from Motorhead (like anyone needs "from Motorhead" as a qualifier) as their bassist, and c) their original drummer having suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by LSD, placing them in a rarefied circle of late 60s UK bands (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, etc.)
A serious Hawkwind fan can probably name a half-dozen other albums that belong on this list, possibly even in place of this one. But Warrior is the one for me.
"The wizard blew his horn... the wizard blew his horn..."
CONCERTO FOR GROUP AND ORCHESTRA (1969)
At the instigation of keyboardist and maestro Jon Lord, Deep Purple teamed up with the London Royal Philharmonic for this three-movement marriage of orchestra and rock band. It was apparently not a happy pairing, but perhaps that tension worked to the project's advantage. My favorite is the third movement, which sounds to me like it'd be ideal for a high seas adventure movie.
It's amazing, really, how many times I think that when listening to prog. (Second place: "whales in space.")
Deep Purple's catalog could really use some digitally remastered TLC. The production quality varies wildly. It's possible this has already happened and simply hasn't filtered down to YouTube, which is where I attempted an album-by-album listen-through not too long ago. A great band - certainly not a traditional prog choice, but as a huge part of prog was this constant alluding to orchestral music, a sensible one.
THE ALAN PARSONS PROJECT
- TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION (1976)
Another one I don't often see make many Best of Prog lists. I think opinions are mixed on Alan Parsons in general. I couldn't really tell you, though - all I know is this one, and I will forever hear this as the 14 year old I was when I first heard it, when basically if you referenced Poe, much less wrote a whole freaking album celebrating his works, you were cool. It's a movie of the mind and perfect for a long car ride or commute.
Favorite track is probably "Fall of the House of Usher" (here's a particularly cinematic excerpt) though "Dream Within a Dream" has narration from the one and only Orson Welles. This was recorded only for the 1987 reissue of the album, which purists decry is too far removed from the original vinyl. I like both.
- IN THE WAKE OF POSEIDON (1970)
Crimson's been a favorite since I first heard them, and they continue to put out challenging and worthwhile material. (They also seem to have lightened up a little in recent years. Which is appreciated. It seemed to me all they did from the 80s through recent years was complain (and at comprehensive lengths) about the industry, their fans, the current state of spiritual enlightenment of most earthlings, urban planning, photographers stealing their souls, you name it. It's good to see Robert Fripp smiling a little again. Maybe for the first time.)
Decades before such singular grumpiness, though, was this, the band's 2nd album, the showcase of which is "The Devil's Triangle," side 2's apocalyptic repurposing of Holst's "Mars Bringer of War" and the beatnik-y "Cat Food," sung by the band's first singer, Greg Lake.
"No use to complain / when you're caught out in the rain / your mother's quite insane - CAT FOOD! (cat food, cat food) / A-GAIN!"
- FISH OUT OF WATER (1975)
In 1975 the five members of Yes each put out a solo record. Like Kiss a few years later, except very much not like Kiss. This is one I was never able to find back in the day. Until I sat down to listen to it a few times, I assumed this spot would be taken by one of the other solo-Yes projects, namely Jon Anderson's Olias of Sunhillow, his Vangelis-esque-moorglades-and-epic-fantasy debut, for which he's been working on a sequel since at least 2004, making it the Last Dangerous Visions of the prog rock world. I was surprised to find I liked this one the best of them all.
Outside of Olias, I never heard any of the others - Alan White's Ramshackled, Patrick Moraz's The Story of I, or Steve Howe's Beginnings - until this past year, as well. I assumed I'd love Steve Howe's, since I'm a huge fan of that guy's guitar playing. But he really shouldn't be doing his own vocals. The same thing sinks Alan White's album.
Anyway, this is a strong album. I'm the type of guy if I see this (or even Olias) in your stacks I consider it evidence of a superior ir at least admirably unconventional mind. I rag on people for their virtue-signalling over political BS or after-school-sentiments, but swap in records and Criterion discs and books and I'm a serial offender.
- LARKS' TONGUE IN ASPIC (1973)
The title track for this one is an ongoing musical enterprise - I believe they're up to Part 5 or 6 now. Here, the album starts with pt. 1 and ends with pt. 2. Both are classics; each version captures some of the band's unique and dynamic energy, regardless of its incarnation. I'm trying not to link to too many long musical suites, but either is a good place to start to grok the band's approach.
Outside of those, my favorite here is "Book of Saturday," a moody little melody I still find myself whistling often enough.
- NURSERY CRYME (1971)
One of the more bizarre opening tracks of any album I can think of, "The Musical Box" kicks things off very quietly with some understated guitar-and-vocal interplay between Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel before kicking into high gear around the 4-minute mark. What's it about, you ask? Here's the plot summary from its wiki:
"The lyrics are based on a Victorian fairy story written by Gabriel, about two children in a country house. The girl, Cynthia, kills the boy, Henry, by cleaving his head off with a croquet mallet. She later discovers Henry's musical box. When she opens it, 'Old King Cole' plays, and Henry returns as a spirit, but starts aging very quickly. This causes him to experience a lifetime's sexual desire in a few moments, and he tries to persuade Cynthia to have sexual intercourse with him. However, the noise causes his nurse to arrive, and she throws the musical box at him, destroying them both. The album cover shows Cynthia holding a croquet mallet, with a few heads lying on the ground."
Just your standard love story. This album gets mixed reviews from Genesis fans, but it was the first of the band's Peter Gabriel years I ever bought. "The Return of the Giant Hogweed" is historically notable for featuring the first tapping on record, a technique later popularized by Eddie Van Halen and the deluge of imitators that followed. The record has since been corrected - it was Steve Hackett - but that used to be something to argue about: who invented tapping, or at least got it onto record first.
- A SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS (1968) ANIMALS (1977)
Both of these are pretty solid examples of prog sensibility, I think. I like them about the same, so I decided to keep both entries as a tie.
I first heard "Saucerful" as part of the band's Live at Pompei concert, which I'd link to but all I can find are audio-only vids. And since the entire point of linking to a concert video is to show the footage - although in this case it's just the band performing for an amphitheater of ghosts, which is pretty awesome - I trust the interested can find their own way to it. (Original name of the tune? "The Massed Gadgets of Hercules." I've always thought "Saucerful of Secrets" was a great title, but it may be a coin-flip between those two.)
Speaking of awesome titles, Saucerful also features "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." It was recorded both before and after Syd Barrett's departure from the group.
- SONG FOR AMERICA (1975)
This album is a start-to-finish classic. I was going to link to the title track, then thought maybe "Lamplight Symphony" was more emblematic, then wondered how I could have considered anything but "Hymn to the Atman?" Then I just said, meh, this is just a list, not my report to the Pentagon. When people think Kansas, it's probably one of their radio hits, and nothing against those, but when I think of the band, this is the one that comes to mind. Trust me and give this a spin sometime. It'll make you a better person.
Even better, the remastered edition includes "Magnum Opus" from Leftoverture. Which a Kansas fan probably has already, but it increases the already-considerable amount of prog power on Song for America by a factor of awesome.
EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER
- PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION (1971)
This is kind of a placeholder for all ELP. The problem with these guys is they never put out a full solid studio album of prog awesomeness. I mean, you could consider either volume of Works (1977) to be such an album, but there's so much filler on either, and really, with a couple of exceptions, their proggiest stuff lies elsewhere. See here for what I mean. I think I synched that up to the start of "Battlefield," which is one of the many chapters of the epic "Tarkus" from Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends *. Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer are synched up about as good as any keyboardist and drummer can be synched up on that damn track.
* Which certainly is triple-sized prog at its finest, but I think I prefer Pictures, despite its dearth of original ELP material. Some people consider Tarkus (1971) or Trilogy (1972) to be their best work, but neither of those have aged well for me. This live version of "Tarkus: Battlefield" is probably my hands-down favorite thing the band ever did.
|Not their proggiest work, either, but a) surprisingly good actually, and b) this cover! Wow.|
ELP was one of the brightest stars in the firmament of the genre, and this album is definitely worthy of inclusion on a variety of lists.
- FOXTROT (1972)
Genesis fans always tell me Selling England by the Pound (1973) or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) are the best albums of the Gabriel era. I'm more of a Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot guy, myself, but this is almost certainly the result of it being these latter albums I drove home with one fateful visit to Luke's Record Exchange in Pawtucket, RI circa 1990. First impressions are hard to overcome. Each album has its delights, of course.
I've spent the last few months revisiting these albums and jotting down notes about each song, but I just discovered whatever notes I took for my Foxtrot revisit have disappeared. Ah well.
Check out these more-proggy-than-prog subtitles, though, for side-2-spanning epic "Supper's Ready:" a. Lover's Leap b. The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man c. Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men d. How Dare I Be So Beautiful? e. Willow Farm f. Apocalypse in 9/8 (Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet) g. As Sure as Eggs Is Eggs (Aching Men's Feet).
- THICK AS A BRICK (1972) / A PASSION PLAY (1973)
These are less personal favorites and a concession to Jethro Tull's contributions to the genre. Thick as a Brick is perhaps the more accessible of the two. Passion Play was savaged, apparently, on its release, but over time it's been recognized as a great record. A heady affair and one that requires some cooperation from the listener, but worth it.
I saw these guys in 1991 and the show was way more metal than it had any right to be. People'd be surprised if they did an album crawl through the band's catalog. Whenever the "Jethro-Tull-won-a-grammy-for-metal?-Over-Metallica?" remarks get started, I always think of that. Besides, Crest of a Knave (the album that won) is pretty heavy.
Anyway, not the mellotron-y fantasy-epic side of prog, but it makes sense for me to make room for Jethro Tull on this list.
THE MOODY BLUES
- DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED (1967)
I hesitated to include this one, as I consider it more psychedelic rock than prog. But I think it's a pivotal record and - like ELP or #10 coming up - maybe this is more of an Overall Achievement placing. The Moody Blues produced plenty of prog over their career, but they weren't much for start-to-finish great records.
This is the exception. Like I say, it might not exactly be a great prog record, but it feels right to include. And who's going to argue with "Nights in White Satin?" I read a poem once that took issue with that tune and remember thinking, "Who the hell has a problem with that song of all songs?" I remember no other line except "Why didn't he send the letters? What's up with that?" What kind of writer doesn't understand the idea of writing things you never mean to send? And the anguish this process involves? Meh.
- DANGER MONEY (1979)
I mentioned this project got started while reflecting on the passing of some of the genre's seminal personalities, like John Wetton. Of the many projects he lent his signature voice and bass-style to, my favorite is this littler-known effort, which was the first of the supergroups Wetton would form or join. (The subsequent one, Asia, tends to overshadow - in initial commercial impact and lingering pop cultural memory at least - all others.) I'm not sure any genre other than jazz or hip hop has as many crossovers and overlap as prog. (Raymond Bensen's Dark Side of the Morgue plays around with this idea pretty well.)
Of the two albums the band released, I vastly prefer Danger Money, whose title track has that celestial-synth/big-bottomed-bass sound I like so much. "Rendezvous 6:02", chronicling some kind of supernatural encounter at Waterloo Station, is another gem, but really, each track here is gold.
- THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII (1973)
That cover really cracks me up. Wakeman's got a wacky sense of humor - check out the inner sleeve for 1979's Rhapsodies for example.
I had no idea how many albums this guy has put out since the last time I looked, including a sequel to all of his big ones from the 70s. He's definitely on his way to if not already arrived at the one-man-genre designation I mentioned earlier. This one came across my radar on Yesshows, which is really the double cassette that got me into the band more than anything else. But I liked that solo showcase so much I made a point to track down the album proper.
Unlike at least half of these albums, this is one I've been listening to pretty consistently over the years, regardless of whatever other bands or genres commanded my attention. There are certain melodies that move me very deeply, and the motif for "Catherine Howard" is one of them. Watching him perform it with the Orchestra Europa for the 500th anniversary of Henry's ascension to the throne of England at the Hampton Court Palace - something he asked permission to do in the 70s and was told it was tantamount to treason! - was a treat. Not that I was there in person, just a nice thing to have happened I mean.
And side two's even better!
Here's another placeholder. No mellotron, but plenty of 70s multi-chapter-titled/ fantasy-sci-fi-themed goodness on a lot of those early albums. But no one album that strikes me as totally "prog" oriented.
Some get close - 2112 and Hemispheres, definitely, but my dilemma was: no album scored in my spreadsheet at a level that reflected the esteem a band like Rush should command, in any rankings but especially prog ones. This says more about my scoring system, perhaps - I won't bore you with the ins and outs of how I arrived at Rush coming in at #10, but I will tell you if they released a double album with "2112," "Cygnus," "The Necromancer," "Anthem," and a couple of other more traditionally-prog ones, that album would probably be up there at #1 for me.
(Further Dog Star musings on Rush can be found here.)
- TRICK OF THE TAIL (1976)
Here's an oddity in the band's catalog - the first post-Peter-Gabriel album but still very much of the Gabriel era. The conventional wisdom on the band is that they had a prog era (Gabriel) then morphed into 80s synth-radio-pop (Collins.) The broad strokes are correct, but really, only the last couple of Genesis albums can be classified as synth-radio pop, and only intermittently at that. Most everything pre-Invisible Touch has a strong prog sensibility.
Every track here is gold, but my favorites are "Robbery Assault and Battery" ("Done me wrong! Same old song! DONE ME WRONG!") and "Ripples."
WAR OF THE WORLDS (1978)
This rock opera based on the Wells book is narrated by Richard Burton and features the musical stylings of Phil Lynott and Justin Hayward. The original vinyl my brother came with these fantastic paintings by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim that illustrate the story.
It sometimes amazes me that people settled for fold-out cassette sleeves (and even less with CDs) compared to the gorgeous, huge artwork that came with so much old vinyl.
I have loved this since I was a kid and in many ways it's the definitive version of the story for me, even more than Wells original or the infamous Welles radio broadcast. Both of which I also love, but when I think Martians, I think of every sound and solo and spoken word on this double record, and especially this epilogue which spooked me as a kid and still gives me a thrill. An absolute treasure.
- STUNTMAN (1979)
I mentioned Tangerine Dream before. I've been a fan of their soundtrack work for years but it was only a couple of years ago (as a tangent of studying up on Kraftwork and all things Krautrock) that I came across this moody masterpiece from one of TD's founding members. (RIP, Herr Froese.)
If I'm ever on a long distance star voyage, this is the album I would program to wake up the crew from suspended animation, or just play on repeat for however many centuries we drift towards our celestial destination. I can't even single out one track to show you; just hit play and let the album sweep you along to the distant shores of your imagination.
- GOING FOR THE ONE (1977)
If lurking in prog chatrooms for months has taught me anything, it's that the next 6 entries will provoke a lot of eye rolls. My taste in prog is perhaps too traditional for some, but like I said up there, I can't pretend any differently.
And really, traditional or no, who in their right mind is going to exclude Going for the One? Every track is a classic here, but perhaps none moreso than the two on Side B: "Wondrous Stories" and "Awaken." Which is my third favorite Yes epic-song-suite *, one of which is still to come while the other is the aforelinked "Sound Chaser" from Relayer.
* Technically, almost everything they recorded in the 70s could be described as an epic song-suite, it's true.
- THE MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF KING ARTHUR AND THE KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE (1975)
I've noticed something over the years. If you heard Journey to the Center of the Earth (1974) before you heard this one, you'd consider King Arthur a tad redundant. Fortunately for me, though, I had memorized King Arthur before I ever got to Journey, so I never had that problem.
I've always loved the Arthurian mythos, so perhaps that accounts for some of my affection for this, but the music - augmented by the New World Orchestra and the English Chamber Chour and a dozen studio musicians - is epic and wonderful and fits the material perfectly. 2:48-ish through 6:02-ish of "Merlin the Magician" is some of my favorite stuff ever. If I ever do a walking tour of Arthurian England, you can bet this is what I'll have in the headphones. The whole album, actually, but I've always thought "Merlin" was pretty much genre perfection.
Fun fact: Wakeman suffered a series of heart attacks in the 70s and his doctor told him during the recording of this album that he had to retire from music. He ignored this and went back to the studio to record "The Last Battle." And he's still kicking, so who knows what that doctor was thinking 40-odd years ago,
- MEDDLE (1971)
It's mainly the epic "Echoes", with its classical-like structure, that makes me consider this album as more traditionally prog than their others. "One of These Days" is perhaps the album's best-known track, but it's those four between them that define this record for me. Particularly "Fearless," which is the first place I ever heard Liverpool's famous "You'll Never Walk Along" soccer chant. It's since been seen as an example of Roger Waters'
Choosing which Floyd records strike me as prog and which do not is an arbitrary process, I grant you. For most bands, having a record as good as Meddle would be enough for the Hall of Fame; Floyd had at least 3 or 4 records as good or better than this this one. But: this is my personal choice for Proggiest. Although, if Wish You Were Here can be consdiered prog, then that would be tied with this one.
|Probably should've just done that to begin with.|
- RED (1974)
For many years Lizard or Starless and Bible Black were my favorites of this period of Crimson. But slowly but surely the two already represented and this one in particular edged them aside.
That Red is as fantastic as it is is odd, since its recording coincided with the implosion of the band. When Crimson got back together a few years down the road, it would be a totally different band exploring totally different music. This then is a fitting swan song for the earlier incarnation of the band. The title track is swaggering warlock-metal of the finest order. "Fallen Angel" has some of my favorite Wetton vocals. But my all-time favorite Crimson track (arguably) is "Starless," which is among the most wonderful and spookiest things ever made.
Fun fact: I got into this record the same summer Stephen King's expanded The Stand came out, and it was my soundtrack for reading it. I was also reading Night Shift that summer, and to this day when I think of adapting many of the stories therein - or particular stretches of The Stand - it's "Starless," particularly that amazing penultimate section that starts around the 4:30 mark and carries through to the end.
- THE YES ALBUM (1971) FRAGILE (1971)
What can you say here? A treasure trove of awesomeness. Look at the difference between these covers, too - wtf?
When I ranked the Rush albums, I felt a little too mainstream-y nominating Moving Pictures for my personal favorite. But really, objectively, how can you argue? Some do, but they're nuts. I feel the same here. (Incidentally, if Moving Pictures is a prog album, and I think the case can be made it is, despite its lack of 70s or mellotron, then this would be a triple tie for the penultimate spot.)
Sure these are where you find most of the band's radio tunes. (And eternal damnation to those DJs who fade out "The Fish" after a spin of "Long Distance Runaround.")
If I got started, I'd link to every last track. I don't know if it's a favorite - they're all kind of favorites - but among the most essential things ever created and some of my favorite drum/bass/mellotron/guitar interaction occurs during the first 3 minutes of "Heart of the Sunrise."
- CLOSE TO THE EDGE (1972)
As with Fragile and The Yes Album, not much you can say here. Can't get better than any of the tracks here - the title track is the definition of prog rock for me, and Side 2 features two of the band's best: "And You and I" and "Siberian Khatru." I sometimes think it'd be fun to do a "Best Guitar Riffs" post. It'd be kind of impossible, but if such a list did materialize, I think that riff for "Siberian Khatru" (and "South Side of the Sky" from Fragile) would be right up there on it.
NEXT: Whatever Happened to the Prog Men of Tomorrow? To the 80s and Beyond!