- King Crimson “Red” (from Red)
The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ‘70s. <i>Red</i> is the paradigm that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. Robert Fripp, who has never been boring or unoriginal, outdoes himself while John Wetton and Bill Bruford do some of their finest work as well. It’s the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.
- Pink Floyd: “Hey You” (from The Wall)
Even if you believe The Wall isn’t overstuffed and self-indulgent (you’re wrong), there’s absolutely no doubt that some of Floyd’s finest work can be found alongside the hysteria and hubris. Not coincidentally, many of these moments feature David Gilmour on vocals. Still, the reason “Hey You” remains so powerful, unsettling and ultimately…uplifting is because it is Floyd doing what they do best: operating as a functional unit, playing to their strengths (Waters’s lyrics, Gilmour’s voice and guitars, solid support from Mason and Wright). Not yet consumed by his cynicism (and ego), Waters channeled his sullen but sound poetic sensibilities into a song that contains some of his most consoling, hopeful (!) lyrics: “Hey you, don’t help them to bury the light/Don’t give in, without a fight”. And, while his towering solo from “Comfortably Numb” deservedly steals the show, Gilmour’s succinct but soaring work here is to be celebrated.
- Strawbs: “Hero and Heroine” (from Hero and Heroine)
This is like a game of Dungeons & Dragons come to life, complete with mellotron. “Hero and Heroine” is notable for packing practically a full album of aspiration, mood and progginess into a remarkably brief three and a half minutes. These lads had paid proper attention to early Genesis (indeed, this could almost work as an outtake from Trespass. Like so much excellent music from this genre and this time, it’s difficult—and ultimately irrelevant—to ascertain whether this song is more imitated or imitative (in a good way), but despite many telltale prog touches (the bombast, the emotions amped to eleven, etc.), it’s a very distinct, and convincing effort from a band that doesn’t get nearly enough love.
- Gentle Giant: “Proclamation” (from The Power and the Glory)
Whenever one listens to any song by this band, two things are obvious: it’s prog rock, and it’s Gentle Giant. Certainly, like so many of their compatriots, there are obvious musical and stylistic threads connecting them, but it could be argued that Gentle Giant remains the most idiosyncratic of progressive groups. This has not always been a blessing: their take-it-or-leave-it sensibility, reveling in their own abilities, is simply not for everyone. Suffice it to say, admiration of Gentle Giant can be somewhat of an all-or-nothing proposition; you’re in or you’re not. “Proclamation” is a confident opener to one of their best-loved albums, and it demonstrates the power and the glory this band had at its disposal throughout the early ‘70s.
- Jethro Tull: “Baker St. Muse” (from The Minstrel in the Gallery)
Perhaps the finest distillation of Ian Anderson’s reportorial eye, balancing obvious autobiography with imagination, “Baker St. Muse” showcases the band at an absolute pinnacle of composition and execution. Polite golf-claps all around (but more, as ever, reserved for Martin Barre and Barriemore Barlow), an especially hearty hurrah for David Palmer’s string arrangements, and all-time hero status for Anderson, who would never again display this combination of brilliance, confidence and creative attainment. It could be considered (yet another) semi-side long suite, or else an epic prog statement (like Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play) in miniature, or it could, correctly, be appraised and appreciated on its own terms: a story of how the present-day minstrel prowled the streets looking about for explanations, or at least inspiration. We see the (usual?) parade of freaks and outcasts but, for once, the songwriter turns the microscope on himself and we see some of the concerns and obsessions that feed that distinctive muse.
- Curved Air: “Piece of Mind” (from Second Album)
Unapologetically pretentious, with pastoral imagery giving way to movie soundtrack melodrama, complete with frenetic piano and whirling strings, “Piece of Mind” is equal parts art for art’s sake and a big middle finger to convention. Grand designs and determination only take any artist so far, and like all the successful acts, Curved Air had the collective ability to back up their lofty objectives. As ever, Sonja Kristina’s vocals supply the exceedingly rare feminine presence in the prog genre, and “Piece of Mind” features one of her most affecting vocal performances. This one also boasts one of keyboardist Francis Monkman’s (look him up) finest workouts.
- Caravan: “Nine Feet Underground” (from In the Land of Grey and Pink)
Some bands (like non-proggers who nonetheless dipped their toes into proggy waters at times) were content to drop Tolkien-esque allusions in their lyrics; others, like Caravan, quite literally put the LOTR aesthetic right on their album covers. In the Land of Grey and Pink pulls no punches and, ahem, gives no quarter to accessibility. But that’s not to say the music, even on this twenty-plus minute opus is not welcoming, in its way. While the sentiment may seem from Middle-earth, “Nine Feet Underground” is less whimsical and more unwavering. Pye Hastings, on electric guitar, turns in some career-best work, and even while (in classic prog fashion) the tune is broken into eight separate sections), the momentum never flags and by the time the aggressive outro fades away before a suitable bang, the mission here is very much accomplished.
- Supertramp: “Fool’s Overture” (from Even in the Quietest Moments)
Roger Hodgson is nothing if not earnest, and his vulnerable, immediately recognizable voice lends a human element many would claim is sorely missing from so much progressive rock. In terms of themes and concerns that resurface throughout their albums, it could be said that Supertramp is among the more “human” prog bands—whatever that actually means. For one thing, both in terms of instrumentation and production, there’s a certain clarity that tends to distinguish them from their more-is-more prog brethren. To be certain, the wind effects, Floydian “found noise” and mellow-to-urgent energy, “Fool’s Overture” is anything but mellow. Still, more than much prog (and for better or worse), this album closer sounds like music made by fallible (and sensitive) human beings.
- Electric Light Orchestra: “Fire on High” (from Face the Music)
If Supertramp, during the ‘70s, was “human”, what did the other extreme sound like? “Fire on High” would represent the other extreme, with mastermind Jeff Lynne, who never heard an instrument, sound effect, sample or inside joke he didn’t like, pulling out all the stops. This, of course, is the one that cheekily employs backmasking (for the record, the mumbled “vocals”, when played backwards, intone “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back, turn back, turn back, turn back…”). Is that a snatch from Handel’s “Messiah” you hear? Of course. Are there string trappings and cymbals crashing? Obviously. Is there, beyond the histrionics, a brilliant, even catchy tune that emerges? Most definitely. Even though they already had radio success and would go on to more commercial things, this was a last gasp of pure out-there experimentalism by Lynne, who used a studio to his advantage like few others.
- King Crimson: “Cirkus” (from Lizard)
A Salvador Dali painting put to music. “Cirkus” is a dark, brooding masterpiece stuffed with surreal imagery. The lyrics, courtesy of the ever-reliable Peter Sinfield, are astonishing and the music perfectly creates a mood suitable for the topic: spooky, intense, yet oddly beautiful (kind of like much of Crimson’s output). Possibly an allegory for the postmodern human condition, it works on a literal level as a harrowing assessment of what we do to animals for our entertainment (“Elephants forgot, force-fed on stale chalk ate the floors of their cages/Strongmen lost their hair, paybox collapsed and lions sharpened their teeth”). Heavy on the mellotron and what sounds like Mel Collins’s sax filtered through a Leslie speaker, and suitably gloomy vocals from Gordon Haskell, “Cirkus” is a definitive statement that the hippie dreams of the ‘60s are over and done with.
- Genesis: “The Knife” (from Trespass)
Brilliant in its own right, Trespass can now be best appreciated as a warm-up of sorts for the string of masterworks that would follow. Both a departure from the more pastoral tone of the songs preceding it, “The Knife” is also a template of the sound that would soon come to the fore: propulsive keyboard flourishes from Tony Banks and insistent, even aggressive rhythm (and though drummer John Mayhew acquits himself nicely, snagging Phil Collins was a significant upgrade for Genesis; ditto for the replacement of the serviceable Anthony Phillips with the indispensable Steve Hackett). “The Knife” (like the subsequent “Battle of Epping Forest”) has a discernible British vibe, and in addition to being an obvious live favorite, one could imagine hearing this song piped into a football stadium or rowdy pub. Peter Gabriel uses this material to…sharpen his act, and the world soon would see what else he had up his sleeve.
- Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Toccata” (from Brain Salad Surgery)
You can tell a great deal about an artist by the type of songs they’ll cover. Naturally, entirely too many opportunistic rock bands take beloved tunes and provide a paint-by-numbers update, long on commercial aspiration and short on soul (and shame). For those who whined that ELP plundered classical music for their purposes, two things need be stated: one, props that they actually knew, much less could play, these challenging compositions; two, not even many snobs would be able to namecheck Alberto Ginastera. Keith Emerson deserves credit for undoubtedly introducing tons of listeners to more obscure masters, ranging from Mussorgsky and Bartók to Ginastera. And nevermind what the snooty critics and haters have to say, the maestro himself endorsed and approved Emerson’s outside the box recreation. As usual, Carl Palmer and Greg Lake offer outstanding support, but this one is truly Emerson’s baby.
- Camel: “Dunkirk” (from The Snow Goose)
Several selections from this largely underappreciated masterpiece could be chosen to represent the whole, but “Dunkirk”, with its martial beat and slow but inevitable build-up to explosion, is a highlight. Very much a concept album, it being an all instrumental affair cuts down on the pretense substantially and what results is a cohesive, superbly executed work. The group interplay is seamless and uncanny, but as usual, keyboardist Peter Bardens and guitarist Andrew Latimer make consistently inspired contributions.
- The Moody Blues: “Isn’t Life Strange” (from Seventh Sojourn)
No one could get Medieval quite like the Moody Blues. Of all their songs that invoke other times and places, “Isn’t Life Strange” might be balance the past and present (or, days of future passed). The languid strings provide a baroque backdrop, and Ray Thomas’s flute ups the pastoral ante, but it’s the soaring chorus, shared by John Lodge and Justin Hayward, that put this song in the stratosphere. Posing a rhetorical question with literary illusions (“a turn of the page/can read like before”), this could be incidental music to the best novel Nathaniel Hawthorne never wrote.
- Kansas: “Magnum Opus” (from Leftoverture)
Like Electric Light Orchestra, Kansas had greater commercial acceptance in their immediate future, but for years they labored in the fields of prog. Like any aspiring prog-minded act, they threw their hats in the ring with album covers that could go toe to toe, in terms of awfulness, with anyone. And like all progressive bands worth taking seriously, they were more than competent musicians, and had determination to spare. Stacking violin on top of multi-tracked guitars and the mandatory keyboards, “Magnum Opus” is a song with a title that could be refreshingly tongue-in-cheek, or unbearably pompous, but even if it’s ultimately a bit of both, it’s a worthy addition to the prog canon.
- Soft Machine: “Slightly All The Time” (from Third)
For those, assuming there are any, for whom most prog isn’t prog enough, whatever that means. Soft Machine unabashedly flexed their jazz muscles and stretched out extended compositions that seldom resort to noodling. Mastermind Mike Ratledge (keyboards) and sax player Elton Dean lock into a groove that’s at once hypnotic and insistent, but mostly mellow in all the right ways. “Slightly All The Time”, undoubtedly influenced by Miles Davis and Mahavishnu, is as “out there”, in its way, as the best prog of its time, but it’s also locked in and slyly cerebral; it’s serious music for serious—and adventurous—listeners.
- King Crimson: “Sailor’s Tale” (from Islands)
To his considerable credit, Fripp has always relegated his often peerless technique to the greater good of the song; on the first three Crimson releases, Fripp adds texture, color and occasional muscle, but seldom strides into the spotlight. On “Sailor’s Tale” he serves notice (as if it’s necessary) that he’s not merely one of the genre’s supreme technicians, but he can also flat out shred. In truth, the entire outfit is on fire throughout, with astonishing interplay between Boz Burrell (bass) and Ian Wallace (drums) and Mel Collins (sax) blasts in like an abbreviated tornado. All of this sets the scene for Fripp’s extended solo, which is, without question, a tour de force: it’s like a mechanical monster rising out of radioactive sludge, but instead of laying waste to the city it cries out in despair, some kind of warning for mankind, before disintegrating into the noise of itself.
- The Nice: “Rondo ‘69” (from Nice)
Before Keith Emerson became Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, he was (just?) Keith Emerson, of The Nice. For a variety of reasons, all unfortunate, The Nice tend to slip under the radar, eclipsed perhaps by the bigger (better?) things Mr. Emerson went on to do. But in addition to making some proto-prog albums, The Nice became a full-fledged prog monster before calling it quits. Emerson, of course, was the ring leader, and the same sweeping range of influences and inspiration that cropped up on so many ELP albums are very present throughout his work with The Nice. In fact, he and his cohorts were even more unabashed, regularly working in “covers” of classical music ranging from Bach to Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. For “Rondo ‘69”, the model is jazz, the immensely popular “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by Dave Brubeck. In a sense it’s a cheeky move, as Brubeck’s tune itself was not straightforward jazz so much as a mash-up of jazz and traditional Turkish music (in 9/8 time). Emerson’s interpretation first appeared on the band’s debut (The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, from 1967) but became a staple of The Nice’s (and later, ELP’s) live act, where it became even more experimental and incendiary. The Nice, in sum, may have been too many things for too few people to fully appreciate, but it’s safe to say many other bands were paying close attention and taking notes.
- Genesis: “The Lamia” (from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway)
Greek Goddess that seduces and then eats young men? Naturally. If ever prog went down the rabbit hole where sanity struggles with psychedelic fever dreams, The Lamb may be the sine qua non and apotheosis, all contained in one sprawling, all-but-impenetrable opus. After this one, and for understandable reasons, resident genius Peter Gabriel figured he’d done all he could (should?) do in the prog genre, and moved on to more accessible pastures. Whether or not it makes sense (the song; the album) is almost beside the point (it does make sense, but it requires a great deal of effort and generosity on the part of the listener, which is prog music taken to its outer limits), the results are astounding. One of a handful of centerpieces, “The Lamia” certainly showcases both Gabriel’s uber-literary acumen and the band (particularly Banks and Hackett) as focused as they would ever be. It’s a gorgeous composition, but is exceedingly strange, sensitive and almost unknowable. It’s perfect.
- Yes: “The Gates of Delirium” (from Relayer)
Some fans will insist this is where Yes continued to lose the plot (after Tales from Topographic Oceans, possibly the single most divisive of all prog albums); others assert it’s a return to form. In any event, it’s, at best, several steps removed from their “holy trinity” (The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge). Whether or not Jon Anderson’s lyrics signify the nadir of prog rock banality, there’s no doubt the dude was well-read; where he used Hesse’s Siddhartha as inspiration, on “The Gates of Delirium” he turned to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (talk about “going for the one”…). The results are, at times, stimulating (Steve Howe simply could not help but be brilliant during this era) and, at times, both cacophonous and exhausting.
This piece originally appeared in PopMatters on 3/28/17.