12/12/12: 12 Songs for the Apocalypse

It’s not the end of the world, and I feel fine.

But if it was, I would want all these songs to accompany me as we spiraled down the metaphysical drain.

I’d go into battle, or into oblivion, with these soldiers by my side.

Let’s begin, appropriately, at the end, with the boys from Birmingham: if we can’t sustain life here, let’s blast off and “Find another world where freedom waits (yeah)!”

Once the wind begins to howl, as long as I’m riding shotgun with Hendrix, I’m good:

Ian Anderson, of course, called this way back in ’79:

If you’re getting snuffed out anyway, you may as well make sure you say I LOVE YOU to whoever needs to hear it:

If the shit is going down, I’m bringing both barrels, which means I’m blasting The Melvins.

Starless and Bible Black. Any other questions?

And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?

Bauhaus. Because.

Before I sink into the big sleep I want to hear the scream of the butterfly!

Nothing, even the end of the world, can be as deep or dark as the hard time killing floor blues:

If it gets beyond World War III, I know Mikey Dread is waiting patiently on the other side:

All kidding aside, if it’s scorched earth time, let me hide in the peaceful shadow of the Gentle Giant:


Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo

Over at Esquire the always reliable Charlie Pierce (some previous blog love for him HERE) opened up a discussion on the best guitar solos.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

I jumped into the fray, genuinely dashing ten suggestions of the top of me head. Wherever necessary I plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.)

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.)

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too,  irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero.  His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, coming soon…)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Hurricane Music, Sandy Style

Let’s just get right into it.

Some of Young’s finest blistering guitar fury. Led Zep may have had the hammer of the gods, but there were four of them; Neil is like the lone Viking, hacking and snarling his way to Valhalla.

If you’ve never seen this live footage before, don’t thank me. Thank whatever forces there are for letting us share Stevie for even a short while. Hearing, as always, is believing, but SEEING is beyond belief.

Calming it down considerably, and shifting from one of the most physical, overpowering guitarists (SRV) to perhaps our most cerebral axe masters, Robert Fripp. The subtlety and refined nuances displayed throughout this song continue to astonish me, three decades after I first heard it. (The double vocals and the sax/flute interplay also are deeply, indelibly affecting.)

Speaking of Fripp…add the master, and true genius ensues. When Gabriel is at his best (and he manages this often), nobody else can come close to him.

(That link above will take you to some love for each of those men, and the bands that they made famous –and vice versa– in the early days of the prog rock apotheosis.)

Coltrane again? Of course. As ever, anyone wondering: What is all the hype about? THIS is what all the hype is about. It’s okay if you can’t handle this truth.

Eddie Hazel made history with Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, anyone?), but he also kept it more than slightly real before, during and after. He remains the best guitarist entirely too many people have never heard of. RECOGNIZE!

If it’s gonna’ rain, well, by God, make it RAIN.

(A bit more on the album this comes from, which you should get into your world as soon as possible:

Remember 2004? Seriously. No matter what side of the political fence you were on, that was a year when America (inevitably, belatedly) realized it could not impose its will with impunity, that oil was not going to cost less (indeed it was going to cost a hell of a lot more in a hurry–go figure), and that lots of lives were being lost because of our idiotic overseas adventure. Flashback to the year before: we had surrender monkeys, Liberal Traitors, With-Us-Or-Against-Us and Mission Accomplished. Things changed in a hurry, as they tend to do. The fact that it was predictable (and predicted) only exacerbated the pain.

What does any of this claptrap have to do with Tom Waits, the fine wine of modern music, who becomes deeper and more indispensable as he (and we) gets older? Well, for my money, no album inhabited the tenor of that time as indelibly as Real Gone (the title was both a barometer and a judgment). Of course, the critic associates the sounds of a particular time with the time he heard those sounds, because he was hearing those sounds during that particular time. That is natural, but in the instance of Real Gone, it’s much more than that. Yes, I am transported to how I felt and what I was thinking when this album came out, but one listen brings it all back. Of course, I would do this great artist a serious disservice to imply that this album is merely an anti-war screed or a sociopolitical statement (although it is, at times, both of those and quite convincingly so): it is, like most Tom Waits albums (and all great pieces of music) bigger and deeper than the here-and-now, or even what the artist intended. The transmission of feeling into sound elevates the artifice and the audience: then something significant happens. The true magic is that, with every listen, it continues to happen.)

Neko. Perfection.

(More on this song, this album and the notion of perfection in art, HERE. Scroll down to number one, because that is where I ranked this one, above everything else made last decade.

A taste:

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

It ain’t a hurricane until the big, bad WOLF says it is. R.I.P. to the Human Hurricane.

(Click on that link for more. Here is a taste: Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.)


Full cirlcle, back to Neil. Here is what I had to say about this song (and the man who provided those drums, R.I.P. Levon!):

There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On the Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See the Sky About to Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place.

Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks—coincidentally or not—tapped into during the early-to-mid ‘70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young—who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate, cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)


Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums (Revisited)

(August, 2010)


Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced their selections of what they deem the Top 50 Guitar Albums ever.

Now, as someone who writes about music (and who has offered up a few lists of my own), I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.

So it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ’round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on their list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.

Let’s review their Top 10:

10. AC/DC: Back in Black, 9. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland, 8. Cream: Disraeli Gears, 7. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East, 6. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II, 5. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction, 4. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 3. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV, 2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced, 1. Van Halen, Van Halen.

Nothing really outrageous there, I reckon. I would say The Who should be in any list before AC/DC and having Eric “God” Clapton in there twice is a bit much (particularly at the expense of Tony Iommi). I’ll just wryly suggest that putting Van Halen (a worthy Top 10 entry for sure) before Hendrix is equal parts laughable and ludicrous. And if you do –and you should– have Hendrix in there, put all three of his albums in there, because a case could be made that they go 1-2-3.

There are many predictable (and inappropriate) selections rounding out the other 40 selections, such as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Really? Those guys who could barely play their instruments made one of the 50 best (#15, in fact) guitar albums of all time? Give me a personal break and slip a safety pin through it. Another AC/DC (Highway To Hell) but nothing by Rush? Of course. Oasis but no Living Colour? Oh. Et cetera.

So I won’t spend more time bitching about the unconscionable omission of albums like (insert anything by Black Sabbath) or (insert anything by Rush circa 1970-something) or Aqualung, The Queen is Dead, Selling England by the Pound, Morrison Hotel, (insert virtually anything by Frank Zappa), Superfly, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Time’s Up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rubber Factory, Let It Bleed, Animals, The Royal Scam, The Woods, (insert anything by Sonic Youth), and one or two (dozen) others.

Here is my alternate Top 10, with respect to their mostly unassailable final selections.

10. Yes, The Yes Album

Let’s start out with Yes since, other than Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled.

9. Kiss: Alive

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, Kiss was lean, hungry, unappreciated and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise and utterly original (check out his restrained but authoritative work at the 1:50 minute mark here). All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

8. Bad Brains, I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

7. Pretenders, Pretenders

Prediction: if James Honeyman-Scott (and his partner in crime, bassist Pete Farndon) had not overdosed, The Pretenders would have owned the ’80s. As it happens, “all” they did was make three perfect albums, one right after the other. While assessing their first two records (back in 2006 when they were reissued), this is what I had to say about the guitar playing: James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

6. King Crimson, Red

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red is the Rosetta Stone 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. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. Robert Fripp has never been boring or unoriginal and he outdoes himself here. Finally, few songs in rock history have the emotional import and uncanny feeling Fripp conjures in the album’s final song, “Starless”.

5. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced exotic vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and from the future all at the same time (something the band itself acknowledges, literally, in the title of one of the more indescribable pieces). No serious fan of rock music should be without this album and that it didn’t make the cut for Gibson’s list is indefensible.

4. The Who: Quadrophenia

Sure, the Gibson crew got Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, but Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who’s best album, one of the five best albums of the ’70s and an all-time guitar-playing tour de force. This is it. Townshend was never this energized or inspired again, and it all came together in a double LP that is not as immediately accessible or endearing as Tommy, but once you get it, it gets inside you –and it never leaves. From extended workouts like “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged in version of Tommy’s “Underture), to slash and burn mini epics like “Bell Boy” to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15” (check out PT’s lacerating but always-in-control frenzy toward the song’s coda).

I wrote at length about The Who last year and here is what I had to say regarding Quadrophenia:

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”.

3. Led Zeppelin: Presence

This is not a guitar album; this is guitar. Aside from Hendrix and Iommi, you could fill the rest of the list with Led Zeppelin albums and call it a day. Ridiculous though it may seem to some (many?), beloved and lionized as the Mighty Zep is, they actually don’t get enough attention for what unbelievable songwriters and musicians they were. Not too many people would argue –at least with any credibility– that Plant is one of the great rock vocalists and Bonzo is on the short list of rock drummers and John Paul Jones is the unsung hero and jack of all trades for this outfit. But Jimmy Page, aside from unimpeachable Golden God status, seems most known for his “Stairway To Heaven” solo and the work he did between ’69 and ’72. The blues-drenched debut and the next three albums helped define post-Beatles rock music and they need little elaboration. But let’s have some love for the last four albums. Houses of the Holy gets sufficient respect, sort of, but Physical Graffiti (#48 on Gibson’s list) should be acknowledged as what it is: one of the ten best albums of the ’70s. Some people give it up for the last hurrah, the (very) underrated In Through the Out Door (mostly because of the radio-friendly hits “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”, even though Page does some of his finest playing on “In The Evening” and “I’m Gonna Crawl”). But what about the dark horse, the heroin needle in the haystack, Presence?

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is The Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is The Book of Revelation.

One thing most everyone can agree on: Presence is the most obscure, misunderstood and maligned album, even if it represents the most perfect balance of studio proficiency and unpolished bluster (anyone not in the know of its origins, but interested, start here). This is the effort that sees Page’s multi-tracked majesty playing hide and seek with some of the more raw and visceral playing of his career.

It comes crashing out of the gate with what may well be Page’s crowning achievement: ten minutes of electric guitar pyrotechnics and peregrinations called “Achilles Last Stand”. The vision (to imagine all these sounds) and the dexterity (to actually pull it off) is staggering and it features the solo: the impatient may proceed directly to the 3.43 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFRFtnTd620

It concludes with the laconic “Tea For One”, the slowest and saddest blues Page ever pulled off. In between, there is intensity (the anti-cocaine “For Your Life”), depravity (the “borrowed” blues lament “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), playful Elvis parody (“Candy Store Rock”) and a spicy tribute to the Big Easy (“Royal Orleans”). What it adds up to is as intimate a glimpse as we mortals would ever get at Zeppelin at their most vulnerable and naked (emotionally and musically). Page’s playing is, as always, a see-saw of acumen and urgency, but he was never this insistent or soulful before or after.

2. Black Sabbath: Vol. 4

Simply put, this is an electric guitar rock symphony. This is the wall of sound (or for hardcore Sabbath fans, I should say “The Wall of Sleep of Sound”), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Sabbath, so I’ll let anyone interested in reading (or revisiting) go here and here. The best thing you can do is just listen to the magic, which is very black and very brilliant.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love

Not in Gibson’s Top 10? Okay.

Not in Gibson’s Top 50? Oh.

Look, any of Hendrix’s three “proper” studio releases could fairly be claimed as number one (Are You Experienced because it came first; Electric Ladyland because it was better —and it was a double album) but one might end up quite contentedly in the middle and claim that Axis: Bold As Love is the guitar album of all guitar albums. The best? Who knows. The most important? Who cares. The most satisfying? Who could argue?

Here is what I said earlier this year, while discussing Hendrix’s legacy:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.


Got Mars?

So this is pretty neat, huh?

Look at us Earthlings, getting our Mars on. It’s too bad Ray Bradbury did not live long enough to see this, as he surely would have gotten a kick out of it.

To honor the occasion, and being the kind of person I am, it seems appropriate to consider the musicians who have paid musical tribute to the planet that has played such an inspired role in our literature (and imaginations).

First, props to the great George Russell for “going there” before we ever really went there. (And props to G.R. for being a genius and an American musician of the first order who does not get nearly as much love and attention as he warrants.)

How about the best way to travel? I’ll take the Coltrane. From a piece I wrote a few years back:

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

A lot more on Coltrane, HERE.

And huge props for the huge balls it took Nels Cline (another scarcely well-enough discussed iconoclast) to do an almost painfully –in a good way– faithful interpretation of Trane’s monument to infinity.

How about the man who truly did it first? Can we get some love for Gustav up in this MF?

How freaky, super-scary and intense is that noise? Classical kicks ass, yo!

And look who may have been tapping into that vibe? None other than you-know-who, the band that was originally (and, for the purposes of this discussion, ironically) called Earth.

Certainly wizards, warnings and wickedness abound on their debut, but it sounds today exactly like what was recorded: a ferocious and opportunistic young band putting everything on the table, fully aware they might never get a second shot. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music. Blah blah blah; the less said trying to explain, or even consecrate this song—and the band that made it—the better: it speaks for itself loudly and proudly. More than four decades has done nothing to diminish the devastating impact of that final solo, a speed drill aimed directly at your brain; if you survive the experience nothing is ever the same.

A lot more about this band, here.

And tying many of the threads together: a band that was inspired by Holst; so much so that they changed the name of their note-by-note “tribute” in order to avoid the pesky payment of royalties. (Something, to his credit, Greg Lake would not duplicate with ELP when he/they gave full credit to both Bartok and Ginastera. Uber-irony, then, that the ever surly and penny-pinching Robert Fripp could so shamelessly steal from the masters.)

This tune, “The Devil’s Triangle”, is ideally named. Here is what I had to say about it back in 2010, on the occasion of it’s 40th anniversary.

Album centerpiece “The Devil’s Triangle (Parts 1-3)” is an unacknowledged riff on Holst’s classical piece “Mars” (from Planets), functioning as a descent even further into the abyss, following the title track that concludes the first album. Clearly this was the one Melody Maker had in mind when they suggested, in 1970, “If Wagner were alive, he’d work with King Crimson.” Nonsense like that makes it a little more understandable why this era was difficult for so many to stomach. Featuring more mellotron than most bands could conceivably cram into a double album, “The Devil’s Triangle” utilizes a drum and bass march, balancing dread and release with wind effects and jarring foghorn cries. Adore it or detest it, most honest listeners would concede that few bands did beauty and horror quite like King Crimson.

More on that album, here.

And since we kicked it off with a nod to George Russell thinking about where we might be going, let’s close it out with Sun Ra, who knew where we’d already been.


The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Five (Revisited)

If you did not catch this series last year, the five-part exploration of the 25 “best” Prog Rock songs of all time has been been reposted during the past week. Naturally I put the obligatory air quotes around “best” because, as is the case with any endeavor dealing with rankings, it’s a very subjective business and there is seldom consensus. And this topic will be revisited, perhaps in more detail than is either necessary or healthy, at some point soon.

5. Genesis, “Watcher of the Skies”

The mellotron certainly had its time and place. It became overused, a crutch for bands hoping to mimic the sounds made by bands like King Crimson and late ‘60s Moody Blues, but when properly utilized, it could produce an oddly enchanting (I can’t quite bring myself to say haunting) effect that even the strings it was designed to replicate can’t quite convey. It was often employed as a layering effect, to embellish the other instruments, and the effect was surreal and murky; if it was loud or frequent enough to notice, it was probably being abused. However, on “Watcher of the Skies”, the opening song from prog-rock benchmark Foxtrot, we are treated to the first (best? only?) mellotron “solo”. It takes over 90 seconds for the other instruments to (slowly, brilliantly) enter and build, and that extended introduction might be the best wordless evidence for what we could define as the essential “prog-rock sound”: it’s all in there, whatever it is. Then there are the lyrics, with allusions to literature (Keats) and some of Phil Collins’ most satisfying accompaniment. As much as any song from the early ‘70s, “Watcher of the Skies” manages to invoke the past while commenting on the present, using new instruments and ideas to create a certain type of mood music that is crammed with feeling, intensity, and release.

4. Yes, “Close To The Edge”

Writing last year about my search for the “sublimely awful lyric”, I singled Yes out for special mention as “elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of… real art.” On the other hand, I did—and do—maintain that listening to Yes is like listening to opera: the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. The music Yes made between 1971 and 1973 approached a level of ecstasy that not many bands were able to approximate. So it matters less than a little that the lyrics are, supposedly, based on/inspired by Hesse’s Siddhartha (indeed, that fact is likely to get points subtracted for typical prog-rock pretension, real or imagined). What matters is that this song really does go places no other band has done; or rather, it is a gold standard that was never surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning build-up, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes, to the operatic (yes I said it) majesty of the middle section, (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out. On exceptional tracks, like the previously discussed “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise” there are individual moments—and musicians—that stand out and shine; on “Close to the Edge” everyone assembled works in service of the song and the result is a tight, unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

3. Jethro Tull, “A Passion Play”

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick As a Brick, the more challenging (and, upon initial listens, less rewarding) A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It is a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, in rock and on this list, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated. Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

2. Pink Floyd, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

Roger Waters, understandably struggling with what to do next after Dark Side of the Moon, began to think about the man without whom he may never have become a rock musician. Syd Barrett’s mental disintegration is alluded to on the previous album’s “Brain Damage”, but all of the tracks on Wish You Were Here deal, directly and indirectly, with the man who named the band’s breakdown. The centerpiece, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is equal parts elegiac tribute to an old friend and assessment of loss and alienation. Gilmour and Wright both sought to play the saddest notes they could conceive, and the results are at once poignant and stunning. Even without the lyrics, it would be abundantly obvious that the band was attempting to invoke a wistful sort of melancholy that stops just short of desolation. It was inevitable, and appropriate, that Waters chose to sing these lyrics —- so personal and plaintive—and it is without question his most affecting vocal performance.

Then there is the story, confirmed by all members present at the recording, which has to be apocryphal except for the fact that it isn’t, and is enough to make you concede that forces greater than us may indeed have the controls set for the heart of the sun. The band, busy completing the final mix of the album (allegedly working on “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”), did not notice the bigger, bald stranger who had wandered into the room; only after several moments did anyone recognize their former leader. At one moment jumping up and down to brush his teeth with his fingers (a pitiful sight that reduced Waters to tears), the next Barrett was offering to add his guitar parts to completed work. Upon having his services politely declined, he walked out of the studio and no one in the band ever saw him again. As touching, and extraordinary as this stranger-than-fiction occurrence might be, it only adds to the already unqualified masterpiece that Pink Floyd created, turning loss and despair into something inexplicably moving and awe-inspiring.

1. King Crimson, “In The Court of the Crimson King”

Progressive rock’s Rosetta Stone, “In the Court of the Crimson King” is the purest and most perfect expression of everything this music was capable of being.

Sgt. Pepper popularized the then-radical notion of an entire album being an artistic statement, without singles or filler. After the summer of ‘67 there was an unprecedented turn toward less commercial, more uncompromised music. King Crimson’s debut, in ‘69, signaled the first album that was as much aesthetic statement as work or art: this was among the earliest instances of popular music forsaking even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you had to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it was a revolution in music: it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as—it must be said—timeless. Of course it also may sound hopelessly dated, depending upon one’s perspective, and that is the whole point: anyone who hears this track (and this album) and associates it with long hair and sheets of acid are the same kind of simpletons who hear Charlie Parker and envision a strung out freak wailing away in a smoked-out nightclub. These people don’t hear the music now and, more importantly, they didn’t hear it then.

Virtually any song from this album could ably represent the whole, but the title track is an unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing track that is at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back. “In the Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song was, possibly, the first time the mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this—and after—it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent or vulnerable, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups—magnificent as they all were in their way—could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.


The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Four (Revisited)

10. The Who, “Underture”

The Who were not a prog-rock band. While both Tommy and The Who Sell Out could—and should—be considered crucial touchstones that helped pave the way, Pete Townshend’s feet were always rooted too firmly on terra firma to do anything other than what he was doing, which was quite brilliant thank you very much. Nevertheless, the all-instrumental “Underture” which, along with the album-opening “Overture”, bookends the first two sides of Tommy, is in many ways a blueprint for what other bands would build on. It is rather unlike anything else in The Who’s catalog, both in terms of length and style. Moon and Entwistle are in typically torrential form (Moon’s playing on this track managed to prompt kudos from jazz legend Elvin Jones), and Townshend employs acoustic guitar dynamics he never equaled (or needed to) again. If a slash-and-burn could conceivably be described as subtle, that is what The Who accomplish on “Underture”: it is propulsive and furious, yet dark and exquisite. It would be impossible, and pointless, to try and pick a single song from a writer as prolific and influential as Townshend, but these ten minutes might represent the most undistorted evidence of his compositional genius and infectious imagination.

9. Pink Floyd, “Time”

There is a simple reason Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most talked-about and beloved albums in rock history: it is one of the best albums in rock history. Enough said, sort of. People tend to forget, if understandably, that it’s not as though Floyd waltzed into Abbey Road Studios with the knowledge that they were about to create a masterwork. Dark Side was the natural and inevitable progression of a path the band had been on since 1968, and many of the ideas and imagery they render so perfectly had already appeared, in brief snatches and bursts, on previous work. For this album Roger Waters finally figured out how to write meaningful, penetrating lyrics with an economy of words and maximum emotional import (few, if any in rock have improved upon his style). The band was focused and each individual track received their full attention as they explored the themes of madness, money and faith in modern society.

The track that manages to incorporate all these concerns and still address, seemingly everything, is “Time”. The verses, sung with harsh authority by Gilmour, assess (and assail) the concerns and tribulations that preoccupy each of us, while the choruses (rendered as mellow counterpoint by Rick Wright) are crooned, lulling you to sleep, kind of like life will do if you are not paying attention. Special mention must be made of Gilmour’s guitar solo: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail.

8. King Crimson, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”

First they borrowed Jon Anderson (to sing on Lizard); then they inherited Bill Bruford once the great drummer bowed out of Yes. But nothing Yes—or King Crimson for that matter—had done to this point could have anticipated “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” (the title alone an eccentric ode to the creative path less traveled). Most of the work made during the prog-rock era can be described to some extent, especially when it is categorically dismissed as pretentious noodling. But this song (actually part one of two, and while part two is magnificent in its own way, that riff-laden workout is much more straightforward than the kitchen-sink sensibility of part one) is a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As ever, Robert Fripp’s guitar guides the journey, downshifting from proto-grunge shrieking to jangling melodicism. But it’s the exotic violin contributions from David Cross and the tumultuous percussion stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The song travels from placid to ominous (the languid, building menace of Fripp’s entry manages to almost be frightening), and then, after the bird calls and an invocation of the Far East, the ultimate postmodern touch: urgent, scarcely audible voices (from a radio? movie?) are looped and spliced, becoming gibberish that somehow makes perfect sense. As the song winds down, courtesy of Muir’s ethereal glockenspiel, a gentle chime (like a grandfather clock) washes over and out, and you are left wondering what hit you.

7. Jethro Tull, “Thick As A Brick”

Jethro Tull were on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick As A Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick As A Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full forty-five minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Frontman/mastermind Ian Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring, and there are maybe a handful of lyricists who matched his output in terms of sustained quality and variety during this decade.

6. Rush, “2112”

Just over halfway into the decade, when many of the old guard progressive rock bands were out of ideas or on hiatus, Rush delivered one of the genre’s definitive anthems. 2112 is a harder edged music combining the proficiency of their influences with an aggression that captured the actual urgency attending the sessions. This album sounded—and still sounds—at once familiar and forward-looking, putting Rush somewhere on the sonic spectrum in between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision.

The rock media, which had not paid Rush much attention, now took notice and generally found the Ayn-Rand inspired storyline (the multi-track suite, filling up all of side one, updates Rand’s early novel Anthem and places the narrative in a dystopian future where music has been outlawed and long forgotten) unfashionably right-wing — an indictment the band found perplexing, and continues to be amused about. In these interviews, each member (particularly Peart, who wrote the lyrics and undoubtedly regrets his youthful shout-out, in the liner notes, to Rand’s “genius”) makes a convincing case that the inspiration had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements. Of course, plenty of pundits (then, now) find Rush –in general—and prog rock –in particular—pretentious, but the sentiment informing this particular album has more in common with the much celebrated punk rock ethos, with the added bonus that the band are actually quite capable musicians. “2112” remains the album that made possible what Rush would become, and it inspired both peers and pretenders to emulate their purpose and passion, if not their scarves and kimonos.


The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Three (Revisited)

15. Pink Floyd, “Dogs”

No band besides The Beatles departed (or progressed) more radically from their initial sound than Pink Floyd. After the kaleidoscopic whimsy of their early work and the meditative space rock that followed, Floyd followed up the unfollow-up-able Dark Side of the Moon with an album that may have been even better, Wish You Were Here. By the time 1977 rolled around, space rock seemed as prehistoric as hippies and Johnny Rotten summed up the prevailing mood when he insolently scribbled “I Hate” above his Pink Floyd t-shirt. Whether or not any of this had to do with Floyd’s next album, lyricist Roger Waters shared one thing in common with the punks: he was pissed off. He was also erudite and technically proficient as a musician. The result is the darkest, most literate and (arguably) timeless entry in the Pink Floyd catalog, Animals.

The album’s centerpiece, “Dogs”, might represent the zenith of the always uneasy, increasingly tenuous creative alliance between Waters and David Gilmour. Waters writes some of his most scathing (and brilliant) lyrics and Gilmour sounds like a different person altogether than the man who sung “Echoes”; his guitar playing is huge, at times oppressive and then soaring. This indictment of greed and the “dog-eat-dog” social code that is endorsed in the workplace and venerated in such vulgar fashion on reality TV will never lose its relevance, because it will always describe the con-artists and crooks who come, inexorably, to distinguish each subsequent generation.

14. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Tarkus”

Debate still abounds regarding the great American novel. No such discussion occurs when it comes to the terrible British prog-rock album. Fans and foes alike have aligned and rendered a verdict: Tarkus. Look at the cover for Christ’s sake. Therein lies what Colonel Kurtz called “the horror” and what recalcitrant enthusiasts (or idiots) like me call…the horror! (But in a good way.) Listen, some prog-rock bands (like Rush) had a penchant for reimagining or reinterpreting classical literary legends like Apollo and Dionysus (see #22) while others (like Rush) would create their own mythical heroes (By Tor, Snow Dog, etc.). Looking at this cover art, and seeing song titles like “Stones of Years”, “Manticore” and “Aquatarkus” (not to be confused with “Aqualung”), many music fans ask for the check, understandably. Here’s the thing, though: all the armadillo tank drawings and semi-preposterous titles—and lyrics—are just window dressing for the artistry that occurs once these well medicated, undeniably brilliant musicians throw down. And throw down they do, in ways that make myopic pinheads lament how a man with unparalleled keyboard skill— like Keith Emerson’s—might have made so much better use of his talents had he dedicated his life to playing Bach recitals in sparsely attended concert halls.

13. King Crimson, “Lizard”

The music that holds up over time does so for a reason. It is not an accident, or due to sentimental longings for a particular time or place. The music that manages to defy trends and commercial-minded fashion often is created without any of those considerations in mind. King Crimson, like all of the best-loved prog-rock bands, consistently shaped and refined a unique vision, and arguably created a whole new type of music. Take the title track from 1970’s Lizard (upping the progressive ante by featuring guest vocalist Jon Anderson, of Yes): nothing like this exists on any other record from any other genre. It is a seamless integration of jazz, classical and rock, the sum total making complete sense once you accept it on its own terms. At the same time ELP was mimicking Mussorgsky, King Crimson utilizes Ravel’s “Bolero”, employing session musicians to embellish the sound with trumpets, oboes and an English horn. The results are, by turns, tense, lush, beautiful and surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting. Led by the creatively restless and insatiable Robert Fripp, King Crimson did as much as any band to “invent” progressive rock; on this not immediately accessible but indelible track they transcend it.

12. Genesis, “The Battle of Epping Forest”

In between being the costume-wearing superfreak and the intensely worshipped solo artist he would become, Peter Gabriel did the best work of his career. By the time Genesis entered the studio to assemble what would become their masterwork, Selling England By The Pound (though some would maintain that distinction belongs to the excellent, if slightly uneven The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway), Gabriel had come fully into his own as a performer, singer and lyricist. Especially as a lyricist. His writing on the previous albums ranged from silly to sublime, but in 1973 Gabriel took things to a new level, and every song from this album spills over with wit, humor, social commentary and a poet’s eye for detail. Utilizing enough words (he could not help himself) to fill a full album, Gabriel creates a prog-rock novella with “The Battle of Epping Forest”. Featuring all the players (especially the criminally overlooked rhythm section of Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford) showcasing their dexterity and frenzied inventiveness, Gabriel pulls off an off-Broadway play of characters, voices and changes of scenery. It is an absolute tour de force, and the final, sardonic couplet about the necessity of flipping a coin to decide who “won”—since both rival gangs have killed each other out—is at once hilarious and distressingly dead-on.

11. Yes, “Awaken”

1977 was not only about clothespins and green-toothed sneers: just as punk was gaining steam, Yes, the band that represented everything everyone hated about “dinosaur rock”, returned with their best album in ages, Going For The One. “Awaken” is, along with the aforementioned “Dogs” and “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres”, one of the last (near) side-long epics of the era. It would be difficult to deny that this track features the most compelling (and convincing) work both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman ever did. Many people did—and do—instinctively retch at the idea of Wakeman playing a pipe organ (recorded in a cathedral) and Anderson’s sweet schizophrenia of multi-tracked exultations. Their loss; this is prog-rock as opera, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it. There is something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.


The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs Of All Time: Part Two (Revisited)

20. King Crimson, “Red”

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red 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 is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”.

19. Pink Floyd, “Echoes”

Most everyone would agree that Dark Side of the Moon made Pink Floyd the first (and last) band in space, but not as many people might appreciate that, if it were not for 1971’s Meddle, there would have been no Dark Side of the Moon. Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as the major musical force within the group (a very positive development), forging an increasingly melodic and ethereal sound. The point that cannot be overemphasized is that “Echoes” is not so much an inspired product of its time as much as it is the realization of a sound and style the band had been inching toward with each successive effort. “Echoes” unfolds deliberately, with carefully structured precision. The merging of Gilmour and Wright’s voices—a harbinger of good things to come, although on “Time” Wright sings the choruses while Gilmour handles the verses—is appropriately mesmerizing, and the two remain uncannily in synch on their respective instruments. “Echoes” also signals a minor step forward for Waters lyrically (the major step would be the aforementioned, and unavoidable, Dark Side of the Moon.

18. Rush, “Natural Science”

If 2112 is the album Rush had to make, Permanent Waves is the work that paved the way for a new decade and the next (most successful) phase of their career. The centerpiece of the album is the sixth and final song, “Natural Science”: it does not grab you by the ear the way 2112 does and it does not have the immediate, irresistible appeal of “Tom Sawyer”, but it is, quite possibly, the band’s most perfect achievement. Neil Peart’s lyrics, which tackle ecology, commercialism and artistic integrity (without being pretentious or self-righteous) are, in hindsight, not merely an end-of-decade statement of purpose but a presciently fin-de-siecle assessment that still, amazingly, functions as both indictment and appeal. “Natural Science” endures as the last document before Moving Pictures triangulated math rock, prog rock and the fertile new soil of synth-based popular music and did the inconceivable, making Rush a household name.

17. Yes, “Heart of the Sunrise”

As much as any other band, Yes epitomizes prog-rock, and as such, they are entitled to the praise as well as the disapproval that accrues from this (at times, dubious) honor. Certainly this band, with the possible exception of Rush, gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind that (like Rush) its musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have very played. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion; his mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from the fruitful era that produced their “holy trinity”, The Yes Album, Fragile and Close To The Edge. “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Jon Anderson’s signature vocal workouts. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but none of them pack as much emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, that it manages to delight—and even surprise—four decades on.

16. Jethro Tull, “Heavy Horses”

Meanwhile back in the year…1978? It’s an embarrassing commentary on how close-minded so many folks are that they probably have never even heard this song. Of course, the professionals who write most often about rock music in the ’70s are not known for their fondness of multisyllabic words and material that obliges a modest understanding of world history. Back to basics? How about back to the 18th Century? That is the vibe Jethro Tull was emanating circa 1978. The band that dropped not one, but two single-song album suites had evolved into a proficient troupe of professionals that incorporated strings, lutes, fifes and harpsichords into their repertoire. To put it more plainly, the same years The Clash, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols were establishing a radically new and brazen rock aesthetic, Ian Anderson appeared on an album cover flanked by two Clydesdales. The title track is a typically literate—and unironic!—tribute to the working horses of England that, much like prog-rock, were soon to step aside, their demise having less to do with trends and tastemakers than technology.


Prog Rock is Never Dead; It’s Just Resting Until the Next Round of Reissues, or, Two from Gentle Giant

Reissues From An Era When Giants Roamed the Earth

For all the critical savaging Yes, ELP and Rush took in the early-to-mid ‘70s, they at least had the devotion of the masses (then, now). And no matter how much or how unjustly they were accused of mindless noodling, they could nod and wink all the way to the bank. Top Ten records can buy a lot of noodles (then, now).

So whatever else one can or should say about the front-tier progressive acts, at worst they had cache; they remain part of the conversation.

Gentle Giant has always been relegated to the second—or third—tier, worshipped by a select contingent. This of course is a phenomenon that imparts a certain aesthetic credibility; only the people who are really in the know are aware of them. Or, you have to work harder to find your way to this band. Et cetera.

So why didn’t Gentle Giant, a band with all the chops, ambition and awful cover art to co-exist with their better-known brethren, get their shot at superstardom?

Well, in some regards they tend to typify some of the worst—or least favorite—elements of prog rock: the ostensible pretense of literary allusions, the extended instrumental jams (oh, the horror!), the love it or leave it vocals, which, to be fair, are often a few shades more eccentric and inaccessible than even Trespass-era Genesis.

On the other hand, there is plenty to recommend about this band’s approach: Emersonian keyboards, Hackett-like guitar proficiency, King Crimson-esque quirkiness. But where ELP, Genesis and Crimson could balance the pyrotechnical overload and acoustic restraint (usually by relegating the pastoral numbers as shorter, more serene pieces), Gentle Giant tends to be either more ambitious or less dexterous. The medieval elements wash up, too often unsteadily, with the then-modern snythesizers, resulting in a sound that is jarring. Worse, it sounds dated in ways the better-known progressive acts do not.

Still, the musicianship is consistently top-notch, and it would be a shame if Gentle Giant did not receive another (or first) assessment, particularly for would-be fans who simply have not had the opportunity to experience their music. Fortunately for anyone who has awaited or is open to the chance, we have two reissues of early albums. 1972’s Three Friends and 1973’s Octopus are the third and fourth efforts from a band that was locking into an approach—confident and adventurous—that came as close as they ever did to establishing a “signature” sound. That the results are not easy to quickly describe or embrace is likely to make or break a first time listener’s reaction.

Three Friends is definitely the harder of the two, in many senses of the word. There is an extra edge that at times borders on abrasive, not that there’s anything wrong with that, which could make this tough going for first-time ears. It also boasts impressively complex vocal arrangements that at times border on boastful. These gents are definitely prog-rockers’ prog rockers, and in that regard the album is an unabashed success. Still, a song like “Peel the Paint” is a bit grueling to get through. It recalls Side One of Crimson’s Lizard but, for this listener, the vocals too often seem shrill where the wonderfully surreal vocals of Gordon Haskell, from Lizard are unsettling in all the right ways. In fact, the user-unfriendly singing might represent the issue that makes this material difficult to love then and now. One thing the aforementioned prog acts had going for them was across-the-board vocal brilliance. However much anyone might loathe those bands, few people could credibly claim that, say, Ian Anderson, Greg Lake or Jon Anderson were not, at worst, competent vocalists.

Octopus is not only more palatable, but ably matches the group’s lofty aspirations and their impeccable musicianship. Simply put, unlike Three Friends, it stacks up nicely with other prog masterpieces of the era, no mean feat. Typical period pieces like “The Advent of Panurge” (if you are going to get literary, don’t half-step!) and “Raconteur Troubadour” are stylistically and sonically all over the place but always in control. On this outing the band knows what it is after and is able to achieve it. On a more reflective piece like “Think of me with Kindness” we get more Gentle and less Giant.

Both albums feature re-mastered treatments and sound spectacular. More importantly, each release includes out-takes and live snippets, all of which are interesting and enjoyable. We get the original art work, liner notes and never-seen photos. This is the type of material that recommends itself for the faithful fan; it should serve as an ideal introduction for the newcomer. For anyone inclined to dip their toes in this murky but ultimately pleasant water, start with Octopus and, if you like what you hear (give it several listens before you make up your mind) you are encouraged to take a deeper dive into the catalog. Bottom line: full marks to Gentle Giant for their obvious indifference to mainstream acclaim and even accessibility. It may have damaged their commercial appeal but their integrity has never been in question. In the end, that should count for something that isn’t measured monetarily.

Three Friends Rating 6

Octopus Rating 8