Why Is Prog Rock So Inadequate, Simplistic, Reductive, Portentous and…Perfect? (Revisited)

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It’s always crucial, when talking trends—musical or otherwise—to contextualize the times and remember that wardrobe malfunctions, chemical excess and unspeakable atrocities like porn-star mustaches never exist within a vacuum. To properly remember, and assess, the good, the bad and the ugly of what accelerated (or, in some cases, stunted) our collective forward progress, we should feel obliged to stop, look and listen. And taste, and smell. And always make sure to program our perspective and especially our sense of humor for what we’re about to experience. For make no mistake: when it comes to lessons learned, unfortunate choices and free comedy, progressive rock remains a gift that keeps on giving.

Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut.

And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million air guitars. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.

So it behooves us, if we want to have a sober discussion of which music from this era is worthwhile, and why it endures, to remember just how much overly produced music was made by overindulged acts throughout the ‘70s. The excesses—both aesthetic and recreational—informing the scene also sorted the field, separating contenders from has-beens and assorted flavors of the Billboard Hot 100. Put bluntly, these were the not-so-good old days when coke-snorting executives in leisure suits green-lighted hit singles by acts destined for the dustbins and oldies circuit. Put even more bluntly, acts like Barry Gibb, The Bay City Rollers and K.C. and the Sunshine Band all managed to be millionaires.

No need to invoke Dickens; it was neither the best nor the worst of times. At one extreme we had dancing queens and dry ice edging ever closer to the public (and publically accepted) stage; at the opposite end of the spectacle we witnessed the emerging proposition of punk rock. To its credit, the punks’ do-it-yourself ethos scorned the self-parody of both dinosaur arena acts as well as the aforementioned jungle boogie bandwagon jumpers. This raw wave crashed in a spray of broken glass, safety pin piercings and bloody spittle that served to shake up the power-pop vanguard. The prevailing formula had suffocated on its own self-importance, and the new fashion harnessed hairspray and spite in equal measure to establish brand new ground rules.

Or at least that’s the generally sanctioned version of events we tend to hear entirely too often. Raise your hand if you’ve read (one time or one hundred times) the facile and hackneyed account of how punk killed progressive rock so that we could all live miserably ever after. The reality, as it stubbornly tends to be, is much messier and more complicated. Progressive rock came and went (and came back), but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?

A form of musical expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down. Of course this same criteria can be—and typically is—applied to any artistic expression. So why is it different, or at least more complicated, when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of prog rock? Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to snootily dismiss the more elaborate (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

One of the many reasons progressive rock remains controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.

“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”. This line, from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, serves as a succinct summation of why prog rock did—and does—inspire such intense adoration and/or aversion. The people who reject it (then, now) likely would ask, and not without merit, who wants to think? Music typically fails if it can’t burrow past your beer gut.

It’s fair to suggest that, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the most successful music of this genre made you think. Inevitably, the artists who were too self-conscious for everyone’s sake; the ones trying a tad too hard to make you think—especially the ones who wanted to make you think how clever they were—crossed the verboten third rail of pretension and have been punished accordingly (then, now). But the best practitioners, through their lyrics, themes and conceptual ideas that occasionally spanned entire albums, went for your head as well as your heart.

For some reason the gatekeepers of the Establishment (many of whom are the ultimate hipsters, poseurs and baby-boomers; many of whom are men; many of whom, coincidentally, have written for Rolling Stone) seem embarrassed by the notion that rock music can—or should—be capable of eliciting thought as well as feeling. That it can be unaffected without the face-saving cynicism too many songwriters, the ones predictably lionized by these same besotted journalists, feel compelled to employ. What is it about prog rock in general that makes these self-satisfied scribes so uncomfortable? That is a rhetorical question.

There is, ultimately, something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where opportunism and cold calculation are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’ (Revisited)

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How unbelievably appropriate that Permanent Waves was released on January 1, 1980?

In virtually every regard, this album ended the ’70s (literally) and foreshadowed the fertile grounds (reggae, pop elements, concise arrangements) the band would spend the next decade expanding upon.

Even though it will forever be overshadowed by the masterpiece that followed, Permanent Waves is, in many regards, the most important album Rush made. Looking back on their career, Rush was not unlike Pink Floyd: each album built upon the last one and, in hindsight, one can easily see where certain ideas and obsessions –executed with varying degrees of success– came to full fruition on the eventual, inexorable tour de force (Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures, respectively). We can hear how “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was a test run of sorts for the longer pieces from Caress of Steel, which of course set the stage for “2112”.

With the confidence and conviction the breakthrough success of 2112 provided, Rush began painting with strokes that managed to be at once broader and more refined. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” (from Hemispheres) was a triumph Rush could not –and did not need to– trump: it’s the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s “2112”, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

In a longer piece that details what happened before and during the recording of Moving Pictures, HERE, I assess the ways Rush grew as quickly and forcefully as any band of their time, making their unrelenting progress practically inevitable:

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems predictable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, instinctive. There is also a palpable sense of assurance infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and King Crimson’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

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 “Limelight”, but it’s, 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-siècle 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.

If the Snow Dog seemed a million miles in the aesthetic rear-view, “Tom Sawyer” was just around the bend. The band was seldom as tight, focused and unfettered as they would be on this outing, while the myriad elements that make Rush so unique and organic are fully manifest. Lee’s vocals were never more expressive or emotional; Lifeson’s guitar solos were rarely as succinct yet devastating. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can –and should– remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for these sessions. Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last thirty-three years. His love of language (consider the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art, a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. In the final analysis, Rush had already made history; they were finally prepared to produce work that remains relevant and enduring.

Art as expression,
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations.
Given the same
State of integrity,
It will surely help us along.

The most endangered species,
The honest man,
Will still survive annihilation.
Forming a world
State of integrity,
Sensitive, open and strong.

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Why Not Pink Floyd? (Revisited)

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The Pink Floyd Discovery Studio Album Box Set

I. See Saw

I have recently listened to every single song from every single Pink Floyd album, so you don’t have to.

The question is: Should you?

The answer: I’m not sure.

Pink Floyd occupies a curious and somewhat unique place in rock history. Certainly it would seem ludicrous to suggest that this celebrated band has not received sufficient attention. Still, most of their approbation has been focused, not unjustly, around the streak of albums they made starting with 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon through 1979’s The Wall. That these works are among the best-loved and best-selling of all time is not a matter of dispute. That this run ended just after (or just before, depending on your perspective) Roger Waters’ exodus—a move he considered the de facto final act of the band’s career (he was wrong as it turned out)—and set the stage for more than two decades of bad blood, recriminations and music that, to put it charitably, does not sit comfortably on the shelf with what came before, is pretty well established fact.

As such, Floyd became infamous for the feuding and ever-bloated arena tours, and not since The Beatles (or possibly Led Zeppelin) has such anxiety, hope and expectation been wasted deliberating whether a reunion—however strained—was inevitable. In the meantime, the work the band did before Dark Side has tended to get overlooked or else dismissed as middling by people who have never provided much evidence that they’ve bothered to listen to the albums in question.

With the possible exception of their 1967 debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which featured original songwriter Syd Barrett, and Meddle, which preceded—and anticipated—Dark Side, the first band in space’s early output has existed in a critical (if not commercial) black hole. This can’t be helped, but it could be rectified. And so: the occasion of yet another exhaustive reissue campaign should provide necessary incentive for some exploration by the uninitiated.

II. Pinks (Three Different Ones)

There were, really, three different Pink Floyds: the first one named—and led—by Syd Barrett; the one obliged to carry on after Barrett’s acid-fueled disintegration (which brought his old mate David Gilmour into the fold), and the one that eventually made those string of masterpieces commencing with Dark Side. Casual fans may not realize that Pink Floyd made more albums before The Dark Side of the Moon than they did after it. Some fans might not realize that Pink Floyd made any albums before The Dark Side of the Moon.

Thinking about Floyd’s chronology, and how they got from the alternate Summer of Love soundtrack of their debut all the way to Dark Side—an effort many consider the ultimate, even perfect rock album—required several years and six albums, none of which sounded especially alike, a fact that seems more remarkable with the benefit of hindsight. Each album, however, had one particular track, often an extended instrumental, that served as a centerpiece which at once set it apart and connected the sonic dots that burst through the pyramid in 1973: “Interstellar Overdrive” (from Piper), “A Saucerful of Secrets” (from the second album of the same name), “Quicksilver” (from More), “The Narrow Way” (from Ummagumma), “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother) and “Echoes” (from Meddle). As the band has indicated repeatedly over the years, each of these pieces built on one another and brought them closer to the sacred ground they were stalking. Certainly the post-Piper efforts were practically by definition transitional albums, but that is inevitable when the ultimate destination is The Dark Side of the Moon.

And herein lies the enigmatic, if seemingly paradoxical assessment that a great deal of Floyd’s work has long gone unscrutinized and underappreciated. If the band had not made their incomparable string of albums, the early work would arguably be more fondly recalled. But since the majority of albums, by Floyd or anyone else, will suffer in comparison to the mid-‘70s masterpieces, it seems like crying over spilled champagne.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Rating: 10

III. Point Me at the Sky

You don’t need to know anything about Syd Barrett to fully appreciate The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall. But if you know his story, his iridescent rise and spectacular fall, it will invest those albums with additional layers of import, and impact. It remains difficult to imagine what Floyd would have sounded like had Syd managed to stick around for two rather obvious reasons. One, the more musically-oriented direction the band went in owed much to David Gilmour, who was hastily recruited once things with Syd began to spiral. Two, even the subsequent work Barrett did (two difficult but addictive solo albums) sound nothing like Floyd’s debut.

It is possible that The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was such a fully-realized burst of sui generis psychedelia that it could never be equaled or imitated. Following the success of the singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” the band (then known as The Pink Floyd) set up shop at Abbey Road Studios, across the hall from the Fab Four, who were assembling Sgt. Pepper. Evaluating the results in last year’s feature on Syd Barrett, I wrote:

The results, remarkable in and of themselves, assume an added layer of relevance when considered as primarily the result of one man’s singular vision (as opposed to the Four Fabs, or five if you count George Martin—and you should). The three selections, “Chapter 24”, “Bike”, and a remix of “Matilda Mother” (an early version with different lyrics) are an adequate overview, but anyone who wants to more fully understand Pink Floyd, 1967, psychedelic rock, and one of the more consistently satisfying debut albums ever is obliged to acquire The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Oh, by the way, this one’s Pink. With due respect to Waters, Wright, and Mason, the band’s first effort was Barrett’s baby. His lyrics, ranging from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, reveal an erudite and eccentric wordsmith, more light than dark, more ebullient than enigmatic. Piper, in short, is a happy explosion of creative potential, producing fruit that flourishes more than 40 years on. And intriguing as Barrett’s words and voice are throughout, the real revelation is his songwriting. The compositions, with the notable exception of the extended space-rock jam “Interstellar Overdrive”, are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Barrett’s clever if unconventional use of a Zippo lighter as a makeshift slide gave him the ability to play fast while conjuring a shrill metallic shriek from his guitar. Those glistening cries are in full effect on the single “Apples and Oranges”, adding just enough quirky edge to give it the signature Floyd sound (that, and the “quack quack” after the line “feeding ducks in the afternoon tide”—a classic Barrett embellishment).

Considering Piper and the handful of singles and outtakes, one could make a reasonable case that Barrett’s diamond shined as bright as any artist’s in 1967. (And beyond: Although not included in this set, consider the fey, teasing vocal performance on “Candy and a Currant Bun”—formerly “Let’s Roll Another One”, a title the band was obliged to change for obvious reasons—which is worth noting for the template it provided the young David Bowie.) The world had every reason to think that Pink Floyd was going to make game-changing music and be around for a long, long time. As we know, they did, and were; albeit without their front man, who was asked to leave the band less than a year after Piper was released. It was unbelievable then, and remains difficult to completely comprehend now.

 

IV. Let There Be More Light

The follow-up album did—and will—inevitably disappoint anyone looking for a repeat of Piper. The bad news: with the exception of one song (the harrowing “Jugband Blues”, equal parts peak inside the cuckoo clock and a resigned J’accuse to his bandmates), Syd Barrett is gone, baby, gone. The good news: David Gilmour is now on the scene. Even on this effort, at times tentative, grasping and assured, there are hints of the sounds and obsessions that would indelibly color the Pink Floyd canon. Take the sardonic if jarring “Corporal Clegg” for a first glance at Waters’ disdain for war and society’s treatment of veterans; the solemn heavy-handedness he would later succumb to is undercut with a claustrophobic barrage of voices, sound effects and a sing-along chorus featuring a kazoo(!). Richard Wright attempts to capture the lysergic whimsy in songs he later dismissed but which, more than 40 years later, hold up in their way… if semi-shoehorned lysergic whimsy is something you like in your saucer.

A Saucerful of Secrets
Rating: 7

Two tracks stand out and obviously indicate directions the band would move toward going forward. “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (featuring brilliantly restrained mallet work from drummer Nick Mason) is the first successful “mood” music the new Floyd created. The band doubles (triples?) down on the ambition for the title track, which succeeds as a piece of avant-garde, music concrete and early prog pretension (see the manipulated “celestial voices” during the coda). From the ominous plucked piano strings to the percussive chaos to a slowly unfolding finale that achieves a genuinely affecting release, this is the track the band would, in a sense, keep revisiting until it was better, different, perfect.

In 1969 the band made two albums, both of which served as stepping stones toward a slowly evolving sound. The first, a soundtrack for a film few people seem to have seen called More, remains very much an overlooked gem, overwhelmed by the volume of quality Floyd recordings. From a purely historical perspective, More is an important album as it illustrates a template for the aesthetic the band would refine in the following decade. Gilmour in particular strides to the fore, assuming primary vocal duties and uncorking a guitar tone that is no longer lost in the haze and sheen that sometimes bogs down A Saucerful of Secrets. The elements of (take your pick) psychedelia/space-rock/trippiness, executed to greater effect in their live recordings, abound but are sharpened by a less guarded (less calculated?) Gilmour, who liberally sprinkles in his blues roots and a rawer, less refined sound.

Soundtrack from the Film More
Rating: 8

The album can be broken somewhat cleanly into two parts: the slower, acoustic pieces—mostly written by Waters, and the lucid, icy grandeur of the instrumentals, dominated by Wright and Gilmour. The acoustic tracks are worthwhile (particularly the hallucinogenic “Cirrus Minor” and “Green is the Colour”) but ultimately don’t rank with the band’s better work. It’s the dream sequences, at once evocative and mesmerizing, that make More an indelible album in its own right. If you take the laid back confidence of “More Blues” and combine it with the aggressive, almost abrasive energy of “Ibiza Bar” you can almost predict where Meddle came from. Likewise, Rick Wright’s uncanny ability to create mood is showcased on “Quicksilver”, which anticipates “Echoes” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. On “Main Theme” and “Dramatic Theme” Gilmour and Wright lock into a groove and Waters and Mason flex some nice rhythmic muscle.

It’s possible that Floyd would never sound this human again, and if they had to move on to bigger and better things (they did), there is sufficient evidence here that Floyd could balance raw and fresh and achieve a coolness without being chilly. Of course, no one could do light and dark with the dexterity of Floyd in their prime, and they make it sound easy here, perhaps because, for them, it was.

Ummagumma
Rating: 6

So while the live-in-the-studio experiments achieve a seemingly effortless air, the sense of purpose and inexorable pretense is more than slightly palpable on Ummagumma. Now this is a transition album. First, a very welcome live set which proves Floyd could credibly cover Barrett (“Astronomy Domine”) and improve upon earlier material (“Careful With That Axe, Eugene” is longer, more intense, and satisfying than the single). “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “A Saucerful of Secrets” demonstrate the band’s comfort with stretching out already ambitious material—a process that would reach fruition during the recording of the Pink Floyd at Pompeii film, which boasts definitive versions of these three non-Barrett tracks.

The second disc is an exercise in indulgence, adventure or embarrassment, depending on what you read. In actuality, it is the result mostly of a band feeling pressure to record new material while tailoring their collective compositional chops. Typically, there are elements of the aesthetic that would continue to crystallize in the coming years. Each member has a set of “solo” songs and while none are flawless, we can hear the way the craftsmanship is coalescing and the confidence is building. The band is unquestionably stretching out, and the best elements of this experimentation (Waters’ and Mason’s flair for the absurd; Wright’s and Gilmour’s more structurally sound tunesmithing) would be retained and improved upon in short order.

V. Childhood’s End

Back when Pink Floyd was the biggest underground band in the world, they remained mysterious—and hip—by being invisible. With few exceptions their faces weren’t on the album covers, which underscored the obvious: it was always all about the music. For a band that would come to suffocate on its seriousness (or, the seriousness with which Waters regarded his work, and his place in the band served to suck the air—and life—out of the later work), Floyd displayed a subtle sense of humor for a spell. Take the ingenious cover for Atom Heart Mother: at once a non sequitur, it is also disarming; a close-up glamour shot of a cow, with no mention anywhere of the band. This could be regarded as the band taking the piss out of the critics (and themselves) while also announcing that the ‘60s were over not only literally, but figuratively.

Atom Heart Mother
Rating: 8

Their most ambitious (and uneven/inscrutable/unlistenable, according to seemingly everyone who has written a review) work yet, the entire first side is taken up by the 20-minute-plus opus (excuse me, suite). Using a chorus, an orchestra, their growing facility for studio slicing and dicing and an inimitable elan concerning the art of the segue, Floyd created a very odd, endearing and English work. And that’s just the first few minutes.

To be certain, this is not easy listening, particularly for fans looking for first drafts of future hits like “Time” and “Money”. Although, if you’re rightly mesmerized by the truculent calm of “Mother”, Waters’ doleful acoustic track “If” is a precursor or sorts, and the eerie drill noises that follow the lines “please don’t put your wires in my brain” certainly anticipate “Brain Damage”. “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, while being more than a bit of a lark, still features the type of strategic repetitions, eccentric spoken passages and—believe it or not—gorgeous interludes by both Wright and Gilmour. Speaking of Gilmour, his ultra-mellow “Fat Old Sun” succeeds as the pastoral arrangement Waters gamely attempted on Ummagumma’s “Grantchester Meadows”, and features a tasty guitar solo to boot. Gilmour’s tone is fuller and fatter throughout, and first-time listeners will likely experience the shock of recognition scattered like breadcrumbs throughout certain songs.

Meddle
Rating: 9

Meddle, from 1971, was the first full flowering of the Pink Floyd sound—increasingly melodic and balancing precision with the ethereal. While in every regard a group effort, Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as the major musical force within the group. The observation that cannot be overemphasized is that Meddle was not so much an inspired product of its time (though it is indeed that) so much as the realization of a style the band had been inching toward with each previous album. A fairly extensive track-by-track evaluation of the album was attempted a few years back.

In addition to Gilmour’s (and to an only slightly less dominant extent, Wright’s) sonic imprint, we see the notable development of Waters’ skills as a lyricist; his words are now more mature and topical—a welcome and necessary development. On the third track, “Fearless”, there is another nod to Barrett but also a next installment of a growing Waters concern: namely the alienated and isolated protagonist railing against —or reeling from—a mechanized, soulless machine called society. Another distinctly Floydian touch is the decision to insert a recording of fans at Liverpool’s football stadium chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which concludes the song on a hopeful and human note. This tactic also serves as a blueprint for the ironic employment of actual voices that pepper subsequent Floyd albums.

Just before breaking ground on their (first) masterpiece, there was a second soundtrack to contend with. Obscured By Clouds benefits from a loose yet confident air, the last time the band would proceed informally in the recording studio. The results, recalling More, are split between straightforward songs (with lyrics and vocals) and incidental music for the film (all instrumental).

Obscured By Clouds
Rating: 8

Not surprisingly, Obscured By Clouds in many regards summarizes what led up to it and previews what is about to happen. Gilmour is still front and center, taking most of the vocal duties and his guitar works as heat lightning cutting through the surreal smog. Wright’s keyboards are at once unobtrusive yet omnipresent: the band is soaring, but requires Wright’s foundation and flourishes to get it airborne. (Challenge: listen to any Pink Floyd track from ’67-’79 and try to isolate all of Wright’s contributions; without him their unique sound is inconceivable.) It’s instructive to hear how the Gilmour/Wright alternating (and/or synchronized) vocals, so effective on “Echoes”, work together on “Burning Bridges” to prefigure “Time”. Lyrically, “Free Four” anticipates the concerns that would dominate Waters’ later work. Special mention for “Wots… Uh the Deal” which also functions as an aperitif for the showbiz laments Waters would make a specialty; here Gilmour alternates acoustic and electric guitar to beautiful effect while turning in one of his best vocal performances. Floyd was almost there: with a little more care, attention and inspiration a song like “Stay” would become “Us and Them”; “Childhood’s End” and “Burning Bridges” would combine to become “Time” and the extended instrumental passages would resurface, in refined form, on the next four albums.

VI. Welcome to the Machine

The Dark Side of the Moon is rightly recognized as one of rock music’s most perfect achievements. It also tends to (not unjustifiably) get singled out as the pinnacle of Pink Floyd’s career. While this may ultimately be the case—and who wants to argue the point?—a more accurate appraisal might be that the group, starting in ’73, locked into a virtuosity that has not been equaled by many, if any other outfits. The four albums released between 1973 and 1979 are among the most discussed, beloved and influential of all time; their collective import remains impossible to overstate.

Dark Side, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Perfect opening song. Perfect closing song. No, even that is not quite sufficient praise. No other album begins and ends as sublimely as this one does. From the opening heart beats to the sardonic assertion “There is no dark side of the moon, really…as a matter of fact it’s all dark”, this is rock music’s visionary apex. Dark Side represents the ultimate balance of aesthetic and accessibility—demanding yet consistently satisfying—that The Beatles initiated with Sgt. Pepper. 7 41 weeks on the charts and it somehow remains invigorating; it is still capable of surprising you, whether it’s the reverb of Gilmour’s slide just before the (improvised) caterwauling on “The Great Gig in the Sky” or the ceaselessly rousing climax of Waters’ understated poetry in “Eclipse” (“And everything under the sun is in tune/But the sun is eclipsed by the moon”). This is it; it’s all in here and it never got better than this.

The Dark Side of the Moon
Rating: 10

Of course, some listeners contend that Wish You Were Here is Pink Floyd’s supreme achievement. An extended meditation on loss, the lyrics certainly address Syd Barrett and serve as equal parts explanation (of) and apology (for) what really went down in 1968. But Waters’ words are expressive enough to welcome additional, deeper interpretations. Certainly songs like “Have A Cigar” and “Wish You Were Here” speak to Loss with a capital L: loss of innocence, loss of intimacy or loss of connection(s) to others as well as oneself. If the two-part suite “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is a rousing elegy for Barrett, “Welcome to the Machine” manages to condemn stardom, the system (military, corporate, entertainment) and the eventual disenchantment that follows success, all while creating a seven minute soundtrack to make Dystopia sound at once inevitable and irresistible.

Interestingly, while the two albums that preceded it and the blockbuster that followed it receive—if demand—most of the attention, Animals is arguably the most cohesive and satisfying concept album Pink Floyd recorded. Neither as immediately arresting nor as alluring upon repeated listens, Animals is, among other things, the last time all principle songwriters came together in the service of a project that superseded ego and personal ambition.

Roger Waters was steadily asserting himself as the Alpha Male, which is ironic considering the lyrical subject matter. Separating the human species into three basic groups, Waters assails the cultural systems of hegemony: the power-crazed minority that craves and enforces the jungle code and the puppets, who are either uncaring or oblivious to the ways they are subjugated. Utilizing a bilious indignation that, for the time being, was just on the side of healthy, Waters get politicians, corporate strivers and their timid victims into his sights.

Wish You Were Here
Rating: 10

Gilmour and Wright, working gamely within this structural framework, lend some of their best support, helping turn what might have been an irredeemably dark and disconsolate work into something that illuminates the filth without wallowing in it. Gilmour’s talk box pyrotechnics (on “Pigs”) lend a perfectly mordant touch to Waters’ sneering diatribe against the opportunism and prurient hypocrisy that did (and does) dominate the political scene on both sides of the pond. Wright’s synthesized shrieks (on “Sheep”) convey the apprehension, fear and helplessness of lambs being led to the slaughter, beers and bibles in hand. For “Dogs”, the last (almost) side-long track the band would attempt, all elements are in accord, resulting in the only song that can possibly challenge “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” in terms of impact, effect and staying power. It still sounds like every single trick and skill the band had learned and mastered, going back to the ‘60s, reach their fullest flowering in this grim but redemptory tour de force. By the time Waters rhetorically sneers “Who was dragged down by the stone?” it is as though his contempt has produced an exorcism of sorts, enabling him to deliver the definitive words on subjects that had preoccupied him for so long. As it turns out, he was only getting started.

Animals
Rating: 10

VII. The Thin Ice

If Animals was somewhat of a tough sell, offering three songs exceeding the ten minute mark (and two short acoustic tracks to bookend the proceedings), The Wall has no such issues. Their longest work since their last double-album, Ummagumma, The Wall actually contains only three songs longer than five minutes, and more than a handful that managed the previously unthinkable by becoming radio hits.

The Wall is regularly heralded as another masterpiece and in some circles it is considered the masterpiece in the Floyd canon. There is no denying that some of the band’s finest work is on display (“In the Flesh?”, “The Thin Ice”, “Mother”, “Hey You”, “Comfortably Numb” and the concert-ready classics “Run Like Hell”, “Young Lust” and “Another Brick in the Wall”). There is also ample evidence that Waters had long since set his ego for the heart of the sun and, on far too many tracks, the glare—at times pompous or misguided—is too much to bear. Not unlike the Beatles’ White Album, had Floyd sliced off some of the fat this could have been a truly killer effort; also like the White Album, you would be hard-pressed to find two fans who agree which songs are filler and which are exceptional.

The Wall
Rating: 8

Oh by the way, which one’s Pink? If your view is that Roger Waters was the genius behind the scenes (an opinion Waters would share), this—and the next—album provide ample evidence for that claim. If, on the other hand, you believe that Waters’ lyrics, vision and compositional acumen needed the finesse and artistic reliability that Wright and Gilmour lent to each previous recording, The Wall signifies the beginning of the end of Floyd’s miraculous run. Indeed, both camps sensed that things had run their course, albeit for different reasons.

The Final Cut, while in some regards is Waters’ most lyrically mature effort, probably should have been his first solo recording (something he would have been happy to accommodate). One need not invoke any albums from the ‘70s to illustrate this album’s shortcomings; its flaws are abundant and easy to itemize without comparisons. Short and not-so-sweet: way too much Waters, not enough Gilmour. On earlier works Waters, as a vocalist was most effective in small doses (see Dark Side and Wish You Were Here). Or, if Gilmour was not such a superior singer, Waters (and Wright) could have handled the task and the results would have likely been adequate. Even on The Wall there are several songs where one can imagine the improvements more vocals by Gilmour would have made; yet it’s difficult to imagine hearing (or wanting to hear) Gilmour singing about waiting for the worms and being filled with the urge to defecate.

This subject matter was intensely personal and meaningful to Waters, but he was not able—or willing—to comprehend that similar themes were explored to exceedingly richer and more varied effect on songs like “Us and Them”, “Free Four” and even the frenetic, experimental “Corporal Clegg”. This is somber material and it’s ludicrous to suggest it needed to be lightened up; rather, it needed to be fleshed out. Indeed, Gilmour has recalled listening to the demos and recognizing tracks that didn’t make the cut for The Wall, giving this album’s title a rather unfortunate prescience. It could be called an uncompromising work, but it’s also a narrow and overbearing one that comes close to suffocating on its own self-righteousness. Whether or not the band (now sans Rick Wright) should—or could—have done things differently is impossible to imagine, and largely irrelevant. Waters charged on, content to go it alone, and Gilmour, after releasing his second solo album, licked his wounds and bided his time. There was nothing left for Pink Floyd to prove, unless it was that they could soldier on without Waters and make a shitload more money.

VIII. Us and Them

There is little Pink Floyd could do to tarnish their near impeccable brand, but they certainly gave it their best shot, having one of the ugliest and most protracted divorces in the history of popular music. Practically from the moment The Final Cut dropped it seemed like a matter of time until it became official, and Waters made no bones about his desire to move on, free from the meddling and cumbersome presence of his band mates. The others mostly kept quiet; that is until the small matter of whether or not they were still entitled to be a band without their lyricist and self-proclaimed leader. Long story short: Gilmour recruited Mason, and then Wright (and a few dozen friendly session players) and set about to prove to the world (and Waters) that he could make it happen.

The Final Cut
Rating: 5

“You’ll never fucking do it,” as Gilmour claims Waters told him, may be the words Waters will always regret uttering. He may also have come to realize his comments to the press, which increasingly belittled the role the others (particularly galling were the accusations that Gilmour was mostly along for the ride) played set the stage for what happened. What happened was A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the album that sailed up the charts and catapulted Pink Floyd back into the public consciousness. The subsequent tour made the already rich men wealthy beyond their most brain-damaged dreams.

So, while it seems silly to quibble over whether it’s truly a Pink Floyd album (the simple answer is yes… and no), the more important question is whether it’s a worthwhile album. The simple answer is… yes and no. It certainly sounds like Floyd, at least more so than the stark and sallow Final Cut. Opening track “Signs of Life” is practically a paint-by-numbers reproduction, in miniature, of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. Only it is smaller in scale, ambition and import. Waters derisively called the album “a pretty fair forgery” and there is some merit to that assessment; it is an earnest, if half-assed approximation of what the band was capable of more than a decade before. The music is back to being mostly front-and-center, which is just as well as the lyrics are, for the most part, embarrassing. But beyond that, there is something missing, and that something is Roger Waters. If it was easy to pinpoint exactly which musical elements Wright and Gilmour brought to the classic recordings, the role Waters played (his own opinion notwithstanding) was much more than bassist and lyricist. If he was an abrasive taskmaster, he was also a perfectionist, a tinkerer and an unbelievably driven artist. Hopefully it does not sound too harsh to suggest that without Waters, the band sounds like a talented football team determined (or forced) to play without its coach, calling its own plays and having fun, but ultimately not able to execute at a high level.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason
Rating: 5

It was hard to begrudge Gilmour and company: they wanted to do it, they were told they couldn’t do it, and to their credit (and the credit the assorted cast of characters brought in to help), they did it. But in the end, the same complaints leveled against The Final Cut can be made here: it’s a Pink Floyd album and the world is ultimately better for it, but something significant is missing.

Bully for the boys, they were game for another go, and in 1994 they released their (as of today) swan-song, The Division Bell, and embarked on another mega-arena tour. Like the previous effort, the album (mostly) sounds like Floyd, only less so. Gilmour’s voice is still pleasant enough, his guitar still has an edge when necessary and the panache he brings to any proceedings, and Wright is more noticeable, definitely a good thing. Nevertheless, while it’s not a failure, it’s a pretty forgettable album. Very little engages the listener, and there is certainly nothing here that challenges or confronts.

The Division Bell
Rating: 4

Not all of this can be attributed to the absence of Waters; it was now two decades after Wish You Were Here and the band had long since become dignified, middle-aged men. Each of them had other hobbies and passions (Mason race cars and Gilmour flying, to name two big ones) and, understandably, the single-minded fixation that is necessary to produce great and lasting art had long since left the building. On the other hand, Waters did not seem to lose any steam and his focus was still ostensibly laser-like, yet he has never come anywhere close to making an album that sounds anything remotely as impressive as the work he did with Floyd. Is it possible that at a certain age rock stars simply can’t compete with their previous work? The long (and growing) history of still-living legends who sound more comfortable, if less convincing, playing oldies instead of coming up with new material only bolsters this proposition.

Not unlike the Beatles before them, Floyd needed one another to create the idiosyncratic sounds they patented in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More, those albums (by Floyd; by everyone) needed to made during those decades, a time when progressive rock was not yet a joke and the best bands in the world took their art very seriously indeed. It’s less important to wonder if they could have recaptured (or might still rekindle) that unique magic than to acknowledge—and celebrate—the not unremarkable fact that they performed at such an astonishingly high level for as long as they did. Pink Floyd, as much as any band, consistently upped the ante and they never repeated themselves. We have the evidence to prove it, and we will never grow tired of listening until the day when there is no room upon that hill.

IX. Postscript: We Call It Riding the Gravy Train

Why Pink Floyd? That is the name of the campaign accompanying this remastering (or re-remastering or, if you really want to be technical, re-re-remastering) of the Floyd discography. Hopefully this feature has helped the undecided determine if there are indeed old albums they should revisit or check out for the first time. For those who own all or most of the catalog, the inevitable question must be addressed: is this just another cash grab by a famous band? This question comes up regularly, in part because at this point so many groups have had their catalogs revamped so many times.

On the plus side, the albums have never sounded better (especially the older albums: there is nuance and detail that was difficult to detect in previous versions). On the lame side, there is zero bonus material: no out-takes, no live cuts, no demos, nada. If this stuff simply does not exist—however unlikely that would be—then there is nothing to be done. It does seem fair to inquire, however, whether or not the band/label is waiting for yet another opportunity to soak the consumer with yet another unveiling on repackaged material, this time with “extras”. Simply put, the more than casual fan is advised to consider which, if any, discs they’d like to hear as they’ve never heard before (and the differences are not that earth-shattering), or if they are content with the versions they already own. For those who don’t yet own some of these discs, now would seem an ideal time to pick up a copy.

In terms of the bigger picture, the question could easily be why not Pink Floyd? If any band warrants the love and attention, it’s this one. Moreover, if there happen to be people out there who have not experienced Animals or even Wish You Were Here (not to mention the pre-Dark Side works), now is as good a time as any to let them hear what they’ve been missing. If this occasion, in sum, tempts someone to discover any of these albums for the first time, it’s a victory all around, and that is a much more important consideration than dollars and cents. Whatever one ultimately makes of the business rationale behind these releases, their artistic merit is unassailable. Pink Floyd is perhaps the first truly underground band that cultivated a sound that was too remarkable to remain obscure. They willed themselves to be huge, and their influence is undiminished today.

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How About Some Unironic Love for Emerson, Lake & Palmer?

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Here are three words that strike fear in the hearts of all those allergic to prog rock: Emerson. Lake. Palmer.

Popular enough to have several songs still in the regular FM rotation, obscure enough to be forever relegated as one of “those” bands from a certain time and place (the ‘70s), ambitious enough to attempt things few if any other bands did, for better or worse, pretentious enough to earn the full-throated derision of holier-than-thou tastemakers. And album art awful enough to ensure they will never be forgotten, for better or worse.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer had something for everyone. They still do, and they remain ubiquitous enough on classic rock radio that one can’t remain indifferent: whether you tolerate tiny gems like “Still, You Turn Me On” or would rather stick a knife in your ear if you hear “Lucky Man” one more time (the way Keith Emerson used to “stab” his organ during his influential and/or insufferable stage shows back in the day), Emerson Lake & Palmer are guaranteed to elicit some type of response.

Speaking of luck, Emerson Lake & Palmer were lucky men: they made their money, they made their mark, and they endure as one of the exceptional prog bands. They are, in so many ways, an archetype of their era. If King Crimson, during their prime, were not satisfied until they upped the ante past the point of endurance (for the uninitiated or enlightened; that is), Emerson Lake & Palmer made indulgence and excess their calling card.

This is why it was so easy for haters to hate. Well, that plus their cover art, of which more shortly. But to their credit, they owned it, and wore that immoderation like a badge of courage. Truly, they did it their way, and no one else really did, or could, sound anything quite like them.

A supergroup in the mold Cream or Crosby, Stills and Nash, Emerson Lake & Palmer’s three members all had history with other bands (Greg Lake, notably, with the first, and best, King Crimson line-up), and like Jimmy Page before he fronted Led Zeppelin, each of them had paid dues, and were primed to go all-or-nothing in pursuit of making meaningful music.

Of course, as ever, what signifies “meaningful” will be different things to different people, and when it comes to prog rock, as always, the criteria can depend on what the definition of art is, and whether or not something as silly as rock music can ever be said to matter. For those of us more discerning (or nostalgic, or myopic) folks, it does indeed matter, and it is indeed art. And more, it was intended to be. In fact, it’s Emerson Lake & Palmer’s unabashed ambition to make Art-with-a-capital-A that rankled the tight-assed detractors, back in the day. The album art didn’t help, either.

Bands like Rush may have elicited more visceral reactions (Geddy Lee’s vocals, at least in the early days, being a make or break proposition) and bands like Yes may have received the most demerits for pomposity (and banal lyrics as a bonus), but arguably no other prog act has prompted ridicule, loathing and love quite like Emerson Lake & Palmer. They were far and away the most audacious—and, to the unimpressed, pretentious—prog rockers. Using, or usurping, sacred texts like Pictures at an Exhibition, which remains sacrilege in some corners. Never mind the fact that they expose this work to young fans who otherwise wouldn’t know Modest Mussorgsky from Modest Mouse.

At the same time, even they would probably admit they took things a bit too far, reimagining Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker as Nutrocker, or inviting (and/or daring) scorn for giving their double LP the simple, grandiose title Works. Here’s the thing: they could, for the most part, pull it off. Like most of their proggy brethren, when they were “on” they were egos-be-damn-the-torpedoes awesome. At their best, they produced works that endure, and still sound miles ahead, in terms of musical proficiency, conception and execution, of what just about any other rock band is capable of achieving.

From their self-titled first album in 1970 (which was not an introduction so much as a kind of coronation: We are geniuses, hear us roar!) through their fifth in 1973, Emerson Lake & Palmer was on a run as fruitful, successful and brief as any prog band of that decade. Even though the signature sounds of Emerson’s keyboards (piano and organ) make most of the songs easy to identify, there’s a diversity of style and subject matter—and a genuine growth demonstrated along the way—that ensures Emerson Lake & Palmer a place on prog rock’s A-List.

To be certain, no other band can claim a streak of albums that commences with a (relatively faithful) cover of an all but unknown composition by an all but unknown, to young rock fans anyway, maestro (Béla Bartók), and ends with a suite that stretches over two sides of an album. Between “The Barbarian” and “Karn Evil 9”, there’s all manner of material, including generous doses of classical “covers”, radio-friendly ballads and all but impenetrable (musically, lyrically) epics. Plenty, in short, to celebrate and/or castigate.

We’re here to celebrate. Let’s consider one song from each album and make a case that some unironic appreciation for Emerson Lake & Palmer is in order. From their debut, 12-and-a-half minute centerpiece, “Take a Pebble”, epitomizes the all-in ethos prog bands were flying up the flag pole, circa 1970. Plucked piano strings, plaintive acoustic strumming, showers of cymbals, a countrified interlude complete with hand claps and an extended piano-led excursion that stands proudly alongside any progressive music ever made.

The second album recorded (and third released, due to record company concerns regarding a project dedicated entirely to classical music’s crossover appeal, which, in hindsight, should silence any hysterical claims of commercial opportunism on the band’s part) and third released, Pictures at an Exhibition, remains a high water mark of the era. Not content to merely cover Mussorgsky’s beloved piece, they use it as a point of departure, adding lyrics and additional passages. Heresy to the aforementioned haters, for this writer their cheekiness does not betray insolence so much as exultation.

Let’s face it: you don’t even contemplate this type of material unless you love it and, more importantly, can actually play it. If the lyrics are inevitably tied to their time (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) so be it; Lake was seldom in finer voice and the band, as musicians, is clicking on every conceivable cylinder.

Special mention, of course, must be made for the title track of their second album, Tarkus. First, a few words about the cover art. The Clash’s Paul Simonon, spewing venom shared by virtually all punks in the late ‘70s, once stated that all he had to do was look at a Led Zeppelin album cover and he felt like vomiting. Presumably, he never saw the cover of Tarkus, or he may have been obliged to poke his eyes out with a rusted clothespin.

There’s simply no getting around how terrible this album art is, and by terrible, some of us might also mean amazing. To paraphrase another (fake) rock icon, Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel: “It’s like, how much more prog could this be? And the answer is none. None more prog.” Indeed, it was on this album that Emerson Lake & Palmer went to “11”, forever separating enthusiasts from skeptics.

A 20-minute side-long suite (naturally), “Tarkus” is where grandiosity meets pomposity, with a storyline as bewildering as it is half-baked. But the music? With Emerson Lake & Palmer, it’s all about the music, and the mood, only more so. The martial Sturm und Drang of the opening notes billowing into the scorched earth lamentation of what is supposedly a tale of evolution in reverse (an inside joke on prog rock?—ha ha) expertly balances bedlam with resolution. Art-with-a-capital A; Epic-with-a-capital E; Pomposity-with-a-capital P…you get the Picture from this Exhibition.

Whatever it is, it contains multitudes, and they will mean different things to different people. In the final analysis, it’s hard to deny the good, bad and ugly that all runneth over like blood turned into wine or lava turning into Tarkus.

On their fourth album, Trilogy, they traded in the cartoon character imagery (or Armadillo of the Apocalypse) that gave Tarkus its raison d’être, and take their shot at the Brass Ring of Profundity. “The Endless Enigma” is a worthy attempt, and while the lyrics are several tiers above those of their close-cousins Yes (meaning they occasionally achieve mediocrity), the music is typically superlative. If Emerson was a tad too busy (like Mozart was accused of being!—ha ha) on the earlier records, he reins in the excess, producing keyboard work that could almost be accused, at times, of being understated.

Lake, who in his heyday could go throat-to-throat with any vocalist, tends to be overlooked for his versatility: more than capable yielding both bass and acoustic guitar, it’s his work with the electric axe that gives Emerson Lake & Palmer its extra layer, and tension. Carl Palmer is reliably superb, and remains one of the better, if most unfairly overlooked drummers in rock history.

Finally, since everyone knows (and probably loves or hates, extremes that the song frankly does not warrant, either way) “Karn Evil 9”, the track from Brain Salad Surgery, the lesser known “Toccata” is perhaps the perfect example of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s incomparable formula. Modeled after Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto (heard of it, or him? Didn’t think so), it is at once reverential and irreverent.

This is precisely what makes this band, and this string of albums, so extraordinary. Using source material that is, at times, beyond “out there”, and putting their distinctive imprint on it, enabled Emerson Lake & Palmer to pay homage in the service of something spectacular. (Bonus points to Emerson for personally playing the adaptation for Ginastera, in person, to secure his approval.) Moving from “Tarkus”-like aggression to spooky soundscapes worthy of King Crimson at their most eldritch, “Toccata” distills all of the band’s strengths into one easily digestible mini-epic.

All in all, not a shabby showing for three short but astonishing years of toil: herein lies what Colonel Kurtz called “the horror”, and what recalcitrant enthusiasts (and/or idiots) like this writer call the horror. (But in a good way.) Worst album cover (Tarkus) of the prog era? Check. Worst choice of album title (Works)? Check. Worst song? (There are too many to choose from, but Emerson Lake & Palmer probably had more clunkers than any of their prog brethren.) Check, please.

Largest number of self-aggrandizing critics affronted? Big check, extra credit, and kudos. No matter how enormous their egos or ambition, Emerson Lake & Palmerwas too talented and determined to make uninspired music. Emerson, it could be argued, and probably has been by the aforementioned pinheads, had the chops to play Chopin in sparsely attended concert halls. Instead he played (mostly) his own music to sold out arenas. He and his mates never sold out, and in the end that made all the difference. Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer made a different kind of music and, in the process, they made history.

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Reappraising Jethro Tull’s ‘Minstrel in the Gallery’

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Jethro Tull, again? Seriously? Yes, seriously.

The reason Tull warrants continued discussion is because unlike just about all other prog rock acts of the mid-‘70s, they were—in their businesslike, seemingly obligatory fashion—cranking out one masterful effort each year.

In 1975, progressive rock was, we now know with the benefit of hindsight, already on its way to the dinosaur pit. Pink Floyd was, arguably, hitting their prime stride, releasing possibly their most cohesive and satisfying album Wish You Were Here, but many other acts from the great old days were on the ropes, running out of steam or gone altogether. Yes was on a hiatus, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and The Moody Blues were not dead but shells of their former selves, Rush was just getting into the game, and King Crimson had called it quits. Genesis soldiered on, and made a string of respectable albums with Collins at the helm (and then made a longer string of increasingly commercial, successful albums), but many would agree that things were never the same once Peter Gabriel rolled up his freak flag and went it alone.

So, aside from Pink Floyd, who were now an album every-other-year (at best) outfit, Jethro Tull were the kings of the hill, in terms of consistency and quality. The benefit of hindsight makes their proficiency, and the quality of the work, more obvious and more important to acknowledge. Where some (much?) of the material from prog rock’s heyday is decidedly of its time (for better or worse) and, lyrically, is often acknowledged with a wink and a shrug, Jethro Tull’s work in general, and on Minstrel in the Gallery in particular, needs no defense nor any nostalgia to be appreciated.

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One of the reasons the genre seemed stale or at least more than a little played out, circa 1975 (hello Emerson, Lake & Palmer), is because the formula was no longer sufficient to inspire fresh work, or at least be heard with fresh ears. Indulgence for indulgence’s sake was rightly losing favor with a wider audience, and at the mid-way point of a new decade, new approaches were necessary. As the first punk bands proved, a radically different approach would be rewarded. Punk, with its lo-fi lack of proficiency or pretense, was in almost every regard anti-prog (for better or worse).

So Jethro Tull, never especially fashionable, soldiered on without much regard for critical acclaim from the so-called establishment, powered by the industrious engine of Ian Anderson, who was just hitting his stride.

Discussion of Anderson’s lyrical prowess is inevitable, and appropriate, and mentioned in previous reviews. Where he did not shy away from autobiographical elements (especially on Benefit), his specialty was linking the personal with a reporter’s eye for both absurdity and the universal (especially on Aqualung); on Thick as a Brick he displays a sociologist’s eye for societal mores, and in his inimitably impish way, took his sledge hammer to all manner of very British sacred cows (class, religion, etc.); on A Passion Play he used every tool in his musical and intellectual arsenal. On Minstrel in the Gallery we have less of the sneering post-adolescent angst and rage and more of the wizened perspective of an adult who has toured the world, seen some things and is able to comment accordingly.


If the title track is a bit too literal (get it? The musician seeing himself in the crowd…), it’s also a tour de force of sorts that, in Andersonian fashion, takes the piss out of the cult of self/celebrity while also offering some quite poetic observations on the ways artist and audience interact:

The minstrel in the gallery
Looked down on the rabbit-run
And he threw away his looking-glass
He saw his face in everyone

Anderson, who has always been an underrated acoustic guitar player (most folks, understandably, see him as the wide-eyed and one-legged flautist), started pushing himself, notably during the band’s Holy Trinity. While his work, pound for pound, on A Passion Play may be his best, Minstrel in the Gallery represents his most singular and sustained acoustic achievement: his work throughout is memorable and masterful.


It would be a mistake to describe this as either an acoustic or restrained affair, as evidenced by “Cold Wind to Valhalla” (containing some of Martin Barre’s tastiest shredding), as well as the rocking sections of the title track and “Black Satin Dancer”, but the acoustic is ever-present and it’s easy to see how these tunes grew from solo excursions to full collaborations. If it’s once again necessary to single out drummer Barrie Barlow for the way his busy sticks augment and embellish the proceedings to delightful effect, than let it once again be stated.

The secret weapon here, more so than any earlier album, is David Palmer, previously employed to judicious and exhilarating effect (think the soaring orchestral flair toward the end of Thick as a Brick, or the subtle, gorgeous string embellishments on “Reasons for Waiting”) is now a full equal; for the first time it’s both appropriate and accurate to draw comparisons to what George Martin was doing for The Beatles: not “merely” adding dignified touches here and there or inserting informed color commentary at key moments, but completely in the mix, the orchestral effects as important as the guitars and keyboards. (Not for nothing, either, since this album is so heavy on the acoustic touches, the fastidiously remastered sound does, indeed, bring out nuances and touches not previously detectable.)

Palmer takes already remarkable compositions to that rarefied “other place” on the album’s twin highlights, “Requiem” and “Baker St. Muse”. On the former, a gentle tone poem, we can now appreciate, courtesy of the previously unreleased early version, the way this simple (sounding) song evolved from whimsical allegory to a fully realized and devastating take on the clichéd romantic break-up. (Initial lyrics describe a leaf; the final song replaces the leaf with a bird, which of course works as British double entendre for a woman).

Well, my lady told me, “Stay”
I looked aside and walked away along the strand
But I didn’t say a word, as the train time-table blurred
Close behind the taxi stand:
Saw her face in the tear-drop black cab window
Fading in the traffic watched her go,
And taking in the morning, heard myself singing, “Oh Requiem”
Here I go again, it’s the same old story…
Well, I saw a bird today, I looked aside and walked
Away along the strand.


As with previous Steven Wilson-supervised special editions, we get refined sound courtesy of the 5.1 surround and remix, as well as a truly generous and authoritative booklet complete with lyrics, anecdotes and interviews. Much of that material ranges from quirky to superfluous but, of course, insight from the actual band proves priceless. Most fans will concur that Minstrel in the Gallery seems as autobiographical as any Tull album, before or after, and there is a vulnerability and sensitivity that the songwriter (obviously, with hindsight) was simply growing into.

Anderson himself provides salient insight into his writing process, and also does a service for anyone who has tried to understand (or explain) the impulse to turn the “personal” into something less self-involved and applicable: “As a lyric writer I think that leaving some space is an important ingredient, that you don’t answer all the questions in the lyrics, you do leave the listeners to put something of themselves into the scenario and think about it in the light of their own experiences, or indeed experiences they’ve not yet had.” (Liner notes.)

Perhaps the finest distillation of the aforementioned reportorial eye, balancing obvious autobiography with imagination, is “Baker St. Muse” which, put plainly, showcases Anderson and his band at an absolute pinnacle of composition and execution. Polite golf-claps all around (but more, as ever, reserved for Barre and Barlow), an especially hearty hurrah for Palmer, 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.

For anyone curious, but unsure, about whether this 40th Anniversary edition is a compulsory acquisition, consider the (requisite) bonus discs. As mentioned, there is the 5.1 remaster and the Steven Wilson remix; there’s also a complete concert from July 1975 (Paris) that has never before been available. On one hand, it’s yet another sampler of hits (“My God”, “Cross-Eyed Mary” and, of course, “Aqualung”) but on the other, it’s a document of one of the best Tull line-ups. There are also the odds and sods of demo versions and out-takes (like the delightful lark “Summerday Sands” and, even though, like the master take, it’s less than one minute long, the alternate version of “Grace” is a special treat for Tull enthusiasts.

To summarize, these annual remaster projects are appropriate because Jethro Tull was making an album every year in the ‘70s; they are necessary because even people who tolerate prog rock or give it a courteous mention still limit themselves to a handful of “classic” albums that few people will protest. One need not be a prog aficionado to understand that many outstanding efforts were produced as a matter of course in the early and mid-‘70s; Minstrel in the Gallery is one of them and it’s a crime to think fans who think they know aren’t aware of this near-masterpiece.

*Originally published 8/5/15 in PopMatters, my latest installment for my series on prog rock, The Amazing Pudding.

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Ripe with Rich Attainments: Jethro Tull’s ‘A Passion Play’, Reassessed (Revisited)

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For prog-rock aficionados, the hits keep coming, and one man above all deserves our gratitude: Steven Wilson.

Whether it’s Yes, King Crimson, or Jethro Tull—all of whom he has worked with in recent years—the question arises: how much is too much with these deluxe reissues? The answer, naturally is: it’s never enough, assuming there are ample fans interested or insane enough to keep coughing up the coin to procure them.

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Once again, it must be said that, like the previous Wilson-affiliated productions, this is no half-assed cash grab offering the same-old, same-old with ostensibly improved fidelity. Rather, this is an elaborate undertaking, with a proper remix, a 5.1 surround sound (nerd alert!) and, not least, a fairly exhaustive booklet which details everything except where the Hare left those lost spectacles.

Let’s get the potential controversy out of the way, right up front. As always, purists will be given pause by some of the liberties Wilson takes, albeit with Ian Anderson’s blessing. What listeners will notice is not a straight remastering but a full remix; which is to say, in many regards a reimagining. For those purists the original versions are sacrosanct, supposed warts and all. Personally, I won’t quibble with any artist or producer’s acumen when it is stated forthrightly and without apology. However, I also reserve the right to wrinkle my nose a tad, just as I have regarding Pete Townshend’s tinkering with Quadrophenia (See “The Past Is Calling: Reconsidering The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’”).

All that aside, this latest project is an obsessive’s ambrosia: four separate discs of Jethro Tull’s most controversial album. If you have even read this far, you probably already know whether or not this box set is something you’d acquire, much less be interested in.

For anyone still on the fence, here’s one fanatic’s perspective. It can be argued, as both Anderson and Wilson do, that the decision to bring focus to a more basic mix (emphasizing vocals, guitar, bass, and drums) imbues an otherwise unattainable clarity. Or, for the perverse super-purists, restores integrity to the initial vision, assuming this after-the-fact tinkering better approximates primary intent.

To take one instance of intent vs. implementation, Anderson is on record as being unconvinced about his soprano sax playing (which this writer believes to be an unqualified success). As such, the instances here where it’s diminished or eliminated(!), will be either a revelation or a travesty, depending upon who is listening. To further muddle matters, I find it to be a bit of both. I love the material enough to enjoy an alternate version, especially one that attempts to realize some of what Anderson initially envisioned.

On the other hand, Anderson has always been ambivalent about this album, which complicates things on at least two levels. One, this album has polarized audiences (and pumpkin eaters), even Jethro Tull fans, for over four decades, so some acknowledgment, if not respect, should be granted to those who took the time to “get” and ultimately savor the music. Two, if Anderson has never been crazy about A Passion Play, how unaffected are his intentions, giving Wilson his goodwill to “reimagine” the album? And perhaps more importantly, who cares?

Most people would agree that once a work of art becomes public property, it ceases to be the sole proprietorship of the artist. Indeed, it could be more convincingly speculated that the moment it becomes public (not to mention paid for) the artist ceases to have any proprietorship. In any event, for those seeking richer fidelity featuring the original sounds, this edition may indeed be too much of a…great? thing. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Speaking of rabbits, Intermission Time!

Obviously, as most Tull fans are already aware, there can be no proper reappraisal of A Passion Play without inclusion of the aborted Château d’Hérouville sessions that preceded it. Not-so-affectionately referred to, by the band, as the “Château d’Isaster” tapes, portions of this material have been doled out in various incarnations over the years. The three-part “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal” was a more than a very agreeable novelty upon its first release on 1988’s box set. It begged the tantalizing questions: is there more of this material and, if so, is this Tull’s lost masterpiece? The answers turned out to be: yes, and not so much.

However, the collected tapes from these sessions (discussed in the liner notes) represent an earnest, if uneven attempt at a double LP: a conceptual piece of sorts that is heavy on the animal imagery and God-as-Director of the Passion Play we’re all acting in. And if that sounds at once wholly of its time and too-pretentious-by-half, it was. But some of the ideas are executed to near perfection (the aforementioned “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal”, and experimental tone poems like “First Post”, “Animelée”, and “Tiger Toon”). Some of the material was repurposed later (“Only Solitaire” and “Skating Away”) and, of course, some of it resurfaced, in more polished form (“Critique Oblique”, the melody of “Law of the Bungle Part I”), on the subsequent A Passion Play. The rest of it ranges from lackluster to banal, and it’s easy to understand why Anderson contentedly left it on the cutting room floor (“Sailor”, “Left Right”, and “The Big Top” all sound like half-baked works in progress, heavy on the pomposity, light on emotional or aesthetic impact).

It’s fascinating and enlightening to hear, in its unvarnished entirety, all the work the band did during that ill-fated journey to France (the same studio, incidentally, where such beloved works as Elton John’s Honky Château and Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds were recorded). Where Anderson has given some of these songs face-lifts (flute here, vocals there) in past reissues, he agreed, again, with Wilson to present them as they were initially recorded, without embellishment or upgrade. As such, they are now genuine historical documents, and fans can ascertain what worked, what could have been, and why Tull decided to quit while they were ahead (or behind) and start over from scratch.

It remains astonishing that A Passion Play, adored and/or derided as a complex, occasionally impenetrable progressive opus, was indeed conceived and executed in a matter of weeks. For better or worse, it sounds (at least the first several dozen times) like the result of considerable deliberation and agonizing. Perhaps Anderson & Co. had gotten all the bad vibes out of their systems, and by the time they returned to the friendly turf of Old Blighty, they were unencumbered, fully unloosing that pent-up creativity.

Whatever the explanation—and it might be as simple as the fact that, circa 1973, Ian Anderson was locked in like few rock musicians before or since—A Passion Play is a work that, especially following the successful and user-friendly Thick as a Brick, was practically destined for backlash. And the backlash came quickly, at least from critics. It’s illuminating that during a period when, shall we say, ambitious prog-rock albums were at worst tolerated, this work was simply too much for the average columnist. The fans, nevertheless, were picking up what the band was putting down, and the album hit #1 stateside.

Writing about this album in my assessment of Jethro Tull’s “Holy Trinity” (see “The Holy Trinity: Jethro Tull”), I offer the following thoughts:

It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some 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’s 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, especially in the prog genre, 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.

Anderson would go on to do work that was better received (say, Songs from the Wood) and, arguably, plain better (Minstrel in the Gallery), and to this day he keeps on keeping on, always finding audiences wherever he roams. Still, whether fans concur, or whether the artist himself agrees, at no point was Anderson as brazen, adventurous and near-infallible as he was during the recording of A Passion Play.

It was, as the generous and most welcome new liner notes indicate, not the most pleasant or, initially, most productive few months. Nevertheless, their pain remains our pleasure: it makes little difference what critics, certain fans or the authors of a particular work have to say; as is always the case, meaningful art will find an audience. A Passion Play endures, and matters, because it continues to confront, excite, and defy easy explanation. A touchstone from a ceaselessly maligned genre, Anderson’s 1973 masterpiece represents an eternal J’accuse to conformity and cliché, and its very refusal to be pigeonholed or even clarified will ensure that it continues to delight and surprise listeners. Scorning convention, after all, is what prog-rock of this era, at its best, attempted to do, and few did it better than Jethro Tull.

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Why Is Prog Rock So Inadequate, Simplistic, Reductive, Portentous and…Perfect? (Revisited)

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It’s always crucial, when talking trends—musical or otherwise—to contextualize the times and remember that wardrobe malfunctions, chemical excess and unspeakable atrocities like porn-star mustaches never exist within a vacuum. To properly remember, and assess, the good, the bad and the ugly of what accelerated (or, in some cases, stunted) our collective forward progress, we should feel obliged to stop, look and listen. And taste, and smell. And always make sure to program our perspective and especially our sense of humor for what we’re about to experience. For make no mistake: when it comes to lessons learned, unfortunate choices and free comedy, progressive rock remains a gift that keeps on giving.

Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut.

And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million air guitars. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.

So it behooves us, if we want to have a sober discussion of which music from this era is worthwhile, and why it endures, to remember just how much overly produced music was made by overindulged acts throughout the ‘70s. The excesses—both aesthetic and recreational—informing the scene also sorted the field, separating contenders from has-beens and assorted flavors of the Billboard Hot 100. Put bluntly, these were the not-so-good old days when coke-snorting executives in leisure suits green-lighted hit singles by acts destined for the dustbins and oldies circuit. Put even more bluntly, acts like Barry Gibb, The Bay City Rollers and K.C. and the Sunshine Band all managed to be millionaires.

No need to invoke Dickens; it was neither the best nor the worst of times. At one extreme we had dancing queens and dry ice edging ever closer to the public (and publically accepted) stage; at the opposite end of the spectacle we witnessed the emerging proposition of punk rock. To its credit, the punks’ do-it-yourself ethos scorned the self-parody of both dinosaur arena acts as well as the aforementioned jungle boogie bandwagon jumpers. This raw wave crashed in a spray of broken glass, safety pin piercings and bloody spittle that served to shake up the power-pop vanguard. The prevailing formula had suffocated on its own self-importance, and the new fashion harnessed hairspray and spite in equal measure to establish brand new ground rules.

Or at least that’s the generally sanctioned version of events we tend to hear entirely too often. Raise your hand if you’ve read (one time or one hundred times) the facile and hackneyed account of how punk killed progressive rock so that we could all live miserably ever after. The reality, as it stubbornly tends to be, is much messier and more complicated. Progressive rock came and went (and came back), but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?

A form of musical expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down. Of course this same criteria can be—and typically is—applied to any artistic expression. So why is it different, or at least more complicated, when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of prog rock? Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to snootily dismiss the more elaborate (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

One of the many reasons progressive rock remains controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.

“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”. This line, from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, serves as a succinct summation of why prog rock did—and does—inspire such intense adoration and/or aversion. The people who reject it (then, now) likely would ask, and not without merit, who wants to think? Music typically fails if it can’t burrow past your beer gut.

It’s fair to suggest that, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the most successful music of this genre made you think. Inevitably, the artists who were too self-conscious for everyone’s sake; the ones trying a tad too hard to make you think—especially the ones who wanted to make you think how clever they were—crossed the verboten third rail of pretension and have been punished accordingly (then, now). But the best practitioners, through their lyrics, themes and conceptual ideas that occasionally spanned entire albums, went for your head as well as your heart.

For some reason the gatekeepers of the Establishment (many of whom are the ultimate hipsters, poseurs and baby-boomers; many of whom are men; many of whom, coincidentally, have written for Rolling Stone) seem embarrassed by the notion that rock music can—or should—be capable of eliciting thought as well as feeling. That it can be unaffected without the face-saving cynicism too many songwriters, the ones predictably lionized by these same besotted journalists, feel compelled to employ. What is it about prog rock in general that makes these self-satisfied scribes so uncomfortable? That is a rhetorical question.

There is, ultimately, something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where opportunism and cold calculation are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’ (Revisited)

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How unbelievably appropriate that Permanent Waves was released on January 1, 1980?

In virtually every regard, this album ended the ’70s (literally) and foreshadowed the fertile grounds (reggae, pop elements, concise arrangements) the band would spend the next decade expanding upon.

Even though it will forever be overshadowed by the masterpiece that followed, Permanent Waves is, in many regards, the most important album Rush made. Looking back on their career, Rush was not unlike Pink Floyd: each album built upon the last one and, in hindsight, one can easily see where certain ideas and obsessions –executed with varying degrees of success– came to full fruition on the eventual, inexorable tour de force (Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures, respectively). We can hear how “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was a test run of sorts for the longer pieces from Caress of Steel, which of course set the stage for “2112”.

With the confidence and conviction the breakthrough success of 2112 provided, Rush began painting with strokes that managed to be at once broader and more refined. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” (from Hemispheres) was a triumph Rush could not –and did not need to– trump: it’s the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s “2112”, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

In a longer piece that details what happened before and during the recording of Moving Pictures, HERE, I assess the ways Rush grew as quickly and forcefully as any band of their time, making their unrelenting progress practically inevitable:

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems predictable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, instinctive. There is also a palpable sense of assurance infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and King Crimson’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

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 “Limelight”, but it’s, 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-siècle 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.

If the Snow Dog seemed a million miles in the aesthetic rear-view, “Tom Sawyer” was just around the bend. The band was seldom as tight, focused and unfettered as they would be on this outing, while the myriad elements that make Rush so unique and organic are fully manifest. Lee’s vocals were never more expressive or emotional; Lifeson’s guitar solos were rarely as succinct yet devastating. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can –and should– remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for these sessions. Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last thirty-three years. His love of language (consider the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art, a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. In the final analysis, Rush had already made history; they were finally prepared to produce work that remains relevant and enduring.

Art as expression,
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations.
Given the same
State of integrity,
It will surely help us along.

The most endangered species,
The honest man,
Will still survive annihilation.
Forming a world
State of integrity,
Sensitive, open and strong.

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Rush’s Hemispheres: 36 Years Ago Today

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Wow, 1978 was a long time ago, eh?

I still vividly recall procuring this one on compact disc (!) on the last day of school, in 1987 (!) back when CDs were still trickling out, one by one. And at the time, it was already a “classic”; not even a decade old. Yikes.

But let’s give it up for a band who, while Disco raged and Punk roared, and Prog Rock was already deep into its death-spiral, was just getting started. Indeed, Hemispheres represented at once a summation and a point of departure for what Rush had been trying to accomplish throughout the ’70s.

Check it:

This was the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s 2112, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

(The last words on all-things-Rush, according to me:

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.)

For a lot more on what they had done, check this out.

For a lot more on what they did next, check this out.

For a lot more on their masterpiece, check this out.

For a lot more about why the band was rightly inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, check THIS out.

For more about what makes Hemispheres so amazing, all these years later, stop, look and listen to what is right below these words…

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How About Some Unironic Love for Emerson, Lake & Palmer?

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Here are three words that strike fear in the hearts of all those allergic to prog rock: Emerson. Lake. Palmer.

Popular enough to have several songs still in the regular FM rotation, obscure enough to be forever relegated as one of “those” bands from a certain time and place (the ‘70s), ambitious enough to attempt things few if any other bands did, for better or worse, pretentious enough to earn the full-throated derision of holier-than-thou tastemakers. And album art awful enough to ensure they will never be forgotten, for better or worse.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer had something for everyone. They still do, and they remain ubiquitous enough on classic rock radio that one can’t remain indifferent: whether you tolerate tiny gems like “Still, You Turn Me On” or would rather stick a knife in your ear if you hear “Lucky Man” one more time (the way Keith Emerson used to “stab” his organ during his influential and/or insufferable stage shows back in the day),  Emerson Lake & Palmer are guaranteed to elicit some type of response.

Speaking of luck, Emerson Lake & Palmer were lucky men: they made their money, they made their mark, and they endure as one of the exceptional prog bands. They are, in so many ways, an archetype of their era. If King Crimson, during their prime, were not satisfied until they upped the ante past the point of endurance (for the uninitiated or enlightened; that is), Emerson Lake & Palmer made indulgence and excess their calling card.

This is why it was so easy for haters to hate. Well, that plus their cover art, of which more shortly. But to their credit, they owned it, and wore that immoderation like a badge of courage. Truly, they did it their way, and no one else really did, or could, sound anything quite like them.

A supergroup in the mold Cream or Crosby, Stills and Nash, Emerson Lake & Palmer’s three members all had history with other bands (Greg Lake, notably, with the first, and best, King Crimson line-up), and like Jimmy Page before he fronted Led Zeppelin, each of them had paid dues, and were primed to go all-or-nothing in pursuit of making meaningful music.

Of course, as ever, what signifies “meaningful” will be different things to different people, and when it comes to prog rock, as always, the criteria can depend on what the definition of art is, and whether or not something as silly as rock music can ever be said to matter. For those of us more discerning (or nostalgic, or myopic) folks, it does indeed matter, and it is indeed art. And more, it was intended to be. In fact, it’s Emerson Lake & Palmer’s unabashed ambition to make Art-with-a-capital-A that rankled the tight-assed detractors, back in the day. The album art didn’t help, either.

Bands like Rush may have elicited more visceral reactions (Geddy Lee’s vocals, at least in the early days, being a make or break proposition) and bands like Yes may have received the most demerits for pomposity (and banal lyrics as a bonus), but arguably no other prog act has prompted ridicule, loathing and love quite like Emerson Lake & Palmer. They were far and away the most audacious—and, to the unimpressed, pretentious—prog rockers. Using, or usurping, sacred texts like Pictures at an Exhibition, which remains sacrilege in some corners. Never mind the fact that they expose this work to young fans who otherwise wouldn’t know Modest Mussorgsky from Modest Mouse.

At the same time, even they would probably admit they took things a bit too far, reimagining Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker as Nutrocker, or inviting (and/or daring) scorn for giving their double LP the simple, grandiose title Works. Here’s the thing: they could, for the most part, pull it off. Like most of their proggy brethren, when they were “on” they were egos-be-damn-the-torpedoes awesome. At their best, they produced works that endure, and still sound miles ahead, in terms of musical proficiency, conception and execution, of what just about any other rock band is capable of achieving.

From their self-titled first album in 1970 (which was not an introduction so much as a kind of coronation: We are geniuses, hear us roar!) through their fifth in 1973, Emerson Lake & Palmer was on a run as fruitful, successful and brief as any prog band of that decade. Even though the signature sounds of Emerson’s keyboards (piano and organ) make most of the songs easy to identify, there’s a diversity of style and subject matter—and a genuine growth demonstrated along the way—that ensures Emerson Lake & Palmer a place on prog rock’s A-List.

To be certain, no other band can claim a streak of albums that commences with a (relatively faithful) cover of an all but unknown composition by an all but unknown, to young rock fans anyway, maestro (Béla Bartók), and ends with a suite that stretches over two sides of an album. Between “The Barbarian” and “Karn Evil 9”, there’s all manner of material, including generous doses of classical “covers”, radio-friendly ballads and all but impenetrable (musically, lyrically) epics. Plenty, in short, to celebrate and/or castigate.

We’re here to celebrate. Let’s consider one song from each album and make a case that some unironic appreciation for Emerson Lake & Palmer is in order. From their debut, 12-and-a-half minute centerpiece, “Take a Pebble”, epitomizes the all-in ethos prog bands were flying up the flag pole, circa 1970. Plucked piano strings, plaintive acoustic strumming, showers of cymbals, a countrified interlude complete with hand claps and an extended piano-led excursion that stands proudly alongside any progressive music ever made.

The second album recorded (and third released, due to record company concerns regarding a project dedicated entirely to classical music’s crossover appeal, which, in hindsight, should silence any hysterical claims of commercial opportunism on the band’s part) and third released, Pictures at an Exhibition, remains a high water mark of the era. Not content to merely cover Mussorgsky’s beloved piece, they use it as a point of departure, adding lyrics and additional passages. Heresy to the aforementioned haters, for this writer their cheekiness does not betray insolence so much as exultation.

Let’s face it: you don’t even contemplate this type of material unless you love it and, more importantly, can actually play it. If the lyrics are inevitably tied to their time (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) so be it; Lake was seldom in finer voice and the band, as musicians, is clicking on every conceivable cylinder.

Special mention, of course, must be made for the title track of their second album, Tarkus. First, a few words about the cover art. The Clash’s Paul Simonon, spewing venom shared by virtually all punks in the late ‘70s, once stated that all he had to do was look at a Led Zeppelin album cover and he felt like vomiting. Presumably, he never saw the cover of Tarkus, or he may have been obliged to poke his eyes out with a rusted clothespin.

There’s simply no getting around how terrible this album art is, and by terrible, some of us might also mean amazing. To paraphrase another (fake) rock icon, Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel: “It’s like, how much more prog could this be? And the answer is none. None more prog.” Indeed, it was on this album that Emerson Lake & Palmer went to “11”, forever separating enthusiasts from skeptics.

A 20-minute side-long suite (naturally), “Tarkus” is where grandiosity meets pomposity, with a storyline as bewildering as it is half-baked. But the music? With Emerson Lake & Palmer, it’s all about the music, and the mood, only more so. The martial Sturm und Drang of the opening notes billowing into the scorched earth lamentation of what is supposedly a tale of evolution in reverse (an inside joke on prog rock?—ha ha) expertly balances bedlam with resolution. Art-with-a-capital A; Epic-with-a-capital E; Pomposity-with-a-capital P…you get the Picture from this Exhibition.

Whatever it is, it contains multitudes, and they will mean different things to different people. In the final analysis, it’s hard to deny the good, bad and ugly that all runneth over like blood turned into wine or lava turning into Tarkus.

On their fourth album, Trilogy, they traded in the cartoon character imagery (or Armadillo of the Apocalypse) that gave Tarkus its raison d’être, and take their shot at the Brass Ring of Profundity. “The Endless Enigma” is a worthy attempt, and while the lyrics are several tiers above those of their close-cousins Yes (meaning they occasionally achieve mediocrity), the music is typically superlative. If Emerson was a tad too busy (like Mozart was accused of being!—ha ha) on the earlier records, he reins in the excess, producing keyboard work that could almost be accused, at times, of being understated.

Lake, who in his heyday could go throat-to-throat with any vocalist, tends to be overlooked for his versatility: more than capable yielding both bass and acoustic guitar, it’s his work with the electric axe that gives Emerson Lake & Palmer its extra layer, and tension. Carl Palmer is reliably superb, and remains one of the better, if most unfairly overlooked drummers in rock history.

Finally, since everyone knows (and probably loves or hates, extremes that the song frankly does not warrant, either way) “Karn Evil 9”, the track from Brain Salad Surgery, the lesser known “Toccata” is perhaps the perfect example of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s incomparable formula. Modeled after Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto (heard of it, or him? Didn’t think so), it is at once reverential and irreverent.

This is precisely what makes this band, and this string of albums, so extraordinary. Using source material that is, at times, beyond “out there”, and putting their distinctive imprint on it, enabled Emerson Lake & Palmer to pay homage in the service of something spectacular. (Bonus points to Emerson for personally playing the adaptation for Ginastera, in person, to secure his approval.) Moving from “Tarkus”-like aggression to spooky soundscapes worthy of King Crimson at their most eldritch, “Toccata” distills all of the band’s strengths into one easily digestible mini-epic.

All in all, not a shabby showing for three short but astonishing years of toil: herein lies what Colonel Kurtz called “the horror”, and what recalcitrant enthusiasts (and/or idiots) like this writer call the horror. (But in a good way.) Worst album cover (Tarkus) of the prog era? Check. Worst choice of album title (Works)? Check. Worst song? (There are too many to choose from, but Emerson Lake & Palmer probably had more clunkers than any of their prog brethren.) Check, please.

Largest number of self-aggrandizing critics affronted? Big check, extra credit, and kudos. No matter how enormous their egos or ambition, Emerson Lake & Palmerwas too talented and determined to make uninspired music. Emerson, it could be argued, and probably has been by the aforementioned pinheads, had the chops to play Chopin in sparsely attended concert halls. Instead he played (mostly) his own music to sold out arenas. He and his mates never sold out, and in the end that made all the difference. Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer made a different kind of music and, in the process, they made history.

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