The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs Part 5: 20-1

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  1. Yes: “Awaken” (from Going for the One)

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

  1. King Crimson: “Lizard” (from Lizard)

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

  1. Pink Floyd: “Echoes” (from Meddle)

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

  1. Genesis: “The Carpet Crawlers” (from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway)

Genesis invoked an older Britain with both whimsy and resolution, culminating in their masterpiece Selling England by the Pound. While it’s true that for their next effort, they (take your pick) took things a tad too far even for their own ambitions and abilities, took prog rock to another, unprecedented level, made an album that was ostensibly more straightforward and yet more out there than anything they, or anyone, ever did, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway takes place, of all places, in previously unexplored territory: America. Except when it doesn’t, including the myriad left-field excursions that occur somewhere outside time and space. Or something. The album is “about” the split personality of a homeless kid named Rael, adrift in New York City, like Moby Dick is about a whale. Whether the convoluting and extremely challenging narrative lends clarity or increases confusion, one thing is certain: it’s a hell of a ride and boasts some of the band’s best work. Any number of songs could compete as representative of the whole, but “The Carpet Crawlers” seems to synthesize everything that is so weird and wonderful about this collective, and also an apotheosis of sorts in terms of where they had been headed and could (and, ultimately, couldn’t) go. (Seriously: one almost fears contemplating where a mind has gone to envision such images, yet remains forever indebted that they are part of our permanent record: “A salamander scurries into flame to be destroyed/Imaginary creatures are trapped in birth on celluloid/The fleas cling to the golden fleece/Hoping they’ll find peace.” Wow.) It would be impossible, not to mention pointless, trying to isolate Peter Gabriel’s most incomparable performance (with Genesis or afterwards), but “The Carpet Crawlers” helps bolster a compelling case that he has few, if any, rivals as a frontman.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Pictures at an Exhibition” (from Pictures at an Exhibition)

That ELP had the audacity to not only invoke classical music (as King Crimson had done with Holst on “The Devil’s Triangle” from In the Wake of Poseidon) but to actually “cover” a celebrated masterwork was not surprising. This band had the ego and indifference necessary to conceive such sacrilege; importantly, they also had the ability and vision to pull it off. A band like ELP not only invited critical venom, they practically begged for it (when they titled a later album Works it signified, possibly, the shark-jumping moment of the decade). On the other hand, they did not pander and they could not be pigeonholed: none of their early albums sound especially alike, and they were really interested in satisfying nothing else but their own curiosity. It is debatable that the only thing that pissed off the purists and prigs in the “critical establishment” more than their homage to Mussorgsky was how wonderful they made it sound.

  1. King Crimson: “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One” (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic)

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

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

  1. Rush: “Cygnus X-1 Book Two: Hemispheres” (from Hemispheres)

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 clicking, 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.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Dogs” (from Animals)

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

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

  1. Yes: “And You and I” (from Close to the Edge)

Let us now praise famous men.

As it pertains to all-things-prog, Yes, to invoke A Few Good Men, is the band we want on that wall; the band we need on that wall. Easy to mock, not as easy to dismiss as some might wish, they are also, perhaps more so than any band, the genre’s best citizens. Yes, during their glory years, were arguably the most compelling ambassadors for this genre, which did—and does—confuse, exasperate and electrify listeners like no other. Like many of their peers, they made what might lazily be described as “music for music’s sake”, but while it sacrificed nothing in terms of integrity for the pursuit of filthy lucre, it managed to attract millions of listeners for the simplest (and purest) of reasons: it was too exceptional to be ignored.

As a case study, “And You and I” is a song where one can study every sound, every single second, and find something to savor (even after so many decades, and to the most familiar ears, it somehow manages to surprise and delight). It might be suggested Yes never sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. Suffice it to say, both Steve Howe and the indefatigable Jon Anderson do career-best work, as though their confidence and purpose could not be contained. Throughout the proceedings there are no pauses, wasted moments or miscues: everyone assembled works in service of the songs, resulting in a unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

  1. Jethro Tull: “A Passion Play” (from A Passion Play)

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

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

  1. Genesis: “Firth of Fifth” (from Selling England by the Pound)

Peter Gabriel was the Alpha and Omega, and while Phil Collins had the fortune (or karma) to become more successful than would have seemed reasonable, Genesis wouldn’t have been Genesis without those other guys. That’s obvious, but it also requires persistent reminding. Michael Rutherford must, unfortunately, endure as perhaps the most overlooked bassist (and 12-string guitar player!) of the prog era, and while there’s considerable love for both keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist Steve Hackett, perhaps it’s impossible to overpraise them. “Firth of Fifth” is an unqualified stunner from start to finish, and Banks, who sketched out the initial composition and whose piano/organ dominates it, makes perhaps his decisive contribution to the progressive canon. But it’s the extended soloing from Hackett, mid-song, that places this one in rarefied air: with swirling notes from Banks (and furious, locked-in interplay from Collins and Rutherford), Banks states a theme (established nicely by Gabriel’s flute), then restates it, then states it again, ratcheting up the emotion in the service of a feeling that’s seldom been equaled, in prog rock or any rock. At times it sounds like a guitar god broke into a Bach recital, at others like Hackett is exploring a theme like a jazz soloist, but mostly it’s a strange and wonderful achievement, a rare instance where popular music attains an “otherness” only the best art, in any medium, even aspires to.

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

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

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

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Tarkus” (from Tarkus)

Debate still abounds regarding the great American novel. No such discussion occurs when it comes to the terrible British prog rock album. Fans and foes alike have aligned and rendered a verdict: Tarkus. Look at the cover for Christ’s sake. Therein lies what Colonel Kurtz called “the horror” and what recalcitrant enthusiasts (or idiots) like me call… the horror! (But in a good way.) Listen, some prog rock bands (like Rush) had a penchant for reimagining or reinterpreting classical literary legends like Apollo and Dionysus (see #14) while others (like Rush) would create their own mythical heroes (By Tor, Snow Dog, etc.). Looking at this cover art, and seeing song titles like “Stones of Years”, “Manticore” and “Aquatarkus” (not to be confused with “Aqualung”), many music fans ask for the check, understandably. Here’s the thing, though: all the armadillo tank drawings and semi-preposterous titles –and lyrics– are just window dressing for the artistry that occurs once these well medicated, undeniably brilliant musicians throw down. And throw down they do, in ways that make myopic pinheads lament how a man with unrivaled keyboard skill—like Keith Emerson’s—might have made so much better use of his talents had he dedicated his life to playing Bach recitals in sparsely attended concert halls.

  1. King Crimson: “Starless” (from Red)

You want an epic? “Starless” is epic in every sense of the word; one of the all-time prog masterworks. Brooding and heavy, fraught with feeling and foreboding, it’s an exercise in precision (even at twelve minutes), and the final word on mellotron as MVP of prog mood enhancers. Even from a band that made a career perfecting closing tracks, “Starless” is possibly unsurpassed in terms of its depth and darkness; it could only be the last song from the last album King Crimson made in the ‘70s. Robert Fripp, of course, could do fury and he could do calm, and he often balanced everything in between; on no other song does he quite establish trepidation, crank it up to consternation, and then release it like the motherfucking Kraken. “Starless” builds an almost unbearable tension, breaking at last through the (bible) black; less like the tide retreating and more like an ocean disintegrating into air.

If prog dipped into the murky waters of jazz and classical music, King Crimson, never content with half-measures, went full free-jazz (think Ornette Coleman, with Mel Collins and a fortuitous cameo by Ian McDonald, as well as Bill Bruford hitting the skins like a wrecking ball) and Wagner, not as a cheesy invocation from a lazy critic, but all out Götterdämmerung: Twilight of the Progs. Rock music was never, with the possible exception of In the Court of the Crimson King, at once this frightening and exquisite: “Starless” is ugly beauty of the first order. The band was never the same, nor could they be, after this swan song of sorts, and that’s only natural. The listener, no matter how intimate they might be with this material, is never the same after each and every listen, and that’s something of a miracle.

  1. Rush: “2112” (from 2112)

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

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

  1. Jethro Tull: “Thick as a Brick” (from Thick as a Brick)

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

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring and there are maybe a handful of lyricists who matched his output in terms of sustained quality and variety during this decade. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, never outdone in terms of scope and ambition.

  1. Genesis: “Supper’s Ready” (from Foxtrot)

Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure. An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.

Peter Gabriel was always amongst the most theatrical of performers, and during his tenure with Genesis he created innumerable characters he (and we) live vicariously through. The creative schizophrenia of the “Willow Farm” section alone could ensure Gabriel was remembered fondly amongst prog fans, and it’s a godsend of sorts that we have live footage of this material being presented in a live setting. Incidentally, although this is, in many ways, Gabriel’s piece de resistance, it’s a complete band effort, and each musician makes some of their most significant and cherished contributions.

This is prog rock’s Ulysses: a superhuman effort that can confound and enthrall you, often at the same time. The question is not what “Supper’s Ready” is about, it’s what isn’t it about (tentative answer: Everything?). Peter Gabriel’s own two cents? “(It’s) a personal journey which ends up walking through scenes from Revelation in the Bible….I’ll leave it at that.” That succinct description, like the song itself, is satisfactory while still begging for more…much more. But, one of the reasons this particular track ranks so highly (indeed, there will likely be folks furious it’s not given the top slot on this list) is that, like all successful art, it works in spite—or because of—an inability to easily explain it, and it leaves itself open to interpretations, any of which may be unassailable in the eyes of beholder. “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?”, the fourth section of the song inquires. It’s a rhetorical question. It’s also the question and answer of this song, this band, and, at its best, this genre.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (from Wish You Were)

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

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

  1. Yes: “Close to the Edge” (from Close to the Edge)

In a feature written several years ago wherein I searched for the “sublimely awful lyric”, I singled Yes out for special mention as “elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of… real art.” On the other hand, I did—and do—maintain that listening to Yes is like listening to opera: the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. The music Yes made between 1971 and 1973 approached a level of elation that not many bands were able to approximate. So it matters less than a little that the lyrics are, supposedly, based on/inspired by Hesse’s Siddhartha (indeed, that fact is likely to get points subtracted for typical prog rock pretension, real or imagined). What matters is that this song really does go places no other band has done; or rather, it’s a gold standard that was never surpassed.

Every aspect of this, the consummate Yes song, in terms of conception and delivery, is virtually flawless: from the slow-burning build-up, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes, to the operatic (yes I said it) majesty of the middle section, (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out. On albums before and after, there were many individual moments that can be isolated and treasured, and more than a handful where the entire outfit outdoes themselves; “Close to the Edge” maintains an unprecedented (and unparalleled) force of conviction that never flags: it’s just under nineteen minutes of ceaselessly renewed ecstasy.

  1. King Crimson: “The Court of the Crimson King” (from In the Court of the Crimson King)

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

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

Virtually any song from this album could ably represent the whole, but the title track is an unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing track that is at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back.

“The Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song was, possibly, the first time the mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this—and after—it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent or vulnerable, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups—magnificent as they all were in their way—could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.

This piece originally appeared at PopMatters on 3/31/17.

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The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs Part 4: 40-21

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  1. Jethro Tull: “Heavy Horses” (from Heavy Horses)

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

  1. Colosseum: “The Valentyne Suite” (from Valentyne Suite)

Vibraphone and saxophone? Yes! Dave Greensdale, who supplies the vibes as well as some remarkable organ work, gets the drop on ELP, delivering keyboard-dominated prog before Keith Emerson made himself a household name. A bit jazzy, a tad trippy, it’s still incredibly tight and multi-dimensional; at one instant frenetic and the next almost tranquil, this is mood music for those uninterested in paint-by-numbers performance. Released the same year as In the Court of the Crimson King, this album and especially the title track seem influenced by no one, but set a standard that would be frequently imitated but seldom surpassed.

  1. Renaissance: “Song of Scheherazade” (from Scheherazade and Other Stories)

One need not know who Scheherazade is or what One Thousand and One Nights is, but being aware of this famous character and text will help the listener appreciate what’s going on –and perhaps marvel at Renaissance’s audacity for putting their spin on this, well, epic tale. And what better way to condense an epic than create an epic, multi-part track? As usual, vocalist Annie Haslam provides vocals and lends a very appropriate feminine voice to the “story” of Scheherazade. Renaissance seldom lacked for purpose, but this track, more than any other, represents the triumph of ambition met with worthy material.

  1. Camel: “Rhayader Goes to Town” (from The Snow Goose)

One more from Camel’s masterpiece. “Rhayader Goes to Town” is mostly a showcase for the criminally unheralded guitar virtuoso Andrew Latimer. On this track he shreds like vintage David Gilmour, but with soul to spare and a technician’s control of his instrument. Some (okay, a lot) of music from the prog genre was conceived as anti-commercial, as challenging to digest as it was to execute. And for the most part, this was laudable, and in accordance with the savvy and discipline the music required (for both bands and fans), but too much of the music, either not discovered in the first place, or lumped in with all the good, bad and ugly, warrants a second (or first!) listen. The Snow Goose is certainly not easy listening, but it’s easy to be enraptured by; for anyone seeking fresh insight about how prog sounded, when it was lean and mean, “Rhayader Goes to Town” could not be more strongly recommended.

  1. Yes: “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Regardless of intent or method, prog rock could be quite dark and often heavy, as a cursory examination of cover art and song titles will confirm. That said, there was, of course, a vast amount of gentler, even elegant music. Few bands worked together in unison the way Yes did during their prime, each individual an imperative part of the whole. And while, at various times, Bill Bruford, Chris Squire and especially Rick Wakeman made unforgettable contributions, the classic sound was mostly defined by vocalist Jon Anderson and guitar god Steve Howe. “Starship Trooper” is perhaps the definitive showcase for Howe, allowing him to illustrate his utter mastery of the instrument (both acoustic and electric), and when he and Anderson multi-track their guitar/vocal interplay, it’s as close to heaven as prog rock ever got.

  1. Traffic: “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” (from The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Traffic will never be known as a prog rock band. This is a testament to the fact that Traffic can’t be easily defined—or dismissed—as part of any particular genre; their interests were too wide-ranging, their abilities too matchless. Having mastered psychedelic rock in the late ‘60s and a more jam-based jazz-rock on the masterful (but not-proggy) John Barleycorn Must Die, Traffic became a bit of everything on their masterpiece The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. One look, at the title, and the hipper-than-hip album cover tells you all you need to know: these were some cool cats. Steve Winwood, of course, was the resident prodigy, but the sax and flute contributions from Chris Wood are crucial. On this super laid back track, Jim Capaldi turns in some of his finest drum and percussion work, proving that prog could, on occasion, be groovy, if not entirely fashionable.

  1. Soft Machine: “Moon in June” (from Third)

From the Canterbury scene in the late ‘70s to full-on freak jazz in the early-to-mid ‘70s, in between Soft Machine got their prog on. Third is at once experimental in the extreme, but a very controlled and deliberate sort of experiment. The jazz and fusion influences are undeniable, but even with extended instrumental workouts, the results seldom seem like aimless jams or braggadocio. The passages with vocals have perhaps not dated so well, but there’s a pulsating energy that drives the piece. This is music from the underground and it’s probably best understood, and appreciated, as art that makes no apologies, but welcomes all who come to it with open ears, and minds.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Us and Them” (from The Dark Side of the Moon)

Originally an instrumental intended for Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (and rejected for the eventual soundtrack), this Richard Wright composition found new life a few years later. The lyrics by Roger Waters not only provide a “story” but evidence a stunning maturity in the band’s approach. Associations with outer space, which were always superficial in the first place, are now ancient history as Waters & Co. are setting their sights on the hearts of our darkness. Continuing a growing preoccupation (which would later become an obsession) with war and soldiers, like his father, killed in conflict, Waters exhibits a concision that’s able to leave a permanent mark: “’Forward!’ he cried from the rear/And the front rank died/And the General sat as the lines on the map/Moved from side to side.” Wright’s piano solos and organ provide a solemn but beautiful foundation, and Gilmour’s world-weary delivery is by turns hopeful and heartbreaking.

  1. Genesis: “Watcher of the Skies” (from Foxtrot)

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

  1. King Crimson: “Fracture” (from Starless and Bible Black)

Percussionist Jamie Muir, whose wonderfully ragtag percussion contributions gave Larks’ Tongues in Aspic its proper right-at-the-precipice atmosphere, departed, leaving King Crimson a quartet. Always up for a challenge, Bill Bruford simply expanded his repertoire, adding his own, more refined, percussive touches. These are put to ideal effect on album closer “Fracture”, particularly the brief xylophone flair that quite possibly inspired Danny Elfman’s immortal theme for The Simpsons. John Wetton locks in with Bruford to establish a sludgy groove, and David Cross subtly counters Fripp’s ominous grinding, which builds Crimson’s patented quiet-to-chaos dynamic before all Hades breaks loose courtesy of what may stand as Fripp’s most ferocious solo. Everyone doubles down (the beautiful brawling between Bruford and Wetton would continue to excellent effect on the subsequent recordings for Red), and Fripp—as if it’s even necessary at this point—makes his case for all-time prog guitar guru. When one realizes most of the material from this album was recorded live or grew out of improvised jams, it only adds to the import of what Fripp, the ultimate perfectionist, was capable of when he shifted into high gear.

  1. Jethro Tull: “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

It remains tantalizing to imagine the augmented critical—and street—cred the album would receive if it had only been named after almost any of the other ten songs, especially “Wind Up” or “My God”. And if, as Anderson claims he preferred, the cover had featured the actual tramp from the Thames Embankment who inspired the tune (“Aqualung” referring to the gurgling sound of the man’s chronic bronchitis), it would make the lyrics about the real human being inexorably more vivid and disturbing. The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes”). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep-sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Take a Pebble” (from Emerson, Lake & Palmer)

The centerpiece, and masterpiece from ELP’s debut is Greg Lake’s twelve-and-a-half minute “Take A Pebble” which, as well as any song from the era, epitomizes the all-in ethos these bands were running up the flag pole. Plucked piano strings, plaintive acoustic strumming, showers of cymbals, a countrified interlude complete with hand claps (that you can almost dance to) and an extended piano-led excursion that stands alongside any progressive music ever made. If certain bands seemed to try a bit too hard, or were so serious they sucked any joy (or life) out of the music, this was seldom an issue with ELP: they positively revel in their shared purpose and can barely check their enthusiasm. As a result, the passion is at once refreshing and exhilarating.

  1. McDonald and Giles: “Birdman” (from McDonald and Giles)

If, in a sense, King Crimson never fully recovered from the loss of founding members Ian McDonald and Michael Giles. Still, hindsight has confirmed that everything about In the Court of the Crimson King was sui generis; it couldn’t be duplicated and it would have been silly to try. More importantly, the departure of McDonald meant, from that moment forward, Fripp was the prime mover and the personnel changes and various stylistic shifts that ensued were inevitable, and quite welcome. More still, Crimson’s temporary attrition led not only to McDonald and Giles presenting the world with their quiet masterpiece, but also gave us Emerson, Lake & Palmer!

In any event, McDonald’s playing and artistic flair were all over In the Court of the Crimson King and that prodigious talent is apparent throughout McDonald and Giles. By necessity, and perhaps to retain the control he coveted, the duo was content to soldier on mostly alone (there is support from brother Peter Giles on bass and a brief contribution, on organ, from Steve Winwood), but in addition to drums and vocals from Michael, Ian handles guitar, piano, organ, saxes, flute, clarinet and zither. To their lasting credit, the results are anything but minimalist; indeed, the same type of color and flair that brightened Crimson’s debut are in abundance throughout these proceedings. Lacking neither determination nor drive, McDonald and Giles made their stab at a near-obligatory side long statement. It’s an unqualified success, and the presence of friend and lyricist extraordinaire Peter Sinfield helps up the ante. While In the Wake of Poseidon is a stunning and almost entirely satisfactory follow-up to the debut, McDonald and Giles provides an opportunity to hear Crimson 2.0, or what the other half (McDonald, with Sinfield, being the alternate visionaries), given their druthers, could achieve.

  1. Rush: “La Villa Strangiato” (from Hemispheres)

Fans, of Rush in particular and prog in general, already understand that “La Villa Strangiato” is endlessly enjoyable slice of perfection. Better still, it’s the ideal option for anyone who can’t stomach Geddy Lee’s voice or Neil Peart’s lyrics. Even (or especially) when they were crafting suites about fountains and necromancers, few would deny the collective musical prowess of this trio. Still, where certain proficient acts (ranging from Zappa to, in later years, Rush themselves) could on occasion be accused of being a tad too clinical, a tad too perfect, it may surprise non-believers to know that Rush always had both humor and restraint, when the situation called for it. While there’s nothing especially restrained about “La Villa Strangiato”, it never tries to be anything other than what it is. What is it? Foremost, a showcase for Alex Lifeson, who everyone knows can shred, but not enough people appreciate as the skilled and dynamic player he is. It’s possible that the band never exhibited this much joy on a studio album before and certainly after; it’s a ten-minute celebration of partners in crime who possess superhuman ability, but also healthy enough egos to understand they’re all better working together than with anyone else.

  1. The Moody Blues: “Melancholy Man” (from A Question of Balance)

It’s Justin Hayward’s voice on most of the hits (and many excellent non-hits), but The Moody Blues were very much a collective in every sense of the word. Presenting the other extreme to Hayward’s irrepressible conviction (showcased on the brilliant “Question”, from the same album), Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” is not only the reliably subdued counterpoint, it might be the best thing the band ever did. The the Moody Blues made scaled-down extravaganzas their calling card, and in hindsight their restraint seems almost valiant. On “Melancholy Man”, the music matches the mood, and Pinder manages to sound commanding and vulnerable, sometimes at the same moment. And special kudos to the man who did as much as anyone to introduce our beloved mellotron to popular culture; where would progressive rock be without this quirky, uniquely bizarre instrument?

  1. Camel: “Lady Fantasy” (from Mirage)

Whether or not this signifies Camel’s finest moment is less important than the fact that it’s probably the most successful distillation of their singular aesthetic. All the crucial prog elements are in place: tricky time shifts, an irresistible lull from mellow to frenzied, and a sound that’s at once non-commercial but immediately pleasing. What separates even the better bands who can write and play mind-blowing music is the feeling; some can’t conjure it, others can’t help but do so. It’s pointless, with words, to try and pin down precisely what it is, but on “Lady Fantasy”, guided as usual by Andrew Latimer’s guitar wizardry (and, on this track, vocals), Camel makes one of the more compelling cases for why prog rock matters and, at its best, how it needs no excuses or elaboration.

  1. Gentle Giant: “The Advent of Panurge” (from Octopus)

It’s unadvisable to teach someone to swim by tossing them in the ocean during a thunderstorm. Likewise, it’s foolhardy to hope anyone would take to prog rock by sampling practically anything by Gentle Giant. As the band itself boasted, they were an “acquired taste”, and some of the time went out of their way to prove it. So what? If there had to be one band that put a line in the sand and effectively defied people to dig them, Gentle Giant was consistently up to the task. So, while it’s tough to determine where even a listener amenable to prog rock might begin to tackle the Gentle Giant catalog, Octopus is as safe a bet as any other album. Not for nothing, it might also be their most consistent and satisfying release. Perhaps the most unheralded aspect of this band’s contribution –aside from the outstanding string of albums—is the way they set a bar for other, better-loved bands to follow, and aspire to; Gentle Giant were the unacknowledged legislators of the progressive movement and, if enough fans weren’t paying proper attention, it seems safe to suggest many of their fellow acts were. It really can’t be said enough that Gentle Giant deserves extensive respect and kudos for remaining utterly uncompromising and committed to their demanding but gratifying objectives.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother)

Pink Floyd was still an underground band of sorts (albeit a very successful one) circa 1970, mostly because they didn’t bother to write hit singles. For the fans that didn’t jump ship after Syd Barrett’s departure, the efforts between 1968 and 1972 were transition albums from a prog rock icon in progress. The title song from this 1970 work clocks in at over 23 minutes and has everything from trumpet fanfare to orchestrated choir. Originally and appropriately dubbed “The Amazing Pudding”, this opus crams in ideas (and serious shredding from Dave Gilmour) that would resurface on their ultimate breakthrough, The Dark Side of the Moon: the multi-tracked voices, reprises, odds, sods and half-assed grandiosity are shot out of a cannon and remain unabashed and untamed today. It sounds very little like what Pink Floyd would shortly become; it sounds like a band from another planet which, after all, was more than half the point in the first place.

  1. Genesis: “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” (from Selling England by the Pound)

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout Selling England by the Pound is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. For this opening number (did any prog band begins albums with more of a bang than Gabriel-era Genesis?), Gabriel pulls out all the stops, with poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time. Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. Everyone involved is en fuego, at the height of their individual and collective abilities. For people who want to know where Eddie Van Halen’s finger tapping technique originated, look no further. For people who don’t understand, or would never believe Phil Collins was, at one time, a first-rate drummer, check this out. And, well, nobody is daft enough to doubt the glory of Peter Gabriel, right? The angst, anger and, finally, euphoria his voice channels is (once again) all-time, for the ages.

  1. Van der Graaf Generator: “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” (from Pawn Hearts)

Every prog band wanted to add at least one undisputed classic to the canon; some failed, some came close, and some made multiple contributions. Van der Graaf Generator (the name itself almost a dare) tried and, depending on one’s level of faith, succeeded. But no one who knows anything about this genre would dispute that this album is their masterpiece, and “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is their crowning achievement. On this sprawling and elaborate composition, crucial contributions are made by all, but keyboard wizard Hugh Banton and vocalist Peter Hammill are way out in the stratosphere. This as music as drama, as statement, as vocation.

This piece originally appeared at PopMatters on 3/30/17.

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The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs: Part 3, 60-41

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  1. Rush: “Cygnus X-1 Book One: The Voyage” (from A Farewell to Kings)

Rush is now, rightly, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (not that this dubious honor from a very polemic institution signifies all that much, but in terms of street cred from the so-called establishment, it’s noteworthy, and warranted enshrinement), so the battles waged over their merit aren’t waged with quite the rage they once were. That’s mostly a good thing. But whether you think they are Ayn Rand worshippers (you’re wrong) or Neil Peart is an overrated drummer (you’re wrong) or his lyrics are rubbish (wrong again), and especially if you care to debate the merits of their musicianship (give it up), one thing is overlooked, and requires pointing out: Geddy Lee, for a skinny, nerdy white man, is not only a brilliant bass player, but when the situation required it, he could flat out groove. His work alone on “Cygnus X-1 Book One” makes an eloquent case for his expertise, but of all Rush songs, this one features the most frequently sited reason so many people can’t deal: his voice. Over time, and of necessity, his high pitched histrionics were relegated to time capsules of the ‘70s. But by the time the intensity is ratcheted up to the point of explosion, his wail is prog’s version of Whitman’s barbaric yawp. Deal breaker for some; addictive for others. This song, were it an instrumental, would be capable of converting many naysayers, but of course, it needs the singular paroxysms Geddy delivered, as a matter of course, circa 1977.

  1. King Crimson: “I Talk to the Wind” (from In the Court of the Crimson King)

Virtually every note on King Crimson’s debut at once originates and defines the prog rock aesthetic. This was, in every possible sense, an entirely new sort of music: a collective of superlative craftsmen, united in the effort to create art so original, so unmotivated by commercial appeal, so honest, it couldn’t not be transformative. If the progressive movement would, for both understandable and perhaps inevitable reasons, become insular to the point of near-suffocation with its one-upmanship, navel-gazing and self-indulgent geekishness, no such criticism could be applied to both the material and attitude that inform In the Court of the Crimson King. (Interesting sidenote: this song was initially attempted on 1968’s The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp, featuring vocals by Judy Dyble). As a part of the whole, “I Talk to the Wind” is an ideal transition, calming the waters after the incendiary “21st Century Schizoid Man” and setting up the concentrated dejection of “Epitaph”; as a standalone track, it’s a stunning tone poem of melancholy—somehow it manages to be somber and gorgeous. Each individual musician is indispensable (on this song; on this album), and while drummer Michael Giles’s subdued but industrious embellishments shine, this might be Ian McDonald’s finest moment: his flute, clarinet and shared vocals (a duet with Greg Lake) are astonishing; an unending well that will satisfy and inspire even after countless listens.

  1. Renaissance: “Mother Russia” (from Turn of the Cards)

More literary references? Yes please. This time, tribute is paid to Russian writer/dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As such, the lyrics deal with the (ongoing, at this time) bad old days of being “back in the U.S.S.R.”. Driven by John Tout’s stirring keyboards and Annie Haslam’s ardent vocals (another rare instance of any kind of female presence in the mostly all-male prog genre), complete with only slightly melodramatic string ornamentations, “Mother Russia” effectively doles out the emotion along with the intellect.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Welcome to the Machine” (from Wish You Were Here)

Roger Waters, illustrating curmudgeonly tendencies as early as the recording of The Dark Side of the Moon (captured for posterity in the remarkable Live at Pompeii documentary), but having axes to grind—and never too carefully, Eugene—going back to “Corporal Clegg” on A Saucerful of Secrets (’68), was really hitting his sardonic stride by the middle of the ‘70s. Importantly, though, while he shoveled out the scorn like few before or since, it would be wrong to label Waters a misanthrope; certainly he’s happy (or miserable, for that matter) to point out the myriad foibles of mankind, but there was always hope, if never quite optimism, lurking beneath the surface. By the time of Wish You Were Here, Floyd had perfected their presentation: the music they created suitably complemented Waters’s acerbic lyrics. On “Welcome to the Machine” an acoustic-based song is soaked with sound effects, Rick Wright’s one-man-band of keyboards and suitably disaffected vocal from David Gilmour. It’s to Waters’s credit that the song can function on several levels: as an obvious shot at the music industry (amusing sidenote: the lyrics for “Have a Cigar” were so astringent Gilmour declined to sing them, which led to Roy Harper stepping in for his famous cameo), it’s another in a series of touching tributes to Syd Barrett (“you dreamed of a big star/you played a mean guitar”), and a coruscating ode to estrangement. No band made alienation sound so alluring.

  1. Van der Graaf Generator: “Man-Erg” (from Pawn Hearts)

We’ll never see Van der Graaf Generator getting the Spinal Tap or Flight of the Conchords treatment. It’s impossible, because this stuff is already beyond parody—and that’s meant in a (mostly) good way. For those who find the most out-there Gabriel era Genesis and Gentle Giant too compromised, this is the stuff. Vocalist Peter Hammill presents an all-or-nothing gauntlet thrown down and, like Gabriel, he has eccentricity to spare. Bonus points for David Jackson’s sax playing; normally an embellishment or anomaly, in VdGG, the sax was part of the package.

  1. Camel: “Lunar Sea” (from Moonmadness)

The last song on the last album from the original line-up, “Lunar Sea” is a fitting way to close out a classic quartet of albums. Unsurprisingly, the playing on this instrumental piece is top notch, with obligatory time signature shifts and plenty of room for each musician to stretch out. Andrew Latimer’s work is typically tasty, and while some of his fellow guitar heroes tended toward effusiveness, he’s always a study in concision. This one also features some of keyboardist Peter Bardens’s best work.

  1. Gentle Giant: “In a Glass House” (from In a Glass House)

Of all the prog bands who dabbled in classical music, either as inspiration or point of departure (and in some cases, lame imitation) Gentle Giant did the most to make it their own, resulting in a sort of chamber rock, high on proficiency, short on easy or accessible “hooks” and enduring as the epitome of integrity, for those with the attention span and interest. Amongst aficionados, In a Glass House is generally considered one of their more accessible efforts (as such, a recommended starting point for the uninitiated), as the band seems at once more confident and secure: where we had almost too many notes per square foot in previous works, the band is mostly content to “merely” pack every second with ideas and sounds, but all in the service of a specific mood or expression. As usual, the musicianship is impeccable, and the title track works as well as any other Gentle Giant song to summarize this band’s idiosyncratic sensibility.

  1. Steve Hackett: “Shadow of the Hierophant” (from Voyage of the Acolyte)

What does a guitar god do when his band drops one of the decisive (and weirdest, and challenging, etc.) gems of the oeuvre, and then the singer abruptly departs? Carry on with the first of many solo efforts, naturally. Steve Hackett, even after the exhausting recording of and tour that followed The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, was obviously in too much of a zone to consider either time off or sulking about Peter Gabriel’s bridge-burning exodus. The result is, at once, a worthy inclusion in a long string of brilliant albums, but also a statement that the “sound” of Genesis during the first part of the ‘70s owed much to Hackett’s splendid influence. On “Shadow of the Hierophant” (look up “Hierophant” and nod, approvingly), Hackett pulls out all the stops: another epic in the style of “Firth of Fifth” (especially the extended outro), appropriate as he had able assistance from bandmates Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford, the real bonus comes courtesy of the vocals from Sally Oldfield (sister of you-know-who). Not that any of Hackett’s previous work with Genesis felt constrained, but being in command here, he feels free to go wherever his restless mind—and fingers—take him, and it’s an endlessly rewarding trip.

  1. Genesis: “The Musical Box” (from Nursery Cryme)

Speaking of both Genesis and trips, “The Musical Box” is the opening salvo of the first Genesis album to feature Hackett, and it’s as wonderfully out there as anything anyone did in the prog era. Gentle Giant, as previously mentioned, perfected their “chamber prog”, but for better or worse, it still seems somewhat impersonal or unreachable; “The Musical Box” still sounds like an old nursery rhyme (or cryme) come to life. Peter Gabriel, on stage in the early ‘70s, solidified his status as resident eccentric with a variety of costumes and hair styles and, mostly, just being wonderfully weird. Much of what makes the work Genesis did during this era so remarkable is the way the compositions conjure up different times and places simply with words and music. Hackett’s schizophrenic shrieking throughout suggests the darkness lurking beneath what begins as an almost tender ballad. It is also astonishing that, with one song and just under ten minutes, Genesis explores more moods and emotions than many bands could cram into a career.

  1. Curved Air: “Marie Antoinette” (from Phantasmagoria)

Like much (too much?) prog rock that tried so hard, if appraised as poetry, a song like “Marie Antoinette” would likely be condemned as precious, self-parody or…pretentious. Much of that potential judgment is assuaged by Sonja Kristina’s placid vocals and the friction of Francis Monkman’s guitar. Bands like Curved Air serve as necessary reminders that, in between decade dominated by pop music and the punk deconstruction that followed, music needed to take itself a bit seriously; it needed to assert itself as an art form before it was possible (and necessary) to scale things back and establish new paradigms.

  1. Jethro Tull: “My God” (from Aqualung)

Even though, to this day, Ian Anderson insists Aqualung is not a concept album, there’s no question it focuses on a handful of recurring themes, to devastating effect. The first side explores man’s predictable inhumanity; the second side sets it sights higher (pun intended) and is a remarkably ambitious attempt to examine the racket organized religion has degenerated into (or was it always thus?). On “My God” Anderson gets some licks in on the clergy, then turns both barrels on the men and women who have set about the self-serving task of recreating God in their image. Acrimony like this, at least in rock music, generally fails to rise above sophomoric ranting, but Anderson’s words retain all of their power and perspicacity if for no other reason than the cynicism and spiritual charade he targets has only become more prevalent. Musically, the song is cheekily experimental, shifting from an acoustic tour de force (Anderson, who is rightly celebrated for elevating flute into a lead instrument as opposed to sideshow embellishment, does not get nearly enough attention for his superlative guitar playing ability) to an arena-ready workhorse, with Martin Barre’s larger-than-life chords. Then, in the extended middle section, we are treated to a credible approximation and/or parody of a religious hymn, complete with multi-tracked chanting and echoed flute effects: it is an audacious act of musical vandalism, at once amusing and eerie. It also functions as a soundtrack of sorts for the irreverent image inside the double-sleeve gatefold, which depicts the band having broken into a cathedral for some impromptu merriment.

  1. King Crimson: “In the Wake of Poseidon” (from In the Wake of Poseidon)

So what’s this one about? How about everything? Well, it’s not not ambitious, and with name-checks of Plato, bishops, kings, slaves, mad men and earth itself (indeed, “In air, fire, earth and water/World on the scales” proves that this particular song is a prescient ode to the environment). Resident lyricist Peter Sinfield outdoes himself on this, the title track of Crimson’s second album, and remains a rare prog opus that can work purely as poetry. The band is up the challenge, ratcheting up the intensity (including some of drummer Michael Giles’s must furiously rewarding work) courtesy of more mellotron than is normally advised or healthy. And if the hands are heavy (even for this ear!) on the mellotron, any complaints are akin to a sports fan suggesting too many punches were thrown in Ali and Frazier’s “Rumble in the Jungle”. Greg Lake, with one foot out the door (about to embark on his adventures with Emerson and Palmer) does not betray any ostensible lack of commitment; his vocals are among his rawest and most emotive. Not many singers could credibly put voice to such solemn and bleak words, but he turns the proceedings into precisely what is required: an all-in offensive against cliché and conformity. Not for nothing, the list of couplets that sum up the malign influence of religion as well as this one is exceedingly small: “Bishop’s kings spin judgment’s blade/Scrach “Faith” on nameless graves.” This is disillusionment with a clear intention, and it succeeds on all levels.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Karn Evil 9” (from Brain Salad Surgery)

Speaking of Mr. Sinfield, he joined old colleague Greg Lake to contribute lyrics to this song, which manages to be epic, convincing, overlong, indulgent, and over-the-top. Just what the doctor ordered, right? (Speaking of the doctor, the album title is an appreciative nod to a lyric from Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time”.) Always a fan of word play and packing as many words and potential interpretations into a piece as possible, it’s a title like “Karn Evil” (Carnival) that caused certain eyes to roll, and certainly a song that is even longer than one album side is either extravagant or awesome—mileage, as always, will vary. What can’t be denied is that for only three men, ELP crammed as many instruments and effects into a single song as would seem imaginable. There were more “works” (see what I did there?) to come, but this album—and song—signals the last time ELP made a convincing statement worthy of their considerable aspiration and egos.

  1. The Nice: “The Five Bridges Suite” (from Five Bridges)

Perhaps the most successful distillation of Keith Emerson & Co.’s fly-paper approach, incorporating classical, jazz, blues, rock and any or everything else he could ensnare in his musical net. On Five Bridges the band covers Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and…Bob Dylan, and that’s just the second side of the album. Side One is occupied by “The Five Bridges Suite”, which features sections like “Fantasia”, “Second Bridge”, “Chorale” and “High Level Fugue”. And here’s the thing for haters: this work was actually a commissioned for the 1969 Arts Festival in Newcastle, where it was premiered with assistance of a full orchestra. Sign of the times, certainly, but also indicative of the street cred Emerson already had, getting “serious” musicians to perform with him. The piece itself, as one might surmise, is a romp full of pomp and pretense cut by humor and if there’s a bit of bombast, so be it. Emerson was already setting a high bar, and the story of his life is that, for many years, he was the only person interested, or able, to meet the challenges he threw down as a matter of course.

  1. Gentle Giant: “Pantagruel’s Nativity” (from Acquiring the Taste)

Taken from the original liner notes, let’s allow the band themselves to explain what they were after, and what they anticipated: “It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought—that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

Presumptuous? Check. Defensive? Check. Alienating? Check. True? Check. Commendable? Check. Bonus: this song calls out Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais.

  1. Kansas: “Song for America” (from Song for America)

Appropriately entitled for one of the (inexplicably?) rare prog bands from the United States. Kansas, like ELO and Supertramp, would eventually break through with less experimental and more accessible music, but they paid their proggy dues, with various degrees of success. Many of the hallmarks of the genre are ably represented here: tight and proficient chops, varied time signatures, string embellishments and, well, lyrics like this: “Ravage, plunder, see no wonder, rape and kill and tear asunder.” Again, if much scorn and occasional ridicule can be placed at the feet of the progressive movement, it can never be claimed that the hearts and minds of its practitioners weren’t in the right place.

  1. Supertramp: “Crime of the Century” (from Crime of the Century)

An opus in miniature, this remains one of the most successful of Supertramp’s prog statements. As an album closer, it works wonderfully, summing up the themes of alienation and disenchantment explored throughout the album; as a single statement, it’s both moving and compelling. It’s also perhaps the best example of co-founders Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson working together, united as songwriters with a focused aim. It seems clear the band had been paying careful attention to both ELP and Genesis, but their vision is unique and, with the long sax serenade courtesy of John Anthony Helliwell, indelible.

  1. Yes: “Heart of the Sunrise” (from Fragile)

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

  1. Van der Graaf Generator: “Scorched Earth” (from Godbluff)

Especially recommended to those for whom Peter Gabriel, circa ’71-’74, wasn’t theatrical enough. Peter Hammill brings his very British, very unconventional bag of tricks, and the band checks in, mid-way through the decade, with a leaner and more resolute set of songs. Not to worry, the passion is ratcheted up, and we get tasty contributions from flute/sax player David Jackson. There is a concentrated ferocity that reaches a boil but never overwhelms, and while fans may prefer the earlier work, it remains impressive that Van der Graaf Generator was able to evince development and dexterity where many of their colleagues were choking on their own bloat.

  1. King Crimson: “21st Century Schizoid Man” (from In the Court of the Crimson King)

The first song from the first official (and best?) prog album, ever. Locked-in and cranking on all cylinders from the start, “21st Century Schizoid Man” helps slam the iron gate shut on any vestige of the hippie era with a song that’s equal parts discourse on Vietnam and unflinching nod to Orwell’s 1984 (in spirit if not literally). Influential, sure, but what continues to impress is the way this song still sounds fresh, timeless and nerve shattering, almost a half-century later. Greg Lake’s processed and distorted vocals, like a machine shriek, and the surreal interplay of Robert Fripp’s guitar lines and Ian McDonald’s squealing sax contribute a vibe that goes for the jugular and leaves the listener gutted. The rest of the album would be, in turn, bucolic, surreal, strange and disquieting, but the opening volley is a straightforward scorcher, serving notice that this was still rock and roll, but it was quickly being taken to a deeper, much darker place.

This piece originally appeared at PopMatters on 3/29/17.

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The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs: Part 2, 80-61

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  1. King Crimson “Red” (from Red)

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ‘70s. <i>Red</i> is the paradigm that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. Robert Fripp, who has never been boring or unoriginal, outdoes himself while John Wetton and Bill Bruford do some of their finest work as well. It’s the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Hey You” (from The Wall)

Even if you believe The Wall isn’t overstuffed and self-indulgent (you’re wrong), there’s absolutely no doubt that some of Floyd’s finest work can be found alongside the hysteria and hubris. Not coincidentally, many of these moments feature David Gilmour on vocals. Still, the reason “Hey You” remains so powerful, unsettling and ultimately…uplifting is because it is Floyd doing what they do best: operating as a functional unit, playing to their strengths (Waters’s lyrics, Gilmour’s voice and guitars, solid support from Mason and Wright). Not yet consumed by his cynicism (and ego), Waters channeled his sullen but sound poetic sensibilities into a song that contains some of his most consoling, hopeful (!) lyrics: “Hey you, don’t help them to bury the light/Don’t give in, without a fight”. And, while his towering solo from “Comfortably Numb” deservedly steals the show, Gilmour’s succinct but soaring work here is to be celebrated.

  1. Strawbs: “Hero and Heroine” (from Hero and Heroine)

This is like a game of Dungeons & Dragons come to life, complete with mellotron. “Hero and Heroine” is notable for packing practically a full album of aspiration, mood and progginess into a remarkably brief three and a half minutes. These lads had paid proper attention to early Genesis (indeed, this could almost work as an outtake from Trespass. Like so much excellent music from this genre and this time, it’s difficult—and ultimately irrelevant—to ascertain whether this song is more imitated or imitative (in a good way), but despite many telltale prog touches (the bombast, the emotions amped to eleven, etc.), it’s a very distinct, and convincing effort from a band that doesn’t get nearly enough love.

  1. Gentle Giant: “Proclamation” (from The Power and the Glory)

Whenever one listens to any song by this band, two things are obvious: it’s prog rock, and it’s Gentle Giant. Certainly, like so many of their compatriots, there are obvious musical and stylistic threads connecting them, but it could be argued that Gentle Giant remains the most idiosyncratic of progressive groups. This has not always been a blessing: their take-it-or-leave-it sensibility, reveling in their own abilities, is simply not for everyone. Suffice it to say, admiration of Gentle Giant can be somewhat of an all-or-nothing proposition; you’re in or you’re not. “Proclamation” is a confident opener to one of their best-loved albums, and it demonstrates the power and the glory this band had at its disposal throughout the early ‘70s.

  1. Jethro Tull: “Baker St. Muse” (from The Minstrel in the Gallery)

Perhaps the finest distillation of Ian Anderson’s reportorial eye, balancing obvious autobiography with imagination, “Baker St. Muse” showcases the band at an absolute pinnacle of composition and execution. Polite golf-claps all around (but more, as ever, reserved for Martin Barre and Barriemore Barlow), an especially hearty hurrah for David Palmer’s string arrangements, and all-time hero status for Anderson, who would never again display this combination of brilliance, confidence and creative attainment. It could be considered (yet another) semi-side long suite, or else an epic prog statement (like Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play) in miniature, or it could, correctly, be appraised and appreciated on its own terms: a story of how the present-day minstrel prowled the streets looking about for explanations, or at least inspiration. We see the (usual?) parade of freaks and outcasts but, for once, the songwriter turns the microscope on himself and we see some of the concerns and obsessions that feed that distinctive muse.

  1. Curved Air: “Piece of Mind” (from Second Album)

Unapologetically pretentious, with pastoral imagery giving way to movie soundtrack melodrama, complete with frenetic piano and whirling strings, “Piece of Mind” is equal parts art for art’s sake and a big middle finger to convention. Grand designs and determination only take any artist so far, and like all the successful acts, Curved Air had the collective ability to back up their lofty objectives. As ever, Sonja Kristina’s vocals supply the exceedingly rare feminine presence in the prog genre, and “Piece of Mind” features one of her most affecting vocal performances. This one also boasts one of keyboardist Francis Monkman’s (look him up) finest workouts.

  1. Caravan: “Nine Feet Underground” (from In the Land of Grey and Pink)

Some bands (like non-proggers who nonetheless dipped their toes into proggy waters at times) were content to drop Tolkien-esque allusions in their lyrics; others, like Caravan, quite literally put the LOTR aesthetic right on their album covers. In the Land of Grey and Pink pulls no punches and, ahem, gives no quarter to accessibility. But that’s not to say the music, even on this twenty-plus minute opus is not welcoming, in its way. While the sentiment may seem from Middle-earth, “Nine Feet Underground” is less whimsical and more unwavering. Pye Hastings, on electric guitar, turns in some career-best work, and even while (in classic prog fashion) the tune is broken into eight separate sections), the momentum never flags and by the time the aggressive outro fades away before a suitable bang, the mission here is very much accomplished.

  1. Supertramp: “Fool’s Overture” (from Even in the Quietest Moments)

Roger Hodgson is nothing if not earnest, and his vulnerable, immediately recognizable voice lends a human element many would claim is sorely missing from so much progressive rock. In terms of themes and concerns that resurface throughout their albums, it could be said that Supertramp is among the more “human” prog bands—whatever that actually means. For one thing, both in terms of instrumentation and production, there’s a certain clarity that tends to distinguish them from their more-is-more prog brethren. To be certain, the wind effects, Floydian “found noise” and mellow-to-urgent energy, “Fool’s Overture” is anything but mellow. Still, more than much prog (and for better or worse), this album closer sounds like music made by fallible (and sensitive) human beings.

  1. Electric Light Orchestra: “Fire on High” (from Face the Music)

If Supertramp, during the ‘70s, was “human”, what did the other extreme sound like? “Fire on High” would represent the other extreme, with mastermind Jeff Lynne, who never heard an instrument, sound effect, sample or inside joke he didn’t like, pulling out all the stops. This, of course, is the one that cheekily employs backmasking (for the record, the mumbled “vocals”, when played backwards, intone “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back, turn back, turn back, turn back…”). Is that a snatch from Handel’s “Messiah” you hear? Of course. Are there string trappings and cymbals crashing? Obviously. Is there, beyond the histrionics, a brilliant, even catchy tune that emerges? Most definitely. Even though they already had radio success and would go on to more commercial things, this was a last gasp of pure out-there experimentalism by Lynne, who used a studio to his advantage like few others.

  1. King Crimson: “Cirkus” (from Lizard)

A Salvador Dali painting put to music. “Cirkus” is a dark, brooding masterpiece stuffed with surreal imagery. The lyrics, courtesy of the ever-reliable Peter Sinfield, are astonishing and the music perfectly creates a mood suitable for the topic: spooky, intense, yet oddly beautiful (kind of like much of Crimson’s output). Possibly an allegory for the postmodern human condition, it works on a literal level as a harrowing assessment of what we do to animals for our entertainment (“Elephants forgot, force-fed on stale chalk ate the floors of their cages/Strongmen lost their hair, paybox collapsed and lions sharpened their teeth”). Heavy on the mellotron and what sounds like Mel Collins’s sax filtered through a Leslie speaker, and suitably gloomy vocals from Gordon Haskell, “Cirkus” is a definitive statement that the hippie dreams of the ‘60s are over and done with.

  1. Genesis: “The Knife” (from Trespass)

Brilliant in its own right, Trespass can now be best appreciated as a warm-up of sorts for the string of masterworks that would follow. Both a departure from the more pastoral tone of the songs preceding it, “The Knife” is also a template of the sound that would soon come to the fore: propulsive keyboard flourishes from Tony Banks and insistent, even aggressive rhythm (and though drummer John Mayhew acquits himself nicely, snagging Phil Collins was a significant upgrade for Genesis; ditto for the replacement of the serviceable Anthony Phillips with the indispensable Steve Hackett). “The Knife” (like the subsequent “Battle of Epping Forest”) has a discernible British vibe, and in addition to being an obvious live favorite, one could imagine hearing this song piped into a football stadium or rowdy pub. Peter Gabriel uses this material to…sharpen his act, and the world soon would see what else he had up his sleeve.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Toccata” (from Brain Salad Surgery)

You can tell a great deal about an artist by the type of songs they’ll cover. Naturally, entirely too many opportunistic rock bands take beloved tunes and provide a paint-by-numbers update, long on commercial aspiration and short on soul (and shame). For those who whined that ELP plundered classical music for their purposes, two things need be stated: one, props that they actually knew, much less could play, these challenging compositions; two, not even many snobs would be able to namecheck Alberto Ginastera. Keith Emerson deserves credit for undoubtedly introducing tons of listeners to more obscure masters, ranging from Mussorgsky and Bartók to Ginastera. And nevermind what the snooty critics and haters have to say, the maestro himself endorsed and approved Emerson’s outside the box recreation. As usual, Carl Palmer and Greg Lake offer outstanding support, but this one is truly Emerson’s baby.

  1. Camel: “Dunkirk” (from The Snow Goose)

Several selections from this largely underappreciated masterpiece could be chosen to represent the whole, but “Dunkirk”, with its martial beat and slow but inevitable build-up to explosion, is a highlight. Very much a concept album, it being an all instrumental affair cuts down on the pretense substantially and what results is a cohesive, superbly executed work. The group interplay is seamless and uncanny, but as usual, keyboardist Peter Bardens and guitarist Andrew Latimer make consistently inspired contributions.

  1. The Moody Blues: “Isn’t Life Strange” (from Seventh Sojourn)

No one could get Medieval quite like the Moody Blues. Of all their songs that invoke other times and places, “Isn’t Life Strange” might be balance the past and present (or, days of future passed). The languid strings provide a baroque backdrop, and Ray Thomas’s flute ups the pastoral ante, but it’s the soaring chorus, shared by John Lodge and Justin Hayward, that put this song in the stratosphere. Posing a rhetorical question with literary illusions (“a turn of the page/can read like before”), this could be incidental music to the best novel Nathaniel Hawthorne never wrote.

  1. Kansas: “Magnum Opus” (from Leftoverture)

Like Electric Light Orchestra, Kansas had greater commercial acceptance in their immediate future, but for years they labored in the fields of prog. Like any aspiring prog-minded act, they threw their hats in the ring with album covers that could go toe to toe, in terms of awfulness, with anyone. And like all progressive bands worth taking seriously, they were more than competent musicians, and had determination to spare. Stacking violin on top of multi-tracked guitars and the mandatory keyboards, “Magnum Opus” is a song with a title that could be refreshingly tongue-in-cheek, or unbearably pompous, but even if it’s ultimately a bit of both, it’s a worthy addition to the prog canon.

  1. Soft Machine: “Slightly All The Time” (from Third)

For those, assuming there are any, for whom most prog isn’t prog enough, whatever that means. Soft Machine unabashedly flexed their jazz muscles and stretched out extended compositions that seldom resort to noodling. Mastermind Mike Ratledge (keyboards) and sax player Elton Dean lock into a groove that’s at once hypnotic and insistent, but mostly mellow in all the right ways. “Slightly All The Time”, undoubtedly influenced by Miles Davis and Mahavishnu, is as “out there”, in its way, as the best prog of its time, but it’s also locked in and slyly cerebral; it’s serious music for serious—and adventurous—listeners.

  1. King Crimson: “Sailor’s Tale” (from Islands)

To his considerable credit, Fripp has always relegated his often peerless technique to the greater good of the song; on the first three Crimson releases, Fripp adds texture, color and occasional muscle, but seldom strides into the spotlight. On “Sailor’s Tale” he serves notice (as if it’s necessary) that he’s not merely one of the genre’s supreme technicians, but he can also flat out shred. In truth, the entire outfit is on fire throughout, with astonishing interplay between Boz Burrell (bass) and Ian Wallace (drums) and Mel Collins (sax) blasts in like an abbreviated tornado. All of this sets the scene for Fripp’s extended solo, which is, without question, a tour de force: it’s like a mechanical monster rising out of radioactive sludge, but instead of laying waste to the city it cries out in despair, some kind of warning for mankind, before disintegrating into the noise of itself.

  1. The Nice: “Rondo ‘69” (from Nice)

Before Keith Emerson became Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, he was (just?) Keith Emerson, of The Nice. For a variety of reasons, all unfortunate, The Nice tend to slip under the radar, eclipsed perhaps by the bigger (better?) things Mr. Emerson went on to do. But in addition to making some proto-prog albums, The Nice became a full-fledged prog monster before calling it quits. Emerson, of course, was the ring leader, and the same sweeping range of influences and inspiration that cropped up on so many ELP albums are very present throughout his work with The Nice. In fact, he and his cohorts were even more unabashed, regularly working in “covers” of classical music ranging from Bach to Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. For “Rondo ‘69”, the model is jazz, the immensely popular “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by Dave Brubeck. In a sense it’s a cheeky move, as Brubeck’s tune itself was not straightforward jazz so much as a mash-up of jazz and traditional Turkish music (in 9/8 time). Emerson’s interpretation first appeared on the band’s debut (The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, from 1967) but became a staple of The Nice’s (and later, ELP’s) live act, where it became even more experimental and incendiary. The Nice, in sum, may have been too many things for too few people to fully appreciate, but it’s safe to say many other bands were paying close attention and taking notes.

  1. Genesis: “The Lamia” (from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway)

Greek Goddess that seduces and then eats young men? Naturally. If ever prog went down the rabbit hole where sanity struggles with psychedelic fever dreams, The Lamb may be the sine qua non and apotheosis, all contained in one sprawling, all-but-impenetrable opus. After this one, and for understandable reasons, resident genius Peter Gabriel figured he’d done all he could (should?) do in the prog genre, and moved on to more accessible pastures. Whether or not it makes sense (the song; the album) is almost beside the point (it does make sense, but it requires a great deal of effort and generosity on the part of the listener, which is prog music taken to its outer limits), the results are astounding. One of a handful of centerpieces, “The Lamia” certainly showcases both Gabriel’s uber-literary acumen and the band (particularly Banks and Hackett) as focused as they would ever be. It’s a gorgeous composition, but is exceedingly strange, sensitive and almost unknowable. It’s perfect.

  1. Yes: “The Gates of Delirium” (from Relayer)

Some fans will insist this is where Yes continued to lose the plot (after Tales from Topographic Oceans, possibly the single most divisive of all prog albums); others assert it’s a return to form. In any event, it’s, at best, several steps removed from their “holy trinity” (The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge). Whether or not Jon Anderson’s lyrics signify the nadir of prog rock banality, there’s no doubt the dude was well-read; where he used Hesse’s Siddhartha as inspiration, on “The Gates of Delirium” he turned to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (talk about “going for the one”…). The results are, at times, stimulating (Steve Howe simply could not help but be brilliant during this era) and, at times, both cacophonous and exhausting.

This piece originally appeared in PopMatters on 3/28/17.

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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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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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