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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The Holy Trinity, Part One: Yes

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Ah, Yes.

Now that Rush is rightly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it seems safe to suggest that Yes officially assumes the heavyweight crown as the most unfairly maligned band, ever.

Caveat number one. If they would (or, could) have remained broken up after 90215, they might get a fairer shake. Then again, perhaps not. Their legacy, amongst aficionados and haters, rests largely on the body of work they made during their prime: the ‘70s. As such, Yes represents many things to many people when it comes to rock music in general and progressive rock in particular.

Yes epitomizes prog-rock, which of course means they can be, depending upon one’s point of view, the pinnacle or nadir of a type of music made, mostly in the early ‘70s. Like Rush, the individuals in this band, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have played popular music.

One thing that cannot be denied, at least with any credibility: the albums Yes put out between January 1971 and September 1972 (!) represent one of the great tri-fectas in rock history. Individually, each album is a tremendous achievement; taken as a trio, they signify a band fully honing a uniquely powerful chemistry that remains inspiring and influential.

Sidenote: rather than enter the fray of whether or not Tales from Topographic Oceans is an indulgent flop or the very apex of prog-rock, I’ll opine that all of their subsequent work—with the notable exception of Going for the One—is mixed and, at times, maddening, equal parts impenetrable and opaque.

Caveat number two. The lyrics. Just as certain listeners can never get past Geddy Lee’s voice, it’s impossible to overlook the banal, nonsensical and occasionally outright silly words in so many of the songs (Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, anyone?). There are, in rock of course and prog-rock for sure, plenty of pretentious wordsmiths, but song-for-song, album-for-album, no band comes close to how consistently sophomoric—and that might be generous—Yes’s lyrics often are. In a way, they elevate ardent yet inane poetry to a level of real art.

Here’s the thing: listening to Yes is not unlike 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 compositional prowess. The music Yes made on these three albums approaches a level of euphoria not many bands have been able to approximate. As much as the individual musicians, all of whom make indelible contributions, Jon Anderson’s voice functions as another instrument, perhaps the most crucial one. The sweet schizophrenia of his multi-tracked exultations render complaints about the lyrics largely irrelevant.

When Yes entered the studio to being work on The Yes Album, two important factors influenced its eventual success. First, they’d made two previous albums, interesting but uneven efforts that allowed them to figure out where they wanted to go.

Second, guitarist Peter Banks was replaced by Steve Howe, who proved to be the missing ingredient. Going forward, he was the indispensable visionary who helped the group get to that elusive next level. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are often like algebra equations, full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from Yes’s most fruitful era.

Most people know The Yes Album thanks to “I’ve Seen All Good People”, one of the ubiquitous staples of any classic rock radio station. As usual, Anderson is on point in all his multi-tracked glory; on this, like virtually any Yes song, his range and ability are astonishing. Featuring recorders, organ and a Laúd (look it up), this song captures that Medieval vibe so many bands were tapping into circa 1971 (at least until the plugged-in, handclapped outro).

An ostensibly minor song, “A Venture” provides a platform for Tony Kaye, who ably demonstrates his keyboard skills (organ and piano). “The Clap”, recorded live, is a solo showcase for Howe, who leaves no doubts about his acoustic playing virtuosity.

Of course, this album is best known, especially amongst fans, for its three mini-epics. Album opener “Yours Is No Disgrace” is prog-rock being shot from a cannon, on fire from the first second to the final, echoed note. One thing the best progressive rock bands (like Rush and the various iterations of King Crimson) have in common is remarkable rhythm sections. Bill Bruford (drums) and Chris Squire (bass) represent possibly the most potent combination rock has ever heard.

It’s players like this that best illustrate what The Beatles helped begin, carrying it to another height: the bass and drums are not keeping time; they are making time, inserting themselves forcefully, logically, into the fray. The interplay Squire and Bruford display on this, and the next two albums, remains a benchmark for any band.

A few more words about Steve Howe. You can hear the sounds guitar players as disparate as Alex Lifeson and Ace Frehley were emulating (and imitating) throughout these proceedings.

Of special note is the two minute clinic Howe performs beginning at the 4:47 mark of “Yours Is No Disgrace”: a blitzkrieg assault (with beautiful bombs being dropped everywhere by Bruford) gives way to a succinct acoustic interlude, which segues into some Hendrixian phasing and finally, a tasty jazz-like solo that is short as it is sweet. It’s exhilarating and instructive; a range of so many sounds guitars are capable of making, the way no one else had ever made them, all in one song. On the barn-burning finalé “Perpetual Change” Howe contents himself with “merely” playing a scorching, straightforward rocker.

Special mention, of course, for “Starship Trooper”. One of the great things about live music is the opportunity to see art unfold in real time. The element of surprise and awareness that what’s happening can never be recreated the same way before the same people in the same place makes it a unique experience.

One of the great things about recorded music is that it can be savored any time: a perfect series of connected moments that will, of course, affect the listener in different ways depending on mood or circumstance. This is how certain, favorite music becomes familiar, and part of one’s life.

With a song like “Starship Trooper” we have art that always feels fresh and revelatory, it remains (like so many other prog-rock masterpieces) emblematic of the year it was made, yet still seems ahead of its time; ahead of any time. Put another way, this song alone could—and maybe should—put Steve Howe on the Mt. Rushmore of rock guitarists.

The big change for the follow-up, Fragile was the recruitment of keyboard prodigy Rick Wakeman. As commendable as Kaye’s efforts are throughout The Yes Album, his playing often provides embellishment; Wakeman is a presence, not unlike Keith Emerson. Now Yes had a veritable genius on each instrument and were fully prepared to make their best work.

Caveat number three. Fragile, though perhaps Yes’s best-loved or at least most popular album (in large part due to the FM-friendly classic “Roundabout”), is not a perfect album. The band get their indulgence on with the featured “solo” tracks, none of which (excepting Howe’s acoustic gem “Mood for a Day”) is especially memorable. “Cans and Brahms” (Wakeman, having fun with Johannes Brahms), “We Have Heaven” (if there was ever too much of a good thing with Anderson, it might be this one), “Five Per Cent for Nothing” (a throwaway by Bruford) and “The Fish” (an excellent coda to “Long Distance Runaround”) serve as digestifs in between the heavy hitters.

If “Roundabout” functions as a seminal prog-rock touchstone, it’s the other extended tracks that make Fragile far greater than the sum of its parts. Closing out side one, “South Side of the Sky” reveals the ways Yes benefited from Wakeman’s presence: his organ manages to invoke the extremes of warmth and cold described in the lyrics; but it’s the piano solo that serves as the centerpiece (of the song; possibly of his career). The blend of instruments and voices during this middle section epitomizes the aforementioned musical ecstasy: was any band ever this confident, this capable?

Album closer “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Anderson’s signature vocal workouts. He is so naturally gifted and expressive you feel like he could phone it in and still be better than most other singers; on this song there is no question he means it, and every word is invested with passion and purpose. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but few—if any—of them pack the emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, it still manages to delight, even surprise, four decades on.

Yet, even the high points of Fragile might be seen as setting the table for their tour de force; the previous two efforts a trial run for the perfection of Close to the Edge, arguably theprog-rock album for all time. Featuring the first, and by far the best, of their side-long suites, the title track of Close to the Edge is, in this writer’s opinion, as good as progressive music ever got.

This song (and aside from the fact you can either add or subtract points for the fact that the lyrics are inspired by Hesse’sSiddhartha) really does go places no other band has gone; or rather, it’s the gold standard that has never been surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning buildup, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes (Steve Howe doing the musical equivalent of the first round from the epic Hagler/Hearns fight), 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.

“Siberian Khatru” (your guess is as good as mine) is another “mini” epic that practically turns into a pas de deux between Howe and Anderson, the latter thrusting and parrying the former’s increasingly intense and complex guitar peregrinations. Likewise, “And You and I”, while featuring critical interaction amongst the others, serves as the ultimate vehicle for Anderson and Howe, the yin and yang of Yes.

It might be suggested that neither sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. 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.

Try as they might, Yes was never this consistently great again (though, as indicated, Going for the One offers none of the difficulties presented by Tales from Topographic Oceans or Relayer). In addition to being one of the pivotal bands of the early ‘70s, Yes perfected prog-rock as a kind of performance art in sound, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it.

There’s 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.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/the-holy-trinity-part-one-yes/

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The Moody Blues: Masters of the Mini Epic

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The Moody Blues have not aged particularly well.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

To be sure, more than a handful of their songs are as timeless as any rock music can be, whatever that actually means and for whatever it’s worth.

But The Moody Blues, as much as any other progressive band, invoke a specific era, and genre, when the type of music prog bands were making made sense in ways that would never fly, these days. And if that makes some of us nostalgic for the great old days of prog rock, so be it.

Music aside, so many of the progressive acts of this era were aspiring to write poetically (the results, of course, were all over the map); the Moody Blues were actually writing poems (the results, of course, were all over the map). It would be a tad too much to decree them the thinking man’s prog band (unless the opinion was offered, derisively, by those who feel the mere word progressive could, and should, be replaced by the word pretentious. In any event, if any band was trying to elevate the lyrical and conceptual discourse, The Moody Blues certainly threw their chapeaus in the ring, for better or worse.

In addition, the Moody Blues, who came into their own several years before the bigger and better/badder bands that followed, such as Yes, ELP and Rush, are perhaps the only act to be pre- and post prog. In the aftermath of their breakthrough, 1967’s Days of Future Passed, a proto-prog, pseudo-symphonic masterpiece combining pretension, audacity and excellence, the Moody Blues helped define the soundscapes for the post-Summer of Love letdown.

The Grateful Dead established themselves (in large part due to their dead-icated fans) as the de facto curators for altered states of consciousness (nevermind what an uninspired cop-out that’s always been, anointing one band, ostensibly because of their noodling excellence, as the soundtrack for getting stoned, even as Pink Floyd is the more satisfactory choice in any event). The Moody Blues had grander aspirations, and came as close as any of their peers to approximating, musically, what such experiences could feel like, and signify.

The Moody Blues projected a more cerebral sensibility, even by prog-rock standards. While some of this was, clearly, by design, some of it had to do with other unavoidable factors. For one, several band members were already in their mid-to-late ‘20s by the time the band became famous. Obviously, that’s not “old” for most of us, but it’s but practically ancient by rock music standards. There’s also the not insignificant matter that, like some of their prog-rock compatriots, the Moody Blues looked (and sounded) more like college professors than Tiger Beat pin-ups. When it comes to art in general and music in particular (and progressive rock most especially) looks could not be less relevant. But let’s face it: no musician (or artist) has ever been hindered, at least early in a career, by being super easy on the eyes.

So in that regard, the Moody Blues were very much like their closest prog cousins Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson Lake and Palmer. That is; faceless for the most part on their album art, and their emphasis was squarely on their music as opposed to band members’ personalities. They were, in short, the kind of band ideally suited for the genre that placed integrity above all other concerns.

None of this, of course, would matter one bit if the band was not capable of making memorable music. And for a run that lasted from 1967 to 1972 (seven albums in six years!), the Moody Blues evolved from being perhaps the earliest practitioners of the prog aesthetic to, in their finer moments, some of its more brilliant ambassadors.

While so many of their contemporaries were writing novels in the form of side-long suites, the Moody Blues were masters of the short story. Occasionally hinting at magnificence, most fully realized on Days of Future Passed and nearly there on In Search of the Lost Chord and On The Threshold of a Dream, many of their better songs function as condensed epics like “Legend of a Mind”, “Isn’t Life Strange” and “Melancholy Man”.

In a sense, they avoided the pitfalls of pretension by keeping it (relatively) simple. Of course, at times they were not quite ambitious enough; as many of their albums are laden with listless ballads (Justin Hayworth giveth and Justin Hayworth taketh away). There are also, inevitably, the numbers that are inseparable from the era of their conception, in all the bad ways (a cursory glance through the song titles will give these away without requiring a single note played).

Other than the category-merging masterpiece Days of Future Passed, they never had the one indelible album that we can reference as an unassailable selection for the canon. In Search of the Lost Chord came closest and On the Threshold of a Dream might be their most consistent stylistic statement, but virtually each album has at least one if not several definitive, top-tier tracks. Taken together they comprise a very worthy and vastly underrated addition to the prog idiom.

First, a few words about their 1967 attempt at immortality, an album that holds up quite nicely, especially compared to so much of what was being made at the time (including certain songs from the sacrosanct Sgt. Pepper). Thinking big, and very much outside the box, the band commissioned session musicians—cheekily dubbed The London Festival Orchestra—and borrowed a page from the Beatles, letting these seasoned classical players do with their straightforward songs what George Martin did so often for Lennon and McCartney. The conceit, a definite candidate for their first fully realized “concept” album, is a day in the life (no, really), and the sections are broken into morning, afternoon and evening.

While the songs that found their way to radio, “Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)” and “Nights in White Satin”, both written and sung by the always reliable Justin Hayward, laudably represent the whole, a deeper dive, as usual, reveals the treasures unfairly obscured by the hits. The extended sequence that takes us from “(Evening) Time to Get Away”, through “The Sunset” and into “Twilight Time” (the sections bridging the aforementioned tracks that open and close Side Two) showcase the considerable strengths of the band.

Hayward’s range and ebullience are easy to notice and gravitate toward, plus his unerring sense of songcraft never hurt, as the tunes that became hits underscore. But Mike Pinder, Ray Thomas and John Lodge, all excellent vocalists (and writers) in their own right, provide some welcome contrast and color to Hayward’s golden glow. Pinder in particular functions as a solemn alter ego for Hayward, and is responsible for some of the band’s more somber and enduring songs. As the orchestra swells and harp chords wind down the excitement, the music (and lyrics, and voices) echo the gradual onset of evening. Pinder’s “The Sun Set” is modest in scope, compared to the awesome if ever-so-slightly overwrought ballads that precede and follow it, and the singer, as he would in subsequent efforts, brings exactly the “voice of God” authority the material compels.

A few words about the poetry. Everyone who has heard “Nights in White Satin”—in other words, everyone—has heard “Late Lament”. You know, “Breathe deep, the gathering gloom…” The words are courtesy of drummer Graeme Edge, resident poet and deep thinker. Although Pinder typically recited the poems on the albums, Graeme’s contemplations became thematic touchstones that the band used to open and close their first three albums. Dated? Yes. Well-intended? Certainly. Worthwhile? Of course, though it’s hard to not smell the patchouli and envision the flared trousers while listening.

Confident and determined, the group set out to make an album even better than Days of Future Passed. In some regards they succeeded, and if the second and third efforts, In Search of the Lost Chord and On the Threshold of a Dream aren’t start-to-finish masterworks, they certainly contain some of the band’s all-time best work. In addition to John Lodge’s slight but irresistible “Ride My See-Saw” and Hayward’s vocal tour-de-force “The Actor”, we have the one-two (or one-two-three) punch of “House of Four Doors” (parts One and Two) and “Legend of a Mind”. If Lodge’s mellotron-laden meditation on art, existence and epiphany practically screams ’60s!! it does so with eloquence, spectacular harmonies and genuine feeling. Indeed, Thomas’s “Legend of a Mind” is one of the band’s ultimate triumphs: an ostensible shout-out to Timothy Leary. It really uses the controversial doctor (and how ecstatic he must have been to hear himself immortalized in such fashion) as a commentary on the possibility of expanded consciousness, not yet a cliché in 1968.

The even more ambitious, follow-up On the Threshold of a Dream sort of combined the thematic twists and turns of the previous two albums, looking at a day, only instead of taking it on literal terms (as with Days of Future Passed), a single day might be said to represent eternity. Or something. Edge’s “In the Beginning” mixes hippie ruminations with Strangelovian cynicism; if you could smell the hash before, you can taste the acid now. And this is definitely the band’s psychedelic album: it’s not so much that the material deals with the obligatory inner-space explorations, it tries to capture, with words and music, elements of the sounds, colors, shapes and emotions these journeys can encompass.

The Moody Blues go for broke, aesthetically, on the psychedelic suite that closes Side Two: “The Dream” (another poem from Edge) into Pinder’s stirring and profoundly affirming “Have You Heard” (Parts One and Two, naturally). And in between, the interlude/centerpiece “The Voyage”. A bit of avant-garde whimsy, a touch of Stravinsky, a full measure of aspiration, more mellotron than you can fit in a freight train, chirping flutes and crashing snares, et cetera. If you think it sounds hopelessly dated, well, you’re right. You should also consider what today’s pre-programmed beats and auto-tuned atrocities are going to sound like in 40 (or four) years.

After this, it wasn’t a case of diminishing returns so much as a steady stream of solid releases with at least one and up to three real keepers per album: some obscure, others everyone who ever listened to classic rock radio in the ‘80s or ‘90s has heard a thousand times. For evidence of the former, consider Hayward’s downright rocking “The Story in Your Eyes” and Lodge’s insufferable “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)”; for the latter, “For My Lady” (Thomas) and “Isn’t Life Strange” (Lodge), which uses strings and sweet-and-sour harmonizing as effectively as anything from Days of Future Passed. It’s a genuine epic in miniature if ever there was one.

From the uneven but typically worthwhile A Question of Balance, we have the two songs that truly comprise the yin-yang of this band at their best. First, Hayward’s finest moment, album-opener “Question”. If he had his moments where he veered altogether too close to melodrama, he hits the mark, for all time, on this miniature epic (those words again). It’s a vocal performance that can sing alongside anything anyone else in rock music has put on record. I tend to feel about Justin Hayward as a singer the way I do about Keith Emerson as a keyboard player: they both could have received acclaim and professional approbation for lending their talents to orchestras and/or operas, but how wonderful that they made their own mark, unwilling to live a preordained existence. For whatever crimes of pretense or however much some of the material, inevitably, sounds tied to the time of its creation, they were put on this Earth with a gift, and they proved more than equal to the challenge.

On the other extreme, Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” is not only the reliably subdued counterpoint to Hayward’s irrepressible conviction, it might be the best thing the band ever did. As has hopefully been established already, the Moody Blues made scaled-down extravaganzas their calling card, and in hindsight their restraint and dexterity 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?

Arguably, in the final analysis, though a second-tier prog act in comparison with titans like Jethro Tull, Yes, King Crimson and, of course, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues brought a seriousness, and influential craftsmanship to rock ‘n’ roll composition. The result: a handful of near-misses (or second-tier prog masterpieces) and over a dozen tunes that, taken together, constitute quite a career. These songs, as a collective statement, stand tall amongst work done by their prog brethren. If, at times, they are inexorably tied to a different time, they certainly made definitive statements of purpose. At other times, more than a few of their songs sound as fresh, original and evocative today, and will resonate during any decade.

Originally published in PopMatters on 11/21/2014

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The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull (Revisited)

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I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was 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 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. 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, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. 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.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

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The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull

I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that  they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull  and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was 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 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. 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, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. 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.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

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The Holy Trinity, Part One: Yes

Ah, Yes.

Now that Rush is rightly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it seems safe to suggest that Yes officially assumes the heavyweight crown as the most unfairly maligned band, ever.

Caveat number one. If they would (or, could) have remained broken up after 90215, they might get a fairer shake. Then again, perhaps not. Their legacy, amongst aficionados and haters, rests largely on the body of work they made during their prime: the ‘70s. As such, Yes represents many things to many people when it comes to rock music in general and progressive rock in particular.

Yes epitomizes prog-rock, which of course means they can be, depending upon one’s point of view, the pinnacle or nadir of a type of music made, mostly in the early ‘70s. Like Rush, the individuals in this band, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have played popular music.

One thing that cannot be denied, at least with any credibility: the albums Yes put out between January 1971 and September 1972 (!) represent one of the great tri-fectas in rock history. Individually, each album is a tremendous achievement; taken as a trio, they signify a band fully honing a uniquely powerful chemistry that remains inspiring and influential.

Sidenote: rather than enter the fray of whether or not Tales from Topographic Oceans is an indulgent flop or the very apex of prog-rock, I’ll opine that all of their subsequent work—with the notable exception of Going for the One—is mixed and, at times, maddening, equal parts impenetrable and opaque.

Caveat number two. The lyrics. Just as certain listeners can never get past Geddy Lee’s voice, it’s impossible to overlook the banal, nonsensical and occasionally outright silly words in so many of the songs (Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, anyone?). There are, in rock of course and prog-rock for sure, plenty of pretentious wordsmiths, but song-for-song, album-for-album, no band comes close to how consistently sophomoric—and that might be generous—Yes’s lyrics often are. In a way, they elevate ardent yet inane poetry to a level of real art.

Here’s the thing: listening to Yes is not unlike 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 compositional prowess. The music Yes made on these three albums approaches a level of euphoria not many bands have been able to approximate. As much as the individual musicians, all of whom make indelible contributions, Jon Anderson’s voice functions as another instrument, perhaps the most crucial one. The sweet schizophrenia of his multi-tracked exultations render complaints about the lyrics largely irrelevant.

 

When Yes entered the studio to being work on The Yes Album, two important factors influenced its eventual success. First, they’d made two previous albums, interesting but uneven efforts that allowed them to figure out where they wanted to go.

Second, guitarist Peter Banks was replaced by Steve Howe, who proved to be the missing ingredient. Going forward, he was the indispensable visionary who helped the group get to that elusive next level. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are often like algebra equations, full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from Yes’s most fruitful era.

Most people know The Yes Album thanks to “I’ve Seen All Good People”, one of the ubiquitous staples of any classic rock radio station. As usual, Anderson is on point in all his multi-tracked glory; on this, like virtually any Yes song, his range and ability are astonishing. Featuring recorders, organ and a Laúd (look it up), this song captures that Medieval vibe so many bands were tapping into circa 1971 (at least until the plugged-in, handclapped outro).

An ostensibly minor song, “A Venture” provides a platform for Tony Kaye, who ably demonstrates his keyboard skills (organ and piano). “The Clap”, recorded live, is a solo showcase for Howe, who leaves no doubts about his acoustic playing virtuosity.

Of course, this album is best known, especially amongst fans, for its three mini-epics. Album opener “Yours Is No Disgrace” is prog-rock being shot from a cannon, on fire from the first second to the final, echoed note. One thing the best progressive rock bands (like Rush and the various iterations of King Crimson) have in common is remarkable rhythm sections. Bill Bruford (drums) and Chris Squire (bass) represent possibly the most potent combination rock has ever heard.

It’s players like this that best illustrate what The Beatles helped begin, carrying it to another height: the bass and drums are not keeping time; they are making time, inserting themselves forcefully, logically, into the fray. The interplay Squire and Bruford display on this, and the next two albums, remains a benchmark for any band.

 

A few more words about Steve Howe. You can hear the sounds guitar players as disparate as Alex Lifeson and Ace Frehley were emulating (and imitating) throughout these proceedings.

Of special note is the two minute clinic Howe performs beginning at the 4:47 mark of “Yours Is No Disgrace”: a blitzkrieg assault (with beautiful bombs being dropped everywhere by Bruford) gives way to a succinct acoustic interlude, which segues into some Hendrixian phasing and finally, a tasty jazz-like solo that is short as it is sweet. It’s exhilarating and instructive; a range of so many sounds guitars are capable of making, the way no one else had ever made them, all in one song. On the barn-burning finalé “Perpetual Change” Howe contents himself with “merely” playing a scorching, straightforward rocker.

Special mention, of course, for “Starship Trooper”. One of the great things about live music is the opportunity to see art unfold in real time. The element of surprise and awareness that what’s happening can never be recreated the same way before the same people in the same place makes it a unique experience.

One of the great things about recorded music is that it can be savored any time: a perfect series of connected moments that will, of course, affect the listener in different ways depending on mood or circumstance. This is how certain, favorite music becomes familiar, and part of one’s life.

With a song like “Starship Trooper” we have art that always feels fresh and revelatory, it remains (like so many other prog-rock masterpieces) emblematic of the year it was made, yet still seems ahead of its time; ahead of any time. Put another way, this song alone could—and maybe should—put Steve Howe on the Mt. Rushmore of rock guitarists.

The big change for the follow-up, Fragile was the recruitment of keyboard prodigy Rick Wakeman. As commendable as Kaye’s efforts are throughout The Yes Album, his playing often provides embellishment; Wakeman is a presence, not unlike Keith Emerson. Now Yes had a veritable genius on each instrument and were fully prepared to make their best work.

 

Caveat number three. Fragile, though perhaps Yes’s best-loved or at least most popular album (in large part due to the FM-friendly classic “Roundabout”), is not a perfect album. The band get their indulgence on with the featured “solo” tracks, none of which (excepting Howe’s acoustic gem “Mood for a Day”) is especially memorable. “Cans and Brahms” (Wakeman, having fun with Johannes Brahms), “We Have Heaven” (if there was ever too much of a good thing with Anderson, it might be this one), “Five Per Cent for Nothing” (a throwaway by Bruford) and “The Fish” (an excellent coda to “Long Distance Runaround”) serve as digestifs in between the heavy hitters.

If “Roundabout” functions as a seminal prog-rock touchstone, it’s the other extended tracks that make Fragile far greater than the sum of its parts. Closing out side one, “South Side of the Sky” reveals the ways Yes benefited from Wakeman’s presence: his organ manages to invoke the extremes of warmth and cold described in the lyrics; but it’s the piano solo that serves as the centerpiece (of the song; possibly of his career). The blend of instruments and voices during this middle section epitomizes the aforementioned musical ecstasy: was any band ever this confident, this capable?

 

Album closer “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Anderson’s signature vocal workouts. He is so naturally gifted and expressive you feel like he could phone it in and still be better than most other singers; on this song there is no question he means it, and every word is invested with passion and purpose. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but few—if any—of them pack the emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, it still manages to delight, even surprise, four decades on.

Yet, even the high points of Fragile might be seen as setting the table for their tour de force; the previous two efforts a trial run for the perfection of Close to the Edge, arguably theprog-rock album for all time. Featuring the first, and by far the best, of their side-long suites, the title track of Close to the Edge is, in this writer’s opinion, as good as progressive music ever got.

This song (and aside from the fact you can either add or subtract points for the fact that the lyrics are inspired by Hesse’sSiddhartha) really does go places no other band has gone; or rather, it’s the gold standard that has never been surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning buildup, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes (Steve Howe doing the musical equivalent of the first round from the epic Hagler/Hearns fight), 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.

 

“Siberian Khatru” (your guess is as good as mine) is another “mini” epic that practically turns into a pas de deux between Howe and Anderson, the latter thrusting and parrying the former’s increasingly intense and complex guitar peregrinations. Likewise, “And You and I”, while featuring critical interaction amongst the others, serves as the ultimate vehicle for Anderson and Howe, the yin and yang of Yes.

It might be suggested that neither sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. 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.

Try as they might, Yes was never this consistently great again (though, as indicated, Going for the One offers none of the difficulties presented by Tales from Topographic Oceans or Relayer). In addition to being one of the pivotal bands of the early ‘70s, Yes perfected prog-rock as a kind of performance art in sound, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it.

There’s 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.

 

http://www.popmatters.com/column/the-holy-trinity-part-one-yes/

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King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study

Although it was already suggested that Pink Floyd is the archetypal prog-rock band (HERE), an equally compelling case could be made for King Crimson. By practically any criteria, King Crimson has always epitomized everything we talk about when we talk about prog. Only more so.

From their first album, which remains the Rosetta Stone of progressive rock, to their four decade-plus career making music, King Crimson looms large and remains impossible to ignore. While the title track of their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is still the purest and most perfect expression of the prog-rock aesthetic, it’s the sheer depth and breadth of their catalog that inspires a singular awe. The Dark Side of the Moon is the Sgt. Pepper of prog, but In the Court of the Crimson King is The Beatles on Ed Sullivan: a pivotal moment that announced a new reality. After 1969, nothing was, or could ever be, quite the same.

To fully fathom what In the Court of the Crimson King signifies, it’s useful to consider it as less an uncompromised statement of purpose, and perhaps the first influential album that forsook even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you have to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as—it must be said—out of time.

So…what is it, exactly, that King Crimson accomplished on the album that arguably remains their most fully realized vision? It has all the necessary ingredients: impeccable musicianship from all players (but special props must be doled out to Ian McDonald, whose flute and saxophone contributions grant the material its majestic, at times ethereal air), rhythmic complexity, socially conscious lyrics—courtesy of Peter Sinfield, and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but is grounded in history and looks forward, not backward.

Of course, it came out of an era and the minds from which it was conceived, a dark, sensitive and undeniably psychedelic space. And then there’s the mellotron. The Moody Blues did the most to incorporate this peculiar instrument into rock music, but King Crimson henceforth made an improbable art out of it. Throughout the album Pete Townshend (the same year The Who dropped Tommy) declared “an uncanny masterpiece”, the mellotron functions as accompaniment (“Epitaph”) and, at times, lead instrument (“In the Court of the Crimson King”).

After this remarkable opening salvo, what happened next is at once unbelievable, but also the impetus for what makes King Crimson quite unlike most successful bands. The group almost imploded, with bassist/singer Greg Lake agreeing to front Emerson, Lake and Palmer (and spend the next decade driving snooty critics insane), and multi-reedist/composer Ian McDonald—whose input was so affecting on the first album—departing, not necessarily harmoniously.

Robert Fripp, the acknowledged mastermind and reticent leader, was now captain of a suddenly uncertain ship as the ‘70s began. Somehow, he convinced Lake to stick around long enough to lay down some vocal tracks (which, it must be said, are some of the most powerful of his career), and the Giles brothers (Michael and Peter, on drums and bass) were enticed to finish what had been started. The resulting album, In the Wake of Poseidon, manages to be many things, most of them quite good, and in the end is greater than the sum of its puzzling pieces.

Naysayers have pointed out that it’s a rather paint-by-numbers impression of the preceding album, but this opinion is facile. While the sensibility and most of the line-up is the same, In the Wake of Poseidon indicates signs of the ambition and restless creative energy that would characterize the next two albums. The tension and release: harrowing notes followed by tranquil ones, are the signature calling cards, and on songs like “Pictures of a City” and the sprawling “Devil’s Triangle” (modeled on Holst’s “Mars”, from Planets, and boasting more mellotron than most bands could cram into a double album), they exist alongside each other in a uniquely organic way. Few bands, in sum, mixed beauty and horror quite like King Crimson.

Considering that the only constant during these early years was change, the quality and variety of the next albums is astonishing. The line-up rotations turned out to be a fortuitous blessing, as the third and fourth efforts sound distinct and unconnected. This is actually a rather exceptional phenomenon within the prog rock movement. Where bands like Genesis and Yes steadily built up confidence and momentum, eventually hitting on all aesthetic cylinders (on albums like Close to the Edge and Selling England by the Pound), King Crimson, almost by default, churned out individualized works. Put another way, one would be hard pressed to find two works by the same band as distinct yet rewarding as Lizard and Islands.

As ever a guiding force, the dominant sounds come from Fripp, holding down guitar and mellotron duties, and orchestrating the proceedings like the prickly perfectionist he has always been. King Crimson, as evidenced on these albums, could invoke other times, places and feelings practically as a matter of course. This, again, can be attributable to Fripp, one of the most keenly intelligent (and quietly driven) leaders of any group. Like many great coaches, he is not always easy or enjoyable to exist with, but players under his guidance tend to do their best work. Has there been a figure in popular music anything like Fripp, leading as many disparate bands, overseeing a vast body of work that is reflective of the various times it was created?

In a gesture of prog-rock bonhomie, King Crimson benefited from the vocal services of Jon Anderson (who was soon to become famous as the lead singer for Yes) on the title track to Lizard. That goodwill may have been strained when Bill Bruford, Anderson’s band mate and arguably the elite drummer of the era, left one supergroup to join another. With Bruford’s dexterity, driving the beat forward while keeping pace with Fripp’s increasingly complicated playing, the band (inevitably?) assumed a more forthright and forceful sound.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic: that is not an album title so much as an eccentric ode to the path less traveled. Most of the work made during the prog rock era can be described, at least to some extent. The title suite of their fifth album, comprised of two parts, remains a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As usual, 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 percussive stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The following one-two punch of Starless and Bible Black and Red (both 1974) find the band taking the next logical (or illogical, if you like) strides forward, with John Wetton (bass, vocals) and Bruford anchoring the proceedings with a confidence and stability that, to this point, had not stretched beyond a single album. The two albums are a treasure trove of forward-thinking prog, a blend of bucolic and apocalyptic.

For an example of the former, the live recording “Trio” is a melancholic tone poem; its title signifies the absence of Bruford, who instinctively understood his participation was not needed for the improvised tune. In classic Fripp fashion, Bruford was nevertheless awarded an equal share of compositional credit as a nod to his astute restraint. For an example of the latter, album-closer “Fracture” might best signify King Crimson’s quiet-to-chaos dynamic, and features one of Fripp’s towering solos. (Bonus trivia: listen for the brief xylophone flair that quite possibly inspired Danny Elfman’s immortal theme for “The Simpsons”.)

Although the band seemed, sonically, locked in to make a sustained run, Red turned out to be their final album of the ‘70s. This was entirely Fripp’s decision, the result of burnout and likely, if understandably, residual exhaustion from his almost ceaseless work. The album begins and ends with signature songs—for the band and prog-rock. The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored by a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility: it’s the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.

The closer, “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, the apotheosis of their “dread and release” formula. It builds an almost unbearable tension, breaking at last through the darkness; less like the tide retreating and more like an ocean disintegrating into air.

It was during the next string of albums, commencing with Discipline (1981) that King Crimson set itself apart as the only original era prog band to make significant (not to mention enjoyable) music after 1980. A case could be made that Discipline represents some of their finest playing/composing. Retaining Bruford and recruiting the ludicrously versatile bassist Tony Levin, it was the audacious decision to employ a second guitarist (Adrian Belew, who also handled vocal duties) that gives this collective its characteristic sound.

Fripp had not been inactive during King Crimson’s hiatus: his work with Brian Eno, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel feature some of the most inspired—and imitated—guitar pyrotechnics of his career. His exposure to new wave, complemented by an increasingly globe-ranging palette, alongside Belew’s supple support, results in material that is challenging yet concise. On songs like “The Sheltering Sky” Fripp incorporates virtually every trick in his arsenal, creating something that integrates multiple source-points (African, Indian, and Western). The title track is like a business card for the new decade: Fripp asked a lot of his audience, but he has always asked more of himself.

If the next two albums, Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair are not as consistent or wholly substantial as Discipline, they still stand tall alongside almost anything else being done in the early-to-mid ‘80s. Another hiatus was in order, and Fripp wisely kept King Crimson on the sidelines as hair metal and early grunge duked it out for the next decade.  The band resurfaced in 1994, as a double trio (retaining Belew, Levin and Bruford and adding Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto). The resulting albums, Vroom and Thrak, are as good as any fan could reasonably have expected—or hoped for.

After this the band splintered into a billion parts and side projects, still drawing crowds and earning accolades. If it’s safe to suggest the band’s best years were well behind them, still they endure, living defiance of the notion that prog rock died like the dinosaurs decades ago. Certainly bands like The Mars Volta and Porcupine Tree owe considerable debts to King Crimson’s old and newer influences.

So where does that leave us? With this: the music that holds up over time does so for a reason. It’s not an accident, or due to sentimental longings for a particular time or place. The music that manages to confront trends or commercial-minded fashion is created without any of these considerations in mind. King Crimson, as much as or more than any other prog rock band, consistently shaped and refined a unique vision, arguably creating whole new types of music in the process. There are numerous songs (some already mentioned) that are truly unlike anything else from any other genre: the results are, by turns, tense, lush, beautiful and surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting. Steadily led by the restless and insatiable Robert Fripp, King Crimson did as much as any band to “invent” progressive rock; at their best they transcended it altogether.

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Pink Floyd: The Prog Rock Archetype

It isn’t that Pink Floyd made some of the best albums of the ‘70s (they did), or that Pink Floyd moved the art form forward (they did); it’s that Pink Floyd did the impossible: they made music that can’t be marginalized, and more than any other band, brought progressive rock into the mainstream. This, along with the unparalleled streak of top tier albums they created, elevates them above all others as the prototypical and most significant prog band.

As much praise as the group rightly receives, they may not be fully appreciated for the ways they changed the future of music. The Dark Side of the Moon did for progressive music what Sgt. Pepper did for rock ‘n’ roll: elevating it from pop to art, and through one indelible and irrevocable triumph, granted authenticity—for all time—to an entire genre. It simply cannot be overstated how meaningful it was, and remains, that one of the best-selling and influential albums in history happens to be the apotheosis of prog rock’s canon. In short, Pink Floyd made it not only possible, but inevitable that other bands would attract more—and more serious—scrutiny, however much many of them suffered by comparison. (My album-by-album analysis of the band’s output can be found at “All Things Reconsidered: Why Not Pink Floyd?”, PopMatters, 11 November 2011.)

Needless to say, The Dark Side of the Moon did not arrive as an abrupt burst of brilliance (great art seldom does) so much as the end result of a long and at times excruciating process, a sort of prog rock apprenticeship. Casual fans may be unaware that Pink Floyd made as many albums before The Dark Side of the Moon as they did after. Even more casual fans may be unaware that Pink Floyd made any albums before The Dark Side of the Moon. Of course, before there was prog rock, there was psychedelic rock. Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) was, in its way, a Sgt. Pepper for the underground, and it remains the most fully realized expression of lysergic-laced pop whimsy: deeply surreal songs you can sing along with.

The initial high from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proved short-lived as the band’s principal songwriter, troubled genius Syd Barrett, suffered a drug-induced breakdown. (Much more on Syd HERE.) His mate David Gilmour was hastily recruited and, at least at first, did his best Barrett impression. Suffice it to say, no one could—or would—have predicted Pink Floyd’s eventual breakthrough based on their early struggles. As a result of Barrett’s departure two crucial changes occurred: Waters gradually assumed chief lyrical responsibilities and Gilmour became the primary vocalist.

Getting from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to The Dark Side of the Moon required several years and several albums, none of which sounded especially alike—a fact that seems more remarkable with the benefit of hindsight. Each release, however, had one particular track, often an extended instrumental, that served as a centerpiece that at once set it apart and connected the sonic dots that burst through the prism in 1973: “Interstellar Overdrive” (from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (from A Saucerful of Secrets), “Quicksilver” (from More), “The Narrow Way” (from Ummagumma), “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother) and “Echoes” (from Meddle).

Perhaps the single-most important song Floyd produced during the earliest stages of their extended transitional period is the title track from their second album. The ways in which “A Saucerful of Secrets” expanded and crystallized is documented on the live section from Ummagumma, as well as the definitive version, recorded for their movie Live at Pompeii. Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as a major musical force within the group, forging—along with keyboardist Rick Wright- – an increasingly melodic and ethereal sound.

This performance, recorded just before the sessions for The Dark Side of the Moon commenced, is very much the realization of a sound and style the band had been inching toward, carving away at the stone with each successive effort. The pieces finally came together (or fell apart, if you like) in the form of “Echoes”, the song that officially ended their transition and prepared them to make their masterpiece.

But if “Echoes”, combined with the shorter, snappier (and raw, earthy) tunes from 1972’s Obscured By Clouds provides a blueprint for the sensibility they would sharpen in the service of The Dark Side of the Moon, it’s 1970’s “Atom Heart Mother Suite” that epitomizes the extremes and excesses prog rock would embrace, for better or worse. Where King Crimson can, and should, be credited with creating prog rock’s first unfettered proclamation, In The Court of the Crimson King (1969), Pink Floyd can, and should, be credited—or rebuked—for dropping the first truly progressive side-long “suite” on Atom Heart Mother (1970).

After this one, all bets were off and for the better part of a decade, many bands—including Pink Floyd—attempted to refine and improve upon this opus. Their most ambitious (and uneven/inscrutable/unlistenable, according to seemingly everyone who has written a review) work to that point, clocking in at over 23 minutes, it remains the most blatantly uncommercial track from an album that reached number 1 in the UK.

Making use of a chorus, an orchestra, the band’s growing facility for studio slicing and dicing and an inimitable élan concerning the art of the segue, Pink Floyd created a very odd, endearing and English work. And that’s just the first few minutes. It remains an intriguing question whether or not “Atom Heart Mother” (the suite and the album) would enjoy a better reputation, or at least seem less pretentiously impenetrable for many fans, if the band has stuck with its working title, “The Amazing Pudding”, quite apropos for such a gloppy, sweet, not especially easy to digest jumble.

It’s not just that Pink Floyd did everything first, it’s just that they often did things bigger, and more convincingly. However much Emerson, Lake and Palmer was admired/eviscerated for their audacity, typified by the insufferably titled Works, wherein each player had his own “solo” side, Pink Floyd did the same thing (sort of) on Ummagumma. They were not the first, and certainly not the last band to lie down tracks occupying entire album sides, but they made it acceptable, even inevitable.

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by keeping invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in an airport. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers, and as the resulting records prove, they always put the music first.

Although they became hugely successful, Pink Floyd championed a type of integrity that seems uniquely associated with progressive rock: they never imitated anyone else or copied their own previous efforts. For Pink Floyd it was always about feeling and the evocation of a particular mood (the altered states in sound of “Quicksilver”; the solidarity of human voices, literally via the chanting football crowd in “Fearless”; the frenzy of modern travel/life  in “On the Run”; the almost inexpressible sorrow of loss and remembrance in “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”).

It’s interesting: although a “faceless” band celebrated for their inimitable blend of complexity and precision, Pink Floyd endures as one of the more soulful bands of the ‘70s. For this we can thank Roger Waters, whose development as a lyricist is responsible for a body of work that holds its own against anyone else’s. With the possible exception of Peter Gabriel (with and without Genesis) no songwriter composed more sensitive yet compelling statements concerning the human condition.

From “If” to “Echoes”, then “Free Four” to everything through The Final Cut, Waters was rock music’s consummate psychologist, turning a keen (and increasingly wary) eye on Western culture. His calling card became a series of trenchant takes on the intersection between the personal and the political as they relate to a society turned sideways. His insights on the forces governing our affairs, be they corporate, military, nationalistic or religious, were fodder for some of the most engaging artistic reflections of our time.

Perhaps, when measuring the true scope of their import, it’s most instructive to consider the way Pink Floyd handled their post-The Dark Side of the Moon career. With the exception of “Money” there were no obvious or intentional attempts at a crossover song that might receive airplay. As phenomenal as they remain, it seems certain that “Wish You Were Here”, “Have a Cigar” and “Welcome to the Machine” all became classic rock staples once Pink Floyd was already Pink Floyd. Or, these were the last three songs until The Wall sufficiently short to even get played on the radio.

Beginning with The Dark Side of the Moon and stretching through The Wall, Pink Floyd at once exemplified prog rock while transcending it. Every album was a perfect calculation; from the album art to the sequence of the songs, each entirely convincing on its own but an irreplaceable part of the whole. Again, considerable credit must be given to Waters who, through a tense combination of talent, ego and will, claimed ultimate control of the band’s direction. His acerbic personality and control freak tendencies took their toll, inexorably leading to his departure and one of rock music’s most bitter, protracted soap operas. But attention must be paid: his drive and vision demanded indelible work that may otherwise have been merely excellent.

A well-documented instance would be the two songs that served as prototypes for later masterpieces. “Raving and Drooling” and “You Gotta Be Crazy” were road-tested contenders for inclusion on The Dark Side of the Moon‘s follow-up. If the rest of the band had had their way, they would have comprised one side of the new album while “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” would have run, uninterrupted, on the other. Waters was not satisfied and, judging from the fascinating but far from flawless live versions, he was correct.

As a result, he busied himself on a set of new songs that became “Welcome to the Machine”, “Have a Cigar” and “Wish You Were Here”—a triptych of disenchantment, alienation and bereavement that are crown jewels in the Pink Floyd canon. As important, the temporarily sidelined songs were refined and reworked into Waters’ most cohesive concept album, Animals. With major contributions from Wright and Gilmour, “Sheep” and especially “Dogs” represent some of the best work the band ever did.

It’s not, in sum, that Pink Floyd became the most visible and best band to carry the progressive rock banner (they were). It’s not that they sold the most albums (they did) and had the best album art (they did—R.I.P. Storm Thorgerson!). It’s that they provided cover, through their influence and example, for smaller, equally brave bands who sought to push past the tedious Top 40 boundaries. By the time 1977 rolled around, space rock seemed as prehistoric as hippies and Johnny Rotten became the punk rock poet laureate, insolently scribbling “I Hate” above his Pink Floyd t-shirt. How much street cred would he have had sporting similar sentiment on a Gentle Giant or Jethro Tull t-shirt?

To this day any band, whether it’s The Flaming Lips, Bjork or Radiohead, who emphasize sound and feeling over accessibility, are in some way emulating the standard Pink Floyd set. The key to understanding Pink Floyd’s magnitude is that they made consistently challenging, progressive music, and still found an audience. Indeed, they did not find an audience so much as their audience found them. Pink Floyd was the first truly underground band to cultivate a sound too remarkable to remain obscured by clouds. They willed themselves to be consequential, and their eminence is undiminished today.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/171044-pink-floyd-the-prog-rock-archetype/

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Storm Thorgerson, R.I.P.: An A/V Appreciation

You know Storm Thorgerson.

Even if you’ve never heard his name before, you know him.

More, if you are any kind of fan of late 20th Century rock music (most especially progressive rock music) he has played a role in your world that ranges from influential to indescribable.

You see, he was the guy that introduced –and depicted– our first (and lasting) impressions of so many of our favorite albums.

He has recently passed on, more on him and his accomplishments HERE and HERE (go to that second link, scroll down and marvel at the sheer number of classic albums he designed the covers for).

His website is, obviously, the best resource to see how much enduring work he did, HERE.

It would be ridiculous to try and narrow down my personal favorite album covers; the list would be too long. And that’s just the ones he did for Pink Floyd!

(Seriously, though: while so many prog-rock avatars invited ridicule because of their album covers, Pink Floyd, thanks to Thorgerson, elevated this function to high art. Indeed, during the late ’60s and all through the ’70s what was once an obligatory vanity shot of the band became an opportunity –and a challenge– to create provocative and rewarding associations, connected to and apart from the music.)

In tribute and with respect, I’ll nominate some of my favorites, accompanied with a track from said album.

First, a trio each from a trio of some of my favorite artists, then a trio from some very diverse acts.

We must begin, of course, with the band that Storm was so closely and indelibly associated with.

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. (A lot more on them HERE.)

Led Zeppelin

Peter Gabriel

Black Sabbath

Styx

The Mars Volta

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A Kinder, Gentler Tarkus

As I attempted to identify the Top 25 Progressive Rock songs of all time a couple years back, I naturally gave rightful props to Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Here is what I had to say about their magnus opus, Tarkus:

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

Here it is in all its pretentious, impenetrable, inimitable glory:

So imagine my delight to discover, totally at random, this rendition on YouTube.

I have nothing to say, except WOW. And: thanks to Rachel Flowers for having the gumption –much less the ability– to do a solo piano cover of the entire “Tarkus” suite.

This is so beyond epic I can only call it what it is: A kinder, gentler Tarkus. (Not to be confused with Lego Tarkus, above…which just about wins The Internet.)

If you missed the entire list the first (or second) time, well, welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

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