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

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

5. Genesis, “Watcher of the Skies”

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

4. Yes, “Close To The Edge”

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

3. Jethro Tull, “A Passion Play”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The Who, “Underture”

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

9. Pink Floyd, “Time”

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

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

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

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

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

7. Jethro Tull, “Thick As A Brick”

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

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

6. Rush, “2112”

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

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

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

15. Pink Floyd, “Dogs”

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

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

14. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Tarkus”

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

13. King Crimson, “Lizard”

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

12. Genesis, “The Battle of Epping Forest”

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

11. Yes, “Awaken”

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

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

5. Genesis, “Watcher of the Skies”

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

4. Yes, “Close To The Edge”

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

3. Jethro Tull, “A Passion Play”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The Who, “Underture”

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

9. Pink Floyd, “Time”

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

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

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

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

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

7. Jethro Tull, “Thick As A Brick”

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

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

6. Rush, “2112”

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

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

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

15. Pink Floyd, “Dogs”

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

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

14. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Tarkus”

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

13. King Crimson, “Lizard”

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

12. Genesis, “The Battle of Epping Forest”

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

11. Yes, “Awaken”

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

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