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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us now praise famous men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Rush: “2112” (from 2112)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs: Part 1, 100-81

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Welcome back, my friends to the show that never ends.

After gamely, if humbly attempting to track the 25 best old-school progressive albums of all time, it’s inevitable to turn our attention to the best songs of the genre. In the spirit of more expansive representation and to avoid, as much as possible, redundancy, I’ve tried to limit selections to one track per album though, of course, this proved impossible in several cases. To remain consistent with the previous installment, I’ve maintained my own arbitrary criteria and kept consideration to English-speaking bands and only songs released during the decade of 1969 to 1979. And again, while the more obscure cuts the better, there’s an honest effort here to celebrate songs that represent the best of the genre, meaning some (very) familiar friends are invoked. Believe me, if I were choosing my personal favorites, this list would look pretty different, if indulgent.

To repeat a prior admonition: you’re not going to agree with this list. It’s possible you’ll abhor it, and that’s the point, pretty much. I’ve never seen a list of this kind that I concur with, which is one reason recalcitrant writers roll our rocks up that hill. If my word’s but a whisper, your deafness is a shout, etc.

  1. Yes: “The Revealing Science of God” (from Tales from Topographic Oceans)

Inexorably, this list has to begin with Yes and of course it must include a song from perhaps the most maligned album in the prog canon. It could (should?) be chosen just because of its title, which—like many of the subsequent selections, for good, bad and obvious reasons—epitomizes much of what makes progressive rock beloved, misunderstood, mocked and mostly ignored. Where many of the elements making this band such a force to be reckoned with—or wrecked—all congealed on their previous three efforts, it’s difficult to deny the blokes set up more draughts than they could drink on this overstuffed, undercooked double album. Those same elements, including the remarkable individual abilities of each player, the focus, drive and naysayers-be-damned desire, are all accounted for, but despite typically solid vocals from Jon Anderson and the always-reliable guitar exploits of Steve Howe, Tales from Topographic Oceans is like Jackson Pollock doing Dali, in the dark, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Or Something. Unlike so much denigrated or willfully misconstrued prog music, this one actually is everything everyone says it is.

  1. Curved Air: “Vivaldi” (from Air Conditioning)

Sure it’s pretentious and more than a little earnest. It’s also brilliant: an extended violin and electric guitar workout, a quirky but compelling tribute to, well, Vivaldi. If the music, much less the execution, was in the least bit sloppy or uninspired, it would crumple under the weight of its own pomposity. Ripe for ridicule and like many prog rock compositions, almost inviting ill-will—especially from the elitist types who sniff condescendingly at any invocation of sacred cows like the creator of The Four Seasons—a band like Curved Air wrote and performed a song like this for the most obvious of reasons, which at once explains and inoculates it: because they wanted to; because they could.

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

With two key elements (the guitar sound and the vocals) solidly established on this mature, confident album, a final one—Roger Waters’ increasingly mature and topical lyrics—comes to fruition on the third track, “Fearless”. This tune, which could be viewed as a poignant nod to Syd Barrett, is definitely an early installment of a growing Waters obsession: namely the alienated and isolated protagonist railing against (or reeling from) a mechanized, soulless machine called society. Another distinctly Floydian touch is the decision to insert a recording of fans at Liverpool’s football stadium chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which concludes the song on a hopeful and human note. This tactic also serves as an early blueprint for the sound effects and ironic employment of actual voices used on later albums, specifically The Dark Side of the Moon.

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

Perhaps the most mellotron-y of prog songs from the most mellotron-y of prog bands. A few words about the mellotron: its sounds may be undeniably dated, kind of like movies without CGI—which helps explain why certain folks have an unapologetic nostalgia. Put another way, the mellotron was a novelty instrument replacing proper string sections the way auto-tune and overproduction are de rigueur these days. When used judiciously (which may seem oxymoronic, but bands like Crimson and Genesis did not use mellotron to replace other instruments), this odd device was best utilized as a layering effect, and for the occasionally otherworldly sounds and feelings it could invoke; a hallucinogenic edge that “authentic” instruments could never approximate. Robert Fripp, clinical, obsessive, even cold or at least calculating, honed the capacity of conjuring up profoundly emotional sounds and sensations, and “Trio” illustrates that machines (and machine-like men) can convey—and possibly have—soul(s). On this number, recorded live, the restraint from all musicians is notable, especially drummer Bill Bruford who had the good sense to lay out and, because his instincts were so sound, Fripp insisted he receive co-composer credit.

  1. Genesis: “Ripples” (from A Trick of the Tail)

Gabriel, gone? They could not go on. They went on. And, for a while, more capably than any reasonable fan could have expected or hoped for. Phil Collins, as it turned out, was not only a suitable, but almost perfect replacement for the former frontman, albeit—at least through the duration of the decade—in a subtler and more self-aware fashion. “Ripples” is as close as the band came to a thoroughly convincing, and satisfying, mini-epic post-Gabriel, and it remains one of Collins’ most effective, and affecting, vocal performances.

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

Ian Anderson upped his already impressive lyrical game on Jethro Tull’s breakthrough masterpiece, Aqualung, a song cycle that remains as scornful and relevant as the year it was recorded. While the first side of the original LP concerns itself with, for lack of a better cliché, man’s inhumanity to man, the second side takes on religion with a righteous indignation that has scarcely–if ever–been improved upon by other mainstream acts. Anderson arguably saves his best for last when, in “Wind Up” he recalls being shipped off to church, eventually concluding that God is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”. It brings full circle the concerns, both material and spiritual, that any sensitive –or sentient– person must grapple with, or make sense of. “In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear”, he snarls, assailing the fake humility and the appropriation of the holy for personal, earthly gains, et cetera.

  1. Caravan: “C’Thlu Thlu” (from For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night)

You can discern everything from a hint of Sabbath to a touch of Dead and a smattering of Genesis, with Peter Gabriel in full freak mode. It seems a certainty that Blue Oyster Cult was paying attention, and everyone from Randy Rhoads to Metallica owes at least a partial debt. Matching mood to lyrical and thematic content was something every prog band hoped to achieve, but only the best practitioners could pull it off with consistency. “C’Thlu Thlu” (Google “Cthulhu”) is a case study in creeping doom, a song that could only come from this genre, yet anticipating so much of what was to come.

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

In a sensible world, this band would get a lot more love. While any number of their albums warrant reexamination or discovery, The Snow Goose stands not only as their masterpiece, but one of the first-tier concept albums from the prog genre. The title track ably encapsulates what is essentially a free-flowing suite connected by “chapters”, using only music to narrate the band’s interpretation of Paul Gallico’s novella. If all this sounds like impenetrable mish-mash to the uninitiated ear, the music is almost surprisingly accessible. A dreamlike production influenced equally by classical music and film scores, it’s possibly the closest prog rock ever got to Ennio Morricone—and yes, that’s intended as the highest form of praise.

  1. Gentle Giant: “Nothing at All” (from Gentle Giant)

Possibly the most controversial of all prog rock outfits, Gentle Giant has indefatigable supporters, semi-enthusiastic fans, and everyone else who’s never heard of them. This, of course, is not fair, and the band did enough exceptional work over an extended period of time that they should be name-checked more frequently, both in and outside proggy circles. It should go without saying that on this song (like the album it’s taken from; like most of their other albums) the musicianship is top notch. An acoustic-based number, its charms are reserved, somewhat of a refreshing change of pace from Gentle Giant’s typical more-is-a-half-measure modus operandi. Of course there are some mid-song explosions and an extended drum solo, among other things. Probably as appropriate an introduction to this outfit’s intimidating oeuvre as anything.

  1. The Moody Blues: “Have You Heard?” (from On the Threshold of a Dream)

On the Threshold of a Dream is definitely The Moody Blues’ Progressive-with-a-capital-P 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 band goes 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.

  1. Rick Wakeman: “Catherine of Aragon” (from The Six Wives of Henry VIII)

Wakeman looms large as a prog deity, providing memorable keyboard handiwork throughout the ‘70s for Yes. But as more than a few people know, he was also busy with other projects. His solo efforts at once validate his status as a prog monster, and provide plenty of ammunition for haters who, taking one look at the album titles, would dismiss him as a monstrosity. As much or more than later works Journey to the Centre of the Earth and (take a deep breath) The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, his arrangements on The Six Wives of Henry VIII are an ideal vehicle for his seemingly unlimited range and, yes, ambition.

  1. Rush: “Xanadu” (from A Farewell to Kings)

After three albums the band itself would declare full of hits and misses, everything came together during the recording of 2112. After that, Rush did the most prog thing possible: upping the ante and doubling down on the determination. Using the all but requisite literary reference as point of departure, lyricist Neal Peart did not half-step, selecting “Kubla Khan”, a poem by Romantic heavyweight Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Whether or not old Samuel spun in his grave or headbanged in approval, “Xanadu” gets full marks for concept and execution. Love or loathe them, Lifeson, Lee and Peart are among the better players in all prog-dom (Lifeson’s extended solo during the song’s climax features some of his all-time guitar heroics). While they were gradually getting away from side-long marathons and easing into more straightforward snippets of song, in 1977 they were somewhere in the middle, stretching out with confidence but also expressing maximum feeling with something that could almost be called moderation.

  1. Traffic: “Roll Right Stones” (from Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory)

If their earlier stuff was, by turns, more folk and jazz oriented, in the early-to-mid ‘70s Traffic was incorporating multiple elements and idioms and crafting something decidedly prog-like, albeit funky as all get out. Singer, multi-instrumentalist and creative dynamo Steve Winwood was on a hell of a run by the time Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory dropped; if this one gets less love and wasn’t as radio-friendly as the previous efforts, there is a darker, at times deeper vibe in effect. Piano, organs, sax, flute and those vocals: this is the soundtrack for a trip that need not be augmented with drugs or lava lamps; Traffic was always more substantial than any simple reduction, and they never pushed the boundaries of what was possible quite like this.

  1. Pink Floyd: “The Great Gig in the Sky” (from The Dark Side of the Moon)

It wasn’t so much that Pink Floyd “got” prog better than other bands, in part because everyone on the scene was making it up as they went along. Rather, they were the outfit that, arguably, used the idiom to its fullest effect, showcasing musicianship and experimentation with (increasingly) mature and, yes, universal themes. For The Dark Side of the Moon, the Alpha and Omega of concept albums, Roger Waters & Co. explored the pressures of modern, mechanized life and the devastating effects it has on us all, especially the ones “hanging on in quiet desperation”. The title here, like those of the other songs, makes it clear what the song is “about”. However, using no vocals, only the off-the-cuff caterwauling of Clare Torry, the most deliberate prog band (possibly excepting King Crimson) embraced improvisation, and between Rick Wright’s mournful keyboards, David Gilmour’s solemn slide guitar and the aforementioned Torry, this track goes somewhat beyond its already ambitious subject matter.

  1. The Alan Parsons Projects: “I Robot” (from I Robot)

Already a minor prog legend for his involvement as engineer on The Dark Side of the Moon, Parsons went on to make significant contributions to prog rock before becoming somewhat of a household name in the early ‘80s. I Robot, like the album the preceded and followed, might be classified as “thinking man’s prog” or prog that moved keyboard-propelled formulas into territory that, while borrowing a little from Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, also anticipated the synth-laden music that would dominate the next decade. Like Eno, the Alan Parsons Project proved that one could be both meticulous and curious, and like his most lauded and disparaged compatriots, Parsons was unabashed about being intelligent, driven and willing to take risks, all in the service of art that took its audience as seriously as it took itself.

  1. King Crimson: “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2” (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic)

At times cerebral, others sullen, always extraordinarily sensitive, make no mistake, Robert Fripp could throw down and wail with the aggression of a caged honey badger. On an astonishing album that contains a bit of everything, for the final number the band follows Fripp’s lead into the abyss. Like the best Crimson, there are moments where the tension threatens to overwhelm and absorb everything, and then, there’s release; here, courtesy of David Cross’s surreal violin stylings. Anticipating grunge, there’s a feel here that shifts from far-East to outer space, but with Bill Bruford and John Wetton (barely) keeping the back-end stable enough to avoid lift-off, this is a roller-coaster of wrath and control.

  1. Yes: “Roundabout” (from Fragile)

This song almost single-handedly ensures that even the most intractable cynics can’t dismiss everything about progressive rock. A musical marvel, it is by turns self-assured and over-the-top, and it has an almost sing-along appeal (even if no one joining in has any idea, as ever, what the hell Jon Anderson is on about). Interestingly, this is likely the gateway drug for neophytes who quickly and wisely head for murkier waters, “Roundabout” remains almost impossibly fresh and unsullied, even after decades of radio overplay. Courtesy of Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, the song sounds at one moment like something from medieval times and the next like robots getting electrocuted. Special mention for Bill Bruford who somehow managed to be the busiest, most unorthodox and inventive drummer in rock.

  1. Genesis: “Return of the Giant Hogweed” (from Nursery Cryme)

God bless Peter Gabriel. Appearing on stage dressed like a flower, or a fox, or with a faux-hawk, he had brilliance to burn. Still a tad rough around the edges, Gabriel’s earliest work with Genesis mixes heady ambition with elements of rock’s most admired iconoclasts: there are pieces of T-Rex, David Bowie and Roky Erickson in his approach, but the entirety of his artistic personas is utterly unique. This song, about a giant hogweed (obviously) only hints at how wonderfully weird Gabriel was before he became Peter Gabriel. What is generally—and unforgivably— overlooked is how incredible this band was all through the early ‘70s. The song bristles with anger and energy, and while the atmosphere is unquestionably of its time, everyone seems (and sounds) dead earnest.

  1. Egg: “Long Piece No. 3” (from The Polite Force)

A delight for those who find even the most anarchic time signatures in progressive rock too conventional, and who like a side of keyboard with their keyboards. This is another one that more or less sums up all extremes of all-things-prog: indulgent, interminable, incredible. Perhaps not the ideal point of entry (the shorter pieces, particularly the better known “A Visit to Newport Hospital”, might be safer sledding), this at times seems like the band asked “You know that organ solo from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”? That was too short,” and at other times, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mahavishnu or Weather Report album.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “The Endless Enigma” (from Trilogy)

One way of looking at the complicated case of ELP: easily distracted, or thrown off-course because they had too many ideas and were too talented to do anything the easy or easily predictable way, they turned into a home run hitter who strikes out too much. But when they got hold of one, there was no doubt. This, which on earlier (or, amusingly, later) albums might have been unwisely stretched into a side-long suite, is, at just over ten minutes, a convincing and even economical min-epic. Never willing or able to do half-measures, there is a discernible beginning, middle and end here, and it combines the usual audacity (I mean,“The Endless Enigma”?) with a sort of hero’s quest narrative scope, in miniature (the first time the word “miniature” has ever appeared in any consideration of anything by ELP). And, in the end, it’s always all, and only, about the music. Here, the lads are locked in and letting their boundless proficiency do the talking.

This piece originally appeared on PopMatters on 3/27/17

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Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine: 10 Songs of Righteous Protest

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Ian Anderson called it, in ’74:

The ice-cream castles are refrigerated;
The super-marketeers are on parade.
There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck,
As you light your cigarette on the burning deck.
And you balance your world on the tip of your nose
Like a Sea Lion with a ball, at the carnival.

Here are nine other songs of righteous and intelligent fury. Strength in sensitivity will provide both solidarity and sustenance for whatever lies ahead.

And when you lose control, you’ll reap the harvest you have sown
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone
And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around
So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone
Dragged down by the stone…

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…

We tried to speak between lines of oration
You could only repeat what we told you.
Your axe belongs to a dying nation,
They don’t know that we own you.
You’re watching movies trying to find the feelers,
You only see what we show you.
We’re the slaves of the phony leaders
Breathe the air we have blown you.

In the night he’s a star in the Milky Way
He’s a man of the world by the light of day
A golden smile and a proposition
And the breath of God smells of sweet sedition…

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your freedom higher
Listen to the buyer still
Listen to the Congress
Where we propagate confusion
Primitive and wild
Fire on the hemisphere below…

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane, all the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain, yeah
There’s danger on the edge of town
Ride the King’s highway, baby
Weird scenes inside the gold mine…

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

White collared conservative flashing down the street
Pointing their plastic finger at me
They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die
But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high
Wave on, wave on
Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me
Go ahead on Mr. Business man, you can’t dress like me…
(I got my own world to look through
And I ain’t gonna copy you)

No lyrics necessary; Charlie Hunter’s solemn, elegiac solo at the end speaks volumes about suppression, resistance and bearing witness.

And, of course, always, last and far from least:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

If I Could Wave My Magic Wand… (Revisited)

muff1

(Editor’s note: Rush’s last great album (in my opinion), Presto, was released this week, in 1989. A quarter-century plus one year ago. Yikes. Here is a piece I wrote in October, 2009)

***

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

rock is

Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…).

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991’s Catfish Rising and 1995’s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music during that decade. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) time warp the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before (more on that, HERE): utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live.I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible! For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

Share

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

pw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

If I Could Wave My Magic Wand… (Revisited)

muff1

(Editor’s note: Rush’s last great album (in my opinion), Presto, was released this week, in 1989. A quarter-century ago. Yikes. Here is a piece I wrote in October, 2009)

***

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

rock is

Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…).

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991’s Catfish Rising and 1995’s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music during that decade. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) time warp the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before (more on that, HERE): utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live.I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible! For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

Share

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

Jethro-Tull-em-19721

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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