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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