50Prog50: The Best Prog Albums, Part Five

There’s been a lot of comments about this series and I want to thank everyone, even the folks who are incensed that I didn’t make The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway the #1 choice. The beauty of the Internet democracy is that you can make your own list and I will look forward to reading it. The most comments I’ve been getting from various outlets (comments, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, rock through the window) have been like this:

“Why do you hate Emerson Lake and Palmer?”

I don’t hate ELP, but one of the necessary ingredients for my list candidates was that you had to appreciate the album straight through, even if some of the songs don’t scream “Prog!” When I was a teenager, it was cool that the band rocked-up classical pieces. Nowadays, it just doesn’t seem as clever anymore, and they come off like audio Cliffs Notes rather than good ideas. That wouldn’t be a problem if they didn’t stuff almost every one of their albums with a redux. Heck, Pictures At An Exhibition is nothing but a rework of Mussorgsky’s piece. And that’s followed up by the Nutcracker adaptation (and really, “Nutrocker”?) Their two reworks that I enjoy are “Fanfare For The Common Man” and “The Peter Gunn Theme”. Say what you will about that.

In other words, while they’ve made interesting work, I simply can’t get through one of their albums straight through. Nonetheless, they need to be recognized in some way. After all, they are one of the biggest progressive rock units of all time. So, in lieu of placement on the list, here’s what I would consider a primo ELP mix.

1. Fanfare For The Common Man from Works Volume 1 (1977)

2. From The Beginning from Trilogy (1972)

3. Karn Evil 9 First Impression Part Two from Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

4. The Peter Gunn Theme from The Best Of Emerson Lake & Palmer (1980)

5. Benny The Bouncer from Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

6. Take A Pebble from Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970)

7. Show Me The Way To Go Home from Works Volume 2 (1977)

8. Footprints In The Snow from Black Moon (1992)

Right, enough of that. Let’s get listing.

10. Marillion – Marbles (2004) Here is a concept record in the broadest, and strangest sense, and that concept is the career of the band Marillion. The more immediate touchstones on the set (being the deluxe 2-disc set with extra tracks) all deal with the end of a relationship. The opening and closing songs (“The Invisible Man” and “Neverland”) hearken back to the long-form songs from the band’s earliest stages as well as their album Brave, and they focus on more concrete examples of separation, seeing your loved one moving on without you as if you were an invisible observer and living out days as a Peter Pan, trapped in an emotional adolescence while the world, and Wendy,  seems to grow up.

The band’s trip-hop experiments (circa Anoraknophobia) come through on “Drilling Holes” and the surprise single “You’re Gone” while the bluesier aspects of Radiation return on “Angelina”. On top of that, they still haven’t forgotten their poppier traits on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, coming across almost like a country tune, and the tingling showstopper, “Fantastic Place”. None of the songs sound like duplicates of former tracks though; they exist to recall but not to copy, and stand on their own thanks to the alternate topic of relationships.

The band’s last truly label-related studio album was 1995’s Afraid Of Sunlight. After that, they made the difficult yet ultimately rewarding choice to release through their boutique imprint Impact Records, licensing to labels only when the stars aligned properly. By taking control in this fashion, they were allowed to write and record with complete freedom, beholden to no corporate entity scratching for hits. They funded their projects with pre-orders from a healthy and trusting fanbase. That fanbase was rewarded with work the group could never put out on the modern market’s watch. Each successive album tried new things, some with more positive results than others. By the time of Marbles, they had come up with two CDs worth of music, housed in a fully illustrated hardback book in a slipcover. It was a Deluxe Version on steroids.

Think about this though. Their decision to go virtually completely in-house and independent, and their choice to package their music in a book as an event, as well as funding their recording costs with pre-orders all predate others who now receive accolades for forward-thinking. All this time, the band was quietly ahead of the curve. None of that would mean a thing if the music was without merit, but Marbles found the organization at the peak of their abilities.

Direct descendants – Radiohead gets the pat on the back for direct-marketing In Rainbows. Nearly every band that appeared on the scene before 1995 now has to go indie, the record industry being in such a drastic state that they don’t want longtimers that aren’t cold-calculated to produce immediate hits. Even at that, few of those bands are compelled to follow their muse or instinct, still chasing after a hit. Marillion was the first to try the new angles while, concurrently, making watershed music with Marbles being one of the very finest.

“You’re Gone”

9. Porcupine Tree – In Absentia (2002) Here’s to the new brood. Porcupine Tree, more than any other “new” band, is bringing another generation to the progressive rock tent, and the reason why is pretty simple. Every time they strike out, they do so with another series of musical additions. Originally a cassette release recorded solo by Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree was a goof, a made-up name for his homemade psychedelic tunes. The UK label Delirium got ahold of the tape, liked it and signed the band that actually wasn’t a band at all. Now to tour, but with whom?

There it begins, with necessity being the engine that drives it forward. Psyche formulas start to get tiring, add progressive touches (Up The Downstairs, The Sky Moves Sideways.) Looking for more streamlined tracks, add pop touches (Stupid Dream, Lightbulb Sun.) Need a bassist, hire on Colin Edwin. For drums, hire Chris Maitland. For keys, get crazy lucky and hire former keyboardist for the group Japan, Richard Barbieri. By the time In Absentia comes up, yet another element is introduced, being heavy metal, but calling this a heavy metal album is misleading. It denies the tender and strange “Trains”, the pop-rocker “The Sound Of Muzak” and the elegiac closer, “Collapse The Light Into Earth”. When it comes time to let it rip, the second portion of “Gravity Eyelids” and “Strip The Soul” stomp and rumble with just as much tension and ferocity as any metal band has mustered. Drummer Gavin Harrison, on his first recording with the group, puts himself in contention with some of the genre’s best skins-pounders. Neil Peart and Mike Portnoy, watch out.

The thing that makes Porcupine Tree unique is that, unlike so many others, they’ve never shied away from their own history. On each successive record, there is a hint of their collected musical knowledge going all the way back to the start, no matter how menacing the songs surrounding it might be. The typical scenario has been that a band makes a drastic change in their sound, publicly forsaking that sound as being yesterday’s version, and never giving even a bit of a backward glance to it – until the backlash when they would retreat to that sound that made them famous, faking smiles for cameras and passing verbal gas like, “It’s good to be home” and “We’re getting real again”, blah, blather, blah. Porcupine Tree knows the value of never burning your bridges, but instead keeping the directions close to you at all times. Very smart.

A side note: longtime photographic contributor Lasse Hoile shot the disturbing cover for In Absentia. In fact, he’s also the photo’s model.

Direct descendants — The band continues to grow, as does the fanbase. In the US, they’ve signed to Roadrunner Records which mostly covers metal acts. However, it’s a licensing deal, so ambitious concept records like Fear Of A Blank Planet and the song-cycle The Incident cannot be shut off by label machinations.  New prog-leaning bands would like to become Porcupine Tree, and if they retain control of their identities and their business dealings, they just might.

“Trains”

8. Peter Gabriel – Security (1982) The fourth Peter Gabriel album marked several beginnings and endings. The disc ended a run of self-titled releases, but the creepy cover doesn’t overtly signal the album is called Security. It might as well be Peter Gabriel 4. The inclusion of “Shock The Monkey” made him a hitmaker, not just a rocker with a weird streak. The album brought world music aspects front and center – note the closing tribal stomp of “The Rhythm Of The Heat”, punctuated by the Ekome Dance Company. The second track, “San Jacinto”, feels like a spirit dance among natives. The instrumentation pushes texture to the limit, with swirling samples fading in and out, supplying an air of mystery. “Lay Your Hands On Me” evokes that same feeling, but the lyrics tell of someone trapped in plastic modernity while the soul seeks something more natural, more real.

The album after this, So, would become a massive hit thanks to “Sledgehammer” and Gabriel would not sound quite as adventurous again, until his soundtrack for Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, released as Passion. But that is not a rock record. It could be said neither is Security, but I think it manages to place both feet in either world effectively. “I Have The Touch” is a specifically telling song, pointing at what was to come, while “Wallflower” is one of Gabriel’s best ballads. Sorry, fans of “In Your Eyes”, but this one trumps it in my book. His disturbing iconography spreads out through the album’s art, including videograph photos of Gabriel biting down on a bar. Is he having a seizure or shock therapy?

Direct descendants – Nothing sounds like this album. I don’t think anyone would dare attempt to try, as you need to approach a project like this with a history of maverick decisions behind you. Coming from Genesis and the previous solo albums, Peter Gabriel was free to spread out to the farthest corners of his muse. If he wanted to be bizarre, citing the white-face makeup he wore in the “Shock The Monkey” video, he wasn’t stepping on the toes of his former pop-star persona. There wasn’t one to ‘taint’. If he wanted to explore other cultures musically, there would be no reason to deny him. You could say it was commercial suicide, but in hindsight he was only bringing about something that would find its way to us anyhow (in the form of Paul Simon’s Graceland.) In many ways, this was his last album to not sweat those constraints. After all, after So came Us, and the need to produce a second “Sledgehammer”-sized hit with “Steam”. He was on the Billboard train now, and such expressions of sheer will such as Security simply couldn’t happen again.

“Shock The Monkey”

7. Marillion – Brave (1994) A woman jumps from a bridge. When she is fished out, her past is left behind in the water, a trauma-induced amnesia has set in. So begins Marillion’s Brave. While the conceptual kinship with Tommy is your first reaction to hearing the synopsis, the two albums are poles apart. In fact, although I’ve enjoyed and had admiration for almost everything the band’s put out, this album remains the one to be topped, if only for the audacity of the thing.

Steve Hogarth had been the lead singer for two recordings, the pop-centric Seasons End and Holidays In Eden, but there were still rumblings from the old fans that the band had lost the thread. They pointed to Clutching At Straws and, more often, Misplaced Childhood and asserted the newer stuff lacked the heft those Fish-fronted albums had. I don’t believe Brave was a conscious reaction to that, and I’ve read things that would indicate the seeds of the project had been planted prior to Holidays In Eden, but in order to appease an ever anxious EMI, scrabbling for hits, they moved ahead with the more direct, singles-oriented set before hand. I’ve never been able to satisfactorily confirm that tidbit, but this album seems to give the info credence. Brave is an album by seasoned vets, across the board, and it feels like one that took a long time to gestate, not merely a record that was bashed out on a drunken weekend at the studio.

That’s not to say that the thing has no ear-appeal and is a story-laden drag, far from it. “Hard As Love” and “Alone Again In The Lap Of Luxury” are two examples of rockers that work as well out of context as they do in. “The Hollow Man” is a soft, sad ballad that gives Hogarth the chance to really prove his range, not at the top of his lungs but virtually at a whisper’s decibel. The third act triptych of “The Great Escape”, “The Last Of You” and “Fallin’ From The Moon” combine to dramatic and emotional effect. It’s very prog-rock to have an overblown finale, but if you don’t feel anything but a headache from loudness, it’s for nothing. This is true of any good song, no matter what style it’s played in. The last track is “Made Again”, a catharsis and a curtain-closer all at once.

Brave wasn’t a big hit. The band’s new US label IRS was struggling at the time, having lost their biggest act R.E.M. to Warner Bros., and the manner in which the album crawled under the radar couldn’t have thrilled them. The fans, understandably, were ecstatic. Not only was the Marillion enterprise healthy and ready for future endeavors, Steve Hogarth proved he was up to the challenge of filling Fish’s shoes, with his voice and his readiness.

Direct descendants – Again, not much in terms of sales happened for Brave, but within the camp of the neo-proggers, this was huge. To this day, even with the fans who will say other Marillion albums are their favorite, Brave is cited as the band’s best.

“Alone Again In The Lap Of Luxury”

6. The Moody Blues – Days Of Future Passed (1967) This album could have been a whole lot different. Decca records was launching a subsidiary label, Deram, which was purported to have achieved a new level of stereophonic sound on vinyl LPs. To capitalize on both the technology and advertising potential, they plucked up a young band called The Moody Blues, fresh off a hit single called “Go Now”, and made them an offer. They wanted the band to collaborate with an orchestra on merging a pop aesthetic with classical pieces by Dvorak. They could market the disc to the parents who just invested in a snazzy hi-fi, and to their rebellious teenagers grooving on rock and roll, as well as getting that dreamy Justin Hayward onto the heartthrob magazines, also a great way to “move wax”.

The band was beginning to get hot and, in the parlance of the times, this Dvorak plan was a total bummer of a trip. With a small amount of wrangling, they were able to convince the label that they could fashion a song-cycle of their own, complete with orchestral involvement, and not only would it not seem lame but they might score real hits with the project. Maybe in the freewheeling 1960s, such leaps of faith were less elusive. Today it seems impossible that a band would be given near the amount of latitude, whether they were new on the scene or veterans. I wonder if anyone was surprised when they finally delivered on the promises, an album that would become part of the classic rock pantheon, two major singles, and a career that spans decades and still thrives on the touring circuit.

Days Of Future Passed chronicles a day in one life, from wake up, to work, to a stroll on lunchtime break, to the bedroom at night. It sounds like a Sixties album, in no small part due to the psychedelic movement’s insistence on certain elements and the poetry pieces recited by Ray Thomas. It also has moments of complete timelessness, first found on “Tuesday Afternoon”. It is composed with two distinct musical motifs, the first like a languid stroll with strings, the second evoking the sound of a skip through the park. That first section has a deeply romantic sound to it while the second is about fun and freedom. Then the first motif comes back. The second closes the song out as the orchestra moves in to finalize the concoction.

The second hit was only of middling success until a re-release in 1972. Recall that most pop songs of the 1960’s barely crossed the three minute mark and “Nights In White Satin” was approaching seven. This is a case of something that was meant to be. This song about unrequited love, written on various levels of understanding, might have simply flown over the heads of the teens of its time. By the early 1970s, audiences were more accepting of longer songs and that romantic longing could sound like this, knowing, far from teeny-bopper innocence. The chorus sounds like the throes of passion, even though it marks the absence of the loved one. It just sounds incredibly sexy, even if the lyrics are incredibly lonely.

In many important aspects, The Moody Blues showed other bands what could be done, the pre-conceived limits were long gone and, in pushing against those boundaries, sometimes, you open doors to forty-plus years of doing that which you love to do. Isn’t that worth the risk of saying, “Thank you, but we respectfully decline Dvorak.”

Direct descendants – If The Beatles pioneered the concept album, The Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed defined all it could be. It is a part of pop music history and anyone who decides they want to tell a story using popular music as the means owes something to the band.

“Nights In White Satin”

5. Rush – Permanent Waves (1980) Speaking of changing styles and not sloughing off the old, Rush’s Permanent Waves is a perfect example of a transitional album. The fact that they made album-side-length tracks like 2112 is reminded to the listener with songs like “Natural Science” and “Jacob’s Ladder”, but they were bringing something new around as well. You won’t find it particularly in the radio rockers “The Spirit Of Radio” or “Freewill” either. The band’s fans knew they could tear an arena up, so these more concise examples only confirmed obvious information. No, the real change was in the softer side of Rush, on songs like “Entre Nous” and “Different Strings”. In their idiosyncratic fashion, these two love songs sounded right for the band. Partial credit goes to Neil Peart for not stepping into huge lyrical bear traps. He gives these topics his usual intellectual once-over, but when the sentiment is distilled, “All there really is – the two of us. And we both know why we’ve come along.”

There is no overt concept to deal with, just a collection of songs that sit nicely and co-exist with each other well. It might indicate the mainstreaming of the band, but even in their synth-heavy years, they were never that mainstream, were they? Their songs often dealt with subjects no other power trio would dare touch. Their positive affirmations never sounded like hollow cheerleading or action-movie castaways. Maybe the band was too cerebral for their own good, but I seriously doubt it. Unlike a lot of artists on this list, they’re still out on the road, still writing and recording. They’re not content to wallow in their past. For Rush, everything is transitional.

Direct descendants – This year, the band has decided to try something new. They’re writing and recording songs, and touring, concurrently. Their current Time Machine tour is a celebration of their discography but is also a way to get up to musical speed. On downtime, they can take the energy, and musical muscles ready to roll, into the studio. I expect that bands will carefully examine the results when Clockwork Angels premiers in 2011, and will likely duplicate the idea.

“The Spirit Of Radio”

4. Kansas – Leftoverture (1976) Progressive rock has been known for assimilating all sorts of musical styles, but it wasn’t until Kansas came on the scene that Southern Boogie rock was introduced to long-form flights of fancy. The group started life as Proto-Kaw, founded by keyboard/guitarist Kerry Livgren, but aside from a collection of demos, the band didn’t take off. With members leaving and new ones arriving, the group took the name Kansas (they were from Topeka, just to clarify why they chose the name.) Things were not going well and they changed the name to White Clover, then back to Kansas. Confused yet?

Once they decided it would be Kansas for the long haul, they managed to get a contract with famed impresario Don Kirshner and recorded the eponymous debut. It would still be another three records before their breakthrough, a circumstance that is unthinkable in the modern “one and done” corporate climate, but what a breakthrough. The band retained their penchant for bombast, as “Cheyenne Anthem” and “Magnum Opus” readily betray. That second track is broken into parts subtitled “Father Padilla Meets The Perfect Gnat”, “Release The Beavers”, “Gnat Attack” and “Howling At The Moon”. Yet it’s the homegrown qualities of the band that make them stand out: Livgren’s various solos, Robbie Steinhardt’s violin and Steve Walsh’s cloud-shaking vocal range. And it is those qualities, quite different from the Moog-centric majority of Prog, that allowed tracks like the unmistakable “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust In The Wind” from Point Of Know Return to become pop hits. Even in their musical insanities, Kansas had both feet on the ground in terms of popular music.

The history of the band is tangled in much hearsay, a lot of major personnel changes and, eventually, a partial reunion on 2000’s Somewhere To Elsewhere. Livgren recorded a solo album which we covered earlier, formed the CCM band A.D., reunited the original Proto Kaw lineup and released two albums. Steve Walsh was in and out, then in again as vocalist, replaced by John Elefante for Vinyl Confessions and Drastic Measures. He also has recorded solo albums as well as fronting another band, Streets. And yet, like it or not, both performers will likely be remembered most for “Dust In The Wind” and, especially, for “Carry On Wayward Son”. It is a prog manifesto, biker bar rally cry and Freedom Rock staple all at once… And it only took three and some-odd band name changes to get there.

Direct descendants – On the write-up for Livgren’s Seeds Of Change, I mentioned Symphony X as being influenced by Kansas. To the outsider, it would seem unlikely that it would be the case, as Symphony X is strictly prog-metal. I would point you in the direction of “Communion And The Oracle” from V: The New Mythology Suite. It is, without a doubt, a loving and respectful tribute to the Kansas, and the Kerry Livgren, sound.

“Carry On Wayward Son”

3. King Crimson – Red (1974) The meanest album to come out of 1974 wasn’t by Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper or Kiss. The opening riff of the album, the track “Red”, introduces the instrumental but this has nothing to do with the sedate. The guitars stalk, Bill Bruford’s drums alternately knockabout like a predator circling prey, then jump in on double-time to pounce. John Wetton’s bass is deep and grimy, it sounds like what a mouthful of old cigar smoke smells like. This is only the first track though. “Fallen Angel” tells the story of a youth gone wild, while “One More Red Nightmare” imagines a plane plummeting to certain doom. The closing track “Starless” starts as one of the most beautiful compositions the King Crimson banner had presented up to that point, then it falls back, giving way to an instrumental staircase climb, each note building tension upward, until it all explodes in chaos.

This would be the last studio recording with Wetton, and the last Crimson album for a long while. That extended period turned the album into a bit of a cult classic, with other fledgling groups marveling at the economy of explicit verbal cues as the music alone rips the listener a new one. You didn’t need Wetton to sing about fury when the ferocity of the playing made it so clear.

Direct descendants – Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy has pointed to the album again and again as a standard to follow, that you can be musically adventurous and be terrifying and dark at the same time. It’s safe to say that the entire subgenre of prog-metal starts with Red.

“Starless”

2. Yes – Fragile (1972) My catchphrase for progressive rock excess is always, “Mountains coming out of the sky and standing there.” It’s a good-natured jab at this musical style, and few albums collected all the elements together the way Yes’ Fragile did. From the word ‘go’, you get Roger Dean’s album cover with airships and floating islands, Jon Anderson’s vocal moebuis-strip “We Have Heaven”, Bill Bruford building a solo turn from rhythm on “Five Per Cent For Nothing” as well as spotlight tracks for Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman trotting out Brahms just because he can. Fortunately, “Cans And Brahms” is brief and doesn’t turn a solo into a ‘statement’.

No, the statements were reserved for the two most well-known cuts, “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround”. Both tracks provide good examples of the band’s rock side, mostly developed with minimal-nonsense flair. For the more ornate (and some would argue overblown) angle, there’s “South Side Of The Sky” and “Heart Of The Sunrise” making the LP one of the more well rounded offerings the band has ever put out. I said earlier on that Van Der Graaf Generator’s The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other was the most “prog” of all my choices for the list, and I still stand by that. However, when you think of these terms, you will likely flash upon Fragile as the impetus. You might hear in your head the moment in “Roundabout” when the song breaks down to keys with Anderson singing softly those fateful words, “In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky, they stand there…” then the band jumps back in with extended jammery. You might even hear the last section of “Heart Of The Sunrise” when Anderson goes for it with the line, “I feel lost in the city”, the band backs up, charges in with a reprise of the opening riff then, abruptly hangs it all up.

It might be a case of being too on-the-nose to have Fragile landing in the top ten, but all the while it seems inevitable.

Direct descendants – Yes made it possible to be pretentious in both good and bad ways. Had Fragile flopped, the whole scene likely would have gone down with it. Some would have liked that just fine, but all forms of music need a counterpart. Prog rock fostered punk through sheer antagonism. It also provided a new way of thinking about popular music, and some of those ideas would be incorporated into the pop mainstream. In a way, this style was necessary to create a balance. Sometimes it spat out albums loaded with bad ideas for the sake of being able to. Sometimes it created things people turn to even today. Like it or not, Fragile is not just a primary example of the form, it is part of the structure that supports disparate formats surrounding it.

Long story short – Fragile is here to stay. You might as well get used to that.

“Roundabout”

1. Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979) Those who say that The Wall is an exercise in narcissism just don’t get it. It’s easy to misconstrue that point though. Written primarily by Roger Waters, it chronicles the rise of the main protagonist, Pink, from a boy to a rock star, to an increasingly isolated figure bolstered by drugs, to a facsimile of fascist control. At every turn, the character demonizes those who tell him “no”, or “stay”, or “please”. His mother, widowed as Pink’s father is killed in the war, becomes paranoid, protects (and overprotects) her son, afraid to lose him as well to the cold, cruel world. “Ooh baby, you’ll always be baby to me.” The wife just wants Pink to be her husband, faithful to her, and recognize her as his own. Instead, Pink screws around while on tour, living the high lowlife. She turns from him. “Have you broken any homes up lately?” The one archetype that is hard to side with is the schoolmaster, his job in many ways simply to push the kids through the meat-grinder system of education and be done with them. He takes his aggression out on the kids while, unbeknownst to them, he’s equally subjugated at home… “Where their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives.”

The story really begins on the tour for the album Animals. During a concert, a fan climbs up to the stage to meet his idols. Waters has become so hard and cold, for many different reasons, that he has found himself almost in the mindset of a fascist leader, controlling this throng of people with his presence and finding “all this riffraff in the room” appalling to him. His response to the fan was to hawk up a gob of spit and retort. Later he would regret having done so; he came to a point where he was so far from his ’60s ideals, he barely recognized himself anymore. He’d lost himself in Pink.

There is a phrase I’m very fond of: everyone is the hero in their own mind. Through The Wall, the observer feels a justified Pink has the right to rebel against the clutching mother, the wife that doesn’t understand him, and the horde of fans that would sacrifice themselves for his whims. Of course, if the narrative is first-person, that’s exactly how the character would feel. The world has wronged me. The world is against me. I am right. Moreover, the listener’s sympathies are colored by the visual aspects of the piece – Gerald Scarfe’s evocative and grotesque caricatures of Pink’s acquaintances, the film which indicates Pink’s wife is cheating on him (which is never mentioned explicitly on the album – Pink’s infidelities, on the other hand, are laid bare.) Yet it is the track “Stop” that puts it into perspective:

Stop!
I wanna go home
Take off this uniform
And leave the show.
But I’m waiting in this cell
Because I have to know.
Have I been guilty all this time?

From there, “The Trial” sends Pink into a mental meltdown as, one by one, those he vilified show reasonable defense until the Judge reads his verdict:

Since, my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear,
I sentence you to be exposed before your peers.
Tear down the wall!

That deepest fear is that he was the guilty party, not the victim. The cage he found himself trapped in was that of his own making, or more precisely, his personal wall of denial had to crumble not just so others would see him as he is, but so that he finally would see himself, responsible, at fault. Yes, the story of Pink orbits around a singular ego, but it is nothing less than a study in self-loathing, not a justification of wrongdoing. Narcissus looked in the level mirror of the pool and finally saw the beast he’d become. The “aha” moment comes with the last words of the album:

All alone, or in twos
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall
Some hand in hand
Some gathering together in bands
The bleeding hearts and the artists make their stand
And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall

The history of the band after The Wall might indicate that several lessons were not learned, but the album stands as one of the more thought-provoking rock recordings ever. You could lose that point over such standards like “Hey You”, “Run Like Hell”, the discofied “Another Brick In The Wall Part II” and the emotional centerpiece “Comfortably Numb.”

Direct descendants – “Comfortably Numb” has become a go-to cover for progressive-minded bands at encore time. Anathema, Mostly Autumn and many others have incorporated it as such in their tours. My Chemical Romance, in a strange way, mirrored The Black Parade with The Wall. You could even say that by creating the entity of The Black Parade, Gerard Way and co. became their very own surrogate band.

“Comfortably Numb”

So there you have it — 50 progressive rock (and prog-infused) albums worth your time and exploration. I want to that everyone who checked out the series, and most especially editor-in-chief Jeff Giles who has personally professed nothing but disdain for prog. The fact that this series even happened is thanks to the all-inclusive policy that he and other senior editors Robert Cass and Jason Hare insist upon for Popdose.

If you enjoyed 50Prog50, don’t forget to drop a message in the comments saying so. There are way too many subjects not to be covered, and I’m only too happy to take a crack at ‘em. As for me, I’m going to retreat for a couple weeks into show tunes and Gregorian chants.

Be seeing you, perhaps with another round of 50-50!




  • nmstar

    Interesting list…and it turned me on to bands that I was unfamiliar with. Thanks for that. Leaving off Rush’s Hemispheres is something that I cannot agree with however.

  • Anonymous

    Great feature. Especially interesting is your enthusiasm for Marillion, a band I’ve always kinda thought of as the British King’s X (moderately successful but “cultishly adored” by in certain circles.) As far as additions or afterthoughts; here’s a few:

    Todd Rundgren, “Initiation”, “Utopia”, “Ooops, Wrong Planet,” etc.: If your criteria is actual quality, I dunno if you can rate these too highly. Although as a studio geek Rundgren was by default pretty proggy, I think it was eventually proven that this kind of thing was not his forte’. Although I think he could beat out Peter Gabriel in his willingness to experiment.

    OMD. “Dazzle Ships”: Eno-like in it’s structure, with apparent Roxy Music/Bowie influences.

    Ween “The Mollusk”: Although they should certainly be rated no higher than Zappa and Captain Beefheart, these guys deserve a mention via their extremely proficient mockery/reverence of the genre. Of all their discs, “Mollusk” probably best qualifies as Prog due primarily to its consistent nautical theme. Outside of that album “Transdermal Celebration” (from “Quebec”) stands as the only track of recent memory to scale the peaks of Floydian majesty. I could go on, but I think its significant that my favorite songs by Gene and Dean aren’t really funny at all.

    The Stranglers “The Gospel According to the Meninblack”: I think this one is legit. All the elements are there: Esoteric theme, unconventional strong structure, apprehensive reception by the public and press, electronic noodling. An old favorite.

  • http://playmixt.tumblr.com/ Playmixt

    Thanks for this article — it’s been really interesting to read the installments as they’ve come out. Many thanks for the brilliant writing about Marillion’s BRAVE album, which is criminally underrated and nearly unknown outside the band’s fanbase. They’ve performed it live a few times since 1994, and there are a few of those songs that never seem to leave their setlist.

    And – hey, how many prog albums have **2 different endings**? Brave had a double groove on the vinyl, and the story ends very differently. The original “spiral” ending of ‘The Great Escape’ is on the deluxe 2CD version.

  • Anonymous

    “Prog rock fostered punk through sheer antagonism.”

    That’s a hell of an observation.

    Other random thoughts:

    I still think The Wall (and even more so the follow-up The Final Cut) is essentially Roger Waters inviting us all to his pity party, expecting us to sympathize with the poor downtrodden fabulously wealthy musician who has had such an unpleasant childhood. It’s just sarcastic, sour and ultimately offputting to me, which is why I rarely listen to that album, as brilliant musically as it is. Give me Dark Side or Wish You Were Here anytime.

    I’d say Kate Bush with her Dreaming album, and to a lesser extent Hounds of Love, followed in Gabriel’s footsteps, at least with its percussion sound.

    Steve Walsh did a great job singing two tracks on Steve Hackett’s second solo album Please Don’t Touch (as did Richie Havens). When it comes to Kansas, I love 1979’s Monolith. Apparently most fans of the group don’t share this with me.

    Finally, if you haven’t heard 1977’s The Geese and the Ghost by Anthony Phillips, Genesis’ first guitarist, I highly recommend it. It’s regarded as Prog’s last great record in some circles, including mine (a very small circle).

  • Anonymous

    Regarding the Moody Blues section, you wrote “Today it seems impossible that a band would be given near the amount of latitude, whether they were new on the scene or veterans.”

    I, for one, am grateful to the music gods for blessing the Blues for having the balls to stand up for themselves. They did deliver a fine album… scary to think that it almost never was. Maybe if more artists would put their feet down, we’d have more records like this one that not only stand the test of time, but help define a movement.

    Great post!

  • smf2271

    Great series, hard to argue with these choices, in spite of the lack of “Selling England By The Pound” or “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia” on the list (come on now, how does “We Can’t Dance” come in ahead of either of those? I’m just sayin’…). I’m going to have to check out some of this music that I haven’t heard before, such as Porcupine Tree, Transatlantic and Marillion’s Marbles (I gave up on them after Anoraknophobia). Prog on!

  • Eric S.

    Two Marillion albums I’m not so sure about, but Kansas at #4 is a keeper.

  • Old_Davy

    I could whine about all the albums left off this list, but in reality, it was a terrific series and I’m glad to see Popdose giving prog a little love for a change.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Between me and Ted, prog’s been getting all kinds of love around here.

  • smf2271

    Geese and the Ghost is great, but have you heard Anthony Phillips’ second LP, “Wise After the Event?” I think that’s even better – beautiful, sweeping prog-folk ballads with sort of an animal-rights concept running through the album.

  • http://www.drcastrato.blogspot.com drcastrato

    Um. This is the end of the list? Granted, I’m not a prog expert, and there are plenty of records (and bands) on this list I’ve never heard of and need to check out. But it seems to me a great deal of essential music is missing. Only 2 Genesis albums, and one of them is We Can’t Dance? …and the other is LAST in the list? Only 2 Rush albums, and great as they are, they feature way more pop hits than prog rock. Where is 2112? Hemispheres???

    By the way, I love that XTC album, but it’s not prog. It’s pop. The instrumentation is different, but I would argue that does not make it prog.

  • Ftg3plus4

    Regarding “Days Of Future Passed,” just wanted to note that: (1) It is Mike Pinder, not Ray Thomas, who recites the poetry; and (2) oddly, this album in its original form has never been made available on CD. What we have on all CD versions is a different (and, on a few songs, jarringly inferior) mix from 1978 when there were problems with the original master tapes.