50Prog50: The Best Prog Albums, Part Four

Written by 50Prog50, Music

Regrets, I’ve had a few.

There were bands and artists I really wanted to squeeze onto this list but, ultimately, the fit wasn’t right. Queen certainly had the originality that progressive rock requires and their pomp-righteous first couple albums might have accepted the shoehorn, but it never fully jibed. Queen is, at heart, one of the great hard rock bands and if the readership demands it be so, they’ll rank high on 50Hard Rock50.

Supertramp started its tumultuous life as a prog band, the brainchild of Rick Davies, but when Roger Hodgson signed on a couple years later, a lot of those tendencies arrived only in flashes. I would have chosen the classic Breakfast In America, but I’ve already stretched the boundaries as far as my inclusive viewpoint is concerned.

Styx was considered prog, but not their “classic” years, and their one honest-to-goodness rock opera, Kilroy Was Here, mostly burns horribly like hot sauce dumped in your ear canals. I stand by my opinion that Paradise Theater is not as bad as you might think it is, but it doesn’t belong here either.

Spilt Milk from Jellyfish, on the other hand, might. It is a concept album of sorts involving the losing of one’s faith (or actively getting rid of it) in the face of religious hypocrisy and money-grubbing. It arrived after the last great spate of televangelists with tearful admissions of moral misbehavior, but not before they got in another request for money for the ministry or “God will call me home.” Even if the band’s slings and arrows sting me a little harder than most, the creative wordplay, super-widescreen sound (it is one of the finest audio productions of its time) and the inventive instrumentation suggest, yes, this could be prog. But it’s not on the list because I suspect power-pop fans would have my head on a pike for suggesting their standard-bearer would be caught dead on there.

Well, then let’s be off with 20 – 11.

20. Fates Warning – A Pleasant Shade Of Gray (1997) Fates Warning started out sounding more like Iron Maiden than progressive metal, in no small part due to John Arch’s voice. It wasn’t until Ray Alder took over the mic duties that new directions started opening up. By ’97, guitarist and then primary writer Jim Matheos had together the elements that could carry off a project of  scope. Having keyboardist Kevin Moore, who just left Dream Theater, on as a primary instrumentalist (although never officially indoctrinated into the group) didn’t hurt either. Matheos was intent on having his vision fully realized this time out, something he indicated in interviews wasn’t happening.

A Pleasant Shade Of Gray is supposed to be a single song broken into twelve sections, but don’t let that deter you. Most of these sections really are self-contained tracks that nonetheless move the narrative along. That storyline consists of the break-up of a relationship, but the details of who did what are obscured by “a pleasant shade of gray”, the convenient amnesia that disguises one’s culpability. “Part Six” starts with an insistent bassline and builds into a Pink Floyd/Queensryche-like ballad, and the primary voice of the song is starting to come to terms with the possibility he’s far from objective: “And I know we’re not children anymore, innocence lost in a sea of gray / But I often wonder what else could be and I still dream of running away.” The closing track is the moment of revelation, understanding his love left him because, emotionally, he had already left her. “I remember the nights, and I remember pain / like the sound of your voice, alone / these memories and more remain.”

While respected, Fates Warning was never able to break out from a second-tier status. They would release two more studio albums, Disconnected and FWX (Fates Warning Ten), and then go on extended hiatus. They’ve been touring a bit this year promoting the anniversary of the Perfect Symmetry album (Ray Alder’s first with them) but no indication of new studio work has been given.

Direct descendants – Ray Alder’s primary gig of late has been as vocalist for the band Redemption, Jim Matheos has released a couple solo recordings and Kevin Moore continued on with his Chroma Key project. Joey Vera, also a bassist for Armored Saint and Lizzy Borden, released a solo recording as well.

“A Pleasant Shade Of Gray Part VI”

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19. Camel – Nude (1981) Before taking their shot at pop stardom, Camel composed a fascinating album that truly challenged the listener. Leaning a bit on the tale of Rip Van Winkle, Nude is about a Japanese soldier who finds himself stranded on a deserted island before the close of World War II. Twenty nine years pass before he is rescued and brought home – however, home is nothing like the way he remembered it. Old animosities are no longer, his loved ones are clearly older and some are departed. While he was in isolation, time was in a state of suspended animation. Now returned to the present, he finds out just how much of that time has been lost. The former soldier then has to question whether he’s been returned home or taken from the only home he’d genuinely known.

You know how PBS constantly reminds you their programming is the type “you’ll only find on PBS”? A story like this, in a pop music setting, could only come from the idea-friendly progressive rock scene. While there are a couple tracks with vocals, the album is primarily instrumental and it makes perfect sense. The story is about a man who is alone for the majority of his life. The choice to tell that through music, versus a hokey soliloquy about “I’m alone on an island! No one to talk to! Why am I talking if there’s no one to hear me?”, gives the listener a lot of credit as well as the latitude to ‘direct’ the story in the way they see fit. It’s a story unfolding in their heads, much like the silent life of the former Japanese soldier. The most clever track is “The Homecoming” which is parade music drifting across the left speaker, then out to the right, literally a parade of life passing one by.

Direct descendants – An album this conceptually tight, yet committed to never dumbing down to a listener looking for an easy storytelling experience, doesn’t have a lot of imitators. If you know of any, do fill me in. I could stand a few more albums like Camel’s Nude.

“Docks” & “Beached”

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18. Rush – Moving Pictures (1981) Signals is the Rush album I love the best, but even I couldn’t diminish the impact Moving Pictures had. For starters, the band had found a way of getting their outsized tendencies to fit into acceptably short tracks (aside from the ambitious “The Camera Eye”), able to tell tales of wicked cool cars (“Red Barchetta”), rail against religious intolerance (“Witch Hunt”), examine fame from both sides of the spotlight (“Limelight”) and rock the institution of the instrumental as few had before (the bassist’s favorite song, “YYZ”). Then, on top of all that, they had the nerve to have a hit, one that gets played on rock radio once a day, every day (and could probably use a breather, don’t you think, rock DJ drones?) “Tom Sawyer”. Just to be clear, the song isn’t really about Mark Twain’s rambunctious little pischer, but because Neil Peart is as inventive a lyricist as he is a drummer, nothing is ever exactly what it seems.

Let’s not forget Geddy Lee’s bubbling bass or Alex Lifeson’s guitar stylings, incorporating bits of rock-steady skanking into the hard rock mix, most evident in the closing “Vital Signs”. Last but not least is the design by honorary fourth member Hugh Syme. His cover image makes visual puns of the title with movers actually moving pictures, onlookers being struck with awe by one of them, moved to tears by the picture, and what picture should that be? Dogs playing poker, what else? Although Signals and “Subdivisions” got me at the right time, in the right place, it’s fair to assume Moving Pictures got nearly everyone else the same way.

Direct descendants – Rush seems to pick up devoted followers and imitators each year. Well-known faithful include Enchant, Porcupine Tree and Tiles. Primus bassist Les Claypool famously kicked out “YYZ” on occasion as well.

“Tom Sawyer”

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17. Anathema – A Natural Disaster (2004) So why did I decide to do 50Prog50 anyway? The chances were certain I’d be bringing out some very large genre dinosaurs, and some of them were impossible to ignore. There are other bands though that have made some exciting music and have remained under the radar. Why Anathema should be one of them is upsetting. I came to them through their album A Fine Day To Exit, which took on the feel of a latter-day Pink Floyd cycle about regret and guilt. Their most recent, We’re Here Because We’re Here, manages to be moody, uplifting and confrontational all at once. In short, here’s a band that is trying to make sure every firework on their rig explodes dazzlingly.

In between those two albums, the family Cavanaugh produced what could only be described as a work of art. Sitting side by side with gentle songs like “Are You There?” and “Electricity” are fiery exclamations of alienation and paranoia. The vocoder-voiced “Closer” reminds the listener, “The dream world is a very scary place to be trapped inside.” “Pulled Under At 2000 Metres A Second” is the musical equivalent of a panic attack. Coming initially from the black metal/doom metal genre, Anathema was one of several refugees seeking arenas of more nuance. They are also one of the more successful in terms of what was produced, and while some of those metal drifters have drifted back to the safety of their starting place, Anathema has yet to look back.

Direct descendants – They are not, however, household names. They should be. Alternative rock, prog rock, metal edges and a pop heart typify the music of Anathema. They might be the least known band on this list, but their work stands toe-to-toe with almost all of them.

“Electricity”

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16. David Bowie – Low (1977) Bowie was loose in Berlin on a killing spree. With Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti at his side and the possibility of turning the rock and roll form inside out like a bad glove, he drew and put down Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust before they knew he was there. He did it by taking into account everything that was perceived to be Bowie, figuring out the expectations, then rejecting every one. We expect him to sing, so we get a handful of instrumentals and icy tracks like “Warszawa” which eventually does have vocals, but in Polish. “Art Decade” sputters and hums like a hard drive having a nervous breakdown in the dark.

The album’s title is a direct reference to Bowie’s state of mind at the time, trying to get away from the highs, and the depression that always came tethered with them. “Always Crashing In The Same Car” could be an allusion, an addict’s lament of being trapped in the same bad behavior again and again. Only one track, “Sound And Vision”, could be considered the recognizable single, but there are plenty of pop-inflected moments on the album, such as “Breaking Glass” and “Be My Wife”. Mostly, Bowie and Eno were messing with the form, seeing how far they could go, how much they could get away with, and they tested the structural capacities of that thing called ‘rock stardom’.

Although Low is the first of his Berlin trilogy (followed by “Heroes” and Lodger) it was recorded in France, but the result is the same. In order to put down his numerous alter egos and find himself, he had to go far away. Low is a moment of bravery in the music world because there was every chance the record would be career suicide. Instead, he started down a road that would make him one of the most respected and forward-thinking individuals within it.

A side note: If you ever wondered why Bowie carried over his look from his appearance in the Nicholas Roeg film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, you’re partially quite observant. The cover for Low is actually a still from the film.

Direct descendants – Cohorts on the Berlin trek were Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and both would make profoundly different music than what their former bands played. As the years passed, Bowie would be seen as the godfather of alternative music, respected by people like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. In turn, when Bowie would pass a comment such as, “Godspeed You Black Emperor is the only band that matters right now,” or “No one’s on the same level that Arcade Fire is at” it was instant credibility. Low was the moment he really started earning that cred.

“Warszawa”

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15. King Crimson – Beat (1982) When the Crims returned in 1981 with Discipline, they did so with new bassist Tony Levin and singer/guitarist Adrian Belew. This change brought a freshness into the camp and the license to explore the new wave anxiety surfacing in the music of the day. Levin’s basslines were complex, not content to merely add tone to the beat. Belew’s guitar perfectly complimented Robert Fripp; while Fripp fiddled with the angry, underbelly of notes, Belew screeched, whammied and squealed atop it with a spastic, otherworldly energy. In 1984, with Three Of A Perfect Pair, the band released an album split down the middle, with side 2 holding the experimental bits while side 1 worked in the margins of pop. No kidding! In fact, modern rock radio took to it famously, playing “Sleepless”, “Model Man” and the title cut right alongside the likes of U2 and Simple Minds.

Falling squarely between the extremes is the often overlooked Beat from 1982. Making up the second entry of the Primary Colors trilogy, it had nervous, kinetic tracks like “Neurotica”, very much in the vein of Discipline‘s “Elephant Talk”. It also had stabs at the pop world, like the song that has become something of a band classic, “Heartbeat”. That song, while being a harbinger of things to come, also was a warning sign to the sleeveless t-shirt rock and rollers of the day: the prog geeks have escaped and are mating. Yes, “Heartbeat” is about sex, as if lyrics like, “I remember the feeling, my hands in your hair / I remember the rhythm, oh, the rhythm we made” could be about anything but the dirty-dirty. I suspect the contribution is more Belew’s than Fripp’s. He would re-record it in a freer version for his solo album Young Lions a few years later.

Direct descendants – Just as it was verification of one’s credentials in the Seventies to have Robert Fripp guest on your album, so it is with the ’90s and 2000’s with Adriam Belew. He has appeared with Tool, on Porcupine Tree’s Deadwing, with Nine Inch Nails as well as helping produce debut albums for CCM artists like Jars of Clay and Rick Altizer.

“Heartbeat”

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14. Opeth – Damnation (2003) As if I needed to explain, again, how big the progressive rock tent is, here we have the band Opeth, coming from the death metal scene of Stockholm. Unlike Anathema, they would never leave that style completely. Instead, they expanded their palette, adding long suites to their resume buffeted by delicate and clean parts of acoustic and expressive singing, interspersed with the murderously heavy, death-growl laden juggernaut they’d come to be known for. It was in a very concrete expression a contrast of light and dark, the world above and the world below, found within a single song. This approach would be nowhere more evident than on their artistic breakthrough, 2001’s Blackwater Park.

Their next foray would begin life as a two-disc set, the first explicitly taking on the heavy as the second tackled only the light, classic rock moments. They delivered the concept to the record company, but said company saw things differently, probably in terms of dollar signs as they could make more off of two new Opeth albums than one. 2002 saw the first fruits of it in the focused and brutal Deliverance. 2003 dropped Damnation and, finally, the music scene had to contend with the possibility they were dealing with genre superstars.

The opening “Windowpane” paired with  “In My Time Of Need” probably blew the minds of committed metalheads more than any earth-shaking solo could. There is almost no guitar distortion on the album, the band opting for clean guitar tone, and it is perfect. There are swathes of mellotron, organ (is that a Rhodes or a B-3?), and vocalist Mikael Akerfeldt doing what few death metal growlers can: actually sing. His voice is damned near miraculous and you learn, in only a few verse’s time, he chose this sound out of love, not necessity, because he probably could sing any style he cared to. Surprisingly, there was little to no backlash from their fans. They already knew the band’s collective heart resided in both these worlds, so the stereotypical defenestration due to the apparent betrayal never took place. Opeth would once again pair the styles up on later albums Ghost Reveries and Watershed, but Damnation was the moment they shocked their world. If you just love beautiful rock music with skillfully added prog touches, you’ll love it too.

Direct descendants – Some bands ran parallel to Opeth, such as good friends and Stockholm scenemates Katatonia. Katatonia has also experienced a change in their original sound and is a band well worth seeking out. On the whole, Opeth has become the watermark that metal measures itself against, and the depth of their abilities with the ambition of their work has endeared them to new prog rock groups as well. Their influence on the genre will doubtlessly be felt for a long time to come.

“Hope Leaves”

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13. Roxy Music – Avalon (1982) Time for a breather. By now you may have noticed there is very little on this list that reeks of fairy glades and dragonslaying, and not by accident. As with every stereotype, there’s a hint of truth in it and there’s a big stinky whiff of fantasy novel residue over a lot of this genre. Now spend a month or so auditioning albums to formulate a list. Listen to Uriah Heep’s The Magician’s Birthday three times in a row to figure out if it was cracking the Fifty. (It didn’t. No offense, Heep fans.) I needed a break and fortunately for me, Number 13 fits the bill.

Early Roxy Music albums were a tug of war between Brian Eno and vocalist/lyricist Bryan Ferry. Eno wanted to take things over the edge, and sometimes Ferry obliged, but at heart Ferry was a crooner. The barking and howling seldom suited him personally, and yet some of those affectations carried on after Eno’s departure. What’s a guy to do? He’s been in a specific sound for so long, it would be a shock to the system to change, right? By 1980, it seemed he was tired of saving his mellow stuff for his solo albums and started personalizing Roxy Music with Flesh + Blood. Three cover songs appeared on it, just as covers were commonplace on his solo efforts, so that was another indicator of his new process. The critics all assumed the band had run its course and nothing great would leak from the camp again.

In 1982, that all changed. Avalon is like a tuxedo among designer track suits. The price tag might have been the same for them, but the aesthetic is more mature, more elegant, a breather for not only yours truly, but for audiences of the ’80s getting burned out on the constant synthesizer attacks in pop. This is romantic, mood-altering stuff, buoyed by unobtrusive synth washes, Phil Manzanera at his understated best and Andy Mackay, making most saxophone players look like ADD freaks by contrast with his ability to play the right note for the moment, not a thousand of them. The songs are not as ubiquitous as maybe they ought to be. You probably know the title cut and you should know “More Than This”, the opening track. Meanwhile, “Take A Chance With Me”, “The Main Thing” and “True To Life” all could have been singles.  There were many years where Roxy Music seemed like they were too cool for the room. With Avalon, they really were.

Direct descendants – Roxy Music’s art-rock demeanor, depending on which era you’re looking over, hasn’t had the kind of impact one would expect, given how well-loved the LP is. A rejiggered version of 10,000 Maniacs recorded a cover of “More Than This” and indie-dance-rock heroes L.C.D. Soundsystem count them as a band James Murphy’s looked up to. I hear the influence on albums by FischerSpooner too, but on all of these, I do not hear the level of restraint and grace present on Avalon.

“Take A Chance With Me”

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12. Kerry Livgren – Seeds Of Change (1980) There was tension within the ranks of the band Kansas. Lead writer, keyboardist, and guitarist Kerry Livgren had a change of spiritual direction and the focus of the Kansas albums during the period drifted more toward his Christian views. Vocalist Steve Walsh was more inclined to rock on. A year later, he would quit the band. While this was going on, Livgren was working on his first solo record Seeds Of Change. While the Kansas sound was getting more and more streamlined, this album cleaved more to the structure of earlier band offerings, all the while remaining true to Livgren’s faith. For instance, the opening track “Just One Way” offers the direction, “From the dark, to the light, just one way home.” The closing track “Ground Zero”, sung by Ambrosia vocalist David Pack, is an Armageddon parable. In between, stabs at personal testimony come through on “Whiskey Seed”, sung by Livgren and CCM stalwart Mylon LeFevre and “Down To The Core”.

The songs all maintain the Kansas mash-up of prog ideals with snatches of Southern boogie, and members of the band like Phil Ehart, Robbie Steinhardt, and even Walsh doing the vocals on “How Can You Live” make appearances. If there is a wild-card on the record, two if you’re good at math, Ronnie James Dio sings on both “To Live For The King” and “Mask Of The Great Deceiver”. Livgren knew Dio from way back with his days in the band Elf, and when asked to contribute, Dio stepped up and turned in killer performances. Specifically on “Mask Of The Great Deceiver”, you get Dio’s patented roar, but you also get some bits at his most sedate. In the span of the song, you hear all of what he could accomplish as a vocalist, and you got it on a Christian Prog album.

Direct descendants – Livgren was a primary inspiration to Neal Morse, and his last few Spock’s Beard albums indicated as much. On his second solo album, Testimony, Livgren makes a guest appearance. Livgren’s musical approach is also heard in bands like Enchant and Symphony X.

“Mask Of The Great Deceiver”

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11. Yes – 90125 (1983) The band was Cinema. It was founded by Yes members Chris Squire (bass) and Alan White (drums) after the Drama lineup went bust and Steve Howe & Geoff Downes left. They brought in original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye and former Rabbitt guitarist Trevor Rabin, and Drama frontman Trevor Horn stayed on as producer. The sessions were going better than they had expected and eventually the songs were heard by Yes vocalist Jon Anderson. He wanted in, and so Cinema became the next phase of Yes as well as the title of the Grammy-winning instrumental from the intended album. In cheeky, matter-of-fact fashion, the title was 90125, also the Atlantic/Atco catalog number.

There was no reason to expect the band would release something as populist as 90125. The album had hit singles all over it and made this band, denigrated all through the 1970s as being stuffy and uncool, into Top Ten stars. That was mostly thanks to “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” with its bursts of samples, razor-wire guitar solo, harmonies and yes, its groove. You could dance to it. At the same time, the album still had a foot in the progressive world, with “Changes” and it’s complicated rhythm flips, “Hold On” as an uncomplicated blues-rock track up until the mid-section where the beat drops out. The vocals seem to tangle up into one another then, bam, back on the thread. The final track, “Hearts”, builds from a pan-pipe synth to rock release as big as anything the band had ever done, then down to a single voice and a “question-mark” of a final note. Purists don’t think the album is prog. They’re wrong.

More important than whether it fits the strict genre classifications, 90125 is a good rock album. It didn’t make anything more or less palatable for picky eaters, but it had nine tracks that sounded great blasting from your car, and in the truest test of these kinds of things, they still sound pretty fine blasting out of the iPod.

Direct descendants – Trevor Horn went on to form The Art Of Noise as well as the ZTT label and produced well-known efforts from Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Seal. Trevor Rabin eventually dropped out of rock and joined in with Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams and the Media Ventures studio. They are the primary scoring unit for Jerry Bruckheimer productions. Yes continues on as a touring entity, albeit without Jon Anderson or Rick Wakeman who unequivocally stated, “If it’s not with Jon, it’s not Yes.” In terms of 90125‘s impact, although they weren’t the first proggers to reach out to Top Ten rock and pop, they were the most unlikely. In the wake of the success, many of the old guard decided, if they can do it, so can we. The Eighties was not only a decade of progressive rock resurgence, it was also a time of unprecedented acceptance.

“Changes”

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Next time, as we make that final countdown to one, we’ll be discussing a lot of albums you already know (and can probably guess the rest.) Stay tuned!