50Prog50: The Best Prog Albums, Part Three
So after having posted a couple editions, and having offered up some wildly unorthodox examples of what I believe progressive rock to be, it now falls on me to clarify my choices. The first indicator is always that the band is chasing after an idea that is different than the accepted form. That idea can be to write a multi-part suite of songs that combine into a long piece, but length does not necessarily make you prog. Sometimes it just makes you a bad editor.
Another common indicator is the “concept album” and the “rock opera” — a concept album usually has a central topic and then each song finds a different spin on that topic (i.e. the Alan Parsons Project’s The Turn of a Friendly Card is about gambling, but looks at the topic in a much different way when it comes to the song “Time”). A rock opera follows a distinct narrative all the way through (i.e. Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood.) These terms get bounced around a lot, and if you’re being hard-nosed about it, both Green Day’s American Idiot and My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade fit the bill. No, neither of those albums are on this list.
Prog takes great pride in musicianship, sometimes to the detriment of the music, as gifted instrumentalists sometimes go too far in showing off. However, there usually is a reason for their playing, sometimes overplaying, whereas with a jam-band, they start with a seed and then go off on improvisational fantasias. The difference lies in whether they follow the plot they’ve devised or drift off into a solo made up on the spot.
And as with all things, none of these are hard and fast rules. What does unify them is that each tactic is meant to break out of the rock and roll comfort zone, usually defined as verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/end, and usually focused on boy meets girl, loves girl, loses girl, gets girl back. And like any genre, the best indicator of success is the severity of the backlash. Prog’s first golden period brought us punk, so even those that dislike progressive rock should be thankful for its existence.
Enough chit-chat. On to 30 – 21.
30. Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells (1973) Tubular Bells is a ’70s album, and I can’t think of a decade when it would have been as successful. Even the new-age recordings of Kitaro and Vangelis that surfaced in the ’80s and ’90s had a desire to be likable, where Mike Oldfield’s most recognized work is jovially cranky. It’s a single track separated into two parts, the limits of the vinyl LP time constraints (the same thing can be said for Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick.) It’s not particularly feel-good music either, and its often jarring changes and instrumental introductions probably would have excluded it from certain chemical forays of the time. It is, nonetheless, a pretty bold step for Oldfield, who plays most of the primary instruments of the piece.
The truth is that many people know the opening theme of the piece, but only as the music from the film The Exorcist. That insistent, continually cycling pattern of notes has the power to invoke mystery and dread, so music buff and director William Friedkin probably couldn’t refuse its inclusion if he tried. The funny thing about Tubular Bells is the effect it had on progressive rock, which is nil.
Direct descendants – Prog, no. Movies, yes. Some of Oldfield’s contemporaries of the time, like Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, were composing long-form synth pieces, very chilly and ambient. Whether Tubular Bells drove them to start scoring movies or not is a question I don’t have a definitive answer for, but the Magic Eight-Ball keeps coming up “Very Likely.” Also, there is a degree of similarity to be found in the soundtracks John Carpenter made for his films, particularly the theme from Halloween.
29. UK – UK (1978) After King Crimson, but before Asia, John Wetton was in another supergroup — albeit a much less heralded one. Snagging Crimsmate and former Yes drummer Bill Bruford, and adding keyboardist/electric violinist Eddie Jobson and guitarist Alan Holdsworth, UK’s debut album sounds like a less angry version of Red-era Crimson, and that’s not a bad thing. The track that seems most likely for comparison is “Thirty Years” with a similar build and explosion of musical tension as is found on Red‘s “Starless.” Except where “Starless” slowly climbs a staircase of dread, then rips into fierce Robert Fripp solo action, Alan Holdsworth, known more for his jazz-rock fusion, tends to go for brighter notes. The result is that on the track, and through the album, the predominant sense is more jazzy than heavy.
Much like King Crimson, it wouldn’t last. Both Holdsworth and Bruford walked, Terry Bozzio came to pound the skins and UK soldiered on as a trio for Danger Money. The album was enjoyable, and the track “Rendezvous 6:02″ is a personal favorite with its samba-beat, but it just wasn’t the same. After that came the inevitable live album and that was pretty much it for UK.
Direct descendants – UK is, in most respects, a footnote. They were ahead of the curve as far as the whole supergroup thing goes, but I certainly doubt they were that much an influence. More likely, with the collective egos of prog bands going supernova left and right, the need for fast company and faster employment led to the spate of “once in a lifetime” combos.
28. Brian Eno – Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974) I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Brian Eno is one of the most influential musicians of our time. He didn’t get there through insane keyboard chops, either. In an interview, he copped to being a barely functional musician in Roxy Music’s early days, his tack being more about texture and aggression than deftly tickling ivories (do electronic keyboards have ivories? You know what I mean). What really pushed Eno forward was his innate sense for being a provocateur. He didn’t bring the weird for weird’s sake so much as he insisted that, to be original, you’d better be ready to take risks.
It is that idea that has made him one of the premiere producers of the day. He (and Daniel Lanois) took U2 from the rough and angular post-punk of War to the moody, thorny landscapes of The Unforgettable Fire and the iconic The Joshua Tree. He freed David Bowie from the possibility of being Ziggy Stardust for the rest of his career, allowed the Talking Heads’ freak flag to fly higher than ever and, when the time came for Coldplay to work with him, it was huge news. All of these can be seen, to some extent, in his initial solo pop albums. What people got from his second album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), was something more intense and strange than the debut Here Come The Warm Jets.
It’s all for, and about, effect. The opening “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More” could have wound up on an early Roxy Music album, and given Phil Manzanera’s presence on guitar it wouldn’t have been difficult, but the lyrics are outlandish. I don’t quite get it myself, as it seems to be his love has departed for a new life in 1970s China. The twisted manipulation of sound through the album perfectly offsets Eno’s deadpan delivery. He’s not a singer, but he’s singing nonetheless. It’s that combination of calculated “oh, what the hell” moments that lift the recording up. The closing, title track is the simplest of instrumentation with a hypnotic atmosphere added on top; later in, the vocals arrive in a cluster, singing almost like carolers “We climb, we climb…” This, more than anything else, points the way for what future Eno productions would sound like.
Direct descendants – Name a critical darling from the last 20 years and they probably had some relationship to Brian Eno. After his pop albums, he introduced his series of ambient recordings starting with Ambient 1: Music For Airports, which in turn has influenced Steven Wilson’s Bass Communion, Bryn Jones’ Muslimgauze and Dirk Serries’ vidnaObmana and Fear Falls Burning.
27. Van Der Graaf Generator – The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other (1970) This might be unbelievable measured against prior entries (and future ones too), but Van Der Graaf Generator’s debut is the most prog album on the list. While guitar solos were not prevalent with this band, almost every other progressive rock cliche finds its way to the fore, from strings, woodwind instruments, and keyboard workouts to vocalist/lyricist Peter Hamill’s voice which can be best described as somewhere between Sparks’ Russell Mael and Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Subject matter includes the papal decree to banish all magic, white and black, by all means (“White Hammer”), a not-so-subtle dropping of their namesake, scientist Robert Van der Graaf (“Whatever Would Robert Have Said?”) and a tale of moving away to uncharted personal territories (“Refugees”). If you are on the fence about the merits of prog, or just plain hate it, this album will make your head pop like a blister.
For myself, the album has an almost naive charm to it, that even though it is reaching for musical grandeur, it was recorded before some of these tropes would become punchlines to music fans’ jokes. And some of the tracks just move me in an unexplainable way. “Refugees” might smack of chamber music, but it’s also beautiful in a fragile way, and the lyrics evoke that feeling of knowing your friends are far away, and wanting to reunite with them once again. This album is recommended for those who enjoy late ’60s and early ’70s examples of the genre, but again, if your appreciation of prog is tentative, this will not do it for you. I’m 90% certain of it.
One more thing: An album prior to this, The Aerosol Grey Machine, was credited to the band but is actually a Peter Hamill solo album. The credit change came while he was securing a record deal, and because they wanted product immediately, the solo became a “band” release. That makes The Least We Can Do… the official debut of the group. It also marks saxophonist David Jackson’s first outing with the Generator.
Direct descendants – The band the Tangent not only counts VDGG as an influence but occasionally has David Jackson on as a member. Also, Fish, the original vocalist for the band Marillion, has said Peter Hamill was a definite influence on him during the recording of Fugazi.
26. ELO – Time (1981) The more things change… By 1981, there was very little “orchestra” in the Electric Light Orchestra, but no matter. The fans had already grown accustomed to using the acronym and, besides, it was the synthtastic Eighties. You had to expect the big productions of the past would be whittled down to fancy keyboards. The thing that really set Time apart was that it was, once and for all, ELO’s concept album. I love Eldorado, don’t get me wrong, but the only really unifying trait of the recording was that the same people performed it all the way though. Time‘s “Prologue” starts with a vocoder voice intoning, “I have a message from another time,” and from that point it is a prog-pop whirlwind of artificial love (“Yours Truly, 2095″), the lament of a time-traveler (“The Way Life’s Meant To Be” with the key lyric, “I wish I was back in 1981″), and even presaging the 2000’s 24-Hour news cycle (“Here Is The News”).
Critics tend to give the album a marginal thumbs-up, believing the ELO brand had run out of coal by this juncture, but I think that comes more from the album only having one huge hit, “Hold On Tight.” Taken as a whole, and given a requisite mulligan for sounding like, oh heavens, an ’80s album, Time‘s ideas have matured remarkably well. Despite sounding very much of its day, and Jeff Lynne’s increasingly claustrophobic production style, not yet in full bloom here but definitely tentative, Time might have benefited from a small healthy dose of cynicism. No one involved could have believed worldwide peace would break out, or that love relationships would get less complicated in the future, so those instances on the record are surprisingly knowing. Luckily, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Direct descendants – The UK band Frost* covered “Here Is the News” on an EP that debuted songs from their album Experiments in Mass Appeal.
25. Marillion – Clutching At Straws (1987) Using alcohol and all that it brings as the starting point, Marillion’s last album with original lead singer and lyricist Fish (a.k.a. Derek W. Dick, which probably necessitated the whole stage name thing) is as conceptually heavy as the prior Misplaced Childhood, but having the songs separated versus being merged in a continuous track allowed many high points of the recording to shine. By all accounts, things were difficult within the band as Fish was beginning to move in a different direction both musically and emotionally. Nonetheless, his lyrics are wonderful constructions, from the varied allusions of “Warm Wet Circles” (a drink’s stain left on the bar, a bullet wound, a lover’s mouth, a shame cycle), the terrible vision of antisemitism creeping into one’s world (“White Russian”) and the self-hatred that is found as the losers of the modern world drown their sorrows in drink (“Sugar Mice”).
As part of the neo-prog movement that started in the early 1980s, Marillion was comfortable with merging pop flavors with heady subjects. Several bands grew from the same mindset but few have survived. Marillion never has been big chartbusters, but they have amassed a large and loyal following. We’ll discuss them, the band’s changes, and the impact of being one of the first of the big-label prog acts to go independent later on the list.
Direct descendants – Coming up alongside Marillion were neo-prog bands like IQ, which has also managed to buck the times and continue to make music. It could be said that Fish’s departure from the band was the best for all parties, as Marillion picked up singer Steve Hogarth and would go on to do some of their best work. At the same time, Fish’s first solo album, Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, would produce his most brilliant song, “A Gentleman’s Excuse Me.”
24. Transatlantic – Bridge Across Forever (2001) I was reluctant to add entries of recent vintage to this list, mostly out of the understanding that it would be difficult for these recordings to be considered influential in today’s musical landscape, especially without the benefit of time. But there were some albums that, despite the fact they came late last century or early this century, just seemed impossible to ignore. Bridge Across Forever is such an album. The cliches abound: massive half-hour epics, big conceptual themes, solo-mania and, here’s the s-bomb, supergroup! If we’re being picky, even though the band includes Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), and Pete Trewavas (Marillion), the predominant voice is that of Neal Morse, formerly of Spock’s Beard. To the outsider, these names probably went by without a flutter. To a prog-head, it’s like getting your Sausage McMuffin with an extra sausage patty. (Side-bar: I get that double entendre might be read into that last phrase, but understand that prog is almost uniformly appreciated by the male of the species. If you find a woman that digs prog, put a ring on it.)
Even with all the boxes checked, the band makes music that is often thrilling, emotional, and yes, epic. With Morse as the primary lyricist, and his conversion to Christianity becoming immediately evident in his work, the themes follow suit. “Duel With the Devil” is about experiencing the moment of clarity, the time when you finally confront your personal demons and make the change. The recurring theme inside, “Motherless Children,” calls to those who awaken “screaming in the silence of the night” to look to a new path. “Stranger in Your Soul” is about becoming that better person trapped within, freed once you’ve finally heard its ‘still, small voice.’ Already I can hear some readers moaning, “So it’s not just prog, but Christian prog?” Well, for those inclined to the topics, it’s a class-act example, and for those who aren’t, you’re likely to be won over by the talent brought to the table.
On top of all that, the title track which clocks in at a paltry five minutes is a tender piano ballad courtesy of Morse, truly goose-pimple stuff. I had some difficulty choosing which Transatlantic album to spotlight, between this, the debut STMPE, and their recent reunion disc The Whirlwind, but of the three I think Bridge Across Forever not only has a fighting chance of becoming influential in time, but really deserves it.
Direct descendants – Too soon to tell, but in at least 60% of the interviews found in progressive rock circles lately, bands are constantly amazed and humbled by Transatlantic. These are often bands that don’t ascribe to Bridge’s philosophy either, but are nonetheless envious of the chutzpah of the presentation.
23. Talk Talk – Laughing Stock (1991) So we’ve talked about prog bands seeping into the pop world, but here’s a striking vice-versa for you. Why Mark Hollis and company drifted from their ’80s output, including hits like “Talk Talk,” “Life’s What You Make It” and “It’s My Life” (later covered by No Doubt), is clearly a matter of knowing which way the wind was blowing, and it was not back toward their synth-driven, slightly New Romantic dance rock. How they arrived at the mostly acoustic and orchestrated sound of this (and the prior Spirit of Eden), mixing jazz textures, occasional passionate bursts of electric feedback, and the delicacy of nothing more than the often-found single voice paired with a single instrument, is a mystery to me. Regardless, Laughing Stock is one of those albums that rewards your patience. It doesn’t immediately drop sugar in your water for having pulled the right colored chord.
It’s impossible to pull out key tracks, but the one that comes closest to “rock” is the alternately subdued, then explosive, “Ascension Day.” It is a song that lyrically speaks to regret. “Farewell, mother numb to and devout to, reckon love sees us the same” and “Bet I’ll be damned” only make explicit what you already hear in the music. The drums bring that jazz aspect in, the distance rendering the beat almost a muted whisper, not a four-on-the-floor slam, until the drama is called for. The mournful organ, provided by producer Tim Friese-Greene, brings the church in. In between these, linking the vocal parts, the electric guitar provides a shocking musical stab. The frustrating part about describing the song, and the album, is that description always turns up inadequate. Laughing Stock is not an album you hear, but an album you feel.
Direct descendants – These tones and textures were so prized that the band the Catherine Wheel hired on Friese-Greene for their last few outings, marking a drastic shift from their shoegaze, then increasingly arena rock sound. Both those albums, Adam and Eve and Wishville, provide great listening experiences but barely come close. More on the mark, the underground, indie sound of the Louisville Scene, particularly of the band The For Carnation led by Slint mastermind Brian MacMahan, gets close quite often — but still falls shy of the mark.
22. Yes – Close to the Edge (1972) It was as if the band, amused by the head-scratching length of Fragile‘s “Heart Of The Sunrise,” turned to the audience and said, “You think that’s long? Check this out!” Close to the Edge has just three tracks, the title cut nearing nineteen minutes, “And You And I” crossing the finish line a little over ten, and the pipsqueak “Siberian Khatru” jumping up and down with a puny eight-minute count. Length was not the only goal of the album, as Jon Anderson’s flights of lyrical mysticism grew more expansive, the musical lows got deeper, and the highs were enough to elicit vertigo. For the devotees, it must have been a mind-blowing experience to hear for the first time. After all, everything was changing in 1972, from the politics to the cultural zeitgeist. The former Flower Children were migrating to different forms of self expression, and many would become Boogie People. Between the sit-in and the dance floor, there was this first golden age of progressive rock.
Of course, those who liked their good ol’ rock n’ roll concise, passionate and fun were going friggin’ nuts. Yes was the antithesis of everything that was rock. They were long-haired Europeans making pseudo-intellectual “pieces,” breaking these things down into individual thematic sections, and where was the requisite smooth sounds to get with the ladies with? With? Where? Whatever. Yes was clearly doing it for their own personal gratification, and those who were able to ride their wavelength got it too. For those that didn’t, Close to the Edge was the poster child for masturbatory music. Two years later, with the double-disc Tales from Topographic Oceans containing only four tracks, the prior album seemed like a brief stroll in the park.
Direct descendants – While other bands were blurring the boundaries before them, Yes was one of the few that proved you could actually make money at it. By that standard, their early ’70s albums shone a light for plenty of acolytes and imitators.
21. Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975) It’s bad enough to lose a key bandmember to infighting or, worse, death. But what if you lost him or her and they were right there, hollow, present and absent at the same time? It’s an oft-told tale that during the recording of Dark Side of the Moon, former band member and guiding light Syd Barrett showed up at the studio. No one expected him. He had virtually lost his mind due to drug experimentation and mental breakdown; in fact, Dark Side‘s “Brain Damage” started this train of thought in the first place. Here he was, just popping around without warning, appearing in the booth. He was silent, gaunt, his gaze the literal thousand-yard-stare. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is then a tribute to, and a requiem for, the Syd they knew; brilliant, twisted, troubled. It is no coincidence that most of the tracks that comprise this ongoing theme are instrumental. Syd’s there, but not, and that lack of a vocal pins the tail on the donkey. “Wish You Were Here” is the concrete expression of the sentiment. “How I wish you were here… running over the same old ground, have we found the same old fear…” Syd couldn’t offer that comfort or recognition anymore.
At the same time, the Floyd was becoming a commodity, and not liking it much. Both “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar” point a finger at industry shenanigans, and the realization that maybe the rock star life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Equally important is the contribution of longtime art designer Storm Thorgerson, taking that thread and running with it. His elegant photo manipulations — the faceless man in the bowler hat offering a copy of the album to you, a handkerchief caught in a breeze without an owner to be found, a man diving in a lake but leaving zero trace of his action in the water — all play with presence and absence. The famous cover image alludes to, maybe, a sense of guilt within the band itself. One man shakes the hand of another, this one on fire. There is no alarm, no immediate need to put out the flames. He is either ignorant or indifferent to this unfolding tragedy and merely goes with the flow. How long was Syd on fire right there, standing in front of them, shaking hands?
Pink Floyd would never be the same. Their trippy space-rock years would give way to bouts of musical angst and, yes, self-loathing. We’ll explore all that down the line.
Direct descendants – While there were plenty of space-rock practitioners, and just as many prog rock heirs to the Floyd throne after Dark Side Of The Moon, few matched the intensity of their latter years when the scales fell from their eyes. The band RPWL actually began as a Floyd tribute outfit before writing their own material. One of the most famous examples of a Floydian slip would be Queensryche’s “Silent Lucidity” from the Empire album.
Next time, we’re in the Teens and lots of bands are canoodling in the back seat with pop fame. Stay tuned for the lascivious details!