50Prog50: The Best Prog Albums, Part Two
Last time, I hinted that Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery wasn’t going to be on this list. Perhaps an explanation is in order. First and foremost, this list is about some of the prog albums that stay in high rotation with me. Even at their most self-indulgent, there will be something about the songs on them that can grab me with little coercion. I need to be in a very specific mood to listen to Brain Salad Surgery and, to be blunt, I haven’t been in that mood for almost ten years now.
Also, the bands that show up on this list, even though some might dabble in a rock arrangement of a classical composition here and there, butter their bread with original compositions. ELP is primarily known for recasting those pieces and not so much for their originals. Do I think all three members are tremendous performers? Sure. Do they perform, as a unit, in service of the song? Rarely. Will “Karn Evil 9″ get no love from me? Someday, but not this time out.
Personally, I like the Emerson, Lake and Powell edition the best, but don’t tell anyone I said that.
40. Camel – Stationary Traveler (1984) Last time out, I said that the Alan Parsons Project had no direct descendants, but in their most popular and profitable phase, they did have bands that followed their lead. Although Camel had been around a while, their sort of long form conceptual work (i/e The Snow Goose) was not getting them very far. Band leader and multi-instrumentalist Andy Latimer tried a more streamlined, pop sound prior to Stationary Traveler on The Single Factor (which, all considering, is as honest a title as he could have offered up.) He even enlisted longtime APP vocalist Chris Rainbow, but the songs missed more than they hit.
Stationary Traveler remedies much of this with really good, if somewhat mellow, tracks like “West Berlin” and the sexy “Fingertips,” while Rainbow offers vocals for “Cloak and Dagger Man” and makes the tune nearly a lost cut from APP’s Ammonia Avenue album. The overall concept, tales from the divided Germany, is strong but never so overbearing that it beats you over the head with it. The sound is inextricably ’80s, and the wall is down and Germany is reunified, so consequently this is an album of its time, but it remains an enjoyable Ala — uh, Camel album.
Direct descendants – As it was with Parsons and Woolfson, Camel’s sound here has not spawned a lot of devotees. The same can be said of Camel’s core sound, primarily instrumental, except in the rockier moments of Vangelis and Kitaro’s new-age work.
39. King Crimson – Court of the Crimson King (1969) So I won’t add Brain Salad Surgery but I will add Court Of The Crimson King, another warhorse of the genre? What gives? Prior to joining ELP, Greg Lake did his tour of duty with the Crims and the result is less about co-opting compositions and more about mashing up genres. In the first cut alone, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” you get a heavy-metal plod that erupts into an electric free-jazz excursion. On the last, title cut, you have veddy British minstrel music that gives way to a chorale, a classically structured digression, and you get where I’m going with this.
The cover of the album terrified me as a kid, that nightmarishly pink face, those nostrils, dentristry right off of Fleet Street, it arrived without titles on the front. It was just that shocked face staring up at you from the record racks, and for a kid that was more into pop/rockers like Foreigner at the time, the cover was as ugly as the music inside could, at times, be. Clearly, I’ve gotten over my aversion to the album’s wilder moments, and in retrospect, that image says everything that needs to be said about the music it contains.
Direct descendants – Tool has cited King Crimson as a major influence, as has Porcupine Tree, but more toward the band’s heavier rock phase found on Red (which will be discussed at length later on). Crimson King‘s sound is found in spirit in some of ELP’s own compositions, as does the presence of Greg Lake and lyricist Peter Sinfield. My reference to Foreigner wasn’t an accident, as Crim member Ian McDonald subsequently went on to found that band with Mick Jones (Spooky Tooth) and Lou Gramm.
38. Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dream (1999) I love power pop. This gets me in a lot of trouble with my music friends. How could the frivolity of power pop intermingle with the serious work that is prog? The answer is that every form of lasting music needs a good hook. Beethoven knew it. Duh-duh-duh-DUMMM is, by and large, a hook for the ages.
What gets me in more trouble is when I insist Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream is mostly a power pop album, but I don’t care what they think. I’m right, and here’s why: Take the second track, “Piano Lessons,” which deals with a musician struggling with becoming less an artist and more a commodity. The verses have some good humor attached to them, the chorus is catchy and boasts a big harmony. Sure, we tend to think of power pop as having a faster, punchier beat, but aside from that I see no glaring difference. Meanwhile, “This Is No Rehearsal” does have a butt-kicking burst of energy after each chorus. I stand justified.
The orchestration that surrounds the world’s end ballad “A Smart Kid” could easily have sat next to some of ELO’s more somber moments like “One Summer Dream” from Face the Music, or during one of XTC’s more grandiose forays. The scowl the prog-heads make when power pop is uttered ought to be turned upside down. Nobody likes a crank. This album is as good an entryway as any.
Direct descendants – Lately, in the prog field, the sticker “for fans of Porcupine Tree” has been showing up a lot, sometimes inaccurately, but it is an indication of where they now stand within the genre. Two bands that come close enough to be considered correct are Riverside and the Pineapple Thief.
37. Yes – Drama (1980) By the dawn of the Eighties, the headiness of prog in all its forms was too much to bear. Punk lashed out at it, disco denied it, pop drifted farther into the easy listening waters of predictability, but that would not last long. Like I’ve said previously, prog would start to make inroads into the pop world during the decade and make stars out of musicians that were once scorned. It would not have been because of this album, though.
Jon Anderson left the band, but as it goes with Yes, the band carried on without him. Rick Wakeman left too but, by this time, his mercurial nature had already seen him leave a few times, so it was almost to be expected. Their replacements were radical indeed. Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of the Buggles (“Video Killed The Radio Star”) assumed the positions and, oddly enough, breathed new life into the group. Horn’s voice, while not being dead-on, was a close match for Anderson’s range, while Downes’ keys skills were much more rhythmic and percussive than Wakeman. Wakeman liked the orchestra, but Downes knew how to rock.
The opening “Machine Messiah” is heavy, about as metal as Yes had or will ever come. The closing “Tempus Fugit” is at its core a punk song, which probably did more to tick off punkers than it did to ameliorate them. In between there are some solid rock songs, like “Run Through the Light” and “Does It Really Happen?” and this new energy was really doing the trick for the group. The album’s sales, on the other hand, did bubkus. Downes and Yes guitarist Steve Howe would walk away from the band to form Asia, Horn would step from the mic and become the producer for the next Yes album, the one the prophets talked about, 90125. The road to get there would be rocky, though.
A side note: “Tempus Fugit” has become a fan favorite over the years, showing up in concerts in instrumental snippets, but with Jon Anderson’s return to the band, it was never performed in full to my knowledge.
Direct descendants – Yes, as an entity within prog, has had many descendants. Yes, in this formation, only influenced itself. It can be argued that without Drama, there would be no 90125. There wouldn’t have been an Asia either.
36. Asia – Asia (1982) Never look a gift segue in the mouth (but if you ever see a segue with a mouth, run). But seriously, folks, following from where Howe and Downes were to where they went is a natural progression, even if the album’s not. There, I said it. This is not really a prog album, but an AOR album made by a supergroup with prog credentials. It has those moments in it, though, enough to warrant its inclusion to the list, and I’ll point them out as we go.
The important thing to note is the band’s pedigree: John Wetton (King Crimson, UK with Alan Holdsworth), Howe and Downes, and Carl Palmer (ELP) on the drums. Each gets his turn in the spotlight, with Wetton’s multi-tracked vocal harmonies, Howe’s licks on “Time Again” sounding more sinister than ever before, Palmer’s thunderous rolls on “Wildest Dreams” and Downes’ thrilling work on “Cutting It Fine.” As a piece of lyrical brilliance, well, uh, it’s not. It’s a rock album and, as such, depends on time-tested subject matter like love found and lost, war, and love lost and found again. Its influence on the overall perception of prog in the ’80s is enormous, though. People bought the album, then tracked back to see what all the players had done before. This led to a mini-resurgence for most of them and they would return in many variations to capitalize on this newfound goodwill.
And for me, Asia will always mean eighth grade with Lisa DiVincenzo in the classic dragon tour t-shirt. Lord have mercy.
Direct descendants – So as an example of progressive might, Asia doesn’t stack up, but its effect can’t be overstated. And just like any good prog band, Asia would have its share of implosions. Greg Lake took over for Wetton for the Asia in Asia concert, then Wetton returned as Howe left. Then Wetton left. Howe went on to form GTR with Steve (Genesis) Hackett while Asia went on with vocalist John Payne. GTR imploded after one album. Payne was with Asia for many years, until the recent reunion. Now there are two Asias, Asia Classic and Asia New. Like some inbred, hillbilly nightmare, Asia’s descendants are themselves.
35. Tool – Aenima (1996) If Yes and Asia made prog safe for the 1980s, Tool did the same for the angsty, cranky ’90s. Their methodology was essentially a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down (although that’s a tricky term to use when talking about an album with the song “Hooker With A Penis”). The band’s sound is a combination of the angry alt-rock of the day combined with King Crimson’s precision (second Fripp spotting of the day) and thundering, tribal drumming. Vocalist Maynard James Keenan moves from whispers to vicious barks to an almost mid-Eastern warble and wail. It’s a very specific sound they’ve created, and that’s part of the Tool problem.
Each Tool album has steadfastly stayed on the same page stylistically, from the slow build at the beginning, to the mid-song burst, to the takedown, to the fiery finish; the system they put in place on Aenima has been used not as effect but as a mold on the subsequent releases. For a genre that thrives on changes, in chords, time signatures and in styles, Tool has boxed themselves in a corner. Still, as the opening volley of the new guard of prog, Aenima has truly made its mark.
Direct descendants – Their influence has been less than you would imagine. Sure, they made strides on the metal scene, but the bands that have been most linked to them as beneficiaries of influence (Muse, the Mars Volta, even Rammstein) don’t sound like Tool. The closest descendant is A Perfect Circle, but since that’s also a Maynard James Keenan band, that’s not saying much.
34. Peter Gabriel – (melt) (1980) In 1980, Peter Gabriel was well respected, still lionized as one of Genesis’ founders but just as often viewed as kind of a weirdo. If you told his fans that six years later he would be one of the world’s biggest pop stars, they’d likely have had you committed. On the basis of his third solo album, titled Peter Gabriel (like the preceding two, but known for the “melted face” cover image), perhaps he should have been committed right alongside you. The first song is “Intruder,” a first-person account of a deviant who breaks into houses. The fifth song, “Family Snapshot,” is about an assassin, seen finally through the eyes of himself as a disturbed child. The most recognized song, and least bizarre, is “Biko,” about the South African anti-apartheid protester Stephen Biko who wound up dead in police custody. The song marked the first concrete example of Gabriel’s lifelong affinity for world music.
With the twisted, ropey textures provided by (wait for it…) Robert Fripp, all the twisted intuitions that made his early work interesting were writ large across Gabriel’s third. As a reintroduction to the music scene, it couldn’t have been splashier and was a far cry from his solo debut’s “Solisbury Hill.”
Direct descendants – Not since David Bowie had there been an artist who dared to be both glamorous and not glamorous, to put forth a toe-tapping pop tune, then chase it down with a burning fifth of disturbing imagery. He would mellow those inclinations out considerably in future recordings, but Gabriel’s influence can be seen in any musical entity that steps up and rings the bell, fashion be damned.
33. Jethro Tull – Aqualung (1971) Recipe for disaster: A band with a name that ensures everyone asks, “Which one is Jethro Tull?,” heavy use of the flute, a penchant for writing songs about very non-traditional subject matter, and codpieces. Codpieces, for Heaven’s sake! Jethro Tull is seen mostly as a duo, though the band has never been officially known as such. It is Ian Anderson’s head-scratching style choices, his burly, affected vocals, that flute and his worldview that drive the narrative. It is Martin Barre’s madrigal-cum-arena rave-up that locks the thing down. On their concept album Aqualung, all parts combine to create a classic rock phenomenon.
The concept is split between two sides. Side A primarily focuses on the Biblical “least of these”: “Aqualung,” the lecherous homeless man, “Cross-Eyed Mary,” the town whore that will graciously let you have a tumble in the hay if if will lift your downtrodden spirits, and the starcrossed lovers in a brief moment of romantic bliss in “Wond’ring Aloud.” Side B deals with the goodness of the Biblical teachings versus the failings of the Church, again and again, to actually teach them. A key line from the song “Wind Up” refers to the Almighty God as something greater than any puny ritual: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday.”
The album is as unlikely a hit as you could ever imagine, but the tenderness of the ballads and the force of the rockers make it essential prog, even if you don’t like the flute and your codpiece is at the blacksmith’s getting hammered out.
Direct descendants – Their contemporaries in Van Der Graff Generator may not have crossed the band’s path, but their similar theatricality has influenced in part the Flower Kings, the Tangent and frequent Tangent contributor Guy Manning. His track “Margaret Montgomery” sounds like a musical love letter to the Tull ethos.
32. XTC – Apple Venus Vol. 1 (1999) There was a time, prior to XTC’s Skylarking, where trying to lump the band in with progressive rock seemed all kinds of wrong. Punk? Maybe. Post-punk, new wave and pop? More like it. But that Todd Rundgren produced song cycle of birth, life and death proved Andy Partridge had conceptual tics of his own. On Apple Venus Vol. 1, he and Colin Moulding carried on without Dave Gregory but added full orchestration. What were originally little pop nuggets became grand, expansive widescreen epics, all staying in concise packages of six minutes and under.
The deception comes from the simpler, acoustic driven tunes like “I’d Like That” and the nasty “Your Dictionary,” songs that sound little like the campfire concerto “Greenman” or the achingly beautiful “I Can’t Own Her.” That and another Apple Venus track, “Harvest Festival,” may be two of the best songs ever produced under the XTC banner.
Direct descendants – Earlier XTC efforts might have spurred on bands that have nothing in common with this, but arguably Thomas Walsh’s Pugwash, the Milk And Honey Band and Steve Hogarth-era Marillion owe something to this more musically expansive version of the group.
31. Emerson Lake and Powell – Emerson Lake and Powell (1986) How bloody rude of me, right? I’ll slag the album considered the keystone of the ELP discography but give a thumbs up to this, a failed recasting of the band with hard rock drummer Cozy Powell filling Carl Palmer’s seat. The nerve! Well, get down from that high horse before you fall and break your neck. EL Powell succeeds in the same way so many of the ’80s prog did, by letting off the burden of grandeur and allowing a little pop intuition into the mix. While not a perfect release, the recording offers up some solid tunes like the single, “Touch and Go,” “Learning to Fly,” and the arena anthem “Love Blind.”
The old format isn’t totally forsaken as Keith Emerson wrests “Mars, The Bringer Of War” from Holst’s symphony, The Planets, but in an unexpected way the cover works. Film composers like James Horner and John Williams had been liberally paying homage to the piece in their scores for years. This sounds more like a rock extension of that than Emerson making some musical assertion that he is as great as “the greats,” an aftertaste the listener sometimes gets with his Emerson Lake and Palmer exhibitions (hint, hint.)
Direct descendants – It’s clear that EL Powell was following the lead on this and not taking it. It didn’t work out for them. Emerson would re-team with Palmer and add vocalist Robert Berry to the mix to form 3, but that didn’t work out either. As for Cozy Powell, he died in 1998 due to complications from a car accident.
A side note: Why do so many ’80s videos take place in factories?
Next time: Which way did he go? Eno’s thataway.