Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More Manic Progression! The Greatest Albums from the Progressive Rock Era, Part II

I will refrain from long-winded exposition and essayist dalliances in this, the second installment of the 60 greatest albums from the "Progressive Rock Era", that mythical time when progressive music was actually played regularly on the radio (and not merely confined to the "classic rock radio" format), and fans packed sold-out concert venues to witness some masterful rock virtuosity. Certainly, progressive rock is not limited to the time period in question (1967-1977, plus or minus a year or two), and there has been a resurgence in the genre over the past decade; however, all things considered, I don't believe anyone can argue that the best progressive music and the greatest bands flourished in that age.

One can only hope that we see a true renaissance of the musical form shortly. It may be only a dream, but then it is a dream borne on a hope that the revolting predominance of such unintelligible and misogynistic offal as rap and hip-hop will eventually fade away, and in its place actual accomplished musicians and vocalists will return and replace the booming drum machines, stolen sequences and dreadfully juvenile, doggerel rhymes that pass for "music" these days. Over the past century we have seen and heard many truly great artists and a vast amount of amazing compositions in classical music, jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, R&B and rock -- why then confine oneself to a degraded and counterintuitive mess of mangled mumbling, rank repetition and banal beats?

In any case, I shall step off the hyperbolic soap-box and, without further ado, offer up the next 20 album installment of the list:


Fragile -- Yes
Sandwiched between two greater albums (The Yes Album & Close to the Edge) is not to say that Fragile is without its spectacular moments, it's just that this album is not as consistently brilliant as the others. "Cans and Brahms" (a very drab recital), "We Have Heaven" (which could be titled "Wash, Rinse, Repeat") and "Five Percent for Nothing" (retitled as "50% less would be twice as good") are fair Yes tunes, but let's concentrate on the remarkable: "Long Distance Runaround", "Mood for a Day", "Roundabout", and "Heart of the Sunrise" (one of the greatest bass-driven tunes of all time). The triumvirate of Yes releases mentioned above rival anything in the progressive rock canon as far as a consecutive span of three great and landmark albums.

Animals -- Pink Floyd
Animals is a wonderfully flawed Orwellian magnum opus. My greatest knock against it? It is too short! It seems to me that the album is one animal short of a masterpiece. Something is missing: a goat, a cow, a cat? Come on Pink, you couldn't find one more beast to bitch about? Jesus, go to the zoo and harangue the monkeys! But Animals is one bitter album. Roger Waters is literally spitting nails, particularly in "Pigs", where the target is Mary Whitehouse, an insufferable moral prig who campaigned for decency in British society (a Puritan four centuries too late). "Sheep", with its sly version of Psalm 23, is a phenomenal progressive composition, and "Dogs" is one of the shining moments of Davild Gilmour's career.

Selling England by the Pound -- Genesis
A flawed but unforgettable masterpiece. Only the rambling wreck of "The Battle of Epping Forest"(which wastes almost 12 minutes of time and accounts for 1/5 of the album) is the only deterent in rating this album one of the top ten progressive albums of all time. But the rest of the album is spectacular, particularly "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight", and the astounding "Firth of Fifth". Other noteworthy tracks are "After the Ordeal", and "The Cinema Show". Come to think of it, "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" is only a fair Genesis tune, but nothing to worry your pretty little heads about.

Stand Up -- Jethro Tull
Out was guitarist Mick Abrahams (who made a great blues album with Blodwyn Pig, by the way), in was Martin Barre, and Tull took a U-turn on the blues highway, going off-road for this stunning folk-rock opus. "Reasons for Waiting" and "Look Into the Sun" are sublime mellow pieces; conversely, there is the heavy blues of "New Day Yesterday", the jazz/blues inflected jam Nothing is Easy", "Bourée" (which Ian Anderson referred to as "cocktail jazz"), and the frenetic, Middle-eastern "Fat Man". Stand Up is a landmark synthesis of many musical elements into the rock idiom: jazz, blues, classical, Middle-eastern, folk. Name any other band that had the vision to successfully fuse all these into one recording. Take your time. Get back to me when you can come up with a few.

Red -- King Crimson
Red is an album that literally seethes with frustration, so much so that it brought about the demise of King Crimson (and it wasn't to be revived until 7 years later). Discordant, ferocious and maddening, the album hits you with the malice of a sledgehammer-wielding lunatic. The best song, "Starless" was supposed to appear on Starless and Bible Black, but Fripp didn't like it until he added a lengthy instrumental that sounds like a nest of angry wasps. other standout tunes are the violent instrumental piece "Red", the surprisingly wistful and jazzy (in spots, anyway) "Fallen Angel", and "One More Red Nightmare", propelled by the drumming of Bill Bruford.

Crime of the Century -- Supertramp
I don't believe Supertramp got their due as a superlative progressive rock band. Perhaps its because prog-rock fans are suspicious of any band that can rattle off a mega-platinum album with three hit singles like Breakfast in America, and still be considered subversive enough for their eccentric tastes. I merely point to Crime of the Century as progressive affirmation. With stunning compositions like "Rudy, "Crime of the Century", and "Asylum", one wonders why there was ever a question as to their progressivity? Add in the sing-along "Bloody Well Right" and the anti-authoritarian "School", and you have one of the best albums of the 70s.

Songs from the Wood -- Jethro Tull
The last truly superb Tull album, Songs from the Wood is the cumulative apex of electrified British folk-rock pioneered by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. The musicianship is outstanding, particularly on "Velvet Green", "The Whistler" and the monstrous guitar riffs of "Pibroch" (or "Pee-break" for you Tull concert-goers). This album rocks and relaxes, sometimes in the same song. Also, the lyrics are very sly and witty (read the lyrics of "Hunting Girl" -- it has nothing to do with riding a horse, wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Contrary to popular critical sentiment, the punk mantra "keep it short, keep it simple, and spike your hair with snot and semen" is not what makes great rock music, and being able to play four chords with attitude is not the mark of great musicianship. See above.

John Barleycorn Must Die -- Traffic
It's a toss-up for me between this album and Low Spark of High Heeled Boys as to which is Traffic's best recording, but it really doesn't matter: I'll take both, thank you very much. Anyway, it's quite ballsy for a rock band like Traffic to title their album and include a 6.5 minute long version of a 16th century song "John Barleycorn", an allegory on the cultivation of barley and it alcoholic after-effects. Yet, it works. But the album is far more jazzier than folky, a compliment to the diversity of Traffic. "Glad" is exactly what its title implies: a joyous and jazzy romp with one of the nicest piano sequences in rock 'n' roll. "Glad" segues seamlessly into "Freedom Rider" another bit of jazz fusion, and "Empty Pages (live version)" presents Traffic at its most...ummm...'Trafficesque'.

The Wall -- Pink Floyd
Bloated excess? Too much Roger Waters under the bridge? Bizarre and oddly fascist in some instances? Certainly. But for all the critical attacks, one must look at The Wall in its entirety to appreciate the work. There are so many great songs and stunning moments on The Wall that I rate it as essential to anyone's album collection: "Another Brick in the Wall (Pt. 3)", "Mother' (a personal favorite)", 'Goodbye Blue Sky', 'Young Lust', 'Hey You', Nobody Home (complete 'with the 'obligatory Hendrix perm' and 'the inevitable pinhole burns'), and "Run Like Hell" (another favorite). And then there is "Comfortably Numb". Is there any other song besides "Stairway to Heaven", "Layla" or "Aqualung" as epic? It is the sum total of a rock masterpiece.

In a Glass House -- Gentle Giant
Infuriatingly obscurant, Gentle Giant eschewed the limelight to follow its own eccentric path; but for all that, there is some brilliant medieval and baroque progressive rock here. "In a Glass House" is the most accessible and best song here, "An Inmate's Lullaby" is lyrically clever and gives early King Crimson a run for its money, "Experience" runs the gamut from Elizabethan to jazz to funk, and "Reunion" offers a Baroque string quartet and a more pleasant use of Gentle Giant's ofttime strident and over-the-top vocals.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer -- Emerson, Lake & Palmer
This is certainly ELP's heaviest album. The organ is coarse and biting and the bottom very heavy on compositions like "Knife-Edge" and "Barbarian". "Tank" is a jazz drumming tour-de-force, and "The Three Fates" presents a number of classical and jazz influences, from Bach to Bartók to Brubeck. "Take a Pebble" is reflective and mellifluous, even with some rather bland Greg Lake acoustical noodling, but Lake is far more successful on Lucky Man", the first of several exquisite Lake acoustic ballads, seemingly placed one per album for ELP's entire discography.

Meddle -- Pink Floyd
Meddle can be viewed as the demarcation point from Floyd's experimental and psychedelic music into a more streamlined and mature musical interrelationship that stressed both lyricism and musicianship. It was a turning point for Pink Floyd, and it is the first Floyd album to prominently and cohesively showcase the distinctive sound that is a hallmark of later great albums; in fact, "echoes" of this album can be heard in many Floyd songs over the next several years. "One of These Days" is a vicious little jam with one of the most memorable bass lines ever created, "A Pillow of Winds" and "Fearless" straddle the line between pyschedelic and progressive, and the titanic "Echoes" has a primal beat that builds as the song's subterranean ambiance washes over you.

Eldorado -- Electric Light Orchestra
The album Eldorado was released back before Jeff Lynne and his vehicle, ELO, descended into pop excess and Beatle-mimickry, which is to say that it is extraordinary and not some whimpering series of chart singles. The "Eldorado Overture/Can't Get It Out of My Head" section of the album remains one of the most beautiful pieces ever recorded in the rock pantheon. The use of orchesration is particularly striking on "Boy Blue" and the funky/bluesy "Laredo Tornado", while "Illusion in G Minor" and "Eldorado/Eldorado Finale" are perfect mixes of Jeff Lynne's pop sensibilities and progressive eccentricity.

Abraxas -- Santana
Progressive sambas? Prog-rock mambas? Latin jazz/blues/rock? Yes, all of this and more suffuses Abraxas, a remarkable album from Santana prior to the jazz-fusion (and not prog-rock) of Caravanserai. The seductive "Samba Pa Ti, the Allman Brothers-turned-jazzy Brazilians sound of "Incident at Neshabur", and "Singing Winds/Crying Beasts/Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen" which features the Latinization of Fleetwod Mac's blues opus (Peter Green's Version), all reflect a progression and innovation in sound that was unique for the time period.

Olias of Sunhillow -- Jon Anderson
I was prepared to hate this album when it first came out. Jon Anderson unleashed -- unrestrained by more sensible Yes bandmates who would temper his karmic, faeryland flits of fancy! Well, I was wrong. The album is damn good, even if the plot is a bit fey (it is Jon Anderson, after all). The album is enlightening and headphone-friendly, with ambient and beautiful pieces like "Ocean" and "and To the Runner". "Flight of the Moorglade", Moon Ra/Chords/Song of Search", and "Solid Space are all aural adventures that presaged New Age music (whether that is a good or bad distinction remains to be seen).

Procol Harum -- Procol Harum
Rarely do I prefer the U.S. versions of 1960s albums as opposed to the original British releases, but the U.S. version of this album contains the Bach-influenced "A Whiter Shade of Pale", which puts this album in better context. Procol Harum always seemed a bit too studious to be truly psychedelic, and this release proves that they were far more progressive than flower-powerish. Standout tracks are "Repent Walpurgis", "Conquistador" and the Dixie blues of "Mabel" offers the immortal line "Don't eat green meat/it ain't good for you/you know it killed your brother/killed your sister too."

Minstrel in the Gallery -- Jethro Tull
After a long, strange trip that took Tull on consecutive visits to the concept album trough (Thick as a Brick & A Passion Play) and the uneven and hastily released War Child, Minstrel in the Gallery finally offers a studio album that is cohesive, consistently excellent and not merely a single song stretched across one album. While Minstrel in the Gallery is a very underrated album, it contains some of the best lyrics Ian Anderson ever wrote. The song cycle "Baker St. Muse" is a deft masterpiece of poetics and musical chiaroscuro. Cold Wind to Valhalla and Minstrel in the Gallery stress the interplay of acoustic and hard rock, and "Black Satin Dancer" is a brilliant statement on the underrated abilities of guitarist Martin Barre.

2112 -- Rush
Rush is able to tell an extraordinary tale lyrically-speaking, and the first side of 2112 is a progressive sci-fi extravaganza, with the likes of "2112 Overture/Temples of Syrinx" and "Grand Finale" blaring from your speakers or headphones. Side two is not conceptual, but offers a wide range of influences and moods: the Eastern-tinged "A Passage to Bangkok", the boisterous and biting "Something for Nothing", and the breezy "Twilight Zone", which sounds like Rush somehow transmogrified into Blue Öyster Cult -- perhaps while Rod Serling was narrating from another dimension.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway -- Genesis
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an album of unchained ambition that was enchained by the ambition that led its making. Had it been a single album, Lamb would have been phenomenal; unfortunately, it is a double album, and thus it is more of a curiosity than masterpiece. The first album has some of the best songs Genesis ever composed, including the title track, "Fly on the Windshield", "Broadway Ballad of 1974", "The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging", "Counting Out Time", and the majestic "Carpet Crawlers". But the second album loses its footing, devolving into a surreal melange of pointless ambient sound and silly mythology. Very disappointing, damn it!

Starless and Bible Black -- King Crimson
The companion piece of the album Red (released later in the same year), shares many characteristics of its twin separated at birth: discordant and violent guitars, ambient minimalism, thoughtful lyrics, and unexpected turns. The Dylan Thomas-inspired "Starless and Bible Black" is an eccentric improvisational piece and, according to Robert Fripp, "Fracture" was the most difficult piece he ever played. But the real stunning moment on the album is "The Night Watch" an ode to a Rembrandt painting, which is the best John Wetton vocal and most intricate lyricism Crimson ever offered (composed by Richard Palmer, formerly of Supertramp). Also, "Great Deceiver is a devilish roller-coaster ride, and "Lament is a surprisingly un-Crimsonlike reverie in spots.


IS IT PROGRESSIVE OR MERELY ROCK-AND-ROLL?
The progressive rock fanbase is as eccentric as much of the music that parades under that banner. Some zealots actually get lost in hair-splitting and minutiae, even trying to separate what is termed "progressive" from what is "prog" (a delineation I personally can't fathom, nor wish to bore you with here). But for arguments sake (and god knows I enjoy a good argument), I have listed a few rock albums that straddle the line between progressive rock or hard rock or pop rock. Some folks will listen to an album such as A Night at the Opera and say instantly that it is definitely progressive, while others will staunchly deny that heretical claim, and still others will begrudgingly admit to hearing certain elements of progressivity. But whether you're a generalist or a specifist, I'll leave the debate up to you.

Physical Graffiti -- Led Zeppelin
Yes, yes, yes, Zeppelin is not a progressive rock band, but we are talking albums here, and Physical Graffiti is by all accounts "progressive" (I can actually hear prog-rock snobs gnashing their teeth). An epic and eclectic blend of rock, blues, funk, honky tonk, country, and Middle-eastern influences, the album is a musical statement as to the limitlessness of the rock form. From the synth-driven "In the Light", to the progessive blues of "In My Time of Dying" (with Bonham's most demonic drumming), to the heavy funk of "Trampled Underfoot", to the lush "Ten Years Gone", to the desert sirocco "Kashmir", the album is diverse, with extended jams, numerous time signatures, and the gorgeous "Bron-Yr-Aur", which I rank alongside "Mood for a Day" and "Horizons".

Black Sabbath -- Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Wait...what the...Sabbath? Progressive? If one looks at the progression of heavy metal into prog-metal, symphonic metal, math rock and other sub-headings of the genre, the inclination is to point to bands like King Crimson and Black Flag as influences, without noting the singular contribution of Sabbath to all versions of metal. And Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is a singular album that offers many of the standard props of current metallic prog, such as extended jams with complex rhythms, dark images, synths, mellotrons and string arrangements. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Rick Wakeman of Yes stopped by to play keyboards on Sabra Cadabra, but Ozzie, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler add mellotron and synth work throughout the album. Ozzie's epic shrieks on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath should be an unsubtle hint that modern growlers can sing intelligible lyrics and still be menacing and malevolent. Killing Yourself to Live, Fluff, Spiral Architect and Who Are You? all indicate a very progressive direction for Sabbath, and one that was readily incorporated into later prog-metal repertoires.

Quadrophenia -- The Who
I believe that Quadrophenia presents Peter Townshend and The Who as mature composers, and the music itself is complex and emotionally intense, with compositional qualities akin to a symphony -- and as such, Quadrophenia is "progressive". The outstanding songs on this double album are "I Am the Sea/The Real Me", "Quadrophenia", The Punk and The Godfather/I'm One", "5:15", and the grande finale "Love, Reign 'Oer Me", a monumental song and the great pinnacle of the Who's career.

I Robot -- The Alan Parson Project
I Robot is perhaps the most commercially accessible concept album ever created. It has elements of prog-rock, funk, jazz, disco and early techno -- a bit of everything to pique the interest of a very wide, almost disparate, demographic. The album's song list reads like a greatest hits package: "I wouldn't Want to Be Like You", "Some Other Time" (a favorite), "Breakdown", "Don't Let It Show", "The Voice", and the instrumental "I Robot" (another favorite). Nearly every song has a different vocalist (including Allan Clarke of The Hollies), but the music is strong enough for the album to remain cohesive and memorable. The Alan Parsons Project has often been derisively labeled 'Pink Floyd Lite', but I can live with that. It's better than Journey Lite.

6 comments:

Randy said...

Thank you for a working link to John Barleycorn. I had forgotten what a wonderful song that was.

AgProv said...

Supertramp are an Australian band, aren't they?

This makes "Bloody well right!" into an alternative national anthem to "Australia the Fair", as if you get into conversation with Aussies, it will not be long at all before the national catchphrase makes an appearance... "You're bloody well right there, mate!" or

"He's got a bloody right to say even if you bloody well disagree!"

On a related theme - and I'm not sure if they qualify as prog rock - abput the same time, anther Australian group, the Little River Band, did a long melodic anthem "It's a long way there" that surely merits a mention in any listing of seventies prog rock tracks, even if the LP it came off kind of lacks the promise of the hit single. (Maybe in a listing of the best individual tracks from otherwise dissappointing LP's? I could rattle off half a page of those - mediocre or flawed LP with one or two cracking tracks.)

Morthoron the Dark Elf said...

No, Supertramp is a British band, but Mark Hart, who was a guitarist with Supertramp, also played with Crowded House, which is an Australian band.

I have heard other folks say they thought Supertramp was from Australia. I don't know where that rumor originated.

I don't know too much about The Little River Band, except for their string of easy-listening pop tunes in the late 70s, like "Cool Change" and "Reminiscing". Not to my tastes.

By emc said...

Really, John Barleycorn is one of the most beautiful songs of the progressive folk scene! Isn't it?
Anyway, your blog is fantastic! I like it!

Matteo from Italy.

The Jethro Tull Board Blog said...

Good listing here, Dark Elf, but why do you prefer Nursery Crime to Foxtrot? To me they are both great, but I'd probably give the nod to Foxtrot because of Suppers Ready.

I haven't heard much of the new prog bands, like Spocks Beard and Mars Volta, but I know they are highly rated, and I really should check them out. I do have an album each of Porcupine Tree and Flower Kings, and while they are both alright, neither really grabs me.

Morthoron the Dark Elf said...

To J.T. Blog --
Hmmm...I don't like "Nursery Cryme" better than "Foxtrot". The Top Twenty albums are in the first "Manic Progressions! The Greatest Albums from the Progressive Rock Era (Part I). I have Foxtrot coming in at #5 behind "Court of the Crimson King", "Wish You Were Here", "Thick as a Brick" and "Close to the Edge". The album "Nursery Cryme" is in the last batch (forty through sixty).