Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Manic Digressions! The Greatest Albums from the Progressive Rock Era, Part III

Finally! After a nearly three month sabbatical (which I spent earnestly researching the book I am writing), I offer you the final 20 album installment of the "Greatest Albums from the Progressive Rock Era" (albums forty through sixty on the comprehensive list). I won't bore you reiterating the criteria I used in choosing these selections, my process is explained fully in PART I and PART II, which are also available for your perusal on The Dark Elf File.

In this article, under a separate section below, I've also included my picks for later, greater neo-progressive releases that I've enjoyed over the past 30 odd years (and they have been odd, havent they?). So without further blathering or bitching, here's the list:

Nursery Cryme - Genesis
Genesis' first two albums, From Genesis to Revelation and Trespass, have their fleeting moments of grandeur, but Nursery Cryme is their first release that truly encompasses the sound and remarkable compositional structure of later great albums. The Musical Box throttles Mother Goose, squeezing out a symphonic epic with a monumental finish, while The Fountain of Salmacis adapts Greek mythology in the tale of Salmacis' attempted rape of Hermaphroditus (a rather heady literary undertaking for a rock album). Peter Gabriel's ongoing trysts with whimsy appear here in The Return of the Giant Hogweed the apocalyptic tale of maniacal, sentient weeds destroying England, and also the black comedy operetta Harold the Barrel.

A Passion Play - Jethro Tull
A Passion Play is a bold statement of 1970's progressive rock, which defied the 'conventional wisdom' of the recording industry, and went to #1 anyway. A Passion Play is a 'concept' album with no hit single and no real segue from one movement to the next, only interrupted by an Aldous Huxley meets Lewis Carroll while humping Beatrix Potter pseudo-children's story The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles smack dab in the middle. The lyrics are filled with allusions and allegory hearkening to the polemic 'passion plays' performed on the streets of English towns in the late Middle Ages. A Passion Play would not be released currently because mass-produced music has all but destroyed creativity and innovation. Thumbs up for Tull and the middle finger to commercialized, pre-packaged muzak!

A Night at the Opera - Queen
S.T. Erlewine at hit the nail on the head when he observed that A Night at the Opera is "prog rock with a sense of humor". What is astounding about the album is that it achieves its majestic sound without synthesizers, but rather on multilayered vocals and instrumentation; in fact, the vocal effects -- most notable on "The Prophet's Song" -- are more spectacular than a roomful of Moogs and mellotrons. Of course, "Bohemian Rhapsody" (composed in actual rhapsodic form) is a prog masterpiece. Vaudeville, Dixieland jazz, kazoo solos, ukuleles, the titanic "Death on Two Legs", and "'39", a sci-fi ballad based on time dilation in Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity. Galileo!

Voyage of the Acolyte - Steve Hackett
With such a bold statement as Ace of Wands to open his first solo album, Steve Hackett seemed to burst from the constraints of Genesis in much the same way Peter Gabriel did (exploding in a Zeppelinesque fury at about 3:20 of the song). But Voyage of the Acolyte can be viewed as lost Genesis album as well, with Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins playing throughout the album. The heavy fusion filtered through The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway production of A Tower Struck Down (with the odd Nazi crowd chant) is juxtaposed with netherworldly beauty of Hands of the Priestess, and the pastoral calm of Star of Sirius is contrasted with the ever-rising grandeur of Shadow of the Hierophant. An awe-inspiring album.

Going for the One - Yes
Unlike Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who never recovered from the pompous conceits and overblown orchestrations of Works I and II, Yes must have realized that the pretentious and long-winded Relayer and Tales from Topographic Oceans albums bored their fans to death. And dead fans do not buy albums. So Yes took the hint and offered Going for the One, a stripped down and lyrically elegant effort that was their best album since Close to the Edge. Less turgid, more accessible songs like Turn of the Century and Wondrous Stories are beautiful, while Parallels and Awaken, Part I hearken back to the joyous, rollicking jams of Yes from 1971-1972.

Scheherazade and Other Stories - RenaissanceNo, this album is not based on Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, but the intent to mirror and draw inspiration from it are evident on the intro to A Trip to the Fair. Like Fairport's Sandy Denny, Renaissance's Annie Haslam is, unfortunately, a nightingale in shadow, obscured by record industry marketing machinations. A beautiful song like Ocean Gypsy is simply to good for radio airplay. Renaissance's magnum opus, the 24 minute "Song of Scheherazade", is sublime, and John Tout's keyboards are top notch. Here is a small snippet. What the hell, here is the whole damn piece recorded live at Carnegie Hall. Eat your heart out, Keith Emerson!

Wind & Wuthering - Genesis
Wind & Wuthering was the last important progressive album Genesis released. Genesis did just fine when Peter Gabriel took his football and went home, but it took Steve Hackett leaving to really end an era for the band. Hackett's virtuosity is nowhere more apparent than on Blood on the Rooftops, an incredibly well-crafted song that is one of the highlights of a superb, if totally underrated, album that takes up where the masterful Trick of the Tail left off. Two beautiful love songs "Afterglow" and "Your Own Special Way" hint at the later dumbed-down Genesis post-Hackett, but the instrumentality of the album is as good as anything in the Genesis canon, particularly the epic One For the Vine (with a clever fantasy storyline as well) and Unquiet Slumber for the Sleepers/In that Quiet Earth. And thus ends an epoch.

Per Un Amico - Premiata Forneria Marconi
Perhaps the most successful of all Italian progressive bands, PFM offered an unconventional mix of Italian traditional music, symphonic themes and rock sensibilities. The result on Per Un Amico is both haunting and virtuosic. The opening piece, the mellotron-infused Appena Un Po' is an ever-evolving pastiche of many styles and moods. In fact, throughout the album you can swear you catch snatches of Genesis, The Moody Blues, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Tull and ELP, but PFM deftly synthesizes the sound of the English prog movement into a savory Italian stew, like on the title track, Generale (a personal favorite), or Geranio. Per Un Amico is an excellent primer for those with an interest in the Italian progressive movement.

On the Threshold of a Dream - The Moody Blues
An enthralling early progressive album. Yes, it is progressive, not psychedelic. From the opening poetic salvo and homely welcome of In the Beginning/Lovely to See You Again, to the extraordinary sequence of Are You Sitting Comfortably and The Dream/Have You Heard (Part I)/The Voyage/Have you Heard (Part II), On the Threshold of a Dream is a progressive concept album (the concept, of course, being dreams) that is both lush and intensely beautiful, with Mike Pinder's masterful mellotron taking center stage. The apocalyptic Dear Diary ("Been quite a nice day...somebody exploded an H-bomb today...really wasn't anybody I knew.") and Never Comes the Day are also memorable tracks.

Trilogy - Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Demonize ELP if you wish, but this is a lovely album. The song Trilogy itself mirrors the more introspective side of the band quite nicely, as does the all-time great acoustic song From the Beginning. The requisite ELP interpretation of a classical piece, Copeland's Hoedown is one of the band's most stunning successes (and one of my favorites). Abaddon's Bolero is a nice nod to Ravel (as well as having the most overdubs of any ELP tune), and then there's The Sheriff, one of a long line of lighter songs ELP used to try to infuse some humor into their ofttimes constipated repertoire.

Leftoverture - Kansas
It seems rather odd to have so few American bands on this list (ELO and Santana are the others), but during the 70s bands from the U.S. simply did not develop in the direction of progressive rock (Zappa, Return to Forever and later Santana albums were more notable for their jazz-fusion work). But the boys from the Midwest, Kansas to be exact, offered some excellent prog albums, Leftoverture being their best. Kansas was prog with a Christian conscience, and nowhere is their fundamental morality better portrayed than on the majestic The Wall. Simply beautiful. Of course, their megahit "Carry on My Wayward Son" is on this album, but songs like the soaring What's on My Mind, the sprawling Magnum Opus and the Southern-tinged prog of Miracles out of Nowhere gave a bit of panache and musical diversity to the Cornbelt.

Darwin! - Banco del Mutuo Soccorso
Just listening to the Twilight Zone stridency and nervous thrum of La Conquista Della Posizione Eretta, a listener can garner much appreciation for the Italian prog band Banco. There is something slightly askew with Darwin! (and perhaps it has to do with Italian genetics, which tend towards musical genius bordering on instability). I don't know what vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo is singing about in Cento mani e cento occhi ("One Hundred and One Eyes"), but it isn't about daisy chains and laughs. There is a decided edginess than runs through the entire album, such as on songs like L'Evoluzione and Miserere Alla Storia that is both unnerving but invigorating.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII - Rick Wakeman
A 1973 impressionistic masterpiece from on-again, off-again Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and the best of his thousands of instrumental albums (okay, I'm exaggerating, hundreds). From the somber and sometimes cacophonic elegy for Catherine of Aragorn to the melancholy intro of Ann Boleyn to the reeling reel of Catherine Parr, Wakeman gives subtle shading and intriguing depth to each of Henry's unfortunate partners. Hell, he even makes the German non-entity Anne of Cleves interesting.

II (Moving Waves) - Focus
For most Americans, the wild, yodeling rock anthem Hocus Pocus is the beginning and end of their acquaintance with the Dutch band Focus. And truthfully, once you've crafted a tune with such mad and frenetic interludes interwoven with the absolutely wicked leads of Jan Akkerman, you might just not have anything left to top it. But the interesting thing about Focus II (titled Moving Waves in the U.S.), is that Focus certainly wasn't a one-trick pony. There is an enthralling breadth of music here, from the Allman Brotherly aspects of the second portion of their Eruption Suite (Part II) that segues into a church chorale, to a beautifully rendered acoustic piece Le Clochard, from a pastoral flute reverie Janis, to the jazzy Focus II. There's more here than meets the ear.

Stormcock - Roy Harper
What the 'ell? Progressive acoustic? Roy Harper? Isn't he the Brit whose claim to fame was being named in a Led Zeppelin song title ("Hats off to Roy Harper"), and as vocalist on "Have a Cigar" from Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here? Yes, he is that but much more. Stormcock is as spare as they come, and contains only four songs (ranging from seven to thirteen minutes long), but despite the sparsity of material and lack of musicians (there's only Harper, with appearances by Jimmy Page appearing incognito as "S. Flavius Mercurius", and David Bedford on organ, with occasional orchestral arrangements) this is an expansive listening experience. The Same Old Rock, One Man Rock and Roll Band, and Hors D'oeuvres are each a precious bit of progressive acoustic balladry.

Living in the Past - Jethro Tull
A most curious relic of progressive paleontology. It's not a greatest hits album (although "Living in the Past" was a bestseller), not a live album (yet "By Kind Permission Of" was recorded at Carnegie Hall, featuring John Evan's superb classical piano thievery), not an all-acoustic album (still, "The Witches Promise" and "Life is a Long Song" are stellar), not hard rock (yet "Sweet Dream" is a jam), and it's not a career retrospective because it was released in 1972. It is an explosion of talent from the first years of a band that could not contain their creativity in the four albums they released up to that point. There is nothing else like it.

Si on Avait Besoin D'une Cinquième Saison - Harmonium
Progressive Quebecois elevator muzak? Au contraire, mon frère! This progressive folk release is a pastoral water color of seasonal changes. Mellifluous and enchanting, "If We Needed a Fifth Season" (a translation of the title) has some beautiful acoustic music, such as Histoire sans paroles (Part I), Vert, and En Pleine Face. If you enjoyed this album, then definitely peruse L'Heptade, the double album follow-up, which expands on the sound of this release.

Hemispheres - Rush
This album makes the list based on the strength of La Villa Strangiato alone. It is the best instrumental Rush has ever released (probably because it is in may ways so un-Rushlike). Oh, and there are other songs on the album as well! Cygnus X-1, Part I and Part II are a lot of fun (even with Geddy Lee's hysterical vocals), and Circumstances is reminiscent of earlier Rush albums like Fly By Night and 2112, which is really the era of the band I prefer.

Lizard - King Crimson
The jazziest of all early Crimson releases, while at the same time, perhaps its most orchestral. This dichotomy, this medieval John Coltrane on acid as conducted by a trashed Toscanini is best exemplified in the third section of the "Lizard" suite, The Battle of Glass Tears. The band didn't get along very well during recording (which isn't a real surprise for King Crimson), and the only song they still play live is the demented Cirkus, and it's this dementia that is perhaps the reason I find this album so endearing. Weird, yet beguiling. The entire 23 minute "Lizard" is superb, particularly Bolero - The Peacock's Tale. Even Jon Anderson of Yes makes an appearance. As I said, weird.

Third - Soft Machine
I was tempted not to include this in a progressive rock list, being that Third so heavily favors jazz-fusion (which I have so scrupulously tried to keep separate up to this point), but listening to Facelift (Part I)/Facelift (Part II), one cannot help but see the obvious similarities to King Crimson (and even Jethro Tull in spots). So, for the last album on the list, I will derail my train of thought momentarily and offer up this mind-blowing array of progressively-free-form-Canterbury-jazz-fusionistic-whatever-the-hell-it-is. It does have some vocals, like on Moon in June (Part I), but even the singing is discordant. Slightly all the Time (Part I) is nearly unadulterated jazz, while Out-Bloody-Rageous is far more psychedelic...ummm...then Zappaesque. It's all over the place.


Yes, I know, covering 32 years of the post-progressive era (I usually account Floyd's The Wall as the death knell in 1979) with a mere seventeen albums does not in any way offer the proper perspective for the scope of progressive music since the 1970s, but such an endeavor would require a good deal of research. Perhaps I will offer a more extensive list in a later article.

Let me just say that I am not at all enamored of 1980s progressive rock, so you can knock a decade off the 32 years right off the bat. Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit, but I cordially despise Marillion, Pendragon, Saga, Hawkwind, Queensryche and Pete Hammill (with Hammill, I am not even cordial). Tull, Genesis and Yes were also major dissapointments in the 80s, and Floyd was nearly nonexistent. Let's be honest, most of the albums released in that period aren't even in the same conversation as the progressive music of the 1970s, and things did not really begin looking up for prog again until the 1990s, when new bands with fresh ideas took center stage and the old guard either retired or puttered around on endless reunion tours.

I am also deducting another five years due to the countless arguments I have had regarding the purported progressivity of death metal, extreme metal, deathcore and math rock. If there is any stereotypical death growls or inane guttural Linda Blair grunts, I immediately turn off the song. Sorry, it is stupid - almost a parody of itself at this point in music history. Thus, bands like Maudlin of the Well or Opeth, although profoundly talented, just can't be taken seriously with their over-the-top Halloween antics (please take note that a band like Sabbath didn't require death growls to be the preeminent purveyors of metal madness).

So, if I do my subtraction from 32 correctly, I eliminate 10 years for the 80s, dock another 5 years for death growls, and that leaves a total of 17, give or take a year. Thus, seventeen suggestions for your aural gratification:

Lateralus - Tool
To put it simply, Lateralus is a mathematical puzzle -- the lyrics, the polyrhythmic drumming, the compositional time signatures -- everything is placed precisely what? Ah, there's the rub -- and the puzzle. Beneath the syncopation, medieval minor pentatonic scales and anisotropic acoustics lies geometric patterns that repeat and a Fibonnaci sequence. See, I know the pieces fit!

Hybris - Änglagård
This is one of those "greatest albums you've never heard". Änglagård only recorded two studio albums and one live album between 1992 and 1996, and Hybris is their best release. An intriguing mix of prog-rock, Swedish folklore and folk music themes, and symphonic arrangements, Hybris is well-worth a listen.


Discipline - King Crimson
Robert Fripp is an odd bird, even by rock standards. Throwing a monumental musical hissy fit, he disbanded King Crimson in 1974, and didn't decide to restart the band until 1981. Discipline was the result. If the album sounds like "The Talking Heads Play King Crimson", it's because Adrian Bellew, a former Head, handles the vocals and plays guitar. Allegedly, Discipline has influenced every prog musician in the known universe.

Stardust We Are - The Flower kings
A double CD set that is actually worth the extra plastic. There isn't one clinker in the bunch! This Swedish group has also released other fine albums, such as Retropolis and Space Revolver, but I enjoy Stardust We Are for its wide array of influences: 70s prog, blues, psychedelia, baroque, folk -- hell, there's even a little reggae thrown in.

Lightbulb Sun - Porcupine Tree
In my estimation, Lightbulb Sun is the best Porcupine Tree album (you may argue amongst yourselves). On this album, Porcupine Tree shows that progressive rock does not need to consist of 15 minute compositions of just intricate (and often boring) instrumentals. The songs are catchy, and in places almost capturing Beatlesque pop sensibilities, with a chiaroscuro of light acoustic passages and heavier rock leads.

De-Loused in the Comatorium - The Mars Volta
Let me just say right off the bat that the lyrics make no sense. But that's okay, you can't understand what vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala is saying for most of the album anyway. This high-watt exploration of progressive rock, Latin rhythm and jazz themes is astounding in its complexity and intensity, and is the best album The Mars Volta ever did. Some bands only have one great album in them.

Amused to Death - Roger Waters
Roger Water's best effort post-Wall. Amused to Death is a concept album (Waters with a concept album? No way!), and once again Mr. Waters is disillusioned, this time with society in general and the power of mass media (has Roger ever composed a friggin' happy song?). But the imagery and poetic lyricism of the album is superb, even if for the most part tragic and sad. Hey, it is Roger Waters, after all.

About Face - David Gilmour
I get what Gilmour was trying to do: release a solo effort that didn't sound like another Pink Floyd album. I think he succeeded admirably, particularly on the songs he co-wrote with Pete Townshend, "Love on the Air" and "All Lovers are Deranged". But the song "Murder" is the standout here. It is the best single composition of any Floyd band member post-Wall; but, amusingly, it also sounds the most Floydish of any song on the album.

The Division Bell - Pink Floyd
I think The Division Bell was treated unfairly by most critics, but then most critics type with their heads up their asses. The album is an unusually frank and honest look at relationships (particularly the animosity between Gilmour and Waters). It certainly was a better effort than the abysmal The Final Cut. Songs such as "High Hopes", "What Do You Want From Me" and "Poles Apart"are worthy additions to the Pink Floyd canon.

The Hazards of Love - The Decemberists
Progressive folk rock with a razor's edge. Acoustic that will cut you. And a prog-folk-rock opera at that! Okay, there's a bit more to it than a few neo-hippies playing psychedelia on acoustic guitars while the synthetic patchouli oil burns. The Hazards of Love is decidedly heavier and harsher than The Decembrist's previous releases, and rightfully so. It's about love, and Colin Meloy is pissed, damn it!

Fear of a Blank Planet - Porcupine Tree
An exceptionally strong concept album from Porcupine Tree that deals with a morbid kid who hides in his bedroom all day playing Xbox and watching porn on the Internet (ie., the majority of American teenagers). Aside from the dreary concept, the music is like a netherworldly shape-shifter, striking and biting at times, while at others very shadowy and surprisingly melodic.


V - Spock's Beard
This, I believe, is the best album from the American band Spock's Beard. "The Great Nothing" suite is sublime and hearkens back to many of the great prog bands of the past. I also enjoy the strong acoustic guitar work, and Neal Morse does a great balancing act between pop and prog. Who says American bands can't be progressive?


The Viewing Point - The Future Kings of England
Pink Floyd's illegitimate redheaded step-sons. Trippy, psychedelic and a whole lot of fun, you will not be hearing The Future Kings of England on the radio anytime soon. But that's okay. I am happy to be one of the 3 or 4 fans who own one of their albums. This is a great instrumental CD for a post-Atom Heart Mother world.


Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory - Dream Theater
I suppose I could have gone with Images and Words (the critic's darling), but somehow that album is reminiscent of all the "big-haired" bands of the 80s I deplored. Metropolis is a bit more expansive, compositionally speaking, and John Petrucci is just one helluva lead guitarist. I also think the addition of Jordan Rudess on the keyboards is an upgrade.

Rupi's Dance - Ian Anderson
And now for something completely different. After foraying through all the heavier neo-prog albums, I think I'll just relax out on the patio with a cup of coffee while I listen to Rupi's Dance. This is Ian at his most introspective, an album that deals with the simple joys of life like cats, home repair and a damn good cup of coffee. The musicianship is stellar and Anderson offers some of his finest compositions since Tull's glory days.

Rush in Rio - Rush
Everything you ever needed from Rush in the last 30 years, Rush in Rio is a huge compilation, but it's really the audience that is the star here. They not only sing along with enthusiasm, but you actually can hear them humming to Alex Lifeson's leads! This is one fine live album, and for once the audience is a focal point, and reminds us just what "live" means.


Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue - Kayo Dot
Eccentric, eclectic, defying explanation, Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue as a title best fits the inexplicable nature of this release by Kayo Dot, an American band that formed in the wake of the disbanding of Maudlin in the Well. It is mesmerizing but not in the droning sense of mind-numbing kraut-rock, and it is both reverent and referential to many older musical forms: free-form jazz, avant-garde classical composition, progressive rock and chamber music.

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