Five, er, SIX English Progressive Rock Albums No-one Should Be Without (And I Am Serious Here)
Ah, English progressive rock – my first real love affair with rock that didn’t involve the Beatles, though without the Liverpudlians’ earth-shattering Sergeant Pepper in 1967 it is entirely possible that prog would never have come to pass at all.
You see, Pepper presented all manner of sounds no one had ever thought could work in the context of The Rock Band as it was previously understood. Strings, orchestral and woodwind arrangements, sound effects, a loose suite of songs, though the interconnectedness of them was not precisely a sure or parse-able thing. The greatest contribution of the Beatles was to open the imaginations of a generation of musicians to try anything within the then miles-wide concept of what it meant to play rock music. Contemporaneously, psychedelia was doing the same thing on a scene-wide scale. Experimentation for its own sake was in the air. Some of these flights of fancy were, to put it gently, miserable, laughable, absurdly pretentious or often all three, but an entire generation of musicians who combined discipline in the form of instrumental virtuosity, imagination, daring and skill as writers and arrangers, and a willingness to sometimes skate on the wrong side of the ice led to one of the most remarkable periods of the rock era.
The coming of noisy, nihilistic punk, as necessary as it may have been in some respects, served to not only shoulder prog aside but to make it a dirty word for decades, badly distorting any interpretation of the genre. Now that a few thousand kilotons of historical dust have settled and time has lent perspective and reflective distance, prog is now seeing something of an underground renaissance and re-evaluation. In case you missed it the first time ’round, consider this an Introduction To Progressive Rock from one who was there from the beginning.
This is in the form of an introduction – there are a number of significant groups that can properly be considered prog that I do not discuss here – primarily the Moody Blues – but this is an ongoing series, and more will be heard about them.
By the way – purists should find these on original English or European LPs. You will be glad you did. All of these recordings have been reissued, some multiple times, and it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss them all; I only mention those which I have heard.
Pink Floyd – Meddle (1971)
Produced by Pink Floyd, engineered by John Leckie, Rob Black and Peter Bown
It seems safe to guess that, forty years on, something like 60% of the earth’s population has heard at least part of The Dark Side of the Moon, but that was only a full realization of what Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Rick Wright and Nick Mason had been working towards for a number of years. The musical egg from which hatched Dark Side was Meddle.
Side 1 is a collection of songs, beginning with “One Of These Days”, which features Waters and Gilmour playing bass guitars through Echoplexes, building to a booming, doom-laden riff. Along the way reversed cymbal crashes, ghostly organ washes, a Doctor Who theme synth aside and assorted studio techniques all add up to a ride that to this day remains harrowing indeed before it resolves into an even more thunderous version of the riff with pounding drums and buzzsaw slide guitar, all of which eventually exhausts itself and vanishes in a reverbed puff of logic. The rest of the side contains the lush, gorgeous “A Pillow of Winds”, perhaps the only really romantic lyrics Waters ever wrote, “Fearless”, a mellow yet driving meditation on aspiration that morphs literally into an English football singalong, and the charming, sweet-natured “San Tropez.” Things conclude with a parody acoustic blues, “Seamus” which features canine vocalizations from Steve Marriott’s eponymous dog.
And then there is Side 2. “Echoes.” As the great George Takei would say, “Oh myyyyy!” The band had bits and piece of several songs recorded and decided to rearrange and combine those leftovers into a side-long suite which may be the first truly great progressive soundscape. It is not possible to do justice to the 23 minutes of “Echoes” typing words into a computer. It is above all else an exercise in pure atmospherics. A limpidly pretty melody serves as a jumping off point for the deepest reaches of the undersea cosmos rather than that found in outer space. Everything from the relentless pound of the waves and tide to whale songs (via Gilmour’s guitar and an Echoplex) are alluded to before a prelude to the recapitulation of the main theme that shatters me to this day. Floyd then floats us back to reality with a final verse that dissolves into looped vocals and sonar-like piano pings that trail into an infinity all their own. “Echoes” is a completely immersive experience.
Sonically speaking there is some evidence of the record’s age, most notable on the drums, but there is a lovely, deeply saturated sound to voices, keyboards and guitars, both electric and acoustic. It was beautiful then and it still is. There is an enormous difference in sound quality between various pressings. The original US LP is rather flat and lifeless while an early British pressing is luscious, with vast spaces, round, delightfully tangible images and vivid tonal colors. A Japanese pressing is a bit a bit less sumptuous than the UK version but can also be highly recommended. Forty-three years after I first heard it, Meddle, and “Echoes” in particular, remains a singular accomplishment.
Yes – Close to the Edge 1972
Produced by Yes and Eddie Offord, engineered by Eddie Offord
After The Yes Album brought Yes to the attention of the US public and Fragile’s “Roundabout” gave them a hit single and serious name recognition, the band unleashed its masterpiece with Close To The Edge. Keyboards superstar Rick Wakeman and his armada of Mellotrons, Mini-Moogs and miscellany, who replaced Tony Kaye shortly before the Fragile sessions had commenced, was now fully integrated in to the band and to say that they were firing on all cylinders is a gross understatement. The album contains only three tracks, the side-long title track, “And You And I” and the closing “Siberian Khatru.”
The first two tracks are actually constructed in something easily recognizable as sonata form which, given Wakeman’s extensive classical training (including a lengthy stint at the Royal Academy of Music) and bassist Chris Squire’s years of choral singing, is not hugely surprising. What was surprising was the tightness and structure of the highly complex arrangements, the use of recurring themes and variations thereon and the astonishing variety of tonal colors – primarily courtesy of Wakeman’s imaginative and virtuosic playing – Yes brought to bear. The band’s frequent use of three-part harmony vocals, led by Jon Anderson’s soaring, crystal-clear countertenor, were like nothing else in progressive rock even if the lyrics were sometimes impressionistic to the point of impenetrability. To be fair, Anderson has often said that at this time he was writing lyrics based as much on how the words sounded with their accompanying music as for their intrinsic meaning.
Closing the affair is “Siberian Khatru”, a thundering rocker that served as a concert opener for ages. While it’s a rocker, it’s a Yes kind of rocker, meaning a main riff that counts in 15 rather than 4, parallel contrasting time signatures and a hound-and-hare final section, repeating the main theme with guitarist Steve Howe leading the way and the rest of the band, led by Wakeman and Squire, in hot and furious pursuit. Nearly 42 years (gorblimey!!) after its release it remains a very special recording that has passed the test of time with flying colours, as our British cousins would put it,
Numerous LP remasterings are available including versions by Steve Hoffman on Audio Fidelity and one by noted progressive musician Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree on Panegyric.
King Crimson – Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (1973)
Produced by King Crimson, engineered by Nick Ryan
King Crimson were always something apart from the rest of the progressive scene, from their debut at the Rolling Stones Hyde Park show in 1969, where they blew the minds of more than 600,000 spectators. When the last version of the heavily Mellotron-driven first generation Crim ground to a halt in 1972 guitarist/mastermind Robert Fripp assembled a completely new band with an approach unlike anything heard before. Drummer supreme Bill Bruford had jumped the Yes ship after Close to the Edge and signed on with Fripp – years later he humorously compared it to jumping the Berlin Wall, only in to East Germany – and they were soon joined by violinist/keyboardist David Cross, bassist/vocalist John Wetton (formerly of English cult favorites Family) and manic, classically trained percussionist Jamie Muir, who added pots, pans, pieces of sheet metal, kalimba and anything else he could lay his hands on to the mix.
The result was this album that combined extremely heavy, fiercely complex rock reflecting Fripp’s increasing interest in Eastern European composers, particularly Bartok, and it has sometimes been called the first progressive heavy metal record in history and in many respects that is perfectly accurate. From the constantly evolving “Larks’ Tongues Part I” that opens the proceedings, the band moves into the gently melancholy ballads, the exquisite miniature “Book of Saturday” and the more epic, Mellotron-driven “Exiles.” The latter remains one of the finest tunes in the entire Crimson catalog, and Wetton sings his heart out on this thoughtful rumination on things past and passed. It is a truly lovely song.
Side two brings the cynical “Easy Money” and then “The Talking Drum” which, like Ravel’s Bolero, is one musical line repeated with slowly increasing intensity until a truly manic pitch is achieved at which point things come to a sudden and unexpected end with some horrifying electronic screams. Fripp then starts off “Larks’ Tongues” Part II, an endlessly fascinating of lurching riffs backed with bursts of seemingly unrelated drums and percussion, gentle interludes and yet another of the guitarist’s patented build-the-tension-until-the-listener-screams-for-relief endings. King Crimson’s best work is, as Frank Zappa once described his own complex pieces, “difficult listening.” There is so much going on that things may sound chaotic, but there is little more tightly composed and arranged music to be found even in the realm of progressive rock.
This is a fiercely dynamic recording, and the introductory title track, which is Part I, starts so quietly you may be tempted to stand on the gas. Don’t. Just don’t. The band enters with a roar when you least expect it and it will blow you through the back wall if you have been intemperate with the volume control. Wetton’s rich, brandy-soaked voice is particularly well captured, the Mellotron parts all have the distinctive Crimson sound that is far different indeed from the Moody Blues’ use of the same instrument. Lastly, Bruford’s drums are particularly well-sorted and clean. It’s an early 1970s recording, but a very, very good one.
The original US LP has more than presentable sound, but the Editions EG remaster is clearly superior. There are many versions of this recording, including a number of Fripp-approved and supervised CDs consisting of nothing but alternate takes, which are listed at great length on the Wikipedia page for the album.
Genesis – Selling England By The Pound (Charisma 1973; Classic Records 2001)
Produced by Genesis and John Burns, engineered by John Burns
Genesis began as the musical collective of a group of schoolmates at Charterhouse, one of those rather posh English boys’ schools, at which it is said a young man learns how to be a proper scoundrel in the realms of business and politics. Toiling in the vineyards for several years, they first gained notice in their homeland with Nursery Cryme, which featured the rather creepy mini-epic “The Musical Box.” The band’s frontman, Peter Gabriel, also started attracting attention for his unusual costuming and dynamic stage presence.
Despite gaining considerable popularity in Old Blighty, Selling England was their first album to make appreciable waves in the US, where they had only a cult following. Not as technically flashy as Yes or King Crimson, not as in-your-face as Emerson, Lake and Palmer nor as spacy as Pink Floyd, Genesis’ music featured a lot of acoustic guitar-based pieces as well as more typically prog keyboard/electric guitar based songs. Theirs was generally a more restrained, melody-driven style, with Gabriel’s unique voice and presence being the focal point.
This is a terrific collection of tunes, spanning the gamut from the whimsy of “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” which was a substantial hit on the UK charts, to the epics “Firth of Fifth” and “The Cinema Show.” The former’s sweeping melodies and drop-dead gorgeous guitar solo from Steve Hackett over a plush, Romantic Mellotron backdrop are grand indeed, and “Cinema Show” features a long, melodically inventive and lovely synthesizer solo over more Mellotron and on top of a driving 7/8 rhythm laid down by bassist Mike Rutherford and drummer Phil Collins. All teddibly British, and I’ve often thought that if the young Ralph Vaughan Williams had written rock music it would sound much like “The Cinema Show.”
The LP contains some 53-plus minutes of music and the original was released during the “vinyl crisis” of the early-mid 1970s and is rather muffled, sonically speaking. The Classic Records reissue is simply superb. The 1990s CD remasters were quite good, if I remember properly, but the Classic Records LP or an original UK LP is the way to go.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery (Manticore/Atlantic 1973; Castle Communications – UK reissue 1997)
Produced by Greg Lake, engineered by Chris Kimsey and Geoff Young
Where Yes, and especially Genesis, leaned towards subtlety, with the occasional Grand Musical Statement put into the stew for contrast, Emerson, Lake and Palmer were Bombast Incarnate, and this is their best and most bombastic work. Like the preceding recordings, it is a landmark of progressive rock.
Formed out of the wreckage of The Nice and the first King Crimson, Keith Emerson, keyboards virtuoso of the former, and bassist/vocalist/guitarist Greg Lake, of the latter, joined with young Carl Palmer in 1970 for a band that became so over the top it became a byword for the alleged excesses of prog rock as a whole.
Brain Salad gets out of the gate with the barely sub-atomic blast of “Jerusalem”, the old Anglican hymn, Emerson’s screaming double-tracked/flanged Hammond organ, titanic Moog bass blasts and Palmer’s furious, precise drumming leading into the Lake’s choirboy reading of the first verse. Things resume apace and build to a dizzying, ecstatic finale. Toccata, Emerson’s adaptation of the fourth movement of the First Piano Concerto by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera was described by an admiring Ginastera as “diabolical” in the best possible sense. It is a furious piece, filled with energy, guts and sheer audacity and is guaranteed to run you through the wringer. A typical Lake ballad, “Still, You Turn Me On” finds Emerson playing some fauxFrench accordion. It’s at least a very pretty melody, unlike the following “Benny the Bouncer.” Apparently intended to be a humorous break, it fits in with the rest of the album much like a mermaid would in a chorus line.
The real meat of Brain Salad is the massive “Karn Evil 9,” a science-fiction epic with a scenario that climaxes, lyrically speaking, with a showdown between man and the intelligent computers he has invented. A bit silly, yes, but ultimately compelling because of the music. And lordy lu, what music. Emerson pulls out every stop, every trick, every sound he can think of. Straightforward power rock, jazz influences, a nod to the Caribbean via a Moog synthesizer set up to sound like steel drums, and a soaring finale, it is propulsively fascinating, utterly kinetic and magnificently over-indulgent, rather like eating an entire side of prime beef rather than one great steak. There are far too many musical ideas, none less than worthy, for even the composition’s thirty-plus minutes to fully explore but “Karn Evil 9” is a gloriously crazy and often purely thrilling thing. We shall not see its like again. Some are happy about this. I am not.
Sonically, the original LP is very good, though a bit dry and clinical. The richer sounding Castle Communications reissue is my clear preference.
National Health – Of Queues and Cures (French LP – Charly Reconds 1978, Esoteric Recordings CD 2009)
Produced and recorded by Mike Dunne
The Canterbury Scene deserves, and at some point will get, an article all its own. An entire musical aesthetic emerged from this quiet cathedral town beginning with one band, The Wilde Flowers, who never gained any acclaim other than that they spawned and influenced one of the most remarkable collection of musicians that ever emerged from one small place in one small time window. Taken as a whole, Canterbury bands, though all highly individualistic, shared a love of eccentric, jazz-oriented structures and rhythms, a highly sophisticated melodic and harmonic sensibility, superb musicianship, and a love of Pythonesque humour manifested in curious song titles, such as “The Bryden Two-Step (for Amphibians) Parts I and II”, and subversively intelligent, often wryly witty lyrics. There is nothing on earth more utterly and quintessentially English than a great Canterbury band, not even P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories or Winston Churchill having tea with Her Majesty the Queen.
One of the last bands that came from this amazing confluence of circumstances was National Health, featuring keyboards player Dave Stewart (no relation to the David Stewart in Eurythmics, who was, and remains, Scottish, unlike this Dave Stewart), the sublime guitar of Phil Miller, and the graceful, tasteful, utterly impeccable drums of the late, great Pip Pyle. A few years previously this threesome teamed with bassist/vocalist Richard Sinclair to form Hatfield and the North, and National Health amounted to a virtual continuation of the Hats with ex-Henry Cow bassist John Greaves in Sinclair’s stead.
The music here is highly melodic, and is more highly sophisticated fusion than anything else. Odd time signatures and strange meters abound, as does genuine musical virtuosity from the entire foursome but it always remains completely tuneful and surprisingly accessible. Peter Blegvad’s spoken declamation on “numinosity” in “Squarer for Maud” and Greaves’ wry delivery of Pyle’s amusingly skewed lyrics on the lengthy “Binoculars” are pure delight and the brief “drum solo” is the funniest bit of music ever committed to a recording machine. This record, as well as those of Hatfield and the North, is nothing so much as pure fun for very bright musical nerds. It is very smart and endlessly enjoyable.
As National Health was not a particularly rich band, the LP was recorded in a rather makeshift – albeit 24-track – studio at a farm out in the English countryside. Sound is a bit boxy in terms of ambience, but each instrument has a nicely saturated tonality, particularly Phil Miller’s guitar – a silky tone that superficially resembles Fripp’s with the difference being that Fripp’s guitar often sounds like the musical equivalent of a bear with a sore head while Miller leans more in the purring Maine Coon Cat direction, zoologically speaking.
Lots of luck finding an original UK or French LP, but the CD reissue is is readily available from internet sources.
So if this is unfamiliar musical territory, be a sport and jump in. I guarantee that even if it is not your cup of Earl Grey, you will never be bored.