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Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Genre Playlist: Progressive Rock/Art Rock
Progressive Rock, and its twin brother Art Rock, was a form of rock that evolved from the ambitious albums that followed in the wake of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out!, and other late 60's albums that incorporated elements of classical music, unconventional song structure, or overarching thematic concepts.
Progressive Rock, for the most part, brought these classical influences to the fore, sometimes in a conscious attempt to bring a certain "sophistication" to rock music. Art rock, while sharing many similarities, tended to be more influenced by the avant-garde; exploring sonic textures and incorporating sound effects.
Prog-rock and art rock are long-form styles. In many cases, a single title would take up an entire album side; few prog-rock/art rock bands even bothered with singles (although some did, and had chart success with them). The arrangements were usually complex and intricate, with extended instrumental passages and shifts in tempo and structure within a title.
A sizable number of prog-rock albums were "concept albums" complete with plots, subplots, or a unifying central theme or statement. They relied on instrumentation that wasn't common to rock of its day; symphony orchestras or synthesizers. Hammond organs, Mellotrons, and Moog synthesizers were especially prominant in many of these bands.
In England, progressive rock first appeared in late 1967 in post-psychedelic bands that specialized in a symphonic/rock hybrid, among them The Nice (featuring Keith Emerson), The Moody Blues (whose Days Of Future Passed was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra), and the baroque Bach-inspired classicism of Procol Harum (who scored with "A Whiter Shade Of Pale"). King Crimson's In The Court Of The Crimson King, from 1969, is a prime example of the form.
A differing strain of progressive rock developed in the college town of Canterbury, where bands like Soft Machine and Caravan specialized in a jazzy form of psychedelic music that is now considered its own distinct subgenre. In Germany, a strain of Prog-rock now commonly referred to as Kraut-rock was developing. Dark, edgy, avant garde, and challenging, it included hardcore experimenters like Can, and synthesizer bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.
By the early 1970's progressive rock was part of the commercial mainstream. Bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Genesis sold in the millions. Despite its popularity in America, it remained a mainly English phenomenon. A handful of progressive bands appeared in America, Kansas perhaps the most familiar now, but it never really became a trend.
The heyday of the form lasted until the mid-70's, when the punk revolution got started. Along with heavy metal, progressive rock was a chief target for the ire of the punks and the new music press. Prog-rock albums had become hugely expensive, overblown, pretentious affairs in many cases; many, due to their long-form arrangements, lacked replayablity after a certain number of listens. Some became bombastic show-off moves, others sank beneath the top-heavy production. The punk revolt, and the musical forms it ushered in -new wave, power pop, roots revival- focused on stripping away the frills and flourishes; prog-rock was rendered almost instantly out-of-style in a big way.
Many of the early 70's-era progressive rock bands went extinct at that point; others survived by refining their approach. In the wake of Peter Gabriel's departure from Genesis, Phil Collins remolded the band in the image of a pop group, while retaining enough synthetic texture to seem vaguely arty. Pink Floyd kept their big, sound effects laden productions, but took a harder rock contemporary approach on The Wall. Yes spent several years in the wilderness but remerged with a sleek, streamlined sound with "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" in the 80's.
But even they didn't last; by the time the 80's indie movement was in full swing, progressive rock was presumed to have gone the way of the dodo. Song lengths in the 80's approached the 3-minutes and change they had prior to the late 60's. A couple of new bands in the 80's attempted new progressive stylings, Marillion and Ozric Tentacles among them, but they were rare.
There has been a slight comeback for the form in the 90's and 00's. Spock's Beard and Secret Machines are among newer practitioners of a progressive rock that owes much to the long-form experimentation of the past, but with a wide palette of new musical technologies and styles to draw from (you can't be progressive if you're retro). While a return to the mainstream seems very unlikely at this point, you never know where tastes may lead in the future.
A playlist of ten important/influential progressive rock tracks:
1. King Crimson: In The Court Of The Crimson King
Perhaps the quintessential progressive rock band, King Crimson released their debut in November 1969, ultimately taking it into the top-5 in England, and top-30 in America. "In The Court Of The Crimson King" remains their most well-known song, still getting airplay on classic rock radio. Featuring Greg Lake on vocals and Robert Fripp on guitar, it is perhaps Fripp's mellotron playing that is the most memorable thing about this track. King Crimson, with a constantly changing lineup of members under the leadership of Fripp, would release a series of ambitious albums in the early 70's before disbanding. Fripp would revive the band in both the 80's and 90's, producing good work both times.
2. Yes: Roundabout
Yes eventually proved to be the longest lasting of all the progressive bands, despite being written off more than once during their career. "Roundabout" is a classic example of vintage Yes, with its acoustic and electric passages, its swirling keyboards, rumbling bass, complex harmonies, and brisk tempo. Despite their complexites, Yes was capable of real tunefulness as well; "Roundabout", in edited form, reached #13 on the pop charts in early 1972. Keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman makes his first appearance with the band on this and the rest of the Fragile album.
3. Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway
The title track from the 1974 double album, which was Peter Gabriel's last with the band. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is a complex, and at times muddled, concept album that follows the travails of a street kid named Rael; this track, the album opener, sets the opening plot elements. It recontextualizes the old Broadway ode "On Broadway" and benefits from a tour de force performance from Gabriel, who would continue to feature the song in his solo concerts throughout the late 70's. It was covered in the 90's by Swedish progressive group The Flower Kings.
4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Promenade/The Gnome/Promenade/The Sage/The Old Castle/Blues Variations
A bombastic and at times rude cover of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's most well-known work, Pictures At An Exhibition, this is a true relic of the progressive rock era. Recorded live, and simultaneously released as a concert film in 1973, the album is loathed by classical music highbrows, but it did serve the useful purpose of introducing ignorant teenagers to real classical music, which is a good thing. While this bears all the hallmarks of what progressive rock would ultimately attacked for, including an arrogant show-offiness, the band is particularly tight here, with drummer Carl Palmer in particularly good form. This track is the album opener, and features the instantly recognizable fanfare "Promenade". ELP took this into the top-10; they'd continue to sell in big numbers until their breakup in 1979. They've periodically reunited several times since.
5. Caravan: In The Land Of Grey And Pink
Caravan was part of the egghead Canturbury Scene subgenre of progressive rock. Never achieving more than cult status, Caravan has nevertheless managed to record for over three decades, with shifting lineups. "In The Land Of Grey And Pink" is the 1971 title track from their third album, the last to feature the original lineup. It's an instantly likable blend of folk and jazz influences, and retains a fesh, contemporary sound to this day. David Sinclair (who would soon depart to form Matching Mole) contributes some whimsical Mellotron, while Pye Hastings comes up with an airy and tuneful vocal. While the album never charted in America, and only did slightly better in England, serious prog-rock fans would do well to seek it out; it remains accessable but ambitious. The group disbanded in 1983, but the original band reformed in the early 90's, and resumed their career.
6. Can: Yoo Doo Right
Can, an avant-garde art-rock band from Germany, occupied a space somewhere between the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa. Their 1969 debut, Monster Movie, was the only album (except for a reunion album) to feature American vocalist Malcom Mooney. "Yoo Doo Right" is the 20-minute closing track, a hypnotic, aggressive, propulsive workout featuring scary psychedelic guitar, busy drums, bass, and keyboards, with Mooney's semi-psychotic lyrics and edgy, bad-buzz vocals on top. Primitive and jarring, it is a compelling listen; quite unlike anything else. Mooney would be replaced by Japanese vocalist Kenji "Damo" Suzuki, with whom they'd record some of their very best work.
7. Pink Floyd: Echoes
Pink Floyd occupied a strange position in the prog-rock world. Quite devoid of classical influence (except on their dense Atom Heart Mother), the band, in its post-Syd Barrett pre-Dark Side Of the Moon period specialized in atmospheric and psychedelic head music; reliant on Rick Wright's keyboard textures and David Gilmour's spacey guitar. The side-long "Echoes", from the 1971 album Meddle, is probably their most realized work in this vein. Clocking in at over 23 minutes, it takes the listener through a changing pattern of moods and tempoes, all with a very trippy, shape-shifting dimension to it. It stands as possibly their best extended suite ever; at least until Wish You Were Here.
8. Renaissance: Ashes Are Burning
One of the only prog-rock bands to feature a female lead singer (Curved Air is the only other that comes readily to mind), Renaissance specialized in a somewhat more genteel, more obviously classically influenced approach than their peers. Originally formed by ex-Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, both would depart by 1971, before the band had developed much of a following. The enduring core in their mid-70's peak would be operatic vocalist Annie Haslam, who had a pristine three-octave voice, bassist Jon Camp, and guitarist Michael Dunford. "Ashes Are Burning", the album closer from their 1973 album of the same name, is an uncharacteristically hard-rocking 11-minute piece; their follow-up album Turn Of The Cards which features a full orchestra, was their biggest seller.
9. Focus: Hocus Pocus
Focus was a bizarre Dutch progressive band who scored with the left-field epic "Hocus Pocus", built aroung the yodeling vocals of Thijs van Leer and Jan Akkerman's guitar pyrotechnics, and featuring flute, accordian, whistling, dubbed applause, and a virtuoso tongue-in-cheekiness. That may not sound enticing, but the song needs to be heard to be appreciated; it did chart as high as #9 in America in 1971. Focus continued to release albums before breaking up in 1978; they reunited in 1990.
10. Kansas: Point Of Know Return
The lone American band on this list, Kansas' brief heyday was later than the European bands', about 1976-1980. The band retained a pop feel to its recordings, which gave it its hits, while also weaving longer-form progressive elements into their albums. Point Of Know Return, from 1977, is their most realized album, featuring this classic rock staple, and the mega-hit "Dust In The Wind". Founding members guitarist Kerry Livgren, bassist Dave Hope, and drummer Phil Ehart first came together at their high school in Topeka; the signature violin is played by later addition Robbie Steinhardt.
Listen to Can: Yoo Doo Right (1969)