Ten Most Underrated Prog Rock Albums
Broward County is about to receive a wave of live shows by some classic progressive rock bands or their tribute spawn. The Musical Box, a Canadian outfit that reproduces Peter Gabriel-era Genesis stage shows, with costumes and all, kicks off the surge this Friday. It will re-create the band's set list from its 1973 Selling England by the Pound tour in a show at the Parker Playhouse. Not long after, on August 1, Yes will perform two of its iconic early '70s albums, Fragile and Close to the Edge, on the Hollywood Hard Rock Live stage. Deep Purple (more a failed prog band that turned to heavier rock for success) will close out the month.
Though further down the road and farther south, a special mention should be granted to the Australian Pink Floyd, which will bring "Set Their Controls" show to the Fillmore Miami Beach in October. Like the Musical Box, it is a tribute band with extreme production values. A few years ago, it reproduced Pink Floyd's The Wall as the original group would have performed it in 1979 -- giant wall and all -- at the same venue. Its next appearance at the Fillmore will feature selections from Wish You Were Here, Dark Side of the Moon, The Division Bell, and The Wall.
All this nostalgia for the original movement of prog rock (back then sometimes deridingly called "art rock") got us thinking wistfully about some of the more rarely cited but still important albums of this this ilk from the 1970s. Often high-concept, featuring lengthy, anti-pop-song constructions with odd time signatures, progressive rock albums were the rebellion against the mainstream back then. A best-of list would include Pink Floyd, probably King Crimson's debut 1969 full-length In the Court of the Crimson King, and probably the Yes albums the band plans on performing at Hard Rock Live next month.
But that would be too easy and rather pointless. A true prog fan caught up in the nostalgia of what was happening to popular music would want to go deeper. What are the alternate albums by these artists so blithely tied to the scene that are of equal importance? How about some left-field picks featuring the likes of David Bowie and Mahavishnu Orchestra?
We consulted with local musician and shameless prog fiend Ed Matus to put together a list of ten essential but lesser-known "deep cut" progressive rock albums that emerged from the scene. What follows is the full Matus-approved list with some of his commentary.
Phil Manzanera - Diamond Head
Roxy Music's guitarist Phil Manzanera's first solo excursion came out in 1975 and featured an array of former collaborators and figures from the early British prog scene. Matus calls it "a brilliant solo effort by rock 'n' roll's most underrated guitarist. In Diamond Head, Phil Manzanera employs the talents of Roxy Music's Paul Thompson on drums and the vocal talents of John Wetton (also on bass), Brian Eno and the Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt. It's a rich album with many moods and excellent tasteful musicianship."
Indeed! It shines with an almost explosive energy and impressive array of ideas. The opening song, "Frontera," is sung in Manzanera's native Spanish. There are several uninhibited instrumentals that allow the guitarist to relax and flex his muscle as the leader, something he always seemed to aspire to.
Yes - Relayer
Beyond "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and maybe "I've Seen All Good People," Yes is probably best-known as the great revolving door of prog rock. Lineup changes have included many a legend (Bill Bruford on drums) or oddity (Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of the Buggles), but the talents of those who have played in the longest-living art rock band have always added a grand depth of color to its still growing catalog.
One of the outstanding pearls is 1974's Relayer. "It stands out from the rest of their discography," Matus explains. "Steve Howe experimented with a more muscular and harsher guitar sound, plus it was the first album to feature a new keyboardist after the departure of Rick Wakeman. Patrick Moraz joined the group and brought a more fusion jazz element into the proceedings. It was also the last album Yes did with longer pieces. Everything that came after just became more streamlined."
Faust - Faust IV
Progressive rock is best-known as a British thing, but in the late '60s and early '70s, the uprising of the alternative against the popular was actually more active in Germany. Oftentimes called Krautrock, it was very diverse, from the electronics of Cluster to the drone jams of Kraftwerk and the psychedelia of Can.
Faust was the most aligned with prog, at least in a subversive sense. The band's 1973 album, Faust IV, is a masterpiece in its meta-inventiveness. It debuted on prog fan Richard Branson's Virgin Records after he gave the group practically a blank check to record its fourth album. And though it did not prove a smart investment at the time, Faust IV (its last album until 1994's Rien) stands as a forward-thinking work. From the droning, 12-minute opener to the manic, bizarro punk of "Giggy Smile" to the pastoral charms of "It's a Bit of a Pain," the album has influenced everyone from Stereolab to the Flaming Lips to MGMT and quite possibly many future artists to come who still play real instruments.
Matus chose "Jennifer" to represent the album, which he notes features hyperaffected bass guitar. He theorizes Faust may have either found a way to make a guitar amp sound "boomy" via a tremolo function or hooked a tremolo pedal to the bass amp. His musings are somewhat correct. An email exchange with Faust bassist Jean-Hervé Péron revealed these facts:
"Bass: Fender Jazz; Amp: Dynacord; FX : tremolo, variable speed plus reverb (Binson analog). The tremolo was one of the built-in effects of our 'Black Box.' The depth would be set by hand on the Box and the speed was controlled by foot. Each Box had a floorboard of five pedals. The Binson reverb unit was an external FX. The intensity (mix of wet and dry) was foot controlled too. Plus [engineer] Kurt Graupner did some sound treatment on the desk... but that is a 'secret' that only he knows."
The effect comes across like a synthesizer, which builds to stranger sounds and even harder-to-identify noises. Those swell to screeches before making a strange left turn to a tongue-in-cheek, out-of-tune saloon piano solo.
Rush - Hemispheres
Ed Matus explains: "If there is an album that contains the totality of Rush's musical prowess, 1978's Hemispheres is it. In the side-long epic 'Cygnus X-1 Book 2: Hemispheres,' Rush exhibits their virtuosity and true talent for making odd time signatures and complicated arrangements digestible to the listener, all while showing off their musicianship. The second half of the album features shorter compositions 'Circumstances,' the live favorite 'The Trees,' and the instrumental 'La Villa Strangiato.'"
Genesis - Selling England by the Pound
Hard-core Genesis fans know that the only years in Genesis that matter -- as far as resonance in the history of art rock -- are those featuring Peter Gabriel as its frontman. The pinnacle of the period has to be Gabriel's final album with the band, 1974's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the group's only double album.
However, the previous album, 1973's Selling England by the Pound, is often cited among personal favorites. Matus noted that Genesis kicked up production values a notch by adding synthesizers to the mix, which especially stand out in Tony Banks' airy solos on "Firth of Fifth," "The Battle of Epping Forest," and the album's pièce de résistance, "The Cinema Show."
Steve Hackett's guitar work takes a bit of a back seat, but his varied playing, from the twinkle of the classic guitar opening "Cinema" to the soaring electric finale of "After the Ordeal," is worth noting. "It sounds like Steve Hackett was trying to keep up with the synths," says Matus.
Mahavishnu Orchestra - Birds of Fire
Ed Matus notes on this matter: "Born from Miles Davis' Bitches Brew sessions, Mahavishnu Orchestra was led by guitarist John McLaughlin and featured a who's who of jazz fusion lineup, including drummer Billy Cobham and keyboardist Jan Hammer. While considered a fusion jazz outfit, the band had a huge influence on the prog rock world."
Roxy Music - Stranded
Though Brian Eno had left the band at this point, Roxy Music made up for the loss by bringing in former Curved Air electric violinist/keybaordist Eddie Jobson. Eno's contributions were often incongruent to the music, self-aware, and called attention to their own weirdness. It had its charms, but it was nice to hear supplemental instruments play a more supportive role to the grander scheme of an album.
Jobson added the right amount of flavor to the band's most cohesive album to date without taking away the muscle of the band's two previous releases. It allowed for more quiet moments that showcased frontman Bryan Ferry's romantic vibrato. But the band is also allowed to rock out, as it does for the opening title track and the intro to the epic "Mother of Pearl," which builds dense layers of melody between repetitive, sparkling guitar lines, ambling piano, humming organs, skittering drums, and some grooving bass. It's augmented with all sorts of sonic flourishes from horns, castanets, whispers, marimbas, and possibly a theremin, which, after six-and-half minutes, gives way to Ferry's fluttering a cappella refrain: "Oh, mother of pearl, I wouldn't trade you for another girl."
Eno - Another Green World
Brian Eno came out of the glam rock scene as a founding member of Roxy Music, but -- as just noted -- he added so much experimental spice to the mix, the band came across as much more than pretty men wearing makeup and, in Eno's case, feathers. Eno did not last more than two albums before he trekked out on his own as a solo artist.
After two brilliant releases filled with layered, often wacky songs featuring surrealistic lyrics, he presented the music world with his masterpiece, 1975's Another Green World. Eno toned down his delivery for quieter songs that never lacked any luster in their experimentation. Robert Fripp's "wimshurst" guitar solo in "St. Elmo's Fire" is positively transcendent in its evocativeness, creating a sonic equivalent to the sparking electric machine of the same name.
Eno was on a quest to create music that was "visual" and "sensory" beyond sound, and he succeeds in "transporting" the listener in an almost uncanny way.
David Bowie - Low
Pushing forward a bit in time and inching toward dangerously popular territory, but in truth, David Bowie's 1977 Low, his follow-up to an American soul-infused period, was a strange and shocking departure for fans and critics alike. Not many people liked it when it came out. But its progressive stature would prove itself over the years.
Low has long been often cited as one of two or three masterpieces by the glam-rock pioneer turned Kruatrock- and Brian Eno-influenced musician. Bowie once said he heard Eno's Another Green World, and it changed his life. He hired Eno as a co-songwriter, and they went to Berlin and created an album that was one side experimental pop songs that blended surreal atmospherics with sometimes confessional lyrics and the other with ambient-influenced instrumental jams. Low would eventually redefine popular music, and it foreshadowed the new-wave scene by several years.
King Crimson - Islands
This 1971 album is King Crimson at its most sophisticated but also at its most volatile. The work was as much grooving jazz as it was rollicking rock 'n' roll, with elements of rather ethereal classical moments. Robert Fripp's nasty guitar lashings and Mel Collins' braying saxophone are counter-pointed by a sighing Mellotron and sometimes dreamy horns and strings. It's a brilliant dynamic that spans the album.
The vocal harmonies of "Ladies of the Road" would satisfy those still mourning the demise of the Beatles. The rock and jazz probably most strongly come together in the brilliantly entrancing build-up of "Sailor's Tale."
Jethro Tull - A Passion Play
Back to Ed Matus' thoughts on these matters: "In their album Thick as a Brick, Jethro Tull was spoofing the progressive rock genre. The album became a success, and so the band decided to try the serious approach with 1973's A Passion Play. Like its predecessor, the work contains one single, full album-length track. This is Jethro Tull's densest work, and the critics savaged it upon its release. Jethro Tull toured the album with a fantastic and bizarre multimedia presentation in order to depict the story about the main character's adventures in the afterlife. Heaven is boring, and hell is too authoritarian. What now?"
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.
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