Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Personal Top 10 From Years Past: Prog-Rock Edition

In recent days, I’ve gathered together various old things I’ve written onto this blog. This one goes back nine years, to August 2009. At the company I used to work for, a group of us would share iTunes-based mixtapes, based on a monthly theme that one of us would select.  

When I put this list together, the theme for the month was simply “your 10 favorite songs.” All the good topics had been done, and by this time our mixtape club was starting to lose steam. Still, it’s fun to look at my musical views from back then. Some of them have changed, but most of them haven’t. Maybe my thoughts will inspire others to check out some of the brilliant music I talk about here. Keep in mind that these reviews were written for an audience that wasn't necessarily familiar with progressive rock. Enjoy.


For anyone who knows my musical tastes, this list will come as no surprise. My preferred music provides an immersive experience -- it appeals to the head as much as to the feet. It creates a world for the listener to get lost in.

That doesn't mean picking 10 favorites was easy, though! Yes has locked up my top three for a long time, but after that, things get a little more complicated. Depending on my mood, tracks 4 through 10 could all change tomorrow.

Since the request was specifically for songs, a couple of instrumental tracks that otherwise might have made the cut aren't included. I also kept the focus on rock, since my top 10, in the fullest sense of the phrase, would also include some jazz and classical music. Besides, keeping the focus on rock music helped me pare down the enormous list I started with.

Finally, I'd like to thank whoever came up with this theme. I've been thinking for a long time about creating a Web page where I review my top 100 pieces of music, and/or my top 50 albums. So this gave me an excuse to make a trial run. Yes, I really am passionate about my music. That's why I make these crazy mixes every month, even if no one else ever listens to them.

Here we go, then ...

10. At the End of the Day (16:28)
Spock's Beard
From the album (2000)

Spock's Beard is an American progressive rock band that started up in the mid-'90s. Their lead singer and songwriter has since found Jesus and embarked on a solo career, but when he was leading the Beard, he crafted some of the most tuneful and inventive music to hit the prog-rock scene in a long time.

Influenced by Gentle Giant and early Genesis -- two of the legends of '70s prog -- the Beard also had a contemporary edge that made a lot of their songs sound simply like really long mainstream pop-rock tracks. Neal Morse once called his band the "Backstreet Boys of prog." Just listen to this track and see how many delicious melodies stick in your head afterwards. That's if you don't get whipsawed along the way by all the abrupt changes in musical direction -- from a classical-lite intro to singalong arena rock, from crunchy hard rock to Latin-tinged acoustic pop. It's epic, it's scattershot, it's absolutely brilliant. I have no idea what the lyrics are about, and I don't care.

9. Supper's Ready (22:53):
a. Lover's Leap
b. The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man
c. Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men
d. How Dare I Be So Beautiful?
e. Willow Farm
f.  Apocalypse in 9/8 (Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet)
g. As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs (Aching Men's Feet)
From the album Foxtrot (1972)

Before there was Phil Collins the singer, there was Phil Collins the drummer. And long before Peter Gabriel sang "Sledgehammer," he was a flute-playing hippie, prancing around onstage wrapped in bizarre rubber suits and wearing boxes on his head -- all in an attempt to dramatize the peculiar stories he wrote in his early days. This isn't "Invisible Touch" Genesis. Not even close. This is Peter Gabriel's fanciful universe, populated with intergalactic tenement landlords, ghosts popping out from musical boxes, and venomous killer hogweeds threatening to choke out the human race.

In this musical rollercoaster of a song, Peter took a strange real-life episode -- looking at his wife at home one day, he swore he saw her face change before his eyes, and he also claims he wasn't under the influence -- and he somehow fashioned it into a story of the second coming from the Book of Revelation. Along the way, we stop long enough to fight an epic battle, see Narcissus turn into a flower, and visit a peculiar farm on the English countryside, where Winston Churchill wanders around dressed in drag. "Feel your body melt -- Mum to mud to mad to Dad." Indeed. "The frog was a prince! The prince was a brick, the brick was an egg, the egg was a bird!" Hmmm. And yes, the "Apocalypse" section really is in 9/8. Come on -- this is prog!

In concert, Peter finished off this track on a few occasions by attaching himself to a set of wires and being pulled up, ascension-like, into the rafters. Must have been quite a scene to see Peter drifting off into "heaven."

8. Lemmings (11:38)
Van Der Graaf Generator
From the album Pawn Hearts (1971)

Peter Hammill was in a league all by himself back in the day. While his prog-rock songwriting contemporaries were busy weaving colorful sci-fi and fantasy yarns, Peter was more interested in exploring the human condition, in all its gritty reality. Another song on Pawn Hearts, titled "Man-Erg," reveals a man who can't escape the fact that angels and demons lurk inside all of us. We can be lovers, or we can be killers.

"Lemmings" sets off in a slightly different direction, to remind us that the better angels of our nature can win if we want them to. Our Hero sees all of his friends diving off a cliff (lemmings, you see?) out of despair over the direction humanity is heading in. ("What cause is there left but to die?") But he refuses to join in their chorus of despair. The song is a great statement in support of optimism, independent thought, and refusal to follow the crowd. As Echolyn similarly stated many years later in one of their classic songs, "It's harder to sit when everyone else is standing, to shake your head as the world just nods away." And sometimes you have to do just that.

Oh, the music here is terrific, too: Ragged, jagged, raw, and loud, full of unsettling honks and growls, as well as enough aggression and immediacy to make VDGG about the only prog band that won the admiration of the punks at the 1970s wore on.

7. The Light (15:33):
a. The Dream
b. One Man
c. Garden People
d. Looking Straight Into the Light
e. The Man in the Mountain
f.  Señor Velasco's Mystic Voodoo Love Dance
g. The Return of the Horrible Catfish Man
h. The Dream
Spock's Beard
From the album The Light (1995)

Putting two Beard tracks on here was a difficult decision. I wanted to include something from The Flower Kings, a Yes-inspired Swedish prog band that also began in the mid-'90s, or from Transatlantic, a prog supergroup that included members of Spock's Beard, The Flower Kings, Marillion, and Dream Theater.

But "The Light" won out, for a couple of reasons: (1) It's fun, and (2) I got to sing a line of this song in concert, when Neal Morse walked through the crowd and handed me the mic. For about 10 seconds, I was the lead singer of Spock's Beard. And there goes my moment of fame.

6. Starless (12:19)
King Crimson
From the album Red (1974)

Guitarist Robert Fripp decided to disband King Crimson after this album. He thought prog-rock had overstayed its welcome, and he drove the point home by going on to adopt a new-wave style in subsequent projects. In fact, when he re-formed the mighty Crimson in 1981, it sounded more like The Talking Heads than anything resembling the lumbering beast it had been in the 1970s.

But at least the '70s Crimson went out in style, as John Wetton (later of Asia) wistfully warbles his way through the tale of a man who can find only bleak despair, no matter where he turns. (Peter Hammill might have had something to say about that, one assumes.) This is a big, sad, gorgeous, epic-proportion blast of suffocating blackness. Do not play it when you're depressed.

Or if you're just in it for the music, check out the guitar solo, which is a masterstroke of musical drama. For more than four minutes, Fripp repeatedly and meticulously picks one single note at a time, slowly working his way up the fretboard, until the tension is about to explode. And then the music does explode, into a loud, brash coda of feverish fusiony goodness. Awesome. Oh, the title is a literary reference: "Starless and bible black," from Dylan Thomas' play Under Milk Wood.

5. Mei (49:33)
From the album Mei (2002)

Echolyn is another American outfit that got its start in the '90s. The band members refer to Mei (the album is, in fact, this one song) as a cross between Kerouac's On the Road and Dante's Inferno, and that sums up the imagery pretty well.

At its heart, this is an epic road song. A man looks through his wipers at the long highway ahead, having just left home, filled with regrets and self-doubt. At one point along his trip, there's an accident, and the car is smashed and twisted into rubble. Jolted to action, the man confronts his failings, decides to stop running, and makes the long journey back home to set things right -- but does he really go home, or is it just his ghost? Did he die in the accident? That's up to you to decide.

And there's plenty of fantastic music to take you along on the journey. Guitarist Brett Kull handles the mellower, more reflective moments, which serve as a poignant contrast to the harsh, heavy immediacy of bassist Ray Weston's confessionals that run throughout the piece. The music twists and turns just like the road our driver is traveling. And everything winds up with a soft, lovely release to let you down easily from all that came before. One way or another, our weary traveler's journey ends, and he is finally at peace. It's enough to get your eyes all misty, I dare say. I've wanted to include this in a mix for a long time, but the monthly themes that came up for our club were never quite right.

4. Echoes (23:31)
Pink Floyd
From the album Meddle (1971)

Rick Wright's single piano note doubles as an introductory sonar ping and sets the mood for this aquatic journey, which starts out nice and mellow -- with some beautiful vocal harmonizing from Wright and David Gilmour -- before sliding into a lazy blues section filled with some mighty tasty licks from Gilmour's guitar. And then night descends on the seas, and the only sounds permeating through the inky blackness are haunting whalesongs from underneath the water's surface and the squawks of predatory birds circling overheard. Eventually, the sun breaks over the horizon, and we end where we started, floating serenely off to parts unknown. Such a gorgeous piece of music, for something that was originally constructed out of 24 unrelated snippets!

3. Close to the Edge (18:43):
a. The Solid Time of Change
b. Total Mass Retain
c. I Get Up I Get Down
d. Seasons of Man
From the album Close to the Edge (1972)

I was just a normal kid, listening to normal pop music on normal radio stations. Then I heard "Owner of a Lonely Heart," when I was riding home with my dad one night in late 1983. The sampled horn blasts and synthesized drum breaks were peculiar enough to grab my attention. The singer's high-pitched voice was a curiosity. The drums were crisp. The bass line was tight. And then came the smokin' guitar solo. Sold. I had a new favorite band.

And little did I know that when I started digging into Yes' back catalog, I'd discover something that opened up the big, bad world of progressive rock to me. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" was my gateway drug to all of this crazy stuff.

When I first heard this piece, the title track of Yes' 1972 album, I was utterly floored. Gobsmacked. Lots of people have songs that changed their lives -- this was mine. It completely and irrevocably changed my relationship with music. I'd never heard anything like it before -- a frenetic lightning storm of musical cacophony swirling through the urgent three-minute intro; wordless chants stopping the musical assault dead in its tracks without warning; some of the most inventive drumming and ridiculously fantastic bass lines I've ever heard; wildly contrasting musical sections that blend seamlessly into each other; cryptic yet intriguing lyrics; and an honest-to-goodness pipe organ solo. This is a freaking insane piece of music. It blew my head off, and it still awes me, all these years later.

One cautionary note: Jon Anderson is notorious for writing lyrics based on their sound as much as for their literal definitions, so don't kill yourself trying to suss out much meaning here. If it helps, know that he modeled his lyrical vision for "Close to the Edge" after Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, the classic tale of one young man's quest for spirituality, and his realization that he has to shun the world's organized religious paths and follow his own muse to find enlightenment. Heavy stuff for rock 'n' roll, but that's why it's called progressive rock -- this stuff intentionally tried to push the boundaries and take rock music into uncharted territory.

2. Heart of the Sunrise (10:36)
From the album Fragile (1972)

When I started digging into Yes' back catalog, this was the first song to greet me. The needle of my cheap little record player met the impatient, rumbling intro, which still invokes for me a time-lapse image of the sun racing up into the morning sky. Then Chris Squire and Bill Bruford lock into a funky bass-and-drum groove that I've listened to so many times, I could play every last nuance of Bill's part in my sleep. Then the droning Mellotron chords kick in. Oh, that gorgeous Mellotron. Then the opening theme returns, followed by Jon Anderson's frail, wispy ruminations about being lost in the city -- perhaps a metaphor for feeling alone and alienated in the modern world?

From there, some of Yes' most accomplished ensemble playing unfolds. Any classical fan could appreciate all of the deft counterpoints going on here -- at one spot along the way, there are three separate melodies twisting around each other at the same time. Yet somehow, the arrangement never feels cluttered or overdone. The framed structure of the piece suggests a sonata, so there's a nice, tidy resolution at the end, as older themes are revisited and recapped, and everything closes out the same way it began. Brilliant, brilliant piece of musical craftsmanship.

1. The Gates of Delirium (21:56)
From the album Relayer (1974)

Well, this is it. This piece includes some of Yes' harshest, most ferocious musical moments, but they're contrasted beautifully with some of the most achingly gorgeous melodies my ears have ever come across. Two opposing sides prepare for war, an epic musical battle ensues for more than nine minutes, a strident victory march rings out, and then long, plaintive chords evoke the scene over the smoky battlefield, with the guns falling silent and the warring factions ultimately finding no joy in victory, as they tend to their dead and wounded.

The song's closing section is Jon Anderson's heartfelt plea for humanity to find a better way to settle its differences, and you can't help being swept up in the emotional sincerity of his delivery. Naive hippie idealism? Maybe, but you can't argue with the sentiment being expressed.

The whole thing finally resolves on a major chord, with an icy Mellotron accompanied by a glockenspiel, a misty steel guitar, and a few soft bass notes, all serving as a musical arm around the shoulder -- a reassurance that it will all be OK, that we will find a better way.

To me, the measure of a piece of music is how much it moves you -- and this one hits me in the gut every single time. A masterpiece in every sense of the word.

No comments:

Post a Comment