A guide to the best (and a bit of the worst) of prog rock

A guide to the best (and a bit of the worst) of prog rock

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: progressive rock.

Progressive Rock 101
“Roll over Beethoven,” sang Chuck Berry in 1956. His hit song of the same name called for the overthrow of classical music in favor of the rock ’n’ roll revolution Berry helped rally. It took just 15 years for rock to turn against its founders; by the early ’70s, progressive rock was in full bloom. Prog embraced many tropes of classical music—and at times even incorporated the work of Beethoven and his ilk—into its unconventional scales, tricky signatures, ornate arrangements, and nerdy subject matter. It also brought a reserved and rarified air to rock, something that had been conceived as raw, rebellious party music. Dancing to 20-minute, multi-movement epics played in 9/8 time, however, was out of the question. Prog wasn’t designed to move the body, but to relocate the brain.

Much of that heady nature came from one of prog’s main forebears: psychedelic music. But where the psychedelia of the ’60s could be coarse and primal, prog filtered and refined that trippiness. Maybe the drugs were just getting better. In any case, a greater degree of focus and control were required to execute prog’s complicated arrangements. Despite its reputation, prog was never fixated solely on musicianship—but if a group didn’t have a certain degree of chops, playing prog was more or less beyond its grasp. Some leaders of the genre—like Pink Floyd, prog’s strongest link to the psychedelic era—relied less on ostentatious playing and more on a blend of atmosphere, experimentation, and conventional songwriting. Not that Pink Floyd’s pop-music aspirations kept it from fearlessly reinventing itself after replacing damaged genius Syd Barrett with the mellower David Gilmour in 1968. That change resulted in singular epics such as The Dark Side Of The Moon in 1973, and also a handful of proper prog masterpieces like 1971’s Meddle and 1977’s Animals.

Pink Floyd’s emotional directness and accessibility—not to mention the instant mythology provided by the absent Barrett—allowed it to become the biggest band to rise from prog. Then again, Pink Floyd was rooted more firmly in the pop-centric ’60s than many prog acts. That said, most of the genre’s prime movers in the ’70s cut their teeth during the previous decade; for instance, The Moody Blues’ syrupy, symphonic Days Of Future Passed helped set the tone for prog in 1967, even as it contained chart-friendly anthems like “Nights In White Satin.” But far more famous groups like The Beatles and The Who had even more to do with prog’s conception; the former loaned its broad sonic palette and orchestral ambition, while the latter bequeathed its extended storylines, operatic bombast, and recurring motifs. But The Who’s 1971 album Who’s Next went one further: Pete Townshend’s groundbreaking use of synthesizers helped ingrain the instrument in rock’s psyche, converting it from novelty to necessity practically overnight. Scores of keyboardists who had previously pounded the organ in R&B combos traded them in for futuristic synths—and paradoxically stepped backward, tapping into the classical sources of their boyhood piano lessons (Beethoven, naturally, among them; in fact, one of Beethoven’s favored idioms, the Neapolitan chord, is the basis for “Nights In White Satin”).

By 1971, prog was in full flower. At the forefront of the movement was Yes. Like Pink Floyd, Yes had roots in the psychedelic era, but most of that dreamy excess had been shed by the group’s 1969 debut, replaced by a different kind of overabundance. Frontman Jon Anderson’s elfin, bell-toned vocals abandoned rock’s R&B roots, reaching instead for a sublime altitude. Meanwhile, the rest of Yes wove an intricate mesh of rock, folk, jazz, and classical that was frilly and steely at the same time. On one hand, the group worshipped The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel; on the other, keyboardist Rick Wakemen was known to mount busts of Beethoven and Bach on his instrument in concert. The group even synched up its lyrical and visual concepts; the fantasy-inspired songs of Anderson and the sympathetic album art of illustrator Roger Dean interlocked to form an immersive, otherworldly vision. That dizzying chemistry didn’t come to fruition until ’71 and ’72, when the band released its three greatest statements, The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close To The Edge. Together they comprise their own mini-primer on prog and even managed to produce some hit singles—which wasn’t easy for prog outfits, most of which favored tracks that were far too long and complex for radio. Yes repurposed rock, found popular success, and founded a lasting artistic legacy—all while codifying prog in the process.

Prog could be delicate, but it could also be heavy. King Crimson—the brawniest group on the genre’s A-list—not only helped forge prog with its 1969 debut, In The Court Of The Crimson King, it helped shape a parallel movement: metal. In particular, the album’s bulldozing, jazz-injected opener, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” brought a technicality and nimbleness to heavy rock that showed Black Sabbath didn’t hold the only blueprint. Following a major lineup change in ’72 that included the recruitment of former Yes drummer Bill Bruford, King Crimson entered a short-lived yet pivotal phase; a trio of stunning albums (1973’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic and 1974’s Starless And Bible Black and Red) thrust King Crimson to the bleeding, bruising edge of prog. Much of that had to do with founding guitarist Robert Fripp: an intrepid innovator, a restless subversive, and one of prog’s certifiable geniuses.

Another architect of prog is keyboardist Keith Emerson, whose ’60s outfit The Nice melded rock, jazz, and classical alongside the likes of The Moody Blues. Following The Nice’s breakup, Emerson cofounded Emerson, Lake & Palmer—a supergroup that also included erstwhile King Crimson frontman Greg Lake and drummer Carl Palmer. Although one of prog’s leading names, ELP also embodies some of the genre’s worst tendencies: staggering self-importance, suffocating bombast, and a dearth of decent songwriting. Before degenerating in the ’70s, ELP was able to produce some definitive, canonical prog—including 1971’s muscular-yet-nuanced concept album, Tarkus. Closely related to the bracing output of the era’s up-and-coming jazz-fusion wave, the disc is marred by its closer “Are You Ready Eddy?” Not content to merely mutate rock ’n’ roll, ELP felt the need to record a piss-take of Chuck Berry-esque rock. In doing so, ELP began its descent from one of prog’s greatest bands to one of its most smug and insufferable.

The concept album quickly became prog’s liberator and its jailor. While the movement strove to free itself from the single-oriented mindset of pop and treat the LP as a cohesive work of musical narrative, many prog bands wound up becoming equally constrained by the unwieldy format. Case in point: Jethro Tull. The band’s flute-adorned, folk-leaning prog is put to its limit on 1972’s Thick As A Brick, an album comprising a single, 44-minute song. Ironically, an edited segment of Thick As A Brick gained major airplay on radio and became one of the group’s biggest hits. That Jethro Tull made the album partly as a parody of prog—and specifically of ELP—only made it conceptually muddier.

Prog loved opera, but it had a love-hate affair with theatricality. The genre attracted introverted musicians who stood still and stared intently at their instruments on stage—an attitude of earnestness that was adopted a couple decades later by the shoegaze scene. But prog also harbored a thespian flair, one that was exhibited most flamboyantly by Genesis. Led by the extroverted, outlandishly costumed Peter Gabriel, the group became known for its lushness and melodrama; luckily, sprawling albums like 1972’s Foxtrot and 1973’s Selling England By The Pound were masterful enough to overshadow the gimmicky showmanship. In fact, Genesis’ strong pop sensibility makes the band’s early-’70s output some of prog’s most accessible—and it also hints at the even stronger pop bent of Gabriel’s subsequent solo work, not to mention that of drummer Phil Collins.

Not only was prog incestuous, it was provincial. The vast majority of those who made it came from England, even though the music itself was vastly popular in North America. The biggest exception is Rush. The Canadian trio started out as a hard-rock act before morphing into a prog band in the early ’70s—with much of that transformation coming after the addition of drummer-lyricist Neil Peart in 1974. Like many other prog practitioners, Peart was obsessed with science fiction and fantasy, and he worked those brainy, speculative themes into the group’s increasingly majestic music. The culmination of Rush’s prog period is a loose trilogy of albums consisting of 1976’s 2112, 1977’s A Farewell To Kings, and 1978’s Hemispheres. Geddy Lee’s mythic tenor and supple bass-playing—in addition to Alex Lifeson’s carefully measured guitar—grew to augment Peart’s imagination and virtuosity perfectly. While solidly progressive—and using the quasi-classical structure that had become the template for the prog album—the three records transcend British prog in many ways. Simultaneously more organic, more stark, and more melodic, Rush carved its own niche in the prog pantheon, establishing a fierce, independent relevance that would far outlive prog’s fading fortunes during the late ’70s and beyond.

Intermediate Work
One iconoclast who wound up working within the realm of prog—because, really, who else would have him?—is Peter Hammill. One of the genre’s least compromising, consistently evocative artists, he formed Van Der Graaf Generator in 1967 as an umbrella term for his recordings as a singer-songwriter. When that expanded into a full band by the early ’70s, Hammill had already leaped over the heads of most of his prog brethren. At times bleak, cynical, abstract, hymnal, and acidly cerebral, Van Der Graaf Generator defined prog by utterly defying it. No wonder albums like 1970’s nervy The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other became one of the few prog records cited as an influence by the post-punk movement.

Where Van Der Graaf Generator is sharp and sculptural, Gentle Giant is blurry and shambolic. An unfocused mishmash of just about every prog influence imaginable—with the added spice of medieval chamber music—Gentle Giant’s output morphed from album to album throughout the ’70s, which helped relegate the band to second-string status. The band was capable of moments of brilliance, though; its 1971 album, Acquiring The Taste, shares Jethro Tull’s affinity for flutes and harpsichords, not to mention a similarly ponderous stomp. Although Gentle Giant misses a distinct, consistent identity, there’s a joyous abandon to group’s fuzzy, intricate weirdness. And the vaguely medieval vibe deliriously intensifies prog’s built-in anachronism: progressive music that constantly reaches to the past.

The original prog movement was predominantly British, but even within England there was cliquishness. The Canterbury scene was headquartered only an hour from London, but its leading outfit, Soft Machine, practiced an idiosyncratic form of prog that may as well have come from Mars. The group’s original lineup featured no less than three songwriters—Robert Wyatt, Daevid Allen, and Kevin Ayers—all of whom became cult-inspiring solo artists. Soft Machine covered much territory in several incarnations throughout the late ’60s and ’70s, but it’s best known for its early classics, jazz-addled tangles of drones and post-psychedelic tinkering that unerringly found their own lopsided pulse (or perhaps that of the cosmos). Soft Machine had ties with varying other Canterbury bands, including Camel, Caravan, Henry Cow, and Allen’s France-based Gong, each of which hit upon its own elusive crosspollination of whimsy, wonder, and what-the-fuck, wandering from folk and pop to hard rock and avant-garde intangibility.

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Advanced Studies
Contrary to popular belief, punk didn’t kill prog. Prog did a fine job of that on its own. By the mid-’70s, the qualities that had made prog so bracing had begun to overwhelm the music, which became bloated beyond the point of mainstream accessibility. What was once fresh and vigorous became rote and exhausted. That’s not to say that all the prog of the late ’70s was bad. But with bands disintegrating left and right, it gave proponents of newer music—metal, punk, and post-punk, for instance—an opening. Funny enough, it was post-punk that helped revive prog in the early ’80s. Inspired by post-punk’s sparse approach to experimentation, prog musicians cut their hair, put on pastel blazers, and jettisoned any remaining hippie-isms from their sound and image. In an extra twist of irony, two of prog’s minor players from the early ’70s—Curved Air drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers, briefly a member of Soft Machine—reinvented themselves in The Police. The Police’s reggae-accented, technically brilliant pop-rock inspired many of prog’s surviving dinosaurs. One of The Police’s most vocal champions was Rush, who spun that fresh inspiration into a string of albums (starting with Permanent Waves, prophetically released on January 1, 1980) that marked the band’s most successful and creatively fertile decade. A prime example: the knife-edged hooks and Police-like reggae breakdown of Permanent Wave’s anthemic “The Spirit Of Radio.” 

Rush’s extreme prog makeover marked a sea change in the genre, but it was short-lived. That last gasp of prog’s first wave, though, produced some fantastic work. After briefly quitting Yes, Jon Anderson joined forces with the group’s new guitarist Trevor Rabin and producer Trevor Horn to make 90125. The new wave-sounding 1983 album (led by the hit single “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”) couldn’t have sounded less like the Yes of old; in fact, many new fans at the time didn’t realized this was the same Yes that once wrote double albums based on Shastrik scriptures. To a certain degree, this new direction was a blatant sell-out—but even while striving toward commerciality, Yes couldn’t help but innovate. King Crimson also benefited from a transfusion of talent in the early ’80s—namely Talking Heads touring guitarist Adrian Belew, who joined the reformed prog group in 1981. Granted, Fripp had been dabbling in new wave immediately prior in the excellent The League Of Gentleman, a wiry project that also featured past and future members of XTC and Gang Of Four. Starting with 1981’s Discipline, there was an exhilarating synergy between Fripp’s mad-scientist methodology and Belew’s spiky precision that continued over the course of the two subsequent albums, 1982’s Beat and 1984’s Three Of A Pair.

The most successful prog band to make the transition into the ’80s was Genesis, which surprised many, given Genesis was more or less written off when Gabriel left in 1975. Gabriel’s stark solo work deviated immediately and radically from prog, an approach that the Collins-led Genesis began to mimic on 1980’s Duke. The rest is history—although it’s a shame that Collins’ triumph as a solo pop artist has tainted ’80s Genesis in the ears of many. Albums like 1981’s Abacab and 1983’s Genesis contain some of the band’s best material of any incarnation. And Collins’ knack for infectious hooks and strong melody were offset by the band’s streamlined yet pronounced progressive bent. In terms of substance versus fluff, Gabriel and Collins have long been considered the Lennon and McCartney, respectively, of Genesis. But as with Lennon and McCartney, the truth is far less black-and-white.

Prog didn’t die in the ’80s. But the resurgence of groups like Yes and Genesis didn’t inspire many new prog groups to form. The biggest exception is Marillion, a group led throughout the ’80s by singer Fish—whose vocals, neatly enough, fall almost exactly halfway between those of Jon Anderson and Peter Gabriel. Marillion was an anomaly, a throwback to the lush sound of ’70s prog that managed to absorb just enough clarity and subtlety to avoid many of prog’s pitfalls. The formula worked; releases like 1985’s soaring Misplaced Childhood solidified Marillion’s cult following. It also earned the band the distinction of being prog’s premier standard-bearer, long after prog had become symbolic of a decadent decade—if not an outright punch line. 

It didn’t take long for prog to become respectable again—nor for it to start attracting musicians who sought to cross the prog of their youth with more contemporary sounds. Before the ’80s were out, groups such as Fates Warning, Dream Theater, Voivod, and Queensrÿche began grafting prog and metal. More recently, bands from almost every point on the rock spectrum—Radiohead, Dirty Projectors, Opeth, The Mars Volta, and Tool, to name just a few—have drawn from prog’s well. There are also slavish imitators of prog’s past glory; sitting somewhere in the middle is Porcupine Tree. The brainchild of frontman Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree has been keeping the prog flame while pushing its boundaries for over two decades. From quirky balladry to contorted heaviness, Wilson’s music is the most vital, constantly evolving link between prog’s past and its future.

Demerits
Nearly every band of the classic prog era has skeletons lurking in its closet—and they did so even in their prime. Pink Floyd’s 1970 album, Atom Heart Mother, is a barely passable exercise in pretention that stretches the prog format into saggy shapes, to the point where the band justifiably disowned it. Yes’ Tormato from 1978 is a tinny, fatigue-ridden placeholder. Jethro Tull chased Thick As A Brick with 1973’s paper-thin A Passion Play. But even those lackluster albums have their shining moments. None of prog’s luminaries hit lower lows—nor as often—as Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The band barely hit its stride before the wheels started coming off; although popular at the time and still widely regarded by many, 1972’s Trilogy and 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery epitomize everything lousy about ’70s prog: the overcooked concepts, the neoclassical flounce, the supercilious self-seriousness. It’s rock played with nose upturned and pinkie held aloft. Bad solo albums also haunt many of prog’s elite outfits, Yes included; for every excellent outing like Jon Anderson’s Olias Of Sunhillow and Chris Squire’s Fish Out Of Water, there are indulgent stinkers like Rick Wakeman’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. Ostensibly based on the Jules Verne novel, the 1974 album is mostly an excuse for Wakeman to noodle around and, ahem, sing.

Many non-prog bands flirted with the genre’s trappings and sound, scoring huge hits in the process—for instance, Electric Light Orchestra, a group whose rich, symphonic pomp showcased Jeff Lynne’s untouchable pop acumen. But when it comes to groups that used prog as a stepping stone, The Alan Parsons Project is one of the most lucrative. And least compelling. Cofounded by studio engineer Parsons, who had some cachet due to his work with The Beatles and Pink Floyd, the act quickly contrived a soft, safe form of prog that sold millions thanks to singles like “Eye In The Sky.” It isn’t terrible, but it represents the more cynical side of prog’s latent commercialism. The same can be said of Asia, a supergroup sporting former members of Yes, ELP, and King Crimson that hit the big time in 1982 with the blockbuster single “Heat Of The Moment.” Then again, it’s hard to hate; not only is it catchy as hell, it can barely be considered prog, despite its pedigree. That said, “Heat Of The Moment” could very well have been the nail in prog’s coffin, if others hadn’t come along soon after to revive it.

Miscellany
It’s hard to pinpoint why prog bands flourished in the United Kingdom—or in Rush’s case, the Commonwealth—in the ’70s, while they barely existed in the United States. After all, ’60s proto-prog groups such as Iron Butterfly helped lay the groundwork, and everyone from Styx to Todd Rundgren’s Utopia dabbled in the genre, to varying degrees of greatness. Of all the U.S.’ homegrown prog heroes, the biggest has America built right into its name: Kansas. Hailing from the envelope-pushing Topeka scene, Kansas managed—through sheer force of will, chops, and songcraft—to create heartland prog that felt high-concept and working-class at the same time. Massive singles like “Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Dust In The Wind” were able to pass as more conventional rock, but Kansas actually had a hit with 1977’s gleefully progressive “Point Of Know Return.”

One of prog’s biggest success stories came pretty much out of nowhere. Mike Oldfield, a former folkie who had been part of the backing band of Soft Machine’s Kevin Ayers, released his first solo album, Tubular Bells, in 1973. In spite of being not only Oldfield’s debut, but also Virgin Records’, Bells sold millions. As heavy and ominous as a wind chime, it gained gravity—and widespread notoriety—after being paired later that year with The Exorcist; now it’s impossible to listen to the music without evoking visions of spinning heads and projectile demon-vomit. Tubular Bells has another association with the crass and transgressive: By putting Virgin on the map, the album enabled the label to eventually sign the supposed harbinger of prog’s demise, The Sex Pistols.

The Essentials
1. Yes, Fragile
Fragile is anything but. Yes’ fourth album, it opens with “Roundabout”—one of the group’s signature songs and biggest hits—and includes lean, propulsive, yet multifaceted classics like the churning “South Side Of The Sky” and the towering “Heart Of The Sunrise.”

2. King Crimson, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic 
The most dynamic, forward-thinking, and severely unsentimental band in prog’s upper echelon, King Crimson concentrated all its grandeur into Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, an album that veers from the title track’s yawing, inhuman immensity to the unhinged delicateness of “Exiles.”

3. Rush, A Farewell To Kings
A Farewell To Kings isn’t Rush’s best album, but it is Rush’s best prog album. Picking up where 2112 left off, Farewell is a more contained and deliberate unspooling of Rush’s long-form ambition. And in the hit “Closer To The Heart,” Neil Peart lays down the band’s enduring philosophy: “To forge their creativity / Closer to the heart.”

4. Pink Floyd, Meddle 
To its credit, Pink Floyd had a hard time fitting into the prog pigeonhole dug by those it directly inspired. Meddle turns that incongruity into strength, juxtaposing the spacious, gorgeous 23 minutes of “Echoes” with the eerily acoustic intimacy of “Fearless.”

5. Genesis, Selling England By The Pound 
Early-’70s Genesis albums are a smorgasbord of opulence, but Selling England By The Pound is particularly savory. Stately but never stuffy, Peter Gabriel cuts through the shimmering haze with dew-eyed soulfulness on simmering tracks like “After The Ordeal.” On “The Battle Of Epping Forest,” he anticipates his own solo breakthrough, “Solsbury Hill,” still four years away. 

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