Progressive Rock: Coming in for a Landing

An exciting genre of music enjoyed a tremendous popularity from the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, but even stalwarts like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues and Renaissance either changed their style or broke up.  Progressive rock didn’t die, it soldiered on but with less popularity as waves of new musical style replenish the landscape.

Forty years later, some of these groups remain, and continue the journey by celebrating their roots by playing classic prog rock albums in concert.  Alas, the days of these groups are numbered as original members are few and staring down the octogenarian years.

The Who sang of dying before they got old.  Yet, they still celebrate Tommy, and tour behind their hits.  It’s okay to keep going, the Rolling Stones are beyond 50 years, and hit the road after Mick Jagger’s recovery from heart surgery.  Even Chicago, which started out with progressive-jazz structured songs, are still going, although they are down to four original members now.  There have been two versions of Yes on the road, although one is in dry-dock, the other is on the road with summer with Carl Palmer’s celebration of ELP.

Fans of progressive rock are everywhere.  While their bands are getting close to calling it a day, there is still wind in their sails, and an audience buying tickets.  You would expect a core group of fans to be baby-boomers, retirees with money to spend and a freak flag to fly.  Younger fans have drank the kool aid and like the unconventional structure and thematic content of prog rock.

How many of these albums do you, or did you own? My picks for the top prog rock classics!

Fragile, Yes (1971) – The fourth album by Yes, it contains a number of group and individual compositions.  “Roundabout” became the group’s signature song.  Looking back, this is the group’s most complete album with several long pieces that became the foundation of their concert sets.

Selling England By the Pound, Genesis (1973) – The fifth album by Genesis, the band turned a corner with this album, a mature and more commercial sound, less art-rock and more challenging song structures.  Several of these songs were pieced together from different songs but it worked.  Includes the first solo lead vocal by Phil Collins.

Aqualung, Jethro Tull (1971) – Ranked as one of the all-time best rock albums, this collection of songs is considered to be the group’s best work.  Thematically, this is a loosely an album of about religion and God, the songs combine rock, folk and jazz in some kinetic musical structures.  The fourth album by Jethro Tull.

In the Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson (1969) – Could this be psychedelic rock, it certainly has threads of classical, hard rock, jazz and folk.  The first King Crimson album and it set the bar really high for future efforts.  Flute, electric guitar and mellotron – ingredients for a combustible concoction.

Brain Salad Surgery, ELP (1973) – Emerson, Lake and Palmer took their musical influences seriously and that meant adapting classical songs and motifs into their own style.  They would record the occasional pop song like “Still…You Turn Me On,” for the radio but their magic was in their hard rock versions of “Jerusalem” and Karn Evil 9.” Their fourth album.

Eldorado, Electric Light Orchestra (1974) – ELO’s fourth album and most daring, it was conceptually about the fantasy journey of a dull life.  ELO was a rock band with strings and Jeff Lynne build orchestral accompaniment like The Moody Blues and Days of Future Past. Lynne constructed magical songs of romantic pop without being saccharine.  “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” was true when you heard that song.

Leftoverature, Kansas (1976) – Kansas’ fourth album and best-selling, it reached number 5 on Billboard.  “Carry On My Wayward Song” was the big radio hit, but the entire album was a musical feast of complex but tasty riffs and ideas.  A homerun.

Ashes Are Burning, Renaissance (1973) – A folk-classical-pop band that also used orchestral accompaniments. The band’s music was folk-flavored and took advantage of singer Annie Haslam’s five octave voice to provide a broad soundscape. Renaissance often used classic literature for thematic inspiration.  This was their fourth album and the beginning of cycle of very strong albums.

Crime of the Century, Supertramp (1974) – The third album by Supertramp and their first commercial success.  Powered by two pop songs (“Dreamer” and “Bloody Well Right”), the even better songs are longer, more instrumental songs with superior musical arrangments.  This album is on par with Breakfast in America in terms of quality.

Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield (1973) – Fondly remembered because of an edited section being used for the film, The Exorcist.  Mike Oldfield was a teenager when he made this album, the first for Richard Branson’s Virgin Records.  Oldfield constructed this album of two long songs in the studio through constant overdubbing of instruments.  The two songs are like classical suites, but using rock instruments, along with woodwinds and a choir.

Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (1973) – What’s to say about this album? As a progressive rock album, it certainly had very big, conceptual ideas, along with broad musical soundscape.  The eighth album by Pink Floyd

U.K., U.K. (1978) – This group was formed by ex members of other bands like King Crimson and Yes, and included both progressive rock and jazz fusion elements.  The line up of this album split after its release but this album is full of artful musical passages and intricate changes in musical direction.

Days of Future Past, The Moody Blues (1967) – The first album by the revamped Moody Blues, group songs orchestrated and enhanced by a symphony orchestra.  This began the Moody’s journey in progressive rock.  Deftly constructed songs with progressive layers of sound and accentuated by orchestral arrangements.  Acknowledged as the first progressive rock album.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination, The Alan Parsons Project (1976) – The debut album of this group, based on the stories of Edgar Alan Poe, it introduced the group’s  style of combining instrumentals and songs with lyrics, to create concept albums resembling musical plays.  This album is often overlooked by Alan Parsons fans but it is rich in atmosphere and ideas.

What you notice about this group of albums is that there are a few that are the band’s debut album but most or the third or fourth effort, when they had found their feet and blasted away, confident and no looking back.  One criticism of progressive rock is that the lyrics and music are pompous and overblown.  At times that criticism is on the mark but often these are grand ideas that defy traditional structure and embraces the freedom of jazz but the complexity of classical music.


5 thoughts on “Progressive Rock: Coming in for a Landing

  1. I have a few of those listed. I’m rather new to Prog, only ever learning about it back in November. I was born in 1973, so you’d think I would have known about it, but honestly I never had! I discovered through going back and listening to Peter Gabriel’s music and realizing there was a lot of his stuff I’d never heard. Well, most definitely! The funny thing is, people asked me all my life if I was a fan of Genesis, to which I shrugged off, as I’d only known the 80s pop stuff, and was not a fan. Watching the old footage of the band, it makes me laugh how much I get what people see in me and why they ask that. I still have a LOT to learn about, which is awesome. Thank you for this list!

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  2. Boy, we could have a long and fun discussion about Prog, and your list! I’m a big fan of this music, even after punk and new wave made it passé. Just a couple observations: I’ve never considered ELO, Kansas, or Supertramp to be Prog “Rock.” Maybe Prog Pop? And U.K. was more of a post-Prog supergroup, weren’t they? Other than that, I concur a lot. I’d replace Aqualung with either Stand Up or Living in the Past. And replace Tales of Mystery and Imagination with I, Robot. Also, I prefer a couple of the later Moody Blues albums to Days of Future Passed.

    Are you familiar with the Canterbury Scene? It didn’t make much impact in America, but there’s some fantastic Prog there, with more of a sense of humor and less “bombast” than other Proggers. Soft Machine, Caravan, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Gong, Hatfield and the North, National Health, Egg, Steve Hillage…a veritable treasure trove. I can give you a short LP list, if you’d like, just let me know. (I actually met some of these blokes.)

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  3. (Also, if you like King Crimson, you might also like Van der Graaf Generator, who had a similar sound, and whose leader, Peter Hammill, was extremely talented. I’d also argue that Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale predated Days of Future Passed. I’ll shut up now!)

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    1. Music is the great debate. I’m familiar with Van der Graaf Generator, good group, just never one of my top groups. Prog rock is so open to interpretation since it is a blend of different influences and styles. Fans have a field day with comparing notes.

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