Monday, December 21, 2009

Voyage Of The Acolyte

Steve Hackett/1975

It’s commonly referred to as “an embarrassment of riches.” In the case of Genesis, it was an overabundance of talent. Not only were these guys great players, but also great songwriters/composers. Problem was, there's only so much space on an album. So somebody's material had to be sacrificed. This great wealth fueled the five albums leading up to their magnum opus in 1974, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, before the wheels abruptly came off. Lead singer Peter Gabriel quit immediately after The Lamb tour for an ultimately successful (but maddeningly slow) solo career. Genesis was now left to wander in the wilderness sans that one crucial element: a lead singer. Having lost their eccentric, much-talked-about vocalist and media focus (Gabriel was getting all the buzz, the guy on stage wearing bizarre costumes and scary masks, acting out the characters in the songs, etc.) some fans felt the band had lost its soul. If not its soul, then at least its bat-winged figurehead. So it was, during this tumultuous downtime when people were unsure if Genesis would even continue to exist, that guitarist Steve Hackett decided to take a break from the madness and record a solo album – using all the music floating around in his head that would probably not make it onto a Genesis album, especially with material from keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist Mike Rutherford crowding him out. Thus, Voyage of the Acolyte was released and – in the absence of a proper Genesis album – was looked upon as a legitimate Genesis album in its own right. And why not? Reinforcing this perception was the fact that both Rutherford and Genesis drummer/vocalist Phil Collins contributed mightily to Acolyte. Not surprisingly, the album sounded very much like a Genesis album…minus Gabriel, of course. The familiar lush mellotrons were present and accounted for, wafting across moody-scary-symphonic landscapes like “Hands of the Priestess” and “Shadow of the Hierophant,” both tracks resembling long-lost instrumental sections from some alternate-universe Genesis epic. Add to that Collins’ familiar voice on "Star of Sirius" (having sung harmonies and the occasional lead vocal on previous Genesis albums) plus his drum playing throughout the album, and things are sounding more and more like Genesis all the time. Add one final and recognizable Genesis ingredient – Hackett’s wailing, sighing, bobbing and weaving guitar lines – and who needs Genesis when you’ve got all this? What keeps Acolyte from actually becoming a Genesis album clone (aside from the fact that Banks didn’t participate) is a pervading atmosphere of longing, melancholy and menace. Whereas a Genesis album would lean a bit toward the ominously quaint and quirky, this one is more ominously solemn and spooky. When not sounding like the mournful music one might hear at a church memorial service for a lost friend, it pummels you with martial riffs like an aural army of darkness marching through your living room. Genesis, as it turned out, would survive just fine and reach even greater success (with Collins eventually taking on the front-man/lead vocalist role) than ever attained in the Gabriel/Hackett years. And Hackett, after thoroughly enjoying his first taste of a musical dictatorship (where he, most importantly, was the dictator) would stay with Genesis for only two more albums before embarking on his own full-time solo career, thus eliminating any limitations on his contributions to an album. In a sense, it was this “phantom” Genesis album that inspired another crucial loss for the real Genesis – and a fateful new voyage for Hackett.

Essential Tracks: “Ace of Wands” “Hands of the Priestess/A Tower Struck Down” “Shadow of the Hierophant”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Emerson, Lake & Palmer/1971

Here’s a great idea for a Prog concept: the zany adventures of a creature called Tarkus – a cuddly little guy who’s part armadillo/part Panzer tank. We follow the mayhem that ensues, as our thickly armored mechanized mammal frolics along, flashing his two huge canons while engaging in fierce battle with a host of dastardly, nasty creatures. It’s all illustrated in sci-fi comic book fashion inside the gatefold album cover. Yes, Virginia, there really was a time when people would write rock music and lyrics around such wild and wacky stories. To the uninitiated, it would all seem rather geeky and…well, Trekkie-like, if not for one important aspect: the music. Based around a military-industrial-complex-strength keyboard riff by maestro/Hammond organ abuser Keith Emerson, “Tarkus” (the sidelong song suite) opens with a churning, grindingly unmelodic and impossible-to-whistle main theme that perfectly reflects the once-upon-a-blitzkrieg fairytale. Deviously skittering and scampering up and down the musical scale in god-knows-what time signature, this ominous, recurring keyboard theme (pummeled along by drummer Carl Palmer) is punctuated throughout by interludes of Greg Lake’s lovely, choirboy vocals on sections like the King Crimson-ish “Stones of Years,” and in the dark, ominous anti-war vibe that hangs over “Battlefield.” But it is Emerson’s keyboard gymnastics on organ, piano and Moog synthesizer that dominate “Tarkus” and exhilarate like no other keyboard player of the era could – punching, slapping, whacking, jabbing, fondling, hell, even stabbing his Hammond with knives (as he did when ELP performed live). If their 1970 debut album made people sit up from their late-‘60s stupor and take notice – with it’s popular “Lucky Man” single and Emerson’s manhandling of the Moog – then Tarkus (the album) would further cement the band’s reputation as one of the emerging Prog Rock leaders of the pack. Unfortunately, the tough-act-to-follow masterpiece that took up an entire side of vinyl consigned much of the material on Side 2 squarely in the let-down category. Aside from “Bitches Crystal” and “A Time and a Place,” both of which sound like they could have been outtakes from the first album, the remaining material tends to lack the electrifying intensity and focus of the “Tarkus” suite. It would be several more albums before ELP would achieve what many consider to be their ultimate masterwork, Brain Salad Surgery. Despite critical accusations of over-the-top bombast and in-your-face artistic indulgence (what some would argue ultimately brought down the band in the late ‘70s), it was ELP and their strange pet – an armed-to-the-teeth armadillo on tank treads – that initially made the world safe for the newly hatched musical genre called Prog Rock.

Essential Tracks: “Tarkus” “Bitches Crystal” “A Time and a Place”

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In The Court Of The Crimson King

King Crimson/1969

First, I’d like to apologize to my neighbor Joanne. The little sister of one of my pals at the time, she made the mistake of innocently strolling into my house and gazing upon a certain album cover leaning against the couch. Letting out a blood-curdling scream, the youngster tearfully turned and ran like hell out the front door. Oh, the contorted, fearful, agonized grimace…no, not on Joanne’s face. I’m talking about the face on the album cover. If ever there was an album cover that perfectly reflected the menacing musical vision tucked therein, it was In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. Catching the hippie-dippy, peace ‘n love crowd with their proverbial bell bottoms down, this debut album (subtitled “An Observation by King Crimson”) mysteriously appeared on the record racks with no warning in late ’69. It was almost as if the frightfully grimacing face on the cover was beckoning you, “Come…buy this album…if you dare.” While peaceniks and pinkos were still strumming and singing about social injustice, all the King’s men were busily creating this darkly disturbing, surrealistic fantasy world – resplendent with 21st Century schizoid men, solemn and spooky epitaphs and a warped royal court of dancing puppets, fire witches and funeral marches. If the Beatles proved that rock music could be art on Sgt. Peppers, King Crimson took the ball and ran with it, straight down into their own cozy little netherworld. This is an album of subtle shadings and mind-bending contrasts, set amidst distinctive jazz and classical overtones – perfectly balancing the extreme sonic violence and chaos of lead-off track “21st Century Schizoid Man” (which could be construed as an anti-war song, albeit one from hell) with the flute-fluttering, pastoral beauty of “I Talk to the Wind” – slyly casting its spell, drawing you into its enchanting yet unnerving depths. Contributing to the album’s atmospherics is the mighty mellotron, played expertly by Ian McDonald. A keyboard instrument that replicates the sound of violins, brass and choirs via pre-recorded tapes, the mellotron adds a ghostly, unhinged spookiness to the music – yes, it sounds like an orchestral string section, but one with an alien-like other-worldliness. During your next out-of-body experience, the mellotron will most likely be what you hear in the background. It’s used most effectively on the album’s two epic tracks, “Epitaph” and the album closer, “The Court of the Crimson King.” Based around a majestic mellotron riff, the music on this track slowly weaves through lyricist Peter Sinfield’s Brothers-Grimm-on-acid fantasy poetics:

“On soft grey mornings widows cry,
The wise men share a joke;
I run to grasp divining signs
To satisfy the hoax.
The yellow jester does not play
But gently pulls the strings
And smiles as the puppets dance
In the court of the crimson king.”

What does it all mean? That’s not the point. It’s not so much what the lyrics mean, but more the creepy, nightmarish vision they create. The track culminates in a false crescendo, fooling you into thinking this bad trip is over, followed by several moments of silence and the stark tapping of a cymbal, before the main mellotron riff re-emerges more massive and menacing than ever – finally ascending into a dizzying, dissonant “swooshing” sound, like what you might hear at the very point of waking up from a really bad dream. Or, in this case a beautiful nightmare. The dark, somewhat twisted vibe on this album is appropriate, as King Crimson seemed to be cursed from the start. Cover artist Barry Godber died of a heart attack shortly after the album was released. The band suffered its own coronary after its initial U.S. tour, with McDonald exiting (followed later by singer/bassist Greg Lake and drummer Michael Giles). This particular lineup of King Crimson, stillborn as it were, would take on legendary status while the band morphed and mutated with constantly changing personnel on subsequent albums – all under the watchful eye of lone original member, guitarist Robert Fripp (who continues to manage all things King Crimson to this very day). Though probably not the first Progressive Rock album, In the Court of the Crimson King was certainly the harbinger of things to come at the dawning of a new decade. Rock music would become more impressionistic, more artistic, more risk-taking…to its own detriment, some would argue (those who preferred their music to be exclusively of the sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll variety). But even now, 40 years later, this iconic album continues to transcend time and haunt all who have (or will) come in contact with it – still exerting a strangely disturbing, yet irresistible spell.

Essential Tracks: “21st Century Schizoid Man” “I Talk to the Wind” “Epitaph” “In the Court of the Crimson King”

Monday, December 7, 2009


Alan Parsons Project/1978

How many Pet Rocks does it take to build a pyramid? Such were the heavy philosophical questions being contemplated by those with expanded consciousness back in the 1970s – a time when pyramids, Pet Rocks, Rubik's Cubes and healing crystals were all the rage. While Steve Martin sang about King Tut, the Alan Parsons Project delved into the intrigue and mystery of ancient Egypt on their third concept album, Pyramid. Basically more of a partnership than a project, APP was built around the songwriting/production duo of Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson. The twosome would enlist an ever-changing lineup of guest vocalists and musicians to execute their progressive-leaning musical visions. Parsons was no stranger to success, having cut his teeth as an engineer on several albums you may be vaguely familiar with – Abbey Road and The Dark Side of the Moon – graduating to full-blown producer on a few others. Scotsman Woolfson on the other hand, introduced the world to that iconic generational anthem, “Kung Fu Fighting,” by Carl Douglas. However, it would soon become clear that Woolfson was no slouch in the songwriting/arranging/orchestrating department. After securing a huge hit with previous album I Robot, APP set their musical sights on I Mummy. Not really progressive in the grand style of, say, a Genesis or a Yes album, tracks on an APP album tended to be shorter, with ample pop hooks surrounded by smart, sophisticated arrangements and orchestrations. Pyramid is, not surprisingly, heavily influenced by the Beatles ­– it’s not hard to imagine Paul McCartney singing lead vocals on melodic tracks like "What Goes Up" or the gorgeous closing ballad "Shadow of a Lonely Man." John Lennon's more acerbic vocal take would fit quite nicely (and ironically) on "Can't Take It With You." Unfortunately, at that particular time Paul was flying high with Wings and John was preoccupied with baking bread. So, APP drafted a different cast of supporting characters, including Colin Blunestone (whose sweet voice you’ll recall singing “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” by the Zombies in the previous decade). His soft, spooky vocal performance on "The Eagle Will Rise Again," is one of the highlights of the album. Sprinkled throughout this elegantly produced prog/pop landscape are several keyboard-based instrumentals to help round out the “progressive” side of things (the MO of most APP albums). Not quite the commercial (or some might argue artistic) success of I Robot or subsequent hit-laden albums like Eye in the Sky and Turn of a Friendly Card, Pyramid lacked the heavy radio airplay of those albums and might well be considered the “lost” APP album. But for inquiring minds seeking to excavate ancient ‘70s musical artifacts, this particular Pyramid is well worth exploring. (Ed. Note: Review dedicated to the memory of Eric Woolfson, 1945-2009.)

Essential Tracks: “What Goes Up” “The Eagle Will Rise Again” “Can’t Take It With You” “Shadow of a Lonely Man”

Tuesday, December 1, 2009



War. What is it good for? Absolutely nuthin’ (say it again). Or, in the case of Yes and Relayer, a good topic for their special brand of conceptual epic. Not to mention a relevant topic in 1974 (as the Vietnam war still raged, albeit with a dwindling U.S. presence) compared to, say, the ancient Indian spiritual scriptures Yes explored on their previous album, Tales from Topographic Oceans. On that particular outing, the boys suffered an all-out assault from critics who accused Yes of over-indulgent musical dithering. So, with new keyboardist Patrick Moraz recruited for his pyrotechnic, music-as-sound-effect technique, Yes threw subtlety right out the window and ratcheted up the intensity level. Think of it as Yes on steroids. Take the epic side-long track, “The Gates of Delirium.” It’s basically the soundtrack to the World War of your choice. Bombs exploding. Bullets flying. People dying. Fun stuff. Kicking off with a flittering, skittering instrumental section similar to the opening sequence of earlier Yes epic “Close to the Edge,” we’re soon inspired by lead vocalist Jon Anderson’s clarion call to service:

“Stand and fight, we do consider
Reminded of an inner pact between us
That’s seen as we go
And ride there
In motion
To fields in debts of honor defending”

With forces sufficiently marshalled by Anderson, Yes leads us into the horrors of battle – a nightmarish musical landscape of squealing, squawking, screaming, searing guitars and synthesizers feverishly strafing the eardrums. It amounts to a blitzkrieg of atonal sonic fury, all to drive home the point that war is a nasty business indeed. This section is not an easy listen, but it definitely gets your attention. When the fighting finally stops, the smoke gradually clears and peace prevails, the music slowly segues into a soft symphonic minor-key finale, as Anderson’s angel-from-on-high voice reappears amidst the carnage:

“Soon oh soon the light
Pass within and soothe this endless night
And wait here for you
Our reason to be here”

This sweet, sad, mellotron-drenched section ends on a lone ascending note, suggesting mankind must reach high for the light (which always seems just beyond reach). Things don’t exactly let up with the following track, “Sound Chaser.” If the critics didn’t like the slow, methodical tide of Topographic Oceans, then Yes would take a more in-your-face approach here – a chaotic explosion of keyboards, pumped up with intensive, speed-of-light riffing by guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire, dripping with King Crimson-meets-Mahavishnu Orchestra influences. This jazzy/fusionistic workout (punctuated by Howe’s mad electric flamenco guitar interlude) is unlike anything Yes had done previously – or would ever do again. Relayer concludes with the kinder, gentler “To Be Over,” slowly fading in like gently cascading waves as Howe’s simple guitar lines evolve into layers of lush keyboards and choir-like vocals. It’s almost as if Yes is saying “Sorry we blew your brains out with those other two tracks, please allow us put your head back together with this tune…” It’s actually one of the more gorgeous and melodic pieces in the Yes canon. Housed in yet another fantasy art cover by Roger Dean, Relayer has assumed legendary status over the decades – considered by some as the final masterpiece of the classic ‘70s-era Yes. And, sadly, Relayer is still very relevant in 2009. After all, we’re still hearing a lot about war these days, aren’t we.

Essential Tracks: Best to hear Relayer as a complete musical statement.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009



Kansas: A progressive state of mind or band of wooly hayseeds? More about that later, but first a little musical history. When Progressive Rock initially reached our fair shores from its birthplace in England, this strange new sound confused and frightened the untamed (and badly dressed) natives, as they scratched their heads (among other parts of their bodies) in bewilderment. Songs that went on longer than three minutes? Time signatures going every which way but straight ahead in 4/4? Lyrics about crimson kings, giant hogweeds and total mass retain? Fancy-shmancy classical overtones?? Dude, pass me another GIQ and crank up some Grand Funk! After all, even in 1976 when Prog giants like Yes and Genesis had already established a strong foothold in the New World, most bands in middle America just wanted to boogie down and tie one on. Yet, the Prog muse mysteriously seeped into the very heartland, and took root in – of all places – Kansas. You know, the place where Dorothy and Toto (the dog, not the band) lived. Also residing in the state of Kansas was the band Kansas. With an excess of beards, mustaches and long, frizzy manes, one could easily mistake these guys for wooly mammoths in overalls. However, our furry farm boys could really play their instruments. And when not indulging their Grand Funk Railroad-wannabe tendencies, Kansas could throw down with the best of any snobby British Prog rockers. If the lads in Genesis had been born hauling hay bales and milking cows in the Midwest, they probably would have sounded like much of Leftoverture. Epics “Miracles out of Nowhere” and “Cheyenne Anthem” chug along in their unique, chamber-music-meets-cow-pasture classicism – complete with fiddly-twiddly organ/synthesizer workouts from Steve Walsh and beautiful violin playing from Robbie Steinhardt, whose flights of bowmanship meander in and out of these sophisticated arrangements like a honey-soaked bumblebee. The overplayed “Carry on My Wayward Son” all but consigned Kansas to AOR oldies purgatory, but nothing could prepare the mainstream rock audience weaned on that track for the monster closer “Magnum Opus.” Let’s just say you won’t be hearing this slightly over-the-top, nearly ten-minute-long multi-part symphony at your next barn dance. Looked upon derisively by critics, Kansas nonetheless reached high and went far, harvesting their bounty with several more successful albums through the end of the ‘70s – until a New Wave came crashing down on all things Prog. At their peak, several members of the band were even asked to appear on former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett’s second solo album, Please Don’t Touch. Further evidence that these American farm boys could definitely hack it with the big boys.

Essential Tracks: “The Wall” “Miracles out of Nowhere” “Cheyenne Anthem” “Magnum Opus”

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Gentle Giant/1972

Once upon a time, kiddies, massive giants strode o’er the planet. These giants sang songs with strange and indecipherable lyrics that nobody could understand. They played exotic instruments like mellotrons, synthesizers, alto recorders and mandolins – making mysterious sounds that echoed across oceans and continents. One such giant was called, appropriately, Gentle Giant. Hailing from that land of the giants, England, the band’s music – at least to the ears of your basic let’s-boogie-down-and-get-hammered rock n’ roll audience – was an acquired taste (symbolically referenced in the title of their second album, Acquiring the Taste). Yet, to the burgeoning Progressive Rock crowd, seeking all things un-danceable, un-commercial and un-American, this British band was huge. If Gentle Giant was to maintain its cult status, it would be with this proud cult of obsessives. Although you probably won’t hear an album like Octopus at a wild party anytime soon (especially with a lead-off track titled “The Advent of Panurge”), the album is more streamlined and direct than their previous outings. Yet, it continues the standard Gentle Giant musical approach: insanely innovative and intricate (some would say hard to follow) arrangements, top-notch playing and vocal gymnastics that sound like a medieval men’s chorus. Tracks like “Panurge” and “A Cry for Everyone” come off almost as straight-ahead rockers – albeit uniquely warped Gentle Giant rockers. These tracks are punctuated with quirky interludes like the chamber orchestra violin arrangement on “Raconteur Troubadour” or the aforementioned vocal leapfrogging on “Knots.” A special note about the vocals…this is pretty much where the “acquired taste” part comes in. If a giant were actually straining to reach a high note, he might very well sound like vocalist Derek Shulman. His somewhat harsh, strident vocal approach is tempered, though, with keyboardist Kerry Minnear’s softer, more velvety voice on ballads like the pretty “Think of Me with Kindness.” Adorned in the UK with a cover by fantasy artist Roger Dean (the U.S. cover featured alternate art depicting an octopus in a jar) Octopus has assumed its rightful place as one of the genre’s classic albums, if not one of the strongest albums in the Gentle Giant canon. But even after 11 studio albums through 1980, the band was never able to scale the successful heights that fellow English Prog giants like Yes, Genesis, ELP and Pink Floyd reached – consigned to a destiny of musical obscurity, although this particular serving of Octopus is exceptionally flavorful once you've acquired the taste.

Essential Tracks: “Advent of Panurge” “Raconteur Troubadour” “A Cry for Everyone” “Think of Me with Kindness”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Turn Of The Cards


How to describe the sound of Renaissance lead vocalist Annie Haslam’s voice? Hmmm, let’s see…remember that girl in the high school glee club who sang all the solos (not to mention leading the church choir on Sundays)? Perfectly hitting those high notes dead-nuts on, while mere mortals struggled, voices cracking in agony? You know, the girl who got straight A’s in every class. The one who always reminded the teacher to give the quiz that the teacher forgot about. Basically, you loved to hear her sing, but sometimes you just wanted to strangle the goodie-two-shoes (figuratively, of course). Now, take that crystal-clear, triple-octave voice, add a band with classical overtones (including classically trained pianist and band bedrock John Tout), what the hell, throw in a 30-piece orchestra or two. And there you have it: Renaissance. Launching this highbrow vibe with their third album, Turn of the Cards, Renaissance created what would be their musical MO – wrapping songs around long, orchestra-adorned arrangements that not only mirrored multi-movement classical pieces, but actually borrowed melody lines from a couple. While bands like Led Zeppelin paid homage to their blues hero Willie Dixon, Renaissance sounded like they’d been hanging out with Claude Debussy. However, with a player like John Tout in the band, we’re talking indisputable artistic legitimacy. This guy wasn’t just aping a classical player, he was the real deal. From the first notes of opening track “Running Hard,” Tout pounds the Steinway ivories like a mad maestro. No organs or synthesizers here. No electric guitars, either – that would be wrong for this tiny little orchestra. Tout is supported by bass guitar, acoustic guitar and drums. And of course, there’s Annie. Her crystalline voice shimmers throughout, performing tasteful vocal aeronautics that would make today’s overwrought “divas” cringe with shame and embarrassment. Epics like the opening track and the band’s signature piece, “Mother Russia,” swell and surge like good little classical pieces should, all the while showcasing that angel-on-high voice of Annie’s. No surprise that several years later, Renaissance played Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. Believe it or not, bands performing with orchestras were quite the rage back then – moving millions of albums, selling out prestigious concert halls. A time when golden-haired, flowing-gowned damsels warbled with heavenly voices, soaring over rolling piano arpeggios and melodic classical phrases. Was it rock n' roll? Not quite. A golden era? Perhaps…but without a doubt a true Renaissance period. (Ed. note: Review dedicated to Wayne!)

Essential Tracks: “Running Hard” “Things I Don’t Understand” “So Cold Is Being” “Mother Russia”

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nursery Cryme


No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is, indeed, a young girl dressed in Victorian garb, playing croquet with the recently lopped-off heads of her playmates on the album cover. Such is the strange and enchanted world of Genesis, circa 1971. Think of it as a pleasant cup of English tea, spiked with just a dash of LSD. Nursery Cryme refers to the subject matter of the opening track, “The Musical Box,” where Cynthia lops off little Henry’s noggin, Henry later comes back as a ghost, then begins to age rapidly, but still wants to get laid. Okay, I guess you had to be there. But back in ’71, with Progressive Rock just starting to flex its creative muscle (or rear its ugly head, depending on your perspective), why not? With its classic lineup now firmly in place, thanks to the addition of Phil Collins on drums and Steve Hackett on guitar, Genesis was ready to unleash its warped, uniquely skewed take on all things English. Thus, we have the aforementioned lopping off of heads; giant hogweeds invading the English countryside; and nymphs from Greek mythology fluttering hither and yonder around the fountain of Salmacis. These flights of fantasy are all adorned with very intense music, performed by intelligent players who studied their instruments well, practicing in their bedrooms while all the other English kids were outside playing soccer. Not your typical rock band, the members of Genesis all seemed very smart, very polite, and would most likely prefer sipping a cup of tea by the fire over chugging a few pints at the pub. However, don’t mistake our gentle lads for wusses. When Hackett’s staccato, knife-piercing lead guitar lines aren’t shredding your brain in “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” his crying, wailing-widow solos in “The Fountain of Salmacis” will bring you to tears. Collins plays like an over-caffeinated maniac (tea does contain caffeine, after all) throughout the album, although his drums are poorly recorded and buried in the mix (the bad production of this album is still a sore spot among fans ). With a foundation of lush, classically inspired orchestral keyboard shadings from Tony Banks, lead vocalist/eccentric Englishman Peter Gabriel puts these sordid tales of hogweeds and harlequins to vocal melody – using his best angel-with-a-2-pack-a-day-habit rasp. Actually their third album, Nursery Cryme was really the opening salvo in what would become the classic Genesis trilogy: Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound. Yet, even after committing these serious musical crymes in '71, it would take several more years before fans in the U.S. caught onto the act.

Essential Tracks: “The Musical Box” “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” “Seven Stones” “The Fountain of Salmacis”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tales From Topographic Oceans


Since we’re on the subject of concept albums…might as well haul out the mother of ‘em all, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes. First, let’s dispense with the usual puns associated with this album: they were in over their heads, adrift in a sea of pomposity, a band drowning in their own self-indulgence, etc., etc. A stunning artistic achievement or an orgiastic example of Prog excess? You be the judge. After a string of popular, pushing-the-musical-envelope albums including The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge, the band was on a roll and in peak form – the newly crowned kings of a fresh new genre that, believe it or not, was actually looked upon with approval by most rock critics at the time (even those notoriously anti-British writers at Rolling Stone). Upon completing their Close to the Edge tour in 1973, Yes hunkered down in the studio and embarked on a project to let it all hang out – immersing themselves in a concept based on the Shastric scriptures, from the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Not exactly a hip topic amongst your typically stoned, drunk-out-of-their-minds rock audiences back then. You can almost hear the collective “Huh??” This was heavy stuff, indeed, set to four album-side musical epics stretched over two pieces of vinyl (a double album), each slowly unfolding (some would say aimlessly meandering) like a long, lazy river of oblique lyrics, occasional mellotron passages, helped along by some killer guitar riffs from Steve Howe to prevent anyone from nodding off. Missing here were Bill Bruford’s laser-like, jazzy drum patterns (he left the previous year to join King Crimson), replaced by pounder Alan White’s more basic hammer-time style. These four massive pieces, with snappy titles like “The Revealing Science of God,” started off slowly, took their good ol’ time getting up to cruising speed, before finally (some would say mercifully) coming to an end. The usual Yes penchant for pristine harmonies, strong melodies, ingenious arrangements and expert musicianship was still there in full glory…provided you were extremely patient and had some time to kill. But when you make it to Side 3 and 4, there’s the uncomfortable feeling that ideas are running dry, with a little too much instrumental noodling here and tribal drum beating there – all, it seemed, just to fill up the obvious spare time and space. Monumental mistake or masterpiece? Then as now, opinions were intensely divided. Hardcore Yes fans launched their crusade to defend Topographic Oceans while fair-weather fans abandoned ship (and most likely never bought another Yes album). It’s hard to believe there was once an era in popular music when an album of this depth (sorry, couldn’t resist) and artistic audacity would actually be released by a major record company (Atlantic Records). Ah, the early '70s. What heady times they were – even though such risky musical expeditions could quite often become a voyage of the damned.

Essential Tracks: “The Revealing Science of God,” “The Remembering (High the Memory)”

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Concept Album

Good, Bad or Ugly?

A long time ago, in a musical universe far, far away, there lumbered a dinosaur (band) that strove to achieve artistic greatness and immortality. One way to attempt this glorious feat was to create a “concept album.” Basically, this meant wrapping the music and lyrics around an overall theme, connecting the various parts and movements within a whole framework consisting of a beginning, a middle and an ending. Back in the heady days of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it all made perfect sense. Whether you consider the very first concept album S. F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things, Tommy by the Who or Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues, this lofty endeavor ultimately fell upon the earnest and enthusiastic Progressive Rock bands to pull off. Let’s face it, some concept albums worked and some didn't. A concept is merely a technique and doesn’t necessarily ensure artistic or commercial success. Some bands buckled under the heavy conceptual strain (Yes with Tales from Topographic Oceans; Genesis with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) while others reaped huge rewards and acclaim (the Who with Quadrophenia; Pink Floyd with The Wall). But whether or not you like the concept of a concept album, it still all comes down to the music. Great music can (and definitely has) existed within a bad concept (see Yes and Genesis above). Unfortunately, this grand approach opened up certain bands to the accusation of being “pompous” and “snooty” – words commonly leveled at Progressive Rock bands by their critics. Never mind that most of the musicians never considered themselves superior to the rest of humanity. Nor that their music was inherently better or smarter or deeper. In their minds, they were simply being creative and playing at their peak. The Prog guys just wanna have fun! And to be realistic, no specific musical genre has ever had exclusive rights to pomposity. Unless you're one of the few who have never experienced a pompous pop star, punk rocker, jazz musician, folk singer, etc. This misperception was created in large part by those who labeled the bands "progressive" in the first place. The word implies a superior attitude that was never really there. Unfortunately, once it became a label (and a genre), many misguided bands figured all they had to do was adopt a certain sound, use certain instruments, arrange music in a certain way, wear glittery capes...and voila! They would magically be transformed into a "progressive rock" band. Thus, many hacks came along and resorted to out-and-out mimicry. Which, in and of itself, is very unprogressive. Looking back, the glory days of the concept album now seem a quaint and distant echo of a time long passed. As does the very concept of an album itself – soon to be relegated to extinction in today’s iTunes digital download reality.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

U. K.

U. K./1978

The winds of change howled back in the late ‘70s. A major paradigm shift was slamming the glittery, glammy universe that was rock music. Younger and much poorer musicians were now looking upon the era’s wealthy celebrity rock stars (along with their “dinosaur” bands that came of age in the late ‘60s) with extreme disdain. Okay, hatred. These young musical revolutionaries – many of whom couldn’t even play an instrument, but had dead-on aim when spitting on members of their audience – would teach those old codgers a thing or two, and bring back the fire and passion they believed was lacking in rock music. Not exactly the best time to form a Progressive Rock super group, is it. Enter U.K., four battle-tested veterans from previous Prog giants: drummer Bill Bruford (King Crimson, Yes), bassist/vocalist John Wetton (Family, King Crimson), guitarist Alan Holdsworth (Soft Machine) and keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson (Curved Air, Roxy Music, Frank Zappa). Inhabiting an alternate universe that ignored the changing musical landscape, U. K. (the album) was a Prog lover’s wet dream, a final brief shining moment of ingeniously arranged, multi-part epics like “In the Dead of Night,” the sneaky, meandering instrumental “Alaska” and the jazz-meets-pomp of “Nevermore.” All played with extreme precision and dazzling instrumental interplay – stuff only guys who had been around the block a few times with their instruments could pull off. All four were obviously expert players in their own right. Problem was Bruford’s jazzy, scittering drum patterns and Holdsworth’s fluid fret work drifted further into jazz fusion territory, while Jobson’s twiddly, classical keyboard style and Wetton’s massive, distorted bass thud landed firmly in the heavy-duty Prog camp. In other words, it was all too good to last. After their debut album, U. K. split in two, with expatriates Bruford and Holdsworth forming another band (called Bruford) to more freely exercise their jazzier tendencies. Jobson and Wetton soldiered on with a new drummer, and U. K. was now a keyboard power trio – carrying the cross for a couple more albums before laying it down for good and moving on. The late ‘70s became the early ‘80s, MTV emerged on everyone’s 19-inch sets, and rock music evolved into big hair bands, synth-pop purveyors and futuristic new wavers. But, much like the title of the closing track on U. K., “Mental Medication,” these four musicians were the perfect prescription for an era on life support…before the plug was finally pulled on '70s Prog.

Essential Tracks: “In the Dead of Night” “Alaska” “Time to Kill” “Mental Medication”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In The Wake Of Poseidon

King Crimson/1970

If at first you do succeed, then try, try again. As was the case with King Crimson when contemplating their second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Because in late 1969, their iconic first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, came barreling out of nowhere – a dark, beautiful, spooky symphony that caught the unprepared music world totally off guard. So, how do you follow that tough act? The royal challenge fell to guitarist Robert Fripp – struggling to keep his young band together whilst others abandoned court, unable to handle the incredible rookie success of their debut (the most notable abandonee being woodwinds/mellotron player Ian McDonald, with lead singer Greg Lake and drummer Michael Giles soon to follow). Fripp seemed to heed that age-old advice: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Returning to the high-contrast aural shadings of the first album, vinyl Side 1 of Poseidon repeated the previous album’s Side 1 template in an almost clone-like way: “Pictures of a City,” heavy, jazzy/bluesy sax-driven head banger (complete with let’s-see-how-fast-we-can-play-it instrumental interlude) ala "Schizoid Man"; “Cadence and Cascade,” pretty acoustic guitar ballad, with lots of flute a’ fluttering ala "I Talk to the Wind"; “In the Wake of Poseidon,” epic mellotron-drenched track to close out the side ala "Epitaph." So far, so good. Definitely starting to sound like the lost little brother of In the Court of the Crimson King. But after a brief acoustic guitar piece that opens vinyl Side 2, things get schizoid. “Cat Food” is neither rock, nor pop, nor jazz, nor…hell, I’m not exactly sure what it is other than totally insane – thanks to Keith Tippett’s freeform piano riffs flying all over the place, and lyricist Pete Sinfield’s bizarro-world take on a day in the life of a grocery store:

“Lady Supermarket with an apple in her basket
Knocks in the manager's door;
Grooning to the muzak from a speaker in shoe rack
Lays out her goods on the floor;
Everything she's chosen is conveniently frozen.
Eat it and come back for more!”

Uh, okay. To give you some idea of what heady times these were, that track was actually released as a single. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder, along comes “The Devil’s Triangle,” an extended, multi-section instrumental loosely based around Gustav Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War.” Ominously fading in with an unnervingly simple bolero-like beat and menacing mellotron chords, the track gradually morphs into a boiling cauldron of dying mellotrons, alien noises, beeps, blurts, burbles and floating voices. If there was a guided tour of Hades, this is the muzak you’d most likely hear piped through the public address system. The atonal concoction finally reaches its violent, swirling, clattering climax, then fades into Lake’s plaintive voice singing “Peace – An End." Joined by Fripp's melancholy acoustic guitar, it's a haunting finale to the chaos that preceded it. Though l
acking the audacity, the intensity, the shear sonic shock-and-awe of the debut, Poseidon nevertheless holds its own. It's an album with a dual personality – one side gazing longingly back at what might have been, while the flip side turns its eyes (and our ears) towards the warped and wild experiments yet to come on Lizard.

Essential Tracks: "Pictures of a City" "In the Wake of Poseidon" "Cat Food"

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Spooky Two

Spooky Tooth/1969

First off, let’s be clear on my definition of “progressive” here. It pertains to more than just bands with mellotrons and synthesizers, or 20-minute, multi-section concept pieces taking up the entire side of an album (back when albums had sides). My definition includes any bands that were creative, fresh, unique, special, strange, different, etc. In other words, bands truly pushing the envelope, sounding like something you never heard before. Which, let’s face it, pretty much includes most any band that came of age in the span between 1965 and 1975. Take England’s Spooky Tooth. I’ve had a few bad toothaches in my time, but never one I would describe as “spooky.” So right off the bat, the band's name gets your attention. Then there’s the music. In 1969, rock music was getting heavy all right, but this stuff was HEAVY – a thick mix of churchy Hammond organ, high-voltage lead guitar, and lead singer Mike Harrison, whose ragged vocal chords out-shredded even those of the legendary, gravel-gargling Joe Cocker (who, BTW, sings background vocals on this album). Harrison’s smooth-as-sandpaper voice was further complimented by organist Gary Wright’s higher-than-helium falsetto vocals. Spooky Two, the band’s second album (not surprisingly), was no sophomore slump – these guys were just hitting their stride. Kicking off with a simple drum pattern that gradually morphs into the heaviest of Hammond organ chords, album opener “Waiting for the Wind” lays down the heavy sonic template that defines Spooky Two. The album centerpiece is the bluesy epic “Evil Woman,” with lyrics Adam could’ve easily sung to Eve after the apple incident: “Woman…when I saw ya comin’…shoulda started runnin’…evil woman…” Erupting smack in the middle of this domestic dispute is an extreme jolt of supercharged guitar pyrotechnics courtesy of Luther Grosvenor – with guitar notes literally exploding off the fret board in all directions like Fourth of July fireworks. “Lost in My Dream” and “Better By You, Better Than Me” further reinforce the dark, ominous, heavy-riffing atmosphere that haunts much of Spooky Two. Sadly, the band seemed to peak a bit too early on only their second outing, and this lineup would soon begin to splinter. There would be more albums, with different players, but Spooky Tooth would never again produce an album this strong. Scary to think what might have been.

Essential Tracks: “Waiting for the Wind” “Feelin’ Bad” “Evil Woman” “Better By You, Better Than Me”

Monday, November 2, 2009


Tangerine Dream/1974

Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Tangerine Dream. To explore strange new sound waves. To boldly go where no Teutonic techno band has gone before. Before we plunge deeper into the void, be advised that the use of the term “techno” here isn’t meant to conjure up today’s burbling, beat-happy young purveyors. The three Kraut Rockers who made up Tangerine Dream were, in fact, pioneers of electronic music back in the dark age of electronic instrumentation. Unlike today’s synthesizers, small enough to pretty much carry around in your back pocket, these guys wrestled with synthesizers that were big, clunky ol’ contraptions – the earliest models towering over the musician like the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Many almost required a gray-haired scientist in a white lab coat and thick, black-rimmed glasses, standing on stage, holding a clip board with scientific, electronic data and instructing the often stoned-out-of-his-mind musician as to which patch chord to plug into which oscillator. The oscillator would then…well, oscillate. Which, in turn, would create an electronic sound that could be manipulated – stretched, squeezed, squashed and even (on the rare occasion) made to stay in tune with the rest of the band. After several albums already orbiting the musical cosmos of the early ‘70s, Tangerine Dream launched Phaedra, the perfect spaced-out soundtrack to a mind-excursion across the universe. With sequencers set to full-thruster mode, the music jettisons itself into your brain with subtle, constant rhythmic pulsations – gradually building layer upon layer of even more electronic sound washes. Before you know it, with headphones firmly in place, you’re lost in space, gliding past the rings of Saturn, merrily waving to ET as you fly by, while nervously glancing over your shoulder expecting to see William Shatner show up at any moment. By the time the wavering waveforms and moaning mellotrons gently deposit you back down on Earth (and you’re done kissing the ground), there’s no doubt you have just experienced the ultimate headphone trip. BTW, don’t panic if the headphones are still smoking, they just need a couple minutes to cool down after re-entry. Tangerine Dream, with succeeding lineups, would go on to cement their reputation as ‘80s movie soundtrack specialists (for better or worse) and have never stopped churning out their Germanic brand of electronic music to this very day. Beam me up, Scotty.

Essential Tracks: “Phaedra” “Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares”

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hero And Heroine

The Strawbs/1974

Back in the 1960s, English folk music was a little different than its American counterpart across the big pond. While American folksters like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary were singing about war, racism, poverty and what they’d do if they had a hammer, English folkies like The Strawberry Hill Boys were prancing around the countryside, innocently picking and fiddling like merry troubadours of old. Whereas the Yanks were firmly connected to the social consciousness of the era, the Limeys harkened back to a grand folk tradition that spanned thousands of years…when village pickers and fiddlers got the party started way back in King Arthur’s court. Fast forward to the late ‘60s. Swingin’ London. The Beatles. Suddenly, all things British are igniting the rock ‘n roll revolution. Chief Strawberry picker Dave Cousins figures it’s time to dump the folk scene, plug in the amps, strap on electric guitars and boogie down – even shortening the band’s name to The Strawbs. Several lineups and albums later, we join them in early 1974 with Hero And Heroine. Now they’re firmly equipped to rock progressively, with ace electric guitarist Dave Lambert (a hot guitarist being the one important missing piece in previous lineups) and keyboardist John Hawken, dragging along the essential prog arsenal of mellotron, synthesizer, electric piano and Hammond organ. With Cousin’s woodsy, well-worn lead vocals (somewhat similar to Dylan’s crooner-antichrist voice) leading the charge, the band launched into extended, multi-section pieces (“Autumn”), straight-ahead rockers (“Just Love”), and Moody Blues-like orchestral pop (“Shine On Silver Sun”). The album was a hit with American FM radio, helping The Strawbs reach a wider audience at the height of the first Progressive Rock Era…when the mere sound of a mellotron would elicit glassy-eyed worship from American fans seeking enlightenment and high art from rock music. Was Hero And Heroine high art? That’s a discussion for another day. It was, however, one of The Strawbs’ strongest albums. Considered by many as their best lineup, these wandering minstrels soon lost an integral part of their sound with John Hawken’s exit. By the late ‘70s, after five more moderately successful releases, Cousins decided to put The Strawbs on hold. Fast forward to the 21st Century: This lineup, however older and grayer, attempted to recapture the magic on several recent independent CD releases. A heroic undertaking, indeed.

Essential tracks: “Autumn” “Shine On Silver Sun” “Hero And Heroine” “Lay A Little Light On Me”

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Shine On Brightly

Procol Harum/1968

“In the autumn of my madness…when my hair is turning gray…” Okay, I can relate to that. Actually, a general sense of madness permeates all the lyrics on this album, thanks to lyricist/resident head case Keith Reid. After all, he’s the guy who wrote “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor, I was feeling kind of seasick, the crowd called out for more…” on the much-loved yet overplayed classic rock staple, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” It was that hugely successful hit single back in 1967 that unfairly relegated Procol Harum to one-hit wonder status. And that, my friends, is criminally inaccurate. Procol actually released a succession of strong albums spanning 1967 to 1977. And like Shine On Brightly, each displayed an exotic mixture of the baroque and the blues. Lead vocalist/pianist Gary Brooker would croon those strange and enchanted lyrics doing his best Percy Sledge imitation, backed up by moody Hammond organist Matthew Fisher and a then-unknown but eventual guitar god Robin Trower. And it would be remiss of me not to mention the late, great B. J. Wilson on drums. With Shine On Brightly, Procol took a huge leap forward. For starters, this one utilized that new, cutting-edge technology: stereo (believe it or not, the first album was only available in mono and ear-gnashing “electronically reprocessed” fake stereo). The highlight was the song suite “In Held ‘Twas In I,” taking up the better part of the vinyl Side 2. Opening with two ominous, sitar-embellished spoken-word poems/head-scratchers (“Well my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?”), it evolves into several musical sections punctuated by Trower’s heavy guitar ramblings and Fisher’s cathedral-like organ riffs. This epic culminates in “Grand Finale,” where Trower basically strangles his guitar and evokes one of the most emotionally intense solos ever laid down on tape. Many credit (or blame) Procol for creating the dreaded “concept album” with this stretched-out, multi-section piece. Problem here was, no hit singles. “Homburg,” the follow-up to “Pale”, sunk like a stone and wasn’t even included on this album. Thus began Procol’s descent into the “best band nobody ever heard” category, content with modest FM radio airplay and a constant touring schedule to help pay the bills. Gary Brooker resurrected Procol with various new lineups over the years. But none would shine quite so brightly as the band that recorded this masterpiece.

Essential tracks: “Quite Rightly So” “Shine On Brightly” “Rambling On” “In Held ‘Twas In I”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Out Of The Blue

Electric Light Orchestra/1977

Out of the Blue descended from on high like the mother ship of all ELO albums – perfectly symbolized by the humongous flying saucer art work on the front cover. Perhaps saucer pilot Jeff Lynne had seen “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” once too often. Heck, the album even included a do-it-yourself flying saucer cut-out (ah, the glory days of vinyl when you’d get all sorts of cool stuff with records like posters, stickers, postcards…and yes, flying saucers). It had been a long, spacey voyage for the Orchestra to get here, an album that many would consider ELO at its peak. Lynne’s unique philosophy toward what was basically pop music was quite progressive for its day. Creating a kind of Beethoven-meets-Berry-meets Beatles-meets-Berkeley (as in Busby), much of ELO’s music had a retro, almost 1930s-movie soundtrack vibe. We’re talkin’ deliberately cheesy orchestrations mixed with spooky choirs set to a decidedly ‘60s rock n’ roll beat. After the breakthrough Face The Music and the equally huge New World Record, Lynne was hell-bent to create the ultimate ELO album – a two-record set crammed with weirdly out-of-step-for-its-time, yet immensely popular string-laden pop rock. This stuff was so irresistible, it would easily cross over between the shaggy-haired FM radio hipsters and the bubble-gum popping AM radio teenyboppers – catchy tracks you can’t get out of your head, like “Turn To Stone,” “It’s Over,” “Night In The City,” along with lush Lynne ballads including “Steppin’ Out” and “Big Wheels.” The centerpiece of the album is the “rainy day” song suite that took up an entire album side, and would have made a nice Side 3 to an alternate-universe Abbey Road. The suite culminates in what is probably the greatest ELO song of them all, “Mr. Blue Sky.” I’d imagine when Lennon and McCartney first heard it, they looked at each other wistfully and said “Why the hell didn’t we write something like that…” There would be a few more albums to follow, but even Lynne hinted later that Out Of The Blue was probably the true last hurrah for ELO. Ground control to Major Lynne: Mission accomplished on this record. (Ed. Note: This review dedicated to Chris and Erica!)

Essential Tracks: Way too many to list here – listen to the whole album.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ring Of Hands


Once upon a time, when Rob Zombie was most likely still in diapers, there was a band called The Zombies. Honest. Keep in mind, this was back in the days of the British Invasion – the mid-1960s – when you could actually call your band The Zombies and get away with it. The Zombies had a handful of big hits, before finally laying it to rest (if you’ll excuse the pun) later in the decade. While these grateful undead all went their separate ways, keyboardist Rod Argent became intent on forming a new group…his “personal dream group of musicians” as he wrote on the back of the first Argent album cover. It would be made in his image and his image alone. He would hand-pick each member, getting just the right combination of “ability, creativity and enthusiasm.” What the hell, he’d even name the band after himself – Argent. An exercise in blatant ego-mania? Not really. A-Rod truly was the brain – not to mention the heart and soul – behind Argent. The debut album, simply titled Argent, was a decidedly Zombie-like affair, probably a little too close for comfort. So, it was with Ring Of Hands that the true Argent group persona would fully emerge. The original liner notes described Argent music as evoking a feeling of sitting alone on a back pew of an empty church. Mysterious and melodic, the album showcased a more experienced, idealistic young band willing to explore more esoteric, keyboard-based musical territory than previously. “Celebration…an invitation…to come and join in…a ring of hands together…” sing A-Rod and guitarist Russ Ballard in beautiful, crystal-clear harmony on the hippy-dippy opener “Celebration.” Elsewhere, fantasy and Tolkien-ism rear their proggy heads on the extended keyboard workout “Lothlorian.” Other standout tracks, like the pew-worthy “Rejoice” and the piano-pounder “Pleasure” merely reinforce the notion that it was time to bury The Zombies once and for all. Sadly, Argent would never sound this good again, wandering aimlessly throughout the prog wilderness of the ‘70s (although scoring a huge hit with the single “Hold Your Head Up” in ’72). By their final album, 1976’s Counterpoints, Argent would explore a vapid jazz-fusion approach with little success. RIP Argent.

Essential Tracks: “Celebration,” “Lothlorian” “Pleasure” “Rejoice” “Where Are We Going Wrong?”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Selling England By The Pound


Welcome to the decline and fall of the British Empire. Or at least, the soundtrack to it. And what better band to put it all to music than Genesis – a bunch of snooty rich kids from the British Isles. Yet, these prim and proper English lads actually paid their dues, thus staking their claim to artistically trash their own country. Genesis toiled mightily on four previous studio albums, touring relentlessly and gaining a reputation for being…er, let’s just say a little “out there.” Lead singer/thespian Peter Gabriel developed a quirky habit of donning batwings, face paint, masks, costumes and other sundry dramatic elements – assuming the role of lead-singer-as-absurdist-clown, yet singing intelligently creative lyrics backed by a band that sounded more like a small chamber orchestra than a typical long-haired hippie rock ‘n roll band. “Can you tell me where my country lies...” Gabriel mournfully sings in the album’s title track. The England he once knew is long gone, but the band’s quaint, almost Victorian vibe still makes one want to jump up and hoist the Union Jack to the rhythm of “The Battle of Epping Forest”…which would be quite difficult, as the time signature on that particular track is all-over-the-place crazy. Still, throughout the album Tony Banks’ gorgeous mellotrons provide a lush, orchestral warmth, while the sweepingly sad guitar solos of Steve Hackett wail above the mix – all kept chugging along by the tightly wound rhythm section of Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins… former great drummer turned sappy, yet hugely popular crooner). Maintaining their grand tradition of avoiding commercial success at all costs, Genesis nevertheless created an important artistic achievement – finally catapulting the band into bigger leagues, to take their rightful place in the hierarchy of established artists (like Yes and King Crimson) who originally inspired them. The river of constant change would soon overtake Genesis. Gabriel’s subsequent departure, followed shortly thereafter by Hackett’s exit, meant that Genesis would look and sound very different in just a few short years. But for this one brief shining moment, the music of Genesis well represented the fate of merry olde England.

Essential Tracks: “Selling England By The Pound” “Firth Of Fifth” “The Cinema Show”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Brain Salad Surgery

Emerson, Lake & Palmer/1973

“Welcome back, my friends… to the show that never ends…” Let’s be honest. That now-iconic line could very well describe the remastering of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer catalog. I mean, how many times can you buy the same CD because it’s been “remastered” for “improved sound quality” (which these days, usually means ear-shattering loudness, suffocating noise-reduction, fingernails-on-chalkboard harshness, etc.)? But I digress. And to be fair, not all ELP remasters sound horrible. Which brings us to Brain Salad Surgery. Considered the ultimate ELP album by many, Brain Salad Surgery takes over-the-top bombast and pretension to dizzying new heights. And I’m saying that as somebody who loves the album. It’s got all the thrill and excitement of a runaway musical train wreck. Because, by 1973, it seems keyboard maestro Keith Emerson (not exactly a critics’ darling) concluded that if he couldn’t get critics to love his band, then he would simply pummel them into submission. Sonically, of course. Thus, Brain Salad Surgery lacks that one important element that made the band's earlier albums so unique: contrast. You’ll find very little of that. Gone are the nuances and subtleties of earlier songs like “Take A Pebble,” “The Endless Enigma” or “Trilogy.” Here, the band creates a nightmarish musical circus with the manic, multi-part “Karn Evil 9” that makes one seriously wonder how much cocaine could realistically be ingested in recording sessions for one measly little album. Not that the entire album is on substance-fueled overdrive. The stately “Jerusalem” kicks things off with majestic aplomb. And Greg Lake’s pretty acoustic ballad “Still…You Turn Me On” shoulda/coulda been a huge hit. But by the time you finally get to the end of this album, and the “great computer” steps up to the microphone…well, maybe it’s time to take a little break and give your head a rest. Note: Try to find the now out-of-print Brain Salad Surgery DVD-Audio disc. It’s got a surround-sound mix that will truly leave your brain feeling like a tossed salad. “We’re so glad you could attend…step inside, step inside…”

Essential Tracks: “Jerusalem” “Still…You Turn Me On” “Karn Evil 9 Pt.1”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Larks' Tongues In Aspic

King Crimson/1973
After breathlessly bringing home the new King Crimson album, tearing open the shrink wrap, placing the plastic platter on the turntable, warning my parents to leave the room, and gently dropping the dirty, worn stylus to vinyl back in ’73, one thing became immediately clear – Larks’ Tongues In Aspic was definitely not your 21st Century Schizoid Man’s King Crimson. For starters, the strange and scary album title sounds like the recipe for a witch’s brew. I’ve tasted my fair share of nasty brew, but thankfully minus any larks’ tongues getting stuck in my teeth. Secondly, the first track kicks off with what sounds like a seriously out-of-whack music box, slowly, ominously fading in, which only adds to the overall tension and creepiness. Not exactly “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the proto head-banger that kicked off their first album, In The Court Of The Crimson King. No, this was a new, improved King Crimson and would turn out to be its most stable classic lineup (the studio had to install revolving doors for their first four albums). With new players (aside from founding member, guitarist and major domo Robert Fripp), a new lyricist and a new attitude, King Crimson was back with a vengeance and a heavier, edgier musical approach. Gone were the gentle cellos and languid woodwinds of the previous LP, Islands – replaced with the arch, angular, almost machine-like precision of the new crew: David Cross' staccato violin jabs, Jamie Muir's eccentric percussives, bassist John Wetton’s massively distorted bass guitar and Fripp doing his best Black & Decker chainsaw imitation. Drummer Bill Bruford actually quit the hugely successful Yes to add his own brittle syncopation to these fractured arrangements. Still, echoes of the old Crimson remain – the wafting of a mellotron in the gorgeous “Exiles,” the bluesy sleaze of “Easy Money,” etc. Granted, King Crimson was never known for its cheery, sunny musical disposition. Larks’ Tongues In Aspic merely carried on this tradition. Considered the strongest post-In The Court Of The Crimson King album, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic really can't be compared to that album. This is basically a completely different band – with similarities in name only. Long live the King.

Essential Tracks: “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt. 1” “Exiles” “Easy Money” “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt. 2”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Yes Album


They sounded like birds. Their chirping, chiming, pristine vocal harmonies came fluttering out of my speakers like songbirds on a spring morning, blurting out the lyrics: "I've seen all good people turn their heads each day, so satisfied I'm on my way..." Who the heck were these guys with the heavenly harmonies, I pondered. As I turned up the volume, it never dawned on me that the era of perpetual change had now begun. Remember when they used to call it Art Rock (before they called it Progressive Rock)? If you answered “Yes,” then I’ll assume you're familiar with The Yes Album. Because this is the album that set the mold for much of the Prog that followed. Having initially released two tentative, uneven albums that sank like stones, Yes finally started getting some much-needed airplay (evidently they'd be dropped by Atlantic Records if this album didn't do well). With new, nimble-fingered guitarist Steve Howe on board to replace recently booted Peter Banks, the band recorded this stunning collection of tight ensemble pieces. In the context of its time, the Yes sound was strange, fresh, unfamiliar…almost like they’d been transported from the future to show all the other shaggy hippies how rock music should now sound in the brave new world of the '70s. Obviously, no band ever sounded like this before: Chris Squire's metallic, thumping Rickenbacker bass mixed way up front and in your face (bass with balls); Howe's fiddly, fluid fret work (bluegrass meets Bach) skittering all over the place; Tony Kaye's thick, warm Hammond organ filling in the spaces; and Bill Bruford's busy, jazzy tapping (ever so gently) on the drums. It all melded perfectly with Jon Anderson's uniquely high-pitched vocals laid over the top. Extended tracks like “Yours Is No Disgrace” meld herky-jerky rythms, twisting/turning arrangements and recurring themes into a cohesive whole. “Starship Trooper” is launched by Squire's ascending-into-the-heavens bass line, one that any other band would have relegated to the lead guitarist. “Perpetual Change” follows the same strict Yes formula – tightly woven, complicated arrangements that never stay in one place for too long, performed with the precision of maestros having total mastery over their instruments. And let's not forget those crystalline vocal harmonies chirping away. Ultimately, The Yes Album would become a benchmark for a then new and untested genre…the dreaded (at least by most music critics) Prog. Yes would soon be consumed by a rash of personnel changes…the bane of many Prog bands back then. Kaye would be given his walking papers, replaced by dexterous, caped-keyboard man Rick Wakeman – well-armed with synthesizers, clavinets and mellotrons. Bruford would ultimately enlist for duty under Robert Fripp’s command in the Court of the Crimson King. Wakeman would also jump ship in a couple years. But more importantly, The Yes Album introduced a then-unknown Yes to America – breaking all the rules and redefining how a rock band should sound. Total mass acclaim would soon follow.

Essential Tracks: “Yours Is No Disgrace” “Starship Trooper” “I’ve Seen All Good People”