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”