Progressive Rock has had a strange history. From its early days in England in the late ’60’s, its arena-rock success of the early 70’s to its cultish status since its heyday; Prog Rock has seen a lot of changes. Some of the Prog Rock bands have had a lasting influence on music, whilst others are so obscure even the most knowledgeable music guru takes pains to think of one of their songs. There has been much criticism of Prog over the years – both negative & positive. That the musicians are talented & highly skilled has never been in doubt. That they can be seen as pretentious and flamboyant, perhaps. But Prog Rock has always enraptured my imagination because of its artistry – the way it uses music to tell stories & build pictures in the listener’s head. Plus, I’ve always liked the idea that some songs just need to be longer then four or five minutes.
I used to play a bit of a game with some friends of mine – something to just pass the time. We would imagine we were stuck on a deserted island with a single ninety minute mix tape as our only musical solace. The game was to pick the songs that we would put on that Deserted Island Mix Tape. I always laughed that mine wouldn’t hold all of my “must have” songs – since most of them were beyond the six minute mark. Well, the below list is my Prog Rock Desert Island Mix – if I could only have ten Prog Rock songs, these would be them.
10. Bohemian Rhapsody
From The Album: A Night At The Opera (1975)
Growing up, like most kids of my generation (Gen X), my family would go on summer road trips. Our family car was a white 1986 Ford Tempo that sported my Dad’s cassette deck stereo (which he had transfered out of our earlier green 1977 Volkswagon Rabbit). We would travel across Canada listening to the classic rock that was the foundation of my musical sensibilities: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Guess Who & Queen. My Dad had meticuously transfered his favourite songs from these classic rock legends’ vinyl records to cassettes that we listened to endlessly on our summer sabaticals. One of the biggest songs that has always stuck with me from these Classic Rock Mix Tapes of my father is Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
I know, the song was immortalized in Wayne’s World, but I loved it long before Wayne & Garth headbanged through the streets. I was always mesmerized by Queen’s four-part harmonies and the unique guitar stylings of Brian May’s Big Red guitar. Though Queen is well known as a Glam Rock & Arena Rock supergroup, their early albums featured some Progressive gems. Bohemian Rhapsody is probably their best known.
I think just about anyone who is into classic rock (or was around in the early 90’s heyday of Wayne’s World) knows the song. Its choral-like harmonic opening; its beautiful piano that leads into the multifaceted four part harmonies that Queen made famous. This of course is followed by the head banging sequence where Freddy Mercury cries: “So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?// So you think you can love me and leave me to die?// Oooo baby, can’t do this to me baby// Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.” And then the serenity of the begining of the piece returns with Freddy lamenting: “Nothing really matters// Anyone can see// Nothing really matters to me.”
9. Third Eye
From the Album: Ænima (1996)
Growing up in the nineties, I lived & breathed Grunge Rock in high school (Pearl Jam is still one of my all-time favourite bands). I never really considered myself a fan of Heavy Metal (mostly because I pictured the Hair-Rock of the eighties or the unintelligible screams of Death-Rock as “Heavy Metal”). For sure, I liked the heavier side of rock, but I never really saw myself as a fan of Metal. But then I heard Sober by Tool & saw the amazing stop-motion video for the song. My mother even professed liking the song (my mother who was never a big fan of heavy distorted guitars). Something about this band was different. And when their second album, Ænima was released I was quick to get myself a copy. There were two songs that grabbed my attention right away: song number two on the album, Eulogy; & the album’s final track – Third Eye. Whilst Eulogy is an amazing song (as are pretty much all the tracks on this fantastic album), Third Eye spoke to something deeper inside me.
Where do I begin? The complex crafting of riffs & rhythmns in the song? The emotional vocal performance by Maynard James Keenan or the artistry of the entire song? The howling guitars at the beginning scream out from the edge of darkness as the constant rhythmn of the drums & bass carry the song forward.
I wish I could write songs like this.
8. Atom Heart Mother
From The Album: Atom Heart Mother (1970)
Though in later years, members of Pink Floyd decried this twenty four minute opus as a “load of rubbish”, this song holds a very special place in my musical heart. When I was first getting into the music of Pink Floyd in my late teens, I was leafing through Floyd CDs at the local record store & saw the oddly emblazoned cow cover of this early Floyd album. With no track listing on the back, I figured: “What the hell, it’s Floyd, right?” & I promptly bought the disc. I got home, opened the CD & popped it into my player.
I was immediately taken on a journey. Beautiful orchestration (written by Ron Gessin) mixed with Floyd’s elaborate guitar, organ, bass & drums. I closed my eyes & was taken away, across the fields of Europe, into the skies before heaven’s gate – beyond the limits of my imagination. This “load of rubbish” (as David Gilmour describes it) stirred up deep emotions in me. I suddenly knew what kind of music I wanted to write. I wanted to write music just like this – that could take the listener on a journey & inspire a deep emotional reaction.
My own prog-rock opus (yet to be properly recorded) The Tri-Nebuli Overture was deeply inspired by Atom Heart Mother.
7. Thick As A Brick
From The Album: Thick As A Brick (1972)
Ian Anderson was so taken aback by the “Concept Album” criticism of Jethro Tull’s 1971 album Aqualung, so he decided to write “the concept album to end all concept albums.” So Thick As A Brick was born. By far, this must be one of the longest rock songs ever recorded. Coming in at forty three minutes & forty six seconds, the only break to be found is at the half way point where the listener has to flip the record over to side B (faithfully preserved in CD version as a track change).
With its multi-part musicality & tongue-in cheek lyrics – never mind the pseudo-newspaper cover artwork (which in itself is a joy to read), this song/album shows Jethro Tull at their witty best. To say that British humour (like Monty Python) had nothing to do with this album would be naïve.
I don’t know how often I simply sat back & let this song absorb itself into my consciousness. There is so much going on here that it seems I never tire of hearing it. Again, this is another prog masterpiece I wish I could emmulate in my own compositions.
6. Karn Evil 9
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
From The Album: Brain Salad Surgery (1973)\
I am a late-comer to ELP. As a fan of King Crimson, I’ve always been interested in Greg Lake – however I’ve only in the last few years come to listen to ELP beyond their well known singles like Lucky Man, C’est La Vie & I Believe In Father Christmas. My in-laws bought me Brain Salad Surgery for Christmas a few years ago & I was immediately enraptured by Karn Evil 9.
Divided into three Impressions (the first of which is itself divided into two parts), this song travels a whole gammut of themes, sounds & emotions. From the carney beginnings of the 1st Impression (with its famous lyrics: “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends// We’re so glad you could attend// Come inside! Come inside!”) to the man versus machine finalé in the 3rd Impression – this song explroes many ideas & moods.
Every time I listen to this song I think to myself – I need to listen to more ELP.
5. Dancing With The Moonlit Knight
From The Album: Selling England By The Pound (1973)
In many ways, I’m a child of the 80’s & 90’s. When I think of Phil Collins I think of In The Air Tonight or Sussudio. Consequently when I think of Peter Garbriel I hear Games Without Frontiers or Digging In The Dirt. And as for Genesis themseleves, I think of Land Of Confusion or I Can’t Dance. But then, I grew up listening to pop radio & watching Much Music in the 80’s & 90’s. So when my buddy & fellow Prog Rock fan Warren burnt me a bunch of early Genesis albums, I was blown away. I knew the band had a long history & that it had started the solo careers of all of its members. But when I heard those early songs for the first time, I couldn’t believe I had missed this important band.
Dancing With The Moonlit Knight is by far my favourite early Genesis tune. It’s mix of rock & an english-minstrel feel is sublime. Gabriel’s haunting voice peppers the track and pulls the listener into the depths of the sounds layered across the audible spectrum. Again, another amazing journey. And the guitar solo is killer.
4. Larks Tongues In Aspic
From The Albums: Larkes Tongues In Aspic (1973); Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984) & The ConstruKction Of Light (2000)
Beginning in 1973, with an all-new lineup & a new album, King Crimson offered the first two parts of their Prog Rock opus Larks Tongues In Aspic. Part three would surface elevan years later with another lineup at the helm of Crimson. The final instalment (maybe?) was released in 2000.
I have always been intrigued by multi-part songs – a hallmark of Progressive Rock. Yet King Crimson – one of the Prog Rock pioneers – has taken this idea even further. Never mind having a multi-part song on one album. Why not write a suite of songs over the course of your career. And given the lineup changes that have occurred throughout the history of the band, the evolution of Larks Tongues has been really fascinating. The first two installments appeared on the album of the same name in 1973. Here we find a newly formed King Crimson who would go on to become one of the best live-improv bands of their era. Yet in their infancy as a group, they put together the first and second part of this amazing suite. Robert Fripp’s distorted guitar meshes with John Whetton’s growling bass, David Cross’ angelic violin & the combined percussive rhythm of Bill Bruford & Jamie Muir. There is a lot going on in these first two parts & you begin to understand why this lineup would go on to be such an improvisational behemoth.
It would then fall on the shoulders of the 1980’s installment of King Crimson to compose Part 3. With no violin as lead, this section has a much rockier feel. Part 3 uses a similar main riff to the first two parts which ties this song to the originals from eleven years earlier.
Then in 2000, Part 4 would be released. Again, with a different lineup, we see how this song has evolved. The guitars are strong & the different sections seem to play off each other, building to the climax at the end.
3. A Saucerful Of Secrets
From The Album: A Saucerful Of Secrets
A mixture of prog rock & avant-garde experimentation. This is perhaps one of my favourite Pink Floyd songs. The track was “drawn” by Roger Waters & Rick Wright & then put to music by the band – under the direction of David Gilmour (who had the most formal musical training of the group). The result, a psychedelic masterpiece that varies between the building intro, the drum solo, the crazy guitar & percussion section & ending with the beautiful & powerful outro. There is something very special about this music, something that speaks to your soul directly. And if you watch the Live In Pompeii version, you might see some of the tricks the band uses to create some of these experimental sounds.
From The Album: Meddle
You have no doubt noticed that Pink Floyd has been one of the biggest influences on my music. Echoes, one of their Prog Rock masterpieces, stands as the epitome of what this band was capable of. Amazing instrumentation, catchy melodies, wild experimental musical passages & interesting lyrics sung in beautiful harmonies. Again, if you see this one done live, you can enjoy part of the technical side of how this song is put together. But even if you just have the audio, Echoes does not disappoint.
1. 21st Schizoid Man
From The Album: In The Court Of The Crimson King
The song that perhaps started it all. Prog Rock, Prog Metal. Countless bands & artists have been influenced by this amazing song – yet many people have never heard of it. The first time I heard this song I was blown away. I had such a reaction to this amazing tune that I immediately grabbed my guitar, plugged it into some distortion pedals & just started thrashing around. I wanted to emulate the energy & the power that these crazy English prog-rockers had created. But, alas – I am just a poor substitute for the original. Yet, beyond the hard thrashing chords, there is also a virtuosity – a level of musicianship that shines. The jazzier sections are amazing & the tightness of the band is beyond comprehension – especially if you ever get the chance to hear a live version (no matter the Crimson lineup performing). And then there’s the famous “Fripp Chord” that has a different interpretation depending on who you talk to. Its legendary & almost mystical. If you can figure out the fingering, then you have to get the guitar tone & the right attack. Something about it is mystifying – which just adds to the remarkableness of this song. You want to play it on your guitar – but you know it will never be the same as the original. A hope… a dream… something to aspire to!
Until next time,
See You In The Shadows…