JC’s Alternate Ten Progressive Rock list. These are lesser known or out in left field picks that should be part of every music-lover’s collection once you’re ready to go beyond ‘the standards’.
Roger CortonLast time we gave people your top ten progressive rock albums of all time list.
JCHWhich the world was turning blue waiting for. But yes, Ten Albums You Will Not Believe Once You See Them!
RCYou have a great future in Internet advertising. But this time we’re talking about some other great albums that are not necessarily ‘the best’ but are overlooked or out in left field. But like before we should start by discussing our criteria for selection.
JCHWell, to begin, I don’t want any crap about the lack of Pink Floyd or Rush or Dream Theater or whatehvs in the Top Ten List. You want the standard rock critic bullshit to get the imprimatur of rock critics who down deep hate and mock you? Here ya go: That Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums Of All Time.
RCStipulated. OK, now that there are maybe five people left, let’s get back to the criteria for this alternate list.
JCHBe glad to, Rog. Well first off, we’re not repeating any of the bands from the Top Ten List.
JCHAnd you’ll be glad to know that the rest of the criteria are positively OPERATIC.
RCOh no. Anything but that!
JCHAs we’ve discussed, there is a ‘drop the needle’ aspect to music appreciation these days. You know, you drop the needle, listen for five seconds and if it has a Mellotron? That’s prog, baby. That’s not how it works for me. What I want is a fusion of great playing, writing and coherent theme (if not an actual story). That’s ‘prog’ to me. And, funny thing: those are the same elements that make for great opera. Same rules apply. And for the ninety ninth time, that’s also why so much in either genre will disappoint. They both share the same low success rate. It’s a high bar we’re shooting for!
RCOK, you got the ‘O’ word in there. So what about these alternate ten?
JCHLike you said, these are the ones that are out in left field. They’re either bands that shoulda been contenders or albums that started out from other fields entirely but which should welcome into the tent. I think people forget (or aren’t old enough to remember) that there was a time when prog influenced other musics! Other genres were trying the same thing.
RCLong forms. Bringing in outside influences. That’s true. Anything else about these ten?
JCHOne thing they all have in common? They don’t sound dated to me.
JCHYeah. When I was thinking about this discussion, I listened back to a lot of this stuff and when I would ‘drop the needle’ what I noticed was that the actual recording of most contestants didn’t make the cut. In addition to not being such great music, most have this ‘tone’ which sounds totally like bell bottoms and sideburns to me now. Huge compression. Dry drums. Samey arrangements. Same synths. If there’s an organ it’s a total Keith Emerson rip-off. Many of the productions reminded me of Alice Cooper or ‘Glam’. They just sound like 1975. Great records have a more timeless quality than that.
RC(Laughs) I know what you mean, but I’ve got news for you, that’s exactly the sound that many prog-lovers consider ‘classic’.
JCHOh I get that. But that’s why we’re spending some time laying out my criteria.
RCAnd with that? Ladies…
JCHYou mean lady. Singular. If we’re lucky.
RCYou are so disrespectful. Lady. And gentlemen. The second ten.
Focus — Hamburger Concerto
Most people know these guys as the one hit wonder “Hocus Pocus” with the hard rock yodeling. But that’s like judging ELP from “Benny The Bouncer” or some of their other novelty songs. Focus had this unique mix of a great jazz guitar and the truly gifted Thys Van Leer on organ and flute. The net effect reminded me what would have happened if you’d run into Jethro Tull playing jazz in a Dutch night club. Hamburger Concerto is basically a long form instrumental that goes from jazz rock to burlesque to almost Impressionism. The album would be on this list just for that last three minutes, an amazing finale based on a theme by Haydn which has as much epic power as anything ELP or Yes ever came up with.
Premiata Forneria Marconi — Photos Of Ghosts
This is the record which ‘represents’ for all the bands that never quite made it. There were always a ton of what I call ‘second-tier’ prog bands throughout Europe back in the day. Triumvirat. Renaissance. Marillion. But to my mind, PFM came the closest to reaching the level of ELP, Yes, Genesis, etc. Their basic problem was that they felt they needed a vocalist who could sing in English to break out and none of the guys they tried delivered the goods. Anyhoo, the music has this Italian flair that is really great; the compositions have a lot more craft than most albums. Also, the lyrics on this album are very nice (being done by Peter Sinfield (who wrote the lyrics for King Crimson’s early masterworks.)
Jon Anderson — Olias Of Sunhillow
I think of this as the minimalist’s guide to prog. Jon was no great player so he used his amazing voice to create vast layers of a capella soundscapes as he did on “We Have Heaven” (from Yes Fragile). The backing instruments he did use are also a really interesting collection of natural and synthetic sounds. I mean you can’t tell where the ‘wood’ stops and the ‘electronics’ begin if you take my meaning. It just sounds like an organic ‘world’ of its own. One great wash of ‘ethereal’. I’d call it ‘new-agey’ but that would be insulting. Just don’t ask me about the ‘plot’. It’s as nonsensical as you’d expect. But it’s just so beautiful. One of the most unique records ever.
Patrick Moraz — The Story Of I
Some of the most imaginative electronic orchestrations I’ve ever heard. Moraz was the keyboardist in Yes for one (great) album and his jazz-rock chops are on full display. It’s the closest progressive rock ever got to real jazz fusion. The badass Brazilian percussionists are almost unbelievable. Now the actual ‘story’ is goofy, but actually the biggest disappointment for me is the weak mix. There are so many wonderful layers that the amazing Jeff Berlin and Alphonse Mouzon often get buried. This is one of those records where you wish you could get yer hands on the 24 track.
Jan Hammer — The First Seven Days
This is one of the only instrumental jazz/rock concept records that I actually listen to. It is not only a great composition, much in the style of early 20th century art music, but it’s genuinely fun to listen to. In addition to keyboards (and yes there is a Mellotron), Jan really kicks it as a drummer, too! Some of the synth solos are still unsurpassed in my opinion. If there was one record on this list I could make people go out and buy it would be this one.
Utopia (Todd Rundgren) — RA
Todd Rundgren’s group Utopia was no joke. They sang great and they played just well enough to pull off some pretty cool songs. Their downfall was that American need to be at least a little tongue in cheek. If they had just played it totally straight (like a proper English band) they would’ve really had something. Being Todd, fantastic harmonies and arrangements almost go without saying. I wish more progressive rock records had this wonderful a production.
Bruford — The Basement Tapes
To my mind, the most exciting live fusion record ever. What I like about it and why I include it here for prog lovers is that it’s like the best of prog or Weather Report where you think “Is that really just four guys?” But unlike almost all fusion, there’s very little noodling. The compositions have real counterpoint–it can feel like everyone (and no one) is soloing all the time.
Jaco Pastorius — Word Of Mouth
Ya know how people used to wonder about ‘Superman Vs. Batman’? Jaco is one of those guys that I always thought should do an album with Jon Anderson or Peter Gabriel. This record, really his only ‘mature’ record, shows just how deep he was as a composer in addition to being the most significant bassist of the past forty years. When I listen to this record, I always think of King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King. You have these individual moments that cover a huge emotional swath from low-brow to heavy metal to symphonic to truly tender but when you’re done, you realize that there’s this holistic quality; the album is really one long integrated piece. And to me, that’s progressive. This shoulda been the start of a long, productive compositional career.
Spock’s Beard — V
The original Beard almost made it to immortality. Neal Morse has one of those legendary voices: instantly recognizable. He’s also a fabulous songwriter and in many ways as good a front man as I’ve ever seen. They had great players who often sounded like players from other bands like Yes or Genesis, on steroids. And unlike most progressive rock bands, the lyrics are often great; chock full of acid social commentary. If ever a prog band had a chance to reach a wide audience in the modern age, this was it. But as so often happens, Neal left the band shortly after this; right when they had achieved their best results. So they never achieved escape velocity. They’re still around and worth a listen, but this was the high point.
Transatlantic — Bridge Across Forever
This outfit is a side-project of former members of Spock’s Beard, Marillion, Dream Theater and The Flower Kings and they still seem to tour every couple of years. Maybe this will come off as left-handed, but in this case the ‘super-group’ appellation is applicable because unlike almost every other super-group they’re far more exciting as Transatlantic than in the bands from which they originated. Either of their first two albums are pretty great so this was a coin toss. Frankly, the only weak spot is they pass around the singing between all members, which seems very ‘democratic’ but also kinda ridiculous when your front man sings like Neal Morse and the other guys…er… don’t. A lot of this record sounds like Spock’s Beard–which is not a complaint at all! The writing is, in my opinion, better than The Beard, although the playing is not as virtuosic. But they are so good, that when they came out I was actually hoping for something of a renaissance (no pun intended) for progressive rock. Sadly, they seem to be a one off. There just haven’t been any other bands I’ve heard that are carrying the torch. Their live concert video is a must-have. In fact, now that I think about it, if you only get one thing from them? Get that video. It’s a fantastic show. One of the few ‘concert videos’ that’s actually worth watching.