Before wading head on into the murky depths of progressive rock for the first time, my surface level exposure led me to associate it with two things. First of all, Pink Floyd. It’s an association that’s largely in the name; they’re a classic band in the history of music generally before being a seminal prog rock outfit, but I’m aware of the connection and like most self-respecting music fans, I’ve heard Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. Secondly and almost damningly, I associate prog with excess. As someone who generally likes three- or four-minute-long songs to make up a 40-minute album, the idea of long keyboard solos clocking on to a ten-plus-minute track length sounds like a fucking nightmare. But would pivotal works by King Crimson, Yes and Rush change my mind?
Out of the three albums given to me, In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson was by far the best. Most strikingly, given that it’s the oldest of the three having been released in 1969, is how timeless it feels. The whole album is impossible to pin down to a single year. In hindsight, it’s no real surprise why ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ ended up being on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On top of this, the album doesn’t feel excessive. Everything feels like it has its place on the album, despite the fact that two out of five songs are over ten minutes long. A real achievement! Overall, if you want one album to sell you the idea of progressive rock, it’s this one.
The other two albums, Yes’s Close To The Edge and Rush’s Moving Pictures, are both definitely prog but differ greatly from King Crimson. Like any genre, I expected stylistic variation, but my main observation on listening to them was how a genre that is stereotypically characterised as stuffy and nuanced can actually be so diverse. A song can be a slow acoustic number one minute, and then a massive cressendo of guitars and synths the next. In fact, both Yes and Rush contain elements of reggae rock—the surprise of which made me burst out laughing.
Unlike King Crimson, both Yes and Rush feel dated, sometimes very much so. Yes fit slap bang in the middle of the 1970s. Keyboard solos aside, even the acoustic moments on Close To The Edge are reminisant of bands like Lindisfarne. Additionally, Moving Pictures is an obvious a product of the 80s. You can imagine songs such as ‘YYZ’ and ‘The Witch Hunt’ being a precursor to hard rock bands such as Metallica. Overall, a lot of what may have been magic to the listeners of Yes and Rush at the time, is simply lost on someone from 2015.
My introduction into prog has also made me better understand why punk changed the world in 1976/77. With a single song potentially taking up a whole side on an LP, as well as silly stereotypes such as mythical song settings, daft outfits and the aforementioned keyboard solos, it is easy to see how prog could become a parody of itself. As a result, punk in part feels like a reaction to prog. Cutting away the excess and leaving behind short, speedy songs—songs that are to the point and full of energy. Johnny Rotten even wore a shirt saying “I hate Pink Floyd.”
After listening to these three albums, would I listen to prog again? In some ways, I guess we all kind of already do. Progressive elements can be found in all sorts of music, from Radiohead to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But actual, dedicated, and certified prog rock? Maybe—I’ve heard Neu! and Can are good! Do they count?
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