With classic rockers Yes hitting Red Rocks tonight (along with radio rockers Styx), we thought we’d present a list of some of our favorite masterpieces from the much maligned and frequently misunderstood genre in which they excel: progressive rock.
Ushered in during the heady days of the psychedelic ’60s via the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” as well as early works by the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and Procol Harum, prog rock took those artful inspirations to the outer reaches of musical ability and taste.
Basically music for musicians, prog was highlighted by instrumental virtuosity, fantastic themes, classical aspirations and eventually bombastic over indulgence. Bands like Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer enjoyed a meteoric rise in the late-’60s and early-’70s only to be ridiculed as pretentious dinosaurs by young punk rockers just a few years later.
The genre never went fully extinct though: acts such as Rush, Marillion and Dream Theater carried the baton from it’s mid-period through today to hand it on to a younger generation via the Mars Volta, Dungen and White Denim among countless others.
So, get ready for a drum solo or three, and enjoy the wild, weird and wonderful world of prog rock:
11. Gentle Giant, “Gentle Giant”
This classically trained group of multi-instrumentalists once stated that their aim was to “expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of becoming very unpopular.” Now regarded as not much more than a cult band, they may have just succeeded. Their legacy – as exemplified by their first LP – is an intriguing collection of complex music that draws upon sounds as varied as jazz, folk, soul, heavy metal and classical styles including baroque, medieval and chamber.
10. Rush, “Hemispheres”
Many may argue that the Canadian trio’s 1976 LP “2112” should be on this list, but for my money, “Hemispheres” (released two years later), trumps that LP. Here, they reach their prog pinnacle via the dizzying, side-long space epic “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres” as well as with the sheer virtuosity displayed in the instrumental “La Villa Strangiato.” Plus, I dare you to find a better song about a forest in turmoil than “The Trees.”
9. Premiata Forneria Marconi, “Per Un Amico”
Other than the Brits, nobody did prog better than the Italians. (German prog-minded “krautrock” is a wonderful world worthy of its own list.) On their 1972 LP, PFM serves up a platter that offers passages serene, symphonic and just plain smokin’. There’s liberal use of acoustic and electric guitar, flute, piano, violin and mellotron and lyrics sung melodiously in Italian add to the otherworldly quality.
8. Jethro Tull, “Thick As A Brick”
This 1972 concept album is actually the band “taking the piss” in deference to continually being lumped in with what they deemed the ultimate in pretentiousness, prog rock. Thing is, it really works as a great prog rock record: from the extensive cover design to the music within. The symphonic, album-long title piece jumps time signatures and tempos with the best of them.
7. Caravan, “If I Could Do It Again, I’d Do It All Over You”
Based out of the medieval town of Canterbury, Caravan best sums up how important that scene (which also included Soft Machine, Egg and Hatfield and the North) was to prog rock. Their second record is the perfect summation of its sound: a quaintly English mix of jazz and rock with an ear for melody, all presented with tongue firmly in cheek.
6. Pink Floyd, “Meddle”
Everything finally comes together for the post-Syd Barrett-era Floyd with this monumental 1971 LP. Beginning with Roger Waters’ pulsating bass line in “One Of These Days” and ending with the epic ping of Richard Wright’s haunting keys during the 23-minute “Echoes” (as David Gilmour’s guitar heroics fill the spaces in between), this would be just the first of the group’s several masterpieces.
5. Van Der Graaf, Generator “Pawn Hearts”
This is an equally brilliant and terrifying piece of art created by a group of continually uncompromising (to this day!) musicians. Led by the uniquely talented Peter Hammill, VDGG pushed the boundaries with every track on this unorthodox 1971 LP. Hammill’s singular vocals and lyrical complexities are fueled by maniacal saxophone, haunting pipe organ and pounding drum work. Not for the faint of heart.
4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Brain Salad Surgery”
Take a listen to this 1973 record today, and it’s baffling to imagine that it was such a huge hit. Wrapped inside the eerie H.R. Giger cover art is an absolutely bonkers set of tunes that begins with a hymn (“Jerusalem”), features a classic rock radio staple (“Still You Turn Me On”) and ends with a frenetic, futuristic, four-part suite (“Karn Evil 9”). It offers, among other things, hyper-kinetic drum work, lots of synth as well as classical and barrelhouse piano. Oh what Lucky Men they were to exist as a band in more open-minded times.
3. Genesis, “Foxtrot”
It’s tough to imagine anything Phil Collins had a hand in could be considered “progressive” or “rock,” but during the fruitful years that Peter Gabriel fronted the group they were a shining example of the genre – and to his credit, Collins is a fantastic drummer. “Foxtrot” begins with the majestic mellotron (the quintessential instrument of prog rock) of “Watcher In The Skies” and unfolds to reveal Gabriel vocally portraying a cast of characters in each following cut. Meanwhile, guitarists Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford tastefully weave classical influences with forward-thinking heavy rock technique to create something both inventive and accessible.
2. Yes, “Close To The Edge”
How do you pick just one Yes album? From far out Roger Dean cover art to near-impenetrable double albums about Topographic Oceans, and a rotating cast of perfectionist musicians throughout its career, the band IS prog rock. To most, “Close To The Edge” is the best choice. Created by alto-vocalist Jon Anderson, mind-blowing guitarist Steve Howe, keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, bassist Chris Squire and the drummer’s drummer, Bill Bruford; this 1972 LP boasts a complex musical achievement unmatched in the lengthy title track alone. That they were able to gain such lasting popularity was just the icing on the cake.
1. King Crimson, “In The Court Of The Crimson King”
Released on an unsuspecting public in 1969, Crimson’s debut LP is the true opening shot in the blitz that was to become prog rock. To this day it remains the standard. Led by dictatorial guitarist Robert Fripp, Crimson was a group of mammoth talent that stripped away the blues-based confines of rock and roll to create something truly original, daring and vital. Over the course of one LP they set the template with frenetic fretwork, dizzying signature and tempo changes, sweeping mellotron, lyrics that match paranoid sci-fi with epic fantasy, all packaged in what is perhaps the greatest record cover of all time. Don’t just take our word for it, listen to this:
Michael Behrenhausen is a Denver-based writer, musician and regular Reverb contributor. The worst crime he ever did was play some rock ‘n’ roll.