In Defense of Progressive Rock

Last week, I listed to Patti Smith’s Horses for the first time. The album is considered a landmark of early punk, back when punk was more or less a catch-all term for the New York art-rock scene, as it existed in the mid-to-late 70s. I had been meaning to get around to this album for a long-ass time, since delving into the history of pop music is one of my four or so favorite things. And then, once I was listening to it, it was…fine? It was OK. A lot of the songs didn’t feel like songs as such, rather, they were poetry jams with a soundtrack. I was vaguely aware going in that ‘poetry jams with a soundtrack’ was the album’s whole thing, but it still left me cold. It struck me as music for people who think music itself is overrated, and finds its highest calling when shunted off to the side.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but sometimes I can’t help but feel that a certain amount of disdain for music as a thing in itself is baked into most pop music criticism. There’s a romanticism ascribed to the idea of bands and solo musicians that set out to make music with limited musical knowledge and/or aptitude, or whose primary artistic background is in other disciplines. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, either. But, for whatever reason, it has seem to have led to a pop landscape where progressive rock, a genre of music that is too weird to exist comfortably in the background of anything, gets no respect, and that’s a dang tragedy.

For the entirety of its existence, progressive rock has been a lightning rod for false dichotomies. Its relationship to the rest of rock and pop can best be described as “standoffish”. Most people, music critics included, regard progressive rock as soulless noodling for psychotic Trekkies, mad scientists, and socially isolated libertarians. Prog rockers, to their discredit, have often reacted with condescension, doubling down on their pretensions (both musical and otherwise), and inevitably writing and recording at least one song dismissing the entire rest of popular music as mass-produced pablum intended solely to make the populace dumber. Even the name “progressive rock” can be read as dismissive. It implies that rock (and, by extension, pop music as a whole) needs to progress from something.

Both of these stances are nonsense, but I can see how this happened. Prog rock is often dense and impenetrable, which is understandably off-putting to many. Prog rock also has an unfortunate history of shitty political leanings, and I can scarce begrudge anyone for not wanting to touch that shit. I’ve made the personal decision to forgive Rush (to name just one example) for spending the better part of the first decade or so of their existence endorsing the views of human colostomy bag Ayn Rand. Even given how much I like Rush for musical reasons (which is a lot), I’m still not completely comfortable with this decision, and I wouldn’t try to foist it on others (at least not these days. Be glad you didn’t know me in college). To present additional (albeit circumstantial) evidence of this, in researching this article I searched for “Marxist prog rock bands” on Google in order to see if that described any bands, at all. I got a couple of results for a Scottish band called Henry Cow that appears to have been active in the 70s, and then by the fifth result or so I was getting articles from a couple of conservative sites. Prog rock, unfortunately, seems to be a magnet for this shit.

And yet! Despite all of this, I believe that prog rock is, like the rest of pop music itself, for everybody, and worth checking out. Progressive rock, when examined as a whole, is a rich tapestry of weird sounds, jazzy insanity, and trippy, spaced-out goodness. Do you like Pink Floyd at all? They at very least sort of count as a prog rock band, so there’s that. Do you like Pink Floyd but occasionally wish more stuff happened in Pink Floyd songs? There’s a prog rock band out there for you. Do you like jam bands? There’s a prog rock band for you. Do you like jazz? There’s a prog rock band for you. My ultimate point here is the whole of prog rock takes lots and lots of shit for its worst tendencies, and as with all generalizations, this is dumb and unfair to everybody and simply no way to live your life. It’s always, always better to like things than to be dismissive of them.

So! In the spirit of broadening everyone’s sonic palette, here are eight progressive rock albums to check out,presented in chronological order. I have counted every single album on this list among my very favorite albums at one time or another. No single album on this list is for everybody, exactly but my hope here is that most everybody can find something to like somewhere in here.

In the Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson (1969): While the exact origins of progressive rock are somewhat in dispute, In the Court of the Crimson King is the real Ur-text of the genre. It is unapologetic in its dense, jazz-inflected musicality, and it has moments of both harsh, dark noisiness and incredible serenity. Like all good prog rock, the music itself takes center stage, but it also exists as part of the larger whole of the album, surrounded by lyrics and album art that fuse with the music to paint vivid pictures of alienation and gloom. Every song on here is fantastic, with the possible exception of Moonchild, which is great for like three minutes before spending an additional nine minutes noodling around in no particular direction. Still, this album is singular and game-changing in its total weirdness, and if you decide to check out one and only one album on this list, make sure it’s this one.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970): Taking cues from jazz and classical music is a hallmark of prog rock, and that is due in no small part to the formative influence of ELP’s career. A lot of people will list 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery as the best ELP album, but for my money, their self-titled debut is where it’s at. This album wears it’s classical influences on it’s sleeve, and is chock-full of note-dense classically-influenced passages, but it remains hooky, accessible, and engaging throughout nonetheless. While there’s a good deal of noisy bits to be found here, this is, on the whole, a much calmer album the In the Court of the Crimson King, and the perfect soundtrack to an afternoon of calm study and/or introspection.

Animals, Pink Floyd (1977): Most classic-era Pink Floyd albums have enough shine on them that I don’t feel compelled to highlight any in this space, but I’m more than willing to make an exception for Animals. It occupies a unique space in the band’s catalog, capturing them right as they started to transition from spacey soundscape purveyors to a backing group for Roger Waters’ experiments in yelling at everybody in order to determine who would listen. The result is an album that maintains the trippy feel of Wish You Were Here, its immediate predecessor, but is louder and more propulsive. Also, this is a good example of a prog rock album making a political statement that doesn’t suck, offering up a critique of how capitalism divides society using an Animal Farm-inspired framework. It’s not perfect in its argument, but at least they tried.

Peter Gabriel III (Melt), Peter Gabriel (1980): Peter Gabriel’s career, both as a solo artist and from when he was fronting Genesis, is a deeply fascinating case study in what prog rock is. Early Genesis specialized in a lot of the stuff associated with prog rock – long songs that eschew verse/chorus structure, unconventional time signatures, extended instrument freakouts, etc. By contrast, much of Peter Gabriel’s solo work is more conventional, but still constantly driven by a desire to be arty and weird. His third solo album is the best one, in part because it best exemplifies both of those tendencies. The songs are mostly all normal length, and many (but by no means all) have quality hooks and conventional verses and choruses. But the instrumental craziness is still very present, particularly in the background, and the album harkens back to In the Court of the Crimson King in its commitment to being creepy and expressing alienation. That is, of course, until the final track, Biko, a story of a South African anti-apartheid activist who was beaten to death in police custody, comes and flips the entire rest of the album on its head. It’s fantastic.

Power Windows, Rush (1985): As mentioned previously, Rush (particularly drummer Neil Peart, who wrote almost all of their lyrics) openly endorsed Ayn Rand in their early days, and they never lived that down. This is well and good, because Ayn Rand sucks and if you liked her at any point you should feel bad, but Rush doesn’t get enough credit for growing up and embracing the primacy of empathy. Indeed, empathy is the driving lyrical force on Power Windows, finding time to critique capitalism, nationalism, populism, and the arms race, while celebrating emotional awareness, understanding, and compassion for others. Power Windows is a polarizing album among the fanbase, because a lot of Rush fans are the sort of rockist dweebs who reflexively dismiss the synthesizer-forward approach of their mid-80s work. Since we are at least enlightened to enough to reject that bullshit, we can appreciate Power Windows for what it is: a great collection of songs. Rush was always big on instrumental noodling, but over time it was used more to enhance the songs themselves. Power Windows exemplifies this approach, and while it’s not their best album, it doesn’t get enough credit.

Images and Words, Dream Theater (1992): More than any other prog rock band, Dream Theater catches a lot of shit for being soulless technicians. And really, they at least kind of deserve this reputation. A lot of their albums see them try to ape various musical styles while cramming in as many meaningless, go-nowhere instrumental sections as possible, but in their earlier days they had a lot more personality. It was a dorky personality, sure, but what’s wrong with that? Images and Words is big and bold and cheesy and utterly afraid to be any of those things. While it would be wrong to say it’s a genreless album, towering prog-metal workouts stand alongside corny but winsome ballads, and it all makes total sense somehow. After one more album (1994’s Awake), keyboard player Kevin Moore, whose sensibility drove a lot of what the band did in this early period, quit the band, and the band slowly but surely went to shit. But it wasn’t always like that.

Damnation, Opeth (2003): Most of the stuff I am highlighting here is on the louder end of the prog rock spectrum, because that’s where my biases lie, but there’s a whole world of mellower material. Damnation exists in a state of contradiction. In 2003, Opeth, halfway through a decade of releasing the most god-tier death metal ever committed to tape, released a collection of slow, mournful ballads, with nary a growl or blast beat in sight. And it’s gorgeous from start to finish! Damnation is the sound of sitting inside on a rainy day, drinking tea and staring off into the middle distance. It never roars, it only calmly and sadly whispers. While Opeth would gradually pivot away from death metal and lean in further to their conventional prog leanings, and while their prior albums included occasional ballads in the same style, releasing a whole album of this stuff (again, during a run where they were the best metal band in existence) was unprecedented. Damnation is so good that metalheads, who tend to be an unfortunately territorial bunch, didn’t even question it.

The Madness of Many, Animals as Leaders (2016): Then again, what’s wrong with full-on progressive insanity? The Madness of Many is, by far, the least accessible album on this list, unless your default listening tendencies gravitate towards strictly instrumental free jazz. In the best way, this album is built to challenge the listener. It is loud, abrasive, unspeakable complex music with no vocals anywhere and no concessions to popular musical forms whatsoever. Yet through this, The Madness of Many is able to communicate its themes. This album gawks with horror at the anti-intellectualism of modern culture that was bad enough when I was a kid, and yet has somehow only gotten worse. It is the soundtrack to insanity, to a level of bafflement that can only arise when one examines a society that has rejected the concepts of learning, knowledge, and science, and is in grave danger as a result. Like learning and betterment itself, the rewards of this album are many, but you have to work for them.

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