June 18: Can, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, King Crimson, Supertramp, Tangerine Dream, Yes

Twas on the eighteenth day of the sixth month,

said the wizard to the apprentice

That JT listened to the prog rock albums

With all of the pain of a dentists.

Yea, though every track was long,

Young JT must not cry

For he tries his best to complete his quest

1001 Albums Before You Die.

Yes, this week we’ll be looking at some of the prog albums on the list, with a couple of interlopers from Krautrock. If you’re wondering where Pink Floyd or Rush are, click the links. If you’d like a more Father’s Day kind of list, perhaps this one might suit; if you’d like a list including my own dad’s music taste, one is here.

Can, ‘Future Days’

Tago Mago‘ appeared in the very first post way back in February 2016, so another visit to the abrasive Kraut weirdos was long overdue. Just four songs on this album, including one that takes up an entire side of vinyl, yet even if they completely dispense with conventional song structures or hooks, its burbling, hypnotic drones felt more accessible than ‘Tago Mago’. ‘Future Days’ has something resembling a rhumba beat for the majority, while ‘Bel Air’, this week’s longest track at nearly 20 minutes, goes from floaty e-bow doodles to heavier, darker rock territory. Pretty good.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, ‘Tarkus’

The first album I listened to this week has a side-long track about a geodisic armadillo born out of a volcano and armed with enough weaponry to have epic battles against other part-machine animals. Oh goody. The best parts of the title track are the contributions from Greg Lake: normally a bassist, his vocals and guitar solos lighten up a track that is mostly organ soloing. On the B-side, there’s an accessible pop song called ‘Jeremy Bender’ which lasts just two minutes and a daft Eddie Cochran jam among more waffle. This was a struggle.

Genesis, ‘Selling England By The Pound’

Here’s your Patrick Bateman reference before we start. One of the final albums with Peter Gabriel as singer and bandleader, this album has a great first half with ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’ shaking off its folky opening with rhythms that wouldn’t sound out of place on an FKA Twigs record, ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ mixing psychedelic electric sitar with African-style rhythms and esoteric vocals, and ‘Firth of Fifth’ featuring jousting keyboard and guitar solos. The album comes unstuck on the second half though: Gabriel’s jaunty character studies on ‘The Battle of Epping Forest’ are at odds with the track’s fussy time signature faffing, while the next two songs are dull. ‘Aisle of Plenty’, meanwhile, is a reprise of the opener (with new, supermarket pun lyrics) but its clattering, overlapped tape loops sound like an early attempt at a remix. Pete’s weird sense of humour gives the album its distinctive character, but it also sounds as though it pulls in different directions to the other guys.

King Crimson, ‘Lark’s Tongues In Aspic’

Entering the 70s with a completely new line-up, Crimson here had the unusual line-up of guitar, bass, drums, percussion and violin, while losing both Peter Sinfield and Ian McDonald, the main writer and composer respectively of ‘In The Court of The Crimson King‘. Unfortunately this meant that while all the musicians were interesting sidekicks – Ian Muir particularly bringing toys, thumb pianos and random junk to the percussion rack – nobody seems to be taking the lead with melodies or hooks. The album often falls prey to the pitfalls of ‘Moonchild’, where interesting fragments wither on the vine of endless noodling improvisation. The exceptions are ‘Exiles’ (‘In The Court…’ in summary) and ‘Easy Money’, which sounds like a Dave Gilmour track deflated by Muir’s collection of half-broken toys. Mainly dull to an unforgivable degree, this is also KC’s final appearance on the list: ‘Red’ missing the cut.

Supertramp, ‘Crime of the Century’

Only knowing the hits, I’d assumed these were a sort-of Scouting For Girls 70s soft-rock act, yet Google insists this is a prog album so in we go. The album seems to be almost a compromise between pop and prog – like how the hand and the head are united by the heart in ‘Metropolis’ – with seven-minute songs tempered with choruses and singles. The first half doesn’t quite work, with the dire “work/shirk” rhyme of ‘School’ and the uncertain delivery of the title in ‘Bloody Well Right’ (maybe Mark E Smith could credibly use that phrase in a song, but not Supertramp). The second half works though, with the big hit ‘Dreamer’ and the sober ‘Rudy’. Mainly driven by piano and Wurlitzer, this was better than I was expecting.

Tangerine Dream, ‘Phaedra’

A trio of Germans recording in London with a modular synthesizer that went out of tune every day, Tangerine Dream’s spacey instrumental wanderings must have driven people round the twist in the 70s. Heard in 2017, though, it sounds like a precursor to acts like The Orb, more concerned with changing mood through a switch in modulation or phasing than through a chord change. The title track is nearly twenty minutes of distant electronic burbling, a remote star becoming a supernova, while the following tracks explore the frozen planetary wastelands left in its wake. Maybe I’d developed Stockholm syndrome at this point, but I loved the inscrutable, enigmatic soundscapes here.

Yes, ‘Close to the Edge’

I’d enjoyed ‘The Yes Album’ so let’s see whether Jon and the boys pull it off again here, where there are just three tracks in 37 minutes. The first, the side-long title track, feels unnecessarily cluttered at times thanks to its weird time signature shifts and ostentatious arrangement (there’s a church organ here), but the rock music parts (#2 and #4) are pretty good. On the other side, ‘And You And I’ has a pleasant twelve-string melody, nice synthesizers, a strong melody and less arsing around changing time signature every three bars. ‘Siberian Khatru’ has a headache of an outro: the guitar is playing in one rhythm and time signature and everything else seems to be playing in another. This isn’t as good as ‘The Yes Album’ but it’s certainly listenable. Drummer Bill Bruford left after this because of the sterile, laborious recording the band preferred: listening to the more spontaneous-sounding studio take of ‘Siberian Khatru’ that appears as bonus fluff on Spotify, he might have had a point. (Bruford would go on to join King Crimson for ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’.)

Next week: This week was pretty white lad heavy, so let’s hit the dancefloor next week with some funk!

I’ll also be releasing an EP next week as Year Without A Summer, so feel free to write a pithy review of that from Monday.

Status update: 541 listened to (54%), 460 remain

October 2: Bauhaus, Billie Holiday, King Crimson, MC5, Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, Neil Young

This week’s edition of the 1001 is an editor’s choice, meaning I’m drawing from some of the albums I’ve been looking forward to hearing. The best thing about a list like this is that there’s quite a lot that I want to hear – there’s at least 100 I’m keen to check out. Here’s seven of them…

Bauhaus, ‘Mask’.

The melancholy quartet’s second of three albums, all of which have their attractions. On this one, the template is tight, dubby rhythm section, howling John McGeoch-ish guitar and plaintive vocals, but this stretches to accommodate funk, vibraphone and sax, which creates a feel closer to PiL-style post-punk than to goth. On opener ‘Hair of the Dog’, the sound even approximates the sort of desolate industrial that Nine Inch Nails would later create on ‘The Downward Spiral’. An album with a lot of personality.

Billie Holiday, ‘Lady in Satin’.

I wasn’t awfully familiar with Holiday aside from the Hungarian death song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ so time to rectify that. Perhaps, however, this wasn’t the best place to start: recorded in 1958, Holiday was already in the twilight of a career that was at its apex in the 1930s, before charts or LPs were much of a thing. Recorded with an orchestra, ‘Lady in Satin’ makes room for Holiday’s unusual voice and phrasing, allows for the occasional pleasant trumpet solo, and completely fails to change BPM at any point. Surely not every song in the Great American Songbook is exactly the same tempo? Having said that, even if all the songs sound basically the same, the album flies by.

King Crimson, ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’.

Robert Fripp’s screechy guitar contributions to Eno and Bowie albums had made me interested in checking out his main project, but it turns out that in his own kingdom, Fripp is a tyrant, enforcing his power of copyright with an iron fist and sending a Spanish Inquisition of lawyers out to the pirate galleons of Spotify and Last.fm. This made exploring KC difficult, but luckily the help of friends got me a copy of their debut and here we are. This is heralded as one of the first prog albums and contains a lot of the trappings that would later become cheesy cliche – the lyrics especially (e.g. there is a song called ‘Moonchild’) but also the seemingly endless noodling sections (‘Moonchild’ is nearly ten minutes of it). It’s quite easy, however, to dig the Black Sabbath-ish heaviness of ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ or the lovely flute-driven ‘I Talk To The Wind’. Woodwind/keyboard player Ian McDonald drives a lot of the best music here, so of course he was gone by the band’s next album. Worth checking out if you can do so without invoking the wrath of Fripp.

MC5, ‘Kick Out The Jams’.

RIGHT NOW, RIGHT NOW, RIGHT NOW IT’S TIME TO KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKERS!! There aren’t many more exciting openings to a song than the title track here, which would make it a shoo-in for best Side A, Track 1 ever if it actually was (it’s the second song, weirdly). The Detroit proto-punks’ album appears to be mostly recorded live, and while it captures the exhiliration of the band’s live energy, it doesn’t quite succeed in sweeping you along with it (the production isn’t quite up to it). Also, the album’s called ‘Kick Out The Jams’ but the closing song is eight minutes long? What a title track though, eh.

Pink Floyd, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

Floyd are, of course, most famous for their super-serious stadium prog fare of the 70s and 80s, but we’re a million miles away from that here, on their debut album. For example, track 2, ‘Lucifer Sam’, is pretty much a surf song: not a style that you’d hear on ‘The Wall’. PATGOD features some of Floyd’s best-known songs from this era – ‘Astronomy Domine’ and ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ – yet it feels as though there’s a lot of directionless messing around and not enough in the way of actual songs. ‘Chapter 24’ and ‘Bike’ are the most coherent songs on the album; perhaps English psychedelia just doesn’t move me.

Talking Heads, ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’.

Another album on the list with Eno associations, this time recruiting the effete Roxy Music synthist on production and occasional performance. I wasn’t too bothered about ’77’, but by giving more room to keyboardist Jerry Harrison and adding some more flavours (soul, scratchy funk), this one ups the ante a bit. We’re still a while away from the Afrobeat/Latin dabblings they’d arrive at by the time of ‘Stop Making Sense’, and the album has just one single on it. Imitators in recent years mean this still holds up though: in fact it sounds as if it could have come out in the last year or two.

Neil Young, ‘After the Gold Rush’.

There’s something so cracked and vulnerable about Young’s falsetto at this point in his career that it overcomes any of the dull roots trappings or lumpen piano or harmonica arrangement, and this album feels heartbreaking even despite the elliptical lyrics of most of the songs. The title track and ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ are as good as anything I’ve heard on this project so far, while the two minute-long fillers that close each side make you regret that they’re not longer. All in all Young does the sort of thing that Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen are generally regarded as doing, yet has the ability to move me whereas those two (so far at least), can’t. Pretty much perfect.

Next week, I’ll be looking at some of the finest albums in hip-hop. There’s 21 albums on the list that I’ve not heard yet: time to bring that number down a bit.

Status update: 294 out of 1001 (29%), 707 remain (I’d forgotten to properly update the list last week, hence the sudden jump).