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