Saturday, August 26, 2017
The Evolution Of Progressive Rock
In the mid to late 70’s while the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was well underway, there was a strong push towards more progressive and subversive sounds in rock music. To keep this in perspective, by 1975 the Grateful Dead were already on hiatus after a rigorous and nearly fatal decade of touring. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath had unleashed two landmark albums in 1973 with Houses Of The Holy and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath respectively. With that being said let’s move backwards two years. In 1971 progressive music was still very much an underground phenomenon and didn’t have a lot of mainstream appeal. Bands like LA’s Captain Beyond were starting to experiment with things like odd time signatures and conceptual lyrics which would later become staples of progressive music. However, their 1971 debut didn’t draw enough attention to this new genre because no one really knew what to do with it at the time. Concept albums weren’t yet a common thing in rock until September of that year when Yes went into the studio to begin work on their fourth record.
Arguably one of the greatest progressive rock bands in history, Yes had some of the best players on the scene at the time who would eventually become some of the most influential and revolutionary the genre has ever seen. The first album to feature keyboardist Rick Wakeman, Fragile is nothing short of a masterpiece. Bringing together flavors of classical, jazz, pop and rock, Yes fashions a unique and original listening experience the likes of which had not yet really been seen before. Concept albums and albums designed to be listened to in sequence didn’t truly take off until this point. Fragile, since it’s release, has gone platinum twice in the US and reached No. 4 on the chart when it came out. Therefore it goes without saying this record was a critical and commercial success both in the US and overseas.
Utilizing an electric piano, various types of synthesizers and a harpsichord, Yes managed to really expand upon a sound that was already multidimensional. Unlike most bands of their era, Yes was experimenting heavily with multiple time signatures. Most rock music of the day followed a simple 4/4 pace and maybe slowed down or sped up the tempo for good measure. Yes was one of the first bands of their day to really experiment with multiple time signatures in one song. For example Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” stays relatively uniform throughout whereas Yes’s “Heart of The Sunrises” utilizes four separate time signatures over its nearly 11-minute run time. So much of what makes this album great is of course Bill Bruford’s exceptional drumming and Chris Squire’s electrifying bass playing, but also Jon Anderson’s soaring vocals. Creating angelic harmonies and complex vocal melodies on songs like “We Have Heaven” and “Roundabout”, his voice flies brilliantly in front of the music behind it.
Throughout the entire thing, there are moments of mastery provided by each member of the band. For example Steve Howe’s subtle yet definitive guitar playing shines bright on “South Side of the Sky” with his consistent yet intricate riffing. Balanced, extremely well-thought out and expertly produced, Fragile is a must listen when it comes to progressive music. It’s complicated yet accessible to even the most casual of fans, which at the time was important. Part of what made progressive music almost primitive in the early ‘70s was people’s inability to understand what was going on. It’s not easy to keep up with and certainly an acquired taste, which makes Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s sophomore release something of a challenge for most fans of the decade. In January of 1971 Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer went into the studio to begin recording their second album to be released in the coming summer. Following the success of their 1970 debut, ELP was ready to work out some new material. The opening track, “Tarkus” is a seven-part epic chronicling the story of the birth of a character of the same name in a volcanic eruption before recorded history. The exact creation of this character and nature are left out in the open by Keith Emerson himself, whose idea “Tarkus” was.
The first movement “Eruption” -- for lack of a better word -- erupts with a flood of notes provided by the keyboards in a sweeping 10/8 time signature followed by a corresponding drum part. This pushes the song forward into the second movement entitled “Stones of Years” which contains one of three vocal pieces throughout the whole thing. The following four movements are said to represent the enemies the character meets along its journey. Represented in both the artwork and by the various religious references in the lyrics, the character’s journey takes up the entire first half of the album. The name and monstrous sound represents the name’s meaning, “the futility of war, a man made mess with symbols of mutated destruction.” However, the song itself is anything but messy. It’s incredibly tight and brilliantly executed. It’s a lot to swallow which is part of why it received some mixed reviews when it came out. It reached number one in the UK and only peaked at number nine in the US but stayed on the charts for a total of 17 weeks.
Though it was a lot to ask of listeners, Tarkus made it known E.L.P was a progressive force to be reckoned with. From front to back Tarkus showcases some of the best each player has to offer. Greg Lake’s exceptional guitar playing and voice blends perfectly with Carl Palmer’s exuberant, vibrant and heart pounding drumming and Keith Emerson’s singular, energetic and enrapturing keyboard playing. Pushing progressive music to a new level, Emerson, Lake & Palmer were one of a handful of bands that set a new standard for what was possible musically. It wasn't until the Spring of 1973, however, that this new genre would soar to never before seen heights.
Again, to keep everything in perspective by the Summer of 1972 the Grateful Dead were home, Captain Beyond, Sir Lord Baltimore and others had records out and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was beginning to take shape. Between June 1972 and January 1973, England’s Pink Floyd went into Abbey Road studios in London to start working on their eighth record. Pink Floyd had already made a name for themselves in the psychedelic and acid rock scene but when vocalist and founding member, Syd Barrett, left in 1968 things began to change. He was replaced by guitarist and singer David Gilmour, who brought more of a typical “classic rock” sound to the table as opposed to Barrett’s quintessential psychedelic sound. Gilmour’s first record with the band is one of their best and one of rock’s greatest compositions; it was called The Dark Side of The Moon. It was released in March 1973 and almost instantaneously changed the landscape of the scene.
Exploring themes surrounding the passage of time, death, conflict, greed and insanity, each side of the record is a continuous piece of music. Designed to be listened to in sequence each song explores a different aspect of the human experience starting and ending with a beating heart. Recorded on the same tape and in the same studio as the Beatles’ classic Abbey Road, Pink Floyd utilized every element of the recording studio allowing them to create an almost modern sound. Because of the revolutionary and innovative production value, beyond stellar songwriting and stunning musicianship The Dark Side of the Moon became the band’s most successful album up until that point. Featuring the classic lineup of guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour, bassist and vocalist Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright, Pink Floyd crafted an enchanting listening experience that grasps the attention of the listener from start to finish. The fluid harmonies of “Breathe (In The Air)” balanced against the chaos of “Us and Them” truly take the listener through the character's life in a way music had never done before.
One of the many things The Dark Side of the Moon did besides becoming an instant classic was it brought progressive music to the mainstream and allowed for other bands to follow in their footsteps. Although it wouldn’t be so easy for a lot of the bands that followed including one that would become one of the greatest, most prolific bands in history. Jumping forward two years to 1975 progressive music was still moving forward in a lot of ways. Pink Floyd released Wish You Were Here and Led Zeppelin had come out with Physical Graffiti. At the same time in Toronto, Canada RUSH went into the studio to work on their follow up album with new drummer Neil Peart.
In February 1975, Fly By Night came out on Anthem Records. With John Rutsey now out of the band due a diabetes diagnosis, Peart took the reigns behind the drums as well as the songwriting duties. Continuing to experiment with new sounds and techniques, RUSH managed somehow to create an enormous sound with only three members. Geddy Lee was not only an incredible and unique singer, but an outstanding bass and keyboard player. Much like guitarist Alex Lifeson, he managed to move swarms of notes and harmonies through the air in unimaginable ways. As a lyricist Peart created stories riddled with philosophical messages and fantasy inspired images. As a drummer Peart seemed able to do anything and built the perfect foundation for the rest of the group to stand on. Fly By Night peaked a No. 9 on the chart in the US but RUSH wouldn’t reach the cult status they’ve achieved today if it were not for the album they came out with the next year.
Without much help from the mainstream media or the record company, RUSH’s 2112 came out in April 1976. The album didn’t perform well on the chart and for the most part was a critical and commercial flop. Like the Grateful Dead who came before them RUSH built their fanbase from the ground up by touring constantly. They opened for KISS and AC/DC during early parts of their career and did what was necessary to get their music heard. What was originally considered nothing but noise by the media, the band who told the story of an intergalactic war in space began to develop a significant and dedicated following. With musicianship well ahead of their time RUSH made a name for themselves by becoming incredibly proficient live as well as in the studio releasing a number of landmark albums over the course of a career spanning nearly five decades.
On one end of the progressive spectrum there’s the complex and intricate; a sound bands like RUSH and Pink Floyd perfected. On the other end there’s the avant, funky and provocative. Between 2112’s release in 1976 and the end of the decade coming around the corner, Led Zeppelin’s reign was beginning to end and bands like RUSH, Kansas, Blue Oyster Cult and others were taking their place. During this time a young guitar player from Maryland called Frank Zappa was paving a new path in various arenas in the rock universe with his other-worldly guitar sound. Debuting a decade earlier with The Mother’s Of Invention, Zappa took the rule book and threw it out the window. Each record was something new and featured endless amounts of some of the best musicians on the scene.
In the fall of 1979 he released a three part rock opera entitled Joe’s Garage which told a convoluted story relating to themes of the dangers of a large government, sexuality and individualism. Criticized heavily upon release for the lyrics, the musicianship is truly what shines the brightest on Joe’s Garage. One of the best albums in Zappa’s catalog it features some of the most technically advanced and skilled players in music. From Ike Willis on vocals to Arthur Barrow on bass to the great Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Zappa out did himself with this lineup. Combining flavors of jazz, funk, synth pop, rock, and more Joe’s Garage is a never-ending sea of various sounds all coming together to create an undeniable and remarkable listening experience. Truly an experience in every sense Joe’s Garage is funny, sexy, dirty, intense, scary, and so much more than that. Encapsulating a wide range of talents from a variety of different players and styles, Joe’s Garage is an ironically inclusive listening excursion -- if given a chance.
Part of why progressive music was so “unnoticed” by the mainstream was because it was hard for most average people to open up to it. Most often however Zappa and the over 30 musicians he took the stage with are hailed as some of the best to ever do it. Considered in large part to be “musicians musicians” the same way Al Pacino is called an “actor’s actor”, Zappa and his peers, created a new platform for experimentation, innovation and improvisation. Frank Zappa’s influence runs deep in various places in rock music but none more so in groups that were going to attempt to revive a new form of progressive music years later.
Jumping forward 14 years to 1993 progressive music wasn’t as fun as it was when it began. Part of what made bands like RUSH, Yes and others so appealing to young people on the fringe was how fun the music was. There were stories about mythical creatures, war and peace, good and evil and the outer reaches of the universe paired with these endlessly bountiful and intriguing sounds that were never explored before. By the early 90’s the alt-rock and grunge movements were already in full swing and progressive music was again something of an anomaly. In April of that year, Primus released its third record and it looked as though the “mainstream” had caught up with them but there was so much more to Pork Soda than that. “My Name Is Mud”, one of the band’s most successful tracks, has one of the most infectious and unflinching grooves the band has ever produced.
Pork Soda became one of the band’s most successful records and it was due in large part to the inviting and friendly nature of Les Claypool’s voice as well as his unmistakable bass playing capabilities. From start to finish Pork Soda is a record with a lot of dimension and there are a lot of layers to it, making for a fun and humorous yet intense and involved listening experience. One of the big similarities between Zappa’s work, specifically Joe’s Garage and Primus is the vocalizations Claypool uses on songs like “Welcome To This World”. Zappa used to put on different “voices” so to speak and it would provide a nice dose of humor to an otherwise not so humorous piece of work. Claypool does the same type of thing, making Primus’ music all the more humorous and irreverent. The long and short of what Primus did was they made progressive music fun again -- the way it was supposed to be.