The best music you've never heard -- a primer of Progressive Rock

Feb 27, 2001

The Bottom Line A complex alternative to the world of corporate rock, which fails to challenge, entertain or enlighten.

Turn on the radio and tune to some sort of music station. Listen for a while...that's okay, I'll still be here when you're done.

Now, unless you tuned into a classical station, the odds are pretty good that you didn't hear anything that wasn't distilled down to the least common denominator by some music executive seeking a big hit.

Gone are the days when DJs picked the music that they played. Heck, in a lot of markets, there aren't even any DJs!

So, what makes a "Top 40" hit? Certainly not musical integrity or innovation. Making music "by the numbers" has never been as prevelant as it is today. That is, if you limit your musical exposure to commercial radio or video stations.

There's a secret underground of music that I'm going to let you in on. It's been around for over 30 years, and it's deep, dark and dirty secret is that the people who make this kind of music care about the music. They don't make it to get played on the radio, they make it to create beautiful music that challenges listeners to appreciate music for music's sake, not because they're good looking or they dance well.

The underground creates Progressive Rock.

Origins of Progressive Rock

Progressive Rock (or prog, as it's generally referred to) grew out of a late 1960s dissatisfaction with the growing commercialization of rock. Some Beatles albums (Revolver, Sgt Peppers) bordered on it, as did others (Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, early Zappa,) but the real benchmark album was King Crimson's 1968 In the Court of the Crimson King.

This was complex music, which incorporated aspects of jazz, classical, folk and rock. It was music that you had to listen to in order to really appreciate it -- you couldn't dance to it, and if you just left it on in the background, you kind of missed the point. The lyrics dealt with real issues, or real stories, not just someone mourning the departure of the "girlfriend de jour".

I don't know that Robert Fripp (guitars, and the only member of the band who's still in it, after 33 years!) knew what he was creating, but the album had considerable impact on the fringe of the rock world. Bassist Greg Lake left after the first album to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a group that came to embody the best and worst of the genre. Keyboardist Ian McDonald went on to form Foreigner, another band that popularised (diluted) prog.

Other early bands that you may be familiar with that made progressive music include:

Yes -- Classic symphonic band that produced much of the prog you hear on Album Oriented Rock (AOR) stations

Genesis -- Early works (when Peter Gabriel was still with the band) forged a perfect blend of pop and prog. More complicated than, say, the Eagles, but not so weird that it turned people off

Pink Floyd -- Psychedelic when Syd Barrett was the leader, his departure saw the band turn to prog. Dark Side of the Moon is the best selling prog album of all time

The Moody Blues -- Not recognized by many fans as "true prog" because of their commercial nature, the Moodies were definitely a bridge between prog and Beatles influenced pop

Jethro Tull -- Worked a complex mix of folk, prog and hard rock

All of these bands, to one degree or another, formed the basis of progressive rock. If you recognize and enjoy any of the aforementioned artists, you should explore other progressive bands.

The Rise of Punk

The growth of the punk movement in the late 1970s was due in no small measure to a reaction to the degree which prog bands were considered bloated and pointless. Punks wanted music for music's sake, not to tour with orchestras, elaborate sets and inflatable pigs.

Punk, and the follow on movement of New Wave, effectively killed the early progressive bands. King Crimson, ELP and the Moody Blues split up, Yes and Genesis moved on to straightforward rock and Pink Floyd self-imploded. Although there were a number of lessor known bands still in existence, for all intents and purposes, prog was dead.

The English Resurgence

In 1982, a band from Aylesbury, England began to fill venues with a sound that was, to some, suprisingly familiar. Without advertising or major airplay, Marillion became a big draw on the underground circle, due in no small nature to the theatrical bent of the lead singer, Fish, whose vocals and deeply emotional lyrics recalled the salad days of Genesis.

Three years later, and the band topped the charts in England with Misplaced Childhood and the single "Kayleigh" (if you know someone by this name, this is the origin -- Fish made up the name to replace a real person's name, "Kay Lee".) Although ultimately unsuccessful in the United States, the band toured Europe and helped incite the resurgence of Progressive Rock.

Progressive Rock Today

Today, some of the grandfathers of the genre are still out there -- King Crimson and Yes have both returned to their roots and are creating epic works. Rock bands such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have embraced progressive elements in an effort to extend their music. In addition, Progressive Metal has moved into the mainstream, as bands like Dream Theater, Spock's Beard and Queensryche sell out major tours the world over.

Recommended Albums

This is, by no means, a complete list. There are thousands of recordings available in many different sub-genres of prog, but these albums should be readily available and provide interested listeners a decent overview of progressive rock.

Yes -- Fragile
Probably the most accessible of Yes' albums, Fragile includes the hit "Roundabout" and gives a good overview of symphonic rock

King Crimson -- In the Court of the Crimson King
Fans of hard rock should listen to the first song, "21st Century Schizoid Man" over and over. If you don't like hard rock, skip that song and listen to the rest, a masterpiece in symphonic prog

Genesis -- Selling England By the Pound
A perfect mix of pop and more complex music, this remains Genesis' best album

Emerson, Lake and Palmer -- Brain Salad Surgery
Effective crossing of folk, hard rock and classical music makes this a must have for any prog fan

Pink Floyd -- Dark Side of the Moon
Certainly not the most progressive of the Floyd's releases, this gives you an unassailing introduction to the genre

Marillion -- Misplaced Childhood
Although the "concept album" is an overused vehicle both within and outside of prog, Marillion's third album is a fantastic example of how to make the concept album work

Porcupine Tree -- Stupid Dream
Absolutely one of the best progressive releases of the last ten years, this 1999 album is complex, challenging, and ultimately enjoyable

Spock's Beard -- Day For Night
A rarity -- an American progressive rock band. This 1999 release is their most accessable and interesting


Although it's not for everyone (teenagers don't seem to like prog all that much,) the vast diversity of the genre has much to offer. There are numerous sub-genres, including "Symphonic" (blending of classical and rock), "Prog-Metal" (early populists? Rush!), "Neo-prog" (Genesis influenced pop music), "Progressive Jazz", "Progressive Folk" and many, many more.

As time goes on, I'll add more reviews of progressive bands to Epinions -- I've got over 1000 progressive rock cds, so there's a bit of work. If you want more information, search the web or check out my CDReviews page, linked to from my Epinions profile page).

If you are bored with rock music that's processed and marketed to the point where you don't know where one song starts and another ends, broaden your horizons and pick up one of those "weird cds" that you've always wondered about. You might be surprised by how much you like music that means something.

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