The Epic Long Song – Part II: Yes, Rush, and the 80’s

Tales from Topographic Oceans - Two discs, four songs

Tales from Topographic Oceans – Two discs, four songs

Before the advent of the record album, music was written and performed to the length seen as appropriate by the composer or in some cases by the performer. Particularly in classical music, the symphony and the suite were long and complex compositions that were comprised of movements. When Jon Anderson and Steve Howe of Yes began work on “Close to the Edge”, they approached the song as a suite with four movements. The resulting album with its 18-minute plus title track raced to the top five in both Britain and the U.S.A. Inspired by their success, the next album “Tales from Topographic Oceans” was a double-disc release with just four songs, each one occupying the entire side of a disc. So as not to bury themselves in repetition, each song featured a different approach to composition, thus avoiding an album of four “Close to the Edges”. However, the task of making each song stretch to the 20-minute mark sometimes forced the band to come up with ideas to throw in. As such, there are mixed opinions about the music with some people claiming most of the songs fail to be as concise as “Close to the Edge” and could have been better were they shorter. For the following album, Yes returned to the formula of “Close to the Edge”, writing one long song for side one and two 10-minute songs for side two.

To fill an entire side of an album with one song usually meant writing a piece around 20 minutes long. Bob Dylan’s “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” filled an entire side of an album but was only 11:22. UFO created the space guitar epic “Flying”, which not only cleared 26 minutes but surprisingly shared side two with another shorter track. Still, there were spatial limitations to filling one side of an album. The grooves of a vinyl disc could only be etched so close together otherwise the stylus would pick up “echoes” from the adjacent grooves. UFO had really pushed the physical limits of the disc.

The one-song album by Jethro Tull

The one-song album by Jethro Tull

It took a facetious Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull to take the next big step and create the single-song album. After hearing that Tull’s album “Aqualung” was being regarded as a concept album despite that he insisted that it wasn’t, Anderson decided to give them “the mother of all concept albums”. “Thick as a Brick” is one song divided into two parts (one for each side of the album) and runs over 43 minutes long. The different “parts” of the music run fairly smoothly together, making most of the song seem like a coherent piece telling a story rather than several unrelated pieces stitched together. There are plenty of opportunities for the individual musicians to showcase their solo talents but over all the song holds together rather well. The following album “A Passion Play” would follow the same format and actually run a little longer than “Thick as a Brick”.

Tull’s album may not necessarily have been the first album-long song. Nektar’s albums “Journey to the Centre of the Eye,” “Remember the Future,” “Down to Earth,” and “Recycled” are all concept narratives that are meant to be played from start to finish with each “part” seeming like an individual song. One could then argue whether or not Nektar’s albums are true one-song-epics. There are many side-long songs and longer that are actually individual songs that make up a narrative, as we will soon see. Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” has its parts but cannot be so neatly sliced into individual stand out songs. The transitions between parts are smooth without fading out the previous part. We won’t want to forget Mike Oldfield’s opus “Tubular Bells” that was split over two sides of an album, though part one was originally completed as a single piece before part two was requested by the record company in order to properly fill an album.

There was an alternative to writing songs that filled an entire album side or both sides, and that was writing a long song in many parts that could be split over two sides and share the album with other shorter songs.

A side and a bit more-long song by ELP

A side and a bit more-long song by ELP

Emerson, Lake & Palmer did that with “Karn Evil 9” from their “Brain Salad Surgery” album. It begins on side one and carries over to fill all of side two, running about 30 minutes in total. Pink Floyd still had long songs in them when they recorded “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” and split the 29-minute multi-part song over two sides, fitting in three more songs on the album.

By the mid-seventies, punk rock was rapidly gaining attention, and writing epic songs was in threat of going out of vogue. There were some late-comers such as Sweden’s Kaipa who gave us their 21:42 epic, “Skenet Bedrar”. In the U.S., Lou Reed released a double album of guitar feedback for nearly 60 minutes of noise without any normal sense of composition and direction on his fifth album, “Metal Music Machine”. But the next champions of the epic tracks were to come from a suburb of Toronto, Canada.

Starting out as a Zeppelin-esque hard rock outfit, Rush quickly began moving ahead after acquiring drummer and new lyricist, Neal Peart. Their second album, “Fly By Night” was where the journey began with “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, an 8:39 story of good battling evil. Next came “Caress of Steel” and on side one “The Necromancer” at 12:32. But it was side two’s “The Fountain of Lamneth” that was the first side-long Rush epic, clocking in at just under 20 minutes. Grand though it was, the song plays out like a series of individual short songs that are chapters in the narrative. Listening to the track, there seems to be no reason why each part couldn’t have been a separate track as each part wraps up with a brief pause before the next part begins.

In 1976, Rush created one of their most influential epics, the futuristic story “2112”. It too followed the style of a narrative told in separate parts but here the parts seemed to stick together better. But it was what was to follow that showed the world that these three musicians from the Great White North had really gotten the hang of writing prog rock epics. “Cygnus X-1” (12:21) and “Cygnus X-1 Book II – Hemispheres” (18:08) are two well-crafted songs that appeared on “Farewell to Kings” and “Hemispheres” respectively. Each song, the shorter and the longer, have all the parts very craftily worked out so that the songs move along smoothly while changing rhythm, tempo, and melody. Although separate songs, their stories are interwoven so that what happens in the first song is related to what happens in the second song.

Side one was Book II of a song from the previous album.

Side one was Book II of a song from the previous album.

The long song never really died out, but it did wane in popularity in the rock world as the 80’s approached. Of course there were underground artists who still filled up one side of an album, but the glory days seemed to have died in the 70’s.

In 1984, Iron Maiden released their musical interpretation of Samuel Coolidge Taylor’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”. Much fuss was made about its length, nearly 14 minutes! But two other artists popped out a one-side epic, one in that same year and one the year prior. Extreme metal band from Britain, Venom, inspired by Rush’s “2112”, issued an album in 1984 where the entire first side was a narrative of Heaven embattled with Hell. “At War with Satan” was a surprisingly grandiose effort by a band known for three-minute bashers but many critics gave it positive reviews. The other was the neo-prog band, IQ, who managed to get their big time debut (they’d released a cassette debut earlier) “Tales from the Lush Attic” released in 1983, with its side-one-filling epic, “The Last Human Gateway”. And while not a single track, Kate Bush also included a multi-part narrative on her fourth album, “Hounds of Love”. Things were looking up.

A side-long song for the 80's: IQ's The Last Human Gateway

A side-long song for the 80’s: IQ’s The Last Human Gateway

Until this time, bands and individual artists were limited to either one side or both sides of an album. Long songs were somewhere between 17 minutes and 48 minutes. The new compact disc format was going to shake things up for with a CD it became possible to record songs of up to nearly 80 minutes long!

The long song revival coming up in part three.

The Epic Long Song – Part I: Beginnings

In 1970 there was a creative explosion that saw many bands attempting side-long epic songs, stretching over the 18-minute mark. The era of the side-long song had begun and carried on for a few years before fading but not going completely out of fashion. These days, the very long song continues and gets longer as memory storage permits larger files to be stored. But where did it all begin?

As rock and roll transformed into rock music in the mid-sixties, the recording of music was starting to change. Bands like The Beatles and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention began using the studio not simply for recording songs that would be performed live but for creating songs that were meant to be enjoyed on the album. The notion that songs could be longer than the average three-minute pop song was also setting in. Bob Dylan once claimed that he had imagined someday writing a song that developed like classical music and that might fill an entire album. His 1966 double album “Blonde on Blonde” featured the lengthy track “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” which reached 11:22 and occupied the whole of side four. This was possibly the first time a pop artist had committed one entire side of an album to a single song, though regarding the song length there was still more space that could have been filled. Love did just that in November of the same year, releasing a song entitled “Revelation” that clocked in at 18:57 and occupied the entire side B of their album “Da Capo”.

Song-writing was maturing and so was how the music was recorded. Along with Frank Zappa, The Beatles were at the forefront of studio experimentation and creating music for the album. Their 1966 release “Rubber Soul” was a step towards more mature song writing and recording. It is said that Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was inspired by “Rubber Soul” and looked to song writing and the studio in a similar way when The Beach Boys recorded “Pet Sounds” later that year. Paul McCartney in turn was inspired by “Pet Sounds”, and when the Beatles decided to retire from touring and concentrate solely on recording, this inspiration lingered into the next Beatles album, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. This album was a paradigm-shifting approach to studio recording with numerous new techniques and technological innovations helping to realize the musical vision of the band. This was to be an album created in the studio with songs that were not intended for live performance. The album was printed with no rills (those gaps between songs that let you know where to drop the stylus in order to play a particular song from the beginning) as all the songs were meant to be heard as a continuous performance.

A new way of recording a popular music album

A new way of recording a popular music album

Although this was still an album of separate songs, with “Sergeant Pepper” the Beatles opened brand new doors in studio recording possibilities. The Who followed close behind with a similar idea on “The Who Sell Out”, an album of songs that were mostly connected by commercial jingles written by the band for existing products. Back across the ocean, Vanilla Fudge recorded their second album as a musical concept piece that paid homage to Beethoven and the Beatles. “The Beat Goes On”, though an ambitious and progressive piece for certain, is considered by most to be an awful album. In spite of that, the seeds for conceptual pieces had started to sprout.

In the year of 1968, at least three bands delivered songs surpassing the 17-minute mark. Iron Butterfly went into the studio to record a new song called “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. While waiting for the producer to show up, the engineer had them run through the song and do a sound check for each instrument. Guitar solos, a drum solo, an organ solo, and a leaping bass segment were recorded as the song stretched out. Doug Ingle included a hauntingly beautiful organ segment and the main theme of the song was reprised in between solo sections before the song returned for the coda. Though this extended instrumental affair was not part of the original plan, it was decided to put it on the album as it was and take up all of side two. Meanwhile, back in England, Procol Harum was following up on their debut’s success with an album called “Shine On Brightly”. Side two included a short track followed by a 17-minute conceptual piece entitled, “In Held ‘Twas In I”. The song was divided into five parts and is quite possibly the first of its kind – the epic long song that the prog bands of the seventies would generate. Meanwhile, back in California, the Canadian band The Collectors were recording their debut and chose to occupy side B with a song running 19:15, “What Love (Suite)”. According to guitarist Bill Henderson, the band wanted to write something with accents, with crescendos – write a rock song like classical music. This sounds like a precursor to the progressive rock movement that would soon see the side-long epic as an almost expected production.

The years 1967 and ’68 saw many studio songs clear the ten-minute mark and live performances gave musicians the opportunity to extend songs by featuring longer solo parts. But the conceptual, side-long epic would really come into its own in 1970. One of the first big productions of the year was Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother Suite”. No stranger to studio experimentation, Pink Floyd had already established themselves as a band that created sonic palettes and musical experiences rather than just pop songs. Their album “Ummagumma” was perhaps their most experimental studio performance: manipulating tape, integrating sound effects, performing on a variety of instruments (most notably percussion), and writing songs in three parts or without any adherence to the standard pop song format.

The ambitious side-long, multi-part song for group, brass orchestra, and choir

The ambitious side-long, multi-part song for group, brass orchestra, and choir

“The Atom Heart Mother Suite” was their most ambitious effort by far. A 23-minute plus, multi-part epic with choir and brass orchestra, this was one of the band’s few ventures into collaborating with an outsider to compose their music. In this case, Ron Geesin, an established jazz musician who’d already worked with Roger Waters and the rest of Pink Floyd for a soundtrack to a biology movie, was involved in helping to create this weighty piece. It’s no surprise that inspiration for this long composition came from a movie soundtrack, Elmer Bernstein’s music for “The Magnificent Seven”. David Gilmour came up with the musical motif while Waters, impressed with a performance he’d seen with choir and orchestra, decided that Floyd’s new composition needed just that. Perhaps it’s also noteworthy to mention that Pink Floyd were also studio residents at Abbey Road, the same place where the Beatles recorded.

Recording with an orchestra was already highbrow status in this new world of rock music. In Britain, where listening to American rock and roll had been frowned upon for years, youths were taught to appreciate the culturally acceptable world of classical music to a greater extent than their transatlantic cousins. If you want to play music then you’re going to a proper academy. Many soon-to-become-famous musicians held music degrees from academies and knew how to compose music on paper as well as perform classical works. Deep Purple’s Jon Lord wrote “Concerto for Group and Orchestra” while The Moody Blues and The Nice were conducting their own experiments in adding classical instruments and classical compositions to rock band performances and recordings. Jazz also attracted many British youth and found its way into the new movement of progressive rock, as it came to be known. It is quite likely a combination then of the extended psychedelic rock song, the classical influence on British youth, jazz, and the new capabilities of the studio that inspired several young bands to attempt writing multi-part songs that stretched for 20 minutes or more. Some examples of these are:

“Lizard” by King Crimson (1970)
“Morning” by T.2. (1970)
“Symphony No. 2” by Egg (1970)
“Echoes” by Pink Floyd (1971)
“Nine Feet Underground” by Caravan (1971)
“Gravedigger” by Janus (1971)
“Eruption” by Focus (1971)
“A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” by Van der Graaf Generator (1971)
“Tarkus” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1971)
“Flying” and “Star Storm” by UFO (1971)
“A Tab in the Ocean” by Nektar (1972)
“Supper’s Ready” by Genesis (1972)

The two songs by UFO appear on their second album “UFO 2: Flying” and are little more than lengthy psychedelic adventures in guitar-driven effects, solos, and heavy psych-styled music with “Flying” reaching 26:30 of playing time. The reissued CD booklet for Nektar’s “A Tab in the Ocean” states that Nektar were the first band to write a cohesive composition meant for an entire album side; however, the list above shows that several bands had already begun treading those waters. Most of the songs were written as compositions in parts that were intended for live performance, but it’s interesting to note that both “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” and “Supper’s Ready” were actually composed by piecing together several originally unrelated ideas and creating a multi-part epic track. Genesis performed their grand masterpiece live regularly while on the other hand, Van der Graaf Generator only played their epic live once for a Dutch TV program. Also note that Focus is Dutch and not British. Their third album would include a massive jam and solo feature track called “Anonymous 2” running over 23 minutes.

A classic epic track

A classic epic track: ELP’s Tarkus

Of all the bands who tried their hands at side-long compositions however, one perhaps was the most notorious. Yes made 20-minute epics a staple of their career for a few years. And then Jethro Tull introduced the album-long song. That and more in part two.

New “Gateway” Albums

Previously, I wrote about Stephen Lambe’s book “Citizens of Hope and Glory: the Story of Progressive Rock”. The book follows the development of progressive rock from the late sixties to the present and cites 65 albums as “gateway albums” to progressive rock music. These albums, as Lambe explains, are in his opinion important albums in the development of the genre, and for the curious and uninitiated, these albums are suitable “gateways” for entering this non-mainstream musical world. Later on, I will write about some of these albums but for today I would like to mention five albums of recent years that have impressed me deeply. Of course there are wonderful examples of such gateways to prog being released every year but it would require quite some amount of pocket money to keep up. So here are five albums released between 2011 and 2013 that I feel are worthy of adding to a list of gateway albums to prog.

Rites at Dawn - Wobbler

Rites at Dawn – Wobbler

Wobbler are a Norwegian band that formed around 1999 with the expressed idea that they would write and play music using only instruments and equipment that were available between 1968 and 1975, a very bold stab at retro prog if there ever was one. Though their first album “Hinterland” (2005) contained new material, their follow up album “Afterglow” (2009) featured material that was mostly written during the band’s early years. The music of both albums deliberately pushed the complexity boundaries farther than most, although one might notice similarities to Änglagård.

Their third album, however, was a step towards more focused song writing and melodies while still keeping the almost absurd complexity of their music. Reviewers on Prog Archives are divided with some praising the album with five-star ratings, others being more conservation in their ratings and pointing out almost critically how this album is a retro fest.

As for me, I think it’s truly brilliant. Anyone interested in hearing what prog sounds like would do well to give this a listen. Vocal harmonies, Mini Moog solos, songs over ten minutes long, odd time signatures and beats, woodwind mixed with electric guitar, complex song structures, it’s all there!

Listen to: The River


Heritage - Opeth

Heritage – Opeth

Opeth began in the early nineties as a death metal band that gradually began leaning toward more complex song structures. Their fourth album “Still Life” – a concept album – is regarded as one of their best. However it was their next album “Blackwater Park” which was produced by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree that really saw Opeth looking at new possibilities. (Incidentally, Porcupine Tree’s next album took on a heavier sound.)

Over their next few albums, band leader Michael Åkerfeldt worked serious death metal with acoustic and jazz-tinged interludes and began singing with clean vocals more often. “Heritage” from 2011 was however, a surprising album as any death metal element was absent and the songs had a very decided retro feel to them, all the while tenaciously adhering too very unusual song structures.

My personal favourite track is “Famine” which includes an eerie woodwind and percussion intro joined my some maliciously amused laughter, switches suddenly to a sparse piano section with vocals, transforms into a seventies hard rock prog tribute and then blasts into a Jethro Tull meets Black Sabbath section with heavy guitar and flute. The song next becomes a haunting flute and jazz/blues guitar bit before the heaviness returns. And then it fades out.

For the sheer unorthodox take on pop music composition and the marvelous guitar and drums here, this album should make the head spin of any new prog initiate.


Beyond the Realms of Euphoria - Galahad

Beyond the Realms of Euphoria – Galahad

Galahad came together during the neo-prog movement of the eighties, overshadowed by more successful acts like Marillion, IQ, Pendragon, and Pallas. By the nineties they began releasing their own albums at last, changing sound and style. With keyboard player Dean Baker joining the band, their sound was enriched. Electronica, classical piano, church organ and other keyboard sounds emerged as their guitar sound became heavier.

“Beyond the Realms of Euphoria” features a splendid melange of electronica, heavy prog, classical piano, and retro seventies sounds as well as more. When I let a non-proghead co-worker hear some parts of some songs, she was so impressed by how a rock band could be so diverse in a single song.

Listen to: Guardian Angel


Shrine of New Generation Slaves - Riverside

Shrine of New Generation Slaves – Riverside

Riverside began sounding like the Polish answer to the heavier version of Porcupine Tree and were quickly slotted into the progressive metal category. However, over the course of their albums, they have been de-emphasizing the metal side of their music and developing the more atmospheric side. On “Shrine of New Generation Slaves” the truly heavy parts are held back for unleashing when the mood suits and instead the music moves through heavy bluesy parts, saxophone atmospheres, moody guitar and keyboard segments, and sombre flowing moments. The album has a certain unity to the overall experience and each song is its own entity, never sounding quite like the others in spite of this cohesive sonic atmosphere. It’s not an album to grab your attention and take you for a ride. It’s an album that invites you to get in for a journey.

Listen to: Escalator Shrine



The Mountain - Haken

The Mountain – Haken

Haken’s third album is a masterpiece of modern music. A progressive metal band at heart, one can find plenty of speedy and heavy musical passages with intricate and complex playing very much in the Dream Theater vein. But Haken go beyond the metal power punch here and include vocal arrangements reminiscent of Gentle Giant at times, Gregorian chant at other times, and a melancholy barber shop quartet and other times still. There are jazzy segments, beautiful piano introductions, and on the expanded edition of this album a string ensemble. Each song seems to strive for diversity and complexity yet sticks to one coherent piece of music. Truly this is an album where the musicians have strained every creative muscle to create such an album and put themselves through a remarkable work out to bring it to life. Easily a “gateway to prog” album if there ever was one.

Listen to: Atlas Stone