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.
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
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.
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
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
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