Rock Progressif Québécois

The progressive rock scene in Anglophone Canada during the 1970’s was not particularly robust. Rush are the most well-known band to attempt to apply English prog sensibility to their sound. Earlier in the 70’s, bands like Warpig and Jackal played the heavy rock and Hammond organ style of English bands like Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. Chilliwack, Lighthouse, and A Foot in Cold Water were known to veer proggish at times. Progressive pop on the Canadian scene came ahead with Klaatu and FM, and SAGA delivered an earlier neo-progressive pop sound. Nightwinds was probably one of the bands who best tried to follow the English prog example but only lasted one album. It would seem that in spite of Canada’s close connection with British music, the progressive scene did not really take hold.

Not in Anglophone Canada maybe. However for Francophones, progressive rock was given a huge welcome!

It is very curious how English progressive rock became most popular in Canada in the Province of Quebec where most people speak French, and that it became popular there during the height of the Separatist Movement and Québécois pride. But it becomes easier to understand when considering how progressive rock was advantageous for French-speakers: progressive rock was a lot about the music and less about the lyrics, unlike pop which is lyrically oriented. For Francophones who weren’t particularly keen on singing in English just to get a hit song in Anglophone North America or who simply had a difficult time with the language, progressive rock was a way of creating contemporary music that gave them more freedom to express themselves without turning to the English language. Furthermore, progressive rock incorporated a lot of jazz and classical influences, and for many Québécois musicians with degrees in classical music or experience with jazz, progressive rock offered them the liberty of composing music as they liked.

maneige

Quebec jazz classical rock fusion giants, Maneige, sitting down so as to appear not so huge

Two results emerged from these two important reasons for prog’s popularity in la belle province. The first is that many bands chose to sing in French, thus creating not only a platform that made French lyrics acceptable and even desirable, but also blazing a trail for upcoming bands to follow. This was supported and encouraged by the French pride supporters and hence French-only bands were promoted and praised. Meanwhile, other bands committed themselves to being entirely instrumental. The second is that many bands experimented with ideas that were initially perhaps inspired by the British progressive rock scene and soon some went ahead with their own ideas, developing a sound that was distinctly Prog Québec. In fact, as the progressive movement in Italy earned the title rock progressivo Italiano, so the prog movement in Québec could almost have had its own special moniker, rock progressif québécois.

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Sloche in fine running form

Several English bands were first welcomed to North America by Quebecers. Prior to the prog trend catching on in the rest of Canada and the U.S., bands like Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, Camel, Supertramp, and Pink Floyd were filling concert halls in Québec, and as the Québec prog scene grew, local bands opened for their major English counterparts.

contraction

Contraction recorded two excellent albums in the early seventies

The progressive rock and progressive music scene in Québec went through some stages during the 1970’s. At first, bands followed the trends of other North American acts: psychedelic music, heavy psych, blues-based rock. Dionysos was one of the first bands to switch to French-only lyrics and released a heavy psych album with blues influences in 1971. Offenbach and Morse Code Transmission also leaned towards heavy rock and blues. But by as early as 1972, the jazz rock fusion bands were starting to put out vinyl. Octobre, Contraction, and Maniege were among top performers in this genre, with Sloche coming in during the peak years between 1975 and 1977.

It was during these years that the rock progressif québécois scene was at its strongest and with the influences of the English prog scene sewn into the music of many bands. Et Cetera has been called the French Canadian incarnation of Gentle Giant, while Pollen and Morse Code (formally known as Morse Code Transmission) showed some Yes and Genesis influences.

morse code

Changing from heavy psychedelic to symphonic prog, Morse Code after dropping the Transmission

Incubus (later to be known as ExCubus) employed the organ-led power trio approach. For other bands like L’Orchestra Sympathique, orchestral jazz was their cup of tea, while Conventum went more for folk influences. Toubabou followed a world music route, bringing in African drums.

By the mid- to late seventies, however, prog folk was replacing prog rock in popularity. This was most likely due to the great success of Harmonium’s second album, “Si on avait besoin d’une cinquiéme saison”, an album that often appears in top twenty lists of best prog albums ever. Other bands to become successful with prog folk include Garolou (who were actually Ontarians singing French Canadian folk songs) and folk-pop artist, Beau Dommage. There is also a long list of artists who went by their own names in the prog Québec scene.

Harmonium_-_Si_On_Avait_Besoin_D'Une_Cinquième_Saison

The most well-known Quebec prog album ever? “Si on avait besoin d’une cinquieme saison” by Harmonium

By the end of the seventies, many prog bands everywhere the world over were struggling to find relevance in their style of music and either disbanded or modified their sound to a more pop friendly approach. In the case of québécois bands, many also switched to singing in English in order to score hits which would in turn keep record companies interested. For some bands who decided to switch languages earlier on, they found themselves in a tight spot as supporters of French pride regarded singing in English as bad as treason. Gaining popularity in one language meant losing it in another language.

Though the classic years of French Canadian prog are considered to be in the mid-seventies, progressive music and prog rock never truly died out in la belle province. Even in the eighties, new bands like Miriodor were forming. And as both the thrash metal and progressive metal movement began in the mid-eighties, Québec’s Voivod established a special place for themselves in both scenes, singing in English mind you.

octobre

Octobre, undersung heroes of Canadian music

Listening to music from the classic years of French Canadian prog, there is such remarkable, fantastic, and wonderful music. Why didn’t Anglophone Canada make contributions on the same level? Though largely unknown outside of Québec and perhaps France, a few years back ProgQuebec began reissuing classic québécois prog albums on CD. Though word is the label is winding down now, there are still many great albums to be found on CD out there.

 

 

For further reading:

ProgQuebec – features bios in French and English of many bands

Canada.com – a story about prog’s popularity in Quebec

the journals of alan rhodes – an article from 1995 about Quebec prog

 

Below is a playlist of some of my personal favourite songs from my private collection that I have made into a mixed CD.

Morse Code – La marche des hommes

Vos Voisins – Voisins (mon chum)

Maniege – Les folleries

Harmonium – En pleine face

Contraction – Claire Fontaine (YouTube video not available)

ExCubus – Parade de l’armee de verre

Octobre – Le chant de guerrier

Et Cetera – Eclaircie

Pollen – Vivre la mort

Sloche – Algebrique

Offenbach – Marylin

Contraction – L’alarme a l’oeil (second track in this four track set)

Maniege – Les epinettes (video not available but there is one for “La fin de l’histoire“)

Dionysos – Agneau de Dieu (awesome proto-metal song too!)

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The Tench Connection

colin everything

In the summer of this year, Corvus Stone received a wave of praise from critics and also reviewers on Prog Archives for their download only release, Corvus Stone Unscrewed. The album was made available for free to people who had previously purchased the band’s albums (Corvus Stone, Corvus Stone II) and it included a menu of remixed songs and new material. Corvus Stone had already attracted much attention for their 2012 debut and won even more fans with last year’s sophomore album.

A multi-national band, Corvus Stone is comprised of Colin Tench – guitars, Pasi Koivu – keyboards, Petri “Lemmy” Lindstrom – bass, and Robert Wolff – drums and percussion, and is based in Sweden. Each member has his background and involvement with projects past and present, but of the four, one member’s history stands out as rather unexpected for a recording musician, one who jests that he’s not a professional even though he bloody well works like one.

The Long Road to London

Colin_TenchColin Tench had been an avid listener to music since a very young age; however, the thought of becoming a professional musician was not something he dwelled on with any degree of seriousness. Originally from England, Colin went to live in Sydney for three years and spent 11 months backpacking across Asia. During his stay in Sydney he began learning to play the guitar. He joined a band alongside some other blokes who were either from England or who had English parents, and they called themselves The Pommie Gentlemen. This humorous appellation would presage Colin’s approach to music in the distant future. The band played parties and joined Battle of the Bands, but by Colin’s own admission they were not particularly good. (An interesting footnote is that the drummer ended up playing on two tracks of Corvus Stone’s debut three decades later!) His band did, however, discover AC/DC’s original vocalist, Bon Scott in the audience one night.

Eventually, Colin made his way back to London via a six and a half month journey across Asia. The guitar was temporarily forgotten until Colin decided to audition for a new band called Odin of London. Both he and another guitarist, John Culley, passed the audition. It was only after the band got going that Culley revealed to the other members that he had been a member of Black Widow and Cressida – a professional with some serious seventies cred. Thus Odin was born there in London in 1981.

Odin of London performed in pubs but gradually grew tired of playing for small audiences. They hoped that by recording some of their material they might release a record and move up to bigger crowds. Unfortunately for them, every record company door they entered became a swift exit. The band folded, but not without three of the members putting their musical heads together to come up with a cunning plan for a new band project.

colin buncha

The end of Odin and the beginning of…

A Bunch of Keys

It was 1985 and Colin Tench, Gary Derrick and Cliff Deighton decided to put together an album of songs that would have absolutely no popularity whatsoever in the mid-eighties. With the discovery of the elusive fourth chord, they deigned to record an album of crossover prog (as those in the know might call it), something that they wanted to create for themselves – a notion that seems decades ahead of its time. Songs they could come up with, but money for studio time was another problem. A game of poker led the lads to the fortuitous encounter with a gentleman who was planning to build a recording studio. Before the evening was out, the three musicians had agreed to help build the studio in exchange for recording time (one wonders if any bets were lost). Thus began the music of Bun Chakeze and what was to be the seed from which would sprout the trunk bearing all of Colin’s musical projects 25 years later.

As the band’s music came together, lyrics were written for some songs. But who would sing them? At last, the band got a hold of a singer, Joey Lugassy, from California. The music had a strong progressive rock sway to it, and Joey did his best to deliver vocals for the songs. The resulting product was rather bold for the year of 1985 – a melange of styles including Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, and other classic sounds of the 70’s – but as one could expect, no record companies were interested. Bun Chakeze packed up their instruments, and Colin packed his travel bags and went off in search of adventure in foreign lands… for 24 years!

colin buncha cover

The album that would change the world!

Chance Encounters

In 2010, Colin came in to roost and had John Culley on his mind (remember him from Odin of London?). They had been out of touch since 1985, and Colin decided to search for him on the Internet. As Culley had once been a member of Black Widow, Colin tried to get a hold of the fellow in charge of running the Black Widow web site, Pasi Koivu (this guy is instrumental, so to speak). The contact between these two men led to some important things happening in Colin’s life. First, Pasi got to hear some of Colin’s recordings from the 80’s and encouraged him to release the music. Odin of London became available as a download only but BunChakeze was released on CD. Colin began connecting with musicians and other interesting people on Facebook and came in contact with several who liked what they heard. Among them were artist Sonia Mota, singer Blake Carpenter, and musicians Stef and Yolanda Flaming. Then Pasi asked Colin to contribute some guitar to a piece he was working on. And that was where it started.

Over the next two years, remarkable things began happening for Colin and he found himself hauled fret board first into the world of a professional musician. Between 2011 and 2012, Colin formed Corvus Stone with Pasi Koivu, Petri Lindstrom, and Robert Wolff with Sonia Mota contributing artwork and opinions, and Blake Carpenter doing a bit of vocals. They released their debut album in 2012. Colin was also asked to play guitar for Blake Carpenter’s band The Minstrel’s Ghost and his album “The Road to Avalon”. Colin became an integral part of Andy John Bradford’s Oceans 5 and helped create the music for and played guitar on the album “Return to Mingulay”. In addition, Colin re-formed BunChakeze and also began working with other musicians and singers on his own Colin Tench Project. And as if playing in bands was not enough, Colin learned about mixing and mastering and mixed and mastered the debut album “Time Doesn’t Matter” by Stef and Yolanda Flaming’s band Murky Red. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t played guitar since Culture Club was popular!

A Modern Minstrel

Over the last few years, Colin has found himself keeping very busy. Aside from recording Corvus Stone II and the special follow up “Unscrewed”, Colin has been working on a few other projects such as the bands Coalition and Transmission Rails. As well, CTP is coming together, soon to be ready to release a full first album. Colin also played guitar for Andres E. Guazzelli’s symphonic rock peace “Wish You Could Hear” and mixed Murky Red’s second album “No Pocus Without Hocus” and squeezed in some lead guitar on one track. Finally, the project United Progressive Fraternity featuring many musicians and including legends Jon Anderson and Steve Hackett, includes Colin and his music.

colin double neckIt’s hard to imagine a musician with more irons in the fire than Colin. In addition to playing guitar and writing music, Colin also mixes, something he learned to do after he was not happy with the engineer’s job on an Oceans 5 recording, and has learned web page design. Once there was a time when bands had money and hired people to do these things. Now Colin, along with support from his trusted musician friends in Murky Red and painter Sonia, does a lot of different things for maintaining his band projects.

Colin’s playing style is at once easily identifiable with Corvus Stone and impressively diverse in his other projects. Often playing staccato notes reminiscent of Ritchie Blackmore, Colin has a chameleonic ability to adapt his playing suitably to different styles of music. He can adopt an almost flamenco style to his playing and add folk influences or go with a seventies rock groove or switch to symphonic prog guitar. One has to wonder though, after not having played for a quarter century, how does he do it? Colin admits that it is not easy – fingers and memory don’t work like they used to – though he says he can avoid making the same mistakes he did in the 80’s. Some other important points are that:

– He doesn’t take himself seriously though he certainly takes playing and recording seriously.
– He tries to make the most out of each note because he doesn’t play that many in a minute.
– He believes that more than shredding, making a guitar solo work with the melody of the music makes for a good guitar solo.
– He thinks of how to add a different twist to his music, go the opposite way from what might be expected..
– He has fun playing.
– His band Corvus Stone don’t try to sound like anybody and they don’t try NOT to sound like anybody.

Connections

Colin Tench has worked regularly with quite a few people. Here are some.

Blake Carpenter – Colin plays guitar on the album The Road to Avalon by Blake Carpenter’s band project The Minstrel’s Ghost. Blake sings on the Corvus Stone albums and is part of the band project, Coalition.

Sonia Mota – The painter who provides Corvus Stone with stunning artwork, she is also an ideas person who came up with the name for the band. She did the artwork for Oceans 5 and for Progeland, a band that includes Corvus Stone bassist Petri Lindstrom.

Stef Flaming – Colin’s good friend, Stef is involved in Transmission Rails with Colin, played bass in Oceans 5, and appears on Corvus Stone’s cover of Murky Red’s song “Boots for Hire”. Stef is the song-writer, artist, and vocalist for Murky Red and plays guitar as well. Colin mixed and mastered both Murky Red albums and plays lead on one song.

Phil Naro – Phil can be heard singing on some Corvus Stone songs, contributed vocals to the Coalition band project and sings on some tracks of the Colin Tench Project. Phil’s career goes back to the eighties when he played in TALLAS with Billy Sheehan. He currently sings with Unified Past.

Andres Guazzelli – Andres wrote and arranged some of the music on the Oceans 5 album and wrote his own 12-minute symphonic prog piece called “Wish You Could Hear” with Colin playing guitar.

With several band projects on the go at once, it’s difficult to guess where Colin’s machine heads will turn up next. His most recently released appearances are on the forthcoming United Progressive Fraternity album and a CTP release for Christmas called, “Natal”.

In just a few short years, Colin Tench is branching tendril-like into the prog scene. It must be all thanks to him discovering that fourth chord!

Corvus Stone home page

 

 

 

 

 

ron_-bon-scott-24169361-627-476

The Pommie who? No, I don’t ever remember seeing them.

Corvus Stone (II)

Corvus Stone are a multi-national group of European musicians who released their second album in September. The album was appearing on the ProgArchives homepage regularly for a few weeks, often with two or three reviews on a given day, and mostly earning ratings of four or five stars. I was interested in the album but thought I could wait until the new year before purchasing it. However, a very remarkable thing happened. Guitarist Colin Tench read a couple of my reviews of other albums and based solely on that he offered to send me his band’s album because he thought I would enjoy it. This has never happened to me before. I was flabbergasted, dumbfounded, and honoured.

The album arrived a few days later and I played it once through. Indeed, this was the kind of music I could enjoy listening to. But if I was going to write a review on the album as a return favour, I would need to listen to it carefully several times. I did so with pleasure. My review was posted last week on ProgArchives and I attach it below. In the meantime, I have been enjoying exchanging messages with Mr. Tench and consider it a great privilege to be able to chat so freely with a professional guitarist of his calibre.

My Review:

I swore I would avoid a track by track run down, but this album is rather rich in really good progressive ROCK with lots of special flavours and assorted delicacies carefully placed on the table so that one may eat to his filling of tasty musical morsels not too hot and not too peculiar. If you are a fan of Deep Purple, seventies Rainbow, The Flower Kings, and other bands, perhaps Camel, with some great emphasis on guitar and keyboard playing supported by an active bass and drummer with good breeding, then this album should appeal. These guys are out to enjoy making music first and foremost. This is their band and it’s for them. If you want to ride along, jump aboard!

“The Simple Life” is a surprising beginning that leaps straight into the music. I can hardly place where I’ve heard something like that before when the vocals come in and I am reminded of Peter Banks era Yes. Keyboards and guitar grab my attention but listen to that bass rumble.

Now a waltz with “Early Morning Call”. Organ and some guitar moments that utter the name Blackmore. And do I detect a touch of old Camel in there? Or is it the Flower Kings? Perhaps something else. The moment has passed. A very pleasing piece of work, this instrumental.

And now for a great rock guitar instrumental that plays through a couple of different moods before a haunting desert theme emerges. But wait! This is not an instrumental. “Boots for Hire” features vocalist Stef Flaming. I picture a black-clad, rugged, middle-aged frontiersman with a black Stetson. But hey, Ian Gillan could have sung this as well. Not the young Gillan. The present day Gillan. The instrumental section transforms into a heavy prog number with a quick tempo and organ, almost like some classic proto-metal bit from the early seventies before the music glides smoothly back into the eerie desert music. “Sun is gone and all is brown” might recall Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. This epic track takes a long slow journey through a desert twilight atmosphere before closing with some spooky keyboard sounds.

“Sneaky Entrance in to Lisa” is a short instrumental with a Spanish guitar feel and piano. It’s pretty and it’s over pretty quick. We’ll have to wait to later to hear more of where that was going.

A revving engine, the screech of tires, and a Deep Purple salute. “Purple Stone” gets the Purple references on the table. “Yes, we like Deep Purple.” And in case you are still in doubt, check out the artwork on the back of the CD booklet. It’s four purple crow heads carved out of Mount Rushmore! Corvus Stone. Purple Stone. There you go. Two singers here, and my guess it’s Blake Carpenter whose voice is the one I don’t care too much for. The music rocks and rolls and there’s organ and wah-wah guitar. A very cool and busy bass-line comes in twice. The lyric “Will I make it round the bend” has such potential for referencing insanity but instead concludes with, “or will I die?” Wait. Is this referencing “Trashed” by Black Sabbath? And then the Deep Purple tribute line, quoting a favourite classic also about a car. I have to admit that this is the first track that doesn’t warm up to me like the rest of the album has. But it’s shorter than my review of it.

Now another instrumental with “A stoned Crow meets the Rusty Wolff Ral” and a beautiful intro with acoustic guitar and gentle waves of synthesizer chords. It moves into a mid-tempo rock number that brings about some surprising time signature changes and some delightful snippets of weirdness. There’s a flute-like synthesizer, heavy guitar, and organ. This piece will keep you guessing which way its going to turn for the first couple of minutes before the pattern establishes itself. A showcase mostly for guitar and keyboard but don’t ignore the rhythm section.

“Lisa has a cigar” has me at a loss to describe the music. Something European. It’s very nice and then it’s over. And then there’s “Mr. Cha Cha” which has a 1974 rock rhythm feel and has me thinking this could be Deep Purple meets Nektar. This could also be a salute to Rainbow Ritchie Blackmore, late seventies? Nice organ. And a change of pace with a strong mid to late seventies rhythm and synthesizer. That bass doesn’t want to stay in the background. I’m suddenly reminded of “Son of Aleric”, the bonus track on the “Perfect Strangers” reissue.

Tinkling piano, bass, guitar wails, and string synthesizer. Vocals come in. Strangely, this music brings to mind the band Iona for some reason. Interesting and surprising sudden close. Such is “Dark Tower”.

The much lauded “Scandinavians in Mexico” is not the Sonoran party track I had come to expect. The Mexican groove is modest and more like what a Mexican rock band might have striven for. Instead, just enjoy the lively rhythm and the synthesizer and guitar lead work. A great fun piece of music nonetheless.

Oh, look! A bass intro with a bit of mystery, accompanied by acoustic guitar and synthesizer. “Mystery Man” begins and the keyboards and guitar take turns trading quick exchanges. I find the lyrics a little obvious but the vocals are strong. The music takes us through various changes with slow acoustic parts and some harder heavier sections.

I wondered if this next song “Camelus Bactrianus (Tuolla tuonnempana)” would bear any resemblance to the music of the band Camel but it doesn’t match what I know. It’s sung in Finnish and the exotic language sits well with me because it suits the slow and sombre music at the start. Are we witnessing a march to a funeral? Then there’s a change a we get a cool switch to an upbeat rock groove. I love how the song winds down, too.

“Uncle Schunkle” might just get my vote for coolest instrumental in the album. While we get lots of Colin Tench’s rock guitar, the rhythm in this track moves very coolly. The bass is really in there! And there are these abrupt changes in the groove of the rhythm that almost don’t get noticed until after the change has occurred. Yes, this is a great piece but it ends too soon. Or is that a timely end after all?

A slow acoustic piece that sounds very early seventies in approach. Not quite Yes this time for “Eternal Universe” but with some good vocal parts. There’s that sweet flute keyboard sound. At the close it sounds like the song will change gears and really get moving. Perhaps an Andean flute and guitar bit? But no. It just ends. Perhaps there was an opportunity missed here?

“Moaning Lisa” is actually a ballad in the original sense of the word about a woman whose father drowned at sea. As a result of her heartbreak she becomes a target for lustful men and eventually she joins her father, leaving her ghost to haunt the sea winds. The song features a blend of acoustic and electric with a hint of Spanish flavour, though there is more to this than my musical background can describe. The vocals have an accent which adds to the foreign feel. Surely though, even with all its non-traditional elements, this song can’t help but dropping into a heavy rock passage that reminds me a bit of the band Armageddon, who cut one album in ’75. This is a well-developed epic piece that keeps taking the listener into new territory. Catch the flowers-in-the-hair hippy folky passage before it returns to a Spanish ballad and then moves into an almost danceable folk rock conclusion. Great music!

The final song is another Finnish one and a pleasant folky acoustic number, a suitable conclusion for an album that has given us plenty of rock and Spanish-flavoured acoustic music as well.

This album has proven to be a pleasant journey worth repeating anytime. No, I was not dancing in the aisles from the start. This is not an album for pulling off a few great tracks and whistling them in the shower and then getting back to the rest later. Like a hot spring spa, this is an album to sit back and soak up in order to appreciate. The person who sent me this was right in guessing this was my groove. It is an album I enjoy listening to from start to finish, and though there are a couple (only a couple) of tracks that I feel are just alright, I don’t feel like skipping them.

Someone said the album was eclectic but I don’t think so. Corvus Stone is a rock band with a strong seventies feel in the most positive way, and that can be heard in almost every track. The colour comes from the Spanish or other sounds and styles they merge so nicely with their music, meaning it’s more than just a 70’s tribute band. This is really good upper level rock with a flair for blending in folk and ethnic music.

I’m not giving this five stars for the simple reason that I am really now looking forward to their third album, hopefully to come in two year’s time. I have yet to hear the debut, but based on the reviews and what I have heard here I strongly believe that Corvus a Stone will be one of those bands that really hit their mark on the third album. Many great bands produce their most historic work on either their third album or their third with a key new member (Deep Purple, Yes, and Genesis for example). Corvus Stone are on the right path to producing one of the most phenomenal albums of the decade. If this was close to that then I have especially high expectations for Corvus Stone III!

For more information about Corvus Stone:

Corvus Stone website

Scandinavians in Mexico

Good and Bad Years of Modern Prog

One day while checking out a band on the Prog Archives web site, I noticed that their top-rated album was from the year 2000. “That’s the same year as Spock’s Beard’s V and Symphony X’s V: the New Mythology Suite,” I thought. Both those albums have very high ratings. The next two bands I checked out after that also had very highly rated albums in the year 2000. Was there something about that year that was special for prog bands? I decided to make a list of bands and check out how their ratings matched up over the course of the last 25 years.

First, I established some criteria for who and what would be on the list. The bands I had noticed with high ratings in the year 2000 had all begun their recording career in the 90’s. So I decided to limit my list to bands that had released albums from the 90’s and onward. There are two exceptions: Dream Theater, whose second album was their first release of the 90’s; and Pendragon, who are actually a much older band but whose third release was their first of the 90’s. I was tempted to include other bands like Fates Warning, IQ, and Ozric Tentacles; however, all those bands had already released at least a few albums in the 80’s. I wanted to focus mostly on bands that had emerged in the early 90’s in time for the prog revival.

I made a list of over 25 bands and for the graph I prepared, I trimmed the list down to 20. Here are the bands included:

Anekdoten, Dream Theater, Pain of Salvation, The Flower Kings, Spock’s Beard, Arena, Jadis, Pendragon, Enchant, Echolyn, Threshold, White Willow, Opeth, Evergrey, Porcupine Tree, Symphony X, Ayreon, Galahad, Anathema, Glass Hammer

For the graph, I used the ratings from Prog Archives. The Y axis begins at ratings of 1.00 and goes to 5.00, which is the highest possible rating. Each square represents a rating value of 0.2. Although in any one year albums received a range of rating scores, in some cases two albums scored the same or very near the same score. In such cases I squeezed two black dots close together. Lines were drawn from the band name to their oldest album and then the rating dots of each subsequent album’s score were connected by the same line. Lines between different bands’ trajectories often intersect.

As I prepared the graph, a very clear wave began to emerge. But as later bands were added, some of the troughs were covered as one band achieved a highly-rated album in an otherwise slump year. Conversely, during some peak years, other bands managed to score very poorly on their release. At the end, in 2014, we see Evergrey achieving a very high rating for their latest release. Since gathering the ratings, this score has come down as more people gave scores of 4 stars instead of five.

My graph of ratings of albums between 1990 and 2014 on the Prog Archives web site.

My graph of ratings of albums between 1990 and 2014 on the Prog Archives web site.

What we can see is that Echolyn and Dream Theater scored very highly in 1992. The scores then drop a little until we reach the period from 1999 to 2002, where 12 albums scored over 4.10, the most albums to score this high in such a short time frame. After that, 2003 sees no band scoring over 4.00, 2004 goes up again but then the scores drop except for an album in 2005 and one in 2007 that scored well. The year 2006 saw only 6 albums released and none scoring over 4.00. Eight albums were released in 2007 but only three in 2008 and three in 2009 and four in 2010. These three years seem to have been difficult years for our 20 bands. Indeed in the latter half of the 2000’s several bands released no album for a space of three to five years, and some even longer. But from 2012 and on we see more albums over a rating of 4.00.

Coloured to better illustrate the wave effect

Coloured to better illustrate the wave effect

I decided to colour in the general flow, omitting any albums whose rating was more than 0.10 lower than the next score above (I missed one in 2009, accidentally including the lowest rated album). The light green makes it easier to see the flow, the rise and fall of album ratings.

Does this suggest that some years were better for progressive rock than others? Is this just the result from Prog Archives? Would other sites for rating albums produce a similar or different result? Is this an indication that progressive rock was more “progressive” during the 1999 to 2002 period than in other years and has recently become more progressive again, or was there some other reason that influenced the ratings?

Is It Yes, or No?

yes heavenIn this month of July 2014, Yes have released their 21st studio album. (Or is it their 20th? I’m not sure how to count Yes albums. Is ABWH considered Yes? Are the two Keys to Ascension albums considered one or two studio releases?)

The new album, Heaven and Earth, was greatly anticipated by fans. However, even before its official release dates (Japan – 16th, Europe – 18th, North America – 22nd) reviews completely panning the album were appearing on the Prog Archives web site and other music review sites. Some reviewers took a sympathetic view: “This is the kind of music Yes wants to write and play now”. Some took a mildly appreciative view: “It’s not really prog, more pop actually, but it’s not that bad”. But the majority took a hatchet to the album, slashing it for being too soft, too pop, and not enough prog or rock. The most amusing description was someone calling it an “intergalactic explosive turd”!

Among the complaints that bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White were not really doing much of interest on most of the album, equal disapproval was heaped upon new singer Jon Davison’s song-writing efforts, with some claiming it was asking for trouble to give him so much opportunity to write for a Yes album (“You’re cooking at home”) being that he had only been a member for 2 years and that it was his first album with the band. Hey, at least Benoit David, the previous vocalist for Yes, had not been asked to write anything for the band, just sing the songs. And in a fairly recent interview with Yes founding member and beloved vocalist (and the genius ideas man behind so much of Yes’ classic works), Jon Anderson said it wasn’t right to call the band Yes because what they were writing was not Yes music. Anderson had recently composed an epic song in four parts entitled “Open” which he wrote in the style of Yes’ traditional epic songs. This, in his heart, was what Yes music should be like.

So is the new album Yes? Well, how much in Yes’ back catalogue can be called Yes music? Let’s take a look back and see when Yes music wasn’t what some would have called it.

Case One – The Early Yes

Yes-8001In the early days, Yes were a covers band. But, according to founding guitarist, the late Peter Banks, “(the covered songs) were given the full Yes treatment” (Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch). Indeed, even when Yes began recording music for their first two albums they included a version of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing” on their debut and Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story on a single b-side. They also added music from the theme to a TV program called The Big Country on a song on their second album, Time and a Word.

When Steve Howe joined Yes in 1970 the picture changed. Although Yes worked toward maintaining a democracy when it came to putting together a song, Jon Anderson and Steve Howe formed a tight relationship coming up with ideas and writing songs for the band. Some of their greatest creations, Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans resulted from their collaboration, and over the course of the next several albums, Yes were superstars of progressive rock.

Case Two – The Buggles Collaboration

Yes_DramaIn 1979, after the disappointing album, Tormato and some abandoned recording sessions, Jon Anderson left the band, along with star keyboard player, Rick Wakeman. What were the remaining members to do? There was some partly worked material from the Paris sessions, as they came to be known, but Squire, Howe, and White were looking for direction. They wanted a full five-piece band and with a rehearsal room booked said, “Well, whoever turns up is in the band!” (Close to the Edge: the Story of Yes).

Cue the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” and enter the Buggles, a band comprised of Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, who were together responsible for the worldwide hit that would later kick off MTV’s first ever airing. Working under the same management as Yes, the two approached Yes with some music they had composed for the band, a song called “We Can Fly from Here”. Chris Squire was familiar with the Buggles and they were invited to join Yes. The new album – the first without Jon Anderson – was called Drama, and it included some material begun by Squire, Howe, and White. But the two new members put forward two songs and then, in true Yes tradition, each member contributed and song-writing credits for all songs were attributed to all five members. Many fans and critics were up in arms about the Buggles joining Yes and many were not pleased with these two “purveyors of ear-candy” becoming involved in writing Yes music. However, over time the album Drama has won much favour among fans.

Case Three – The Jimmy Page Connection and Trevor Rabin

yes xyzAnd then Yes fell apart. The band dissolved with Howe and Downes going off to form Asia, Horn becoming a producer, and Squire and White teaming up with Jimmy Page to form the short-lived band, XYZ (eX-Yes and Zeppelin). From their sessions came a song called “Mind Drive” and other music that was only recorded as a rough demo. Squire and White then teamed up with South African rocker, Trevor Rabin. Using a few ideas from the aborted XYZ and some of Rabin’s ideas, the three hired former Yes Hammond organ player, Tony Kaye and formed the band, Cinema. Cinema were never intended to become Yes, but once Jon Anderson expressed interest in singing on the album, it became clear that this was going to sound like Yes and so the band that was supposed to be Cinema became the Yes for the 80’s.

Many fans of the classic Yes of the seventies were outraged at this new arena rock band that called themselves Yes. Well, they were 80% Yes alumni with the two “pillars” of the band, Chris Squire and Jon Anderson. And the band recorded their biggest selling album ever with 90125 and its chart-topper “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (a Trevor Rabin-penned tune for Cinema). However, for many fans, 90125 was even more a gob of saliva on the name of Yes than what the Buggles collaboration had been.

Case Four – ABWH’s Second Album Becomes Yes

yes unionFans of classic Yes only had to wait a few more years. Anderson, discontent with the direction of the band in 1987, once again left, only this time he called up old members Howe, Wakeman, and drummer Bill Bruford and together they put together something less pop and more prog under the name of Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe (or ABWH for short). Law suits were filed from the side that still had legal right to call themselves Yes, in order to make sure that Anderson and Co. were not trying to re-start classic Yes while the 80’s Yes still existed. Things got nasty, but while Yes West (Rabin, Squire, Kaye, and White) were plotting their next move, ABWH were enjoying the results of their first album and recorded a live album to follow up.

Then a strange thing happened. While working on material for their second album, ABWH suddenly found themselves in Yes again. Record company execs had come up with the brilliant idea of combining the new ABWH songs on an album with some new songs by Rabin and Co. Collectively, the new material would be called Yes and the album would be promisingly called Union. And so an album was released for the second time under the proud Yes name bearing music that was originally not intended to be on a Yes album.

Case Five – More XYZ and Some Conspiracy

yes keysAfter a successful tour with eight Yes musicians, the Rabin-led Yes managed one more album that was said to be pretty much Trevor Rabin’s baby. Though Rabin had now been a member of Yes for ten years, many fans still saw him as an outsider and this notion was exacerbated after Howe and Wakeman had temporarily been back in Yes and were summarily told they were no longer needed once the Union tour wrapped up. Kaye and Rabin then left, and Anderson, Squire, and White called up Howe and Wakeman and one of the classic line-ups reconvened for a few live shows and some new studio material that included something dredged up from the XYZ days. “Mind Drive” was reworked and became one of the two new 18-minute plus Yes epics.

The release of the song and other new works was, however, withheld by the record company who held on to the double live/studio album, Keys to Ascension 2 wondering if Yes were going to tour it. Wakeman left again, and Yes not only recruited a new keyboard player, but they (Squire mostly, perhaps?) decided to use material that he and song-writer / guitarist Billy Sherwood had been writing for a collaboration album together under the name Conspiracy. Sherwood became a member of Yes, and Anderson and Howe were brought in at the last moment to add their thoughts. “The only contribution Jon and I were able to make,” says Howe in Close to the Edge: the Story of Yes, “was ‘From the Balcony’”. And so with Open Your Eyes, the third Yes album that was mostly not meant to be a Yes album was released. Fans hated it.

Case Six – The Return of Fly from Here and the Buggles

Yes Fly_from_HereYes released two albums after that which did contain music written for Yes, mostly (word has it another XYZ song showed up on Magnification). Then they did some touring and then everyone went off to do other things. Anderson became ill but Squire wanted Yes to start working on a new album. Wakeman refused to be in the band without Anderson and so… Drama-era Yes members Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes were called in with Horn writing and producing and Downes writing and playing keyboards. Their old song written for Yes but only ever played live, “We Can Fly from Here”, was turned into a 22-minute, multi-part song and was sung by Anderson replacement, Benoit David. Many fans didn’t like David singing instead of Anderson and many complained about the 30-year-old song being exhumed for a new Yes album.

So, as we can see, Yes music is not always written by the classic Yes members or for Yes albums. But over the decades of its bizarre history, Yes has sometimes gobbled up outside music in order to keep that giant, lumbering beast that is Yes plodding along. Having a new singer write most of the songs for the latest album is only the latest chapter in the history of Yes, though it is interesting to note that on Heaven and Earth the song writing credits are not attributed to all five members but only two or three members with Davison getting partial credit for seven of the eight tracks.

The Epic Long Song – Part III: Epics on CD

The Long Songs List on the Dutch Progressive Rock Page is a remarkable list to peruse. It is in fact very telling about the evolution of the epic long song in popular music from its birth in the 1960’s to its present and perhaps somewhat exploited (as opposed to exalted) existence. Excluding the two songs that are over 100 minutes long, the list shows us that most popular artists who go for maximum endurance runs are keeping to the temporal confines of the compact disc. More than that, however, we can see what kinds of music creators are likely to attempt the CD-length track. Ambient/electronic or experimental/avant guard metal artists dominate the 29 songs listed between 70:00 and 79:59 minutes. This might not be surprising as these two types of music lend themselves toward long or entirely instrumental sections where single notes or chords may be held over several bars. To the contrary, progressive rock and progressive metal often go for speed and dexterity in order to show off technical prowess. Perhaps one of the slowest developing pieces I can name in rock music is Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and yet the entire song in all its part wraps up in just under 30 minutes.

Studying the time length of the various songs also tells us that the CD-long track only became attempted from the early 90’s. Presumably this is because many albums were still recorded in analogue and then transferred to digital until that time. Recording on computer did not become common place until the mid-90’s (Yes experienced some flak for having recorded “Talk” directly to computer as some people mistakenly believed that the album was made using a computer and not real instruments).

Transatlantic's Whirlwind - a long song or a series of segued short songs?

Transatlantic’s Whirlwind – a long song or a series of segued short songs?

One band name to stand out from the list for me is Transatlantic because they are a symphonic prog band. Their “Whirlwind” album is a meant to be a single song but broken into many parts and as I understand, the parts are separated into individual tracks, suggesting that this is not in fact a true CD-long song but many songs of a single theme segued under the banner of the “Whirlwind” title. The band’s response to this accusation was to record the entire “song” live and release it as a single track on their subsequent live album.

CD-long epics aside, we see that songs in the 60:00 to 60:59, 50:00 to 50:59, and 40:00 to 49:59 time range are few, numbering between roughly 20 and 30 for each time length group. Once we get down to vinyl album lengths – below 50:00 – we see the number of songs increasing appreciatively. Naturally, the 15:00 to 19:59 group is the largest, but it’s especially interesting to see how many songs are in the 20:00 to 29:59 group. There are so many songs partially because of the hefty contribution of the 1970’s and early 80’s, but it seems that a great many modern artists attempt songs of this group length. Perhaps there is a certain charm to writing and recording a 20 to 25-minute long song because that’s what the classic artists of yesteryear did. Or perhaps there is a certain comfort in writing a long song that doesn’t require the listener to devote more than half an hour to listening to the track. Or perhaps this time length is long enough to fit in several parts but manageable enough that it is not necessary to start looking for filler to meet a particular target length. In other words, it’s easier for the artists to say, “I’ve got an idea for a song in five parts that will be about 24 minutes long,” than for artists to say, “Let’s try to do a single track over 70 minutes long”.

Certainly, the advent of the CD and digital recording made it more possible and easier for artists to compose longer pieces. In the 1980’s, however, long songs were not in vogue and a scan of the list will show that few artists attempted anything too adventurous and bold. When progressive music regained respectably and allure in the 1990’s there was a quick resurgence of 20-something-minute epic. Porcupine Tree released the two-part “The Sky Moves Sideways” which reached 34:42 and then The Flower Kings almost hit 60 minutes with “Garden of Dreams” from the “Flower Power” double CD in 1999. Echolyn recorded “Mei” at 49:35 in 2002. But these few observations in progressive rock are just drops in the bucket when one considers the list on the Dutch Progressive Rock Page.

The Sky Moves Sideways by Porcupine Tree. The two parts together go over 34 minutes

The Sky Moves Sideways by Porcupine Tree. The two parts together go over 34 minutes

More importantly, the CD format now permits artists to record a song of any length, with a maximum length being just under 80:00. This means that there is no reason why a song has to include filler in order to reach the goal of filling up an entire side of a vinyl album. Songs can be as cohesive as the artists wish them to be. Whether the song reaches 22 minutes or 32 minutes is of little consequence in so far as the final product of “the song” is concerned. However, it is interesting to think of how back in the “old days” artists broke new ground by filling up an entire side of an album with a single song and then covered both sides with an entire cohesive song. Is there anyone out there who is ready to try the double-disc / single song epic? Or with streaming now a common way for many to listen to music, it is possible to record or perform a song of any length, bypassing the temporal limitations of the CD altogether.

A final word about epic long songs

In 1967, The Beat of the Earth released an album containing a single song split over the two sides of the album. It’s an obscure psychedelic album and for the most part a jam. Vanilla Fudge also released a long song, “Break Song” clocking in at 23:23. This too was mostly a jam. Many other bands have filled up sonic space with long jams based around a shorter song. In my opinion, this is the simplest form of creating an epic song and it doesn’t really show that the artists have compositional creativity. Surely, Deep Purple have carried on in the past for over 30 minutes, just filling up an album song of 5 minutes or so with an extended instrumental jam. Then there are long songs that actually constitute several individual songs that are part of a narrative or theme that are segued to make a single track. Rush’s “2112” could have been several short songs, and the band themselves acknowledge that in the past, their long songs were often shorter songs stitched together.

Nektar's narrative, Remember the Future: songs that make up parts of the story.

Nektar’s narrative, Remember the Future: songs that make up parts of the story.

Are Nektar’s “Remember the Future,” “Journey to the Centre of the Eye,” and “Recycle” multi-part single songs or several individual tracks of a narrative? My copies of “Journey…” and “Recycle” divide the parts into individual tracks while “Remember…” has no track breaks except between side one and side two. I think the best epics are songs that form a cohesive whole, where the changes in melody, tempo, time signature, key, and even style flow together almost naturally. If I listen to the song and it seems like several disparate parts were just thrown in for the purpose of creating a long song then I think the song fails on one point and it was not necessary to purposely make it so long. These days there is little reason to try to fill up a song just to meet a temporal target. If a song can comfortably wrap up in 12, 15, or 18 minutes then there is little more reason than boastfulness and pretentiousness to try to extend several minutes more. But who is to decide when a song is packed with filler? That’s a matter of personal opinion.

Some of my own personal favourite epic songs (over 18 minutes) are:

Close to the Edge by Yes

The Revealing Science of God – The Dance of Dawn by Yes

2112 by Rush (short-song-narrative though it may be)

The Great Nothing by Spock’s Beard

Supper’s Ready by Genesis (a patchwork of smaller parts)

Numbers by The Flower Kings

Suite: Little Lucid Moments by Motorpsycho

Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull

Echoes by Pink Floyd

Tarkus by Emerson Lake & Palmer

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.