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.

Sloche-Jun-Oeil-Booklet-Front-Cover-31291

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 Maneige 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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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?

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

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

 

 

Separated at Birth? – The Nexus of Prog and Metal

The psychedelic period in rock music history permitted musicians and artists to experiment with the genre in ways greater than their predecessors had ever enjoyed. Rock and Roll music had caught on in rapid steps in the 1950’s and continued its pace into the 1960’s, albeit with a sidestep underground in the U.S. around 1960. But even as the next generation of youth picked up guitars and drumsticks, or practiced on organs, pianos and saxophones, the standard format of a rock song changed little. Songs were still usually two to three minutes long with an almost obligatory verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The sound of rock and roll changed but not the general song format.

What the psychedelic movement encouraged was longer instrumental sections and more serious musicianship. It also gave songwriters new lyrical freedom as the usual songs about love and heartbreak or dancing and partying were no longer essential for recording a hit song. The new lyricists wrote about social issues, poems, fantasy, literature, history, war, death, the occult, or simply enigmatic lyrics that the listener was free to interpret in his or her own way. And, although it’s not true for all new artists of the period, LSD certainly played an enormous contributing role in the new found musical expression.

Prior to the advent of psychedelia and rock music (for the “and roll” was not longer suitable to this more serious style of pop), two new musical styles were beginning to take shape. The drive to fuel guitars with distortion or fuzz tone effects and the desire to master and build on electric guitar solo techniques along with a more assertive and aggressive style of singing and playing eventually led to the sub-genre of heavy metal. Meanwhile, other artists saw the studio as a place to experiment with rock and attempt to create something that went beyond expectations of the rather simplistic approach to recording. These were the earliest days of progressive rock.

Freak outThe year 1966 was a pivotal one as psychedelic rock was beginning to emerge. The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” and The Mothers of Invention album “Freak Out!” are both seen as albums within the rock genre that took giant steps toward initiating the progressive rock movement. On the heavy side, Cream introduced the world to a heavier sounding version of electric blues with their debut “Fresh Cream”. The Yardbirds recorded songs like “Happenings Ten Years’ Time Ago” and “Stroll On”, their rewrite of “Train Kept A Rollin’” for the movie “Blow Up”. And The Who released their first album as well, including their hit, “My Generation” and the growling, bulldozing bass solo, “The Ox”. By the end of the year, The Jimi Hendrix Experience had recorded “Purple Haze” and Jefferson Airplane were working on their sophomore album. Both progressive rock and heavy metal were still a few years away from developing into name-worthy sub-genres of rock but the basic molecules were in place. All they needed was a catalyst.

Or a Big Bang. Between the years of 1967 and ’68, psychedelic rock came into its own, serving as a Big Crunch to several music styles. Rock and roll, folk, country western, classical, and jazz – all of these and more contributed matter and energy to the explosion that would spawn both progressive rock and heavy metal. If one looks at the ProgArchives list of proto-prog bands and the MetalMusicArchives list of proto-metal bands, more than a few bands and artists can be found on both. HeavyIron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, Jimi Hendrix all released albums during these two consequential years and their music is built on both the foundations of prog and metal, at least as it was back then. Other bands tended to lean more to one side than the other: Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf being more rock, blues, and heavy psychedelic rock, and Jefferson Airplane and the Doors going more for the experimental take. Then there was Pink Floyd who practically invented space rock with their adventures in electric guitar and organ soundscapes.

Bearing these considerations in mind, it should come as no surprise that the progressive rock album that broke down any remaining barriers did so with a bombastic, distortion overdrive song called “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson. The band’s debut, “In the Court of the Crimson King” was released in October, 1969 and is often hailed as the first true progressive rock album.kc It features an eclectic amalgamation of heavy psych, jazz, classical instruments, folk, and experimental music. Other bands, however, were also busy developing their music into new territory. The Moody Blues were turning standard pop rock into musical adventures by adding various instruments and experimenting with new recording techniques. Yes were busy expanding their songs by adding snippets from show tunes, Beatles references, church choir-inspired vocals sections, jazz, and anything else they could fit in. Meanwhile, the distortion and aggression types were aiming for a heavier, harder sound, first with Jeff Beck and then with Led Zeppelin at the forefront.

Deep PurpleBy 1970, the monikers “progressive rock” and “heavy metal” had already been applied to bands in their respective sub-genres. But some bands eluded a swift pigeonholing by straddling both sides of the grey area boundary. Deep Purple are always mentioned as one of the progenitors of heavy metal, however, the advanced talents of Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), and Ian Paice (drums), not to mention bass players who had to keep up (Nicky Simper and Roger Glover), and some of the band’s early songs put them in the proto-prog and prog category (their latest album is a rapturous step back to that style). Uriah Heep are found in a similar vein, attempting lengthy compositions that on occasion included an orchestra and choir.

As both styles of music ascended swiftly in popularity, there was precedent for quite a few bands to attempt to embrace both. The Wikipedia entry for progressive metal covers mostly bands like Queensrÿche, Dream Theater, Fates Warning, and Crimson Glory who emerged in the 1980’s. The coverage of earlier bands mentions a few who began releasing albums between 1969 and 1970: High Tide, Lucifer’s Friend, Night Sun, and of course, Uriah Heep. High TideThe approach these bands took was to incorporate distorted guitar sounds and heavy metal playing with other instruments, usually a Hammond organ but in the case of High Tide, a violin, and then create longer songs with extended instrumental sections that often referenced classical music (Baroque or Romantic) and at times leaned towards jazz. Volume and virtuosity, imagination and intensity. These bands were not the only ones bridging the two styles. Necromandus could be seen opening for Yes or Black Sabbath and were once said to be like “Yes plays the hits of Black Sabbath”. T2_-_It%5C'll_All_Work_Out_In_BoomlandT.2. and Jericho (a.k.a. Jericho Jones) were also fully capable of rocking all out with chugging power chords and screaming guitar solos and then switching gears to an acoustic number with classical piano, strings, horns, choir, or whatever suited their taste. Germany’s Eloy began as a hard rock group but by their second album were already deep into prog territory. Brits in Hamburg, Nektar, too crossed heavy rock with progressive thinking.

As the seventies counted out the first few years, bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Budgie as well as many lesser known bands were experimenting with more complex and varied songs. Some heavy rock artists went prog for a few years while other prog artists experimented with heavy rock. King Crimson included bombastic heavy music on their albums and Jethro Tull mixed acoustic rock with heavy electric rock while Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, and even Genesis managed to turn heavy rock into progressive art as they found ways to fit it into their songs when deemed appropriate. Though there may have been two distinct camps of rock sub-genres, both sides couldn’t resist borrowing techniques and ideas.

By 1974 / 75, two groups had emerged who could claim influence from both styles. Judas Priest experienced the early ‘70s as a “progressive heavy blues-based” band, according to founding member, Al Atkins. The first two albums by Priest capture the band in transition, moving from the experimental heavy rock style prevalent at the time toward a new approach to heavy metal. Indeed, music journalist, Martin Popoff, sees Judas Priest’s second album, “Sad Wings of Destiny” as the reinvention point of heavy metal, but the album still features some of the old progressive elements. Sad_wings_of_destiny_coverThe other very important band is Rush, who began as a straightforward blues-based rock band and then quickly metamorphosed into a heavy rock band with a desire to build their music on progressive rock principles.

Progressive metal is usually regarded as a musical style that emerged in the 1980’s and that is probably because many people consider true heavy metal to have emerged in the late seventies or early ‘80s. But the way I see it is that progressive metal is as old as proto-prog and proto-metal. Perhaps proto-progressive metal should be recognized as an apt moniker for the music of those bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s who attempted to create music that was both artfully complex and aggressively loud and bombastic.

 

Antecedents of Progressive Metal 1968 to 1976 – A Suggested Playlist

Iron Butterfly – In the Time of Our Lives

Vanilla Fudge – Some Velvet Morning

Deep Purple – Wring that Neck

Andromeda – Turn to Dust

High Tide – The Great Universal Protection Racket

T.2. – In Circles

Uriah Heep – Salisbury

Necromandus – Still Born Beauty

Eloy – Castle in the Air

Nektar – Crying in the Dark

Judas Priest – Epitaph / Island of Domination

Rush – By-Tor and the Snowdog

Did Punk Kill Prog?

Tales from Topographic OceansProgressive rock grew out of the experimental and psychedelic era of the second half of the 1960s and reached its peak between 1969 and 1974. During this time, groups like Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, and dozens of others were at the top of their game. Albums became double albums and concept albums and live performances grew to fill stadiums with grand stage sets and sometimes costumes, too. The show began to take over for the music and the music became grandiose and above the listening patience of many. By this time too, the social climate was changing and the hopeful, forward-looking youth of the sixties were being replaced by a new generation who faced a grimmer, un-promising reality.

It is said that the decline of prog came at the pivotal year of 1974 but its demise occurred once punk rock became the new music of youth around 1976 and 77. By the late seventies, punk, disco, and New Wave were what young people were into and the older generation of long-haired and bearded (except for the ladies) musos found themselves playing to smaller audiences or only partially filled venues. Not just progressive rock, but the fledgling musical style that had become termed heavy metal also fell out of public favour as it too tried to be musically complex and intelligent. Only bands like AC/DC with their rawer and simpler approach to hard rock were able to find big success during punk’s rise to the forefront.

This is the general story that I have read and heard. A memorable moment in the BBC documentary about progressive rock in Britain is when Rick Wakeman describes looking for records in a store and having to ask in a hushed whisper if there is any prog rock in the store and the clerk says that he has some in a brown paper bag under the counter (watch the video from about 1:23:00 to 1:24:05).

Trick76But did prog really die out in the late seventies? Though the year the rot set in is given as 1974 the true decline of the first generation of prog rock coincides with the early days of neo-prog, with some saying that the first neo-prog album was “A Trick of the Tale” by Genesis, one of the first generation prog rockers and now without their performing artist frontman, Peter Gabriel. A new turn for Genesis sparked the neo-prog movement possibly? The interesting thing to note is that as the old guard were beginning to face the music, so to speak, the next generation were already eager to establish themselves as composers of music and songs that went beyond the standard rock format. And not all of the chart-toppers of the early seventies were looking for lifeboats just yet either.

Among the first generation of progressive rock groups, Pink Floyd and Yes both found great success with their 1977 releases, “Animals” by Pink Floyd and “Going for the One” by Yes. Yes even scored a hit song with “Wondrous Stories”. Genesis had not yet evolved into a pop band and “Wind and Wuthering” was still very much in the prog vein and holding on to the fan base for the band. Other bands like ELP, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson struggled with their music, changed their style, or split up in order to take time to think about the next move while prog rockers like former Yes and King Crimson drummer, Bill Bruford, teamed up with others and formed new bands like UK.

Prog was far from dying during the early days of punk and disco. The Enid released their debut “In the Region of the Summer Stars” – a symphonic approach to rock music if there ever was one – in 1976 and began their career then. Canada’s Rush found their very progressive third album a hard sell in 1975 but found huge success with its follow-up “2112” in 1976. The next two albums saw Rush at their most “progressive” with lengthy and complex compositions. silent knightPerhaps Canada was slow to catch on to changing musical trends because neo-prog band Saga was also born during the fall of prog. Their first four albums released between 1978 and 1981 combine a pop sound with intelligent song structure and lyrics and classical/rock blends of guitar and synthesizer duels. Furthermore, the neo-prog movement in Britain took shape during these same years as bands like Pendragon, IQ, and Pallas continued the tradition of writing more complex and thematic rock songs. It was Marillion, with their hard rock guitar approach combined with a modern pop synthesizer sound and an frontman to match Peter Gabriel for flamboyancy and theatrical vocals, whose success paved the way for the neo-prog movement into the 80’s.

Outside of Britain and North America, Eloy from Germany were enjoying the peak of their success with “Oceans” and “Silent Cries and Mighty Echoes” during the years of 1977 and ’78. And Sweden’s Kaipa had begun recording songs in English because their success was creeping beyond Swedish borders.

Perhaps the supposed “death” of prog was more of a forced step back and a time to rethink the approach. Prog could only have died if for three reasons: the prog fan base had grown so small that bands could no longer sell enough tickets to shows; record companies refused anyone of a progressive music nature; and musicians themselves gave up on writing more complex music. The BBC documentary linked above says prog became something talked about in the backrooms, and Rick Wakeman likens it to the porn of the music industry. Yet clearly faith was not lost.

iron-maiden-debut-album-cover-x-large-picAs it was, progressive rock shrank back and survived punk, disco, and New Wave, and with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal it received an unexpected revival in a new form. Many of the musicians who were part of the heavy metal scene of the early 80’s had been fans of and influenced by the prog bands of the 70’s. Iron Maiden’s eponymous debut in 1980 featured three songs where instrumental sections were extended to include rhythmic and tempo changes and music dynamics rather than just guitar solos. This approach to song composition influenced younger bands who would begin their recording careers in two or three years time, namely Queensryche, Fates Warning, and Crimson Glory – all three groups being credited for helping to start the progressive metal movement. In fact, while many of the older progressive rock bands were finding commercial success once again by playing more mainstream music (e.g. Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull), the progressive metal movement was on the rise and even reaching groups like Metallica.

From my perspective, the real low point of progressive rock was in the late 80’s when even neo-prog bands were choosing to write more commercial and conventional-sounding pop music. Aside from the progressive metal movement which was still gaining momentum, there were only hints that progressive rock had not died. It Bites included some very fine prog compositions on their second album “Once Around the World” and Ozric Tentacles were gaining ground with their unique take on music. Jon Anderson had to leave Yes because the new line-up didn’t always agree with his old-school ideas, so he teamed up with former Yes members Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe to form a new band that wrote music beyond pop.anderson

The final attempted blow to the progressive rock genre was likely the grunge explosion of the early 90’s, which not surprisingly also caused trouble for heavy metal bands again as punk had some 15 years earlier. But shortly after and largely thanks to progressive rock bands from Scandinavia, the prog revolution was reborn, and since then there has been a very good-sized niche for progressively oriented musicians and artists.

Citizens of Hope and Glory – A Review

cover-various-citizensofhopeandgloryCitizens of Hope and Glory: the Story of Progressive Rock by Stephen Lambe

Stephen Lambe is a co-promoter of the Summer’s End Progressive Rock Festival, a promoter of the band Magenta, the Secretary of the Classic Rock Society, and a writer for Rock Society magazine. His book “Citizens of Hope and Glory” was originally published in 2011 and the second edition only recently released with a few updates. The title makes the book sound like a historical account of the progressive rock, and that the book covers the history of the genre from its inception in the late sixties all the way up to its present revival and even mentions albums from 2013 made it seem like it might be one of the best books out there on the subject of prog. But it was not exactly what I had hoped for.

As author Stephen Lambe explains in the beginning, the story is told largely by mentioning important bands and their albums with “gateway” albums being given a brief review. The actual development of the musical genre comes together by explaining which band was doing what to contribute to it. In this way, if one wanted to, you could buy or listen to all 64 “gateway”albums reviewed in the book as companion pieces to the book and you would have a very clear picture of Lambe’s journey and experiences with progressive rock.

The story unfolds well enough but for me it was a little too casual and light and never dug deep enough. Additionally, the perspective is British and mostly looks at symphonic prog bands. Regarding the former, a great many of the bands and artists mentioned are British and the state of the genre is largely seen as growing or failing based on what was happening with the music scene in Britain. There is plenty of room made to mention American, Italian, Scandinavian, European and Eastern European bands as well, but I felt there were some notable gaps such as Rush not getting mentioned until 1981’s “Moving Pictures” and Saga not being mentioned at all (my Canadian perspective). Uriah Heep are also often listed as one of the big heavy rock prog bands of the 70’s but their name appears only once, if I recall correctly.

As for looking at symphonic prog mostly, it is fair enough, but, as Lambe admits, that means other genres are given only a paragraph or two and many significant bands are hardly mentioned if at all. The rise of progressive metal is treated very briefly.

For the reasons stated above, I would say this book is more like reading about a friend’s love and passion for the music and learning about how he has experienced it rather than a comprehensive historical account. And Lambe does not deny his personal approach. He out rightly admits that this is his book about progressive rock, his journey.

What I really enjoyed while reading the book was the feature of many albums that Lambe felt were worth mentioning. Of the 64 albums given a review, I had 20 in my collection already and another 20 I had already placed on standby in my Amazon account. This meant that Lambe and I shared roughly two thirds the same musical taste so it was easy to understand where he was coming from. Many of his opinions and experiences with the music paralleled mine, most notably his original regard of Peter Hammil’s vocals and how he came to accept them and even appreciate them. Hammil’s vocals kept me away from Van der Graaf Generator’s albums initially, too. Now I understand them much better. As for the albums I didn’t know, it has been fun checking some of them out in an effort to find new music that I might enjoy adding to my collection.

Of course as a book chronicling the story of prog, there are plenty of short background stories and anecdotes about artists and albums, and there is a decent reference list at the end, plus a lot of photos of artists and bands then and now, including a colour photo section.

The book also includes chapters on topics such as the evolution of equipment and recording technology, concerts and festivals, the DVD concert, vocals and lyrics, and so on. At first I found the placement of these chapters puzzling and intrusive. While reading about prog in the late seventies a new chapter begins on progressive rock live that takes us from the 70’s to the modern stage show. Then we go back to the history of the music in the following chapter. Later on I understood what was going on as more such chapters appeared.

Overall it has been a fun book but a very easy one to read. I learned some new things and I have picked up on some new albums and bands to check out, plus I have given a second chance to albums that I previously wasn’t interested in, sometimes finding that my hunch was right and other times finding that I might just like them after all. As for really learning about an in-depth behind the scenes of progressive rock I feel there must be a better book out there. Two out of five stars for not living up to my expectations but four out of five for being an enjoyable book nonetheless.