Prog rockin’ around the clock as summer winds down
Did you hear about the “Royal baby?” I have. Way, way too much. I don’t care. In fact, I don’t care so much that it’s painful.
Enough talk about babies, Summer is half over and porch-lounging time with a stogie, iced-tea, and some mind-altering music is dwindling. So what should you listen to when relaxing outside and dodging bees and those new “lone star ticks” that make you allergic to red meat? Good question. I, of course, will answer with “progressive rock.”
The genre can be daunting to the uninitiated, but don’t fret. I’ve done the dirty work and listened for weeks to narrow down to a list of the five “must listen songs” that you, well, must listen to before the summer ends. So do yourself a favor and kick back, relax and “free your mind.” And for those of you following, yes, I did a column like this years ago, back in 2001, but some things are worth revisiting.
Number 5: “2112”
by Rush. Runtime: 20:33
I’m putting a Rush song here because if I don’t, Rush fans will have my head. Released in 1976, this is the newest song on my list. As far as prog epics go, it’s pretty straightforward but still a fun listen. The song tells the story, in seven movements, of an anonymous protagonist in a futuristic dystopian society ruled by a technocratic electronic elite. Specifically, a bunch of computers that rule every aspect of human life, and the struggle to break free from the rule. Some have compared it to “Anthem,” a novella by Ayn Rand, but drummer Neil Peart says it’s coincidental, although he does give her credit in the liner notes, so take that as you will.
Number 4: “Karn Evil 9”
by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Runtime: 29:37
I’m willing to bet you’ve heard a snippet of this song before, specifically the second movement “1st Impression — Part 2.” That radio edit gets a lot of play on classic rock stations, but a 3-minute edit of a 30-minute song is musical blasphemy if you ask me. “Karn Evil 9” is a three-part song in four tracks, which, similar to 2112, tells of a future where all the evils, sins and debauchery of the past (and, all the foliage apparently,) have been eliminated, yet preserved in the “Karn Evil,” a showcase of such raucous things that took place in the past. Oh, and there is the cliché fight against the technocratic computer elite in the end, too. I’m guessing these bands wouldn’t be huge fans of Google then…
Number 3: “Supper’s Ready”
by Genesis. Runtime: 22:54
I’ve made no mystery that I am a “Gabriel-Era” Genesis fan. I’ve got nothing against Phil Collins, who, incidentally, plays drums on this track, but for every proggy song like “Home by the Sea,” and “One for the Vine,” there is an “I Can’t Dance.”
As for this track, I’ll refer back to an interview with Peter Gabriel, who said the song was a, “personal journey which ends up walking through scenes from Revelation in the Bible. . . I’ll leave it at that.”
Biblical and psychedelic imagery abound in this song, which feels like an epic poem along the lines of something by Alighieri Dante set to music. Now, if you want a real treat, visit YouTube and check out the old concert recording of the song. Peter Gabriel dancing around in a flower mask singing about transmogrification is something that everyone should experience once.
Number 2: “Thick as a Brick”
By Jethro Tull. Runtime: 43:46
This one is an odd duck. Jethro Tull isn’t strictly a “progressive rock” band. Some albums are considered prog, like “Aqualung,” and others are more folky in nature, like “Heavy Horses.” In fact lead singer and flute grandmaster Ian Anderson dismisses the label entirely. Which is how this song came about. According to Anderson, they made the album, which consisted of only the one song, “because everyone was saying we were a progressive rock band, so we decided to live up to the reputation and write a progressive album, but done as a parody of the genre.”
Ironically, this parody is widely considered one of the best progressive rock songs ever written, and has all the preachy pretentiousness, intricate lyrics and epic musical prowess that a prog fan could want. I’d tell you what it’s about, but finding that out is half the fun. Go Listen.
Number 1: “Close to the Edge”
by YES. Runtime: 18:43
This is it. The premier progressive rock song of all time. Anyone who considers themselves a music fan, not just a progressive rock fan, owes it to themselves to give this one a listen. Now, I said “premier,” not “best.” I still believe the “best” prog rock song of all time is “Gates of Delirium,” also by Yes. In fact, Yes has several more 20-plus minute masterpieces that are as good, or better than this, (such as “The Revealing Science of God, Ritual, and Mind Drive, among others,) but this is the song that really put the prog rock epic on the map.
Based on the novel “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse, tells of the awakening of Siddhartha “close to the edge, down by a river.” While I could spend the next six or so pages explaining the symbolism in that one phrase taken from the song, I am running out of space, so consider yourself lucky. Jon Anderson’s ethereal lyrics and unmistakable voice span the entirety of the song, while the band is in nothing but top form. Give it a listen, expand your mind and thank me later. I’ll be “down by the corner.”
Chris Hamble is a freelance writer and humor columnist serving newspapers in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and is a lifelong Stillwater resident.