“Why, why do we suffer each race to believe/ That no race has been grander.” —Genesis, Time Table, from Foxtrot
As Mark Twain once quipped, “Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” It’s a statement that applies equally to modern Prog Rock. Okay, so I’ve been living under a rock when it comes to the current state of Prog Rock, or Progressive Music as Steve Hackett and others prefer to call it. With the devolving of radio—once the margin zone where new and innovative artists were launched—into demographically programmed commerce, it’s tough for anyone beyond global celebrities to get any attention. Possibly our best equivalent to college radio now (besides those few college stations still on air) is YouTube. It’s the positive side of Google algorithms—once it sees that you’ve been listening to the classic Prog acts it puts newer Prog bands into your search results. This has introduced me to a whole stable of bands continuing the grand tradition—The Flower Kings, Haken, Unitopia, Transatlantic, Magic Pie, Riverside, et al.
Like it or not, aging tends to make you something of a traditionalist. Pound for pound, the ’70s produced more classic albums than any era before or since. It truly was the Golden Era of Prog. But there are clear inheritors of the tradition. With a caveat: while there are some exceptional instrumentalists out there now, unique voices like Jon Anderson, Peter Gabriel and Greg Lake don’t exactly grow on trees. So allow me to make up for my ignorance and the oversight of mainstream media by recommending a list of recent Prog albums that could very well earn the status of classics in years to come.
- The Flower Kings: Flower Power, Banks of Eden and Desolation Rose. Having been immersed in this band in recent weeks, it’s tough to choose only one album as a potential classic. Their closest musical counterpart in the Prog canon would clearly be Genesis, although their vocals at times reach the soaring heights of Yes. Bandleader and guitarist Roine Stolt has even performed with Steve Hackett on his Genesis Revisisted tours. Stolt maintains a seemingly superhuman work schedule, contributing not only to solo efforts by other band members but also performing with the ‘Prog supergroup’ Transatlantic. And it’s Stolt’s guitar stylings that both connect the Kings to Genesis and carve out his own sonic niche.
As to picking the cream of their crop, several epic tracks that predate Banks of Eden and Desolation Rose are a no-brainer for any Prog fan: Stardust We Are (from the album of the same name), The Truth Will Set You Free (from Unfold the Future), and of course the entire Garden of Dreams suite that comprises Flower Power. On these earlier albums the grand scope of these marathon compositions echoes epic classics like Supper’s Ready, with the same dizzying shifts of mood, rhythm, and eccentric phrasing. Space Revolver is an excellent example of this, its complex structure nevertheless as seamless as Pink Floyd’s multifaceted classic Dark Side of the Moon, with electronic flourishes reminiscent of that timeless album. Like so much of the best Prog, it’s a challenging listen, impossible to take in at one sitting.
Even the compositional trajectory of The Flower Kings subtly mimics that of Genesis, from the epic-length tracks of Trespass, Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot to the more song-oriented works found on later classics such as Selling England by the Pound and A Trick of the Tail. (Hopefully they avoid imitating the descent of Genesis into the Phil Collins Pop Band.) The Kings’ most recent albums, Banks of Eden (2012) and Desolation Rose (2013), have reached an ideal synthesis of Prog transcendentalism with tight, focused songwriting. Gone are most of the meandering tempo shifts, replaced by a crispness and concision riding a muscular rhythm section. This remedies a weakness seen all too often on earlier albums, which were padded out to well over an hour with songs or instrumental rambles that were competently executed but ultimately forgettable. The trend began with Paradox Hotel, which employs a similar technique of powerfully tight numbers, but only occasionally mints a gem (such as the title track), whereas Banks of Eden and Desolation Rose are consistent throughout. Masterful stuff. http://www.flowerkings.se/discography.php
Magic Pie: The Suffering Joy. Over the course of their 10-year career to date, Norway’s Magic Pie have released four powerful albums, including The Suffering Joy—my pick for an instant Prog classic and winner of the Best of the Year album for 2011 at the Sea of Tranquility readers’ poll. Eirikur Hauksson’s lead vocals are rich and expressive, the lyrics of lead opus A Life’s Work gripping us instantly with its philosophical ruminations, grappling with questions that have plagued philosophers since Plato. As a writer, this is precisely what made me more of a Yes fan than a Bad Company fan, more a Gentle Giant fan than a Foghat fan, although I also loved the blues-based hard rock of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Magic Pie’s lockstep polyrhythms—a staple of Prog—are laced with just enough crunching guitar to keep the proceedings from descending into Prog jazz, my least favourite offshoot of the genre. As with many of their contemporaries in the field, the guitars tend more toward hard rock or metal than folk or classical, as with classic acts Yes and Genesis. Magic Pie’s first two albums Motions of Desire and Circus of Life are also worthy compositions, demonstrating consistent growth and musical complexity. http://www.magicpie.net
Haken: The Mountain. Haken is another modern Prog outfit that favours a heavy metal edge to their guitar sound but these guys are no mere Marshall stack riffers. Thankfully, current Prog bands are savvy enough to dispense with the demonic growl that passes for vocals in Death Metal or Thrash in favour of singers who can actually sing. As with Magic Pie, vocals alternate between the resonant clarity of Haken’s Ross Jennings and harmonies in the choruses and bridges. With the range of tonal colourings available to keyboardists these days, it’s no surprise that Haken’s range is broad—from piano stylings to classic Moog-like tones. The Mountain maintains the Prog tradition of following the thread of a theme all the way through the album while not necessarily being a ‘concept’ album. (Concept albums require an intimate familiarity with the literary sources that inspire them, a literacy few musicians seem to have.) However, when it comes to the Fathers of Prog, Haken are no ignoramuses. They demonstrate their vocal dexterity on songs like The Cockroach King, which employs Gentle Giant-style multi-layered polyphonics—likely an homage to songs like Knots on Octopus. This technique crops up again later in Somebody but is integrated seamlessly enough to avoid seeming gimmicky. Because It’s There exhibits a classical choral structure to the opening vocals. Still, compared to The Flower Kings, these guys are definitely heavier, erring occasionally on the side of metal bombast where the Kings sometimes err on the side of jazzy noodling. I found Haken’s albums Visions and Aquarius equally compelling, but perhaps not as fully integrated a musical statement as The Mountain. http://www.hakenmusic.com/music
CONTINUED WITH PART TWO: The New Prog Masters: All About the Music