“Run, why should I run away
When at the end the only truth certain—
One day everyone dies,
If only to justify life.”
—Gentle Giant, A Cry for Everyone, from Octopus
In Part One of The New Prog Masters I introduced readers of my blog to bands such as The Flower Kings, Magic Pie, and Haken. (Pronounced ‘hay-ken.’) That these bands aren’t more widely known and loved is perhaps another symptom of our media-saturated age. Of course, you’re setting off into uncharted territory (pardon the pun) as a Prog Rock band—not since the ’70s have Prog acts been able to enjoy the worldwide renown of bands like Genesis and Yes. Even in that classic era, Gentle Giant managed to survive on sheer genius rather than record sales, with only 1975’s Free Hand charting in the Billboard Top 50. And Yes had its greatest commercial success with an album (90125) that was arguably light years from their original sound and barely a Prog work at all, although they’d scored minor chart hits with songs like Don’t Kill the Whale. If it hadn’t been for the advent of FM radio in the ’70s, it’s debatable whether Genesis would have had much of a career prior to the more pop-oriented sound produced by Phil Collins in the ’80s. Prog Rock was always better suited to the realm of the concert hall than the stadium, with a commensurately more intimate audience.
Unitopia: Artificial. Unitopia is Australia’s entry into the modern Prog Rock canon. As with Magic Pie, their first album, More Than a Dream, was released in 2005, followed by The Garden in 2008 and Artificial in 2010. Their final album was something of an abortive tribute to the Prog Masters, 2012’s Covered Mirror Vol. 1: Smooth as Silk, a set of covers seemingly conceived as a two-volume work before the band imploded. According to Prog Archives, “The band was formed by Mark Trueack (vocals) and Sean Timms (keyboard, guitar) after they were introduced by a mutual friend who saw that the two had similar tastes in music and the story goes that as soon as Timms heard Trueack sing, he knew they had to do something together.” Although I haven’t heard More Than a Dream, I found The Garden absorbing in its own right, if showing its Prog influences a little too obviously at times. But Artificial is where they nailed it, integrating their sources seamlessly while creating a powerful musical statement that weaves in textures of Penny Lane-era Beatles with more typical Prog influences. The guitars here are more Rock than Metal, there are more horns, jazzy sections and flute passages than in Haken or Riverside and the occasional hummable chorus.
Covered Mirror was an ambitious project that would be laced with pitfalls for any band. Only rarely do covers do justice to their originals—occasionally even surpassing them, as with Santana’s Black Magic Woman or Creedence Clearwater’s Suzie Q and I Heard It Through the Grapevine. The set list on Covered Mirror embraces a ridiculously wide field, from Klaatu’s Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft to Led Zeppelin’s Rain Song as well as a Yes and Genesis medley. For my money, it works best on the individual songs, whereas the medleys come across feeling like a pastiche. The performances are excellent but the renderings of these classics occasionally fall flat. And expecting Trueack’s voice to cover such a broad swath of vocalists—from Fish to Gabriel to Robert Plant to Roger Hodgson of Supertramp—is almost doomed to failure. As the band split shortly after this album, it’s arguable it was at least partly responsible for their demise. But this is a guess on my part.
Riverside: Second Life Syndrome. This Polish Prog band combines its love of Heavy Metal with Prog, which puts it somewhat on the other end of the spectrum from The Flower Kings alongside Haken. The album begins with a moody, almost doleful vocal in After, easing you in before the guitars chime and grind in on Volte Face. Occasionally they indulge a Death Metal style of growling vocal, but thankfully not often. Usually we’re lulled along by the considerable warmth of feeling of Mariusz Duda’s vocals, lending an elegiac, wistful quality to many of the songs. Incredibly his English lyrics are sung with a thoroughly natural, unaccented voice. Duda is also a fine bassist, slapping out clean, fat tones in a rolling simmer. The late Piotr Grudziński’s guitar lines are equally pristine, chiming when they need to and growling when they need to—the kind of musical synthesis the best Prog is known and revered for. At its best, it’s not about show-offy soloing but how to weave sound into a seamless tapestry of transcendence. Each instrument then becomes analogous to the range of colours on a palette of paint. Marillion in its glory days with Fish was particularly good at this.
Lately I can’t seem to get enough of both Riverside and The Flower Kings. Riverside’s foundational trilogy of albums, Out of Myself, Second Life Syndrome and Rapid Eye Movement are all killer, no filler, prowling a failed empire wasteland with barely controlled sonic menace. But their two subsequent albums, Shrine of the New Generation Slaves (2013) and Anno Domini High Definition (2009) stretch the musical landscape even further, with a more refined, even subtle sound that as always is buoyed up by Duda’s plaintive, haunting vocals. The ‘definitive’ Riverside sound is arguably staked out in the territory covered by the trilogy. Yet the band courageously—and successfully—reinvents itself on these two later albums, introducing a more acoustic sound still shot through with a blend of wistfulness, muscular guitar, and sweet melancholy. Love, Fear and the Time Machine (2015) follows in this vein. At first I thought it doesn’t quite have the snap of its predecessors, but I was wrong. This album grows on you like many classics to become a hypnotic delight. Eye of the Soundscape (2016), based on outtakes and unreleased studio tracks and experiments, is a disappointment, given such an excellent body of work to date. However, it may be partly a tribute to the tragic, premature death of guitarist Piotr Grudziński, who surely must go down in history as one of the truly great guitarists of Prog.
Transatlantic: Bridge Across Forever and Kaleidoscope. This so-called ‘Prog supergroup,’ comprised of members of Spock’s Beard (Neal Morse), The Flower Kings (Roine Stolt), Marillion (Pete Trewavas) and Dream Theater (Mike Portnoy), has the star power and first-class musicianship of a ‘supergroup’ but hardly the commercial reach of the supergroups of yesteryear. Unlike Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Rest in Peace Greg Lake and Keith Emerson), who were a ‘Prog supergroup’ in both critical and commercial senses, Transatlantic had the misfortune to be born in the wrong era for that kind of success. Watching these guys perform is a treat for the eyes and ears—they clearly love playing together and their concerts become something of a love-in with the audience. So who cares how famous or rich they are or aren’t? Prog is about the music, not the egos. As soon as it isn’t it starts to fall apart, like Yes at its worst moments.
Transatlantic’s first album, SMPT:e, hits the ground running with stellar Prog musicianship but doesn’t quite gel into a musical whole. Morse has probably the strongest Prog Rock voice going today, rich and resonant and quickly recognizable. Trewavas, a virtuoso bass player who caught the tail end of the ’70s Prog Rock movement with Fish-era Marillion, clearly relishes being back in the fold after the more mainstream direction the band took after Fish’s departure. Bridge Across Forever, The Whirlwind and Kaleidoscope are all equally powerful musical statements that achieve a high level of cohesion and cinematic scope.
Unfortunately, Morse’s conversion to fundamentalist Christianity mars the proceedings as he injects repeated references to the Bible and Christian themes. At times it threatens to derail the entire project into the dreaded Christian Rock of yesteryear. Even Bob Dylan fell into this trap briefly, before realizing that it can lose you as many fans as you might gain. For this reason, my pick of Transatlantic’s catalogue would be 2014’s Kaleidoscope, in which Morse seems to have finally got the message to back off with the sermonizing. Once again the musicianship and compositional skills are phenomenal.
In a culture sliding into vacuousness and narcissism, the fact that we have music of this depth and feeling is a heartening sign. The standard of musicianship is stunning. This is about far more than reliving the Golden Age of Prog, or the stoner-induced trippiness of ’70s album rock. This is where musicians really get to soar, where the rules are made up as you go along. Where you’ll hear an ancient tar alongside a howling Gibson Les Paul (Steve Hackett’s Wolflight.) Where folk, rock, roots, blues, jazz, metal and classical collide and anything is possible. This is where the spirit is allowed to freely glide and explore.
The only other thing I know of that can do that is poetry.