Monday, June 3, 2013

#679: Prog Rock Road Test!

Here at the Back-Up Plan, we decided to take a wide selection of mostly-new-to-me Prog Rock (& some other stuff) out on a Road Test to see how well it all holds up. Here's the 65-song line-up, hold tight on the curves:

Incredible String Band -- First Girl I Loved.
Can -- Mother Sky, She Brings the Rain, Mushroom, One More Night, Outside My Door.
Jethro Tull -- Nothing is Easy, Bouree, A Song for Jeffrey, Beggar's Farm, A Christmas Song, A New Day Yesterday, Living in the Past, Teacher, Life's a Long Song.
Sparks -- Eaten by the Monster of Love, Angst in My Pants.
Genesis -- Counting Out Time, Carpet Crawlers, Firth of Fifth, The Cinema Show, Supper's Ready, The Musical Box, The Knife, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
Barclay James Harvest -- Summer Soldier, One Hundred Thousand Smiles Out.
Yes -- Leave It, It Can Happen, Rhythm of Love, Big Generator, Lift Me Up.
Nektar -- Do You Believe in Magic?, Cast Your Fate, King of Twilight, Oops (Unidentified Flying Abstract), Fidgety Queen, Recycle/Cybernetic Consumption/Recycle Countdown/Automation Horrorscope/Recycling/Flight to Infinity/Unendless Imaginations.
Caravan -- For Richard (live), Memory Lain/Hugh/Headloss.

From WONDROUS STORIES (4-CD "Complete introduction to progressive rock" set):
Comus -- Diana.
Van der Graaf Generator -- Darkness 11/11.
Atomic Rooster -- Devil's Answer.
Sam Gopal -- Season of the Witch.
Colosseum -- Walking in the Park.
Nucleus -- Song for the Bearded Lady.
Dr. Z -- Evil Woman's Manly Child.
Jan Dukes De Grey -- Mice and Rats in the Loft.
Curved Air -- Back Street Luv.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer -- Fanfare for the Common Man, From the Beginning.
Mike Oldfield -- Tubular Bells (single version).
Rare Bird -- Epic Forest.
Camel -- Sasquatch.
Caravan -- Golf Girl.
Gryphon -- Opening Move.
Rush -- A Farewell to Kings.
Jethro Tull -- Pussy Willow.
Emerson, Lake and Powell -- Touch and Go.

"First Girl I Loved" is the ISB's usual charming, tuneless, off-key whimsy, quite adorable & nicely nostalgic. Sounds like a throwaway, as does a lot of their stuff -- but the lyrics are cute & funny & well-observed, & there's a nice acoustic-guitar ... riff, sorta ... during the choruses. Nice soundtrack for letting your car warm-up a little. (From BEST OF 1967-1972.)
Can at their best fired on all cylinders, from Jaki Leibezeit's relentless involving rhythm to Michael Karoli's screeching chainsaw guitar, to Malcolm Mooney or Damo Suzuki's odd chanting vocals. "Mother Sky," "Mushroom" & "Outside My Door" are solid examples of their best work -- "She Brings the Rain" is like a lite-jazz-vocal piece, charmingly breezy & unexpected. If you're a sucker for rhythms, you should test-drive these guys. At their very best ("Father Cannot Yell," "You Doo Right," "Outside My Door," "Uphill") you won't care about the words.... (All from ANTHOLOGY.)
Tull's "Nothing is Easy" is my new themesong for work -- mainly it's about how the stress you expect is always worse than what happens in Real Life, I've got no problem relating to that -- & also about how the best way to chill-out is to listen to More Tull. I'd listen to them more often if they actually had a decent, representative best-of.
Tull at their best is like a well-built, rumbling old jalopy with lots of little statues & doodads glued to the body -- lots of extra not-always-necessary ornamentation on top of the pretty-strong songs. & they're gonna make sure you NOTICE EVERY LITTLE DETAIL. ...& I've been wanting to ask for awhile: Why is "Bouree" considered to be a big deal?
"Christmas Song," "Life's a Long Song," "Teacher," etc., all still sound great, & I'm starting to really like "A New Day Yesterday." But my complaints with their many best-of's remain: Not enough stuff from their later, folkier period -- though I will be checking-out their ACOUSTIC BEST-OF.... (All from 30th ANNIVERSARY BEST-OF.)
Sparks isn't Prog (crap, ARE they?), but I couldn't resist spinning "Eaten by the Monster of Love," a hilarious anti-lovesong that should've sold millions. "Angst in My Pants" isn't as sure-fire (if you've seen REVENGE OF THE NERDS, you've heard part of it), but the lyrics are almost as hilarious & the vocal is a lot more ... edgy. Do YOU have angst in your pants? You KNOW you do.... (From BEST OF.)
Early Genesis, hmmm. I have trouble with Peter Gabriel's voice. On "Carpet Crawlers" he sounds positively creepy. For me, the best of these is "Counting Out Time," because it has hilarious lyrics about good ole sex ... & because Pete sounds JUST LIKE Phil Collins. (Is it really Phil doing one of his rare vocal cameos from this period? Neither Wikipedia nor Amazon could tell me....)
Musically, this stuff is all pretty great -- nice melodic keyboards from Tony Banks, good ghostly guitar from Steve Hackett, the usual solid drumming from Phil. But on a lot of these I'm so much more used to Phil's vocals & the re-arrangements from their 1977 live album SECONDS OUT.
That said, "Supper's Ready" still works OK, & still has that great sense of relief & resolution at the end. "The Knife" is surprisingly dramatic, & has an intense megaphonic Gabriel vocal -- an effect he should have used on "Firth of Fifth." I'm not used to "Cinema Show" without "In the Cage" added-on (as on their 1982 THREE SIDES LIVE). "Firth of Fifth" works better with the piano solo in the middle rather than at the start. Bitchbitchbitch.... (All from PLATINUM COLLECTION.)
I would like to love Barclay James Harvest -- they had the right look. But as displayed on their early best-of THE HARVEST YEARS, under the flashy chassis, something somewhere subtly went wrong. All the connections didn't work. They were top-heavy & sluggish & they wandered all over the road. Early in their career they could've written really nice, charming little pop songs (check out especially "Ursula -- The Swansea Song"), but they chose not to. Maybe they didn't know what they were best at.
"Summer Soldier" is a 10-minute anti-war suite, not as heavy & overblown as the earlier "Dark Now My Sky" or "She Said," but still. "One Hundred Thousand Smiles Out" indicates they were listening to Bowie's "Space Oddity." They got better later, thank Ghod....
I find the early-'80s streamlined, revitalized Yes pretty invigorating -- just enough Steve Howe guitar & Trevor Rabin vocals to keep me listening. "Lift Me Up" is not-quite-classic, "Leave It" & "It Can Happen" should be on any Yes best-of, & even "Big Generator" has its attractions after you get past the opening. If "Changes" were here, they'd have the period covered. (From DEFINITIVE COLLECTION.)
Nektar at their best is pretty great driving music -- they just make you wanna go FASTER. "Fidgety Queen" & "Do You Believe in Magic?" are great forgotten rockers; so is "King of Twilight," but in this mix it's much too trebly -- there's no bass at all. "Cast Your Fate" is OK, & "Oops" is a kind-of jam. The RECYCLED suite features lotsa keyboards & strings & choirs -- I'll need more listenings. (All from THE DREAM NEBULA best-of.)
Caravan at their rockin' best also make you wanna push the gas pedal down -- "For Richard" starts off quiet, but the pushy, swinging, ongoing band&full-orchestra riff that fills up the last 9 minutes is freakin' great. "Memory Lain" continues in the same vein. (From the CANTERBURY TALES best-of.)

WONDROUS STORIES is Universal Music Group's 2010 4-disc attempt to fit the history of progressive rock into a box. I've only heard about half of it so far, but can report that it's at least more extensive & more pleasing than Rhino's kinda thin, kinda disappointing SUPERNATURAL FAIRY TALES box issued a few years back.
Both these boxes have licensing problems -- no Pink Floyd, no King Crimson, no Genesis, no Soft Machine, weak choices from bands you've heard of, really BAD selections from bands you've NEVER heard of, etc.
But WONDROUS STORIES avoids SOME of that -- while some obvious prog milestones are included ("Roundabout," "Aqualung," "From the Beginning," "Tubular Bells," etc.), there are also some overlooked acts that deserved more time in the spotlight. Hey, GRYPHON is in here! With "Opening Move," as good an introduction as any....
Unfortunately, what WS mostly shows in its early stages is what a bad idea Prog seemed to be at first. A lot of this early stuff swerves right off the road & ends up crashing somewhere off in the weeds....
The set opens with Sam Gopal's self-consciously jazzy & fairly hideous "Season of the Witch" -- why didn't they just use Donovan's original? It would've fit right in & it still sounds great....
Then they get The Horn Bands out of the way -- Colosseum's "Walking in the Park" is OK except for the vocal; Dick Heckstall-Smith's sax sounds great, he should've had more room to play. Nucleus's "Bearded Lady" is breezy enough, good trumpet from Ian Carr & some nice acrid keybs -- decent jazz-rock, too rocky to be jazz.
Comus's "Diana" is warped folk -- sounds like trolls & witches singing in a wood, with some truly demented violin & drums. Not as violent or extreme as I'd expected from their reputation, sorta like the ISB on acid.
Van der Graaf's "Darkness" is their usual High Gothic Drama -- excellent sax from David Jackson & good doomy organ from Hugh Banton -- but WHAT is Peter Hammill ON about?
Then it's mostly downhill for a bit. Dr. Z's "Evil Woman's Manly Child" is heavy, man. Atomic Rooster's "Devil's Answer" is "eh." Jan Dukes De Grey's "Mice and Rats in the Loft" is some kinda Aztec-human-sacrifice drama with declaiming semi-operatic vocals; the best thing here is the underplayed sax, squoze-over & lost in the right-hand lane. None of these are exactly what you'd call Lost Classics.
After this, it's a pleasure to return to stuff I know: ELP's "Fanfare" & "From the Beginning" still sound great; "Fanfare" absolutely rocks, especially the part near the end where it sounds like Keith Emerson is stomping all over the keyboards, like they're about to collapse ... & then they return to the piece's triumphant main theme -- a classic moment. The single version of "Tubular Bells" still sounds like the best possible version of that piece.
Rare Bird's "Epic Forest" is a great lost prog classic, well worth enshrining here -- the album it's from (1972's EPIC FOREST) is in a Goodwill store near you & features exactly one more forgotten classic, "Birdman." Well worth 99 cents.
Camel's "Sasquatch" is as good an intro to that band as any; nice guitar from Andy Latimer. Caravan's "Golf Girl" is light & cute & funny, but not real representative; I would've picked "Memory Lain" or "All the Way," "Surprise, Surprise," "Be All Right," "Place of My Own," "Can You Hear Me?".... Gryphon's "Opening Move" captures them in all their renaissance-style mastery, with a little bit of their recorder-based wind-up-toy-band sound thrown-in. Timeless.
Rush's "A Farewell to Kings" didn't grab me except for the delicate acoustic-guitar work & Geddy Lee's helium vocal. "Pussy Willow" seemed like a no-big-deal instrumental. "Touch and Go" sounds suspiciously like Asia....
I'll be listening to more of this -- plus there's a whole disc of "neo-prog" & later stuff that I haven't even touched yet....
...Re-loading again soon....

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