Top Ten Prog Bands That Secretly Rule
quick casting of the Stylus runes indicates that over the next two years owning up to (or pretending to) a prog influence will become de rigeur, ubiquitous, and finally, passé. With timeliness in mind, we've preempted the retro-afro crowd and wheeled out ten of the artists most likely to be "no, like, actually cool, dude."
(Note: For various reasons, I left out various German groups that often fall under the progressive rock sphere. Mostly, these bands have been widely (and deservedly) hailed as totally awesome, so I felt it more apropos to shine a light on some lesser-known pioneers.)
10. Univers Zero
The Belgians. Well, they know something about beer. They also (damn their sacred sugar beets) know a good deal about chocolate. They also happen to know about combining classical music and progressive rock without boring the audience to tears. This is no easy thing. Without regressing into serialism, Bach/modal bowel movements, 12-tone BS, or cacophonous wankery, Univers Zero combine the excitement and energy of the best chamber music with, well, the excitement and energy of the best prog. Their secret? They harness both modes to a tight, almost anally constricted mathematical time signature. That they manage to do all of this without in any way being German is, I suspect, merely to fuck with us.
09. Gentle Giant
Somewhere between classical, rock, and folk lay the world of the Giant. With a medievalism that was almost fetishistic, they avoided Incredibly Silly Band territory by exploring a hitherto unknown connection between Bardic rondos and R&B—multiple percussionists and a focus on rhythm keeping the fusions of modal singing and heavy rock from sounding like conceptual soup. Gentle Giant's secret weapon, though, evident in their live shows (and captured on an excellent DVD released last year), was their sense of exuberance and (believe it or not) humor. Crucial, too, was the community feel of their performances, with members switching instruments the way other bands tag-teamed on groupies—a sense of brotherhood no doubt enhanced by the presence of three actual brothers within the group.
08. Aphrodite's Child
Being Greek gets you points. Taking promotional photos in which the band and its hangers-on are dressed as the god Pan and the members of his pagan entourage gets you more points. Getting Top Ten European pop hits and then making a concept album about the apocalypse puts you way over the top. Breaking up immediately afterwards? Surely there's a Hall of Fame somewhere for this. 666 remains the definitive statement of non-British progressive rock: sublime, nearly pornographic, funky, pretentious, and utterly ridiculous. In some other beautiful universe, this is on constant rotation on classic rock radio and no one has ever heard of "Stairway to Heaven."
07. Van Der Graaf Generator
The band that saw the end of the proverbial line. Generic Alterna-logic dictates that the Velvet Underground were the band that demolished the hippie dream, but they struck from the outside. Van Der Graaf were the hippies that went too far—consumed so much acid and made music so gravity-defying they actually freaked themselves out. Then they discovered funk, which is really the only thing you can do once you've shot your brain out your arsehole. Huge in Italy. No, really. Huge.
They invented their own language in which they tell a ten-album long tale of a future Earth at war with hostile planets in the wake of a global ecological holocaust. Not a concept album, a concept band. Need we go further? They were also French. And operatic vocal tendencies were definitely involved. Yeah. I'll be in the trailer shooting coke into my eyeballs if anyone wants me.
05. Genesis (Peter Gabriel Years Only, My Friend)
Say what you will about either post-Gabriel Genesis (though it had its moments) or our boy's solo career (which did too), but during their Foxtrot/Nursery Cryme/Lamb Lies Down... heyday, these gents were pretty much unstoppable. The secret lay in their very pretentiousness, the obviously art-damaged art-school approach of it all. Shrugging off lesser arcanists, early Genesis saw yr Baroque and raised you a fucking Rococo, reveling in anything that represented the antithesis of long-haired, earnest blues-based rawk. And all while wearing funny masks.
Equally at home constructing rambling psych-guitar epics, proto-Italo-disco, creepy horror themes, Bacharach-esque EL soup, and subterranean electro rumblings, Goblin were the answer to a question that was never asked: what if Prog went Pop? No, we're not talking popular, in the Moody Blues/ELP sense, but pop. Something that concerns itself mainly with creating musical surprises within the framework of a three-minute song or five-minute film scene. Goblin didn't need side-long suites or double-digit tracks of technical wankery to make their point: they got in, got out, and showed us that the funk need not be scary, but, by gum, it damn well could be.
03. Soft Machine
The ultimate all-purpose crazy great prog act, the Soft Machine were just as comfortable with dada whimsy (the debut) as with side-long jazz-based improv (the classic third record). In addition to giving the world UK national treasure Robert Wyatt and beating Led Zep to the rotating cover sleeve concept by two whole years, they were one of the only groups to stand at the nexus point of psychedelic, prog, and jazz-rock, delving into all three while maintaining a distinct identity—for a time, at least. The departure of Wyatt left a sadly-tattered version of the Machine still spinning its cogs, churning out the odd bit of appealing fusion jazz, but mainly just churning.
The band that should have been God. Gong did it all—funky oddities, space jazz, psych mindscrew, hippie folk nonsense—hell, they even had a logo and a cartoon mascot. Albums like Angel's Egg, You, and Camembert Electrique redefined rock on the edge of madness without stooping to the clichés of most popular prog. What went wrong? Umm... a belief in all the tenets of ‘70s spiritual excess with absolutely no cognizance of the commercial realities of rock music? Well, that and trying to actually blow people's minds instead of just indulging in excessive displays of pointless virtuosity. I'm talking about you, Wakeman.
01. King Crimson
All right so, fantasy rock is invented. Prog-hard rock, then prog-metal are invented. After which, Mr. Fripp finds time to invent prog-ambient, prog-FX pedal wanking, prog-MOR pop, and prog-"I'm just going to fling giant objects constructed out of clustered noise and speaker effects at you while I duck under this huge gallumphing guitar riff." Mild retirement follows, filled with nonsense about efficient highly-mobile units and some shit with Eno, after which prog-jazz rock engorges itself with all aforementioned modes and a few not mentioned (such as barbershop), becomes fat and actually beguiling, and then aborts itself just as it seems destined to run out of ideas. Slightly less mild retirement follows, after which the back catalog is reassessed, the Japanese are courted, and the tedious remastering and liner note assemblage are commenced. Oh, which is followed in timely fashion with the reactivation of a previous lineup dedicated to showing the Smashing Pumpkins, Tool, System of a Down, and anyone else who's actually had the cojones to own up to a King Crimson influence exactly how the shit gets done.