Progressive rock was often called many things as it evolved throughout the 1960’s and seemingly suffered an ignominious end several decades later. Critics and industry types raged against what they felt was a pretentious, elitist, pompous, and largely decadent form of musicianship which threatened time and space. At its very essence, this was an evolution of music that assaulted the sensibilities of pop-rock and married them to a glorious fusion of jazz origins, folk imagery, and classical chamber artistry – thereby producing a genre that was as exalted as it was scorned in the annals of music history.
As a self-taught percussionist whose childhood was defined by the esoteric nature of avant-garde drummers from that era (Cobham-Bruford-Powell-Barlow-Weathers), here are five albums that influenced my view of the world that I’d like to share with you, the reader. I have but one singular request in having you appreciate my stream of nostalgic introspection: take the time to listen to these magnificent creations and I promise you a measure of self-actualization that will almost assuredly leave you existentially fulfilled and wanting more.
I’ve recommended Red to virtually anyone who takes the time to know me beyond several weeks. This release is an absolute monster; a viciously poetic onslaught of progressive fusion backed by the mightiest of triumvirates; Robert Fripp (guitars), John Wetton (bass), and Bill Bruford (percussions). Although David Cross and his majestic violin are missing from their previous seminal effort (Starless & Bible Black), Red is what happens when the primal nature of the soul is harnessed by cerebral pulses, skilled pedigree, and crafting complexity. Kurt Cobain once called it a major influence on his songwriting (particularly with In Utero), which is perhaps the most powerful affirmation as to why this album should be on everyone’s playlist. On the surface it may seem like five easily digestable songs, but once you’ve listened to the title track and consumed the magnum opus that is Starless, there really isn’t much more to say. How I wish I could travel back in time to Massey Hall and hear them shake the foundations of my earthly core and pillage the spiritual essence of my being.
As far as concept albums go, this is the hidden treasure of an epoch marked by ambitious projects with a thirst for human irony. The re-mastered version of this tour de force is likely to leave take your senses to an entire new mode of musical awareness. This isn’t just a collection of music – this is Derek Shulman, Gary Green, Kerry Minnear, Ray Shulman, and John Weathers taking us on a journey through their unconscious minds and beating hearts. For some, this release represents their finest hour; a vibrant collection of savagely unpredictable time signatures filled with a cacophony of untamed instruments all reverberating in unison as if desperately trying to escape the room. But for me, the sheer fearlessness and complexities in songs like The Runaway, Experience, and In a Glass House is likely to broaden your horizons at the speed of light and make you fully respect what was the most underrated group of multi-instrumentalists to ever walk the planet. It’s not hyperbole; every member of this band cut his teeth and earned his stripes playing different instruments at different times during different concerts.
I first discovered the music of Ian Anderson whilst on the cusp of pre-pubescence and in the throes of appreciating what is perhaps the seminal progressive album for a generation. And the best part? It comes straight out of the mind of a flautist and eternal troubadour whose music has spanned half a century. Tull isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, nor was this album spared the industry wrath and media criticism which inevitably followed grandiose concept albums of this ilk. It’s satirical, influenced heavily by Monty Python, and was meant to be more farce than fury, but make no mistakes about it – this release is a genuine masterpiece of hard rock, classical music, and poignant lyrics that will keep you spellbound for years. The production quality alone will embark you on a journey of nuanced acoustic bliss interwoven with ambling polyrhythmic glee that will leave you breathless. Barriemore Barlow (drums), Martin Barre (guitars), John Evan (keys), and Jeffrey Hammond (bass) complete a truly incomparable lineup that tried desperately to bottle their magic after the fact (with A Passion Play), but despite their fastidiousness and meticulous nature found themselves unable to channel the wondrous thaumaturgical brilliance which came to define this landmark album.
What happens when refined jazz meets progressive rock and is ruthlessly commandeered by a quintet of arguably the most resilient musicians on this earth? You end up with pure fusion and songs that are featured and taught on university campuses across parts of North America and Europe. Birds of Fire is “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin and his celestial gang of interstellar ronin (Rick Laird, Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman) ascending to heights of musical consciousness that’s as profound as it is intimidating; my only regret is that this incarnation of the band would soon end. However, I can’t recommend The Lost Trident Sessions enough as a boundless epilogue derived from the remnants of this herculean accomplishment. Virtually every track on this album will stay with you long after you’re done listening – especially Birds of Fire, Open Country Joy, and Sanctuary. The frenetically paced and seemingly possessed output of Cobham alone will be enough to keep you awake for nights on end wondering if what you just heard something that could ever be duplicated again. The answer is a resoundingly slavonic ‘nyet.’
Many purists would argue that Ritchie Blackmore’s collection of sublimely gifted industry names (Ronnie James Dio, Cozy Powell, Tony Carey, Jimmy Bain) came together to create one of the quintessential heavy metal albums during the decade, but I’m willing to go one step further and proclaim that Rainbow Rising has enough progressive elements to be characterized as a bona fide revelation for newcomers to the genre. Stargazer and A Light In The Black take no prisoners when it comes to syncopated artistry and groove-crushing enlightenment. Everything on this album feels like it was born from equal parts heaven and hell. There are conventionally structured songs all over this effort, but considering the established influences involved on this project and the all-encompassing and timeless vocals of Dio, this album deserves your respect and attention for being so much more than what it seems.