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50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time

From the Court of the Crimson King to the Comatorium

For close to a half century, prog has been the breeding ground for rock’s most out-there, outsized and outlandish ideas: Thick-as-a-brick concept albums, an early embrace of synthesizers, overly complicated time signatures, Tolkienesque fantasies, travails from future days and scenes from a memory. In celebration of Rush’s first Rolling Stone cover story, here’s the best of the deliciously decadent genre that the punks failed to kill.

Tool, 'Lateralus'
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Tool, ‘Lateralus’ (2001)

By the release of Tool's third album, the band had moved far past sub-three-minute songs with in-your-face lyrics, like 1992's anti-censorship quick hit "Hush." By contrast, Lateralus' nine-and-a-half-minute title track is based, both in its time signatures and lyric patterns, on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers that describes many of nature's spiraling shapes, from ferns to pine cones. Despite its musical complexity, abstruse themes and embrace of the band's King Crimson fandom, the album debuted at Number One and launched Tool into amphitheaters and arenas around the world. "Most bands have been taught that they have to write these formulaic pop songs to be successful," guitarist Adam Jones told Guitar World at the time. "As soon as you start listening to those rules, you're in trouble." B.G.

Kansas, 'Leftoverture'
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Kansas, ‘Leftoverture’ (1976)

Europe may have been the epicenter of progressive rock during the 1970s, but prog was certainly thriving in the American heartland as well. Influenced by Yes and Genesis, but also boasting serious Southern Rock fire and swing, Kansas' fourth album sold more than five million copies, largely on the strength of its bong-rattling opener "Carry On Wayward Son." But there was more to Leftoverture than a classic-rock staple; tracks like "Miracles Out of Nowhere," "Cheyenne Anthem" and the six-part mostly instrumental "Magnum Opus" (first movement: "Father Padilla Meets the Perfect Gnat") showcased the unique sound and vision of a legit arena-rock act. In his Rolling Stone review, Alan Neister wrote: "Leftoverture warrants Kansas a spot right alongside Boston and Styx as one of the fresh new American bands." D.E.

Renaissance, 'Ashes Are Burning'
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Renaissance, ‘Ashes Are Burning’ (1973)

With a debt to psych-pop outfits Jefferson Airplane and It's a Beautiful Day, plus English folk-rockers like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, Renaissance's Annie Haslam brought a feminine energy to prog rock's sausage fest: See the title track, the band's signature, which she ends with a spectacularly held note that Geddy Lee couldn't hit if his balls were in a panini press. Formed from the ashes of the Yardbirds by Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, the band went through radical personnel changes over the years, all in service of meshing classical, folk and rock, but with more of a traditional song-sense than most of their prog peers. This set split the difference between hooks and sprawl. And 40 years later, Annie Haslam is still spinning tales like Guinevere. W.H.

U.K., 'U.K.'
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U.K., ‘U.K.’ (1978)

Prog disciples looked to U.K. as one of the most promising supergroups ever — the band featured ex-members of King Crimson, Yes, Roxy Music and Soft Machine. But they only stuck around for about three years, creating an intensely melodic blend of prog and jazz fusion on their debut, achieving orchestral intricacy without drifting off into self-indulgence. Eddie Jobson's twirly keyboards and weepy electric violin duel playfully with Allan Holdsworth's soaring guitar, while John Wetton's resounding bass locks in with Bill Bruford's syncopated drumming. After the album was released, Bruford and Holdsworth bolted, expressing disinterest in working on a more elaborate follow-up. "The theory was that America needs a new ELP," explained Bruford at the time. "Half of U.K. [felt that way], and me and Holdsworth thought that America needed Holdsworth." The remaining members never quite captured the debut's groove and broke up in 1980 — though Wetton and Jobson reunited in 2012 to tour. J.W.

Dream Theater, 'Metropolis 2: Scenes From a Memory'
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Dream Theater, ‘Metropolis 2: Scenes From a Memory’ (1999)

For those who wish Rush was still stuck in 2112, Dream Theater have been a welcome alternative for decades, but this is their most impressive display of intricate, concept-metal proggery. Inspired by nine-minute-plus 1992 track "Metropolis Part 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper," Dream Theater reached their peak moment of high drama by extending the song's original story line about a woman who dies and the man who may have killed her. A two-act, 80-minute, non-linear production, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory is composed of nine songs that delve into the murder mystery by exploring a new character's past-life regressions and paranormal experiences. To supplement the rather bewildering story, the band weaves together epic instrumental flourishes influenced by early Rush, Fates Warning and Queensrÿche. Guitarist John Petrucci wrote on his Web site, "We'd always wanted to do a concept album, so we figured, why not?" J.W.

Opeth, 'Blackwater Park'
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Opeth, ‘Blackwater Park’ (2001)

Titled in tribute to the early-Seventies German proggers of the same name, Blackwater Park marked the first time these Swedish death-metal virtuosos gave full reign to the progressive tendencies that had long lurked in their music. With Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson producing plus adding keyboards, Mellotron and backing vocals to epic, multi-movement excursions like "The Drapery Falls," "Leper Affinity" and the misanthropic 12-minute title-track climax, Opeth leader Mikael Åkerfeldt infused the melodic, atmospheric aspects of King Crimson and Pink Floyd with Opeth's complex, dark riffs and his own sepulchral growl. "I would not call it melancholy, it's just pitch black!" Åkerfeldt told Ultimate Metal. "Everything is kind of veiled in some kind of darkness." Wilson assisted on two other similarly brilliant albums — 2002's Deliverance and 2003's Damnation — but Blackwater Park marked Opeth's ascension to metal's top tier. D.E.

Supertramp, 'Crime of the Century'
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Supertramp, ‘Crime of the Century’ (1974)

Following two flops, the band famously financed by a Dutch millionaire throttled down their progressive ambitions for an album of tighter, poppier songs. It sold more than 20 million copies, delivering the hits "Bloody Well Might" and "Dreamer," while breaking Supertramp in the United States. Like Pink Floyd without Roger Waters' arrogance, Crime focused on adolescent angst ("Hide in Your Shell"), adult alienation ("Rudy") and madness ("Asylum"). Unfortunately for Supertramp's two songwriters — the emotionally exposed Roger Hodgson and the more rocking Rick Davies – Crime was the last time the pair were on the same page. Thus, according to Hodgson, the album represents "the pinnacle of the band being together as a unified entity." R.G.

Van Der Graaf Generator, 'Pawn Hearts'
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Van Der Graaf Generator, ‘Pawn Hearts’ (1971)

The third album by Van Der Graaf Generator won over prog fans by featuring King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. But Pawn Hearts turned out to be a confusingly heady trip for even the most attentive listeners. On "Man-Eng," singer/idea machine Peter Hammill showed off his operatic chops over processional keyboards and rollercoaster drums, then yowled, "How I can be free!" during a stampeding middle section that evolves into six minutes of kiting sax and keyboard abstraction. And the 23-minute "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (Medley)" makes King Crimson sound like the Ramones, with its gaping, spacey interludes, freeblown solos, jarring shifts, and lyrics like, "When you see the skeletons of sailing-ship spars sinking low/You'll begin to wonder if the points of all the ancient myths are solemnly directed straight at you." These guys tried to channel all the myths at once, making for music that was pure prog id, minus any cohesion or concision to hamstring the majesty. J.D.

The Mars Volta, 'De-Loused in the Comatorium'
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The Mars Volta, ‘De-Loused in the Comatorium’ (2003)

"Our music demands. . .at least an hour out of your life, and with complete silence and with complete devotion," Mars Volta vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala once proclaimed. Even a semi-monastic hour (and 51 seconds) of listening reveals a satisfyingly twisted universe within these Texas oddballs' first full-length suite, De-Loused in the Comatorium. Emerging from the vitriolic ashes of Bixler-Zavala and virtuoso guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López's art-punk project At the Drive-In, the group manically aligns triumphant metal, psychedelic rock and Latin jazz. The oft-grotesque lyrics — about a man who overdoses on morphine and rat poison and goes into a coma — are repeatedly ruptured and stitched back together with a desperate flair by Rodríguez-López. Produced with Rick Rubin, De-Loused also featured low-end rumbles from stand-in bassist Flea and drumkit pyro from current Queens of the Stone Age stickman Jon Theodore. The 12-and-a-half minutes of "Cicatriz E.S.P." — complete with a helicopter interlude — show 21st Century prog's heartbeat to be as irregular as ever. R.F.

Magma, 'Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh'
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Magma, ‘Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh’ (1973)

With Magma, French drummer-composer Christian Vander literally created a new musical language — "Kobaïan," named after a planet he also invented — melding manic opera, Coltrane-influenced free jazz, thunderous avant-rock, and extra-terrestrial lyrical themes into a self-styled genre known as "zeuhl." Vander perfected his particular brand of insanity on Magma's third LP, a barrage of choral shrieks and tricky time signatures that ranked Number 33 on Rolling Stone France's 100 Greatest French Rock Albums. Mekanik's expansive explorations are basically "prog" at its purest, pushing conventional rock structures into strange new territories. But Vander rejects any such definition. "'Zeuhl' music means 'vibratory music,'" he told The Big Takeover this year. "It is definitely not a subset of prog, and Magma isn't a prog group. Magma is an institution." R.R.