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.
Formed in a James Madison University dorm room, Washington, D.C.-based Happy the Man recorded three venerated, mostly instrumental prog albums in the late 1970s, striking a seductive middle ground between sax-driven jazz-fusion lunacy (circa Zappa's One Size Fits All) and synth-heavy meditative twittering. After a showcase, Clive Davis reportedly told the band, "Wow. I don’t really understand this music. It’s way above my head”; yet he still signed them to Arista. Their debut is the band at its most dynamic, highlighted by intricate instrumental interplay as far-out as the song titles ("Stumpy Meets the Firecracker in Stencil Forest," "Knee Bitten Nymphs in Limbo"). R.R.
Beaming down from the far reaches of the prog-rock galaxy, this Japanese drums and bass duo slam together mathematically improbable meters and dissonant blasts of rhythm with nonsense wails or demonic growls. The band's fifth album is especially fascinating, as Ruins inject snippets of vocal melody, droning doom, punk tempos, and meticulous Crimson-esque prog into their rapidly morphing songs. The most obvious influence on Ruins' ringleader Yoshida Tatsuya is Magma's iconoclastic Christian Vander — like Vander, Yoshida even created his own language for the band — but there are also traces of experimental freaker Frank Zappa and avant-jazz terrorizer John Zorn (who released the album on his Tzadik label). Some have tagged Hyderomastgroningem unlistenable and undoubtedly it could drive most fans of King Crimson or Yes batty. But maybe that just makes Ruins more prog than prog. J.W.
Superficially, Toronto-based FM had a lot working against them: Aside from Rush, Canada was never a prog hotbed, and the band released its debut album in 1977, as many of the genre's originators were fading. Still, Black Noise was one of late-era prog’s most original albums – a hypnotic blend of symphonic synthesizer effects and glossy New Wave melodies, plus an exotic whirl of electric mandolin and violin from Nash the Slash, a.k.a. Jeff Plewman, who performed onstage with his face entirely obscured by surgical bandages. Opener "Phasors on Stun" became a minor AM radio hit, driven by a yearning hook from frontman-bassist-keyboardist Cameron Hawkins, and the band has released several more albums over the years, but FM never managed to reach their debut’s deep-cosmos magic. "There is a timeless quality about that record," Hawkins told The Music Express in 2014. R.R.
American rockers aren't known for their prog ambitions, and the bands that did push the boundaries usually slipped through the commercial cracks. Case in point: West Virginia wise-asses Crack the Sky, who created an outright classic with their kaleidoscopic debut. Led by singer-mastermind John Palumbo, the band expertly navigated chunky hard-rock riffs ("Hold On"), barbed art pop ("Surf City"), fusion funk (the wicked breakdown in "She's a Dancer") and long-form balladry ("Sea Epic"). Yet they never achieved more than a faithful regional following, despite a glowing Rolling Stone review: "Like the first albums of Steely Dan, 10cc, and the Tubes, Crack the Sky's debut introduces a group whose vision of mid-'70s ennui is original, humorous and polished. . ." Bolstered by the fans they do have, Crack the Sky have kept at it: Their 15th studio album, Ostrich, was released in 2012. R.R.
Flamenco prog: a pretty ridiculous idea, even for 1973. But London-based Carmen made that synthesis feel revolutionary on their debut LP, chasing the vision of Los Angeles singer-guitarist David Allen (who was assisted by his sister and keyboardist Angela Allen). In a glammy yelp, the frontman sang tales of bullfights and gypsies, as the music blended Mellotron, rock rhythms, and zapateado footwork into a cosmic headfuck (produced by David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti). But it couldn't last. After releasing two more albums (and opening for Santana and Jethro Tull), Carmen folded in 1975. Even as Fandangos in Space has faded into obscurity, it has reached a new generation of musicians. "It's amazing," Opeth frontman Mikael Akerfeldt told Metal Hammer in 2012. "It's a crazy flamenco prog-rock folk record! They had tap dancing on the record and castanets too! Everyone I've played it to has been blown away by it." R.R.
This German trio is often branded as a clone of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which is an unfair, if understandable, dismissal. Propelled by Jürgen Fritz's keyboard arsenal of grand piano, Hammond organ and Moog synth, the band were clearly versed in the science of Brain Salad Surgery. But what they lacked in originality they made up for with mind-boggling chops. Triumvirat's second LP, 1974's Illusions on a Double Dimple, is a prog-rock masterwork, incorporating operatic choirs and bursts of pop levity into two seamless, side-spanning epics. They softened their approach later in the decade in a quest for commercial stability — and failed miserably. But thanks to Illusions, Triumvirat's legacy among the prog firmament was secure. R.R.
Led by the ambitious prose and untamed warble of mastermind Dave Cousins, Strawbs started as a bluegrass outfit called the Strawberry Hill Boys, briefly worked with future Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny, and eventually evolved into full-fledged prog by the mid-1970s. Hero and Heroine is the band's heaviest, most symphonic album, anchored by John Hawken's ghostly Mellotron and guitarist Dave Lambert's stinging distortion. Strawbs hadn't abandoned their acoustic side — "Midnight Sun" is one of Cousins' most assured ballads. But the newfound muscle and energy broadened their appeal: Multi-part opener "Autumn" is the band's most majestic moment, a melancholy epic for the prog time capsule. Bonus fact: Production team Sid Roams sampled the title track for rapper Papoose's 2008 track "Bang Bang." R.R.
Sub-titled A Symphony by the Electric Light Orchestra, ELO's fourth studio LP was its first to feature an actual orchestra, as opposed to just overdubbed string parts. A concept album about the lonely, romantic daydreams of a man desperate to escape the drudgery of his daily life, Eldorado weaves its songs into a dense, atmospheric tapestry that is essentially pop-prog. Despite some typically brilliant Jeff Lynne hooks – "Can't Get It Out of My Head," the band's first Top 10 hit, was as catchy as its title suggested – the album was meant to be enjoyed as a complete work. Called "something of a triumph" by Rolling Stone at the time, Eldorado was later used by experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger as the soundtrack to the 1978 re-release of his surreal 1954 film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which certainly speaks to the album's transportive, cinematic qualities. D.E.
It's one of those grandiose album titles, like Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, which actually lived up to its billing. The Swedish juggernaut's definitive second album did destroy, erase and improve the prog-metal archetype when it dropped in 1995. Some dubbed the record's mix of brain-frying polyrhythms, stuttering riffs and Frippian solos "math metal"; the kids called it "djent." Onomatopoeia for their downtuned and hyper-distorted guitar chug, the term was originally coined by the band's lead shredder Fredrik Thordendal, and has come to represent a generation of young progressive headbangers like Periphery, Animals as Leaders and TesseracT. But try as they might, none will ever write a song as abrasive yet brainy yet catchy as "Future Breed Machine" — by the band's own admission, they are the three most repeated words at any Meshuggah concert. B.G.
Described by Lester Bangs in Rolling Stone as "Germany's great psyche-overload band," Amon Düül II delivered some serious mind-fry on their sprawling second album. Heavier and hairier than most of their Krautrock contemporaries, the band melded elements of the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd and Quicksilver Messenger Service with African, Asian and Indian influences to create something deeply personal and even more deeply weird. Half of Yeti was completely improvised in the studio, but it's hard to identify which half; pre-written tracks like the opening suite "Soap Shop Rock" and the searing rocker "Archangel Thunderbird" seem to follow their own primal internal compass, while the improvised nine-minute closer "Sandoz in the Rain" (allegedly recorded while the entire band was on acid) is ravishing in its stark, crystalline beauty. Yeti isn't just one of Krautrock's greatest albums; it's one of the finest records of the entire original psychedelic era. D.E.
To quote Robert Wyatt's lyrics from Third's "Moon in June," Soft Machine specialized in "background noise for people scheming, seducing, revolting and teaching." Cosmically heady, unconventional to a fault, and often more audibly jarring than a piano dropped on top of a piano, the English instrumental savants' unvarnished tape collages make Pink Floyd songs sound like bubblegum. With four compositions nearly 20 minutes each, Third opens with the free-jazz menace of "Facelift," which is even more out-bloody-rageous than the cool-ambient freakout of "Out-Bloody-Rageous." Keyboardist Mike Ratledge spent the entire album going typically nuts. While Wyatt spoke in tongues, he and bassist Hugh Hopper made the aforementioned "June" sound like six Cream songs played simultaneously. "I work in a trance, don't really know what I'm doing 'til it's done," Wyatt has said. R.F.
For their ninth studio recording, British art-rockers Porcupine Tree created a concept album based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel Lunar Park, with lyrics that addressed how the adolescent protagonist battled his bipolar and attention-deficit disorders with a regimen of prescription drugs and Internet overstimulation. The music used sprawling vocal melodies, atmospheric guitars and drums that tumbled through chaotic passages to echo the main character's manic-depressive states. Porcupine color their songs with chiming prog, serrated Nineties alt-rock and blaring hard-rock power chords, enlisting the help of Robert Fripp, Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson and ex-Japan keyboardist Richard Barbieri. J.W.
Australian ex-pat Daevid Allen is one of prog's greatest weirdos: He co-founded genre pioneers Soft Machine, then triangulated psychedelic English whimsy, German kosmische space jams and Gallic libertine fusion in French-British outfit Gong. His magnum opus, serialized across three LPs known as the Radio Gnome Trilogy, was an appropriately gnomic narrative involving pothead pixies, octave doctors, flying teapots and a journeyman known as Zero the Hero. The music was even wilder, and You, the trilogy's finale, was its pinnacle. While Allen swapped pronouncements with muse Gilli Smyth — Nico reimagined as a soft-porn Glinda the Good Witch — alongside Didier Malherbe's free jazz windstorms and Steve Hillage's 'shrooming John McLaughlin freakouts, the group created a cartoon hash-den passion play as hilarious as it was semi-profound. W.H.
British prog-rock darlings of the Eighties, Marillion took the spirit of Peter Gabriel-fronted Genesis and reworked it for an American rock audience that was chaps-deep in hair metal. Following up 1985 commercial breakthrough Misplaced Childhood — which stayed at Number One on the U.K. album charts and went to Number 47 in the U.S. — Marillion's fourth album balanced melody and melodrama. Surrounded by atmospheric production and guitarist Steve Rothery's spacious, relatively restrained guitar (which split the difference between Genesis' Steve Hackett and U2's the Edge), Fish unspooled a poignant, almost spoken-word tale about a loser musician and deadbeat dad who drinks away his pain in pubs, hotel rooms and venues. "The concept was maybe too close to home," he wrote in the liner notes for the album's 1999 re-release. Fish soon left the band to recover and pursue a solo career. J.W.
For their second record, French-Canadian folk guitar trio Harmonium expanded into a symphonic quintet, adding woodwinds and keyboards to flesh out a concept album based on the four seasons (and a fantastical fifth). The first side is all pastoral warmth, with guitarist Serge Fiori's sweet-nothings croon, and jazzy asides. Elegant stuff, but only a warm-up for the side-two centerpiece "Histoires sans paroles," which is 17 minutes of cyclical flute themes, Mellotron haze, and billowing vocal harmonies (featuring guest Judi Richards). In 2007, journalist Bob Mersereau ranked Si On Avait Number 56 in his book The Top 100 Canadian Albums. But he may have undersold the album — it's the pinnacle of the entire folk-prog movement. R.R.
Prog flourished in Britain, but some of the genre's most innovative bands (PFM, Le Orme, Goblin) came from Italy. Banco were the most unique of the bunch, defined by the operatic bellow of Francesco Di Giacomo and the expressive dual keyboards of brothers Vittorio and Gianni Nocenzi. While 1972's Darwin! showcased the sextet's Romantic edge, the following year's Io Sono Nato Libero (or I Was Born Free) perfected the approach with cleaner production and refined arrangements. From the serene ballad "Non Mi Rompete" to the 15-minute symphonic-rock pummeling of "Canto Nomade per un Prigioniero Politico," the album represents Rock Progressivo Italiano at its purest. R.R.
Among the many memorable bands to emerge from Canterbury, England — including the Soft Machine, Gong and Camel — none conveyed the southeastern cathedral town's pastoral qualities better than Caravan. The title and cover art of the quartet's third album evoked a Middle Earth sunset, with the music wavering between medieval folk melodies and jazz-savvy musos rocking out over what bassist Richard Sinclair called "a load of words that half mean something." Side one consisted of short, charming songs like "Golf Girl," the Tolkien-y "Winter Wine" and the surreal Boy Scout ramble of the title track; but side two was solely devoted to "Nine Feet Underground," a 22-minute, eight-part suite with Zappa-esque subtitles — e.g., "Dance of the Seven Paper Hankies" — that unfurled a breezily grooving descent into hell and back dominated by extended fuzz-organ solos. R.G.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.