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David Fricke on 2017’s Best Prog Reissues

Can’s complete singles, a massive King Crimson box and more

David Fricke on the Best Year's New Prog Reissues

David Fricke runs down the year's best prog reissues, including a Can singles collection and a massive King Crimson box set.

Giving prog for Christmas? It is not an outrageous idea. In the reissues sweepstakes, where obscured-stories-richly-told beat size and celebrity every time, progressive rock is a booming industry. What follows are seven of the best archival releases in the field, of varying depth and focus, from a banner year.

Allan Holdsworth, 'The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!': 'The Allan Holdsworth Album Collection'; 'Eidolon: The Allan Holdsworth Collection'

Allan Holdsworth, ‘The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!: The Allan Holdsworth Album Collection’; ‘Eidolon: The Allan Holdsworth Collection’

Holdsworth, the English fusion-guitar hero who died this past April at 70, right as these reissues appeared, was too self-effacing to make the claim plastered on the first of the two: a box of 12 full-length solo albums on as many CDs from 1983’s Road Games to Then!, a 2003 live retrospective. Yet even those two decades are just a snapshot of a career that took off in the mid-Seventies crossfire of jazz and progressive rock as Holdsworth played with Soft Machine, the Tony Williams Lifetime, and the band U.K. with former Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford. There and on his own records, Holdsworth soloed like a saxophonist with strings, driving through complex chords and unusual scales with a fluid, almost vocal melodicism, becoming a name to drop – with awe – by guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen, Rush’s Alex Lifeson and Dean DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots. The box reflects Holdsworth’s bumpy ride through record-label politics and the production ideals of the time; the playing is never less than charged and certain. It is admittedly a lot for new students; Eidolon, a two-CD contraction of that material, is the wiser first step. Both are now memorials.

Bill Bruford, ‘Seems like a Lifetime Ago 1977–1980’

In 1977, at 28, Bill Bruford had a lifetime of experience and reputation under his belt – with Yes and King Crimson; a touring season in Genesis – when the drummer launched two new bands: U.K. and another under his surname with a starting lineup that also included Holdsworth. Bruford managed to get fired from U.K. after one album (with Holdsworth) but made four LPs with his own unit, one live, until he got a 1981 call to return to Crimson. That discography is gathered in this six-CD box with previously unissued concert material, rehearsals from an unfinished studio album and deep annotation. Bruford’s collaborators on 1978’s Feels Good to Me reflected his broad definition of fusion: the jazz singer and electronic composer Annette Peacock; Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler; organist Dave Stewart from the truly-prog bands Egg and Hatfield and the North. Later records were made by a tightening quartet with a lively book of originals and a compelling tension onstage. In 2016, Bruford – who kept zigzagging through Crimson, jumped back to Yes for a minute and founded the great jazz group Earthworks before retiring from live work in 2009 – received a Ph.D in music from the University of Surrey. Here is some vintage homework. 

Art Zoyd, 'Live and Unreleased Works'

Art Zoyd, ‘Live and Unreleased Works’

Formed in Valenciennes, France, in 1969, Art Zoyd were wide of the mainstream from the start, then went further out – dropping rock instrumentation (guitars, drumming) and songwriting conventions; fusing chamber music, electronic advance and a leftist-political edge as a member of the prog alliance Rock in Opposition; finding composing and conceptual vigor in soundtracks, ballets and film scores. Art Zoyd’s official discography is big enough for a vault-like box of its own. Live and Unreleased is an invigorating immersion in their parallel history of live, TV and radio recordings across 12 CDs and two DVDs. The earliest performances, from the late Seventies, are a fury of experiment and avant-rock drive descended from the British inspiration of King Crimson and Henry Cow. More recent work, including a full 2015 concert retrospective on one DVD, documents Art Zoyd’s unbroken pursuit of a new modernism beholden to no genre, still a rock in opposition. 

Unicorn, Blue Pine Trees

Unicorn, ‘Blue Pine Trees’; ‘Too Many Crooks’; ‘One More Tomorrow’

In 1973, a young English band with one album and diminishing prospects took a job playing at a wedding. Among the guests: Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. He jammed on a Neil Young song with the group, Unicorn, and took a shine to its blend of progressive-country songwriting, jangling-Byrds guitars and three-part vocal harmonies. Gilmour brokered a deal for the band with the Floyd’s management; produced Unicorn’s 1974 album, Blue Pine Trees; and remained supportive even after the last of these three seductive albums, reissued in expanded form. The new version of 1977’s One More Tomorrow has a demo from two years later, taped at Gilmour’s home studio. Unicorn had as much California in their sound as English countryside. Think of the choral Crosby, Stills and Nash and the ballad Poco via the Floyd’s bucolic strains on Side One of 1971’s Meddle, the real-ale whimsey in the Canterbury band Caravan and Nick Lowe’s pub-rock songcraft for Brinsley Schwarz. Unicorn never made it that high and far but not for lack of friends or the lasting goods.

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