U.K. Prog, Volume 8: 1971b Travelers in Space and Time (Notes)

We’re still in 1971, and just as the first volume from this year emphasized the eclecticism of the prog banner, this one reaches all over the place from hard rock to symphonic sounds to late psych, jazz-rock, and pompous, evil sax riffs.

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1. Gentle Giant: Pantagruel’s Nativity 6:50

From the Vertigo LP Acquiring the Taste

Gentle Giant was among the most accomplished British prog bands never to achieve much commercial success. The band was originally built around the core of brothers Derek, Phil and Ray Shulman and Kerry Minnear, though perhaps the most prominent member on this song is longtime guitarist Gary Green. At their best, as heard here, this band had an uncanny way of presenting very complex music palatably and efficiently—they were as ambitious as any other prog band, but never got caught trying to stretch a limited idea over the whole side of an LP. One of their trademarks was their intricate vocal arrangements, in which they toyed with ancient musical techniques like hocketing and polyphony. Multiple members played a wide variety of instruments, and you can hear bits of sax and trumpet flitting through “Pantagruel’s Nativity” alongside the early synth work, Mellotron and heavy guitar. Amid all the tempo changes and sudden shifts in arrangement, Gentle Giant albums united disparate strains of Renaissance and Medieval music, hard rock, jazz, blues, pop, musique concrete, neoclassical, and contemporary symphonic prog into a mix that was entirely their own.

2. Mogul Thrash: Going North, Going West 12:06

From the RCA LP Mogul Thrash

In the name of covering ground and squeezing in variety, I’ve largely avoided including a lot of songs that range past ten minutes on these volumes, but “Going North, Going West” is awesome, and definitely the best Mogul Thrash song, so consider this my concession to the fact that just about every album released by a prog band from the U.K. at this point included at least one track over ten minutes long (in Italy and Germany, side-long tracks were as common as blades of grass on a lawn). Mogul Thrash was formed by James Litherland (James Blake’s father, dubsteppers) after he left Colosseum, and in some respects was fashioned on Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, two bands whose success had not gone unnoticed in the British music scene. The group included a full horn section, but rather than leaning toward jazz, pop and blues like those American groups, Mogul Thrash played their way right into the progressive rock wheelhouse, with rapid-fire unison riffs, winding compositions, and extended passages of improvisation. Future King Crimson bassist/vocalist John Wetton held down the low end for this group, which proved to be a pit stop for all involved, lasting long enough to record just one album.

3. UFO: Silver Bird 6:55

From the Beacon LP Flying

On their earliest albums, heavy metal pioneers UFO sat right at the hard rock/prog nexus, and they weren’t much concerned with efficiency—two songs on their second LP are over 18 minutes long. “Silver Bird” is more compact and even performed modestly as a single. It trades a bit in the space rock implied in their name—the phrase “space rock” even appeared on the album cover. Frankly, the recording could be better—Phil Mogg’s vocal is pretty buried, but the rest of the band gets pretty ample opportunity to really wail in the long instrumental coda. Bassist Pete Way and drummer Andy Parker were a powerful rhythm section, and Mick Bolton was a good, post-psych guitarist. Bolton left in 1972, and his ultimate replacement was German guitarist Michael Schenker, who was recruited from an early lineup of the Scorpions. With Schenker in the band, they pursued a much more straightforward hard rock direction and became a guiding force in the development of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

4. Yes: South Side of the Sky 7:58

From the Atlantic LP Fragile

Yes were by this point the masters of making insanely complex rock music not only palatable but positively infectious. Original guitarist Peter Banks had been replaced by Steve Howe, and original keyboardist Tony Kaye left, to be replaced by Rick Wakeman, who at the time was a journeyman coming off a stint with prog folk act Strawbs. Fragile was the group’s second album of 1971 (after The Yes Album), and the first of two to feature the short-lived but still enormously influential Jon Anderson/Rick Wakeman/Bill Bruford/Steve Howe/Chris Squire lineup. “South Side of the Sky” may be built on an odd-metered groove and intricate instrumental interplay, but it doesn’t feel difficult or particularly esoteric, in part because the playing is all so forceful (Squire’s bass is especially punchy), but also because Anderson’s vocal melody is so catchy and relatively simple. The Wakeman-led interlude provides a nice respite from the intensity of the rest of the song. If you have trouble parsing out what all the subgenre tags you’ll encounter in prog mean, consider that Yes is one of the quintessential symphonic prog bands.

5. Gong: Fohat Digs Holes in Space 6:23

From the Virgin LP Camembert Electrique

In 1967, Australian-born Daevid Allen, who had been playing in an early version of Soft Machine and was also an original member of Canterbury incubator Wilde Flowers, went to France and couldn’t get back into the U.K. because of visa trouble. Instead of pouting, he put a band together in France, and that band became Gong, a group with one of the most tangled histories in all of progressive rock (their Wikipedia page even has a diagram showing all the different variations and offshoots of the band). The band was a derailed for a time by legal troubles of a few members who’d been involved in the 1968 student riots, but solidified in 1970 and began to record. The band’s second album features Allen with drummer Pip Pyle (another big Canterbury guy), reedist Didier Malherbe, bassist Christian Trisch and vocalist Gilli Smyth, a British-born professor at the Sorbonne. I like the way “Fohat” gradually comes into focus, beginning as a cosmic jam before the sax brings it slowly to earth. Then it becomes a sort of absurdist hard psych tune not too unlike a much friendlier Mothers of Invention (without Frank Zappa’s condescension).

6. McDonald & Giles: Tomorrow’s People - The Children of Today 7:03

From the Island LP McDonald & Giles

Michael Giles and Ian McDonald were founding members of King Crimson, and McDonald was perhaps the primary architect of their early sound, playing saxophone and Mellotron. Nevertheless, after In the Court of the Crimson King, they parted ways with Robert Fripp, leaving him the Crimson name (Giles drummed on the group’s second LP as a session player). The album they made as a duo is charming, sounding about as home-spun as a progressive rock album possibly could. The cover even features them with their girlfriends in a candid moment. The side-long track (“Birdman Suite”) is disjointed but features some very impressive passages, while side one features a couple of very sweet folk tunes among the prog numbers. The prog numbers are endearingly ramshackle, and Michael Giles’ “Tomorrow’s People” is the most endearing of all of them, featuring McDonald’s layered sax and Giles’ own everyman vocal. His drumming on this song is crazily funky, too—the Beastie Boys sampled it for “Body Movin’” (at 1:46). Giles and McDonald parted ways after this. Giles wound up playing alongside Mogul Thrash’s James Litherland in Leo Sayer’s band, and McDonald went on to found Foreigner, who of course ruled the airwaves around the turn of the 80s. By the way, I’ve tried to avoid drum solos as much as possible on these volumes; this one seemed worth including, because it’s more of a break than a true bash-and-crash solo.

7. Raw Material: Ice Queen 6:46

From the Neon LP Time Is…

You knew we had to get to the heavy bombast at some point, right? Raw Material bring it on the opener to their second and final album. Bearing not a little similarity to Van der Graaf Generator (specifically their monster song “Killer”), “Ice Queen” features nasty sax riffs from Mike Fletcher and a great instrumental midsection featuring some really nice jazz piano work from vocalist Colin Catt. I guess this is another thing that indicates just how thoroughly prog permeated the British rock world in 1971—VdGG was one of the best band in the genre, but never broke through commercially, and they still managed to inspire imitators, and good ones at that. Neon records was RCA’s prog imprint.

8. Indian Summer: From the Film of the Same Name 5:53

From the Neon LP Indian Summer

Another short lived band from RCA’s Neon stable, Indian Summer made just one LP, but it was a good one that imaginatively cuts its hard-hitting jazz-rock with a heavy dose of symphonic arrangement, complete with elaborate flights on the Hammond organ. I like the way this opens with a fake-out, implying that the whole song will ride a slow, slogging beat, but quickly gives up the ruse, launching into a weird melodic passage where the keyboards and guitar double each other, right down to the keyboard fluttering to match the guitarist’s hammer-ons. They weren’t strictly an instrumental band, but this instrumental is probably the best thing they did.

9. Beggar’s Opera: Time Machine 8:09

From the Vertigo LP Waters of Change

We’ve heard from Scotland’s Beggar’s Opera before, and when they recorded their second album, they were still putting the “second” in “second tier UK Prog.” but they managed to have a minor hit in Germany and the Netherlands with this song. Riding a wave of Mellotron, it’s amusingly dramatic about its subject matter, but they’ve put aside the classical pretensions of their debut to focus more on atmospherics, and it’s an effective shift. Their next album veered back toward hard rock, and after that, they pretty much abandoned progressive rock, which I suppose one could say made them a little ahead of their time.

10. Accolade: The Spider to the Spy 2:41

From the Regal Zonophone LP 2

You’ve heard of regression to the mean? I don’t mean for this to sound nearly as insulting as it does, but Accolade’s “Spider to the Spy” is pretty much British prog rock’s mean circa 1971. It embodies so many things about so many different strains of prog rock that if I were trying to build a portrait of average UK prog, this is one of the first things I’d point to, for its mixture of acoustic and electric instrumentation, oddball sax part, flue solo, unusual vocal recording and lurching rhythm. Keep in mind that I don’t mean “average” in terms of quality, because it’s a great song from a good album by a band that never made another one. At least they managed two, though. Not many bands of their profile did.

11. Marsupilami: Prelude to the Arena 5:22

From the Transatlantic LP Arena

From their weird name to the freaked-out, tweaked-out vocals on “Prelude to the Arena,” Marsupilami could never be mistaken for boring. Their music was wildly complex and ambitious, with pretty much every song they did on their two albums moving through several sections. This band was also one of the few UK prog acts to feature a female instrumentalist in flautist Jessica Stanley-Clarke (more on that on the next volume). Arena is a concept album about Roman fighting culture, and “Prelude” is meant to set the tone for the album, which is does ably with its incredibly bombastic intro. I love the sense of movement built into this composition, and I wish this band had gotten a chance to keep developing its sound.

12. Tonton Macoute: Flying South in Winter 6:28

From the Neon LP Tonton Macoute

Another Neon band, another one-album wonder, Tonton Macoute was named for the special forces security unit of Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, which is turn was named for a folk monster that carried off misbehaving children in a sack and ate them the next day. The band wasn’t nearly as crazy or nasty as its name implied, though. They were fundamentally a jazz-rock group, and reedist Dave Knowles dominated their music melodically. “Flying South in Winter” has some nice faux-Eastern melodies, some great interplay among the musicians, and a generally unhurried vibe that’s a little refreshing in the context of some of the group’s more musically strident colleagues.

13. Jade Warrior: Masai Morning (including: Casting of the Bones, the Hunt, a Ritual of Kings) 6:41

From the Vertigo LP Jade Warrior

In various configurations, Jade Warrior has been around on and off for four decades now, but their earliest music, when they were among the first rock bands to experiment widely and thoroughly with ethnic music, remains their most exciting to me. “Masai Morning” closes out their debut with a short suite that ties together a sort of ethno-ambient introduction and a fuzzy, jazz-inflected rock song. This isn’t the last we’ll hear of this band, which went on to make quite a few good records.