U.K. Prog, Volume 9: 1972a Thrones & Realms (Notes)

So it’s 1972, and you’re a prog band, which means you’re probably doing one of three things: breaking up, preparing a shift toward more conventional music, or doubling down, filling one side of your album with a single song and tracking down Roger Dean to have him paint weird causeways and extraterrestrial birds on your album sleeve. 1972 was perhaps the peak year of British prog from an artistic standpoint, a year when it seemed like anything was possible—studio technology was improving and getting cheaper to access, labels were mining the club and ballroom circuits for prog acts, Europe was hungry for British bands, and the music charted well.

A lot of first-wave and second-wave prog bands perished in 1972, or at least released their final albums, and there’s the sense that things were beginning to shake out a bit—nothing lasts forever. Still, there were plenty of bands toiling in obscurity, and the scene remained rich and deep, far more so than I can cover in a couple volumes.

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1. Genesis: Watcher of the Skies 7:23

From the Charisma LP Foxtrot

I could have introduced Genesis earlier in this series. They’re one of the most important groups in British progressive rock, and their story began in 1967, when the band came together at Charterhouse School. Their first album, 1969’s From Genesis to Revelation, was considerably more straightforward and pop-oriented than the music they’d come to make (it also included string arrangements added after the fact by the label). In 1970, they moved to Charisma, the label originally founded by Tony Stratton-Smith to release Van der Graaf Generator’s debut. Their first LP for the label, 1970’s Trespass, established their expansive, complex style, but the band nearly didn’t survive it—drummer John Mayhew and guitarist/composer Anthony Phillips left, the latter because of crushing stage fright. This had a few knock-on effects: drummer Phil Collins joined, and to compensate for the loss of the guitarist, Tony Banks developed a unique style of lead fuzz piano that would pop up on the band’s albums for years.

Vocalist Peter Gabriel was, of course, anything bu afraid of performing, and his operatic, many-costumed stage performances helped cement the band’s reputation as a must-see live act. The band finally recruited guitarist Steve Hackett, putting in place the classic quintet lineup that recorded a run of four classic, defining progressive rock albums. Foxtrot was the second of these, and the band’s first to crack the UK top twenty. It did that partly on the strength of the side-long “Supper’s Ready,” but “Watcher of the Skies” is the song that showcases all of the band’s biggest strengths in one superb, relatively compact statement. Banks’ slow, sour Mellotron intro is hardly preparation for the intensely rhythmic song that follows.

One of the things I love about the arrangement is the way Mike Rutherford’s bass essentially snatches the lead away from Hackett’s guitar, which is more engaged in filling the sidelines in with color. The band had a very distinctive aesthetic vision, but what’s really amazing about it is that they achieved that vision without ever settling into a predictable pattern—any instrument could lead at any time, and a song could go anywhere they felt like taking it. They remained a great band for years after the quintet version began eroding, but it was this version of the band that made the most powerful, lasting impression.

2. Wishbone Ash: The King Will Come 7:06

From the MCA LP Argus

One more from Wishbone Ash, whom we previously heard engaged in a bit of whimsical hard rock with the wordless vocal harmonies of “Vas Dis.” “The King Will Come” is decidedly more serious, about its subject matter and its ambitions as well. The Argus LP is the band’s artistic peak, and while it’s not quite as crazy with the meter changes and structural complexity of some of its contemporaries, it does have its share of excellent progressive rock workouts. The long instrumental midsection of “The King Will Come” features some of the finest interplay between guitarists Ted Turner and Andy Powell. From here, the band turned to more conventional hard rock, and even lost its signature twin lead guitar sound for a time when Powell left the band (he was replaced by Laurie Wisefield).

3. Gracious!: Blues Skies & Alibis 5:00 

From the Philips LP This Is… Gracious!!

Gracious! Released two albums, and we heard a selection from their first on Volume 6. I think they’re worth revisiting for a song from the follow-up, if only to demonstrate what was happening to the music from 1970 to 1972. “Heaven,” from the debut, was slow and sprawling, a long, melodic song with a lot of music twists and detours. “Blue Skies and Alibis” is far more streamlined, with Martin Kitcat’s Mellotron playing an unusual lead instrument role rather than its usual atmospheric, textural role. Even as structures continued to sprawl out and prog bands chose to build their music around bigger and bigger concepts, certain commercial pressures were already pressing in as early as 1972, and bands on the specialty labels (Gracious had graduated from Vertigo to Philips, the parent label of Vertigo, for LP two) were finding that with the lousy support their labels were capable of throwing behind them, they needed make hits happen for themselves. In the case of Gracious, a hit never did happen, but it’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality in which “Blue Skies” might have been the one.

4. Asgærd: Time 5:12

From the Threshold LP In the Realm of Asgærd

Gracious wasn’t the only band from the initial prog wave to bite the dust in 1972—the Moody Blues, whose penchant for melancholy drama, conceptual themes and big, huge waves of Mellotron had helped shape early progressive rock, recorded their last album prior to a 1978 reunion. The Moodies’ record label, Threshold, remained active, though, and Asgærd, named for the country of the Norse gods (one of the nine worlds of Norse religion), was, along with Trapeze and the American group Providence, one of three non-Moodies-related bands to be signed to the label. In the Realm of Asgard was their only album, featuring about 35 minutes of concise, pop-accessible prog. Peter Orgill’s violin gave their music an interesting edge, but the core of their sound is the harmonies of Ted Bartlett, James Smith and Rodney Harrison, the first two of whom were solely vocalists for the band (Harrison played guitar). The completely unexpected Celtic hoedown in the middle of the song is one of my favorite moments on this whole volume. I’m not sure what happened to the members of Asgærd after their split, but the name stayed around—at least two other prog bands, one from Italy and another from France, have used it.

5. Catapilla: Charing Cross 6:45

From the Vertigo LP Changes

Catapilla was another short-lived band, cutting two albums of murky jazz-rock before disappearing. Changes was the second—like most Vertigo bands, they were quite good but never found an audience for their recordings. Their take on jazz-rock was filtered through some of the wiggier elements of psychedelia, and their records feature a lot of delay and other studio effects (as well as musical effects—guitarist Graham Wilson has an extended passage of finger-tapping toward the end). Their sax-augmented lineup was fairly normal for a prog band, but they had a different kind of wild card in singer Anna Meek, whose tripped-out vocals function more like an additional instrument than a typical pop vocal. “Charing Cross” shows her approach well. If you’re unfamiliar with London, Charing Cross today is a major transit station housed in an absolutely massive building by the Thames. The name comes from the wooden cross that once stood in the intersection that occupied the site long ago.

6. Jade Warrior: Three-Horned Dragon King 6:10

From the Vertigo LP Released

Jade Warrior closed out our last volume with a sort of ghostly world music track—“Three-Horned Dragon King” is perhaps more emblematic of their overall approach, stirring together rock, jazz and bit of African-ish percussion into a whole that’s complex but coherentThe song buried in all this fusion is pretty ferocious, too, with a strong vocal and nice, ripping fuzz guitar, which was a tone that a lot of prog guys were shying away from at the time. It meshes really nicely with the sax on the main riff. There’s already been plenty of down talk about band splitting on this volume; Jade Warrior was a survivor, persisting into the 1990s (albeit with a couple of lengthy hiatuses)

7. Morgan: War Games 7:04

From the RCA LP Nova Solis

Morgan had roots in psychedelic pop groups of the late 60s; singer Tim Staffel had been in Smile with Brian May and Roger Taylor, while keyboardist Morgan Fisher and drummer Maurice Bacon had played together in several bands. The Queen connection is especially odd given that vocals really aren’t Morgan’s strong suit. Staffel was adequate, but it was really Fisher’s keyboards that dominated the band and gave them their sound. This track from Nova Solis, the band’s debut, comes in and goes out on understated drones, but nothing in between could reasonably be called understated. Bob Sapsed’s overdriven bass work in the verses gives the song a powerful groove that it really needs to make its way through all the heavy lyrics and flowery keyboard themes, though I do dig that harpsichord passage in the middle. Morgan made only one more album, 1973’s The Sleeper Wakes.

8. Emerson Lake & Palmer: Living Sin 3:14

From the Manticore LP Trilogy

When you’re addressing the big names on a volume like this, you’re first confronted with all the different points you might want to make. ELP has a well-cemented reputation for pomp and pretense, and most people who are interested in the band realize that their Greg Lake-led hits were atypical entries in their songbook, so I decided to lean away from “The Endless Enigma” and “From the Beginning” and go with “Living Sin,” a song that I think nicely channels all of the band’s bombast into something intentionally over the top and, well, fun. Greg Lake clearly loves singing this song (“twisted!”), and Keith Emerson goes totally nuts with his organ riffs, building them out into ridiculously long and yet oddly compelling tangles of blues phrasing. People tend to forget that ELP had a sometimes wicked sense of humor, and I think it’s a shame that it’s the side of them that’s been most thoroughly dropped from the conventional narratives around them.

9. Paladin: Any Way 4:20

From the Bronze LP Charge!

I don’t know how they did it, but Paladin managed to score one of Roger Dean’s wickedest cover paintings for their second album, Charge! I think the thing riding the robo-horse is supposed to be an alien knight? Dean’s fantastical landscapes and bizarre creatures are practically the visual synonym for progressive rock, and especially the symphonic variety, and I’m fairly certain that James Cameron owes the guy royalties for Avatar. On some level, they’re a little cheesy—whoa! There are fish, swimming, like, in the air!—but more to the point, they really are a perfect visual complement to the records they adorn, on which the bands in question were often attempting to build worlds no less fantastic. Paladin wasn’t quite working toward that goal—their second album is relatively straightforward and light on bombast, much less the travails of gnomes and fairies—but it is still a very nicely conceived and performed record. “Any Way” is the big ballad, and it stands well alongside just about any other 70s rock ballad I can think of. Paladin’s second album was its last, and the band split soon after making it. Keyboardist Pete Solley later joined Procol Harum just in time help them record their last album, Something Magic.

10. Tractor: Make the Journey 9:11

From the Dandelion LP Tractor

Tractor’s “Make the Journey” begins as a rather ordinary post-psych hard rock song, but when the harmonies on the chorus hit, drawing a sharp and immediate contrast against the verses, it becomes clear that this is really something else. One ferocious guitar solo and a final verse later, we’re off into a sort of dub/noise coda built around those same chorus harmonies, which blow through the noise like ghosts. All of this racket was made by two guys, Jim Milne and Steve Clayton—a studio-bound duo like Tractor was fairly unusual in the progressive rock world (and they did assemble a touring band from time to time), but they made it work, and the band has been active at various levels from the 60s to the present. Oddly, they’ve only made two albums in that time, Tractor, and another under their previous name, The Way We Live.

11. Second Hand: Death May Be Your Santa Claus 2:34

From the Mushroom LP Death May Be Your Santa Claus

Way back on Volume 3, we heard an incredibly ambitious, epic psych track by Second Hand called “Mainliner,” recorded when the band members were only in their teens. I’ve heard that their second album was recorded in 1970 and not released until 1972 (I’ve also heard that it was recorded and released in 1971), but either way, it came out a bit too late for its heavy, organ-driven psych sound to really break through. The sound was so organ driven primarily because the guitarist had left the band and they couldn’t find a good replacement. Death May Be Your Santa Claus is about as weird as its title overall, but I think it’s a fun record. The band recorded one more album, under the new name Chillum, before splitting. Bandleader Ken Elliot and drummer Kieran O’Connor went on to play together as Seventh Wave.

12. Gnidrolog: Ship 6:42

From the RCA LP Lady Lake

I’ve looked a lot, and I can’t figure out where Gnidrolog’s name comes from. It seems like it must be a reference to some sort of myth or fantasy story, but I’m hardly an expert on either, so if anyone knows, tell me. I do know that the band’s nucleus was brothers Colin and Stewart Goldring, who began playing in bands together in the mid-60s. Gnidrolog was a reasonably typical early 70s prog act, incorporating sax as a primarily rhythm-focused instrument into a more standard rock setup, and their two albums, both released in 1972, featured their share of lengthy jams. “Ship” is a bit more bite-sized, with the bass, sax, and guitar all operating somewhere between strictly rhythmic and melodic roles. It gives the slow-tempoed song a sense of constant forward momentum as the instruments twist around each other. The band broke up quickly after Lady Lake flopped, but the Goldring brothers would later join the small handful of musicians that literalized the fall of prog to punk when they formed their own scatalogically inclined punk band, the Pork Dukes, in 1976. That band managed three albums before splitting in 1979.

13. Janus: I Wanna Scream 2:47

From the Harvest LP Gravedigger

Janus is a classic one-album wonder, their sole LP for Harvest landing with a thud in 1972 even as prog was nearly its commercial peak. It was a hell of a record, complete with a side-long epic and amazing cover art (love the top-hatted skeleton). “I Wanna Scream” is the inverse of the sidelong title track, channeling all of the energy and fractured lead guitar of their core sound into less than three minutes of gloriously tripped-out hard rock. Janus may have been a one-album wonder, but their story takes a very different turn from most one-album prog acts beginning in 1990, when the band got back together and cut a second album, which also included a 20-minute track. Even stranger, they’ve been active ever since, and have added another six albums to their discography.

14. Renaissance: Rajah Khan 11:32

From the Sovereign LP Prologue

Volume 4 included a song from Renaissance, but the band that cut the first Renaissance album was a completely different entity from the one that made Prologue just three years later. Gone was Jane Relf, replaced on vocals by powerful soprano Annie Haslam. John Hawken, Louis Cennamo, Jim McCarty, and Keith Relf were all gone, too, replaced by bassist John Camp, pianist John Tout, drummer Terence Sullivan, and guitarist Rob Hendry (there were others who came and went in that span as well, most notably guitarist Michael Dunford, who would later return). Oddly, even though not a single founding member remained in the band, the style, built largely around rushing, classically influenced keyboards wasn’t all that different, though this new lineup executed it with a fair amount more finesse.

“Rajah Khan” is one of the band’s very few experiments with non-Western harmony, and it doesn’t really linger on that much past Rob Hendry’s blistering guitar opening. Haslam’s wordless vocals do some very interesting things with inflection, and there are phrases where she seems to swallow the notes before they can escape. While I love these passages, the flat-out jam the band launches into after seven minutes is probably my favorite part—that’s Curved Air’s Francis Monkman sitting in on VCS3, the first entirely British designed and built synthesizer (the most instantly recognizable VCS3 recording is Pink Floyd’s “On the Run”). This lineup of Renaissance stuck (once Dunford came back in 1973) through the end of the 70s, and it was the band that established Renaissance as one of the major British progressive rock acts.

Tags: UK prog Notes