Volume 17 of this series brought us through 1979, the last year of prog’s greatest decade. And by that year, things were pretty dismal in Britain as far as prog rock was concerned. Not much of it was being made, and the genre’s critical fortunes were dire, to the point that they have not yet made a full recovery, and may never do so.
The music was flourishing in other parts of the world, and even as the entire house seemed to come crashing down, progressive rock in the UK did maintain some of its commercial power, at least as far as the biggest names were concerned. And in the mid-80s, a funny thing happened: new prog bands, overtly influenced by the classic groups of the 70s began to emerge. They proliferated in the 90s, and in the new century, progressive rock has become, if not exactly hip, a perfectly normal and acceptable point of reference for new bands.
Credit (or blame) Radiohead for some of that re-captured mainstream acceptability, even if the band itself would never admit to trying to make a progressive rock album—intentions aside, that’s exactly what they did in 1997, with OK Computer.
These three volumes are much more loosely organized than what came before them. They cover a huge span of time, from 1982 all the way the 2010, and they don’t cover it evenly or thoroughly. They’re meant mostly as a reflection on how the progressive rock explosion changed popular music in the UK, how it expanded the possibilities, and how it stubbornly persisted in selling records and influencing young musicians long after the music weeklies more or less wrote it out of history.
It takes in new artists, artists I wouldn’t even call rock bands, much less prog rock bands, and some of the late-career exploits of the musicians who played in the most popular prog acts. There’s also a lot to talk about, so I’ve tried to keep it concise.
U.K. Prog, Volume 18: 1982-2001 What Happened Next 1
1. Asia: Heat of the Moment 3:55 (1982
From the Geffen LP Asia
2. Yes: Changes 6:20 (1983)
From the Atco LP 90125
3. Genesis: Tonight, Tonight, Tonight 8:54 (1986)
From the Virgin LP Invisible Touch
I’ll write about these together, because I included them for similar reasons. Each song finds musicians that were integral to the 70s prog boom adapting to the post-prog times, in more or less similar ways.
Asia was the biggest of all the post-prog supergroups. The original lineup, heard here, brought together some of the biggest names in prog, and found them focusing their efforts on producing arena-ready pop rock. Bassist/vocalist John Wetton was well-traveled; his most high-profile gigs were with King Crimson and U.K., but he’d played in more than a half-dozen bands. Keyboardist Geoff Downes had been in Yes and the Buggles, guitarist Steve Howe had helped define the classic sound of Yes, and drummer Carl Palmer was the “P” in ELP (They apparently considered bringing in Roy Wood before going with Steve Howe—I would’ve loved to see how that turned out). Together, they’d already sold millions upon millions of records, and they’d sell millions more playing the kinds of big choruses and simple structures they’d all previously shunned.
Yes and Genesis were in somewhat different positions. They weren’t new bands; rather, they were two of the only groups to survive the late-70s demise of prog with their drawing power intact. For Yes, it had been painful—the band’s lineup had churned for years, and when they came back in 1983, complete with cosmic warrior costumes for their massive world tour, they’d been re-made by new guitarist Trevor Rabin into a weird prog/New Wave chimera that could play in a funky time signature and sell a ton of singles. “Changes” is one of the twistier compositions on 90125.
For Genesis, the path out of the woods had been smoother. They’d become a pop-accessible trio not through tumult, but by a gradual and amicable paring process that left the band as a trio of Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks. They evolved from big prog opuses to smash singles gradually, pulling their audience with them as it grew up, and bringing in new fans as well. Still, even on the album that featured “Invisible Touch” and “In Too Deep,” they couldn’t quite help nodding to their origins with a couple of lengthy, suite-like tracks. “Tonight Tonight Tonight” is the old, epic Genesis lifting the curtain of pop songs to reveal the wizards behind it.
4. Marillion: Incubus 8:31 (1984)
From the EMI LP Fugazi
If early 80s trio Genesis sounded quite different from early 70s quintet Genesis, there was an alternative for fans who longed for that old sound. On its first few albums, Marillion sounded almost uncannily like Gabriel-era Genesis, and wrote suite-like songs that often topped eight minutes. By the time of their second album, they even had a drummer, Ian Mosley, who had been a part of the 70s prog scene, playing with Darryl Way’s Wolf, Steve Hackett, and the Dutch band Trace. The band deserves credit for being one of the first new symphonic-style progressive rock acts to emerge in the UK after prog rock’s decline—they were swimming upstream, but were good enough to draw an audience. The band is still going today, though they’ve gradually developed a more mainstream rock sound.
5. Stereolab: Percolator 3:47 (1996)
From the Duophonic LP Emperor Tomato Ketchup
No one really knows what to call Stereolab. The band draws from a crazy range of styles to make something all its own, and as its name suggests, they have a lot of interest in German kosmische rock (commonly called Krautrock), old electronic music, library records and stereo test albums (they were named for a series of these on Vanguard Records). There’s also no denying that their penchant for analog synthesizers and complex rhythms makes them natural heirs to progressive rock, even if they never thought of themselves that way. “Percolator” is prog by any other name.
6. The Verve: She’s a Superstar 5:04 (1992)
From the Hut EP The Verve EP
The Verve are most well-known in the US for “Bittersweet Symphony,” a majestic, lumbering song that got them into legal trouble. But before that, in their earliest days, they were inheritors of a long British psychedelia tradition that they played through the lens of shoegaze, which at the time was one of the dominant trends in U.K. rock. With its towering of reverberant guitar, “She’s a Superstar” is essentially space rock with earthly lyrical concerns.
7. Bark Psychosis: Tooled Up 7:37 (1991)
From the 3rd Stone EP Manman
If there’s a strain of rock in the U.K. that most firmly embodies musical ideals that were first introduced by progressive rock bands, it’s post-rock, and admittedly nebulous but nevertheless useful term. Bark Psychosis were the first band to be tagged “post-rock,” and their music did help sketch out the hallmarks of the genre, with its emphasis on texture, rhythm, tension and release over conventional songwriting. This isn’t the progressive rock of wild solos and multi-part suites, but it as the exploratory spirit of the best prog and espouses the same desire to push rock forms in new directions, away from traditional harmony and structures.
8. Coil: Ostia (the Death of Pasolini) 6:23 (1986)
From the Some Bizarre/Force and Form LP Horse Rotorvator
Coil is one of the defining groups of industrial music, though their output is wide-ranging enough to transcend that label with ease. Originally a duo of John Balance and Peter Christopherson (the latter had been in Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, and also did design work for Hipgnosis in the 70s), Coil had nothing to do with flashy musicianship or classically inspired suites, but their embrace of conceptual frameworks for their music was surprisingly similar to that of a lot of progressive rock bands. They also drew influences from the music of the academy, but rather than adapting Bartok and Dvorak to rock formats, they looked to minimalism for influence.
9. Cardiacs: Ice a Spot and a Dot on the Dog 3:34 (1984)
From the Alphabet Business Concern LP The Seaside
Cardiacs are often referred to as “prog-punk,” which is basically apt. Their hyperactive music keeps the structures simple and the tempos fast, but the band’s spastic music is always tightly controlled, and the musicianship comes through loud and clear in the outbursts of weird melody and complex instrumental interplay. If Fruupp had stuck around long enough to morph into a punk band, it might have sounded something like this.
10. Brian Eno: A Clearing 4:03 (1982)
From the Polydor LP Ambient 4: On Land
Eno was very much a part of the original prog explosion, and in the 80s, he had a lower profile but was no less ubiquitous, producing albums for a wide range of acts and cutting his own idiosyncratic path as a solo artist. He had been an early pioneer of ambient music, and in my view, On Land is the album on which he perfected his approach to the style.
11. Elbow: Bitten by the Tailfly 6:16 (2001)
From the V2 LP Asleep in the Back
At first glance, Elbow sounds a lot like a pretty straightforward post-Radiohead rock band. Except that they’re not really post-Radiohead. They formed in 1990 and simply didn’t get a chance to make an album until 2001. And their music is a lot knottier than the elegant songwriting makes it seem. With its sudden, ragged riffs, thundering drums, and lengthy, horn-laden coda, “Bitten by the Tailfly” suggests that the band have spent their share of hours lying on the floor next to a hi-fi, soaking in sounds from decades past.
12. Simian: Round and Around 4:12 (2001)
From the Source LP Chemistry Is What We Are
Simian outright quoted the main theme from McDonald & Giles’ “Birdman Suite” on the opener to this album, “Drop and Roll.” “Round and Around” isn’t so overt in revealing its influences, but really, listen to it. It’s modern prog rock rock. Those drums could have come off King Crimson’s Lizard—one aspect of prog rock that few have re-embraced in the psot-punk era is the solo, and Simian are no different, as this series has tried to make clear, prog was about more than musicianship.
13. The Moody Blues: Ride My See-Saw 5:27 (1993)
From the Threshold LP A Night at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra
You know what else old prog bands that had managed to hold on to some of their audience did? They reunited for lucrative nostalgia tours. I saw the Moody Blues in 1996 with the World Festival Orchestra playing a set almost identical to the one on this live album. It was a pretty good show! About a month later, I saw ELP and Jethro Tull at the same venue.
U.K. Prog, Volume 19: 1982-2010 What Happened Next 2
1. King Crimson: Neal & Jack & Me 4:23 (1982)
From the E’G LP Beat
When King Crimson split in 1974, Robert Fripp spoke of the band with a concrete finality that could only mean one thing: he was bound to resurrect it one day. When he did, King Crimson was a very different band than any of the lineups he’d helmed in the 70s. For one thing, it was half American, but more importantly, it was heavily influenced by New Wave without actually sounding like New Wave. Fripp and Adrian Belew cultivated a guitar style that relied on complex interplay and advanced picking techniques, while Belew’s leads made heavy use of processing and early guitar synth. Bill Bruford and bassist Tony Levin kept the band rhythmically spry and elastic. This lineup recorded three albums before splitting, but all four members returned for the powerful “double trio” version of the band in the 90s. Fripp ended King Crimson again a few years ago, but who knows if it’s really the final word.
2. Radiohead: Paranoid Android 6:24 (1997)
From the Parlophone LP OK Computer
If there’s a single track that helped put prog back on the mainstream map, it’s “Paranoid Android,” which charted at #3 in the U.K., 7/4 rhythms, suite-like structure and six-and-a-half-minute runtime and all. Not that bands were lining up to sound like Genesis in its wake, but it helped puncture the decades-old veil obscuring prog rock’s memory more than any other single piece of music in the 90s.
3. Breathless: Monkey Talk 7:31 (1986)
From the Tenor Vossa LP The Glass Bead Game
Breathless were led by Dominic Appleton, who’d played with This Mortal Coil, and their music took a lot of direct cues from 70s prog. Compare the structure of this song to King Crimson’s “Starless”—you have the opening song, the harrowing build-up, and the final release. Again, the band approaches musicianship differently from its predecessors—this was probably punk’s truest and most lasting effect.
4. Appliance: Food Music 3:44 (1999)
From the Mute LP Manual
Appliance recorded two albums around the turn of the century, and they were both stuffed with analog synthesizer. German progressive rock—I prefer the term kosmische rock to Krautrock—has long been a far cooler reference point than British prog, mostly because it tended to focus more on electronics and texture than UK prog, and its influence is clear here. Thing is, German prog would have turned out quite differently without the early influence of British proto-prog (especially Pink Floyd), so when a band dips into the kosmische well, it’s absorbing indirect influence from UK prog.
5. Her Name Is Calla: The Union: I Worship a Golden Sun 6:49 (2010)
From the Denovali LP The Quiet Lamb
Her Name Is Calla make what I think of as a sort of post-post-rock, somewhat similar to their American counterparts Shearwater. It has a lot of the tension-release dynamics of post-rock, but it’s also mostly built around verses and choruses and seems to strive for a balance between accessibility and open structure.
6. Camberwell Now: Greenfingers 5:53 (1987)
From the Ink EP Greenfingers
After This Heat split, Charles Hayward established Camberwell Now. This band continued This Heat’s exploration of the intersection between live playing and tape effects, though Maria Lamburn’s saxophone does much to ground the music’s experimentalism is approachable musicality.
7. Muse: Butterflies & Hurricanes 5:02 (2003)
From the Taste Music LP Absolution
Muse get tons of shit for the bald ambition of their music, and I’m not saying they don’t deserve some of it—there are times when they shoot well wide of the mark, and times when they’re simply ridiculous, but I hate that their ambition itself gets called into question. I love that they’re always reaching, even if I don’t always love the results. “Butterflies & Hurricanes” is one of their best proggy opuses, going from stirring orchestral hard rock to neoclassical piano ballad with hardly any warning right in the middle of the song.
8. A Mountain of One: Ride 6:45 (2007)
From the AMO EP A Mountain of One
A Mountain of One is another modern group that nods openly to progressive rock, and “Ride” even goes ahead and displays musicianship with its guitar intro and the subsequent lead part.
9. Porcupine Tree: A Slave Called Shiver 4:41 (1999)
From the Snapper LP Stupid Dream
Porcupine Tree has a good claim to being the pre-eminent prog band in the UK today, though their second decade of music was a lot more pop-accessible than their first was (and recently, Steven Wilson’s association with Opeth has led to an influx of prog-metal influences on their records). Stupid Dream was a transitional LP for the band, marking the point where the band started including a lot more basic rock songs and fewer wiggy Tangerine Dream soundscapes on its albums in the wake of OK Computer. “Slave Called Shiver” doesn’t come across as all that proggy at first, but just wait for the rain of guitar that comes in halfway through.
10. Max Tundra: Labial 6:09 (2002)
From the Domino LP Mastered By Guy at the Exchange
Max Tundra is a studio wizard, and he makes fussy, intricate music that frequently recalls the manic inventiveness and unusual construction of classic prog, albeit with different ingredients.
11. Moonshake: Coward 2:27 (1991)
From the Creation EP First
Moonshake was another of the early post-rock bands, though they tempered their more out-there experiments with short and sweet songs like this that cut their explorations of texture with infectious melody.
12. Iron Maiden: Rime of the Ancient Mariner 13:37 (1984)
From the EMI LP Powerslave
Metal is one of prog’s most prosperous children, and it is essentially a child that prog sired with punk. Iron Maiden, one of the flagship bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, made music on its early albums that attacked with the brevity and ferocity of punk, but also embraced the musicianship of prog. By 1984, they’d dropped the brevity and were making multi-part songs every bit as complicated as anything Yes had done in 1972. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a metal setting of the epic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is progressive rock.
U.K. Prog, Volume 20: 1987-2010 What Happened Next 3
1. Medal: Is Your Soul in Your Head? 6:10 (1999)
From the Polydor LP Drop Your Weapon
Medal is another prime example of the boomlet of mildly proggy British rock bands to emerge on the heels of OK Computer. This song’s slow build and heady subject matter invite the comparison.
2. Talk Talk: Ascension Day 6:00 (1991)
From the Verve LP Laughing Stock
Talk Talk began life as a synth-pop band, but they were never all that poppy, honestly. Their first few albums are full of strange production flourishes, and Mark Hollis was never content with being a pop star, a discontent that influenced his vocal style. By the end of the band’s run, which came with Laughing Stock, Talk Talk had dropped the synthesizers and any pretense of making hit singles. This album deals aggressively in abstraction, texture, and noise-as-music, but winds up as something surprisingly beautiful.
3. Fairport Convention: Spanish Main 4:31 (1998)
From the Woodworm LP Who Knows Where the Time Goes
Fairport Convention was among the many old-guard progressive rock bands to reunite over and over for tours and occasional recordings—even bands that never made much of a splash during their original runs came back and found their cult audiences eager to support them. Fairport sounds especially energized on this track, which rivals anything they did in their heyday for heaviness.
4. These New Puritans: We Want War 7:23 (2010)
From the Angular/Domino LP Hidden
If you want to know the shape of modern prog rock, look no further than “We Want War.” The song is a multi-part opus orchestrated with woodwinds and spiked with sound effects of knives being sharpened to complement the writhing synthesizers. As we’ve heard so far, there are no solos, and musicianship is downplayed in deference to post-punk musical politics, and so the echo of prog is heard in the song’s structure and sense of adventure.
5. Radio Massacre International: Syd 2:47 (2007)
From the Cuneiform LP Rain Falls in Grey
This prolific psychedelic band has been known to release a few albums in a year, and doesn’t shy away from putting more than one side-long epic on a single release. “Syd” is a little more concise, but it does offer a pretty sterling example of the kind of swirling texture that lies at the heart of the band’s music.
6. The Orb: Montagne d’Or (Der Gute Berg) 10:42 (1994)
From the Island LP Orbus Terrarum
The Orb gave away their affection for prog when they referenced Pink Floyd’s Animals on the covers of both Live 93 and The Aubrey Mixes, but it goes deeper than that. They’ve worked with Steve Hillage and David Gilmour, and Pink Floyd’s post-Waters touring bassist, Guy Pratt, is on their debut. And while the pulsing techno of their first two albums bears little direct prog influence in its sound, the same can’t be said for 1994’s Orbus Terrarum, which applies the band’s studio prowess to creating, sprawling, proggy ambient opuses.
7. Mansun: Television 8:22 (1998)
From the Parlophone LP Six
Mansun were already a pretty openly prog-influenced band on their debut, but on this, their second album, they went all the way, creating a long concept piece with operatic interludes, quotes from Tchaikovsky, unabashed guitar solos, multi-part songs, and seamless sequencing.
8. The Pineapple Thief: West Winds 8:54 (2007)
From the Cyclops LP What We Have Sown
The Pineapple Thief are fairly typical of 21st Century British neo-prog bands. They build songs with ambitious structures, but they keep a foot in emotional, melodic rock. I call this “bridging the Radiohead gap,” which is a convenient way of saying that they make prog that still has a chance to reach an audience outside the music’s large cult following.
9. Peter Murphy: Just for Love 6:38 (2002)
From the Metropolis LP Dust
Peter Murphy was the vocalist for Bauhaus, and after that band’s disintegration, he embarked on a fitful solo career. After embracing Sufi philosophy in the 1990s, Murphy moved to Turkey, and the influence of that country’s music has loomed large on his albums ever since.
10. Roger Waters: Four Minutes 4:00 (1987)
From the Columbia LP Radio KAOS
Roger Waters had already charted a one-way course into heavy concept pieces before leaving Pink Floyd, and in his solo career, he’s only gone further down that rabbit hole. Radio KAOS is, loosely, the story of a disabled Welsh man named Billy whose immense intelligence is hidden from the world by the fact that he’s physically unable to communicate. When he relocates to LA, he discovers that he can hear radio waves and use a cordless phone to broadcast his own thoughts and begins to call in to a certain radio station. He uses this ability to fake a nuclear war, bringing about global peace. Or something. “Four Minutes” is the part where people think the missiles are coming, and for all the ridiculous pretense, it’s actually pretty haunting.
11. Pink Floyd: High Hopes 8:32 (1994)
From the Columbia LP The Division Bell
While Waters was making high-concept albums, his old bandmates were just making music, music that’s far better than its reputation. “High Hopes” is the song that turned me on to music permanently. It was that bell that did it. The way it interlocks with the piano was so intriguing to me, and I still think it’s one of the most ingenious uses of found sound I’ve ever heard.