Wondrous Stories, or the love of Prog Rock

A new album has got me excited. Admittedly, it’s a new album of old stuff, but even so. The old stuff in question is about forty years old, and can be found on Wondrous Stories, a new compilation of the best of Progressive Rock.

Most people I know hate prog rock: a former colleague of mine called it ‘pomp rock,’ and was infuriated with its self-indulgent self-belief and over-blown self-importance (features encountered in classical music too, I countered: think of Wagner…).

Roger Dean album art
Wondrous worlds: album artwork by Roger Dean

Prog rock was about exploration: extending the structure of songs beyond the three-minute wonder of the traditional pop song; extending the textural soundscapes using electronics,  singing about bizarre, elliptical subjects, and often incorporating elements of improvisation from jazz. The swirling synthesiser sounds of Rick Wakeman and the melodramatic Mellotron in the hands of Tony Banks (think of the opening of ‘Watcher of the Skies’ from Foxtrot, where the whole album seems to appear out the fog); and rhythmic trickery (see the opening of BBC 4’s marvellous ‘Prog Rock Britannia’ for a vocal rendition of some of the movement’s famous rhythms): all these elements contributed to drive rock to new dimensions.

Prog rock also embraced instruments not usually associated with pop, such as the violin and the flute, and live experiences often included heightened theatricality aided by bizarre costumes (think of Gabriel’s flower-costume for ‘Return of the Giant Hogweed’ or the face-painted fire-dancing of Arthur Brown).

The wonderfully tactile nature of gate-fold LPs gave full reign to the imaginary invention of prog rock albums, with fantastic imagery and the often incomprehensible lyrics of the quasi-erudite subject matter adorning the inner covers. Artist Roger Dean’s dream-like escapist album art for the group Yes revelled in the panaromic possibilities the gate-fold album offered, a visual feast sadly diminished with the arrival of CDs and all but lost with the mp3-download culture.

Admittedly, prog rock threw up some turkeys: Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall is so dreadfully awful that it put me off going any further in my Wakeman exploration of discovery, which is good because I enjoyed The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Criminal Record without the horror, so I’m informed, of The Myths and Legends of King Arthur on Ice that still awaits me.

But consider the endless inventiveness of King Crimson, led by Robert Fripp, with its deliberately complicated time-signatures;  Pink Floyd’s marvellous Animals; very early Genesis (before the departures of Peter Gabriel and later Steve Hackett, turning Genesis into Phil Collin’s pop backing band and ruining them forever), with great albums Nursery Crymes and Foxtrot; Yes’s ‘Close to the Edge;’

Closer to home, Canterbury also had a foothold in the prog rock movement, with the Canterbury Scene including bands such as Soft Machine, Matching Mole, Steve Hillage and Hatfield and the North. Hillage’s music may often be just the product of guitar-loop trickery, delay and repetition (as in ’Meditation of the Snake’ from Fish Rising and ‘Ether Ships’ from Green), but I like the cascading textures;  whilst his Rainbow Dome Musik (1979) anticipates some of the New Age music’s ambient sonic soundscapes.

Yes, prog rock sometimes was hideously self-indulgent, often took itself far too seriously, and had an inflated view of its own importance. But it also yielded some classic albums, and allowed pop music to spread its wings beyond traditional structures, liberating it from the confines of the three-minute cage to envisage new landscapes and new musical textures.

It’s no good: I’m going to have to get this album. Amazon, here I come…

2 thoughts on “Wondrous Stories, or the love of Prog Rock”

  1. As a self-confessed – though selective – lover of prog rock I enjoyed your article. I am of that vintage and spent a lot of my teen years at gigs and festivals.

    As it happens I spent the other morning re-visiting the whole of Genesis’s Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album – their last with Gabriel. My taste in music is very catholic – and it’s true to say I rarely listen to any prog these days – although I am a regular listener of Stuart Maconies Freak Zone on Six Music. I do regret that nowadays the entire canon of prog rock is dismissed with a sneer and a mocking smile as being the drug fuelled indulgence of a few classically trained public school boys. Admittedly some of it was! But it was so much more than that and the contemporary rock music of today is the spawn of many parents – including prog rock.

    As a young man Prog also led me to other forms of music as the influences were so wide – and as you point out included the use of instruments not normally associated with rock music. I dare say I would have found him anyway but I remember being told that the piano intro on the aforementioned Genesis album owed a lot to Rachmaninov which led directly to my exploration of his music.

    And the mellotron – what a wonderful sound that beast was capable of. Agree about Genesis post Gabriel too. It has to be said that Phil Collins was an amazing drummer – made Ginger Baker look a complete amateur – both with Genesis and Brand X – sadly he has apparently given it up now. Wondrous stories is interesting – amazed to see Comus on there – one of my personal favourites but there are a few fillers on there too.

    And Arthur Brown – I was ‘kidnapped by him as a fifteen year old – but that’s another story….

  2. Ah, ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway:’ fantastic. And the opening piano introduction to ‘Firth of Fifth’ on ‘Selling England By The Pound’ owes more to classical music than anything else. And ‘Selling England;’ what a marvellous album.

    ‘Kidnapped by Arthur Brown:’ now that’s too intriguing! Hope you’ve since recovered ?! Tell all…I sense a Guest Post in the offing, perhaps ? 🙂

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