Thanks to Zinio I’m finally getting a chance to catch up on the issues of Prog magazine that I’ve missed during the pandemic. One of them, from June, has yet another of Prog’s famous lists (they love their lists over there), this one of the 50 most “influential” progressive rock albums of all time. As the intro makes clear, it was “not a list of the best prog albums of all time,” but rather a list of albums that are “pivotal in the ongoing development of progressive music.”
As with most lists, the best thing about it is that it can be a jumping off point for discussion. Nothing like this can ever be “definitive.” With that in mind, it makes sense that the list is skewed heavily toward the late 1960s and early 1970s when prog was emerging and at its commercial peak. I was pleased to see it didn’t end there, however, with releases all the way up to 2013 making the cut. There is, however, one pretty glaring hole in the list, which is pretty odd considering that the whole revitalization of the genre that made Prog possible happened then.
I’m talking about the 1990s.
The sole representative from the 90s is Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997), which is both an excellent album and an impressive reminder that expansive, odd, and small-p “progressive” rock could still find a commercial audience. But there was a lot of other important stuff going on in that decade that the list overlooks. Oddly, in some cases.
For example, Dream Theater’s 1989 debut album, When Dream and Day Unite, makes the cut. In a way that makes sense, as DT are the founding fathers of prog-metal and where better place to start than at the beginning? But the truth was not many people heard or cared about that album when it came out. What really broke DT, and announced the arrival of prog-metal, was their 1992 release, Images and Words. It’s practically the face that launched a thousand metal-tinged proggers (who kind of dominate things these days).
But that’s just one example. Here are some other important releases that are absent from the Prog list.
The Swedish Invasion
After the 1970s, prog wasn’t dead, but (to borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa) it did smell funny. While there was a slight resurgence with the neo-prog scene in the early 1980s, it didn’t get the kind of traction as the much had in the 70s. By the end of the decade, prog was very much on life support.
Two things happened in the 1990s that helped its resurgence, what some call the “third wave” of progressive rock. The first was that technology made the recording and releasing of music less expensive and put into the hands of musicians a better chance to get their music out there. The second, the real seismic shift, was the emergence of the Internet. Suddenly it didn’t matter that you were the only one in your town who knew Peter Gabriel was originally in Genesis – you could talk with other fans all over the world and be part of a real community.
A bit part of the enthusiasm that coursed through the Net in the early years was because of several bands from Sweden who helped kick off the third wave.
First up was Anglagard, whose debut album Hybris (1992) sounded like it was dropped out of 1973 via a time warp:
It’s glorious, lush, mostly instrumental symphonic prog with lots of 70s hallmarks (Mellotron! Minimoog! Flutes!) and completely out of step with what was popular at the time. It also laid down a marker – people are still making this kind of music (and, to a certain extent, people are still buying it).
Anekdoten’s debut, Vemod (1993), falls into the same boat, although it takes its cues more from Wetton/Bruford era King Crimson than Anglagard does.
Beyond both of those, 1994 saw the release of The Flower King, a solo album by guitarist/vocalist Roine Stolt. Stolt himself wasn’t new – he was a teenage wunderkind in Kaipa during the 1970s – but this album was a return to a basic, very Yes-inspired, symphonic prog sound. Of course, it’s also essentially the debut album of The Flower Kings, who continue to crank through to this day. Stolt went on to lead that band while working with all sorts of other people in bands like Agents of Mercy, The Tangent, and Transatlantic. The Flower Kings itself brought the world the extraordinary bassist Jonas Reingold (and his band Karmakanic) and vocalist Hasse Brunnison’s band.
What all these bands have in common, and why they’re influential to the modern prog world, is they undeniably claimed the idea that “progressive rock” is as much a style – indebted to the original bands of the 1970s – as it is an idea or a rallying cry. There’s rock that progresses – continues to push the boundaries, wherever they may be – and there’s progressive rock as a label. These bands represent the real genesis (so to speak) of that modern, nostalgic prog path.
A Reinvigorated Old Guard
While prog itself might have struggled in the 1980s, that didn’t mean that all prog bands did. Some changed their sound up and had a hit (Yes), while others did the same and became one of the biggest pop bands in the universe (Genesis). That transition wasn’t so smooth for other bands, however, and they limped into the 90s like lost ships at sea.
After vocalist Pete Nichols left, IQ struggled on with a couple more albums that tried to tack into a slicker, more direct sound, with no real success (a couple of good tunes, though). In 1993, Nichols came back and the band jumped solidly back into the neo-prog territory they helped to chart with Ever.
It wasn’t the only example of a more establish act returning to their more progressive glory days.
Marillion had tried to go a little more pop on Holidays In Eden, but, again, it didn’t really work out (again, several good tunes, though!). As their relationship with their label deteriorated, then went and produced a sprawling concept album, Brave (1994). Not just a statement of intent to do whatever they wanted, it marked a shift in their sound where they started to emphasize atmosphere and mood more than juicy solos. You can hear that vibe everywhere from Gazpacho and Airbag to Pineapple Thief and Porcupine Tree (parts of it, anyway).
Not to be outdone, 1995 saw the roaring back of one of the classic 70s bands when King Crimson released THRAK. It, too, was somewhat backwards looking, melding the intricate dual guitar lines of the 1980s lineup with the thunderous power (two drummers! two bass-ish players!) of the 1970s. It arguably introduced Crimson to entire new audiences from the nu-metal and related scenes.
A New Brand of Odd
“What is prog?” is the evergreen debate on the Internet. If it means more than “stuff that sounds like the 1970s” – and it does – then you have to have some room in your array of influence for bands that might not fit the prog mold, but are just weird enough to embody the spirit of the genre.
Is Primus prog? Don’t know, don’t care, but there’s definitely some prog DNA in there. Their 1991 breakthrough Sailing the Seas of Cheese shows influences of Rush and King Crimson, some astounding musicianship, and just plain odd stuff that pushes it outside the mainstream. The same could be said for The Flaming Lips, who rang out the decade with The Soft Bulletin (1999), a skillfully layered collection of nouveau psychedelia. Arguably they’d go bigger (and proggier) later, but still.
Then there’s Talk Talk, who released their final album, Laughing Stock, in 1991. Much as I have tried this is an album I just can’t get into, but it’s been beloved by a generation of musicians that have come after it for its abstract, arty meanderings. I’ve read that, for some, it’s the origin of post-rock. If spawning a new genre isn’t influential, I don’t know what is.
Finally, in any discussion of the modern progressive scene you have to make room for jam bands. Not every one of those bands gets proggy points, but so many of them take such a diverse range of influences and throw them together with live improvisation that it’s hard to imagine something more progressive. While the scene dates back to the Grateful Dead, what really made it clear that a new generation would jump on that train was the success of Phish. While they’re most known for live shows (of course), their studio albums are worth note, too.
I’d put 1991’s Rift up there as their proggiest effort – it’s even a bloody concept album!
I’ll admit that I might be a bit sensitive when it comes to 1990s prog. This was the era, while I was in college and law school, that I rediscovered progressive rock – found out that it wasn’t dead and that the 1970s scene was broader and deeper than I’d ever imagined. Even putting that to one side, though, I think even the folks at Prog would admit that it wasn’t quite the nearly-barren wasteland it’s list portrays it to be. Not every album I talk about above should have made the cut, but at least a couple should have.