If there’s one characteristic of progressive rock that stands out above the others it’s song length. From the get go, bands weren’t afraid to push the envelope well beyond your typical three-minute rock/pop song. “Epic” became a kind of watchword for prog (even though it’s clearly not required), to the extent that side-long epics (or even beyond!) became common place.
I love me some epics, but I’ve found over the years that the real sweet spot for prog seems to be in what I’d call the “mini-epic” range – songs that took up most of an album side, but not the entire thing. Some of my favorite songs fall into this range, so I thought I’d highlight and praise some of these mini-epics.
First, a note on precisely what we’re talking about. For the “classic” era (mostly the 1970s), we’re talking about songs, as I said, that didn’t take up an entire side of an album. For the “modern” era (everything else), I’m talking about songs of about the same stature, so between 10 and 15 minutes. Long enough to do lots of things, but short enough for the end-of-the-side palate cleanser to come after.
With that said, here’s ten of my favorites, five “classics” and six more “modern” ones (‘cause I couldn’t decide which one to sacrifice).
“The Grand Wazoo” by Frank Zappa, from The Grand Wazoo (1972)
Zappa wasn’t know for epics (he tended to string together shorter songs that all segued together on a side), but his two “big band” albums had a few. The title track from The Grand Wazoo is my favorite of the lot (aside from the first 90 seconds or so of “Big Swifty”). Love the horns, love the slinky synth solo.
“And You and I” by Yes, from Close to the Edge (1972)
This barely passes the 10-minute mark (the live version is a bit quicker and doesn’t), but it still fits the bill, packing in so much, from Howe’s harmonics in the opening through Wakeman’s Minimoog solos, Anderson’s lilting vocal, and the supreme tightness of the Squire/Bruford rhythm section. Yes often went bigger, but rarely better.
“Cinema Show” by Genesis, from Selling England by the Pound (1973)
Quite possibly my favorite hunk of Genesis ever, particularly the long instrumental second half. The vocal first part, with typically obscure mythological lyrics, is great, too, but the lengthy keyboard solo in the second half really sells it. Notably, the instrumental section is just the three piece – Banks, Collins, and Rutherford. A sign of things to come.
That said, the live version from Seconds Out is heads and shoulder better than the studio version.
“Starless” by King Crimson, from Red (1974)
King Crimson has covered so much stylistic ground that it’s hard to pick one favorite track, but if I was forced to pick one favorite Crim track, this would be it. Somewhat like “Cinema Show” it’s got a vocal intro followed by a lengthy instrumental coda, one that builds layers slowly until it finally explodes in aural widescreen. Love the Mellotron all over it, too.
“Squarer for Maud” by National Health, from Of Queues and Cures (1978)
National Health are my favorite of the bands that emerged from the “Canterbury scene,” mixing a loose, jazzy style of prog with lyrics that were often absurd or completely baffling. The only words here are a spoken-word musing on the word “luminous,” which leads into the lengthy instrumental coda. Are you noticing a theme here?
“Go the Way You Go” by Spock’s Beard, from The Light (1995)
A milestone for me, as it was the first bit of music I listened to over the Internet and the first album I bought over the Web. The listening was of a 30-second clip that (the guitar breakdown about halfway through) took gods know how long to download over dialup and the actual purchase only came after a phone call with guitarist Al Morse (he sang a chorus of “Country Roads” when he found out I was in WV), but that’s what the early days were like, kids!
“Russia On Ice” by Porcupine Tree, from Lightbulb Sun (2000)
Steven Wilson has always been great at playing with dynamics and mood. He uses both to maximum effect here, with the sluggish, barely there verses giving way to the lush, explosive choruses. Not my favorite of his work, but a great tune nonetheless.
“The Seventh House” by IQ, from The Seventh House (2000)
Even clunker albums have gems. The title track to The Seventh House stands heads and shoulders above the rest of what is a pretty weak IQ effort. The story of two WWI survivors coming to grips with their memories, it’s cinematic and emotional. I wish I understood what the whole “houses one through six” thing was about.
“The Invisible Man” by Marillion, from Marbles (2004)
Just brilliant from start to finish. Atmospheric, brooding, and creepy song that manages to actually tell a tale worth telling. I think they’ve done this track every time I’ve seen them live since Marbles came out and I never get tired of it.
“The Island” by The Decemberists, from The Crane Wife (2006)
You don’t have to be hard-core proggers to dabble in the epic. On this album and the next The Decemberists really leaned into their prog influences, though – this even has a keyboard solo that’s very Keith Emmersony! Still, it works best because Colin Melloy works such great narratives in his songs and here, with a little more room to roam, makes full use of it.
“Microdeath Softstar” by Phideaux, from Doomsday Afternoon (2007)
I really wish an album about environmental disaster and mankind’s inability to do anything about it wasn’t becoming more and more relevant with each passing year. At least the music’s good, full of Phideaux’s trademark churn (I can’t think of a better way to describe it) and lots of tasty playing. At least the end times will have a good soundtrack.