March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever

(Note: Originally published at jericsmith.com, copyright 2005, J. Eric Smith. All rights reserved).

March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, Part One (Setting the Stage)

Welcome to the fifth in our series of periodic music geek essays structured sports tournament style, with 64 worthy contenders slugging it out head-to-head for the crown at the end of the article. Prior tourneys have included The Worst Rock Band Ever, Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands, Best of the Blockbusters and Slaughtering the Sacred Cows. (And for a peek at the unintended consequences of such articles, see this page). This season’s contest seeks to identify and applaud the Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever. And I have to tell you . . . this is the one I probably feel most passionate about, since Progressive Rock (“prog” for short convenience’s sake) has formed the backbone of my listening habits for as long as I have been buying, spinning, talking and writing about music. I’ve had over 1,000 record and concert reviews and music-related interviews see print publication over the years, but this topic, and this essay, is the one that moves me the most.

So . . . with input and argument from several folks (thanks, you know who you are), I’ve developed what I think is a solid list of the 64 greatest classic Progressive Rock albums. I’ve organized them, sat on, mulled and looked at the brackets for a few days, and feel like this list is good, and the brackets are sound. I had to get a little more precise on setting these brackets than I do in most of the these contests to preclude having bands competing against themselves in the early rounds, and to space out some of the obvious title contenders as well.

A review of the criteria for inclusion on the list:

1. The album must have been issued between the release of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King (October 1969) and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Love Beach (October 1978), the beginning and end points of the classic prog era. I wrestled a little bit with the beginning and end dates, and originally was going to close with the release of Asia’s debut album (1982), the first huge-selling, prog-family-tree related album that didn’t really sound anything like prog. There were two precursor records prior to In the Court that I was thinking of including for honorary/influence reasons: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles (first popular use of the Mellotron, first concept album), and Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues (the birth of orchestral rock, which deeply and significantly impacted prog), but I opted to drop them from the contest, noting their import here instead for the record. Other suggested (and good) end dates for the classic prog era were the dawn of Pop Yes (of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” in 1983), or some combination of Phil Collins’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Sussudio,” and/or Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer” in the ‘85/’86 period. But I think it really came down to either Love Beach or Asia. I remember how I was very, very excited for that Asia album, based on who was on it (prog all-stars John Wetton, Carl Palmer, Steve Howe and slightly lesser light, at the time, Geoff Downes), and how I was very disappointed when I got it, since there wasn’t much progressive flavor to it at all, really. But I’d had that feeling earlier: While Asia was certainly a disappointing landmark, I still recall my shocked reaction to the cover image of Love Beach, (which looked more like a disco record than a prog one), and was similarly let down by the music within the package. Punk had done its damage by then, as had unreasonable record company expectations, which were the real catalyst behind the lesser quality of Love Beach when compared to its predecessors, both by ELP and their progressive rock fellows. Prog as we knew and loved it in the ’70s died around the time that ELP took that photo on the beach. (Is that why ELP’s trio are smiling so broadly in that picture? Is it giddy relief?) I should note that by shifting from Asia to Love Beach, I only lost two of my original 64 albums, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Peter Gabriel’s third album . . . and if we’d gotten to a point where only two classic prog records were issued in a four year period, then I think that further cements 1978 as the proper end year. And before you write to snark at me about neo-prog and how great it is and how much I am missing by excluding it . . . I know that. Maybe someday I will do a best neo-prog record competition. But not now, for the same reasons that I wouldn’t critique Green Day and Blink 182 against the Sex Pistols and the Clash. There are leaders, and there are followers. This essay is going to be about the prog leaders.

2. While there are countless impassioned arguments online about what does and does not count as prog, I have stuck to the classic/symphonic core of the canon. The more jazz-rock oriented Canterbury scene (Soft Machine and descendants) is not included. The pre-King Crimson psychedelic and symphonic rock groups are not included. Krautrock (Can, Neu, Faust, Amon Duul) is not included. Space rock is not included (with, arguably, the exception of Pink Floyd, who could lay claim to sitting equally well in the psychedelic, prog and space rock camps . . . I have selected their “most prog” albums from the ’69-’78 time frame for inclusion here). No Rock in Opposition (Henry Cow and relatives). No straight synth records (Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dreams). Groups that had little impact, either commercially or critically in the UK or USA are not included, except in such cases when they are key offshoots to larger, more successful prog acts; this means most of the continental prog is not included, while a lot of solo/side efforts by mainline prog acts are. I would imagine my most controversial exclusion would be my decision to drop Brian Eno’s solo albums and Roxy Music from the list. Based on discussion on another web board, I have based this exclusion on the fact that Eno’s “anti-musician” stance is far more punk than prog, even though he had an All-star Prog Army playing on his first four solo albums. And if Eno doesn’t qualify, then Roxy Music doesn’t either . . . they were certainly “progressive” (as an adjective) on their first two Eno-fortified albums, but they weren’t “Prog” (as a noun), with their emphasis on singles, romance and relatively short songs.

3. That discussion all noted, when you get right down it: What is Prog anyway? I think the best definition of the genre that I’ve found online is on the very useful Wikipedia; see their Characteristics of Progressive Rock entry. The bottom line, though, really, is that prog is like obscenity: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Or hear it.

4. No act was allowed to have more than four albums in the competition. For the “Big Six” prog acts (ELP, Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson, Yes and Jethro Tull), I have picked the albums that are the “most Prog,” using criteria listed in the Wikipedia article (plus, obviously, my own judgment). The analog to real NCAA sporting events is much closer in this contest than it has been in the past: the “major conferences” (ACC, SEC, Big 10, Pac 10, Big East, Big 12) closely parallel with the “big six” prog bands. Then you’ve got your “mid-majors” (MAC, Mountain West, West Coast, Conference USA and others in sports; Gentle Giant, Van Der Graaf Generator, Focus, Camel and others in prog), and your plucky little one entry conferences (NEC, Southland, Patriot etc. in sports, Curved Air, Badger, Utopia, etc. in prog). Odds are in NCAA hoops that your finalists are going to be from the majors; odds are in prog that the Big Six are going to be slugging it out at the end of the tourney. But . . . that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be upsets and Cinderellas. That’s where the fun lies.

5. Albums will be pitted head to head until a Final Four is reached, at which point the four surviving albums will go through a round robin process, each one competing against each of the others. The one with the most points at that stage wins. If two albums tie in the round robin, a deeper song-by-song review will be conducted (or movement-by-movement if we end up with a couple of album-long epics).

6. Of course, ultimately, this is all just my opinion. But I think it’s a very educated opinion in this genre, given my 30+ years of listening to these records semi-religiously. All music criticism and evaluation is subjective, and if you don’t agree with my conclusions, that’s all fine and good. Hopefully you will at least find the process to be entertaining.

7. This long (26,000 word) article was originally written in pieces on my blog, hence a lot of the “tomorrow we will” and “yesterday we did” references. If you visit my blog, you will see a section on the left-hand links sidebar called “dissecting.” There are more contests like this one linked there. The other contests are also linked at the bottom of this page . . . but don’t jump ahead!

So! Without further ado, here are the 64 contenders in their brackets. Like the NCAA Hoops Tournament, albums have been assigned to four named regionals. Consider yourself a prog geek if you know where the regional names come from:

The Slipperman Regional

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Utopia, RA
UK, UK vs. Jethro Tull, Minstrel in the Gallery
Gentle Giant, Octopus vs. Camel, Mirage
Alan Parsons Project, I Robot vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Peter Sinfield, Still
McDonald and Giles, McDonald and Giles vs. Yes, The Yes Album
Steve Hackett, Voyage of the Acolyte vs. Focus, Moving Waves
Van Der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

The Bostock Regional

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Split Enz, Mental Notes
Family, Fearless vs. Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick
Rush, Hemispheres vs. Kansas, Leftoverture
Chris Squire, Fish Out of Water vs. Genesis, Selling England by the Pound
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon vs. Jon Anderson, Olias of Sunhillow
Magma, Udu Wudu vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
Quiet Sun, Mainstream vs. Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory
Peter Banks, Two Sides of Peter Banks vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

The Wurm Regional

King Crimson, Lark’s Tongue in Aspic vs. Alan Parsons Project, Tales of Mystery and Imagination
801, Live vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer
Curved Air, Phantasmagoria vs. Gentle Giant, Free Hand
Anthony Philips, The Geese and the Ghost vs. Yes, Relayer
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells vs. Pink Floyd, Meddle
Flash, Flash vs. Kansas, Point of Know Return
Magma, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh vs. Genesis, A Trick of the Tail

The Syrinx Regional

Yes, Fragile vs. Nektar, Journey to the Center of the Eye
Badger, One Live Badger vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pictures At An Exhibition
Rick Wakeman, The Six Wives of Henry VIII vs. Jethro Tull, Aqualung
Rush, 2112 vs. Focus, Focus 3
Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here vs. Family, Bandstand
Uriah Heep, Demons and Wizards vs. Genesis, Foxtrot
Van Der Graaf Generator, H to He Who Am the Only One vs. Camel, Snow Goose
Wishbone Ash, Argus vs. King Crimson, Red

I’ve got a busy couple of days coming up, so either in the quiet moments of them, or when they’re passed, I’ll begin grinding through the list. I’ve loaded up my car with all prog all the time to reacquaint myself with these discs.

March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, Part Two (The Slipperman Regional, Round One)

Alright, I got a little down time, let’s see if we can’t get through at least a quarter of the first round this afternoon. The full bracket of 64 Classic Prog Albums appears in an earlier post. Today, let’s look at the Slipperman Regional, with the following first round contests.

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Utopia, RA
UK, UK vs. Jethro Tull, Minstrel in the Gallery
Gentle Giant, Octopus vs. Camel, Mirage
Alan Parsons Project, I Robot vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Peter Sinfield, Still
McDonald and Giles, McDonald and Giles vs. Yes, The Yes Album
Steve Hackett, Voyage of the Acolyte vs. Focus, Moving Waves
Van Der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

Here’s the play by play . . .

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Utopia, RA
In the Court is where it all begins, as Robert Fripp, Greg Lake, Ian McDonald, Michael Giles and Peter Sinfield spin out a five-song collection that stomps out of the gate with the harsh “21st Century Schizoid Man,” then soothes you with the gentle “I Talk to the Wind,” then ricochets around various folk, classical, rock and jazz idioms during “Epitaph” and “Moonchild,” then exits with the massive mellotron-fueled epic title track. Pete Townsend allegedly called it “an uncanny masterpiece,” and that description is as apt as any. RA was the third album issued by Todd Rundgren’s side project, and the first one to feature the classic line-up with Kasim Sulton, Roger Powell and John “Willie” Wilcox. It’s not as dirgy and dense as the two live discs that preceded it, it has an interesting running undercurrent of Eastern mysticism and melody, and its most prog moments come on the side-long suite “Singring and the Glass Guitar,” narrated in a cute little elf voice by Rundgren. Not bad, really, but not in the same class as In the Court of the Crimson King. Not by a long shot.
Winner: King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King

UK, UK vs. Jethro Tull, Minstrel in the Gallery
UK was probably the most eagerly hyped and anticipated prog supergroup after ELP and before Asia, with John Wetton (King Crimson, Family), Bill Bruford (King Crimson, Yes), Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music) and Allan Holdsworth (Gong) making up the group’s initial, best lineup. While they weren’t quite as thrilling as ELP, they certainly also weren’t quite as disappointing as Asia. Still . . . their debut album hasn’t aged that well, either in terms of production or content, and with 20/20 hindsight, you can definitely hear some of the wisps of Asia’s lite pop rock sneaking in around the virtuoso chops. Minstrel in the Gallery was the last album by Jethro Tull’s best-loved lineup: Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, Barriemore Barlow, John Evan and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, who left after its completion to work as a visual artist on a full time basis. His last album with the group has one of their hardest songs (the title track), some of Barre’s best lead guitar work, a couple of top-notch near solo tracks by Anderson, and a nearly sidelong suite (“Baker Street Muse”) that manages to scoot off well before it overstays its welcome. It sounds as good today as it did then, and you can’t hear a dismal pop future for its players lurking within its grooves. That’s enough.
Winner: Jethro Tull, Minstrel in the Gallery

Gentle Giant, Octopus vs. Camel, Mirage
Gentle Giant’s and Camel’s devotees tend to be loud and insistent about how their faves should and could have been seated at the Big Boys Prog Table during the ’70s. Reviews of their records tend to be filled with “Oh, but only if . . . ” and “There but for the . . .” statements, implying that some combination of bad fortune, record company mismanagement, or a complete lack of interest in the trappings of success kept these two from their rightful place in Prog Glory. These views are wrong. The reason that neither Gentle Giant nor Camel ascended to those exalted peaks is that neither of them is as engaging as the better known bands who dominated the era. Gentle Giant, while undeniably skilled talented, tends to be too fussy and prissy to really grab and shake you. Camel, on the other hand, tends to veer into background and/or soundtrack music mode too often. Given a choice between those two tendencies, I think I’ll have to go with fussy and prissy.
Winner: Gentle Giant, Octopus

Alan Parsons Project, I Robot vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
The student vs. the masters: Alan Parsons cut his teeth as studio engineer on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, before embarking on a successful career as mastermind behind one of prog’s few successful (critically and commercially) pop crossover acts. This contest pits Parsons and friends’ best album against Pink Floyd’s darkest and densest disc. Both albums touch on themes of dehumanization and individuality, one looking to Isaac Asimov for inspiration, one to George Orwell. All things considered, Orwell and Floyd make for a more appealing combo platter, even though Roger Waters’ dominance of this disc marked the beginning of the end of one of rock’s greatest creative partnerships. It was still good on Animals, even if it was starting to fray around the edges.
Winner: Pink Floyd, Animals

Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Peter Sinfield, Still
King Crimson lyricist-light man-producer Peter Sinfield recruited a who’s who of prog titans for his first solo disc (later issued on CD in an expanded format under the title Stillusion), including most every member of Crimson itself, except Robert Fripp. You can hear some of the father band’s sounds and textures on Still, although they tend to be most like the sounds and textures of Islands, the last Crimson studio album with Sinfield involved, and an arguable low point before Crimson’s rebirth on Lark’s Tongue in Aspic a year later. Sinfield is a wispy singer, and many of the honky-tonk and country touches on Still sound affected and twee. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, on the other hand, is brawny. It was the final two-disc magnum opus by classic Genesis (Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Michael Rutherford and Steve Hackett), and marked the point where Gabriel pulled his own Roger Waters move and completely took over the band’s lyrical direction, crafting a bizarre tale about a New York City Puerto Rican thug and his adventures in a strange and hallucinatory subterranean world. While the album stumbles a bit on its third side (a standards double disc concept album problem), its brightest and best moments are as bright and good as Genesis ever got. That’s more than enough to carry this contest.
Winner: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

McDonald and Giles, McDonald and Giles vs. Yes, The Yes Album
McDonald and Giles, like Peter Sinfield’s Still, finds a pod of Crimson alumni offering their own spin on how King Crimson could and should have sounded, without guiding guitarist Robert Fripp. While far more successful than Sinfield’s disc, McDonald and Giles (the only disc issued by the consortium of drummer Michael Giles, his bass playing brother Peter, reed and keyboard man Ian McDonald and friends and associated helpers, including Steve Winwood and Sinfield) still gets nowhere near the power and grandeur of In the Court of the Crimson King or its follow-up, In the Wake of Poseidon (on which the Giles brothers played, but not McDonald). Good for completists, but if this was your first introduction to the King Crimson family tree, you would wonder what the fuss was all about. The Yes Album, on the other hand, is revelatory and fascinating. If you listen to Yes’s first two lukewarm and straightforward records, it’s extremely difficult to comprehend how this third disc made such a quantum leap in content and quality. The short cover tunes and pop numbers were gone, replaced by such instant classics of the prog canon as “Starship Trooper,” “All Good People,” and “Yours is No Disgrace.” Two things probably drove this shift: (1) Uber-guitarist Steve Howe joining the band, and (2) the fact that Yes’s members had been listening to, and learning from, King Crimson. No contest.
Winner: Yes, The Yes Album

Steve Hackett, Voyage of the Acolyte vs. Focus, Moving Waves
With the exception of a few early drummers, every member of Genesis has had a critically successful and full solo career, some with more commercial success than others. While Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins obviously have the most name recognition among non-proggers, guitarist Steve Hackett may have issued the best (and most proggy) solo disc of the bunch with his debut, Voyage of the Acolyte. Mike Rutherford, Collins, Hackett’s brother John, and other supporting players offer stellar instrumental support to these eight magical and magnificent numbers, the best of which, “Shadow of the Hierophant,” could stand as the greatest song Genesis never recorded, but should have. While many King Crimson alums tried to retool that band’s instrument sound in a Robert Fripp-less setting, and failed, Hackett took a stab and Genesis’ sound in a Tony Banks-less setting, and made something wonderful. Dutch progsters Focus are best known in America for their weird yodeling hit “Hocus Pocus,” which is contained on Moving Waves in a longer, better form than the single. While organist-flutist Thijs Van Leer’s weird wordless ululating can be a bit off-putting, this album’s instrumental punch and scope is spectacular, with the side-long freak-out “Eruption” standing tall as one of the few places where a loosely scripted, prog-flavored jam session really works well. Big credit is due to heroic guitar player Jan Akkerman, who deserves far more fame and acclaim than he’s earned. Unfortunately, though, his and his band mates efforts can’t trump Hackett’s in this particular contest. Fair, but unfortunate.
Winner: Steve Hackett, Voyage of the Acolyte

Van Der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus
I try and I try to like Van Der Graaf Generator, but despite my best, most earnest efforts, their dense, off-putting music never quite gets to the point where I enjoy listening to it. It feels too much like work, even on Pawn Hearts, their best (to these ears) work, and one of two early discs to feature guest guitar work by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. (Prog is nothing if not incestuous). Put Pawn Heart‘s side-long suite “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” against the side-long title suite of ELP’s Tarkus, and the laboriousness of VDGG’s approach becomes all the more obvious. “Tarkus” is intensely complex and busy, but it manages to sneak in some killer hooks and points of engagement, and its transitions are relatively seamless. It seems shorter than its running time. “Lighthouse Keepers,” on the other side, has clunky connections, not a lot of melody, and some strenuously strident singing by Peter Hammill. It feels a lot longer than its running time. While some folks dismiss the quality of Tarkus‘ second side (I’m not one of them, but more on that during a later round), one side of ELP in this case is worth more than two of VDGG, so it becomes essentially a moot point.
Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

And that’s it for today, giving us the following matchups when we move to second round of the Slipperman Regional:

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Jethro Tull, Minstrel in the Gallery
Gentle Giant, Octopus vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Yes, The Yes Album
Steve Hackett, The Voyage of the Acolyte vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

I’ll tackle another regionals first round when I get back from a weekend away. Stay tuned.

March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, Part Three (The Bostock Regional, Round One)

Back from a nice couple of days at the Sagamore. I’m tired, but have to stay up until midnight to go pick up the teenager from the obligatory Halloween weekend party. Time to burn. Let’s knock off another quarter of the first round, this time tackling . . .

The Bostock Regional

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Split Enz, Mental Notes
Family, Fearless vs. Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick
Rush, Hemispheres vs. Kansas, Leftoverture
Chris Squire, Fish Out of Water vs. Genesis, Selling England by the Pound
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon vs. Jon Anderson, Olias of Sunhillow
Magma, Udu Wudu vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
Quiet Sun, Mainstream vs. Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory
Peter Banks, Two Sides of Peter Banks vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

Note: If you’re new to this, scroll back to the Part One, where the rules and regulations are explained. And if you know what’s what, then hey nonny, let’s get critiquing . . .

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Split Enz, Mental Notes
I can hear some of you saying “Split Enz? Those ’80s new wave poppy Finn-fueled dudes with the silly hair and suits?” And, uh, yeah, them. But earlier: years before Neil Finn brought his pop chops and smarts into the fold, back when the primary creative partnership was between Neil’s older brother Tim and Phil Judd, later of Schnell Fenster and the Swingers. Mental Notes was the Enz’s first full-length album from 1975, and it’s a prog-flavored corker, with all sorts of weird voices, stories, reeds, keys and sounds jockeying around on a collection of truly clever songs, especially the lengthy (by pop standards, anyway, if not prog standards) “Under the Wheel” and “Stranger Than Fiction.” The record died a fairly dismal commercial death on release, but caught the ear of Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, who brought the eclectic New Zealanders to Britain to re-record, re-work and re-sequence Mental Notes, re-issuing it a year later as Second Thoughts. That one bit the dust, too, and Phil Judd split, leaving Tim Finn in charge for 1977’s Dizrhythmia, which is a great disc, but decidedly less weird and not particularly prog at all. Close to the Edge, though, is about as prog as prog gets, as it marked Yes’s first forays into side-long epics (the title track), and continued their streak of successful 9-12 minutes jobs (Side Two’s “And You And I” and “Siberian Khatru”). Rick Wakeman had appeared on Fragile a year earlier, but Close to the Edge marks the first Yes record created with him involved from git-go to git-gone. (I leave that simply as a statement of fact, however, not as something good or bad. We’ll talk plenty more about Wakeman later). This was also Bill Bruford’s last album with Yes, before he split to join King Crimson. While “Close to the Edge” (the song) certainly has its moments, the two shorter (by prog standards, not pop standards) songs on its flip side are the real gems here, with the always astonishing Steve Howe and Chris Squire doing some truly remarkable stuff, much of it clean, clear, uncluttered and/or acoustic. This was a peak of sorts for Yes, not an aborted start of something that grew into something completely different, years later, as was the case with Split Enz. Can’t argue with that, really.
Winner: Yes, Close to the Edge

Family, Fearless vs. Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick
Family is best known these days for things that their alumni did after leaving: Ric Grech was the least-well known member of Blind Faith (which as far as the rock press is concerned, seems to still be better than being the best-well known member of Family), and John Wetton is, of course, one of prog’s mainstay bassists and vocalists. Fearless is one of two albums Wetton recorded with Family, and it offers a fascinating snapshot into how one could take progressive concepts, apply them to some essentially straightforward blues songs, and create something distinctive and unique. Utility infielder Poli Palmer (who also appears on both of the Wetton albums) offers a lot of the non-traditional sounds, with vibes and early analog synthesizers adding splashes of color and coolness in places where most bands would have settled for a standard solo. Thick As A Brick was the first of two album-long suites by Jethro Tull, and former blues band themselves, but one that never really reconciled their blues leanings with the progressive leanings (with the possible exception of some of the weirder stompers, like “Play In Time,” on Benefit, two studio albums before Thick as a Brick). Thick As A Brick is also the first album by the line-up that most longtime Tull fans tend to pine for the most (as mentioned earlier), with Barriemore Barlow stepping onto the drum riser to relieve Clive Bunker after Aqualung. Thick As A Brick‘s opening edit is one of the more recognizable pieces of the Tull canon, although it’s mostly just Ian Anderson doing a solo acoustic guitar piece. From there, though, the album gets pretty darned stompy, especially on the “See there a child is born” and “I’ve come down from the upper class to mend your rotten ways” sections. There’s some free form bits around the area where Side A ended and Side B began in vinyl days, and the second half of the record gets a bit drifty, but as one of prog’s first really, really big musical and conceptual statements, it’s hard to not lean in this record’s direction here.
Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick

Rush, Hemispheres vs. Kansas, Leftoverture
Goodness, an all-North American contest, with Canada’s finest duking it out with, uh, Kansas’s favorite sons. Leftoverture was an unexpected pop crossover hit on the strength of the single “Carry On Wayward Son,” one of the more unusual commercial smashes of the ’70s. I can remember some pop radio junkies picking up this album at the time, and being freaked out by its art and pompiness, since most albums bearing Top 40 singles at the time didn’t feature such non-toe-tapping things after the opening hit song. Of course, odds are Kansas was just as surprised by its success as casual listeners were at how little there was on the record that sounded short and punchy like “Wayward Son.” Still, I’d lift this record up as Kansas’s finest and most ambitious moment, even though personally I’d rather listen to its slightly more accessible follow-on, Point of Know Return. Hemispheres is one of two Rush albums from the classic prog era featuring a side-long suite backed with a handful of shorter numbers, 2112 being the other. While “Hemispheres” (the song) is probably the better of the two opuses, the second side is pretty light-weight, with “The Trees” standing as one of the songs that most Rush haters cite when they try to explain why they hate Rush. I like Rush . . . but I still have to agree with most Rush haters on that one. In this case, I’d rather advance a band at the top of its game, not a band thrashing out its last epic before really hitting its stride in the early ’90s with some mercifully tight short numbers, none of which are as lyrically simplistic and silly as “The Trees.”
Winner: Kansas, Leftoverture

Chris Squire, Fish Out of Water vs. Genesis, Selling England by the Pound
There’s lots of folks who will lift up Selling England by the Pound as Genesis’ masterpiece. And there are parts of it that deserve such kudos: “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight, “Firth of Fifth” and “Cinema Show/Aisle of Plenty” are indeed among the group’s greatest performances. “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” isn’t quite up to those standards, but, by golly, it was a mild crossover hit, and a weird one, so we always like it when proggers manage to pull that off. But then there’s “More Fool Me,” sung by Phil Collins in a high, thin warble that (with 20/20 hindsight) is somewhat remarkable . . . in that I’d never have expected the singer of this song to build a multi-mega-platinum solo singing career for himself. And then, even worse, there’s “The Battle of Epping Forest/After the Ordeal”. Hoo boy. I view this as Peter Gabriel’s practice run for what he pulled off far more successfully a year or so later on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, an attempt at getting away from classical mythology and space aliens and medieval battles and fairy tales and whatnot, replacing those tried and true prog themes with something grittier, more real world and earthy. Neither he nor his band mates manage to pull it off at all on this too too veddy veddy view of how posh upper class English twit boys viewed blue collar crime and thuggery, set to a clunky musical score, and extended far longer than it needs to be with the disposable “After the Ordeal” plodding along when the fighting is done. Fish Out of Water is, without question, the probably the best solo album produced by any of the classic-period Yes members, with the possible exception of Steve Howe’s The Steve Howe Album, which unfortunately came out just a smidge too late to make this survey. (Early guitarist Tony Banks put out some winners, too, but we’ll talk about them later). Squire’s record is the most Yes-sounding of the Yes solos too, in part because his titanic bass work is so recognizable and such a key part of the Yes sound, but also because Squire (and Howe) provide such consistent backing vocals to lead angelic tenor Jon Anderson that you’re actually far more used to hearing their voices than you think they are. Squire never issued another solo, which is a pity, given the number of dodgy ones that his band mates have put out since this excellent and consistently solid disc was dropped. In what will probably be viewed as an upset, I’m going to go with that tight consistency over Genesis’ sprawling yet seriously inconsistent disc.
Winner: Chris Squire, Fish Out of Water

Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon vs. Jon Anderson, Olias of Sunhillow
Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow was recorded in the same Yes sabbatical that produced Chris Squire’s Fish Out of Water. It received a nice response from critics and fans, I think in large part because they/we were pleasantly surprised to find that Anderson was capable of creating an entire disc’s worth of instrumental backing all by his lonesome, since he’d not exhibited any discernable proficiency with musical instruments before that time. Olias is a bit twee on the lyrical front, though, which wasn’t all that surprising, I guess, given Anderson’s proclivity for fantasy and fairies and the like. One of the other problems with this (and all of Anderson’s other solo albums) is that his voice, which can be wonderful when backed and tracked with Squire and Steve Howe’s voices on Yes records, sounds awfully dog-whistle shrill when he’s singing solo parts or offering multi-tracked stacks of himself. And when you put this fluffy and lightweight album up against a genre defining disc like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, well, really now, it’s hard to pick the guy who didn’t embarrass himself on the harp over the tight, talented rock quartet who made the most recognizable, famous and best-selling concept album of all time, isn’t it?
Winner: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

Magma, Udu Wudu vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
Magma was the brain child of continental percussionist and composer Christian Vander, who got around the problem of having his singers’ words not being understood in neighboring countries by creating an all-new, all-fictional language (called Kobaiian) for his songs, and building a monumental and epic space fantasy to accompany them, played out over the course of several records, in a style they dubbed “zeuhl”. Udu Wudu is one of those Kobaiian records, but it’s one that many Magma fans seem quick to dismiss as being atypical or unusual within the canon, or “not zeuhl enough”. But to these ears, it’s one of their two best efforts ever, with Vander, bassist Jannick Top and vocalist Klaus Blasquiz whipping up an unbelievable, over-the-top masterpiece that sounds completely unlike anything I’ve ever heard anywhere else, including other Magma records. It’s a lost gem, and well worth hunting down. After its issue, Magma took a brief breather, then reconvened to delve further into some of the funkier, fusion elements of Udu Wudu, but without as much success. As an historical footnote, their 1978 album Attahk featured art by Swiss provocateur H.R. Giger, who also produced one of the ’70s most recognizable record images: the cover of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery. ELP’s fifth album is a masterpiece, the one place where they managed to touch all of their various fetishes (epic works, classical reinterpretations, barrelhouse/cowboy music, love ballads, etc.) successfully and emphatically. While you could definitely make a case that “Karn Evil 9″ runs a good deal longer than it probably should (you could knock out the whole movement between the “Welcome back my friends” segment and the closing computer/space battle segment and not too many people would grumble), its best bits are so good that it’s pretty easy to roll with the transitions. All the zeuhl in the world can’t compete with prog credentials like Brain Salad Surgery‘s got.
Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery

Quiet Sun, Mainstream vs. Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory
Quiet Sun was Phil Manzanera’s pre-Roxy Music band, although the group never managed to release a record before their guitarist bolted to join Ferry, Eno and Company. (Manzanera replaced original Roxy guitarist David O’List, who had previously played with Keith Emerson of ELP in the Nice . . . more prog incest at play). Give Manzanera kudos for remembering his pre-fame chums, though, because during a mid-’70s Roxy Music hiatus, he reconvened them to record a companion album to his own solo Diamond Head. Mainstream is a nice enough album, with Manzanera’s always interesting guitar styling nicely supported and often enhanced by the rhythm section of Charles Hayward and Bill MacCormick. Still . . . not much of it really sticks outside of “Mummy Was An Asteroid, Daddy Was A Small Non-Stick Kitchen Appliance” and “Rongwrong,” both of which appeared in much better live versions soon thereafter on 801 Live. That’s not much to hang a recommendation on. Gentle Giant’s The Power and the Glory is a little more electric guitar oriented than most of the group’s canon, but it still retains their trademark fussiness and prissiness, which almost become more annoying when paired with occasional guitar crunchiness. That said, there’s a little bit more sticking power on this album’s best songs than you can find on Mainstream, so we’ve got to give Kerry Minnear, the Shulman brothers and pals credit for that, at least.
Winner: Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory

Peter Banks, Two Sides of Peter Banks vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black
Peter Banks was the founding guitarist of Yes, and appeared on their first two, largely pre-prog albums, Yes and Time and a Word. After getting the boot to make way for Steve Howe (gosh, you can’t blame the other Yes guys for that now, can you?), he formed Flash, who released a few albums bang bang bang style, then folded to allow Banks to launch a solo career. Two Side of Peter Banks is the first fruit of that phase, and if Banks didn’t really show a lot of prog chops and potential with pre-prog Yes, he certainly makes up for here, bringing in Steve Hackett, Phil Collins, John Wetton, other members of Flash and, best of all, guitarist Jan Akkerman from Focus, who as mentioned in yesterday’s competition, is one of the greatest guitarists you’ve probably never heard, but should. Together, the crew makes a great, great album, one that sounds like a cross between Hackett’s Voyage of the Acolyte and Focus’s “Eruption” freak fest. Starless and Bible Black, the second disc of King Crimson’s post-Sinfield renaissance, opens with “The Great Deceiver,” which sounds like nothing before, nothing since it, and nothing except it. It’s a great original, a madcap, frantic piece that packs more substance into a short package than just about anything else in the Crimson canon. It’s a classic. As is the album closer, “Fracture,” which is one of their best long instrumental pieces, and has a closing section that’s among the heaviest, hardest pieces of music I’ve ever heard . . . especially since it comes on the heels of a quiet, drama/tension-building slow and silent section, making it’s ass-kicking entrance all that much more exciting. There are some other wonderful numbers on this mix of studio and live cuts, though none of them capture the insane intensity of the album’s openers and closers. Two Sides of Peter Banks is solid and dependable. Starless and Bible Black is wild and exciting. If they were members of the opposite sex, you know which type you’d want to date, don’t you?
Winner: King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

And yippie ti yi yay, there’s another quarter of the first round dispatched. This leads us to the following second round matchups when we make our next pass through the Bostock Regional:

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick
Kansas, Leftoverture vs. Chris Squire, Fish Out of Water
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, Part Four (The Wurm Regional, Round One)

Let’s keep this thing going on the first day of Fall Back season, when the sun has set far earlier than I’d prefer it to, and it feels like it’s late at night, even though it isn’t. Tonight, we work through the first round of the Wurm Regional, featuring:

The Wurm Regional

King Crimson, Lark’s Tongue in Aspic vs. Alan Parsons Project, Tales of Mystery and Imagination
801, Live vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer
Curved Air, Phantasmagoria vs. Gentle Giant, Free Hand
Anthony Philips, The Geese and the Ghost vs. Yes, Relayer
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells vs. Pink Floyd, Meddle
Flash, Flash vs. Kansas, Point of Know Return
Magma, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh vs. Genesis, A Trick of the Tail

If you’re new, check the rules and regulations in earlier posts. Here’s what we’ve got to listen to and think about and decide on tonight . . .

King Crimson, Larks’ Tongue in Aspic vs. Alan Parsons Project, Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Tales of Mystery and Imagination was the debut album from the Alan Parsons Project, best known before this 1975 release for his work as an engineer on albums by Pink Floyd, Roy Wood, Wings and others. It was an audacious and impressive debut, a musical tour through some of the best-known works of 19th Century creepy Edgar Allan Poe. The music is sharp, the arrangements are clean and innovative, the performances are crisp and professional. But the use of multiple lead vocalists makes it kind of hard to ever really get a sense of what this group’s collective personality is supposed to be, an issue that continued throughout the Parsons Project’s long and commercially successful run. Maybe that’s why they were commercially successful, as they were able to tab and nab the lead singer who could nail a song just so . . . but somehow it leaves all of their material sounding less like a band and more like a collection of studio professionals. Which, of course, it was. Larks’ Tongue in Aspic marked the rebirth of King Crimson after a series of transitional lineups and increasingly spotty albums, and it’s a monster recording by a monster band: Robert Fripp, John Wetton (from Family), Bill Bruford (from Yes), violinist David Cross and percussionist Jamie Muir. The album is framed by parts I and II of the record’s title track, with four crunchy and atmospheric pieces between them. “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, Part II” is one of Robert Fripp’s most amazing compositions, and it’s one of only two works from the ’70s that were carried forward into the live repertoire of ’80s, ’90s and ’00s Crimson. While there are tighter, more powerful, and faster live versions of the song available on disc, this clattery, measured performance by the five-piece band is still a benchmark of the ways in which classic prog could merge power with pizzazz and pull something extraordinary and unique out of the creative cauldron. Nothing on Tales of Mystery and Imagination comes close to that.
Winner: King Crimson, Larks’ Tongue in Aspic

801, Live vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer
801 was originally conceived as a live group, pulled together by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera. Later studio works under the 801 title tended to be more loosely affiliated aggregations of players, but 801 Live is definitely the product of a tight and well-rehearsed band, featuring members of Roxy Music (Manzanera and Brian Eno), Quiet Sun and Matching Mole (Bill MacCormick) and Curved Air (Francis Monkman), plus studio aces Simon Phillips (drums) and Lloyd Watson (slide guitar). The group’s material is taken mostly from Eno and Manzanera’s catalogs, with some choice ’60s covers tossed in for good measure. All told, this is one of those great live albums that merges the energy of a concert performance with the spot-on perfect performances expected from studio work. A winner. Emerson Lake and Palmer’s self-titled debut was a winner, too, with four tightly packed numbers (“The Barbarian,” “Tank,” “Knife Edge” and the over-played “Lucky Man”) sharing disc space with two longer (and less successful) numbers, “The Three Fates” and “Take A Pebble” (the latter of which got even longer, and even less successful, on ELP’s triple disc live album a few years later). Despite the need for editing on those two latter songs, this auspicious opening shot from prog’s first supergroup fundamentally altered the landscape of progressive rock in the ’70s for the better, and set the bar for both commercial success and technical virtuosity that most other proggers would spend the next eight years trying to match. Few did. This is an essential prog recording, with “Tank” and “Knife Edge” in particular standing tall in the canon of all-time great prog songs.
Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer

Curved Air, Phantasmagoria vs. Gentle Giant, Free Hand
I find Free Hand to be the quintessential Gentle Giant record, the one I’d recommend to people if they wanted to know just what this group was all about. Of course . . . I’m not sure that I say that as a complement, since that means Free Hand finds the group’s medieval vocal lines and prissy, fussy arrangements dancing on tip toes around each other in knotty, nimble fits of precision and fastidiousness. I can appreciate the talent and vision behind their records, but I don’t find myself wanting to listen to them very often, or for very long. Curved Air has a couple of high profile alumni (Eddie Jobson from Roxy Music and Jethro Tull, and Stewart Copeland from the Police), but neither of them appear on Phantasmagoria, easily the group’s creative high point. Francis Monkman (mentioned earlier as a member of 801) is here, though, along with violinist Darryl Way and singer Sonja Cristina, one of the few women appearing in this list . . . since I excluded the RIO/Henry Cow crowd (knocking out the excellent Lindsay Cooper and Dagmar Krause), and can’t bring myself to include Renaissance and/or Annie Haslam, having seen her deliver one of the dullest live performances I ever reviewed during a solo tour. Cristina was a great singer with loads of character, and her band mates provided some impressive space in which she could romp. This is a group that deserves to be remembered with more than footnotes on the Roxy Music and Police family trees. They certainly produced the better album in this particular match up.
Winner: Curved Air, Phantasmagoria

Anthony Phillips, The Geese and the Ghost vs. Yes, Relayer
I’ve cited Steve Hackett’s Voyage of the Acolyte as the best non-Gabriel/Collins Genesis side project, and the only record by any other member of Genesis that I had to ponder in making that declamation was Anthony Phillips’ The Geese and the Ghost, which also featured Phil Collins and (more heavily) Mike Rutherford from the father band. Phillips left Genesis after their second album, Trespass, then took seven years to get his first solo disc out into the public domain. It was worth the wait, with loads of smart pop songs, some dark Trespass-like instrumentals and a nice little suite of Tudor-era music. Unlike Gentle Giant, Phillips and friends manage to make those classical English pieces engaging and hearty; there’s real emotion there betwixt the lutes and madrigals. And speaking of emotion: Phil Collins gives what I consider to be his unquestionably greatest vocal performance on “God If I Saw Her Now,” an amazing, heart-breaking number with lyrics and music to die for, literally. Amazing stuff. But, then, when it comes to amazing stuff, Yes’ Relayer certainly doesn’t lack itself. This is the only album the group recorded with Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz, and that’s a pity, because it’s one of their most eclectic, electric and hair-raising efforts, filled with all sorts of noise and fury, of both synthetic and organic varieties. It was also the last Yes album to feature only extended pieces, with the side-long “The Gates of Delirium,” and the 9-minute plus “Sound Chaser” (probably my all-time favorite Yes song) and “To Be Over.” After touring this disc, Yes brought Rick Wakeman back to replace Moraz, for the lackluster “Going for the One” and “Tormato” discs. This was the high point for Classic Yes, the spot after which the great albums were less common (and, frankly, more surprising) than the disappointing ones. We’ve got to honor that here, I think.
Winner: Yes, Relayer

Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado
A Passion Play is Jethro Tull’s highest selling album ever . . . but it’s one of their most controversial, inspiring love and hate in equal measure from serious and casual fans alike. Like Thick As A Brick before it, it’s a single song spread over two sides of an album, although the movements and separate pieces are more pronounced here than they were on Brick, especially during “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” on which most of the debate about this record hinges. A children’s morality play with animal characters, and narrated by bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, the piece sounds like nothing else in the Tull oeuvre. But, then, really you can say that about this entire album: Ian Anderson plays more sax here than flute, and John Evan’s synths are far more prominent than they are on any other Tull record. The story of the recording and touring and meaning of this album are so rich in content that there’s actually a website devoted solely to this most unusual Jethro Tull offering: The Annotated Passion Play (dig through there deep enough, and you’ll find some of my theorizing in there). Love it or hate it, A Passion Play is about as prog as prog gets, which is a bit more than we can say about Electric Light Orchestra’s Eldorado. While ELO’s defining concept (rock with orchestral instrumentation) is almost stereotypically prog, their execution leans more toward the pop and rock side of the equation than most other bands and records listed here. While Eldorado is easily their finest recording and most alike the other 63 in this survey in its ambitions and scope, it can’t hold a candle to the titanic shadow that A Passion Play casts over ’70s prog pretensions.
Winner: Jethro Tull, A Passion Play

Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells vs. Pink Floyd, Meddle
Sick of Richard Branson? Blame Mike Oldfield, since his album-long opus Tubular Bells was the first release on Virgin Records, and its success provided the seed money for pretty much everything else that Branson did afterwards. Still, though, it was a pretty good debut for a record label, as the precocious talent played every instrument, most of them well, throughout an epic song cycle, that’s far more engaging than just about any other instrumental piece of equal length I can think of. It didn’t hurt, mind you, that it’s opening section was co-opted as the scary theme music for The Exorcist. Pink Floyd’s Meddle features an epic number, too, the side long “Echoes,” which really framed the template for the sonic and songwriting approaches that would define their work on The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here in years ahead. It’s first half, though, is a bit of a mixed bag: opening “One of These Days” is fantastic, and “Fearless” is under-rated, but the rest of the tracks (“A Pillow of Winds,” “San Tropez” and “Seamus” are essentially throwaways). Richard Branson aside, I still find Tubular Bells to be a better, more engaging listen, beginning to end, than Meddle. Plus . . . I like listening to a drunken Vivian Stanshall announcing the instruments at the end of Tubular Bells, just as he’d done years earlier on the Bonzo Dog Band’s debut disc. That’s a nice little bit of continuity there.
Winner: Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells

Flash, Flash vs. Kansas, Point of Know Return
Flash was the group formed by original Yes guitarist Peter Banks after Jon Anderson and company chucked him in favor of Steve Howe. (Good move, I guess, for Yes). On their first disc, Flash also included Tony Kaye, recently chucked by Yes in favor of Rick Wakeman (a move that I don’t hold consider to be as wise). The record, not surprisingly, sounds a lot like Yes. It’s sort of an alternate view of The Yes Album, with similarly long songs mixed with short pieces, and some indications that Banks and Kaye and cohorts had also given the first couple of King Crimson records some thoughtful spins. Nice enough, in its own way, but not really as a good as anything Yes did, or even as things that Banks did later with Jan Akkerman from Focus. Or, for that matter, not really as good and engaging as Point of Know Return, on which Kansas amazingly managed to duplicate the commercial crossover success they’d achieved with Leftoverture. As was the case with “Carry On Wayward Son” on Leftoverture, Point of Know Return featured a chart-devouring single (“Dust in the Wind”) that really didn’t sound all that much like the rest of the album. My own father, in fact, bought Point of Know Return before I did on the strength of that single. I think he listened to it once before he gave it to me. That’s good prog that will make your parents want to buy it.
Winner: Kansas, Point of Know Return

Magma, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh vs. Genesis, A Trick of the Tail
A Trick of the Tail was the first Genesis record issued after Peter Gabriel’s departure. Much to everyone’s surprise, Phil Collins stepped up to the mic and delivered a winner, a record that sold more copies than any Genesis record that had come before it, but one that the prog fans still embraced. (The die-hard proggers gave up on Genesis for the most part two albums later, after Steve Hackett left and they started having radio hits). Trick has some great numbers, there’s no arguing that: “Squonk” and “Dance on a Volcano” are hard-hitting and potent, while “Entangled” and “Ripples” are beautiful and haunting. But there’s some troubling signs on this record, too, with the goofy music hall flavor of the album’s title track, the stupid theatrical lyrics of “Robbery, Assault and Battery” (that mirror the awful “The Battle of Epping Forest” in some ways), the dramatic cheese of “Mad Man Moon,” and the filler reprises in “Los Endos.” Most of the things that ultimately dragged Genesis down are already in place on this record, although it’s easier to ignore them than on later discs due to the superior quality of the first four songs mentioned. Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh is generally regarded as the high-water mark of Magma’s Zeuhl/Kobaiian period, a dark, dense record, with choirs singing in Christian Vander’s fabricated language, horns blaring, and some insanely powerful, repetitive rhythmic work under-pinning the whole shooting match. It’s not an easy listen, mind you, but it’s a rewarding one. Much more than, say, anything by Van Der Graaf Generator, where you work hard to get through it, and don’t really feel like you can say anything other than “Well, I worked hard to get through that.” Magma will grow on you, eventually, and their ambition and reach were awesome around the time of this record’s creation. Which, having nothing as silly as “Robbery, Assault and Battery” on it, is easily the winner of this contest.
Winner: Magma, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh

And that’s it for tonight’s effort, as we are now 75 percent through the first round. The next time we revisit the Wurm Regional, we will have the following contests to consider:

King Crimson, Larks’ Tongue in Aspic vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer
Curved Air, Phantasmagoria vs. Yes, Relayer
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells
Kansas, Point of Know Return vs. Magma, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh

Stay tuned ’til next time, whenever that might be.

March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, Part Five (The Syrinx Regional, Round One)

I’m here at the house alone, getting up every five minutes to hand out Hallowe’en candy to the trick of treaters working the neighborhood. Seems like a good time to knock off the last quarter of the first round. For refreshers, here’s who we’re looking at in . . .

The Syrinx Regional

Yes, Fragile vs. Nektar, Journey to the Center of the Eye
Badger, One Live Badger vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pictures At An Exhibition
Rick Wakeman, The Six Wives of Henry VIII vs. Jethro Tull, Aqualung
Rush, 2112 vs. Focus, Focus 3
Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here vs. Family, Bandstand
Uriah Heep, Demons and Wizards vs. Genesis, Foxtrot
Van Der Graaf Generator, H to He Who Am the Only One vs. Camel, Snow Goose
Wishbone Ash, Argus vs. King Crimson, Red

And here’s how we break this tough regional down . . .

Yes, Fragile vs. Nektar, Journey to the Center of the Eye
Journey to the Center of the Eye is probably the most obscure record I’ve listed in this field of 64, but it’s a winner. Well, at least in terms of quality anyway. Probably not in terms of this contest. But, before we decide that, let’s give it a look. Nektar were founded in Germany, but I let them into this competition (while excluding all the Krautrockers), because they weren’t actually German: they were displaced Englishmen. Also, there’s more mellotron per minute on this album than just about any other prog record you can easily lay your mind, hands or fingers on, so that’s gotta count for something, pedigree wise. Sound wise, Journey to the Center of the Eye teeters right on the genre-defining edges of prog, psychedelia and space rock, but there are enough symphonic threads running through it to allow it to compete with some of the bigger, better known A-listers filling this chart. Unfortunately, though, Nektar has the misfortune of going up against Yes’s Fragile in the first round. While not necessarily their best album, it was the record that introduced Rick Wakeman to the band’s fold, and it did have two of the biggest prog rock radio successes of the era with “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround.” Neither of those two songs are this album’s highlights though (particularly in their radio edits): that honor goes to “Heart of the Sunrise,” a massive, majestic piece with exciting dynamics and strenuous, searing instrumental work. Also impressive is “The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus),” which serves as a coda to the full version of “Long Distance Runaround,” and let’s Chris Squire’s always awesome bass gallop around like nobody’s business. “We Have Heaven” is nice (but short), and “South Side of the Sky” is interesting (but long), and the other cuts fill in appropriately, ensuring each band member gets their own instrumental showcase, although all of them together are less satisfying than any of the aforementioned cuts. Outside of Pink Floyd, this is probably the prog album that more non-prog fans have in their collection, so we’ve got to honor that, despite Nektar’s valiant upset attempt.
Winner: Yes, Fragile

Badger, One Live Badger vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pictures At An Exhibition
I made a conscious attempt to exclude live albums in this survey, unless they offered material that was never issued in any studio setting, or unless there were live cuts interspersed with studio cuts. Absent those conditions, most live prog albums of the ’70s did little more than prove that the bands could actually play they way they played in concert. Ironically and without actively intending to do so, I have pitted two of the rare live albums in this survey against each other in the first round. ELP’s Pictures At An Exhibition is one of the more famous stabs at tackling classical music, rock style, as Greg, Carl and Keith deconstruct Modest Mussourgsky’s piano classic in big prog fashion, making Mussourgsky one of the world’s most famous obscure Russian composers in the process. The results are definitely interesting, if scattershot and with definite flaws: many of the lyrics are bad, even by prog standards, the live sound isn’t too hot (particularly to contemporary ears), and the coda of “Nutrocker” (i.e. “The Nutcracker” done rock style) is really, really bad. Nice in concept, interesting the first few times you listen to it, but too long and poorly recorded to really stick with you. (I actually prefer the tighter, shorter studio version of “Pictures” included on the ELP box set The Return of the Manticore, which offers all the meat, without the stuffing). One Live Badger was Badger’s debut disc, an odd approach but a successful one, since the band felt that studioitis was sucking the life out of numbers that soared in concert. It’s hard to shake the Yes connection (Tony Kaye is the main creative force in the band, formed after he left Flash, Jon Anderson produced, sometime Yes lyricist David Foster plays bass and sings, and Roger Dean handled the art work), but the group really does have a unique and high quality sound of their own, in large part due to Foster’s vocals, which are gruffer and heartier than most of the Yes posse’s angelic sighs and soarings. With 30 years worth of 20/20 vision, One Live Badger holds up better and rewards contemporary listening better now than Pictures At An Exhibition does. Chalk one up to Cinderella.
Winner: Badger, One Live Badger

Rick Wakeman, The Six Wives of Henry VIII vs. Jethro Tull, Aqualung
Okay, I’ve flirted around the topic several times, but now I have to state it straight up and forward-like: I really don’t care for Rick Wakeman, and have never understood why Yes fans and other prog heads get all hot and bothered about him. Sure, he’s a fine keyboardist, but my own personal favorite Yes albums are the ones on which he doesn’t play (The Yes Album, Relayer, Drama, The Ladder). To me, the sound of Yes is, ultimately, the sound of Chris Squire and Steve Howe playing together. Most of the other Yes keyboardists have allowed those string benders to strike sparks, but when Wakeman’s onboard, he tends to force his “classically trained” sensibilities to the fore, to the detriment of the guitarists. Plus, Wakeman’s notorious concert cape did more to invoke sneers and scorn for progressive rock than pretty much anything that anybody ever committed to disc. That bias aside, The Six Wives of Henry VIII is decent enough, I suppose, although it has a sterile and academic flavor to it, as Wakeman seeks to create a musical portrait of each of the Missus Henry’s. The best number of the album is the opener “Catherine of Aragon,” on which Squire does his thing with typical panache. (Steve Howe and Bill Bruford also make guest appearances here). All told, though, this record feels like a museum piece, not a vibrant, engaging musical document. Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, while generally regarded by casual fans as the Tull apex, has its faults as well, and it hasn’t aged as well as some other pieces from the era. The sound is podgy and dry at times, and the over-playing of the title cut and “Locomotive Breath” have tended to breed contempt over the years. The album marked the recording debut of bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, who grew to be regarded as one of the best loved Tulls, but at this point was no match for the deposed Glenn Cornick on the four string axe. Still, though, props must be given to Ian Anderson, Martin Barre and company for producing one of the most recognizable riffs (the opening lick of “Aqualung”) and lyrics (“Snot running down his nose”) in progressive rock history, and for some potent, lasting songs that don’t get the attention they deserve: the sad and lovely “Cheap Day Return,” the brooding “Mother Goose,” the rollicking “Hymn 43″ and the wiser-than-it-sounds-at-first “Wind Up”. I’ll take those over Wakeman’s best doodlings any day.
Winner: Jethro Tull, Aqualung

Rush, 2112 vs. Focus, Focus 3
2112 was the first of Rush’s really big prog statements, with the side-long title track and its fantastic (as in “of fantasy,” not as in “boy those are great”) lyrics. It’s geeky as all get out, but there’s something giddy about singing along with Geddy Lee’s banshee wail on such sterling bon mots as “We are the priests of the Temple of Syrinx!” Still, as was the case in an earlier competition with Hemispheres, Rush backed their prog epic with a collection of short, nondescript numbers that didn’t do them any favors. All things considered, while Rush got two records into this contest, they really didn’t hit their maximum stride and strength until the early ’80s, long after Love Beach had closed the doors on this particular tournament’s span of action. Focus 3 is the third (duh) album from Dutch rockers Focus (double duh), the one on which they would and should have (theoretically) capitalized on the pop crossover success of “Hocus Pocus” a year earlier. And while “Sylvia” was a minor hit (compared to “Hocus Pocus,” anyway), most of Focus 3 more closely resembled “Eruption,” the monster meltdown that filled the second side of Moving Waves, the album that birthed “Hocus Pocus”. “Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers” and “Anonymous Two” are among the finest works Focus ever recorded, both of them long, but totally engaging. Focus 3 marked the recording debut of what I consider to the best of Focus’ lineups, with bassist Bert Ruiter and drummer Pierre Van Der Linden backing up Thijs Van Leer and monster guitarist Jan Akkerman. (That lineup also recorded Live At The Rainbow a year later, which is one of the greatest concert recordings ever, but wasn’t included here because it just featured live versions of other studio works, unlike One Live Badger or Pictures At An Exhibition). Focus at the peak vs. Rush before they hit their peak? No contest.
Winner: Focus, Focus 3

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here vs. Family, Bandstand
Alright, I already committed one prog heresy today by dishing gravy on poor Rick Wakeman, so let’s go ahead and throw another one on the fire before Rick finishes cooking. I find Wish You Were Here to be really dull and boring for the most part. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” would have been a killer three minute song, but stretching it out in two chunks over the vast majority of this album? Ehhhh . . . that’s dull. I can also never really bring myself to embrace Roy Harper’s vocal turn on “Have A Cigar.” It’s a good song, but Pink Floyd had three great singers at that point . . . so why couldn’t one of them have sung it? I don’t know. Charity, I suspect. That leaves “Welcome to the Machine” (which has cool synth sound effects, but not much song meat) and the album’s title track, which is definitely the high point on the disc. All told, not one of the Floyd’s more engaging moments for me. Bandstand, however, finds Family’s best line-up (Charlie Whitney, Roger Chapman, Poli Palmer, John Wetton and Rob Townsend) firing on all cylinders, hitting you upside the head with some great rockers and mood pieces that are probably prog only because John Wetton plays on them, but, hey, if you can get John Wetton to play with you, then you deserve to dance at the Prog Ball. And if you can dance as well as Family does on Bandstand, then you can even move on to the next round.
Winner: Family, Bandstand

Uriah Heep, Demons and Wizards vs. Genesis, Foxtrot
John Wetton played in Uriah Heep, too, but not on Demons and Wizards, which stands as the mystical metalheads finest musical moment. Like most great prog records, this one features a long epic suite, “Paradise/The Spell,” several shorter, punchier numbers, including radio fave “Easy Livin'” and lots of keyboards, courtesy Ken Hensley, who had also once played with another prog titan, Greg Lake, in the Gods. Uriah Heep’s biggest problem, though, was their singer, David Byron, who had one of the more annoying voices of ’70s rock, making it hard to dig into this album (or any of their others) with a whole lot of gusto and conviction. Genesis’s Foxtrot? A classic, with the side-long “Supper’s Ready” standing as one of prog’s defining epic moments, a surprisingly moving fairy tale/allegory about something or other and that and this, that despite its cryptic nature really and honestly does build to an emotional, engaging crescendo, 20+ minutes after it starts on a bed of sweetly picked 12-strings. Despite that side-long epic, Genesis also managed a prog coup in not filling its opposite side with toss of dreck: “Watcher of the Skies” and “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” are both muscular and exciting songs, though “Friday” has whiffs of the obnoxious urban storytelling that would explode like a boil in “The Battle of Epping Forest” a year or so later. Steve Hackett’s “Horizons” may be one of the best loved, tightest and most effective solo acoustic guitar numbers in the prog canon (Steve Howe’s “The Clap” from The Yes Album is the only one popping to mind with a similar mix of dazzle and restraint packed into such a small package). All told, you can’t argue with Foxtrot this early in the competition.
Winner: Genesis, Foxtrot

Van Der Graaf Generator, H to He Who Am the Only One vs. Camel, The Snow Goose
This is the dodgiest pairing of the first round, frankly. Camel’s The Snow Goose is an wordless song cycle based on a story about, uh, a snow goose, I guess. It teeters perilously close to John Tesh or Yanni country at times, though its good moments are certainly better than anything those two hacks every barfed up. H to He Who Am the Only One is dark, dense and difficult, like most of Van Der Graaf Generator’s material. It too, has its moments, but instead of waiting for them to appear between spectral sonic goose down, you have to wait for them to appear between dirgy walls of plodding organ and honking horns. Plod plod plod. Dirge dirge dirge. When you step back from it, though, at least nothing on H to He sounds like it could have been performed at a Kenny G concert. That’s sufficient to win this contest, since Camel can’t say the same.
Winner: Van Der Graaf Generator, H to He Who Am the Only One

Wishbone Ash, Argus vs. King Crimson, Red
I hear you thinking: twin lead guitar boogie rockers Wishbone Ash are prog? Well, sure, because John Wetton played with them, although not on this album. And, actually, that’s not totally the reason that I included Argus. It also has a warrior on the cover, in a cool helmet. That’s very prog. And its title . . . Argus . . . it’s almost like Tarkus, and you can’t get more prog than that. But, seriously, Argus is the place where Wishbone Ash was definitely at its most ambitious, songwriting and performance wise, with some longish songs that aren’t just jams and boogies. Good ones, too. If you only own one Wishbone album, then this is the one to have: “Time Was” and “Warrior” are among their best ever songs, and they are about time and warriors, which are both very prog, indeed. John Wetton played on King Crimson’s Red, too, along with Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford, in a kick-ass power trio format, like Cream with focus, or ELP with restraint. Guest musicians (including prodigal founder Ian McDonald) add sax, horn and string touches, but this is definitely the rockingest, tightest, toughest (and last) album of ’70s Crimson, with such classic numbers as “Red” (one of only two ’70s Crimson songs to remain in their live repertoire), “Starless,” “Fallen Angel” and “One More Red Nightmare.” Actually, that’s the whole album there, with the exception of the live improv “Providence,” which is not nearly as strong as the other numbers, even though it impressive to think that it was created on the fly. There’s no denying this record is a prog classic. Even if it doesn’t have a cool title like Argus.
Winner: King Crimson, Red

And with that, we have completed the first round! We have 32 survivors left. Let’s recap all four divisions, just so they’re all in one place before we move into the second round. (The summary of tonight’s Syrinx Regional is listed last, after the recaps of the other three).

The Slipperman Regional

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Jethro Tull, Minstrel in the Gallery
Gentle Giant, Octopus vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Yes, The Yes Album
Steve Hackett, The Voyage of the Acolyte vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

The Bostock Regional

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick
Kansas, Leftoverture vs. Chris Squire, Fish Out of Water
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

The Wurm Regional

King Crimson, Larks’ Tongue in Aspic vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer
Curved Air, Phantasmagoria vs. Yes, Relayer
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells
Kansas, Point of Know Return vs. Magma, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh

The Syrinx Regional

Yes, Fragile vs. Badger, One Live Badger
Jethro Tull, Aqualung vs. Focus, Focus 3
Family, Bandstand vs. Genesis, Foxtrot
Van Der Graaf Generator, H to He Who Am the Only One vs. King Crimson, Red

Next time I type, we’ll start weeding things down to the Round of 16. In this round, we start getting some head-to-head competition between the Big Six bands, so the drama and difficulty will be greater, as some sacred cows are definitely going to have to drop. Stay tuned.

March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, Parts Six (Top Half of the Bracket, Round Two) and Seven (Bottom Half of the Bracket, Round Two)

Okey doke, let’s see if we can’t get through half of the second round today, making another pass through the Slipperman and Bostock Regionals. At this stage of the game, we’re going to start to see some heavy hitters going toe-to-toe against each other for the first time. As we assess these records, we will obviously be considering quality of material, but also their “progness”. We want the best prog record in each case, the record that best complies with the basic characteristic tenets of progressive rock (as adapted from Wikipedia’s very good definition, including:

1. Long compositions, often composed of shorter movements or pieces
2. Intricate narratives
3. Unified album concepts
4. Unusual vocals, instruments, time signatures, scales or tunings
5. Wide dynamic range
6. Solo spotlights, highlighting instrumental virtuosity
7. Incorporation of non-rock motifs
8. Links between visual and musical elements
9. Incestuous personnel swapping with other prog bands

That recap done, here’s the slate for today’s pairings:

The Slipperman Regional

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Jethro Tull, Minstrel in the Gallery
Gentle Giant, Octopus vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Yes, The Yes Album
Steve Hackett, The Voyage of the Acolyte vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

The Bostock Regional

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick
Kansas, Leftoverture vs. Chris Squire, Fish Out of Water
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

And here’s the in-depth play-by-play:

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Jethro Tull, Minstrel in the Gallery
Minstrel in the Gallery‘s title cut may be the best, hardest song ever created by merging rock structures with baroque or medieval musical concepts. The song opens with an acoustic portion, (allegedly by a band of “strolling players,” performing for a Lord and Lady whose dinner guests are absent for reasons unexplained), then morphs into a knotty, ballsy rocker, with a fabulous transitional solo by Martin Barre. This is classic era Tull at their toughest and tightest. A masterpiece. But, then, let’s listen to In the Court of the Crimson King‘s opening cut, “21st Century Schizoid Man.” It’s equally knotty and dense, more abrasive and powerful, and far more influential due to the fact that it came out six years earlier than “Minstrel,” and probably provided at least indirect inspiration for that latter gem. Both albums then proceed to veer between acoustic, melodic numbers and punchier numbers, Tull’s heavier songs being a bit more spry than Crimson’s, but without the same sense of menace and doom that the best bits of Court provide. Several segments of Minstrel serve as essentially Ian Anderson solo turns, while Court is the work of a fully integrated band of equals throughout. Toss in one of rock’s most recognizable and startling album sleeves, and I think that tips the scale in King Crimson’s direction.
Winner: King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King

Gentle Giant, Octopus vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
No contest. Unlike Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant rarely manage to make their baroque dalliances sound rough or tumble, much less rough and tumble. Pink Floyd, on the other hand, is capable of rocking hard when they want to, and on “Dogs” and “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” they do so with aplomb. Animals is one of Floyd’s “most prog” records in terms of its allegorical conceptual structure, suite of long inter-related songs, amazing cover, and virtuous performances. Roger Waters’ pigs, dogs and sheep can eat Gentle Giant’s octopuses for lunch, and still have room left over for pudding.
Winner: Pink Floyd, Animals

Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Yes, The Yes Album
Oooo . . . this is a tough one. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is one of prog’s grand statements, a two-disc tour de force with a story-line detailed not once, but twice: in the album’s lyrics themselves, and in the long gate-fold text included in the album. It features some of Genesis’s grandest songs, “The Carpet Crawlers,” “it,” “Back in N.Y.C.,” “In the Cage” and the stick-in-your-head forever title track. There are fantastic instrumental performances by all four of the band’s players, plus some passionate singing from Peter Gabriel. It has some of the band’s better attempts at humor and real world social commentary. But, in the con department, it’s also got some padding, filler, and a serious clunker (lyrically, conceptually and musically) in “The Lamia.” The Yes Album (only a single disc) has four truly spectacular long-form pieces: “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “Perpetual Change,” “Starship Trooper,” and “All Good People.” It’s padded out by the nice enough acoustic guitar romp “The Clap” and the superfluous and inferior “A Venture.” I love the sound of this incarnation of Yes, in their only record together: Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Tony Kaye and Bill Bruford. Kaye’s organ works so much better (to me, anyway) with Squire and Howe’s dueling strings than anything that Rick Wakeman offered later (with the possible exception of some parts of Close to the Edge, which we will discuss later). Still and all, though, as much as I love The Yes Album, I think I have to nod toward Lamb . . . it’s certainly the “most prog” of the pair, and (probably) the better record overall to boot. Even if you cut the fluff, you still have far more than one single disc worth of fabulous material, which Yes couldn’t quite fill on The Yes Album. Just skip “The Lamia” when you play Lamb. You won’t be missing anything important.
Winner: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Steve Hackett, The Voyage of the Acolyte vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus
I have a special fond spot for Tarkus, because it was the first prog album I ever owned. I got it as a little kid not because I knew (or cared) who Emerson Lake and Palmer were, not because I cared (or knew about) progressive rock . . . but because of its way cool cover art, with an armed and armored armadillo rolling across a rainbow colored plain. When I opened it up, it got even better, as I got to see the armadillo being born from an egg beneath an erupting volcano, then heading off into the big, bad world to destroy a strange walking castle sort of thing, an armored pterodactyl and a grasshopper-lizard-tank chimera. But, suddenly . . . watch out Armadillo! It’s the Manticore! Whoa! The Manticore used its spiny tail to scratch the Armadillo’s eye! But, phew, then the Armadillo becomes Amphibious and swims away from the battlefield. Hooray Armadillo! He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day! You’ll get that Manticore next time, I’m sure! When I actually played the record, the titular first side suite provided exactly the sort of music I would have expected for such an epic tale. It sounded like animals and machine and machine animals doing all sorts of cool, epic stuff. Awesome! I still get the willies when I hear it all these years later, although more for the really stellar performances that the band gives than for the story line at this point. Carl Palmer, in particular, plays completely out of the box and over the top on this record, creating rhythms I’ve never heard duplicated anywhere else, before or since. The second side of the album generally gets slagged a bit, but to these ears it only suffers in comparison to the first. Put it up against just about any other prog album side, and it would be a winner. In fact, Side Two of Tarkus alone would win over either side of Steve Hackett’s worthy but over-matched Voyage of the Acolyte. (Even though “Shadow of the Hierophant” sounds like some lost segment of “Tarkus” . . . watch the Armadillo slay the Hierophant! And its shadow! Woo Hoo!) Sorry, Steve.
Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick
Close to the Edge marked the first time that Yes moved past the 10-minute mark to craft a side-long song, the album’s title cut. On Thick As A Brick, though, Jethro Tull trumped them with an album long song. (Well, trumped them historically anyway, not chronologically . . . since Close to the Edge came out five months after Thick As A Brick). How successful were those long form forays? I think Yes’s venture was quite successful: “Close to the Edge” features four distinct movements, plus an introduction, and their key themes are interwoven elegantly and concisely. You never feel like you hit an awkward transitional moment, since the whole thing swims forward in one consistent motion. And despite my Rick Wakeman phobia, he actually offers an organ solo in the middle of “Close to the Edge” that is superb, one of the best things he did with the band. Tull wasn’t quite as successful knitting the pieces together on Thick As A Brick: there are several obvious, clunky points where you can hear the band (or at least Ian Anderson) thinking “Hmmm . . . how do I make these two obviously separate songs connect?” To its credit, though, some of the component songs on Thick are really great, and for sheer visual progitude, you can’t beat the original release’s fold out newspaper, with uniting story about young poet Gerald Bostock (and his “friend,” Julia), alleged author of the album’s lyrics. Of course, all that being said, I haven’t even mentioned Close to the Edge’s best part: its two song second side, with the amazing “And You And I” and the nearly perfect “Siberian Khatru” (marred only by a silly little baroque harpsichord figure in its middle sections, courtesy Mister Wakeman). Add up all three of those pieces on Close to the Edge, and you’ve got something better, bigger and proggier than Thick As A Brick‘s single song.
Winner: Yes, Close to the Edge

Kansas, Leftoverture vs. Chris Squire, Fish Out of Water
This one’s actually a thought-provoking one: a very popular, hit record by a full band at the peak of its powers, vs. a hard-to-find, low-selling solo album by one of prog’s greatest instrumentalists. Both have strong songs and strong performances, and one of them (the Kansas one) even had a Top 40 hit. (Oh, for the days when “prog” and “popular” weren’t mutually exclusive!) I guess in this case, as much as I like Chris Squire, and as much as I like Fish Out of Water, I am inclined to lean in the direction of an album issued from within a band’s main canon, not an album that exists as a nice sidelight and diversion. The general consensus on Fish Out of Water is that it’s the best Yes album that Yes didn’t make. Which is true. But if Yes didn’t make it, and the best we can do is compare it to Yes, then that makes it somewhat less endorsable than the Yes albums that are included in this survey. I suspect that Mister Squire will be well represented in the rounds ahead with his main band, where he belongs (he never did make another solo album, so I think he knows that, too), and where he does his best work. Carry on, Kansas.
Winner: Kansas, Leftoverture

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
Hmmm . . . I’ve been peaking forward and sort of dreading this match up, since these two records are really titans not only of prog, but of rock music in general. The Dark Side of the Moon was the winner of my Best of the Blockbusters contest. It’s a magnificent record, an impressive production, and a landmark for listeners over the years since its release. It’s a record that most musical folks discover at some point in their lives, and one that they can happily return to periodically when they need a refresher. It also features one of the most distinctive album covers ever by the Hipgnosis team . . . although, of course, Brain Salad Surgery‘s H.R. Giger cover creation is one of the few rock images that could challenge it. While Dark Side is a concept album composed of separate songs, Surgery offers one long suite (“Karn Evil 9″) spanning a side and a quarter, plus a collection of shorter numbers. The whole isn’t bound by any obvious theme, although I’ve heard people try to force one upon it: “It’s about technology replacing nature!” The second part of the first movement of “Karn Evil 9″ is the album’s most famous chunk, (the “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” bit), a surprisingly durable song, with a fun, timeless, very effective lyric. The shorter songs offer a very effective synopsis of ELP’s other strengths and interests: classical interpretations (“Toccata,” “Jerusalem”), acoustic love songs from Greg Lake (“Still . . . You Turn Me On”), and their weird/humorous views on bars, cowboys and the like (“Benny the Bouncer”). I should note that ELP’s sense of humor (or humour, as they’d probably write) and love of cowboys is somewhat unique in the normally very serious prog canon. You’d never imagine serious artistes like Yes writing about bouncers or “The Sheriff,” or covering “Hoedown”. (Genesis might try it, but they’d probably do it badly, since it’s hard for such posh British school boys to write about working class experiences in any meaningful way). While I suppose that in the grandest scene, Dark Side is a better rock album than Brain Salad Surgery, I think that Brain Salad is a better prog album. It meets more of the criteria listed at the start of today’s article. ELP were thoroughly incestuous with other A-list proggers. And I have to award a special star for that sense of humor bit. It’s nice to see some proggers not taking themselves oh so very seriously all the time. Let’s give this one to ELP.
Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery

Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black
Gentle Giant may have named their album The Power and the Glory, but it really doesn’t offer very much of either attribute. As I’ve written about each of their albums so far, I can never get past the fastidious, clinical, fussy and prissy nature of their music. It’s like listening to Felix Unger trying to rock. I want more Oscar Madison in my music, dammit. While King Crimson’s Robert Fripp probably would self-identify more with Felix than Oscar, he has surrounded himself with crews of beefy hard-hitters over the years, with the Starless And Bible Black rhythm section of Bill Bruford and John Wetton among the brawniest and most powerful of the bunch. Starless blows Power completely out of the water, no questions asked, let God sort ‘em out. They sunk Gentle Giant’s battleship, and quick.
Winner: King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

That’s it for today’s tourney, leaving us with half of the Sweet Sixteen. The next round’s pairings will include:

The Slipperman Regional:

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

The Bostock Regional

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Kansas, Leftoverture
Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

Tomorrow we pick the bottom half of the Sweet Sixteen, culling the Wurm and Syrinx Regionals down to four records a piece. See you then.

(Later That Same Day): Well, hey, what the heck. I got time on my hands today. Let’s finish this round. We’ve got the bottom half of the second round to go, the Wurm and Syrinx Regionals. Here’s the pairings . . .

The Wurm Regional

King Crimson, Larks’ Tongue in Aspic vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer
Curved Air, Phantasmagoria vs. Yes, Relayer
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells
Kansas, Point of Know Return vs. Magma, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh

The Syrinx Regional

Yes, Fragile vs. Badger, One Live Badger
Jethro Tull, Aqualung vs. Focus, Focus 3
Family, Bandstand vs. Genesis, Foxtrot
Van Der Graaf Generator, H to He Who Am the Only One vs. King Crimson, Red

And here’s the analysis . . .

King Crimson, Larks’ Tongue in Aspic vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer
The structure of these albums is somewhat similar: both feature six cuts, each one sporting a 12-13 minute epic paired with five mid-length pieces. Both mix a good selection of instrumental cuts with vocal cuts, and the singing is very, very good on both discs (John Wetton handling the honors for Crimso, former Crimson Greg Lake working the mic for ELP). Both are debuts, of sorts, with “rock supergroup” overtones. ELP’s ELP was actually their first album, period, with the former Crimson, Nice and Atomic Rooster players collectively introducing themselves to the world, while Crimson’s Larks’ Tongue was the first record of the post-Sinfield era, with members of early Crimson, Yes and Family making music together for the first time. Both records are of exceedingly high quality, although each one features a song that could have been either shortened or left off without diminishing the quality of the overall product (“The Three Fates” by ELP, “The Talking Drum” by King Crimson). Both records have big time prog pedigree, and both meet the lion’s share of the prog standards laid out earlier in this article. With all of those ties, I find myself leaning slightly towards ELP . . . in large part because these songs appear in their best formats and versions on ELP, while the songs on Larks’ Tongue are almost all available in superior live versions elsewhere. But then I lean back towards Larks’ Tongue because it doesn’t feature “Lucky Man,” ELP’s crossover pop hit that sounds like it was written by a 12-year old. Which it was, come to think of it, by a very, very young Greg Lake in his pre-King Crimson days. So I guess that kind of makes it okay. Kind of. Or maybe more than kind of, since “Lucky Man” serves very, very well as one of the key starter drugs of prog, the easy to digest beginner’s taste that opens the doors to all sorts of other darker, deeper secrets and vices. It’s got a cool early Moog solo on it, too. Hmmm . . . this is a tough one. But I think I’m going to have to go with ELP here in a squeaker.
Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer

Curved Air, Phantasmagoria vs. Yes, Relayer
For every squeaker, there’s usually an offsetting rout. This one falls in the latter category: the Patrick Moraz-fortified Yes makes all sorts of big, impressive ugly noises on Relayer, exploring themes (musical and otherwise) that they had never touched before, nor have touched since. I mean, when peace-loving angelic elfin harpist Jon Anderson sings “Kill them, give them as they give us, Slay them, burn their children’s laughter, On to Hell!” you know something weird and wonderful is afoot. Curved Air’s Phantasmagoria is a delicious confection by a clever and talented group, but it collapses like a soufflé when blasted with the intensity of Relayer‘s harder bits. And, lest we get too carried away in our Relayer-love, it is important to focus on the fact that it’s harder bits are the ones you want to hear here. Both sides of this record peter out into sweetness at the end of their runs, with “Soon” (an edit of “The Gates of Delirium”) wrapping up Side A, and “To Be Over” closing out Side B, and the record. Those are decent enough pieces, but they also feel tame compared to what came before them. But, at this point, we are not competing Relayer against itself, we are competing it against Phantasmagoria. It wins that contest.
Winner: Yes, Relayer

Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells
Two epic, album-spanning tracks going head to head in this contest, one by a great band hitting its maximum stride, one by a precocious whelp who plays almost every instrument himself. The album’s genesises (genesii?) are also radically different: Mike Oldfield had been scheming and arranging the bits of Tubular Bells for years before Richard Branson bankrolled him, while A Passion Play was a quick re-write/re-record of some aborted band sessions at France’s Chateau d’Herouville. (The original sessions, dubbed “The Chateau D’Isaster Tapes,” were later issued on the Nightcap compilation. They’re not bad, but they’re no A Passion Play either). To the casual listener, Tubular Bells is the more familiar disc, having sold far more copies, and having been featured prominently in the hit film, The Exorcist. A Passion Play has to be familiar to someone, since it was Tull’s last chart-topping album in the States, and remains their best seller to this day. If you believe most of the pundits and critics, though, they bought it, listened to it once, and set it aside, preferring to listen to Aqualung another 3,000 times instead. Which I believe to be their mistake: while A Passion Play may not be the ideal album for Jethro Tull fans who have certain expectations for what their heroes can and should do, it’s a great, unusual document when viewed in its own standalone light. As mentioned earlier, it’s the most synth and sax intensive record in the Tull canon. It’s two main, long movements (sandwiching the controversial “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”) have a certain grandeur and momentum to them . . . once they get going, they really don’t give you a satisfactory release/relief until they’re done, sucking you along through knotty, unresolved figures like some muscular Bach number, performed with cojones, and not on a tinkly harpsichord by someone like, say, Rick Wakeman. I think the humor of “The Story of the Hare” is one of A Passion Play‘s redeeming qualities: it provides a palette-cleansing interlude between two parts of a dark and serious story, whatever it may be about. (General consensus: a man who dies, visits heaven and hell, and then decides he wants to return to the world of the living). To his credit, Oldfield also knows how to use humor in his composition, as Viv Stanshall’s instrument introductions and the drunken “Sailor’s Hornpipe” sections lighten an otherwise intense listening experience. These are both formidable records, rewarding repeated listening. It’s hard to pick between them, but I’m going to give the nod to A Passion Play, judging the musical accomplishments of the discs to be a tie, and giving Ian Anderson bonus points for his lyrics, the one element that Oldfield neglected to add to his magnum opus. It’s another squeaker, but one I feel good about, results-wise.
Winner: Jethro Tull, A Passion Play

Kansas, Point of Know Return vs. Magma, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh
Point of Know Return is prog for the masses, an accessible, melodic, comprehensible disc with a hit (“Dust in the Wind”) and songs that work well within their album context, and when lifted out on their own for AOR or random mix tape sampling. Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh is the opposite: a dense album performed in an imaginary language, with fierce, amelodic, off-putting melodies and rhythms that work best only when heard in the context of the record itself. It’s a powerful and potent listen, sure, but it’s a listen that requires some commitment and work. Well, actually, a lot of commitment and work. Becoming a Magma fan is like becoming a smoker: you have to really want to do it, since the first puff is going to make you hack and gag a lot . . . and it takes a lot of hacking and gagging before you get to a point where the addiction kicks in and rewires your brain to accept the harsh substances you are subjecting your system to in order to get your fix. While the instrumental prowess of Magma is probably greater than that exhibited by Kansas (drummer Christian Vander, bassist Jannick Top and vocalist Klaus Blasquiz are truly titans of their respective instruments), the American group created something more lasting and universal by working their ambitions into recognizable forms, without diminishing them in the process. While accessibility is certainly not a requirement for great prog, it’s also not mutually exclusive . . . and if you can achieve accessibility and quality in equal measures, then you’ve probably created something more worthwhile than something that sacrifices accessibility completely in its quest for quality.
Winner: Kansas, Point of Know Return

Yes, Fragile vs. Badger, One Live Badger
This one’s not a rout, per se, since One Live Badger is a very good Yes spin-off album, and Fragile is a very flawed Yes album . . . but it’s hard to come up with any viable argument that would place Tony Kaye’s short-lived ’70s band in front of the band in which he made his greatest commercial and critical mark (both in the ’70s “Trooper” days and in the ’80s “Yeswest” days). While One Live Badger doesn’t have the filler tracks that mar Fragile (i.e. Bill Bruford’s “Five Percent for Nothing,” a name that describes Bruford’s songwriting royalty rate for a “song” less than minute long that he didn’t put a lot of time or energy into), it also doesn’t have any peaks approaching those hit on “Heart of the Sunrise” and “Long Distance Runaround/The Fish”. It’s worth noting that Kaye went back to Yes years after Badger had run its course. There was a reason for that, as a comparison of these two records makes clear.
Winner: Yes, Fragile

Jethro Tull, Aqualung vs. Focus, Focus 3
While Aqualung is certainly the Jethro Tull album that generates the most radio spins and the most shout outs when Tull plays in concert, it’s also certainly not their best disc. As mentioned earlier, the sound of this record is really off-putting: if you listen closely, it sounds as if almost all of the album’s instruments were recorded on their own and then tracked together. There’s not a lot of interplay or warmth to this disc, not many sparks being struck between the various players. Given this fact, the best bits of the album tend to be the ones that feature Ian Anderson and his acoustic guitar most prominently, since it sounds as though at least he was, occasionally, really playing with himself (musically, that is). The album also lacks in the bass guitar department, as Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond was still coming into his own on that instrument after joining the band that year. It’s an influential record, sure, and a well-loved one . . . but it’s definitely a seriously flawed masterpiece. Focus 3‘s biggest flaw is probably its length: it’s an ambitious double disker, and some of the songs on it could probably have been cut back or cut out. But when it comes to actual performance, Focus 3 is all aces. You may not like the material that much, or you may think it’s too long, but the energy and musicianly interplay on this record simply leaps out at you. This was a very talented band, and a band whose members worked together very, very well. It’s a better made record than Aqualung, and one that its creators have not tended to disavow over the years, the way that Ian Anderson often downplays and poo-poos Aqualung. I’m inclined to agree with Ian in this case.
Winner: Focus, Focus 3

Family, Bandstand vs. Genesis, Foxtrot
While having John Wetton in your band is good enough to get you an invite to the Big Prog Dance, it’s not enough to get you a free pass to the inner sanctum where the Prom Kings and Queens twirl and spin. Family’s Bandstand is a fine, blues-based album with prog elements woven into its short, strong songs . . . but Foxtrot can meet every single one of the “what is prog” criteria, and still have lots of extra prog left over to share with others. If it was inclined to do, which, if it’s like most Prom Queens, it probably isn’t. The Rutherford-Gabriel-Hackett-Collins-Banks version of Genesis was never more on-target than they were on this disc, when they were all still writing together, singing together, and playing together, rather than vying for solos and credits as they did on later discs. Bandstand can’t hang with that, and is probably happier out underneath the bleachers smoking cigarettes anyway.
Winner: Genesis, Foxtrot

Van Der Graaf Generator, H to He, Who Am the Only One vs. King Crimson, Red
Robert Fripp plays on both of these albums. On Red, he’s the musical mastermind of a tight tight tight power trio. On the awkwardly titled H to He, Who Am the Only One, he’s a hired guitar gun for a band that lacked its own electric six-string wielder. He shines on both records . . . but on the Crimson disc, he’s shining in a sympathetic setting, while on the VDGG disc, he’s shining up a dreary, droning disc of churning, swirling musical turgidity. I’ll take the disc where the guitarist has a full-time seat at an elegantly set musical table, as opposed to being presented like a dessert tray rolled out when you’re already full of the starchy, doughy, salty meal that you’ve been served out of a rough wooden trough.
Winner: King Crimson, Red

And there we have it . . . we’re down a Sweet Sixteen! I print all eight of the remaining competitions (repeating the Bostock and Slipperman regional information) just so you (and I) have it in one, easily cut-and-pasted place for tomorrow’s contests.

The Slipperman Regional:

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

The Bostock Regional

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Kansas, Leftoverture
Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

The Wurm Regional

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer vs. Yes, Relayer
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Kansas, Point of Know Return

The Syrinx Regional

Yes, Fragile, vs. Focus, Focus 3
Genesis, Foxtrot vs. King Crimson, Red

Next time we play, we’ll boil it down to the Elite Eight. See you then.

March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, Part Eight (Culling the Sweet Sixteen)

Today, we take our list of sixteen surviving albums and turn it into an Elite Eight. Among the Sweet Sixteen, we’ve got representation from all of the expected British big six, plus a couple of plucky American records and even a Dutch import. It’s all bands at this point; no solo records left. But that’s the prog way, really, so not too terribly surprising. At any rate . . . here’s the matchups:

The Slipperman Regional:

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

The Bostock Regional

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Kansas, Leftoverture
Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

The Wurm Regional

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer vs. Yes, Relayer
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Kansas, Point of Know Return

The Syrinx Regional

Yes, Fragile, vs. Focus, Focus 3
Genesis, Foxtrot vs. King Crimson, Red

The referee blows his whistle, the benchwarmers adjust their sports coats and ties (capes aren’t allowed in this league anymore under the new dress code), and the game is on . . .

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Pink Floyd, Animals
Once again, the benchmark record of classic prog stares down another formidable opponent in the form of Pink Floyd’s dystopian fairy tale, Animals. Both of these albums feature fierce virtuosity and startling sonic surprises. Both were created by bands riven with tension, which bleeds through onto the vinyl (or laminated plastic): the Crimson line-up that created In the Court would never record together again, while Animals marks the point where the balance of power within Pink Floyd shifted dramatically in Roger Waters’ direction, to the growing chagrin of his band mates. The packaging of each of these two records is top notch and instantly recognizable, with King Crimson’s great red scream (courtesy Barry Godber) and Pink Floyd’s pig on the wing over Battersea Power Station (thanks to Storm Thorgerson and his Hipgnosis partners). Both records have five songs running to a total of about 42 minutes. Both are anchored by stellar guitar performances (Robert Fripp vs. David Gilmore). Both have distinctive keyboard work (Fripp and Ian McDonald’s mellotrons vs. Rick Wright’s echoed intro to “Sheep” and scream-to-a-synth fades in “Dogs”). When all’s said and done, though, I have to lean toward King Crimson here, primarily because of the significantly greater influence that In the Court had over the years . . . both in terms of its sounds, and in terms of that Crimson line-up serving as one of the primary feeders for the incestuous den of players that defined the heart of prog in the ’70s. Pink Floyd were self-contained and aloof in that regard. King Crimson imploded enough times to spawn everyone from ELP to Foreigner (but we won’t hold that against them), and their core players appear on a huge number of records included in the original 64 surveyed here. Influence wins out over insularity in this case.
Winner: King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King

Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus
Wowzer. This one is tough. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is the last, biggest offering from Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, a two-record rock fable with some great, memorable songs and performances, while Tarkus finds Messrs Emerson Lake and Palmer offering a mad stew of weird rhythms and textures on their album’s side-long title track, plus a diverse collection of hymns and rockers on the B-side. Lamb features some guest knob doodling from Brian Eno, while Tarkus was tracked by prog producer par excellence Eddy Offord. Both albums are bass-drum-key heavy, since Greg Lake didn’t play a lot of guitar on Tarkus (the only classic ELP studio album not to include a sweet acoustic Lake love ballad), and Steve Hackett was beginning to be marginalized as a songwriter and player during Lamb‘s production. (Some of Hackett’s most memorable contributions to Lamb actually sound more like keyboards than guitar, most especially on “The Carpet Crawlers”.) With two discs to sprawl over, Lamb certainly contains a lot more filler and fluff than Tarkus, which can make it harder to get through from a straight listening standpoint. Both records have some silly/fun moments (ELP’s “Are You Ready, Eddy?” vs. Genesis’ “Counting Out Time”), which is a good thing, to my ears, although some serious prog purists would, I know, disagree. I guess I’m going to lean in ELP’s direction in this contest, penalizing Genesis for Lamb‘s much larger filler quotient compared to Tarkus. At this level of the competition, instrumental fluff and padding is no longer tolerable, particularly of the dull, atmospheric, drifty variety exemplified by Lamb‘s “Hairless Heart,” “Ravine” and “Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats.” Plus . . . there’s “The Lamia”. We can’t let that move on.
Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Kansas, Leftoverture
Kansas has had a relatively easy route in this bracket to the Sweet Sixteen, not having had to face a Big Six band yet, as only Rush and a Chris Squire solo disc stood in their path so far. The Americans luck runs out at this stage of the contest, though, as their populist, popular prog runs head on into the best product of Yes’ Wakeman period, Close to the Edge. Sure, Leftoverture offers an eight-minute, multi-part suite called “Magnum Opus,” but Yes actually deliver a magnum opus with Close to the Edge‘s 19-minute title suite. Sure, Dave Hope and Kerry Livgren offer some excellent bass and guitar parts on Kansas’ behalf, but, come on, they’re going up against Steve Howe and Chris Squire in Yes, and this is one case where Goliath isn’t going to be felled by a little rock. (Heh heh . . . that pun was unintentional. Heh. Heh heh.) Yes, Steve Walsh makes great organ and keyboard sounds all over Leftoverture, but with Rick Wakeman playing at his most tasteful and restrained on Close to the Edge, the Brits even win that contest. Cinderella’s glass slipper breaks here (unless, of course, Kansas can pull one out in the other half of the bracket with Point of Know Return).
Winner: Yes, Close to the Edge

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery vs. King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black
Another tough one. Starless and Bible Black‘s best bits (“Fracture,” “Lament,” “The Night Watch” and, most especially, “The Great Deceiver”) are among prog’s best and brightest moments . . . but this album has some inconsistencies and flaws, due in part to its mixture of studio and live performances. “Starless and Bible Black” (the song) is way overlong and not terribly exciting. (Note: this is not the popular Crimson song that contains the chorus line “starless and bible black” . . . that song is just called “Starless”, and it appears on Red). “We’ll Let You Know” and “The Mincer” are pretty forgettable as well, with “Trio” standing as the best of the improv pieces on this record. Still . . . those first five songs are pretty good stuff, and having let ELP’s debut slip by Crimson’s Larks’ Tongue in Aspic yesterday, I’m a smidge reluctant to let another album from Crimson’s glorious ’72-74 heyday go. But try as I may, I can’t really formulate an argument for Starless and Bible Black being a better album (or even a better prog album) than Brain Salad Surgery, which is at least consistent in tone and texture, and only has one piece that might could have been excised by the filler police (the second movement of “Karn Evil 9″ . . . which is still better and more fully conceived than “Starless and Bible Black”). Sorry, Crimso. I think ELP seems to have your number in this tournament.
Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson Lake and Palmer vs. Yes, Relayer
As I’ve noted before, both sides of Relayer open with some of the most ferocious, powerful music that Yes ever created, but both sides wind down to more pastoral and peaceful (and less memorable) fare before they’re done. The slow bits aren’t bad or filler, per se (“To Be Over” has a very nice sitar-like guitar figure defining its key melody, plus some interesting slide work from Steve Howe, and “Soon” has a memorable melody, it’s just a bit dull compared to the earlier parts of “The Gates of Delirium,” from which it was culled), but they are a tad lackluster compared to what came before them. ELP’s debut disc has similar problems in “Take A Pebble” and “The Three Fates”: the former meanders way further from its simple, sweet core song than it should (although nowhere near as far as it does in some of its live versions, which are way, way, way too long), while the latter song includes one great Fate (“Atropos,” the last one, with Palmer and Emerson dueling over a very cool rhythmic and melodic structure), following two not as exciting Fates (“Clotho” and “Lachesis,” for those keeping score at home). Putting strength against strength, we would pit ELP’s “Knife Edge,” “The Barbarian” and “Tank” against Yes’s “Sound Chaser” and first 2/3’s of “The Gates of Delirium”. Looked at that way, Yes blows ELP out of the water: “Sound Chaser” is one of the most thrilling things they ever produced (more great slide guitar from Steve Howe cementing that position), while the battle sequence of “The Gates of Delirium” is so over the top (in the good sense) with its tremendous layers of manipulated tapes, weird guitar and keyboard sounds, clattering metallic percussion and lance-like bass lines. The release when that section winds down is powerful and palpable . . . which, of course, contributes to the feeling of anti-climax when the “Soon” section begins. It resolves, but it’s more exciting before it does. I think that carries the day on this one . . . and that Relayer marks the point where Yes began to pull in its collective horns and play it a bit safer, first and foremost by firing Patrick Moraz after it was complete and bringing back Rick Wakeman, who keyed the lackluster Going for the One and Tormato albums that followed. Yes had good moments after Relayer, but they never reached quite as high again. ELP, on the other hand, laid a solid, innovative foundation with their debut upon which they built something grander. We’ll take the flawed peak over the flawed foundation in this case.
Winner: Yes, Relayer

Jethro Tull, A Passion Play vs. Kansas, Point of Know Return
While I think most critics would cite Leftoverture as Kansas’ best album, I personally prefer Point of Know Return. “Dust in the Wind” is right up there with “Lucky Man” as the entry pathway drug for new generations of proggers, and “Point of Know Return” is one of the best busy-busy-keyboard hits of the ’70s. (You can hear it in your head, can’t you? “How long . . . deedle eedle eedle eedle eedle eedle ee . . . how long . . . repeat, etc.”) While Point of Know Return features a couple of clunkers (“A Portrait (He Knew)” and “Hopelessly Human,” which gets perilously close to bad Styx/Journey country), it has a warm, inviting, enthusiastic sound that can really get the blood pumping when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing. A Passion Play, on the other hand, is not quite as inviting . . . it has some great hooks and performances, but they’re woven into the skein of a fabric that makes it harder to single them out (much less replay them in the digital format, since most CDs track the whole album as one track). It also has its dry moments, but nothing quite as dire as “Hopelessly Human.” I mean, no matter how much you might hate “The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” there’s no likelihood you’ll confuse it with something off of Kilroy Was Here and Evolution, and its animal parable is certainly more prog in context and execution than the nearly sappy power-balladry of Point of Know Return‘s closing cut. I think A Passion Play also rises above Point of Know Return in its scope and ambition, and in the layers in which it can be appreciated: its lyrics, for instance, probably rank right up there with “American Pie” for the amount of time high school and/or college students have spent analyzing them. Kansas may have summed up their fairly simple views on mortality in four moments with “Dust in the Wind,” but Tull managed to dedicate an entire album to the same theme. If you’re gonna wrestle with big concepts, I think it’s best to wrestle with them in a big way.
Winner: Jethro Tull, A Passion Play

Yes, Fragile, vs. Focus, Focus 3
I’ve said it before: Fragile is a seriously flawed Yes album, despite containing two of the group’s most popular pre-’80s cuts. The group had just jettisoned organist Tony Kaye in favor of ex-Strawb key man Rick Wakeman, and were working to incorporate him into the mix. The albums was produced quickly to capitalize on the somewhat unexpected success of The Yes Album. To fill space, each band member was given a solo track. Jon Anderson’s (“We Have Heaven”) and Chris Squire’s (“Fish”) are interesting enough, but Steve Howe’s (“Mood for a Day”), Bill Bruford’s (“Five Percent for Nothing”) and Wakeman’s (“Cans and Brahms”) are dull and dismal for the most part, adding nothing to this record’s success. That leaves “Roundabout,” “Long Distance Runaround” and “Heart of the Sunrise” (all of them good to great, especially the last one) and “South Side of the Sky” (some interesting moments, but dragged on way too long). This is the record that cemented Yes’s legend (not to mention Rick Wakeman’s), but it’s nowhere near the band’s best offering. Focus 3 is, however, the best overall studio album that Focus created. (I’d vote for Live At the Rainbow as their all-time best album, but as noted earlier, the only live albums included in this survey are ones that don’t just offer different versions of studio songs originally issued elsewhere). It features “Sylvia,” a worthy instrumental successor to earlier international hits “Hocus Pocus” and “House of the King.” It offers “Elspeth of Nottingham,” an effective and pretty medieval lute number than foreshadowed Jan Akkerman’s solo album, Tabernakel, where he explored such themes in longer, deeper form. While the structures of the album’s other songs are a bit more straightforward and rock-oriented than what most proggers in this survey produced, the instrumental proficiency and willingness to stretch boundaries is right up there with the best of them. Plus they’ve got a flute player. That’s always worth a bonus point in prog.
Winner: Focus, Focus 3

Genesis, Foxtrot vs. King Crimson, Red
Red has some of King Crimson’s finest, most dramatic performances, delivered by the only power trio in the group’s long, knotty family tree. There’s not much filigree here, as Robert Fripp, John Wetton and Bill Bruford hammer their way through four studio cuts and a live improv (which also included violinist David Cross, who departed before the album’s release). Guest appearances by former Crim associates Ian McDonald, Mel Collins, Marc Charig and Robin Miller lighten the load a bit, but not much. The band and engineer George Chkiantz create a dense, claustrophobic atmosphere throughout the record’s run; it sounds as black and shadowy as the album’s cover art. It’s a great record, but one with an obvious Achilles’ Heel: “Providence,” the live improv. While I appreciate the chutzpah and nerve that it takes for musicians to stand on stage and play together without a script, and while I appreciate that some truly awesome moments come out of such performances, I also can’t help but notice that it usually takes a lot of time to get to those big moments, and most of the build up is rarely as exciting as the payoff. I actually enjoy “Providence” more when I hear it in the context of other Crimson live improvs and performances, such as those contained on The Great Deceiver box set. But stuck in the middle of this tight and punchy studio album, it just doesn’t work for me. I skip it pretty much every time I spin Red. While Foxtrot has a couple of not-particularly-thrilling moments (“Time Table” and the first 80% of “Can-Utility and the Coastliners,” which ends well, at least), they don’t leap out of the skein of the record and demand attention, either positive or negative. They’re part of the cloth, and the cloth is solid and sound. I’ve got to pick Foxtrot in this contest accordingly.
Winner: Genesis, Foxtrot

And then there were Eight! Here are next time’s contests . . . when we boil it all down to a Final Four. (Reminder: once we get to the Final Four, we leave the regionals and pit all four records against each other, head-to-head round robin style, to make sure we get the best of the best.)

The Slipperman Regional:
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

The Bostock Regional:
Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery

The Wurm Regional:
Yes, Relayer vs. Jethro Tull, A Passion Play

The Syrinx Regional:
Focus, Focus 3 vs. Genesis, Foxtrot

And that’s it for this episode . . . where I let go some albums that I really loved. But, then, that’s why I like doing these sorts of things. The process makes me think about things differently, and look at music differently. That’s rewarding regardless of where I ultimately turn out.

March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, Part Nine (And Then There Were Four)

So this is the last of the single-elimination rounds, where we boil this whole mess down into four finalists, who will compete round robin style for the title of the Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever. The contenders are . . .

The Slipperman Regional:
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

The Bostock Regional:
Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery

The Wurm Regional:
Yes, Relayer vs. Jethro Tull, A Passion Play

The Syrinx Regional:
Focus, Focus 3 vs. Genesis, Foxtrot

And here’s how it all plays out . . .

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus
Well . . . I suppose it’s time we deal with the “Moonchild” issue, which I haven’t raised yet. The opening cut of In the Court of the Crimson King‘s second side is certainly one of their classics. It has appeared on each of the three major career retrospectives issued to date. On 1976’s A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson, “Moonchild” appeared with a running time of 2:24. On 1991’s Frame by Frame, it was a 2:26 long cut. That’s the same length it ran on the Buffalo 66 soundtrack as well. On 2004’s The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, Volume 1, it expands a bit, to 3:37. But here’s the rub . . . on In the Court of the Crimson King, it runs 12 minutes and 12 seconds, with a full title given as “Moonchild (Including The Dream and The Illusion)”. How does a nice little two or three minute long song expand to over 12 minutes? With 10 minutes of fairly formless and amorphous improv. That’s more than half of the second side of this album. And, frankly, it’s not very exciting. (The best that can be said for it, I think, is that it lulls you into a state of peaceful somnolence, making the opening chord of “In the Court of the Crimson King” more powerful and menacing . . . but that’s a stretch). While Court contains three of the most titanic cuts in prog history (“21st Century Schizoid Man,” “Epitaph,” and the title cut), plus one pretty effective folk-pop song (“I Talk to the Wind,” which is, to be honest, marred by some of the most moon-spoon-June lyrics in the core prog canon) . . . it’s still hard to ignore the big emptiness that the last 80% of “Moonchild” tends to create on the record. But, then, let’s look at the second side of Tarkus: a whimsical barrelhouse tune (“Jeremy Bender”), two excellent prog-rockers that sound like out-takes from the group’s solid first album (“Bitches Crystal” and “A Time And A Place”), a two-part anti-church screed, complete with lots of fine church organ (“The Only Way”/”Infinite Space”) and the ’50s rock homage “Are You Ready, Eddy?” Many people view “Eddy,” “Jeremy” and at least half of “Only/Space” as throwaways. I don’t agree, but for argument’s sake, if you tally the time of those cuts, you end up with about eight minutes. Still less dead time than “Moonchild,” and a whole lot more interesting, at least, even if it’s not all that challenging or stereotypically prog stuff. I have over-looked the “Moonchild” dilemma thus far, but with a recent refresher listen fresh in my head, I can’t advance In the Court further because of it.
Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
This ELP album, like Tarkus, also features one long, multi-piece suite, plus some shorter cuts. While the short cuts (in this case on Side One, not Two) are generally viewed more favorably than Tarkus‘ are, the long cut (“Karn Evil 9″) doesn’t generate quite the same excitement that that “Tarkus” (the suite) does, largely because the second movement isn’t quite as exciting (musically) as the first and third are, and the third movement has got some very dated, borderline annoying-stupid computer talk/space opera stuff in it that would have worked better contextually on a Hawkwind record than here. The first movement of “Karn Evil 9″ is still aces, though. It’s popular because it deserves to be popular, not because it’s any sort of sell out or concession to the lowest common denominator. “Toccata” is good, “Jerusalem” is very good, “Still . . . You Turn Me On” is one of the best Greg Lake love ballads (which isn’t an insult . . . he was very good at love ballads) and “Benny the Bouncer” is, uh, piffle. But entertaining and humorous piffle, I will give them that. I like to listen to it, in other words, even though I know it’s not very good. (When ELP issued their obligatory three-disc live set after Brain Salad Surgery‘s tour, they included the entire album, except for “Benny,” so they probably knew it was the weak link themselves, or at least out of place.) Close to the Edge really doesn’t have any weak links: it’s got great performances by the dependable Bruford, Squire and Howe, admirable restraint and teamsmanship from Wakeman, and some of Jon Anderson’s prettiest melodies and vocal performances (with lots of harmony help from Squire and Howe, the secret formula for making Anderson’s tenor tolerable over long durations). “Close to the Edge” (the song) is long, but it works very, very well, as the “I get up, I get down” melody winds itself continually through a morphing, fluid set of variations that never run long enough to become dull. The back side, as I’ve written before, is positively sublime: “And You And I” and “Siberian Khatru” are nearly flawless, great songs with great performances. Nothing sticks out like a sore thumb . . . or, at least nothing on the original release. I won’t dock a record for the things that labels stick onto CD’s in later reissues as “bonus tracks,” but I do feel that I need to note for the record that the Yes version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” is one of the most painfully bad things ever recorded by any prog band, anywhere, ever. At least this one is the short version, not the 10-minute plus one that appears on Yesterdays. Man, oh, man, is this a bad, misguided cover song . . . in terms of content, performance and arrangement. A stinker. But, as noted, I will not dock Close to the Edge for it, since it wasn’t part of the record that Yes originally made. But if you buy the CD, be prepared to skip it, fast. The three original cuts are much, much better, and don’t include any songs about space robots and bouncers going to heaven.
Winner: Yes, Close to the Edge

Yes, Relayer vs. Jethro Tull, A Passion Play
Relayer is nowhere near as consistent as Close to the Edge, although it’s high points (“Sound Chaser” and the first three-quarters or so of “The Gates of Delirium”) are among the greatest, hardest pieces of prog ever recorded. It’s hard, though, to ignore the relative dullness of the “Soon” portion of “Delirium” and most of “To Be Over.” They’re well played, and have nice melodies, but they’re just sort of slow, and they just sort of go on and on longer than they need to. Of course, lots of folks feel that way about A Passion Play in its entirety. It’s not really a friendly album, with easy hooks, hummable tunes or catchy phrases to quickly grab your attention and hold it. Except, of course, for the oft-dreaded “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” which is overly friendly and simple and silly as far as most proggers are concerned. As written before, I don’t agree with this assessment, particularly since I saw the film that accompanied this piece in Tull’s original stage performances of A Passion Play. Watching narrator Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond grow horns and lead his animal charges into a wild woodland bacchanalia makes the piece darker, and seeing how it segued from and back into the “Forest Dance” sequence of A Passion Play‘s main body made it clear that it’s meant to be digested as a light diversion between two acts of a deeper work. The contrast works for me, well, both thematically and musically: the non-“Hare” parts of Passion have a kinetic, propulsive energy to them, one that might have gotten tedious over 45 minutes without “Hare” plopped in as light intermission. It was a bold stroke, and one that I applaud, not deride. I never get bored during A Passion Play. I do during parts of Relayer. That settles it.
Winner: Jethro Tull, A Passion Play

Focus, Focus 3 vs. Genesis, Foxtrot
I’ve certainly enjoyed carrying Dutch proggers Jan Akkerman, Thijs Van Leer, Pierre Van Der Linden and Bert Ruiter this far in the contest, since I think Focus tends to get over-looked by many prog fans for no other reason than because they’re (a) not English, or (b) actually had a hit song or three. Focus 3 is a fine record, for sure, but it’s the most straight-forward rock/jam album left in the final eight, without many of the classical and/or symphonic touches that define the best prog. When Focus play a really long song, it usually has a melodic or rhythmic root that they essentially jam over, although they do jam with more of a classical, virtuoso touch that most of the ham-fisted American jam bands ever achieve. When most other prog bands play a long song, it’s less like a jam than it is like a symphony, with parts laid out and performed per composition, not per the quick inspiration of the moment in the studio. (Listen to the big live albums of the classic prog era for proof . . . there aren’t many accidental notes in most of the genre’s bigger musical pieces). And when you think of the classic prog era’s big musical pieces, there’s no denying the power and punch of “Supper’s Ready” from Foxtrot, one of the most full realized, and yet stylistically varied, side-long suites in prog history. The walk from gentle, minor-chord acoustic guitars through the slapstick of the “Willow Farm” section to the dark stomp of the “Gabble Ratchet” bits and on to the mighty resolution and release at track’s end is thrilling and, dare we say it, fun. “Watcher of the Skies” is one of the genre’s best mellotron-driven tracks not to appear on a King Crimson record, with a twin bass-and-guitar riff that any number of hard rock bands would have killed for. “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” is a bit overwrought lyrically, but it’s a fine musical piece, and “Time Table” and “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” don’t do the record any irreparable damage (a la “Moonchild” or “The Lamia”), although they don’t really do it any favors either. Still and all, though, there’s not much sense arguing that Focus 3 is a better prog record than Foxtrot. It’s not. Period.
Winner: Genesis, Foxtrot

And there we have it. Our final four. Tomorrow (or maybe even later tonight, if I feel so inclined and have the time), we will round robin these four records against each other in six little mini-contests (six? yes, six . . . because “A Passion Play vs. Foxtrot” is the same thing as “Foxtrot vs. A Passion Play,” etc.) In each mini-contest, there will be two points to be earned: a winner gets two, a loser gets zero, in a tie, both get one. We tally the points all up and the record with the most is declared the winner. In the case of a tie, we go to a song-by-song comparison. Of course . . . given that there aren’t many songs on any of these albums, that might not resolve it either, so if there’s still a tie after that, we’ll go back and do a step-by-step look at the defining characteristics of prog, and use them to pick a winner.

So . . . next time, we decide which of these four albums is the greatest classic prog album ever . . .

Slipperman Regional Winner: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

Bostock Regional Winner: Yes, Close to the Edge

Wurm Regional Winner: Jethro Tull, A Passion Play

Syrinx Regional Winner: Genesis, Foxtrot

One more round! Stay tuned.

March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, Part Ten (Conclusion)

The time has come, the walrus said, to write of many things. Well, not many things, actually . . . just one thing: the best classic progressive rock album ever.

A quick recap: we considered 64 albums released between the 1969 issue of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King and 1978’s Love Beach by Emerson Lake and Palmer, which I consider to be the beginning and end points of the Classic Symphonic Prog era. For the most part, non-symphonic prog groups (i.e. Canterbury, RIO, Krautrock, etc.) were not included. Albums were judged for quality and for compliance with the tenets of progressive rock, as modified from the excellent Wikipedia definition of the same. Key tenets included:

1. Long compositions, often composed of shorter movements or pieces
2. Intricate narratives
3. Unified album concepts
4. Unusual vocals, instruments, time signatures, scales or tunings
5. Wide dynamic range
6. Solo spotlights, highlighting instrumental virtuosity
7. Incorporation of non-rock motifs
8. Links between visual and musical elements
9. Incestuous personnel swapping with other prog bands

At this point, there are four albums left:

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play
Yes, Close to the Edge
Genesis, Foxtrot

For the final four, we stage six round robin competitions, pitting each of the surviving albums against each of the others. In each mini-contest, there are two points at stake: winner gets two, loser gets zero, and if there’s a tie, both get one point each. At the end of the six round robin contests, the album with the most points wins. If there’s a tie, we look at the records on a track by track basis (if possible or practical, since at least one of these albums only has one song on it), or we look step by step at the prog definitions and then make a quality judgment.

Got it? Good. Since each of these albums has been written about here five times already, at this stage I won’t get into a lot of detail each one; you can find that by going back and reading the earlier rounds. This is judgment time, not discussion time, except as needed to explain the judgments.

Before we get to that, though, just a little bit of macro analysis of our four finalists. All four records were issued in a period of about two years:

Tarkus in June 1971
Close to the Edge in September 1972
Foxtrot in October 1972
A Passion Play in July 1973

I think this is a good indicator of prog’s glory days: 1971-1973. When innovation still reigned and before rote repetition and self-indulgence got out of hand, before the record industry began grinding some of these bands down with unreasonable requests for additional records, and before prog was still considered rebellious . . . not something to be rebelled against.

Three of the four bands surviving were vocal-guitar-bass-drum-keyboard quintets (although Tull’s Ian Anderson and Genesis’ Peter Gabriel also added flute to the mix). The odd man out, ELP, featured drums, a singer-bassist-guitarist and a keyboardist. So they essentially offered the same instrumentation delivered by a smaller number of people. Keyboards were essential to the prog sound, and the number and prominence of organs, Moogs, Mellotrons and other keys on these four records is quite high; while Tull was probably the least keyboard intensive band of the four, A Passion Play is without doubt their most key-heavy record ever.

Three of these records contain a side-long suite, and one of them (A Passion Play) is a single album-long suite. Size mattered in prog, clearly, as evidenced by the number of songs on these albums:

A Passion Play: 1 Song
Close to the Edge: 3 Songs
Foxtrot: 6 Songs
Tarkus: 6 or 7 songs (depending on whether you consider “The Only Way/Infinite Space” as one or two songs)

ELP and Yes had clear family tree connections during the classic prog era (King Crimson gifted Greg Lake to ELP, and Yes gave Bill Bruford to Crimson; Keith Emerson played in the Nice with David O’List, who later played in Roxy Music, produced by King Crimson/ELP lyricist Peter Sinfield; Eddie Offord produced/engineered both Yes and ELP; the non-Emerson members of the Nice played in Refugee with Patrick Moraz, who later played in Yes; etc.) Genesis and Jethro Tull, while rich with the obligatory prog personnel flux, were distinct from the Crimson/ELP/Tull family tree for the most part, although Crimson’s Robert Fripp worked with post-Genesis Peter Gabriel, where he met future King Crimson bassist Tony Levin. Jethro Tull and Yes continue to exist as fairly regular performing/recording units. ELP periodically reunited in the ’80s and ’90s but appears to be dormant now. Genesis turned into one of the world’s most successful bands before self-immolating after Phil Collins left.

So, with those perspective points out of the way, here’s how I assess the final four albums:

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus vs. Jethro Tull, A Passion Play
Tarkus is a seminal ELP album, one of their four great early ’70s studio masterpieces. With the exception of the Greg Lake love ballads, this album represents everything that ELP was about and did, and in very good fashion. A Passion Play is something of an oddball in the Tull canon, one of only two album-length songs, with more synths and saxophones than any other Tull album, and with the decidedly atypical “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” (narrated by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond) smack in its middle. While an oddball record can certainly aspire to (and achieve) greatness, Tull pulled in their creative horns pretty dramatically after this record, and never made anything that sounded remotely like it again. Since they themselves seemed to view it as a creative dead-end, while ELP mined Tarkus’ key elements twice more, successfully, it seems apt to give the nod to the album that had a future, not the album that slammed a door. Bonus points to Tarkus for tackling long form suites before Jethro Tull had done so; if there were any moments of inspiration occurring between these bands, it’s clear which way they were flowing. ELP wins.
Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus (2 points)
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play (0 points)

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus vs. Yes, Close to the Edge
This is a tougher match up, with ELP and Yes both offering powerful, fully conceived records, each with a side-long suite. I consider “Tarkus” (the song) to be better than “Close to the Edge” (the song), but consider the b-side of Close to the Edge (the album) to be better than the b-side of Tarkus (the album). Instrumentally, I think Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer take the cake over their counterparts in Yes (Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford) on these discs, while Yes’s Chris Squire and Steve Howe out bass-and-guitar poor over-worked Greg Lake. Vocals? Again, Lake handled all the duties himself on Tarkus, while Jon Anderson, Squire and Howe split duties on Close to the Edge. They’re very, very different: Lake is one of the great baritone belters of the era, while Anderson is clearly the King of the High Pitched Rockers. I don’t see any clear edge or Achilles Heel in this one, so I’m calling it a tie.
Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus (1 Point)
Yes, Close to the Edge (1 Point)

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus vs. Genesis, Foxtrot
In this case, I would say that Genesis wins the long competition, with the sublime “Supper’s Ready” edging out the hyperkinetic “Tarkus.” On the short-song sides, though, I think Tarkus stomps Foxtrot, which offers but one really great song (“Watcher of the Sky”) to ELP’s two (“A Time and a Place” and, most especially, “Bitches Crystal”). Nothing on the short-song side of Tarkus is as twee and feh as Genesis’ “Time Table,” not even “Are You Ready, Eddy?”, which at least wins points for gutter humor, as opposed to the too-too-smart school boy humor of “Get ‘em Out by Friday.” Advantage ELP.
Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus (2 points)
Genesis, Foxtrot (0 points)

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Jethro Tull, A Passion Play
Yes takes this one cleanly, I think, as “Close to the Edge” (the song) wins a squeaker over “A Passion Play” (the main, non-“Hare” bits), having better structure and core melodies, and a much better production. (A Passion Play is a bit muddy, even on restored/remixed issues, and never soars like the best parts of Close to the Edge). And as much as I like “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” and as much as I appreciate the chutzpah the band evidenced in putting it in the middle of this dark album, it can’t hold a candle to either “And You And I” or “Siberian Khatru,” leaving Yes the clear winner here.
Yes, Close to the Edge (2 points)
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play (0 points)

Yes, Close to the Edge vs. Genesis, Foxtrot
Likewise in this contest: I give “Suppers Ready” a slight nod over “Close to the Edge,” but then I bounce “And You And I”/”Siberian Khatru” against “Watcher of the Skies”/”Time Table”/”Friday”/”Can-Utility”/”Horizons”, and Yes clearly wins the contest, hands down and undirtied by undue strain or effort.
Yes, Close to the Edge (2 points)
Genesis, Foxtrot (0 points)

Genesis, Foxtrot vs. Jethro Tull, A Passion Play
This one’s more of an even contest: “Supper’s Ready” is probably the best piece of music to be found on either of these discs, but nothing on “A Passion Play” plumbs to the depths of “Time Table,” not even “Hare,” (which is at least funny in its sappiness, unlike the Genesis number). Both albums feature quality keyboard performances, both albums find their unusual singers making the most of their untraditional voices, Jethro Tull has the better flute and sax parts, Genesis has the better guitar and bass parts, Barriemore Barlow and Phil Collins drums to a draw. As does this contest, I guess, since nothing raises or lowers one of these records dramatically above or below the other.
Genesis, Foxtrot (1 point)
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play (1 point)

So . . . where does that leave us when we total points? Do we have a winner?

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus: 5 points
Yes, Close to the Edge: 5 points
Genesis, Foxtrot: 1 point
Jethro Tull, A Passion Play: 1 point
.

Foo. No we don’t have a winner. I guess I’m going to have to break the tie between Tarkus and Close to the Edge after all. Looking at the track listings of these records, it’s kind of pointless to do a side-by-side song comparison, since Close to the Edge only has three songs to Tarkus’ six or seven. If I break the long songs down in to their named constituent elements, it gives Yes nine “songs” and ELP 13 or 14 “songs”. But it seems silly to compare the third movement of “Tarkus” (“Iconoclast”) to the second movement of “And You And I” (“Eclipse”), since its not always really clear where one movement stops and another starts, and since no one ever listens to any of these movements on their own, for the most part. (With the possible exception of the single edit of Yes’ “Total Mass Retain,” from the “Close to the Edge” suite).

So lets look at our prog defining characteristics and see if that helps. If it doesn’t, then I guess I just have to make a choice . . .

1. Long compositions, often composed of shorter movements or pieces

Both Tarkus and Close to the Edge meet this criteria hands down, with each album having a side-long song, each of which is divided into shorter pieces. I’d give them both one Gold Star for this category. (ELP: 1 gold star, Yes: 1 gold star)

2. Intricate narratives

I actually don’t think I’d give either band a point here, since neither Tarkus nor Close to the Edge are particularly wordy albums, or offer any discernable lyrical thrust or theme. While Tarkus‘ album cover tells the Armored Armadillo story, the lyrics of the song itself don’t really match or support the story particularly, with the possible exception of the “Battlefield” segment . . . but that talks about people, not armadillos. Both ELP and Yes demonstrated dramatically more intricate narratives on other albums, but neither one does it here. No points. (ELP: 1 gold star, Yes: 1 gold star)

3. Unified album concepts

Again, neither album can really nail this requirement; Tarkus gets closer with its A-side suite than Close to the Edge does, but it’s b-side covers a gamut of topics, none of them related to armadillos. When it comes to concepts on Yes albums, your guess is as good as mine . . . for the most part (and Tales From Topographic Oceans is the obvious exception here), the words they sing sound beautiful, but when you read them on the printed sheet, they don’t jump up and say “Hey! This is an album about religion!” or “Yo! We’re talking about death here”. Compare Tarkus and Close to the Edge to Tull’s A Passion Play for confirmation: that album had a unified concept, these two don’t. No points awarded. (ELP: 1 gold star, Yes: 1 gold star)

4. Unusual vocals, instruments, time signatures, scales or tunings

I don’t know that I’d call Jon Anderson’s voice unusual, per se, but it is certainly very, very recognizable, and that would seem to be close enough. Greg Lake is more straightforward, but Tarkus has far more unusual time signatures and instrumental sounds than Close to the Edge does, so much so that Greg Lake actually threatened to walk out of the recording sessions if Emerson and Palmer didn’t stop writing things in 10/8 time. Good thing he didn’t. They each get a gold star here. (ELP: 2 gold stars, Yes: 2 gold stars)

5. Wide dynamic range

Yep, they both nail this one too . . . both albums start off with quiet-to-loud blasts, and there are plenty of crescendos and diminuendos and pianos and fortes and other Italian words that tell you that things get up (in volume), and get down (in volume). Gold stars all around. (ELP: 3 gold stars, Yes: 3 gold stars)

6. Solo spotlights, highlighting instrumental virtuosity

Duh. (ELP: 4 gold stars, Yes: 4 gold stars)

7. Incorporation of non-rock motifs

Both Yes and ELP delved heavily into classical music at times . . . but not on these two records. Both of them periodically ventured into jazz . . . but not on these two records, except for maybe the Mahavishnu Orchestra-esque intro to “Close to the Edge,” and the atypical rhythms of “Tarkus”. World music and blues elements made appearances on some ELP and Yes records . . . but not these two. Pretty much everything on Close to the Edge and Tarkus is recognizable as straight-up rock music, gussied up to various degrees, with the exception of the church organ solos that both of them offer. Except for those organ bits, you could hand these records to unimaginative bar band and everything on them could be pretty readily stomped into 4/4 dullness. It’s the vibrancy of the performances that carry these albums, not the nods copped from other musical traditions. No stars. (ELP: 4 gold stars, Yes: 4 gold stars)

8. Links between visual and musical elements

Roger Dean’s second album cover for Yes on Close to the Edge? Check. Giant armadillo story on the cover of Tarkus? Check. Gold stars for both. (ELP: 5 gold stars, Yes: 5 gold stars)

9. Incestuous personnel swapping with other prog bands

As noted at the start of today’s piece, ELP and Yes were pretty much at ground zero for the incestuous pool of players that defined prog’s classic era. Can’t withhold any gold stars here. (ELP: 6 gold stars, Yes: 6 gold stars)

And, uh, well . . . double foo. That was an unhelpful waste of time, wasn’t it? So I suppose I’m just gonna have to reach down in my gut and pull a winner out here . . .

Thinking . . . thinking . . . thinking . . .

I’m thinking . . . .

The winner of the best classic prog record of all time is . . .

Tarkus, by Emerson Lake and Palmer . . .

. . . with a very honorable mention to Yes’ Close to the Edge.

Why do I pick Tarkus between these two? Because it feels better in my gut to do so, even though I have to chuckle at the fact that Tarkus is one of the rare Mellotron-free classic prog records, given the title of this essay. (Maybe I need to change it to “March of the Moogs”?) And also because Emerson Lake and Palmer have somehow become for Progressive Rock what the Bee Gees were for Disco: when it became hip to scorn those musical movements, those two acts became the poster-children for the movements’ perceived failures and shortcomings. I mean, hey, I even did it myself here . . . citing Love Beach as the death knell of prog’s classic era. Need a good prog chuckle to show your post-punk cred? Just toss off an ELP joke, and all the indie rockers will smirk appreciatively. Or want to wrap up the entire disco experience in two words? Try these: “Bee” and “Gees.”

So what does this have to do with the price of tea in China? It’s a justice issue for me to pick Tarkus here, since I think that the disdain in which ELP (and the Bee Gees) have been held for so long makes it hard for their records to get a fair shake anymore. The assumption tends to be that if Love Beach (or Saturday Night Fever) is such a joke now, then everything those acts did before must somehow be tainted with a whiff of mockery and pending failure.
Thing is . . . the things that came before those cultural turning points were amazing, from both ELP and the Bee Gees. And of ELP’s incredible first four studio records (ELP, Tarkus, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery), Tarkus is the most stellar, an eclectic, experimental tour de force that covered everything from glanky moog solos in 10/8 to stompy little rockers about the band’s sound man (“Are you ready, Eddy? To pull those faders down? Eddy, edit . . . Eddy, Eddy edit”). In between those poles, there are two classic prog songs with some of the most passionate singing in the genre (“Bitches Crystal” and “A Time and A Place”), plus a tight little religious musing (what Ian Anderson needed an album side to cover, Greg Lake did in 3 minutes with “The Only Way”), a sprightly and short number with a memorable melody and goofy lyrics that could have been written by Peter Sinfield, except that he hadn’t joined ELP yet (“Jeremy Bender”).

Tarkus is far more fun than Close to the Edge, and while “fun” or “humor” (or “humour”) don’t appear on the prog criteria list, I think they’re admirable qualities for a genre of music that tended to take itself far too seriously. I like a band that can laugh at itself occasionally, and ELP did so regularly.

I also appreciate that in their three-piece format, ELP’s players were far more exposed musically in the studio and in concert than were the member of their five-piece brethren bands. Carl Palmer is a marvel on Tarkus, carrying these complex songs with true aplomb. Keith Emerson is actually less flashy and solo-oriented here than he was on other records, and also more self-contained and creative as a composer: there’s not a single song on this album that has a co-credit by a classical composer, for instance, unlike all of the other ELP albums up to Love Beach. The synths and organs on Tarkus still sound bizarre and wonderful, and the strange adventures in rhythm that Emerson and Palmer developed on “Tarkus” are fresh to this day, and not often imitated. Greg Lake does yeoman service as the band’s utility infielder, laying a great guitar solo here, dropping a complex bass line there, offering emotional resonance with his strong singing every time the record’s instrumental forays get close to over-staying their welcome.

In short, while they’ve become a laughing stock of sorts over the years for people who don’t believe that it’s necessary to be able to play your musical instruments well, Emerson Lake and Palmer were a great band in their heyday, and a band whose popularity was well and fully deserved. Yes, by the time Love Beach came around, they were fried, and forced by their label to make a record they didn’t want to make. But at their peak, they exemplified the best of what progressive rock was all about . . . and Tarkus is their signature moment.

Not to mention the Greatest Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever, as judged and certified by the Flexible Tetragrammaton system of dissection, examination and evaluation.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far. I always appreciate that. And, as always, your feedback is welcome . . . as long as it comes in some form other than “Dude! ELP SUCKS! AND YOU DO TOO!” You can do better than that.

About J. Eric Smith
Executive Director, Salisbury House Foundation.

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