Progressive Rock

Shortly after I got out of high school, I started getting into progressive rock. What’s that? It’s hard to define, so I’ll toss out the cliche: Anything overproduced, with odd time signatures, spacey lyrics, and weird guitar. That’s it in a nutshell, except…

Rush is hardly weird, beyond some of Neil Peart’s scifi-inspired lyrics. Pink Floyd, for all its innovation and musicianship, has more in common with Cream, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles than Yes, ELP, or King Crimson. Plus, the last successful progressive rock group to be touted under that moniker was Marillion. If you’ve listened to them or original lead singer Fish lately, you know they’ve left any pretense of being the second coming of the early Genesis in the dust. Fish wants to be a Scottish poet. Marillion wants to be an indie Brit pop group unburdened by enormous egos the way Oasis and Coldplay are overtaxed by them.

Prog is often called bloated and overproduced. Quite often it is. On the other hand, prog fans have an annoying tendency to forget that the second half of progressive rock is rock. (Punk fans have a similar pretentiousness about their music. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong is a personal hero to me for being willing to piss all over that pretense. How’s that for punk?) Never mind that rock is not rock without some element of the blues in it. Yet call one of these overly dogmatic fans a “prog nazi,” and they’ll thank you for it. The problem is they then want to pigeon hole their favorite bands. “No, no, no,” they say. “You do not get the privilege of having a Trevor Rabin line-up of Yes in your catalog.” Genesis ran afoul of this, as did their original lead singer, Peter Gabriel. Some prog fans were aghast that Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame would “stoop” to play on an album by Daryl Hall. And Marillion and Fish mentioned earlier? Prog nuts who continued to listen to them after the split still don’t understand that their last remotely progressive rock album was 1984’s Misplaced Childhood. (A sort of reboot of The Wall with a happy ending.)

But what’s the appeal? Why listen to it if it’s the same thing over and over again? Newer prog bands have an annoying tendency to want to rehash early Genesis or try and do Yes’s harmonies or find some rhythmic weirdness worthy of any incarnation of King Crimson. Why aren’t they big?

Because it’s not original. Now the Stones and The Beatles actually did not break any new ground when they first appeared. Mick and Keith were all about Delta blues and Memphis blues and Chicago blues. The Beatles wanted to be Buddy Holly in the worst way, and according to Pete Best, early on, that’s exactly what they were. But conventional rock is about feel and emotion, a point driven home as I write this by the John Fogerty concert I have running on the DVR. I’ve heard the licks Fogerty plays by dozens of other guitarists, but the emotion and the execution is always different. He and Clapton and even classically obsessed Ritchie Blackmore aren’t trying to be Mozart. (Blackmore just occasionally beats the hell out of Beethoven for fun.)

When it works, it works great. Genesis started out as a psychedelic band that tossed everything they knew into a blender and hit frappe. If you listen closely to the final Phil Collins effort, We Can’t Dance, you can clearly hear the original blueprint laid down on 1970’s Trespass. But when they had that six-album run from 1971 through 1977, the whole point was to make the listener go, “WTF?”  From Nursery Cryme, which features the finest epic about a noxious weed ever written in the 20th century, to Winds and Wuthering, which has a similar song about mice, Genesis went out of their way to keep the listener off-balance. But there was also a feel to the music. I’ve seen “Supper’s Ready” move some people to tears. Sorry, but no one’s going to accuse ELP of that by beating the listener over the head with a pipe organ.

So who were the best at this weird version of rock that sometimes fails to be rock? It’s Friday. How about a list?

5.     KING CRIMSON

Robert Fripp’s 45-year weirdgasm. Crimson came out of the gate with a forty-minute acid trip called In the Court of the Crimson King that pretty much defined progressive rock. For the next three years, he went through an ever-shifting line-up trying to duplicate Court without success before settling on the trio of himself, future Asia singer John Wetton, and former Yes man Bill Bruford. This incarnation veered wildly from heavy metal to jazz and back again, often in the same song. After a few years off, Fripp resurrected Crimson with new partner Adrian Belew and began playing a game of finding how many bizarre time signatures they could put Belew’s punk sensibilities over. There have been so many members of Crimson over the years (It even spawned Foreigner and slipped a tentacle into Bad Company, two of the most un-Crimson-like bands ever) that they’ve spent the past eight years as three separate bands.

4.   YES

The tight harmonies, twenty-minute epics, bass that’s not really a rhythm instrument, and spacey lyrics all packaged in those Roger Dean album covers. Yes is the poster band for progressive rock.  When they’re on, they’re really on, as with 1972’s Fragile and 1973’s Close to the Edge. Sometimes, though, they trip over themselves, and a decade of more aggressive music driven by Trevor Rabin was probably a good thing. They’re still around with Alan White, guitar virtuoso Steve Howe, and Chris Squire, bassist and the only member to have been in every line-up. However, it’s hard to imagine Yes without lead singer Jon Anderson, and the classic line-up’s later efforts sound a bit forced.

3.    RUSH

Rush survives and gets mainstream respect because they get that it’s progressive rock. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson started out taking cues from Led Zeppelin (“Working Man” anyone?). When they brought in the acrobatic Neil Peart, the lyrics got epic, the rhythm got complicated, and the music broke ground. And yet when I and my junior high classmates first heard of Rush, we thought they were in the same vein as Black Sabbath or Judas Priest. It was the aggressive sound. Prog is a means to compose music for them, not a religion.

2.     GENESIS

The costumes. Steve Hackett’s guitar. The twenty-minute epics. The classical influence. And The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway? They weren’t out to invent a genre. They just wanted to sound different. Later, after Steve Hackett left, people asked Phil Collins why they didn’t do things like “Supper’s Ready” and “Dancing with the Moonlight Knight” anymore? His response? They’d already done it twenty years earlier. Many complain about the music they did in the eighties, and even complain about Gabriel’s solo work, but Genesis was smart. Prog was a method, not a religion.

1.     PINK FLOYD

With Meddle and Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd showed how prog was supposed to be done. The right way, the Floyd way. Meddle is a thread that weaves through every Floyd album all the way to 1994’s The Division Bell. The point was not to meet anyone’s expectations. With the exception of The Wall and The Final Cut, when the message moved front and center, the burning question on every Floyd album was, “Does it sound good?” On Dark Side, it sounds perfect. Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink? According to David Gilmour, it was keyboardist Rick Wright. According to Roger Waters, it was Syd Barrett. According to their albums, it was all five of them.

Favorite Bands: Marillion (Repost)

I can’t really do this feature without talking about Marillion. But what can I say about them that I didn’t say back in 2011? So I’m reposting that write-up here. Since then, they released a new studio album called Sounds That Can’t Be Made, which I reviewed here. – Jim

Some time around 1984 or so, when I was heavy into progressive rock, I became aware of a fast-rising British band called Marillion. They had a freak hit in the US called “Kayleigh,” a tale of early adulthood love and loss. The music was a throw back to a Genesis that had not existed for about ten years at that point, but that was fine. I loved the album that spawned “Kayleigh,” the trippy concept album Misplaced Childhood. The best way to describe it is to imagine a young Peter Gabriel writing and performing his own version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, only with a happy ending.

So, glomming every bit of prog rock I could find, from Yes’s psychedelic classics to the overblown Emerson, Lake, and Percussionist to the weirdgasm that was the ever-reincarnating King Crimson, I happily bought Misplaced Childhood for some semblance of normalcy. Besides, their Garbielesque lead singer called himself Fish. How could you go wrong with that?

Li’l Sis and my future ex only fed this new obsession. Li’l Sis gave me copies of their first two albums, Script for a Jester’s Tear and Fugazi. Fish and I were on the same apparent wavelength. We were both angry young men in our twenties frustrated with our lives. Fish, more so than me, as the Scottish poet made no secret of his love-hate relationship with chemical recreation (“He Knows, You Know”) and letting off screaming diatribes about the politics of the day (“Fugazi”). Yet when Marillion worked best was when the original Genesis worked best, taking that prog sound and writing broadly appealing tunes that had a sense of mischief about them. “Garden Party” and the single “Market Square Heroes” (which inspired the short story “Gotham Square Hero”) were the ones I remember best.

Here are the boys after they found their permanent drummer and before Fish’s hair left the band.

What struck me more than Fish’s voice was the guitar of Steve Rothery. Rothery is a guitar player of the David Gilmour school, feel over flash. No one puts more Gilmour through his guitar than Gilmour. Ditto for Steve Rothery. The repeat effect that “Kayleigh” is built around is probably one of the most brilliant bits of song writing from the 1980’s.

But Marillion is one of those bands that peaks in popularity before it’s actually complete. When the writing began for Script, only Rothery was a member of the band, and he had been a replacement in an earlier incarnation called Silmarillion. Fish was recruited early on, and during the writing, the keyboard player was replaced with Mark Kelly, who probably is more responsible for Marillion’s sound than even Rothery. Kelly, however, stepped the band’s game up a notch, requiring a better bass player than the one who joined with Fish in 1980. They recruited Welshman Pete Trewavas (also known as a member of Transatlantic these days). Trewavas is one of the greatest bass players I’ve ever heard. In fact, I can only name two better that I’ve heard: My nephew and John Entwistle. My nephew is an absolute freak on the bass who makes Entwistle sound like an amateur, and you can say that about such geniuses as Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, and Tony Levin in comparison to Entwistle. In short, I think Pete’s brilliant.

During their first three years as Marillion, they went through what Fish termed “a Spinal Tap drummer period” before settling on Ian Mosely, who played on Misplaced Childhood. In 1987, the band burst out with the more mainstream tale of tour alcoholism, Clutching at Straws. Marillion was becoming a smoother, more accessible group. So they were ready to buck the coming Brit pop and grunge waves brewing in London and Seattle. Right?

Um… No.

Marillion hadn’t really found its lead singer yet. By the time I saw them live in 1991, Fish had left in a huff and in dire need of rehab. Instead of looking for a guy who would sound like Fish or Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, they rebooted with the former lead singer of The Europeans named Steve Hogarth, better known as h to Marillion fans.

But was he a poet?

Hard to say at first. Panicking that they might not find a lyricist of Fish’s caliber, Marillion hired one. It was probably a mistake. Hogarth is very much a poet in the same vein as Fish, with a more soulful voice and a bigger vocal range. But some of those early efforts lack the mix of mischief and sorrow Fish provided. Season’s End, while interesting, has less poignancy than, say, Clutching at Straws. It’s when h writes his own lyrics (“Easter,” “Holloway Girl”) that we see the wisdom of the band opting for same-but-different with a guy steeped in the 80’s new wave movement.

Hogarth couldn’t be Fish. Fish was a poet who drove the music. But what h brought was that missing fifth musician. It’s quite likely, if called upon, he could drum. He regularly plays keyboards and guitar and co-writes the music as well as writing lyrics. So how does Mr. H stack up against his Scottish predecessor?

This song, the title track to Marillion’s last major label release, was about the danger of celebrity destroying the person it is bestowed upon, drawing its inspiration from the tragedy of James Dean. The album also references speed boater Don Campbell, OJ Simpson (who was on trial when the album was released), and Elvis (“King”). The line that strikes me the most in this song, one that Fish himself might have had on his mind when Marillion’s popularity peaked and overwhelmed him in the 1980’s, was “I’m already dead. It’s a matter of time.” It captures that fear that when one’s star burns out, they’ll burn with it.

Marillion went independent in the mid-1990’s, their initial popularity fading as grunge and Brit pop took over. But it meant they could shed the shackles of being a “progressive” band. Good. Because there are no more annoying or pretentious fans of rock than prog fans. I pour myself a nice cup of smug every time I hear one whine that Marillion doesn’t sound progressive anymore. That’s a good thing. Bands that stagnate are boring. Just look at Yes after 1973.

So who do I prefer? Fish? Or H? Well, let’s put it this way. Fish and I are still of like mind (only I drink more than he does these days, if only because he no longer drinks at all). And Fish and I very much like what Steve Hogarth has done with Marillion. But while Fish is happy his old friends found someone with whom could make the music they want to make, I started listening to the latter-day Marillion when my writing career stalled, my first marriage disintegrated, and, more importantly, as I met and married Nita. Shortly after Nita and I married, they released what is arguably their best album ever, Happiness Is the Road. The title track is an autobiographical song about Hogarth emerging from a dark period in his life to some sort of awakening. Those events very nearly paralleled what was going on in my life at the time he was writing.

Happiness is the road indeed.

Marillion: Sounds That Can’t Be Made

Sounds That Can’t Be Made

Regular readers of this space will not be surprised to learn that I’ve anxiously awaited this album since the release of 2008’s Happiness Is the Road. That album chronicled a rough period in lead singer Steve Hogarth’s life that paralleled some tough times for me personally. Most people who have heard of Marillion will be surprised to know that they’re still around.

And charting.

A quick recap. Marillion started out as a progressive rock band back in 1980, featuring the keyboard work of Mark Kelly, the virtuoso bass work of Welshman Pete Trewavas, the Gilmouresque guitar work of Steve Rothery, and an angry young Scottish vocalist named Fish. Their big attraction was their playful spin on a sound originally played by Genesis, right down to Fish’s Peter Gabriel-like vocals. A tour partnership with Rush brought them to the attention of American and Canadian audiences, and after their 1985 hit, “Kayleigh,” it looked like they would become permanent fixtures in rock music. Not bad for a band that played in a genre that went out of fashion in the mid-1970’s.

But then excessive touring and excessive partying took its toll. Fish quit to basically recover and to start sounding more like… Well… Fish. The band opted to go with Hogarth, the former lead singer of The Europeans. Hogarth, or h, as he’s called, had a different vocal style, but could write lyrics as well as Fish. Too bad the band hired a lyricist before settling on a lead singer. I firmly believe h’s first two albums with the band, Seasons End and Holidays in Eden would have been much stronger if h had written all the lyrics. Or they’d have kept Fish’s original lyrics for Seasons End. (Now that would have been fun, and a nice paycheck to tide Fish over while he rested up.)

Neither here nor there. When a band changes vocalists, they face an uphill battle to keep up their following. Alas, Marillion faded from the public mind. But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. They went independent. Their core following stayed with them, even as they shed any pretensions of progressive rock. US fans financed a tour when management decided to skip North America. After a lousy two-record stint with indie label Castle Records, they hit on the idea of an Internet campaign to fund their album, struck a deal with former label EMI to distribute, and hired their old A&R rep as their new manager.

Then they started charting again, despite a few idiot British music critics who haven’t listened to a note of Marillion since “Lavendre” in 1985. One keeps confusing them with Rainbow, an idea that horrifies Ritchie Blackmore as much as it does Steve Rothery.

OK, now you’re up to date. So what’s the album like?

In short, a mixed bag. They do revisit their progressive roots with three very long songs: “Gaza,” “Montreal,” and “The Sky Above the Rain.” It’s “Gaza” that the band is pushing hard right now, and the song h is the most proud of. Hogarth sings from the point of view of someone living in Gaza who cares not about Israel or Hamas’s stupid hardline stance. All he knows is “Once we had land” and “Bullets rained on our heads as our homes collapsed.” It’s an epic song and a difficult one to listen to, but very well done and thought out. Mr. h is angry, and he does take pains to take the Jewish viewpoint into account. If you’ve been paying attention to his lyrics over the past decade or so, you know he’s developed less and less patience with governments everywhere to the point of making his fiery predecessor Fish look almost apathetic.

“Gaza” is the creative breach in the dam for Hogarth. But like every Marillion album since 1992’s Brave, this one is nothing like the previous albums. Steve Rothery frequently says in interviews that each album is a deliberate attempt to be nothing like the last, although you hear flashes of what made their previous work so creatively successful. “Pour My Love” and “Power,” lyrically two very different songs, have an almost rainy day jazz feel to them. “Lucky Man” (not a cover of the ELP hit from 1972) is a tour-de-force for Rothery’s guitar playing. And really, it’s Hogarth’s vocals (the same as Fish before him) and Rothery’s guitar that makes Marillion’s sound. “Power” is almost a lyrical coda to “Gaza” while “Pour” is a love song that sounds almost American in its construction and execution – more piano and guitar than synthesizer. “Montreal” is a travelogue of sorts, the city a frequent stop for the band and for h during solo tours. One passage has him describing Skyping his wife in England and seeing the “little one” growing up so fast. Clearly, life has gotten better for h since the events that spawned Happiness Is the Road.

“The Sky Above the Rain” is the long end to the album, and is the one song that’s “typically” Marillion, if anything since 1984 can be called typical of this band. All the members are in balance here, and h’s vocal range is at its widest on the album. The song is structured similar to 1996’s “This Strange Engine,” only without h coming in at the end laughing drunkenly while Kelly plays the piano. (If you have This Strange Engine, it’s after a long pause at the end of the title track, something like ten minutes or so.) Quite enjoyable.

So what’s not to like? How about the title track? I heard the first monotone chords of “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” and thought, “Oh, no.” As I listened, it didn’t get any better. The song is reverb-heavy and overly synthesized. It’s just a mess. Too bad, because I really liked the rest of the album. For a band that has shunned its old progressive rock label, it made a song that sounds like a 1970’s prog band trying to find its way in the synthpop eighties. Who let Geoff Downes (Asia) into Racket Studios?

But “Gaza”? That stirred the alter-egos juices flowing (and the bombastic Arabic sound is pretty cool.) “Pour My Love” will go on a mix tape for Nita. (Yes, I do mix tapes for my wife. Deal with it.) “Lucky Man” and “The Sky Above the Rain” are simply pure enjoyment. It’s not the best Marillion album. Those would be Misplaced Childhood, Afraid of Sunlight, and Happiness Is the Road. But it’s up there with them. Plus it’s hard to top Happiness, which came 12 years after Afraid of Sunlight, which came eleven years after Misplaced Childhood. But it is a worthy successor.

Marillion

Some time around 1984 or so, when I was heavy into progressive rock, I became aware of a fast-rising British band called Marillion.  They had a freak hit in the US called “Kayleigh,” a tale of early adulthood love and loss. The music was a throw back to a Genesis that had not existed for about ten years at that point, but that was fine.  I loved the album that spawned “Kayleigh,” the trippy concept album Misplaced Childhood.  The best way to describe it is to imagine a young Peter Gabriel writing and performing his own version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, only with a happy ending.

So, glomming every bit of prog rock I could find, from Yes’s psychedelic classics to the overblown Emerson, Lake, and Percussionist to the weirdgasm that was the ever-reincarnating King Crimson, I happily bought Misplaced Childhood for some semblance of normalcy. Besides, their Garbielesque lead singer called himself Fish. How could you go wrong with that?

Li’l Sis and my future ex only fed this new obsession. Li’l Sis gave me copies of their first two albums, Script for a Jester’s Tear and Fugazi. Fish and I were on the same apparent wavelength. We were both angry young men in our twenties frustrated with our lives. Fish, more so than me, as the Scottish poet made no secret of his love-hate relationship with chemical recreation (“He Knows, You Know”) and letting off screaming diatribes about the politics of the day (“Fugazi”).  Yet when Marillion worked best was when the original Genesis worked best, taking that prog sound and writing broadly appealing tunes that had a sense of mischief about them. “Garden Party” and the single “Market Square Heroes” (which inspired the short story “Gotham Square Hero”) were the ones I remember best.

Here are the boys after they found their permanent drummer and before Fish’s hair left the band.

What struck me more than Fish’s voice was the guitar of Steve Rothery. Rothery is a guitar player of the David Gilmour school, feel over flash. No one puts more Gilmour through his guitar than Gilmour. Ditto for Steve Rothery. The repeat effect that “Kayleigh” is built around is probably one of the most brilliant bits of song writing from the 1980’s.

But Marillion is one of those bands that peaks in popularity before it’s actually complete.  When the writing began for Script, only Rothery was a member of the band, and he had been a replacement in an earlier incarnation called Silmarillion. Fish was recruited early on, and during the writing, the keyboard player was replaced with Mark Kelly, who probably is more responsible for Marillion’s sound than even Rothery. Kelly, however, stepped the band’s game up a notch, requiring a better bass player than the one who joined with Fish in 1980. They recruited Welshman Pete Trewavas (also known as a member of Transatlantic these days). Trewavas is one of the greatest bass players I’ve ever heard. In fact, I can only name two better that I’ve heard: My nephew and John Entwistle. My nephew is an absolute freak on the bass who makes Entwistle sound like an amateur, and you can say that about such geniuses as Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, and Tony Levin in comparison to Entwistle. In short, I think Pete’s brilliant.

During their first three years as Marillion, they went through what Fish termed “a Spinal Tap drummer period” before settling on Ian Mosely, who played on Misplaced Childhood. In 1987, the band burst out with the more mainstream tale of tour alcoholism, Clutching at Straws. Marillion was becoming a smoother, more accessible group. So they were ready to buck the coming Brit pop and grunge waves brewing in London and Seattle. Right?

Um… No.

Marillion hadn’t really found its lead singer yet. By the time I saw them live in 1991, Fish had left in a huff and in dire need of rehab. Instead of looking for a guy who would sound like Fish or Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, they rebooted with the former lead singer of The Europeans named Steve Hogarth, better known as h to Marillion fans.

But was he a poet?

Hard to say at first. Panicking that they might not find a lyricist of Fish’s caliber, Marillion hired one. It was probably a mistake. Hogarth is very much a poet in the same vein as Fish, with a more soulful voice and a bigger vocal range. But some of those early efforts lack the mix of mischief and sorrow Fish provided. Season’s End, while interesting, has less poignancy than, say, Clutching at Straws.  It’s when h writes his own lyrics (“Easter,” “Holloway Girl”) that we see the wisdom of the band opting for same-but-different with a guy steeped in the 80’s new wave movement.

Hogarth couldn’t be Fish. Fish was a poet who drove the music. But what h brought was that missing fifth musician. It’s quite likely, if called upon, he could drum. He regularly plays keyboards and guitar and co-writes the music as well as writing lyrics. So how does Mr. H stack up against his Scottish predecessor?

This song, the title track to Marillion’s last major label release, was about the danger of celebrity destroying the person it is bestowed upon, drawing its inspiration from the tragedy of James Dean. The album also references speed boater Don Campbell, OJ Simpson (who was on trial when the album was released), and Elvis (“King”).  The line that strikes me the most in this song, one that Fish himself might have had on his mind when Marillion’s popularity peaked and overwhelmed him in the 1980’s, was “I’m already dead. It’s a matter of time.” It captures that fear that when one’s star burns out, they’ll burn with it.

Marillion went independent in the mid-1990’s, their initial popularity fading as grunge and Brit pop took over. But it meant they could shed the shackles of being a “progressive” band. Good. Because there are no more annoying or pretentious fans of rock than prog fans. I pour myself a nice cup of smug every time I hear one whine that Marillion doesn’t sound progressive anymore. That’s a good thing. Bands that stagnate are boring. Just look at Yes after 1973.

So who do I prefer? Fish? Or H? Well, let’s put it this way. Fish and I are still of like mind (only I drink more than he does these days, if only because he no longer drinks at all). And Fish and I very much like what Steve Hogarth has done with Marillion. But while Fish is happy his old friends found someone with whom could make the music they want to make, I started listening to the latter-day Marillion when my writing career stalled, my first marriage disintegrated, and, more importantly, as I met and married Nita. Shortly after Nita and I married, they released what is arguably their best album ever, Happiness Is the Road. The title track is an autobiographical song about Hogarth emerging from a dark period in his life to some sort of awakening.  Those events very nearly paralleled what was going on in my life at the time he was writing.

Happiness is the road indeed.