Progressive rock is as decisive to rock listeners as jazz fusion is to jazz listeners — for some the seventies were a high point in rock history, where albums were given greater compositional and lyrical density and substance, while for others it was a period of pretentious excess, the very reason punk rock had to be invented.
We love so much of it, the side-length suites like “Atom Heart Mother” and “Close to the Edge,” the concept albums like Thick as a Brick, the virtuoso guitar performances of guys like Robert Fripp. Surely we’re not alone because the best progressive rock albums are reliably out of stock in any mostly-used record shop like ours.
But there are also some mind-numbingly boring progressive rock moments — and today’s collection could be extended for into a triple-post with a gatefold sleeve, in true 70s prog format. To quote Ian Anderson, we “really don’t mind if you sit this one out” because we’re going to listen to a few of them today. If you’re having a slow Monday this is probably not going to speed things up…
“Raconteur Troubadour” by Gentle Giant
The 1977 compilation of early Gentle Giant tracks we had in stock this week is titled Pretentious. The liner notes inside tell us the band hung a huge neon banner over the stage during an American tour that read “Pretentious” as a clever little ‘FU’ to their critics. This is a group that also released an album called Acquiring the Taste.
Gentle Giant is a band that never really had the ‘crossover’ success of other progressive groups who found singles and albums regularly on the charts during the genre’s golden era. “Raconteur Troubadour” from their album Octopus (supposed to be a pun on ‘octo opus,’ reflecting the album’s eight tracks — get it?) isn’t a fair representation of the band, which could often be as exciting and interesting as it was challenging — here they are just overwhelmingly boring.
“Baker St. Muse” by Jethro Tull
Unlike Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull enjoyed enormous commercial success in the seventies — so much that by the time they recorded their seventh album (fifth to peak in Billboard’s top twenty), there’s a solid sense of resentment and fatigue coming from the “minstrel in the gallery.”
The darkest of Ian Anderson’s cynicism had previously been eased by his light-hearted troubadouring, a spoonful of sugar that made Tull’s most excessive, pretentious works entertaining.
Nowhere does Anderson wallow in weariness more than “Baker St. Muse,” a directionless near side-long suite that’s not only missing the memorable riffs of “Minstrel in the Gallery” and “Cold Wind to Valhalla” (both on the other side of the album) but the very thing that makes us love him so much: his unrelenting showmanship.
Kites by Jade Warrior
In Jeff Smith’s comic book series Bone characters are put to sleep almost instantly every time the hero, Fone Bone, takes out his copy of Moby Dick and begins to read aloud — the same could be true for the liner notes to this 1976 album, exceeded in their oppressive pretentions by the music on the record. Its side-long suites range from spacy tedium to jarring string quartets (think Terry Reilly played overloud and quickly) to forced integrations of world music. According to Allmusic’s review of the album, the band — essentially just Tony Duhig and Jon Field augmented by a variety of guests for this outing — labored over Kites for nine months.
The same review actually contains the phrase “intense ambient sound.”
“Song for America” by Kansas
Before Kansas hit the charts with the awesome anthems “Carry on my Wayward Son” and “Point of no Return,” they laid the groundwork for ‘cow-prog,’ an awkward little genre that’s never captured our hearts the way cow-punk often does. While those hit albums (Leftoverture and Point of No Return) leave behind the middle American naivety that lends “Son for America” sweet natured charm, even at the height of their commercial success Kansas was distinguished by ambition ideas far beyond the eventual execution (as Leftoverture‘s “Magnus Opus” proves).
“Song for America” establishes several Kansas conventions that would be more successfully applied in subsequent albums: extensive keyboard noodling (piano, organ and moog), ensemble vocals and a forced fiddle part that seems out of place. Still unabashedly midwestern, Kansas celebrates this great nation by stretching to just shy of ten minutes what was already over-long at three. While their hit albums (Leftoverture and Point of No Return) leave behind the middle American naivety that lends “Son
“The Fall of the House of Usher” by the Alan Parsons Project
This epic instrumental by the Alan Parsons Project is likely to hold your attention about as long as Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories did when they were assigned to you in junior high school. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is actually the first realization of Claude Debussy’s two-act opera based on the 1839 story, unfinished at the time of his death. The French composer is not credited on the album, perhaps at the request of his estate.
Pictures at an Exhibition by Emerson Lake & Palmer
70s prog rock albums are littered with references to romantic-era composers, often landing their albums in our “Classical Gasp!” section. King Crimson’s Lizard includes a passage borrowed from Maurice Ravel, and the Alan Parsons Project track above is based on a work by Debussy. Few groups took the rock/classical hybrid to the extremes of Emerson Lake & Palmer, who had included a work by Bartok on their first album.
Pictures at an Exhibition (recorded before the release of their second album) was released at a budget price, which led to its substantial sales. Unlike many rock/classical hybrids, it’s fairly faithful to the original, an 1874 suite by Modest Mussorgsky. The highlight of the album is Keith Emerson’s performance of the opening “Promenade” on the fifty-year-old organ at Newcastle’s City Hall.
In fact, this album’s contribution to the oeuvre of mind-numblingly boring progressive rock is not its romantic reinventions, but the original material the trio adds to the program: a plodding “Blues Variation” by Emerson (heard below) and a dreadful ballad, “The Sage,” by Greg Lake.
Any record by Starcastle
Illinois’ answer to Yes .. seems the world’s answer was a resounding no. This band was given every opportunity — Queen’s producer Roy Thomas Baker recorded Fountains of Light, their second album, and Epic set them up with opening gigs on tours by Boston, Journey and Foreigner. Audiences simply weren’t enchanted by what sounds distinctly derivative, like a K-Tel Records version of Yes.
Act II of Joe’s Garage by Frank Zappa
The thing that makes most post-Mothers Zappa albums so boring is their uninhibited indulgence. He created a world in which he could compose, conduct and record entirely without criticism by eliminating anyone with the courage to call the emperor on his nakedness.
Joe’s Garage was split into two releases but in its staggering excess the second was a double LP, adding an entire act to a story that, like Debussy’s unfinished opera, was overextended before the first curtain fell. The epic nature of Zappa’s concept album was ensured by the establishment of his own imprint (Zappa Records, what else?) earlier in 1979 after a length legal battle with Warner Brothers.
Like the first record issued by Zappa’s new label (Sheik Yerbouti), Joe’s Garage is characterized by juvenile humor (One of Act I’s high points is “Why Does it Hurt when I Pee?”) and long arrangements built out of spliced Zappa guitar solos. As a concept album its forced together by intrusive appearances of the Central Scrutinizer, a bitter government employee whose eventual conclusion, “Who gives a fuck anyway?” is both hilarious and ironically fitting. Act I contains the genuine, fun title track and Act III winds down with “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” Zappa’s most sensitive and moving instrumental work.
In between the story falls apart (Joe is aparently getting a blowjob from a robot in the track below) and the music goes with it. Were the first and third acts issued as a double LP they might be as passionately praised by prog-fans as other contemporaneous concept albums like The Wall. Instead Act II is just that shitty record you have to buy to hear “Watermelon in Easter Hay.”