This series on rock history’s prominent double albums has shown time and again that the four-sided album (or two-disc CD) is the chosen platform for some of popular music’s most ambitious projects. That is not always the case: a band may have a backlog of unrelated songs or chose to package a studio record and a live one together. But just as often it can be a case of a confident group or solo artist in a self-defined peak, pushing their conceptual prerogatives to the limit. This latter possibility is more likely in the lofty dominion of progressive. Oft-maligned and often misunderstood, these bands, as a longform outgrowth of the psychedelic era, tended to fantasy concepts and extended, often complex, instrumental arrangements. As drummer Bill Buford put it, recalling the time he joined up with King Crimson: “I knew this was not going to be three chords and a pint of Guinness.”
So there will be plenty of ambitious undertakings to review, yet it is interesting to note the changed dynamic of these types of outfits releasing epic works. Back in the Seventies, titles like Tales from Topographic Oceans (Yes), The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis) and The Wall (Pink Floyd) were major releases into the general rock canon. More recently, we have the “neo-prog” groups sometimes releasing several double albums and since, in this Internet age, they are marketing more directly to fans, flying under the radar of most music fans. We’ll look at both kinds since the Prog Years really run from the late Sixties to the present.
Tales from Topographic Oceans—Yes (1973)
The idea that a “lengthy footnote” from a book called Autobiography of a Yogi would inspire one to write an 80-minute song cycle is about as far away as you can get from rock ‘n’ roll’s “let’s party” birthright without sneaking up on it from the other side. But those were the times. The ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford got married in March 1973 and at the reception Yes singer Jon Anderson was told about Paramahansa Yogananda’s famed memoir by King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir. Anderson, like many others of the era, was inspired by Eastern spiritualism. Before a month had passed, he and guitarist Steve Howe were writing the esoteric lyrics. After months of painstaking composing, rehearsing and recording this veritable War and Peace of rock was released in December of that year. (A detail of Roger Dean’s handsome artwork on the cover is seen above).
Like Tolstoy’s epic book, Tales from Topographic Oceans would prove rough sledding even for some pre-disposed to like it. Side one (dauntingly titled “The Revealing Science of God”) starts with a Buddhist-like chant that draws us up from the primeval ocean and resolves into a heraldic 3-note guitar figure. It then unfolds like much of TFTO. It’s a lush instrumental sound that builds up from reflective stanzas of Anderson’s questing poetics through several segueing sections before building to a soaring climax. These up-tempo sections were a highlight for many, led by the galloping rhythm section of bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White, over which would ride Howe’s nervy lead guitar or Rick Wakeman’s bounteous synth fills. To my ears, this plan of attack works best on the exalted second side (“The Remembering”) and while sides three and four (“The Ancient” and “Ritual”) may get a bit bogged down in instrumental excesses, both resolve beautifully: with Howe’s classical acoustic guitar and the stand-alone ballad “Leaves of Green” in the former and the gentle, piano-led paen to home and hearth that closes the album.
As was often the case in progressive rock’s heyday, many of the critics were unabashed in their unkindness and Tales from Topographic Oceans remains a wedge issue to this day with fans in online discussions. But in a 2016 interview, Steve Howe looked back on Tales as “a wonderful project where we went to the end of the earth to do it. There was often a feeling that disaster was about to strike, but we got there in the end.” (In fact, dissension during recording prompted Rick Wakeman after the supporting tour). It could be a sublime listening experience in the days of real stereos and inexpensive weed, dropping the needle on your favorite side. In concert, where the album was played front-to-back in 1974, it could be a patience tester even for the die-hards (sample stage patter: “We’d like to carry on with side three”). It was a long march to the “Roundabout” encore. Circling back to TFTO now—-standing on “hills of long-forgotten yesterdays”—-as the lyrics would have it, it feels like an experiential marvel. In an age of digital dissipation and global polarization, the plea for a spiritual evolution to dispel “cast-iron leaders” and “warland seekers” is a balm. Our common humanity succeeding against all the corrupting forces of the world may sound naive, but it’s also intrinsic to the nature of all good people. When they sing the musical question, “Ours the story, shall we carry on?” the answer is easy: Yes.
Iconic Prog Element: Every good 20-minute song needs a subtitle. From side one to four they are: Dance of the Dawn, High the Memory, Giants Under the Sun and Nous Sommes du Soleil.
Into the Electric Castle—Ayreon (1998)
Are you a lover of classic prog looking for something of more recent vintage? Ayreon, my wayward son. Musical mastermind Arjen Lucassen formed his group project around 1994, in order to “fill a need to create rock operas.” (progarchives.com) The Dutch multi-instrumentalist and vocalist turned out to be an amazingly ambitious songwriter and conceptualist and ever since then he has fulfilled his musical and lyrical visions with an ever-evolving cast of singers and players. His first (but certainly not last) double album is proudly called “A Space Opera” on its front cover. Many classic rock operas, from Tommy on down, tend to be diffuse in their plotting but not this baby. Into the Electric Castle, like most Ayreon albums, has a tightly structured storyline and a cast of characters each voiced by a different guest vocalist. A group of eight archetypes (Knight, Highlander, Barbarian, Roman, Futureman etc.) are led into another dimension by a forbidding deity, in a test of human progress vs. self-destruction. It is melodic, esoteric and ultimately poignant. Ayreon’s prog-metal sound is tempered by a classic 70s flavor with Lucassen dishing out plenty of mini-Moog and mellotron stylings along with his usual stellar guitar and bass work.
Iconic Prog Element: The godfather of Dutch art-rock, Focus frontman Thijs van Leer, shows up to play flute on several tracks.
Focus III (1973)
Speaking of Focus, the Amsterdam-based quartet had been making a splash in Europe since 1969 (and in the U.S. with their #9 single “Hocus Pocus”) and by the key prog year of 1973 were ready for a twin killing with their third album. The band was a mostly instrumental outfit, with a keen compositional sense that included elements of rock, jazz, folk and classical, sometimes accompanied by the yodeling and scat singing of their ostensible leader, keyboardist/flautist Thijs van Leer. Acclaimed guitarist Jan Akkerman, who could both shred like a demon and pluck a lute like an angel, was also a key component. This was also the classic line-up with the talented rhythm section of bassist Bert Ruiter and drummer Pierre van der Linden, so they could hardly go wrong. The best known song on Focus III is the exuberant “Sylvia” as good a piece of chamber pop that you’re ever likely to hear and their biggest Continental hit, though it stalled out at #89 in the States. Elsewhere, the group show their knack for jaunty workouts like “Carnival Fugue” and “Round Goes the Gossip” as well as for lovely acoustic miniatures, represented here by “Love Remembered” and “Elspeth of Nottingham.” The middle of the album does get a bit long-winded with jam-band marathons, though there are no shortage of highlights mixed in, esp. Akkerman’s searing leads and van Leer’s punchy Hammond organ solo on “Anonymous II.” Focus III would go gold in the U.S., maintaining the band’s American foothold on prog’s momentum waned in the late Seventies.
Iconic Prog Element: The 27-minute “Anonymous II” is so long it takes up all of side three before spilling onto side four.
Works, Volume 1—Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1977)
Everything Emerson, Lake and Palmer did was big. Their top-selling records featured grandiose fantasy themes and their stage act showcased a revolving drum kit, a piano spinning end over end thirty feet above the stage (with pianist aboard) and dazzling pyrotechnic displays. But by 1977, having spent the better part of a decade coming across as triumphant warriors, ELP were in danger of being conquered by their own egos. Only hubris combined with internal dissension could produce an LP like Works , Volume 1, essentially three twenty minute solo records followed by a side featuring the “band.” Emerson’s contribution is a fully scored piano concerto. Although there is plenty of impressive work on the ivories here, an orchestrated concerto would prove to be an impossibly hard sell to all but the group’s most hardcore fans. In a similar vein, the insertion of an orchestra on drummer Carl Palmer’s “Tank,” a vigorous instrumental showpiece first heard on the group’s maiden album, gave the re-make a distinctly watered-down feel. Past ELP albums were known for having one track devoted to the radio-friendly balladry of singer/bassist/guitarist Greg. Lake. With a whole side of contributions here the results, typified by the gauzy single “C’est La Vie”, are listenable enough but don’t nearly match the artistic and commercial success of past hits like “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning.”
On side four the guys revert to old ways on two extended cuts. First with one of the amped-up classical adaptations that always worked well for them and here the honoree (some might say “victim”) is Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” ELP return to their typically exotic subject for the mini-epic “Pirates,” akin to Procol Harum on steroids. By 1977, with punk rock well and truly arrived, critical opinion of the band hit an all-time low (“Works, but only as a Frisbee,” was Creem magazine’s take) though it still made #12 in the States. Yes, there was a Works Vol. 2, a considerably more concise single album released later that year. But after 1978’s unfortunate Love Beach, ELP broke up and only re-surfaced after classic rock became institutionalized in the Nineties.
Iconic Prog Element: Let’s just say “Piano Concerto No. 1”
Sounds Like This—Nektar (1973)
Nektar were a group of Englishman originally based in Hamburg, led by guitarist-lead singer Roye Albrighton. They established their acid-rock bonafides with a way-out live show; their liquid lightshow guy was a full-time member. A first album in 1971 was called Journey To the Center of the Eye and the second one was suggestively titled A Tab in the Ocean, both were marked by sci-fi themes and lengthy compositions. Nektar gathered in the studio in October ’72 with the rather odd notion of simulating a live show in the studio, complete with improvisational jams. Dissatisfied with much of the results, they went back for a partial do-over in early ’73. They ended up with a double LP where the stretching out (three tracks in the 12-14 minute range) alternated with a clutch of progressive pop songs of more traditional length.
The album opens with its strongest track. “Good Day” should have been a hit in a fair world, with its filigreed guitar hooks and a dramatic buildup to an optimistic sing-along chorus. “New Day Dawning” follows in a similar winning style but side one closes with a hard-rock boogie called “What Ya Gonna Do” which is about as original as its title. From there, the album alternates between jams that sound more like their heavy-hitting contemporaries like Deep Purple or Mountain and the more written-out shorter material, like the ballad “Wings.” I prefer the latter, but the longer cuts are a fun listen. Albrighton was not really known as a guitar-hero type but he certainly is one here, ripping off any number of screaming leads on solo-heavy workouts like “1-2-3-4” (keyboardist Allan Freeman also shines here). In retrospect, Sounds Like This seems like a “let your hair down” diversion and Nektar would revert to form later in 1973 with the accomplished concept album Remember the Future, that gave them their biggest U.S. success (#19). That was short-lived but the group stayed popular in Europe and, despite a few sabbaticals, they continue to record and perform, even after Roye Albrighton’s passing in 2016.
Iconic Prog Element: Halfway through “New Day Dawning” the band seamlessly shifts into the first verse of “Norwegian Wood” just because they can.
The Astonishing—Dream Theater (2016)
The Long Island-based Dream Theater are one of those prolific and restlessly creative groups that have emerged from the neo-progressive and prog metal movements of the last thirty years or so. (The Flower Kings and Big Big Train are two others that come quickly to mind). This 130-minute behemoth was their second double concept album, coming a full fourteen years after the first, 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. True to its title, that album explored various states of psychological struggles over the course of a half-dozen tracks—one of which, at 42 minutes, took up the whole second disc. Still, the relatively tight focus of Six Degrees stands in sharp contrast to the operatic sci-fi sprawl that is The Astonishing. The cover art shows a squadron of robotic orbs hovering over a futuristic city. After the “Dystopian Overture” we learn that in a distant future music, while not said to be explicitly banned, is something that people have “no time for” anymore. Instead, the orbs (called NOMACS) beam down their dissonant playlist of bleeps, blurps and technological babble. But if there is any oppression here in futureland (how much is not clear) it is challenged by the emergence of Gabriel whose messianic status seems based on the fact that he’s the only left who can carry a tune.
If you detect a note of skepticism here, go to the head of the class. The band’s synopsis of The Astonishing runs a full six paragraphs, but just listening to the album it’s hard to discern any storyline at all. Almost every song is based around general platitudes that could easily make up an album of unrelated tracks. Lead singer James LaBrie has a great set of pipes but lacks the versatility to spread them over several different characters. Before long we are getting sub-Andrew Lloyd Weber “showstoppers” like the soapy “Chosen” (“Against all hope we found a way/And it is all because she trusted me”). It’s too bad—Dream Theater founder-guitarist-lyricist John Petrucci has all the chops and ambitions in the world and the music here is played expertly but without much personal distinction. Yet the band has pulled off this kind of thing before and may well again in the future. The Astonishing, however, hardly lives up to its title: it’s all reach and no grasp.
Iconic Prog Element: The NOMACS get five brief tracks all to themselves and are often more interesting than the human characters.
Follow this blog and you’ll be notified when Part 2 of this post comes out. Featured will be 2-disc bad boys from Soft Machine, Can, Mike Oldfield, the Flower Kings and others. Thanks, Rick Ouellette
Great stuff Rick. Misunderstood is the right word. Why shouldn’t rock aim for a longer, more diverse journey?
Will be back to take in more of this rich post later.
Thanks! There is a lot to unpack here, appreciate you making a return visit. I grew up with this kind of stuff and learning about newer bands like Ayreon carrying on the tradition was fun.
I’m not a big fan of Tales from Topographic Oceans – I find it a bit bloated, and think Relayer and Going for the One are much stronger records. I don’t know any of the others very well, although I like what I’ve heard from Focus III – I’ve added Ayreon to my to-listen list.
I think you will like the Ayreon record, you can listen to it with the lyrics on Youtube. Anything on “Focus 3” is recommended but you may find the 27-minute jam a bit of a patience tester 🙂