To no one’s surprise, last year’s round of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees included not one progressive rock act. This despite the millions of albums sold, the countless musicians inspired, and the long-lasting impact of the genre’s best. Hell, can anyone under 50 even name two Dave Clark Five songs? Yeah, me neither.
But to be fair, I can understand why someone not very familiar with prog rock might be inclined to write it off as so much boring instrumental wankery and bastardized classical music pastiches. But to paint an endlessly rich style of music with such a broad brush is not only lazy, it’s downright inaccurate. So to show that prog ain’t all clinical sweep arpeggios and no heart, I’ve put together a mixtape to showcase the gentler side of the genre.
What we’ve got here is a selection of tunes from some of the giants of progressive rock that are all about mood and melody, not dazzling technique or playing prowess. Because accessible doesn’t have to mean watered down.
- “Tears” by Rush (from 2112) – This is not the first time the legendary Canadian trio showed us their softer side, but it was the best to date. It’s one of the rare songs in the band’s catalog entirely composed by Geddy Lee, whose lyrics are simple but effective. The stereotypical Rush bombast is nowhere to be heard on “Tears” – Geddy, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart dial it down and there’s and some beautiful Mellotron work by Hugh Syme.
- “Cadence and Cascade” by King Crimson (from In the Wake of Poseidon) – Few bands in prog more masterfully switched gears between songs with furious sheets of amplified sound and serene, almost pastoral numbers. One of the best examples of the latter in King Crimson’s catalog is found on their second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. It’s the only song on the album with lead vocals by short-lived member Gordon Haskell (original bassist and vocalist Greg Lake already had one foor out the door), and while I think Lake would’ve sounded better it’s still a gorgeous track. Robert Fripp’s gentle guitar work is matched perfectly by the reserved drumming of Michael Giles and the flute work of Mel Collins.
- “Wait for Sleep” by Dream Theater (from Images and Words) – Here’s a relative rarity in the Dream Theater catalog; a fully contained song that clocks in under 3 minutes. And it’s about as simple as the band gets – just a keyboard, some synths in the background, and one vocal part. Understated but extremely engaging.
- “Entangled” by Genesis (from A Trick of the Tail) – Don’t let the six-plus minute running time scare you. “Entangled”, from Genesis’s first post-Peter Gabriel album, is slow to unfold but glides by in the blink of an eye. It’s a moody, slightly unsettling piece featuring Phil Collins on lead vocals, Steve Hackett on many guitars, and Tony Banks on keyboard and Mellotron (one of his most effective instruments). The last two minutes of the song features a gradual buildup of the aforementioned Mellotron, which eventually washes the music away.
- “Some Day One Day” by Queen (from Queen II) – Queen? Prog rock? Absolutely. At least on this album anyway. But on this song, penned by Brian May and the first Queen song featuring his vocals, the template for many great May songs to follow was delivered. One sure sign that this isn’t typical over-the-top Queen is the reduced prominence given to the band’s trademark multi-layered vocals. They’re there all right, but this song is all about May and his guitar.
- “Lazarus” by Porcupine Tree (from Deadwing) – Just to also prove that great prog rock needn’t have been made in the 1970s, I present the best band of the genre out there today; Porcupine Tree. “Lazarus”, the third track from the brilliant Deadwing album, is an oasis of calm on an otherwise hard-driving and propulsive album. In fact, you could almost call it mainstream-sounding. But in the best possible way.
- “Clap” by Yes (from The Yes Album) – Yes fans have probably heard this Steve Howe solo piece ad nauseam (emphasis on nasuea) but it’s still a fun little ditty even almost forty years after its release. One of the very few times – if not the only – that the grand poobahs of prog ever got a little bit funky.
- “Soldier’s Poem” by Muse (from Black Holes and Revelations) – My favorite Muse moments usually recall the bombast of Queen with the sheer volume of your typical nuclear explosion. One notable exception is this track, a gentle anti-war ballad with brushed drums and acoustic guitar. Only the Queen-like vocal layering gives the listener any indication of the band’s prog heart.
- “Matte Kudasai” by King Crimson (from Discipline) – KC gets a second entry on here because, except for founder Robert Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford, the band that released this song in 1981 had very little in common with any earlier incarnations. And so for a new decade, Fripp and mates adopted a sound almost more in line with New Wave than classic prog. But one thing that remained was the ability to record gentle tracks that resonated. Enter new guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, who delivered “Matte Kudasai” with effortless grace.