4/10/2008

And Then There Were Three

Tales from Progressive Rock Oceans or The Young (and not so young) Person's Very Brief Guide to Genesis, King Crimson, and Yes

No other sub-genre of popular music—with the possible exception of fusion jazz—has been more reviled than progressive rock. Frequent target of the punk rock movement of the late '70s—which coincided with prog's lowest point musically—for its almost album-length songs, seemingly interminable solos, and perceived air of pomposity, the music had its heyday during the first half of the same decade. Despite being considered in certain circles the musical love that dare not speak its nameeven for contemporary artists who are clearly indebted to itan undeniable prog rock influence has recently popped up in the work of a few of the hip bands out there: The Mars Volta definitely have some King Crimson in 'em; Sigur Ros surely own a few Yes albums; and Radiohead are clearly not oblivious to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Not to mention a legion of math-rockers and the unabashedly prog Dream Theatre, Porcupine Tree, and Spock's Beard, just to name a few.

At their best, leading lights of the genre such as Genesis, King Crimson, and Yes—as well as Emerson Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, and a host of others—expanded the boundaries of rock with elements of jazz, classical and experimental music, aided by the necessary instrumental virtuosity and vision to pull it off. Sure a lot of it was a tad overblown, but when it clicked it could be downright transcendent and often magical.

The three bands featured here all released their debut albums in 1969, went through major upheavals in 1974, were at some point signed to Atlantic Records, and shared at different times the services of legendary drummer Bill Bruford. A founding member of Yes, and a pivotal figure in the classic King Crimson lineups of the ‘70s and ‘80s, he is arguably the genre's single most revered instrumentalist.
(He never recorded in the studio with Genesis but performed on stage with the band, and is featured on the live Seconds Out and Three Sides Live albums. Bruford also released some highly acclaimed prog rock albums of his own: Feels Good to Me, One of a Kind, and Gradually Going Tornado. He also happens to be our favorite all-time drummer, hands down.)

While Genesis was always quite popular they seemed to catch more flack than any of their art-rock contemporaries. The live performance of their signature work, the two disc concept album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway [Atlantic-1974], was derided by many for the theatrics employed by lead vocalist Peter Gabriel in bringing to life the numerous characters that populate the story. (The album itself was heralded as an extraordinary work.)
On the other hand, when they decided to scale down the length and complexity of their songs on …And Then There Were Three [Atlantic-1977]—its title a reference to the band being reduced to its core members, vocalist/drummer Phil Collins, guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford, and keyboardist Tony Banks—Genesis was met with accusations bordering on duplicity and sedition: “…this contemptible opus is but the palest shadow of the group's earlier accomplishments," was Rolling Stone’s take on the album that became the blueprint for their massive success in the ‘80s. Before they got all Lite-FM on us, the Collins-led Genesis had a couple of decent albums towards the end of their run. Duke [Atlantic-1980] is definitely one to seek out.

An uncanny masterpiece” is what The Who’s Pete Townshend called In the Court of the Crimson King [Atlantic-1969], and very few have dared disagree. (Omar Rodriguez-Lopez probably has its tunes memorized.) The debut album by master guitarist Robert Fripp’s ever-changing ensemble of players—among them, one Greg Lake, soon to be of Emerson Lake & Palmer—is breathtaking in its fluidity and scope. From the fearsome, hard rocking, free jazz-influenced “21st Century Schizoid Man” to the majestic title track that closes the album, this is one for the ages. The eighth and final King Crimson album—or so it was thought of at the time—Red [EG-1974], is an economical, stripped down affair that alternates between heavy proto-metal guitar riffs (“One More Red Nightmare”, the title track), soft pastoral soundscapes (“Providence”) or both (“Fallen Angel”, “Starless”). A fan favorite.
After a 7-year hiatus, Fripp formed a new King Crimson with stunt guitarist/drummer Adrian Belew and bassist Tony Levin—in addition to the returning Bill Bruford—and released the new wave-influenced Discipline [Warner Bros-1981], a landmark album that managed to evoke the spirit of the band’s past and point to its future, while keeping its feet firmly in the present. Truly ahead of its time. (Just ask Primus.)

The most popular and enduring of the prog rockers had their first major crossover hit in 1971 with “Roundabout” but the following year they released what may consider the pinnacle of the genre, Close to the Edge [Atlantic-1972]. Featuring just three songs—on the original vinyl, the side-long title track plus side two’s sublime “And You and I” and the pseudo funky guitar and organ workout of “Siberian Khatru”—the album featured Yes’ classic lineup: vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and, of course, Bill Bruford on drums. Even the non-prog friendly folks at Pitchfork call Close to the Edge "an essential document of just how powerful prog could be when focused." It’s probably safe to say you don’t like progressive rock if you don’t dig this one.
The studio release following Close to the Edge has the distinction of being one of the most debated albums in the annals of rock music: Tales from Topographic Oceans [Atlantic-1973], an ambitious, symphonically-conceived, four-song, double LP mostly written by Anderson and Howe and inspired by their interest in Eastern religions. Yup, sounds dicey. And in fact, it is. Lead off track “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)” holds up during its entire 20 minute length, but the rest of the album’s shining moments are quite few and very far between. Considered by some as the nadir of prog rock, Tales is in essence another classic example of a double album that could’ve been singularly improved by slimming it down to one. Still, it's got people talking and arguing about it some 35 years later.
Yes always had a strong underlying current of pop sensibility no matter how complex and elaborate their songwriting. Which is why the contemporary pop smash that was 90125 [Atlantic-1983] was not much of a surprise: they simply inverted the formula with great results both artistically and commercially. This is the one with “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, by the way.

Where are they now?
Genesis reunited in 2007 for a summer world tour after a ten-year hiatus. A new studio album is “very unlikely” according to Phil Collins.

Albeit with a different set of musicians—as always, led by Robert Fripp—King Crimson has not stopped touring and recording since their 1981 reformation. (The Crimson vaults have been bursting with numerous live albums released by Fripp’s own DGM label on both CD and digital download. These include both classic performances and recent shows as well.)

Yes had been on hiatus since 2004 but in early 2008 a summer world tour commemorating their 40th anniversary was announced. Titled “Close to the Edge and Back” it will feature Oliver Wakeman—son of Rick—on keyboards, in addition to Anderson, Squire, Howe, and drummer Alan White (1973-present).

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