Of all of the things people seem to think characterise progressive music, excessively long tracks are probably the most common. Stemming from the genre’s roots in classical and jazz, lengthy programmes are not altogether that necessary to the genre, but have nevertheless become a welcome regularity. While I have also argued that it’s a far greater challenge to deliver a powerful prog epic in only a few minutes, in the right hands long compositions are able to go places that more regular tunes simply cannot. These are the tunes that take the properly receptive listener into realms never before dreamed. The 1970’s are well known for their bombastic brand of progressive rock, and it was then, in the genre’s prime, that the most epic side-long tunes were written and recorded. Here are five of the most wonderful 20 minute adventures ever released.
5. “Tarkus” – Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1971)
This is the tune that nearly broke up the band back in the day. While vocalist/bassist/guitarist Greg Lake argued at the time that such a composition would be better suited for a Keith Emerson solo record, there really isn’t a better ensemble piece in ELP’s entire discography. While there are perhaps stronger tunes out there from the trio, this one shows off all of their strengths perfectly: Lake’s epically strong, layered, and well-annunciated voice, great and minimal guitar leads and roiling bass work, Carl Palmer’s precisely hectic drumming, and Emerson’s perfect… well… Emerson-ness. The song uses the story of Tarkus, a mythical armadillo/tank creature that fights and defeats other creatures, to reflect the futility of war: Tarkus is eventually defeated by the much larger, and more fierce Manticore…”there’s always a bigger fish.” Blending bombastic, classically inspired composition with the ballads that had made them famous, “Tarkus” is one hell of a ride.
4. “Close to the Edge” – Yes (1972)
Okay, so it’s not quite twenty minutes long, but Yes’ “Close to the Edge” is only a little bit shy of the mark. While it takes a bit to get into, Yes’ first ever side-long piece is a thrilling display of ass-kickery. A natural ambient intro leads to a chaotic overture that calms a little before an energetic, sitar-dominated segment takes us to a pretty segment led by Jon Anderson’s very unique timbre. Repeat, and prepare for one heck of a shock when the song slows to a sombre crawl right in the middle, giving the band a chance to show off the harmonies that were such a hallmark of their early sound. Gnarly organ work gives way to an epic Wakeman moment, driven by Chris Squire’s distinctive bass sound. The song’s coda brilliantly blends all of its movements to achieve a sense of completion that Yes did better than anyone else at the time. It’s a shame this line-up would be broken shortly after with drummer Bill Bruford leaving to seek new challenges with Robert Fripp and King Crimson.
3. “Lizard” – King Crimson (1970)
Appearing on my favourite King Crimson album of all time, “Lizard” is also one of my favourite tunes by the band. It is indeed the only time the band attempted anything quite as totally immense. Telling the tale of a medieval war between man and lizard, it’s the tune’s use of musical and lyrical tones rather than the lyrics that illustrate the grandness and many feels of the story. Beginning with a mind-numbingly and brilliantly charming little movment featuring vocals by Yes’ Jon Anderson, beautiful lead guitar work from Robert Fripp, and magnificent drumming from Andy McCulloch, the tune segue’s into a Keith Tippett and band-led jazziness that is to die for. The Tippett-led chaos returns to the main theme before cutting out into a tragically morose “waiting for battle” medieval melodrama. Gordon Haskell’s ultra-unique voice takes over to capture the depression and fear of troops lined up and forced to fight. A more traditional King Crimson mellotron and jazz segment a la In the Court of the Crimson King or In the Wake of Poseidon rises up out of this depression and drives us home. Fripp’s guitar leads us to the song’s whimsical, circus-like coda. This side-long piece should not be missed by prog fans, but like the album it comes from, it’s perhaps not the most accessible piece of music the genre has produced.
2. “L’Araignée-Mal” – Atoll (1975)
This song from French prog greats Atoll is one of the greatest pieces of progressive music I have ever heard. It has almost everything a prog fan could ask for and plays out like a greatest hits album for the genre, but with the band’s witty composition providing a brilliant landscape for it all to waterfall over. Starting with haunting Larks’ Tongues-era David Cross-style violin and taking us into a soothing vocal section, underscored with beautiful, almost Steve Hackett-like guitars. The rhythm section is wonderfully uncomplex, and provides an energy that builds before cutting out, allowing a sweeping and triumphant section that shows off the gorgeous keyboard work that made this whole album one of the best in progressive rock history. The rhythm builds once again, as do the impassioned vocals, until another, darker section takes over. This part, with its complex execution and oddball vocals, reminds me of Gentle Giant meets Yes’ Relayer. Shh— everything quiets down… very soothing electric piano guides us along gently… and… then… BOOM– one of the greatest moog moments I have ever heard! Harsh, Relayer-like melodies intensify the mood, until we’re brought down again (this band’s skill) into a beautiful Robert Fripp-style lead guitar section. I’ve never heard anyone mimic Fripp this well. Keyboard arpeggios, the return of the haunting violin, and howling guitar leads finish the song in a truly inconic way. “L’Araignée-Mal” is an absolute must hear for any serious prog fan.
1. “Supper’s Ready” – Genesis (1972)
Simply the greatest example of a twenty-minute song going the extra mile to become a masterful marvel of musical story-telling is Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready.” Beginning with a pair of lovers sitting down in the living room for a romantic dinner, the song graduates over the course of twenty-three minutes into the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. Brilliance is that it starts with a very simple love between partners, segues into the divides imposed by social barriers and unrest, spirals into exploration with a desire to meet new people and see new places, devolves into war, shifts into… who knows… and then mirrors everything backwards on a much grander scale, ending of course with a more complex love between creator and creation. From supper in the living room to the ‘supper of the Mighty One,’ “Supper’s Ready” covers it all and never manages to become uninteresting. Each movement is quite unique, with motifs always being re-introduced in fresh ways that sound familiar yet different. The radically different pieces that make up the song are effortlessly blended and the band is at the absolute top of their game on this one. This tune continues to blow me away ages after I first heard it.
RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.
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