The Prog Life - March 9, 2003: Mainstream Music For Prog Lovers
by Clayton Walnum

And still the mainstream music press continues to give progressive music its due. Strange but true. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. (Dave would also say that Mainstream Music Press and Strange But True were good names for rock bands, but that's his thing, and I would never in a million years think of ripping him off. I am not making this up.)

For those who are behind in their reading, in the last couple of columns, I mentioned some reviews or articles on progressive music that appeared in mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone and New Music. This time around, I came across some surprising items in the saucy and spicy music magazine Blender. I'm talking about the issue with Shakira on the cover.

First off, there's a favorable review -- that's right, favorable -- of the newest King Crimson album, The Power To Believe. Here's a quote for you: "...King Crimson is the most innovative, vicious -- indeed, the best -- prog-rock outfit ever." Want some more? They also said, "A major influence on Tool [King Crimson] plays songs so complex, not even Yes can understand them." Okay, I'm not sure that that last one was actually meant as a compliment, but for prog lovers it's not only a compliment, it's great news.

In the same issue is an even more surprising review, this one on the Terry Bozzio and Billy Sheehan outing, Nine Short Films. I would never in a million John-Petrrucci riffs have expected to see such an obscure prog album reviewed in this type of magazine. I mean, Shakira is on the cover, remember? Here's a quote from that review: "Bozzio's whisper-thin voice tends to leave the vocal numbers a little melody deprived, but the playing -- which is smart, slyly virtuosic, and remarkably circumspect -- more than makes up for that."

Dude, this is a magazine with Shakira on the cover!

And we're not done yet. The Crown Jewel of all this new mainstream press coverage is a review of the new King Crimson album in the most recent Rolling Stone, the one with Avril Lavigne on the cover. They give the album four -- count 'em -- four stars. Here's a quote: "[King Crimson] build black cathedrals of spired shriek and iron-block fuzz..." Here's another: "In the face of war, King Crimson make hopeful thunder." Four stars, man!

With so many mainstream magazines giving progressive music a fair shake, it's only fair, I think, that a progressive Web site give mainstream music a similar shake. So, as a thank-you to the mainstream press for giving a few progressive titles a chance, I'm dedicating this entire column to the awesome musical career of Alvin and the Chipmunks. No, wait! That's actually, the next column. In this one, your humble author would like to point out some mainstream music that, due to its adventurous nature, ought to appeal to prog lovers everywhere.

So, we'll start with a little history. In the beginning, Alvin was born as a writhing and mucous-coated pinkie to Mr. and Mrs. -- Uh, sorry about that; I can't seem to get next issue's column out of my head. Starting over...

Progressive music lovers, because they find themselves usually on the defensive, tend to live in a musical world of their own. Unfortunately, living in that world often means that many great albums slip by unnoticed, just because they are not labeled as progressive. The truth is that mainstream offers surprisingly cutting-edge music every now and then -- despite what you hear on the radio, it's not all Britney and Shakira (drool) out there -- and lovers of daring and bold music would do well to sit up and listen. I'm sure that many of you have already discovered many of these gems, but for those of you who haven't browsed the CD racks at Best Buy lately, here's a list of highly recommended mainstream CDs.

Nine Inch Nails - The FragileNine Inch Nails - The Fragile

Nine Inch Nails may not have invented industrial music, but they (actually, he) definitely put it on the map. The previously parenthetic "he" is Trent Reznor, who is Nine Inch Nails. Trent takes psychological disturbances from his brain and crams them into his machines to create some of the most savagely creative music out there. With each NIN album, the music gets closer and closer to bona fide progressive, and I'd venture to say that, if it weren't for NIN's mainstream popularity, we progressive folks would have long ago raised Trent to the pedestal upon which he deserves to stand. Start off with The Fragile, an album that covers a full range of sound from the gently atmospheric to the ferociously explosive. WARNING: Due to triply-distorted guitars and vocal shrieks, much of this music is not for the weak-hearted!

Bjork - HomogenicBjörk - Homogenic

In contrast to NIN's viciousness, we have the Icelandic pixie Bj?rk (pronounced "bee YORK"), who not only boasts a unique vocal style, but has also created a musical genre all her own. By that I mean that nobody sounds like Bj?rk. Her music blends electronic tweeps and burps with twisted sampled sounds and classical instrumentation to formulate an otherworldly beauty. My favorite Björk album is Homogenic. I strongly suggest you give this masterpiece a try. Her latest CD, Vespertine, takes the Bj?rkish formula even more toward the classical side and is also highly recommended.

King's X - Manic MoonlightKing's X - Manic Moonlight

King's X is often referred to as the thinking man's metal. This guitar-bass-drums trio cranks out some of the best metal songs on the planet, although their music tends toward simpler structures than prog metal like Symphony X. That is, if you like your metal played at 1000-notes per second, then King's X probably isn't for you, but if you're willing to allow for subtlety in your music, these guys will surely tickle your metal bone. It's hard for me to pick a favorite King's X album (although I do like some more than others), but their latest disc, Manic Moonlight, is a good introduction.

Alvin And The Chipmunks - The Dance MixesAlvin And The Chipmunks - The Dance Mixes

Beyond a doubt, the most cutting-edge, mainstream music comes from ... uh, never mind.

Galactic Cowboys - At The End Of The DayGalactic Cowboys - At The End Of The Day

If you take King's X and stir in a bit of humor along with a touch more adventurousness, you'd have Galactic Cowboys. This metal group's output tends to be a little more complex than King's X's stuff, but the similarities are hard to deny. In fact, King's X used to tour with the Galactic Cowboys as their opening act; no coincidence there. At The End Of The Day is probably my favorite Galactic Cowboys album and so is where I'd suggest you start. Unfortunately, this band, who put out about a half a dozen albums, is no longer with us. RIP GC!

Sonic Youth - Murray StreetSonic Youth - Murray Street

If you like rock on the noisy side, you'll flip over Sonic Youth, whose minimalistic songs often lead into avant-rock walls of feedback and electronic mayhem. This is fascinating, calculated mayhem, though, not just a bunch of punks throwing their instruments around the stage. In fact, Sonic Youth, who has been in the biz for a good long time, is considered by many rock pundits to be one of the most influential New York groups today. Their latest disc, Murray Street, features a good balance between songs and the aforementioned mayhem.

Next time around, I'll have a few more so-called mainstream albums to suggest, but the ones listed here ought to give you a start. Before I close out this edition of "The Prog Life," though, I'd like to introduce a new segment, something I call...

Clay's CDs in Rotation

Due to this column and career overviews such as my series on Genesis, I haven't had as much time to review albums as I'd like. For that reason, I'm adding this segment to each edition of "The Prog Life." Here, I'll give you a peak into my ears (geez, at least let me clean them out first!) to see (hear?) what I've been listening to lately. So without wasting any more alphabetic characters...

Planet X - MoonbabiesPlanet X - Moon Babies

Dream Theater fans know who Derek Sherinian is. For the rest of you, Sherinian is Dream Theater's former keyboardist, who has put together the outstanding prog/fusion group Planet X. This amazing band, which includes Virgil Donati on drums, Tony MacAlpine on guitar, and Tom Kennedy and Jimmy Johnson on bass, will blow you away with their musicianship. Their sound is definitely weighted toward the fusion genre, but it's a style of fusion you might get if Dream Theater suddenly decided to do a jazz album. This album absolutely ROARS!

OSI - Office Of Strategic InfluenceOSI - Office of Strategic Influence

And speaking of Dream Theater former keyboardists, Kevin Moore has gotten together with Dream Theater drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy and Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos to form the side project, Office Of Strategic Influence. This album sounds exactly what you might expect when combining the hard-edged musical approach of Portnoy and Matheos with the softer, Pink Floyd-style approach of Moore's current group, Chroma Key. To be more specific, this sounds like a Porcupine Tree album. In fact, Porcupine Tree leader Steve Wilson sings one of the songs on this cool disc.

King Crimson - The Power To BelieveKing Crimson - The Power To Believe

The only one of the original progressive giants, who, after 35 years, is still doing what they do best -- churning out both dream-like melodies and themes for nightmares -- King Crimson is back with a brand-new studio album. This one is close on the heals of their recent, sneak-preview EP, Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With, but is the whole ball of wax. The Power To Believe is vintage Crim, strongly reminiscent of the Larks' Tongues In Aspic days. This is one magnificent nightmare.

Nil - Quarante Jours Sur Le SinaiNil - Quarante Jours Sur Le Sinai

A blend of Jade Warrior and King Crimson with hints of Änglagärd, this French group treads everywhere from soothing melodiousness to sudden attacks of metal. On this great disc, you never know where a song will ultimately end up. Specifically, Quarante Jours Sur Le Sinai is the kind of music that offers a new revelation with every listen. A concept album delving into Egyptian mythology, you can expect all the earmarks of classic prog, from mellotron washes to complex instrumental interplay, dynamic arrangements, and shifting meters. Some cool artwork, too (see below). Highly recommended!

From inside Quarante Jours Sur Le Sinai's CD booklet.

Inside Nil

In closing, remember that I'd love to hear your comments on "The Prog Life." You can drop me a line at

Rolling Stone
King Crimson
Terry Bozzio
Billy Sheehan
Nine Inch Nails
King's X
Symphony X
Galactic Cowboys
Dream Theater
Derek Sherinian
Planet X
Fates Warning
Office Of Strategic Influence
Pink Floyd
Chroma Key
Porcupine Tree

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Published on: 2003-03-09 (2342 reads)

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