The Prog Life - May 4, 2003: More Mainstream For Proggers
by Clayton Walnum

First off, apologies for the length of time between this column and the previous one. Life has been pretty full lately, what with weddings (congrats Chris and Jess!), a book-manuscript deadline, and what seems like a daily doctor or dentist appointment. Also, a huge Genesis fan showed up at my home the other day and took my copy of the Lord Of The Rings ransom. What did he want, you ask? This booknapper insisted that I finish the final installment of "Tricks Of The Tale," my trilogy of articles on Genesis. So what could I do except finish it? You'll be pleased to know that I have The Lord Of The Rings back, but, just to be mean, the napper removed my bookmark.

Anyway, if I remember correctly - and, these days, I wouldn't lay any bets on that ... we left off talking about mainstream music that might appeal to progressive-rock lovers. I believe that I recommended the following albums:

The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails
Homogenic by Björk
Manic Moonlight by King's X
At The End Of The Day by Galactic Cowboys
Murray Street by Sonic Youth

Read the article

Flash - Flash I also recommended The Dance Mixes by Alvin and the Chipmunks, but, in case you haven't figured it out, that was a joke ... unless, of course, you're a Chipmunks fan, in which case, by all means indulge. In this column, though, I have a few more cool mainstream albums to recommend. First, however, I'd like to share a little mail, starting off with comments from Ray Bennett, the bass player for the Yes spin-off band, Flash. Ray writes,

"[I] just wanted to let you know that I think your idea of integrating prog lovers and the mainstream is a good one. And it's a healthy idea for musicians in particular. I don't like the idea of the two camps being adversaries -- or strangers -- as they often are. I have always had a wide variety of tastes and it's important to remember that prog rock started in our minds, all those years back, as a synergy of all genres. Most English guys of my generation started with a very broad range of musical influences in the beginning, and later the Beatles pointed the way to a more open mind in pop.

"Prog rock should be an all inclusive concept, not just odd time signatures and wacky compositions. To start restricting your musical intake affects your attitude and scope, and will inevitably have a negative affect on your output.

"Prog means 'progress' and that means constant development."

Ray Bennett - Whatever FallsThanks, Ray! I agree with you 100%. Musicians, especially, need to stay up-to-date with everything that's going on in the world of music, whether it's pop, jazz, classical, or any other genre. You have to know the rules before you can break them, and, by definition, modern progressive music is all about breaking the rules in new and creative ways. Be sure to check out Ray's great solo album, Whatever Falls. (Read my review for more info.) Ray also tells me that a Flash reunion is in progress. Personally, I can't wait for that to happen.

I also received an email from John M., an art director for Reader's Digest. John states,

Sonic Youth"[I] just wanted to say fine work on the article on All the albums you talked about I agree are really great progressive albums, just without that prog-rock tag. I haven't checked out The Galactic Cowboys but based on your overview, I'll be looking to buy some. And I think Sonic Youth are the greatest indie band around, maybe the mainstream will look to the prog rock 'underground' for the next big thing like Seattle in the early nineties. Anyway keep up the good work!"

Sonic Youth - Murray StreetThanks, John! Your comments are greatly appreciated. Sonic Youth is one group who has truly reinvented rock-and-roll. If nothing else, they can be credited for bringing avant-garde to the mainstream. Their continued success amazes me, because one would think that such an unusual group -- no matter how terrific -- would be unable to sell many CDs, but apparently they sell enough to keep going. They've been doing their thing for 20 years, since 1983's Confusion Is Sex,, and their current CD, Murray Street, is their 19th album. Way to go SY!

Keep the email coming, folks. I love to get it, and I love to share it. Feel free to write even if you don't agree with something I've said. I won't be insulted.

More Mainstream Gems

Moving on, we now get to the main event, which is more mainstream albums for proggers to chew over. Your local CD shop tucks away so much great music in its bins that I could go on and on recommending great albums forever ... or at least until the pizza arrives. Unfortunately, I have to limit the list to several favorites. Otherwise, this column (which is already the second on mainstream music) would be huge. So, without further yammering?

Radiohead - OK ComputerRadiohead - OK Computer

When Radiohead released OK Computer, the critics fell all over themselves praising this English modern-rock band. Often, critics even used the word "masterpiece" to describe the album, as well as the word "progressive." And, at least in the context of modern rock, this album definitely is progressive. Since the release of OK Computer, Radiohead has set the bar for creative rock. In fact, whenever other bands push the boundaries of modern-rock, Radiohead comparisons pop up everywhere. Radiohead still puts out great albums, including the more restrained, but just as cutting-edge, Kid A and Amnesiac. However, 1997's OK Computer remains my favorite.

Wilco - Yankee Hotel FoxtrotWilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

When record-company executives heard Wilco's new album, they told the band to take whatever they'd been paid and get lost. The record wouldn't be released, because it was just too darn weird. Wilco went ahead and got a new record deal, which meant they got paid for the album a second time. Then, in spite of its "weirdness," Yankee Hotel Foxtrot did just fine, thank you, and was the critics' darling for a good long time. I guess that just shows that quality can triumph over the bean counters. What does the album sound like? Cross the lighter side of Radiohead with the weirder side of The Beatles, and then add a dash of The Grateful Dead. One of the best rock albums of 2002.

XTC - Apple Venus Volume 1XTC - Apple Venus Volume 1

Any lover of sophisticated pop music shouldn't overlook XTC, whose Beatle-ish compositions overflow with inventive instrumentation, clever lyrics, spot-on playing, and just plain ol' intelligence. XTC has been putting out their original brand of music for a long, long time, with each album slicker than the previous one. In fact, since the early 70s, XTC has produced over a dozen albums of smart and quirky music. Apple Venus Volume 1 is a great place to start, not just because it's one of their most recent offerings, but also because it's darn great, combining inspired orchestrations and conventional rock instrumentation with masterful songwriting. (It also has one of the most elegant album covers I've ever seen.) By the way, former XTC member, Barry Andrews, once played in the League of Gentlemen with Robert Fripp.

Cursive - The Ugly OrganCursive - The Ugly Organ

I don't think the guys in Cursive are aware of it yet, but, despite mainstream marketing, they play progressive rock. Or maybe they are aware. The song "Art Is Hard" bemoans the lack of creativeness in most modern music. Cursive's energetic output is pleasingly convoluted, dynamic, creative, sophisticated, and downright cool. Picture a cross between Radiohead, Sonic Youth, The Beatles, Sigur Ros, and The Cure. Okay, yeah, that's a lot to imagine, but that's the whole point, isn't it? A couple of tracks approach the avant-garde, but most of the album remains accessible English-style pop-with-a-twist ... at least, as long as you're willing to pay attention and really listen. This definitely isn't background music.

Tool - LateralusTool - Lateralus

Tool isn't as far removed from the prog world as many other mainstream groups are. Their love of King Crimson is well known, and they even toured with the Crim a year or so ago. In fact, I remember in one interview, one of Tool's members commented something along the lines of, "Now that we're playing with King Crimson, all our fans are going to know where we stole all our ideas!" Truthfully, though, Tool doesn't sound much like King Crimson, although the influence is definitely there. Like KC, for example, Tool's music often goes from a whisper to a roar, although in the case of Tool, the roar is heavy metal. All in all, Tool's music is surprisingly complex for mainstream metal.

Clay's CDs in Rotation

Now let's get back to more conventional prog -- if one can even use the word "conventional" in a progressive context! Here's the stuff that I've been listening to lately. One of these albums -- Paint By Numbers -- is easy to overlook, because it doesn't get a lot of distribution. The second is by a fairly well-established progressive-rock act, Citizen Cain.

Omni - Paint By NumbersOmni - Paint By Numbers

A modern-rock band with prog sensibilities, Omni know the meaning of dynamic. On the first track, "Paint By Numbers," for example, laid-back vocals overlaying almost ambient backgrounds suddenly explode with distorted guitars. The second track, on the other hand, features a complex bass line that chugs below the lead vocal, while staccato guitar accents decorate the verses and metal guitar detonates in the choruses. If Omni have a signature sound, it's how most songs feature verses with vocals over a drums/bass background, with the guitar coming forward mostly in the choruses.

My only criticism is the vocal arrangements. One expects the vocalist, who is a good enough singer, to reach for higher registers in the choruses, or at least belt them out with extra energy, but he always stays at an level keel, something that detracts from the otherwise great arrangements. Still, the songs, which are creative and darkly atmospheric, are the real stars here. In fact, modern rock doesn't get much better than this, without becoming fully progressive. Of special interest is that the album was produced by Chris Ronan Murphy, who has worked with King Crimson.

Citizen Cain - Playing DeadCitizen Cain - Playing Dead

The English group Citizen Cain have been around for a while. In fact, I believe that Playing Dead is their fourth album. Over that time they've grown to be a truly cool progressive act. Their similarity to Genesis can't be overlooked, especially considering that vocalist Cyrus definitely has that Peter Gabriel thing down (although sometimes he also reminds me of David Cousins from The Strawbs). Still, while staying in the symphonic genre, Citizen Cain have managed to combine their love of Genesis with their own prog touch. In fact, they tend to be even more complex than Genesis were in their heyday, although their melodies are no where as near refined.

Playing Dead was a long time coming, but it's their best CD yet, providing over 70 minutes of intensely complex progressive rock. Guitarist Phil Allen fills out the music with strong guitar work that brings to mind Steve Hackett as much as the vocals bring to mind Peter Gabriel. Keyboardist and drummer (talk about talent) Stewart Bell should get double pay for his contribution, although he's more a drummer than a keyboard player, what with the keyboard parts being mostly background washes and simple piano melodies. In other words, you're not going to hear any Tony Banks-style solos here. Vocalist Cyrus provides the bass, which is well played, but doesn't dominate the music in the way Yes's Chris Squire bass parts would.

Until next time, send me your proggy thoughts via email at Most importantly, keep on proggin'!

Ray Bennett

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Published on: 2003-05-04 (1769 reads)

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