Antiquated connotations surround the term, yet the words themselves suggest an inexorable march towards attaining some sort of artistic recognition for a style of music regularly associated with troublesome teenagers. Through pomp, pretence and prodigious talent, the pioneers of this maligned strain of rock achieved incredible heights of creativity.
But why should this noble quest end with the 1970s? Rock, in the broadest sense possible, has always been a fertile breeding ground for new, experimental sounds. Especially now, bands are continually lauded for striving to push boundaries and despite ‘progressive rock’ long being abandoned as a credible title for a genre, the mindset is still alive and well.
Now, we are no experts outside of our hermetical tastes, but here is an attempt to explore some of the acts that I enjoy, both old and new, that can’t really be shoehorned any other way, along with a look at their finest moments. This is the LURKER guide after all, so expect the unexpected! And expect more weird and wonderful guides in the future.
Yes – Close to the Edge
Perhaps the most ambitious of the British school of progressive rock, Yes threw caution to the wind with their fifth album, Close to the Edge. In 1972, the band took the plunge and committed to the longest pieces they had ever written: the near 20-minute title track, ‘And You and I’ at ten minutes and ‘Siberian Khatru’ at nine. Dedicated lurkers may find their saccharine melodicism a little hard to stomach, but it is in their perfectly executed ideas and jubilant love of music that the album comes into its own.
The record explores varied avenues of sound starting with the angular guitar noodling, shunting time signatures and virtuosic keyboard solos of the colossal opener. Apparently inspired by Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, a firm narrative can be grasped as the song veers in and out of structured pop and chaotic prog abandon. The album takes a mellower turn as the acoustic-led ‘And You and I’ churns through soaring vocal lines and delicate, folk strumming. Although the remainder of the album is eclipsed by the title track in terms of sheer grandeur, closer ‘Siberian Khatru’ is a piece of musical magic with its funky, complicated but totally irresistible guitar work and atmospheric synth backdrops.
Close to the Edge is a slab of prog history that everyone must hear at least once. Just don’t bother with any of their other albums. For real. Here they are performing that glorious opener, suitably draped in capes and glitter at their apex in 1972.
Magma – Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandoh
A slightly more youthful LURKER heaped breathless praise on this album a while back and it’s still a thrill to behold. Magma, the Parisian godfathers of symphonic rock, came into their own with 1973’s Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandoh, the last part of a trilogy but the first to be released. I don’t know of any other band with an equally ambitious yet fully formed concept, although another French contender appears later in this article.
Under the guiding hand of drummer Christian Vander, each album was an adventurous narrative through the eyes of a fictional alien race, the Kobaians, who would eventually come to blows with Earth over religious differences. An entire language was devised to express these unearthly visions, one Vander composed specifically to complement the aggressive, Teutonic compositions that came to be known as ‘zeuhl’.
This aspect is most prominently showcased on Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandoh, where there is a barely a moment’s silence from the small mezzo choir. The singers bellow fervently for the duration of the record, slotting into the complicated, staccato-abusing epics, backed by varied instrumentation more familiar to jazz and classical orchestras. As a result, this one of the greatest albums of the prog rock explosion. Here’s a particularly inspiring performance of ‘Hortz Fur Dëhn Stëkehn West’.
Can – Tago Mago
Forerunners of the somewhat derogatory ‘krautrock’ movement, Can’s finest moments were defined by the inclusion of Japanese vocalist Damo Suzuki. He made his first appearance with the band on 1971’s Tago Mago – an album now cemented in experimental rock history. Throughout his incredible performance, Suzuki doesn’t stick to one distinguishable language, although snippets of English do funnel through his strange incantations. Oddly enough, the band picked him up off the street on the way to a recording session.
The record takes a few twists and turns though its 73-minute running time. The opening tracks are relatively straightforward; the furtive chimes of ‘Paperhouse’ are matched by Suzuki’s inimitable, languid style before descending into molten rock ’n’ roll leads, while the haunting ‘Mushroom’ is led by Can’s trademark hypnotic drumming – a method often imitated but never topped. For a reference point closer to home, Aluk Todolo does a charming take on this style within a noisy black metal framework.
But Tago Mago’s centrepieces are dominating. At almost 20 minutes each, Can take their sound to its extreme. The rasping, lo-fi drums of ‘Halleluwah’ create a spellbinding mechanical click, embellished by trickles of jazzy guitar tinkering, atonal bursts of strings and an unstoppable bass riff. ‘Aumgn’, on the other hand, falls through free-form violins and vocal drones, weaving a bizarre, darkened atmosphere. Here’s Can playing a very jam-orientated version of ‘Paperhouse’ live on German TV back in ’72. Tago Mago is a must-hear… if you haven’t already!
Univers Zero – Heresie
“Five rock groups the record companies don’t want you to hear.” So said the tagline for the 1978 all-dayer, Rock In Opposition. Belgium’s Univers Zero were enlisted to headline the London-based festival of oddities, yet it’s debatable whether they qualify as rock at all.
In 1979, the band released their sophomore effort, Heresie, which has been widely hailed as the darkest album ever recorded. Such hyperbole isn’t entirely unmerited. Crawling forward like funeral doom with all the metal stripped away, the album is almost entirely constructed of acoustic instrumentation. Over three extended tracks strings, brass, woodwind and sparse percussion conjure twisted, Lovecraftian visions of pure terror.
With a heavy reliance on dissonance and peculiar time signatures, Univers Zero sounded like nothing rock had ever spewed up before. And what minimal vocal work exists on the album sounds like proto-death metal growls and groans – another daring field that these Belgian innovators were light-years ahead in. Their influence now runs deep and can be heard in the cacophony of later Deathspell Omega and the precise composition of Toby Driver equally. Fans of pitch-black musical atmosphere, whatever the genre, will revel in Heresie. Here’s a suitably fucked up rendition of ‘Jack the Ripper’, at the Nancy Jazz Pulsation in 1980. The tape is so ruined it plays like Begotten.
Looking to the future…
As mentioned earlier, rock is the only facet of popular music that could ever explore the more uncharted realms of musical expression, without crashing through into pure avant-garde or neo-classical experimentation. But as the progressive rock movement died out, it was lambasted and consigned to history as music for pretentious bohemians or greasy nerds. Rock moved on and returned to its dull and commercially acceptable pop format.
But a strain of prog’s adventurous spirit survived and lives on to this day within rock’s most menacing and theatrical off-shoot. Heavy metal’s earliest guises had been ploughing ahead all the while, and as it intensified into thrash and beyond into black and death metal, here were a group of bands refusing to play ball with expectations, leading the genre into deeper labyrinths of potential.
Yeah, there is polished wankery abound in ‘progressive metal’ as an actual sub-genre (see Dream Theatre or Queensrÿche), but it is in ‘extreme’ metal where some of most profound leaps into the unknown have been achieved. In my eyes, extreme metal still holds the torch proudly aloft for progressive rock. Shifting some 30 years into the future, here are a handful of records that had a huge impact on me in this regard.
Opeth – Deliverance
For a kid brought up on a steady diet of Sabbath, NWOBHM and Bay Area thrash, it took one band to make me realise what metal was capable of at its most brutal, to start taking it more seriously, and single-handedly expose me the world of death metal. I first encountered Opeth as I flicked through an extreme metal supplement of Metal Hammer at the age of 14. On face value, I thought many of these bands were kind of stupid, obsessed with appearing grim/brutal/fixated on gore. But Opeth stood out from the crowd. In the article’s picture (see attached), Mikael Åkerfeldt and Peter Lindgren looked more comparable to guitar heroes of the past than their death metal kin, and Åkerfeldt was quoted as saying how much he enjoyed a nice cup of tea while spinning obscure prog records from the ’70s. I had to know what they sounded like.
In 2002, Opeth released Deliverance and I picked it up after hearing a 30-second sample on their website. Although it’s rarely praised as their best effort, the album should grace anyone’s top ten, just for the infernal power of the first two tracks. A thundering drum roll introduces ‘Wreath’ then plummets the song into one of the most twisted and cantankerous riffs in death metal, rolling through blinding solos and sweeping movements. The title track is one of my all-time favourite pieces of my music. Its eloquent lyrics about drowning a lover bored their way into my conscience, powered by a pummelling 6/8 rhythm, driving riff work, emotive folk sections and uplifting sing-alongs. Like on every release, Mikael’s vocals are flawless – both his growls and sonorous bellows.
Every piece on Deliverance is a finely tuned epic. The movements are unpredictable and determined, with a clear sense of malicious motive from each opening note. Combining death and black metal with folk, jazz and a penchant for the unknown, Opeth are still one of today’s boldest purveyors of progressive extremity. Seriously, just pick any album – they’re all incredible in their own way. With their line-up at its finest, here they are playing the stunning title track. Effortless and fucking evil.
Isis – Oceanic
In my day, it was sludge. At a push, atmospheric sludge for genre nazis, but Isis undeniably started something. With a raft of strong demos, EPs and their debut full-length, they honed the experimental tendencies of Neurosis and Godflesh into something far heavier and glorious. But in 2002 they released Oceanic and, coupled with my introduction to Opeth that year, I resolved from this moment to basically abandon all other music that wasn’t metal in one way or another. A bold move perhaps, but it was a record that seemed to redefine how I listened to music.
The hulking guitar tone and simple, repetitive riffs of Oceanic are simply consuming. Then there’s the percussion powerhouse, the darting, elastic bass lines and a whole upper dimension where spaced-out synths and ambience reigns supreme, all uniting to create a forceful vision of progressive metal. Again, the songs are lengthy and dense, but they’re also completely enthralling. Surging forth with an almost krautrock-esque minimal drive, each piece erupts with greater intensity every time the next riff is seamlessly introduced.
Whether it’s the bludgeoning chug of ‘The Beginning and the End’, the ecstatic release of ‘False Light’, or the hypnotic swamps of ‘Weight’, it’s impossible to pick one track over another – Oceanic has an eerie narrative that makes every shard of it essential. Between deciphering the sparse liner notes and the barked vocals, the album appears to document the final moments of a drowning man’s life. It’s one of the finest records ever recorded and a testament to metal’s potential. Here they are playing ‘False Light’ in Orlando.
Kayo Dot – Choirs of the Eye
If our interview with the band’s mastermind himself, The Dark Lord Sir Toby Driver, was anything to go by, it’s likely you’re already aware of LURKER’s boundless appreciation for all his endeavours. But out of the myriad musical styles that Driver has conquered, there has been one enduring monument. Choirs of the Eye (2003) further distorted my perception of metal and tore a hole in the fabric of music as maudlin of the Well became Kayo Dot.
As one might expect, the album captures the band at a crucial point in its history – transitional but powerful nonetheless. Straddling the progressive death metal of its predecessor and Driver’s will to expand his compositional palette, Kayo Dot’s debut is infinitely varied. Across five tracks, just one of them shy of the ten-minute mark, Choirs of Eye explores grinding, monolithic guitar riffs, ethereal ambience, angular avant-garde, smooth jazz and beautiful songcraft, all doused in an ineffable autumnal shade.
How does one talk effectively about their favourite album? I’ve watched many friends squirm when introducing them to Kayo Dot and, yeah, it might take a bit of dedication on the listener’s behalf to experience this work as we do. But once you submit yourself to Choirs of the Eye, I guarantee, music will never sound the same again. This happened on my first listen and, years later, it’s still the best thing I’ve ever heard. I hope many others can say the same. Sit still for 15 minutes to witness this rendition of ‘The Manifold Curiosity’ in New York, 2009. Or just put it on, of course. That is always the preferred option.
Deathspell Omega – Paracletus
In 2004, something strange happened in the Deathspell Omega camp – something almost unprecedented. Now, we all know that it isn’t unheard of for black metal bands to spontaneously drop the style in favour of entirely new territory, but not Deathspell. They plunged even deeper into the morass, deeper than any other black metal act of the time cared to know. And on the other side, they emerged triumphant with the vicious potency of Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice. They had learnt to play their instruments at their utmost limits and, with the unimaginable enlightenment newly received from their Lord and Master, committed the often infantile sub-genre to a breathless sleep. Or perhaps they revived it.
Since this staggering album, France’s finest have delved further into their perfectly realised concept of black metal, so much so that I see no reason why they shouldn’t be included in this progressive rock primer. Particularly with last year’s release, Paracletus, which we explored in depth before most fans had the chance to hear it. From the very first spin, it was unlike anything I had heard before, spitting in the face of orthodoxy while sounding more orthodox and true to black metal than any of Deathspell’s pitiful peers.
It takes some contemplation to grasp, but with each listen the album’s greatness reveals itself a little more, like an inviting hand beckoning from within the hellfire. Out of the atonal cacophony sprawling, horrific riffs are born, all bolstered by Deathspell’s decade-old knack for cold, Gregorian melodies. Chaos is used so artistically – Paracletus teeters on the edge of complete collapse, almost as if it were the death throes of black metal itself, yet its execution is so elegantly composed and reined in that it just demands to be played again and again.
A band that the hordes of twenty-somethings can genuinely lay claim to – so much better than the early Nordic eruptions – Deathspell Omega will be remembered far beyond their lifespan, just as all the other bands that made it on to this list. And I hope they also go down in history for being another shining example of modern progressive rock. As they don’t play live, pour a chalice of crimson wine, put the record on and sit in darkness. Ave Sathanas.