Here's a selection of some of the most ambitious and grandiose rock music ever recorded. From the math rock of Rush to the mythical epics of Genesis and the space jazz of Magma, Classic Prog is rock and roll at its most far-out.
This month marks two big 40th anniversary celebrations in Canadian rock. First, the release of the Rush documentary Time Stand Still was the grand finale of a year-long birthday party for the veteran trio. And second, today the Québécois band Harmonium is celebrating 40 years since the release of its final masterpiece, L’Heptade, with a massive, lavish reissue.
To celebrate these two milestones, CBC Music is premiering a brand new stream of classic prog, a selection of some of the most ambitious, grandiose rock music ever recorded — music in the spirit of both Rush and Harmonium. Get ready for synth solos, rock symphonies, 22-minute story suites, jazz-rock jams, science fiction ritual music in made-up languages, philosophical treatises in ⅞ time, and piano concertos adapted for rock bands. Oh, and Mellotron. Lots of Mellotron.
In this stream, you’ll find all of the classic tracks from progressive rock’s halcyon days: music by Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and other major bands from prog’s English homeland. You’ll also find hidden gems from their continental cousins: Magma, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, and Grobschnitt among others. You’ll hear tracks that represent prog’s roots in psychedelia and the English folk revival. You’ll hear arty pop from the '80s with prog’s fingerprints on it. And you’ll get to dive deep into progressive Canadiana — well beyond Rush and Harmonium. We’ve dug up tracks by Pollen, Maneige, Klaatu, the Collectors and lots of other Canadian prog bands you might not have heard before but need to know.
There is, of course, a wriggling, uncomfortable question beneath all of this: why? Why celebrate prog? Certainly, Rush and Harmonium are behemoths in English- and French-speaking Canada, respectively, and any anniversary of theirs is worth observing. But more broadly, prog rock is a subgenre that flowered in the '70s and is generally felt to have died (or at least gone underground) some time around 1977. And in spite of a thriving scene of niche nostalgia acts like the Tangent and Big Big Train, it has never really had a proper mainstream resurgence. So why bother? Wherefore prog?
Two things. Firstly, the great masterpieces of prog are among the most fearless and adventurous music of the last century. Albums like Permanent Waves, L’Heptade, Close to the Edge, Selling England by the Pound and The Dark Side of the Moon do not tire with age. They’re still subject to taste, but a receptive audience can take just as much from them today as when they were first issued.
(That’s not to say that these classic records aren’t a bit ludicrous. When your songs stretch out so long you can only fit one on an LP side, you’re opening yourself up to criticism. But then, the most trenchant parody of progressive rock is also one of its greatest masterpieces: Jethro Tull’s 1972 record, Thick as a Brick, consisted of only one 45-minute-long song, forcing listeners to get up and flip the record halfway through. Its hilarious excess is matched only by its total brilliance. The same can apply to prog’s more sincere offerings.)
Secondly, even if prog is dead — and it is a tiny bit dead — it produced offspring. And I’m not talking about the nostalgia acts, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that music. I’m talking about the countless artists from disparate genres who have taken something from prog’s spirit and applied it to an entirely different sort of music.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine the Pacific Northwestern indie rock of the Decemberists without the linguistic fireworks of Jethro Tull and the mythic storytelling of Genesis preceding it. The hallucinatory maximalism of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy doesn’t just sample King Crimson, it owes the band a tremendous aesthetic debt from start to finish. The French house duo Justice uses synth leads that are a dead ringer for Rick Wakeman. And then there’s Kate Bush, who pushed pop songwriting in new directions — in part by mashing up the sensibilities of Pink Floyd and Elton John.
Progressive rock is bombastic and strange, and its glory days are probably behind it. But its legacy persists, and that’s worth remembering as Rush and Harmonium take their respective victory laps this month.
Hit the play button above to hear the prog stream: a broad selection from this wild music’s classic years.
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