September 1, 2011

Back To School (Again)

Okay class, listen up! This month's lesson is on Progressive Rock, or as afficionados affectionately call it, "prog". This term can also be used in the derogative by its detractors. I fall squarely with one foot in each camp: while prog is definitively a subcategory of space rock, it can also be overly intellectual, cold, dry, convoluted and wanky. Therefore I have culled a set to illustrate what good prog can be, even if many of these bands would never categorize themselves as such. It is by no means meant to be comprehensive because, a) these sets almost always adhere to my self-imposed two-hour limit rule (makes for a more digestible podcast), and, b) I've left off the wanky bits, so you won't see any Yes, Rush, ELP, Moody Blues, Jethro Tull or Genesis. Besides, those acts are way too commercial/accessible for my fringe tastes.

An overview, taken with a grain of salt for a few inaccuracies, can be found here.

We begin with Akron/Family, who, in seeming tribute to krautrock collective Amon Duul II (arguably one of Germany's finest prog bands), apparently live in true hippie/rocker communal style. They're practically a cult. They combine elements of Americana, psychedelia and freak folk with their prog, not to mention some serious guitar prodigiousness. But since I've included many of their best tracks in previous sets, I let them open this set with a short burst of Eastern-tinged guitar mantra of a teasing brevity, the better to get you to explore their other work (use the search bar on the top left).

Next up I break one of my own rules again (for maybe the third time) by including a live track, Queen's epic "Brighton Rock". This is one of the rare occurrences where the live version, if not improves, greatly expands on the studio version, in this case via Brian May's guitar explorations which are not only extended, but enhanced by a triple delay effect, going one better than the double delay on the original recording, not to mention Roger Taylor's timpani section (not quite a drum solo - we wouldn't want anything that wanky).

Then we have a truly obscure piece, all but unknown except to the most dedicated Floydophiles. On the second half of Pink Floyd's 1969 double album Umma Gumma, each bandmember contributed one composition of supposedly entirely their own creation. Amid absolute stinkers by his bandmates (save only Roger Waters' pastoral soliloquy "Grantchester Meadows"), it is David Gilmour (of course) who stands heads above the rest with his triptych "The Narrow Way", a piece illustrating the genre's penchant for songs constructed of suites, or multiple parts of developing themes. Have you heard this track before? Aren't you glad you now have?

One of the bands most historians credit with leading the development of space and prog rock was Hawkwind. Despite a touch of wankiness in the guitar work and an overall comic book sci fi silliness to a lot of their material, they definitely had their moments, as this track illustrates. And of course some of the most beloved progsters spent time in King Crimson, from guitar virtuoso Robert Fripp who developed a unique fretboard style enhanced by his self-designed effects known as Frippertronics, to bassist/vocalist Greg Lake (later of ELP), to latter-day heroes drummer Bill Bruford, bassist Tony Levin, and guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew. Instead of the obvious choice of "In The Court Of The Crimson King" I went with the title track of the more obscure, and arguably superior, Lark's Tongues In Aspic album.

Then back to relatively recent times with an coincidentally named (wink wink) track from Sleeping People, an offshoot of the equally abstruse SF indie math rockers Rumah Sakit, both bands sharing a penchant for confounding time signatures and intricate guitar/rhythm section interplay. Continuing in that vein, Battles presents a point of access to such sometimes impenetrable complexity of said genre with an exuberance and zeal that are infectious. And straddling the line between "college rock" (as they once called angular and angsty indie rock artists in the 90s such as Pavement and Archers Of Loaf) and proggy guitar excursions lies Joan Of Arc, and this track (with a title riffing on Ginsberg's Howl) from their most recent release is some of the finest work they've done over their long and prolific career.

Underground circuit guitar collaborator Chris Forsyth put out an eponymous solo release which bristles with improvisational creativity, incorporating Fahey-esque finger picking, avant garde atonalism, psychedelic drone and old-timey back pork porch boogie. Phenomenal album. Portland instrumentalists Grails have dabbled in all aspects of the blanket term space rock including modern post rock and old school prog, with a soundtrack-y quality to most of their work. This track from their latest release conjures grainy 70s avant garde films and smokey vintage psych and krautrock, and amply demonstrates how far they've come over the course of their substantial output. Ostinato (named for the musical term meaning "a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm") also harken back to prog's inception with a timeless sound equal parts 60s British baroque, 70s German motorik and modern American postrock.

And I leave you with a multi-part barnburner from the latest album by the undisputed masters of prog-PUNK, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. Smashed instruments, glam and postpunk leanings, and epic ambition make this Austin Texas group the future of prog.

For you traditionalists who don't mind streaming from this site, the following tracks should appear in the first player below:

The Spacerock Continuum Theme - bRambles
Fuji I (Global Dub) - Akron/Family - s/t II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey Of Shinju TNT
Brighton Rock - Queen - Live Killers
The Narrow Way Parts 1-3 - Pink Floyd - Umma Gumma
You Know You're Only Dreaming - Hawkwind - In Search Of Space
Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part 2 - King Crimson - Larks' Tongues In Aspic
Fripp For Girls - Sleeping People - s/t
White Electric - Battles - Gloss Drop
I Saw the Messed Blinds of My Generation - Joan Of Arc - Life Like
Paranoid Cat Parts 1-3 - Chris Forsyth - Paranoid Cat
Almost Grew My Hair - Grails - Deep Politics
Goal Of All Believers - Ostinato - Chasing The Form
Strange News From Another Planet - ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Tao Of The Dead

But don't forget, you now have the option of spacerock to go:

1. Click on the Kadoo logo instead of pushing the play button in the player below.

2. Click "download" when redirected to the Divshare site.

3. Once downloaded drag it to yer iTunes and sync it with yer pod - simple!