Wednesday, 3 December 2014

10 Essential Prog Rock Albums

Progressive Rock is a genre that has got a bad rep over the years, and it's not hard to see why. Overblown and overlong, the worst prog rock resides at the absolute bottom of the bad music barrel, sitting alongside hotel lobby muzak as some of the most excruciatingly painful sounds ever to be commited to vinyl. However when prog is done right, it can be some of the best, most experimental and adventurous music out there. It's a diverse genre whose one common feature is the desire to push boundaries and create something new, different and thought provoking. Here (in no particular order) are some of the best examples of what this genre has to offer, at least in my own opinion.

1. Emerson, Lake and Palmer - Tarkus

A band once described by John Peel as "A complete waste of time, talent and electricity", Emerson, Lake and Palmer (or ELP as they are often known) came to represent all of the worst excesses of Progressive rock. Self indulgent compositions, pretentious lyrics, grotesquely bloated stage productions, and egos so huge that they needed a truck each just to transport them from one venue to another. But before ELP dissipated into the deepest recesses of self indulgence and vanity, it can't be denied that they made some bloody good records, and this is the final installment before they disappeared over the precipice of all that is pure progressive wank. Guitars wail, Hammond organs blare, synthesizers scream like air raid sirens, and this album just rocks. The first 20 minute self titled song is clearly the highlight, after which the album swings between swaggering blues rock, twee pop passages and jazzy intervals.  It may be pure style over substance, but by God what style. TARKUS!!!

See also; Emerson, Lake and Palmer - S/T

2.Rush - 2112

In the year 1976, Canuck Led Zeppelin wannabes Rush decided to trade in their perms and flares for some synthesizers and pulp sci-fi novels. The result is a barnstorming sci-fi concept album that details the story of a dystopian society threatened by the rediscovery of the power of music. Because as we all know, "the man" can't stand against the power of rock and roll. Like, totally man! The resulting Led Zep influence meeting up with sci-fi concepts leads to a hard-rock prog album that melds heavy riffing with some truly inspirational lyrics. Songs that manage to make monks tending great supercomputers on a isolated asteroid sound both grand and sinister demand the attention of even the most jaded sci fi fans. As with the previous entry the real star of the show is the epic opening track, and the rest is fairly standard rock-fare.

See also- Everything rush did before 1982.

3. Yes - Fragile

Like messrs Emmerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes also unfortunately came to represent some of the worst aspects of prog rock, including aimless, meandering and patience testing tripe. But before those dark times when unpretentious punk put a much needed shotgun shell into the back Old Yellers drooling rabid head, there was Roundabout. Long distance Runaround. South side of the sky. John Anderson's vocals are wonderfully expressive and heartfelt, and the whole thing feels incredibly earnest and sincere, worlds away from the pretentiousness that prog's critics often level at such bands. A stunning effort in terms of musical composition and pure feeling, Yes have an endearing optimism and naivete that only rarely gives way to musical indulgence. A classic.

See Also; Yes, The Yes Album

4. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

Ian Anderson can play a mean flute. Apparently he picked up the instrument after seeing Eric Clapton play the guitar, and decided he couldn't compete. And it's just as well he did, because it gave Jethro Tull a unique sound which is at its most refined here, and Ian Anderson's acerbic wit is especially sharp on Thick as a Brick. Essentially a parody of concept albums, the lyrics are supposedly taken from an epic poem written by an 8 year old child prodigy named Gerald Bostock. Of course Bostock was a character creation of flutist and songwriter Anderson. But that didn't prevent him from giving the fictional Bostock joint songwriting credit on the album, a prank which still fools unsuspecting music fans to this day. Thick as a Brick is complex, compelling, funny, and with a sense of irony that often is missing from today's music.

See Also- Aqualung

Van Der Graaf Generator - The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other

Named after the invention of scientist Robert J. Van de Graaff, and despite getting his name wrong these Mancunian rockers definitely live up to the name.  Angry sounding Saxophones and dreamy synths abound here. Resolutely uncompromising in their music, VDGG are one of the more overlooked bands of the genre, possibly because the hippy dippy types loathed their extreme mood swings between calmness and savageness. Unlike the gentler stylings of other prog contemporaries, VDGG swing violently between wistful melancholy to violent aggression. Only King Crimson could turn on a sixpence with greater speed, and this violence is reflected in some of the darker themes, such as the Spanish inquisition. This pessimism is tempered by a kind of stoic good naturedness. As the title quote says, "We're all awash in a sea of blood, and the least we can do is wave to each other."

See Also; Pawn Hearts, Godbluff

6. Yonin Bayashi - Isshoku Sokuhatsu

Japanese musicians living in a strange hippie commune, Yonin Bayashi were reluctant to release music at all, presumably content to simply drink tea and play to their own cadre of counter culture dropouts. Thank your stars that they did, because Isshoku Sokuhatsu is a masterpiece. Heavily influenced by Pink Floyd and the psychedelic rock of the day, Yonin Bayashi took those influences and did what the Japanese do best- combine them with an almost unhealthy level of virtuosity to produce a record that is absolutely stunning. Unknown by most prog rock fans, this album is a hidden treasure from the east that shines as brightly as any well known classic.

See Also; Osamu Kitajima - Benzaiten

7. Hawkwind - Space Ritual

Hawkwind are more of a phenomenon than a true band. A force of nature, coming out of a loose affiliation of 60's counter culture musicians and artists to blare stoner riffs and synth wails at you while reciting weird spoken word poetry, only for you to realize that the walls are melting and you've been spiked with LSD. They mutated time and time again into many different forms, however this album represents Hawkwind's heyday as space rock legends. Although they produced many fantastic albums, the true Hawkwind experience was in the frenetic energy of their live performances, and no album captures that better than Space Ritual. Lemmy is here with his chugging basslines, launching spaceship Hawkwind into orbit, so they can spin tales of psychic warfare, sonic attacks and the infinite blackness of the void.

See also; X in Search of Space, Doremi Fasol Latido, Warrior On The Edge Of Time

8. Popol Vuh - Hosianna Mantra

Popul Vuh's greatest claim to fame is that composed the sountrack to Werner Herzog's film, "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God", but that haunting and austere soundtrack is not as consistent and memorable as Hosianna Mantra. Not rightly a "rock" album at all, but combining progressive sounds with elements of world music and classical composition. As the name suggests is heavily influenced by spiritual and religious music, but it owes as much to Tibetan and Indian music as it does to Gregorian chants and church hymns. Magical music to cheer even the darkest of moods, even an atheist can't deny the uplifting spiritual quality of these compositions.

9. Pink Floyd - The Dark Side Of The Moon

Okay, we all knew we'd end up here eventually. Scarcely a conversation about progressive rock can finish without at least a mention of the legendary Floyd, standing like a behemoth above all other bands. And of course the album had to be Dark Side. Floyd had many other great albums, but none have the breadth, scope, consistency and bite of Dark Side. Meddle and Wish You Were Here come close, but lack its singular vision. And if anyone tells you The Wall is their greatest, you have my permission to kick them sqarely in the groinal area for being such a conceited wank. Concepts such as the the ever inevitable march towards death, the endless persuit of material wealth, and madness and mental decay are discussed here. Even bringing these subjects up in music will lead some music fans to accuse the songwriter of pretentiousness, but the music so perfectly complements the subject matter that such accusations dissolve away. The weight of the subjects is completely deserved and justified, and this album is one of those rare life affirming musical experiences that comes along so rarely that it should always be cherished and remembered. Overrated? Not on your life.

See Also: Wish You Were Here, Animals, Meddle, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

10. King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King

Well, now i'm really in trouble. Just how in the hell do I even talk about this album, or the band it came from? Nothing about them is normal. Strange, atonal chords, complex compositions and weird time signatures abound. In The Court Of The Crimson King is strange, savage, dreamlike, but always focused and never dull. Influenced by Jazz, modernist classical music and folk, the breadth of influences is to be expected for a band of this calibur, but the execution is something altogether different from the source and defies rigid categorization. Like the song 20th Century Schizoid Man, it seems to capture the horror of the modern age, swinging from serenity to chaos and violence with shocking speed. To this day, no one sounds like King Crimson, and no one ever will.

See also; In The Wake of Poseidon, Red, Starless and Bible Black, Discipline

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Gone Hollow- Why Dark Souls 2 is a brilliant failure.

"All who would cross the bridge of doom must answer me these questions three."

"Flawed masterpeice" is a term that can be applied to many a cult game. Killer 7, while being a gripping and arresting experience, absolutely failed to be accesable or marketable to anyone but a cult following. And Earthbound while having a archaic and dated battle system, transcended it's limitations with stunning presentation and writing.

The "Souls" series is a different beast, but just as singular in it's vision. An action RPG that is fiendishly difficult, but the difficulty was used as means to pull the player into the world. And that world is one of constant danger, overrun with demons and monsters. The sense of risk and danger serves to make the player feel vulnerable, even insignificant compared to the huge beasts running riot over the land. You feel a connection to the world through this sense of dread and danger, and the sense of accomplishment having overcome these obstacles is all the more palpable because of this. That enormous bloated monstrosity is dead. I killed it. And all I had was a longsword and my wits.

And of course, it has been said numerous times, but it is worth repeating here, that this vision was almost entirely down to Hidetaka Miyazaki, who has been at the helm of the Souls games from the start, but took a less involved roll in Dark Souls 2, in order to focus on a new game called Bloodborne.

The removal of his stewardship has the effect that many feared it would. Dark Souls 2 is in many ways, at least on the surface, a better game than the original Dark Souls. Gameplay mechanics are more self-explanatory and easy to understand. Information is easily available through menus. There is more variety in armor and weapons, and online play is improved significantly. And the game plays like a dream, in many ways the same deliberate, staccato combat that is the trademark of the series. Block. Counter. Dodge. Parry. Riposte.
"Just a flesh wound."

And yet, when you peer a little deeper, you realize all this is just surface. What really makes the Souls series special is much harder to pin down, and near impossible to replicate. Dark Souls is a game made up of moments. Wandering idly up a staircase to be confronted with a firebomb chucking zombie. Blindly walking through an archway to be ambushed by a machete wielding goat demon and his pet dogs. Watching in horror as your character is petrified by a cloud of noxious vapor, and then the redoubled horror at realizing your life bar has been cut in half.

These details require enormous effort and creativity to create. And it's the details which ultimately cause Dark Souls 2's downfall. Anor Londo, while empty in places, feels like a real place. It has beds, sleeping quarters, armories, and trophy halls. Drangleic castle feels like a series of empty hallways. It feels less like a place, and more like a gerbil run for the player to march through. Lordran was a masterclass in world design, with all of it's various locations looping around each other and interlocking like a mad jigsaw puzzle. Drangleic's locations, while atmospheric and well designed, lack the forethought and sense of history of Lordran. They fell less like real places, and more like game worlds. And DS2's reliance on recycling lore and characters from its predecessor means that it ultimately fails to carve out its own identity.

"Sir 'not appearing in this game'"

The creators of Dark Souls 2 clearly had a great deal of respect and admiration for the game that they were trying to recreate, but in trying to do so they failed to understand what it was that made Dark Souls (and Demon's Souls) special. It isn't difficulty just for its own sake. Difficulty was used to draw the player into the experience and give them a sense of progress and growth. Some specific bosses like the Smelter Demon and the infamous final boss are a perfect example of the opposite of this- a boss that constantly drains your health whenever you are near it just serves to frustrate the player and draw the battle out past it's normal length. It's very telling that once the player has learned Smelter's moves down pat, the fight is almost trivial, even with the constant HP drain.

Dark Souls 2 is still a good game. Its combat is fun, it has some great moments, great enemy designs, and some of the locations are just downright gorgeous. And despite a lousy ending, the journey itself is much more compelling then the destination. The downfall of Dark Souls 2 is it is in the company of greatness. Many of it's flaws would be completely overlooked if it did not have to meet such high expectations. While this does make Dark Souls 2 a disappointing game, it does not make it a bad one.

It might be just short of the lofty mantle of "masterpiece", but its greatest flaw is that it shares a name with one of the greatest games of the current generation. It fails at greatness, and manages to be merely, "good", which in itself is more than most other games can even dream of. And it will continue to be played by hundreds of players, many of whom are new to the Souls franchise, long after the rest of us have gone hollow.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Rock is dead...?

Really? I can almost hear you groaning. It seems like we don't go five minutes without some know-it-all music pundit declaring that rock is dead, or metal is dead, electronic music is dead, polka-tulk jazz-fusion is dead, (made that last one up) but anyone who knows a thing or two about music can see that for a long time, there has been a severe lack of invention in mainstream music.

Now, I should preface this by saying that i'm well aware that there is a very healthy music scene in the UK and elsewhere. There are plenty of interesting, innovative and challenging bands out there for those who have the inclination to look a bit deeper than the usual dross that rises to the surface. And also I am well aware that, shock-horror! There was bad music in the past too. Just look at the top singles chart for any random day in from the 60's and 70's and there is more than a fair share of saccharine pop music, novelty acts and uninspired rock ripoffs.

But, and here's the rub my freinds, in those decades, and even as recently as the 90's, there was also a decent amount of experimental and challenging music that managed to infiltrate the mainstream. Jimi Hendrix is a household name these days, but just *imagine* how his music must have sound when he first erupted on the scene! Guitars that wailed and roared like warring dinosaurs threatening to erupt from your very speakers, tearing your quaint and orderly world apart with its wildness and sheer brutality. 

The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefhart, Velvet Underground , and countless other experimental or avant-garde records were released to mainstream audiences. Not all of them sold very well initially, (Velvet Underground being a key example) but the fact that these records even got released and found some real popular appeal shows a key difference in the attitudes of record companies at the time, a willingness to take risks and challenge audiences. A faith that those audiences would be able to understand and enjoy something different to the music they are accustomed to hearing. These records in turn influenced whole new generations of musicians to write their own music and changed the course of music history. 

Now, while there is a HUGE amount of this type of music being made nowadays, (in fact there is probably more music being made now than ever before, but that's another can of worms) none of it is released to a mainstream audience. 

The only music that makes it onto these chart shows and radio playlists is music that sounds a bit like the music people already like, but with different words/different beat/different melody, etc. This type of cynicism is insidious and pervades all aspects of art, film, and culture. Basically it comes down to marketers, shareholders and the like believing that you are stupid. You are an idiot that just wants more of what you already know, and anything different or challenging will simply cause your head to explode in anger and confusion. And since we already know what sells, why take a risk on something different?

Of course, anyone with an inkling of common sense knows that this attitude is self defeating, and even the most bovine of music lovers will eventually get bored of hearing the same sort of thing over and over, and the law of diminishing returns will kick in sooner or later. And at that point I assume they will move on to "The Next Big Thing™" and milk that to exhaustion too. But, to paraphrase the late great John Peel, mainstream audiences only want this dross because that is all they know. They have grown to enjoy a diet of mediocrity because they have not been given anything else. And perhaps if they were given something a little more adventurous once in a while, there would be a much more interesting and diverse library of music in our local HMV stores. And at the very least, we wouldn't have to hear the same Katie Perry and Amy Winehouse clones every time we turn on the Radio or walk into a high street shop.

The past, as they say, is a foreign country. And perhaps the pervading mood of anarchy, rebellion and "sticking it to the man" in the 60's and 70's is part of the reason so much weird and off-kilter music managed to infiltrate the mainstream. Modern audiences are not as accustomed to having their tastes challenged, but this makes it even more important that we do. We need to shake audiences out of their complacency and let them know that there is a whole wealth of music and culture out there ready to be enjoyed. Some will no doubt turn away in disgust, as some always will. But i'm sure many members of the public who might not have sought out the music by themselves, will be grateful for the variety and the chance to hear something different. And without a John Peel around to buck the trends and play some weird underground music before it becomes swallowed up by history, that may be more important than ever before.