Progressive Rock has never been cool. Even when it was cool it wasn’t cool. Like Heavy Metal, anyone who listens to it is a complete pariah on every level. Social misfit, outcast, weirdo. It comes with the territory. That doesn’t stop prog from being great!!! I think fans identify with the genre because it presents an alternative way of thinking and feeling. A pop song can take three minutes to say “I love you,” while a prog song takes ten. Something about that extended length forces more retrospection. The moods and thoughts of the song feel more warmly explored as opposed to coldly calculated. This is why I love this genre. Anyone who knows me is well-aware that I never shut the fuck up about it. It’s just so damn epic! One song can be jam-packed with so many musical and lyrical concepts! What’s not to love?
So I’ve decided to compile a shortlist of the 5 Prog Epic Essentials. I’ll briefly (yeah right) attempt to explain what makes each tune so epic, and maybe provide some amateur insight into the meaning behind them. This list is in no specific order, and is in no way meant to denote any amount of superiority from song to song.
1. Supper’s Ready – Genesis
Don’t even know where to begin with this one. If anyone were to ask me what “Supper’s Ready” is about, I’d tell them it’s the history of the world in a song. 23-minutes of sprawling epicness. This song defined epic. In reality, the song is intended to be a massive meditation on the battle between good and evil, as told in seven different sections. It would come to define what prog was all about: tempo changes, intricate movements, insane solos, excess. It presents 5 musicians, all at the height of their game, playing/singing for their lives. It’s a tune that feels like an experience, as if you’ve just gone on some wild adventure or journey through time and space. It’s absolutely mad in the best of ways, and will have you scratching your head long after it’s over. I don’t feel like I can do it much justice, so just listen to it. Explore it yourself, or miss out!!!
2. Close to the Edge – Yes
‘A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace.’ This is the opening line to one of the greatest prog epics ever written. Like Genesis on Foxtrot, the 1972 classic record Close to the Edge is Yes at their best. Bruford, Wakeman, Anderson, Howe, Squire. Those names in the same breath is a prog fan’s wet dream. In my opinion, this the definitive Yes record, and definitive Yes song. It’s the best record they ever made, and could be the greatest prog song ever recorded. You’ve just got to hear it. The lyrics are strange, and it’s never really quite clear what they’re about. Anderson has said the following on the subject of the song’s meaning: “It’s all about your higher self eventually bringing you out of your dark world.” The musical passages certainly reflect that sentiment. If I can be a little serious for a moment here, I’d like to comment that Yes has always been a spiritually comforting band for me. Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m one of the most anxious, paranoid people to walk the earth. Yes has been a band that has always been there to remind me that it’s all good. Everything is okay. Things have a way of working themselves out.
This track is in a similar vein as “Supper’s Ready.” It takes you on a spiritual journey that leaves you feeling elated, and oddly comforted. This song has a strange ability to do that for me, and I hope it can do the same for you. The first time I heard it, I was moved to tears. It’s THAT powerful. See if you agree.
3. Thick as a Brick – Jethro Tull
This is another epic I struggle to find words for. In my senior year of college I actually wrote a term paper about this record because I had so much to say about it. Ironically, it was made as a parody of the genre, but was received as a celebration of it. Sick of being labeled as a prog band, Ian Anderson and company decided to make a record that would call out the genre for its excessive and pretentious nature. The plan backfired when prog fans hailed Brick as a champion of the genre. From that point on, Tull would embrace their proggy reputation and go on to work almost exclusively within the genre.
The lyrics to the album’s lone song are supposed to be the work of an 8-year old prodigy with a knack for writing epic poems. That’s right by the way, one fucking song for the entire 45-minute album. I LOVE THAT! I could go on all day about the themes explored in the song, but I already did that in a college paper. If you really want to hear my thoughts on the piece, just ask for the paper. Otherwise, figure it out for yourself. That’s half the fun of it!
4. 2112 – Rush
I feel like this only makes sense as the next step on the list of epics. I think any prog fans reading this most likely knew this was coming. I mean… how could it not be included? I’m not really sure how to explain what 2112 is all about, so let me provide you with this aptly written description of the piece via Wikipedia:
In the year 2062, a galaxy-wide war results in the union of all planets under the rule of the Red Star of the Solar Federation. By 2112, the world is controlled by the “Priests of the Temples of Syrinx,” who determine the content of all reading matter, songs, pictures — every facet of life.
A man discovers an ancient guitar and learns to play his own music. Thinking he has made a wonderful discovery that will be a boon to humanity, he goes to present the guitar to the priests of the Temples, who angrily destroy it and rebuke him for unearthing one of the “silly whims” that caused the collapse of the previous civilization. He goes into hiding and dreams of a world before the Solar Federation. Upon awakening he becomes distraught and commits suicide. As he dies, another planetary battle begins resulting in the ambiguous ending “Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: We have assumed control.”
Do I need to say more?
5. The Invisible Man – Marillion
This choice is a bit more controversial and unexpected than the others, but I’ve thought very carefully about this selection. I assure you that I have not taken it lightly. I’m guessing most of the people who will read this will ask themselves, “Who the fuck is Marillion?” That’s a perfectly normal question to ask! The band rose to fame in the 80s as a prog rock revival act, but just as quickly faded into obscurity as the world politely made it known that they weren’t interested in that sort of revival. That doesn’t mean that Marillion hasn’t contributed some great epics to the genre, and this is one of them. This pick is also the most current of all on the list, coming from the 2004 album Marbles. The band’s sound has changed throughout their 30+ year career, and this song and respective album are a far cry from the band’s early work.
Lead singer Steve Hogarth is a bit more personal with his lyrics, and surely more direct. “Invisible Man” is a meditation on the physical and psychological frustrations that come with…well…being dumped. But of course in classic prog fashion, Hogarth doesn’t just come out and say it, he chooses a more introspective method:
If I close my eyes
I can see where you live
Climb the winding stairs
Up to your apartment
The scent of you preparing
His evening meal
I must watch in dread
When he’s cruel to you
In horrified silence
As you make love
I cannot lift a hand
Lift a hand to stop him
I don’t exist What can I do?
What can I do?
The song builds and builds until it reaches its zenith. A summary of what it means to feel insignificant, ostracized, abandoned. A comprehensive guide to being a lost in another person, while you mean nothing to them. It’s heavy stuff, and the music reflects that. GIVE IT A LISTEN COME ON!