'70's American Progressive Rock
The 5th Level of Obscurity – Part 2
by Gary Bearman
This is the second in a series of articles that will focus on lesser known albums from my favorite genres. Part 1 on Krautrock can be found here. This came out of a larger project where I'm compiling a list of my 1,000 favorite albums, in order. Please sign up to follow my progress on my blog ‘The Mind Festival' here.
Progressive rock started in the very late 60's, and was hugely popular in the early to mid-70's. Unlike psychedelic music, which produced a tremendous amount of excellent music in both the U.S. and the UK, almost all progressive rock came from the UK. From the UK it spread to continental Europe, and there were big progressive movements in Italy, France, Germany, etc. A lot of great progressive rock also came out of Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia and South America as well, but ask someone about the great progressive rock bands that came out of the United States during its heyday in the 1970's, and mostly you'll be greeted by a confused blank stare.
Pretty much the only band your average rock fan will be able to think of is Kansas, or perhaps Styx, but they only played a watered down AOR version of prog rock. A truly knowledgeable person might pull out the name Starcastle (a Yes sound-alike band), or come up with a lot of jazz or fusion artists (like Dixie Dregs) that were only borderline progressive rock at best. Someone might triumphantly and confidently announce Rush, as there aren't many prog bands as big as them, but that doesn't make them any less Canadian.
The truth is that almost no high-quality progressive rock came out of the United States in the 70's that achieved any significant level of popularity or notoriety.
The way I've defined levels of obscurity within a genre is like this:
1st level - bands any general music fan has heard of
2nd level - bands any casual fan of the genre has heard of
3rd level - bands anyone who has dipped their toe into the genre a little bit knows of
4th level - bands known only to those who are pretty obsessively into the genre
5th level - bands known only to those who've really thoroughly researched well into the genre
It's not hard to get to the 4th or 5th level of obscurity with American Progressive Rock, as outside of a tiny handful of albums, almost all of them are pretty obscure. I was able to dig deeply into this almost non-existent sub-genre and pull out a dozen winners.
Bobby Beausoleil Lucifer Rising (1980)
Kenneth Anger started work on his short film Lucifer Rising way back in 1966, but it wasn't completed until years later, and neither the movie or the soundtrack was released until 1980. Bobby Beausoleil was originally slated to do the soundtrack, but that didn't work out, so Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page gave it a shot, but he and Anger had a falling out, so Beausoleil ended up doing it, recording it between 1976-1979. With such a long drawn out history, the album was eventually released to almost no fanfare whatsoever, and that's deeply unfortunate as this album is some seriously amazing shit. While the album can be a good bit dark and creepy in places, it's not as evil sounding as the title would suggest.
The album consists of 6 instrumental tracks, entitled "Lucifer Rising Part 1 - Part 6." Floating ominous keyboards and ethereal guitar dominate "Part 1." "Part 2" has a majestic soundtrack feel with some lazy distorted Manuel Göttsching-like guitars accompanying the tripped-out keyboards. "Part 3" is very mellow, but complex and deep, very reminiscent of vintage Vangelis. While the first 3 tracks are about 4-6 minutes each, "Part 4" is only 90-seconds of mesmerizing keyboard madness that could have been lifted from an early Faust album. "Part 5" is almost 16-minutes, and here we have an amazing mixture of Pink Floyd-like atmospherics, early Klaus Schulze drones, stunning keyboard breaks, some experimental brass straight out of ‘70's B sci-fi flicks and an Ash Ra Tempel-inspired guitar and bass freakfest. The song morphs and changes moods like crazy, and is, simply put, fucking phenomenal. The final 10-minute "Part 6" is an incredibly soulful Popol Vuh-like guitar work out over a bed of spacy electronics - very dreamlike.
Now that I've got you intrigued enough to check out an incredible obscure album, you should probably also know that Bobby Beausoleil was a convicted murderer connected to Charles Manson, and that the album was only recorded because Kenneth Anger somehow convinced the prison Beausoleil was in to allow him to record it along with some other musician inmates. Hopefully that won't turn you off from checking it out, as you'd be seriously missing out. This album is some spaced-out genius.
Guns & Butter Guns & Butter (1972)
Guns & Butter is a very eclectic grower of an album from this Boston group who only recorded one self-titled album. They play in so many different styles that you really need to listen to the whole thing to get fully immersed in what they could do.
The first track "I Am" grabs your attention with an interesting array of instruments; with saxophone, violin/viola, flute and guitar all playing together, and a singer with a quirky, but interesting voice. The song sounds at various times like horn rock, jazz, progressive rock and often feels quite baroque. "Time Has Wings" has nice complex baroque arrangements, whereas "Look at the Day" is a bit more straightforward with flute being the main instrument. The first of two long tracks on the album, the 8-minute plus "Sometimes" lyrically has a very late ‘60's west coast feel to it, and the musicians are able to stretch out a bit more with some great flute/violin interplay. Side 1 is closed out by "Can't Go On Like This," and has a very Chicago or Sons of Champlin horn rock feel to it.
Interestingly, the album truly does not go on like this, and side two sounds very different, with the opening track "Our Album" being a touching tale about two people spending their lives together and filling an album with photos and memories. "Lady Grey" starts as a baroque period piece ballad, but builds in intensity and has some nice guitar. "Family" is also somewhat of a ballad, with a vague Caravan/Canterbury prog feel to it. Further adding to the eclecticism of the album, "Elysium's Butterfly Comes" sounds like a lost British psychedelic folk track, or like a very pastoral track from the album Definition by the American band Chrysalis. The final track, the longer "The Wanderer," sounds like a baroque psych/prog folk track from the UK band Gryphon. Such a shame the band didn't continue on, as it would have doubtlessly been an exciting progression.
Happy the Man Crafty Hands (1978)
Crafty Hands is the 2nd Happy the Man album following their eponymous debut. Some rate their first album as equal, or even higher than Crafty Hands, although I think this is definitely the more mature album, as the first one contains some unappealing lyrics that drop it down a notch or two. Crafty Hands is an all-instrumental album, save for one track. There are echoes of some British prog bands here, especially Canterbury bands (Kit Watkins from Happy The Man later went on to play for Camel), but for the most part they capture a fairly unique sound with nice complex arrangements and tight playing. They played in a style that many neo-prog bands in the ‘80's went after, but with less success. The musicianship is at a high level throughout the album, with a tight rhythm section, great expressive guitars and some killer melodic keyboards. There are some obvious standout tracks such as "Service with a Smile," "Ibby It Is," "I Forgot To Push It," and the incomparable "Steaming Pipes," but truly a high quality is maintained throughout.
The song that took by far the longest to grow on me is "Wind Up Doll Day Wind," the opening track on Side 2, and the only song to contain lyrics. For a long time I thought it dragged the album down, but the song has grown on me in leaps and bounds, and now I think it's a very nice departure in the middle of the album featuring some great jamming and nice changes. Crafty Hands is a deeply satisfying release, and an essential piece of the scattered American progressive rock puzzle.
Id Where Are We Going (1976)
Id's sole album contains only 3 tracks; "Sunrise (A New Day)," the 30-minute two-part "Where Are We Going," that spans most of Side 1 and Side 2, and the almost 10-minute "Solar Wind."
One review I read about this album alluded hesitantly to "never-ending guitar solo," as if that were a bad thing! And indeed, from the first track we can tell that this is an electric guitar scorcher, as "Sunrise (A New Day)" is a blistering opening instrumental. The beginning of Where Are We Going has a very brief speech about how America is being taken over by greed and hypocrisy (I guess things haven't changed that much). Other lyrics weave in and out on occasion warning about the end of the world, and it's alternatively somewhat hippie and somewhat Revelations-like warnings about impending apocalypse, but mostly this track is about killer electric guitar (sometimes crystal clear, sometimes grungy and fuzzy) and some low-key mellotron over an intense rhythm backing. I'm reminded of the Terry Brooks & Strange epic track "Ruler of the Universe," where Terry Brooks goes into electric guitar nirvana for several minutes while somehow the rhythm section soldiers on underneath without missing a beat.
"Solar Wind" starts off as some appetizing space rock, and builds in intensity towards a Guru Guru-like guitar freak out. This is a must-have for anyone into the first two Terry Brooks & Strange albums, the long guitar jams of Ash Ra Tempel and other assorted krautrock bands, and those into the heavier side of progressive rock, psychedelic rock, space rock or hard rock. Where Are We Going is a delightfully uncommercial affair for guitar aficionados everywhere.
Jasper Wrath Jasper Wrath (1971)
Shortly after the release of Connecticut's self-titled Jasper Wrath album, the guitarist and a national tour was delayed long enough to insure poor album sales.
This is actually only the first album by Jasper Wrath I'm reviewing in this article, but you'll have to keep reading to see where the other one falls in. Jasper Wrath grabs you right away with crystal clear vocals and production, and a very melodic and accessible sound. It doesn't get too instrumentally adventurous, but stays very enjoyable throughout with well –crafted songs. "Look to the Sunrise" is an enthusiastic and upbeat opener. "Mysteries (You Can Find Out)" contains some nice guitar and great lyrics about ancient cities. "Autumn" contains some nice flute, which really comes to the fore in the excellent 7-minute "Odyssey" that closes out Side 1 - a very trippy and spacy track.
Side 2 opens with "Did You Know That," and has a very ‘70's good-timey feel. "Drift Through Our Cloud" contains some nice tribal percussion for a change of pace. The five-minute "Portrait: My Lady Angelina" is a beautiful track, and the eight-minute "Roland of Montevere" is a fitting complex and dramatic closer with a very baroque feel. This is a very solid and enjoyable effort by a band that was going places.
Perry Leopold Christian Lucifer (1973)
Perry Leopold made two pretty obscure albums, the first one being Experiments in Metaphysics, and this is the second and better album. Oddly enough, this is the second album on my list with the word ‘Lucifer' in the title, but while the Bobby Beausoleil album does have a dark and creepy vibe in places, this progressive folk album is full of the spiritual searching of a pilgrim, occasionally bordering on Christian rock, but without most of the overt preaching that often accompanies Xian music. Sounding much like the American cousin of Roy Harper's Stormcock, this is an album that doesn't reveal its beauty right away, as it takes some time to absorb the intricate harmonies and deep subject matter.
The opening track "Sunday Afternoon in the Garden of Delights" opens with some stunning acoustic guitar and Nick Drake-like orchestration, giving the song a deep and timeless quality. It's a really beautiful track musically and lyrically about love and looking for a new world that's light years away from your traditional love song. "The Windmill" is the 2nd nine-minute track in a row. It opens with some wind-like atmospherics before being taken over by more lush acoustic guitars and melodic singing, with long instrumental passages filled with tabla, electric guitar on the top of the acoustic guitar, keyboards and more soulful searching lyrics - another stunner. "The Starewell" is slightly more traditional folk with acoustic guitar and flute.
Side 2 opens with "Serpentine Lane" featuring distorted acoustic guitar and heavily echoed vocals. "The Annunciation" is filled with gorgeous baroque instrumentation. Near the end, the lyrics "Somebody wake the dead," are repeated over and over in a heartbreaking and poignant manner. Musically, the song segues into "The Journey," which has such a majestic sound that contains echoes of Popol Vuh, or the medieval baroque sounds of The Third Ear Band. The finale, "Vespers," is appropriate in title and lyrically, and effectively signals the resolution of spiritual searching. This is truly a beautiful album that deserves a wider audience.
The Muffins Manna/Mirage (1978)
From Washington DC, The Muffins only recorded one album that came out while they were together, although several posthumous releases exist of varying quality. The Muffins are often considered a Canterbury prog band, and they do have a very Hatfield and North sound, while still remaining quite distinctive.
The first of only 4 songs, the 4-minute "Monkey with the Golden Eyes" is a great introduction into the world of The Muffins, starting with some delicate brass and flutes, and then keyboards that propel the song along. About halfway through, the keyboards get more complex and avant-garde, very reminiscent of an early Robert Wyatt track. The transition into the next track "Hobart Got Burned," reminds me of some of the segues from Quiet Sun's Mainstream, and here's the first time we hear drums, though very sporadically, along with brass and other assorted percussion that has a very random free jazz feel, while still somehow feeling composed. The song gets more and more chaotic before it finds its groove halfway through with some great bass work and really amazing brass crescendo riffs that are both very jazzy and progressive. The almost 16-minute "Amelia Earhart" starts with some chimes and atmospheric sounds before quickly settling into some nice Canterbury-style instrumental escapades with twinkling keyboards, fuzzy guitar, beeping brass interludes, fusion-like bass and assorted avant-garde Zappa-esque breaks and randomness. The final 4 minutes of this wonderfully eclectic track is pure ambient krautrock space-out music.
Side 2, the almost 23-minute "The Adventures of Captain Boomerang," is another mad track that's all over the map, again featuring some tasty brass and funky and experimental keyboards with dozens of time signature changes. This is the only song with any vocals, and that's only some very brief humorous shouting about Captain Boomerang, because after all, why not? Overall, this mostly instrumental opus is exciting, quirky and highly entertaining.
Synergy Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975)
This is one of those quintessential albums within the prog rock canon relating to classical music, much like the proto-prog Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues, or ELP's Pictures at an Exhibition. The grandiose and audaciously named Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra successfully melds a classical feel with electronics, in a somewhat similar fashion as Wendy Carlos or Tomita, but using mostly original material. If the album didn't live up to its title, it would have been a spectacular failure. Instead, it's just spectacular. While this album isn't nearly as hopelessly obscure as most on this article, it's still a must-hear.
Synergy was Larry Fast, who made a series of electronic albums from the mid-‘70's to the late ‘80's (this one being easily the best), before going on to work with Peter Gabriel and other well-known artists. The album is entirely instrumental, and it's all played by Fast on various synthesizers and Moogs that were still pretty novel back in 1975. The first track "Legacy" grabs you right away with the complexity of layered keyboard textures, and the song never lets up, taking you on an imaginative melodic journey similar to what an orchestra would do with a well-composed tune. To a large degree, the keyboard sounds might not sound as revolutionary as when this first came on the scene, but no one would make an album with this sound today, which gives it a very retro and cool feel, even if it is a bit dated. "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" doesn't sound at all out of place on this album, and yet it's from a 1930's Rodger's & Hart ballet that was later put on film in the 1940's. That means either the composition was ahead of its time or that Larry Fast's composition style in general was pretty old school, or more likely that modernizing the ballet with such a dramatic change from orchestra to electronics really made the piece come alive in a whole new way.
The three songs on side 2 (the shorter "Synergy" and "Relay Breakdown," and the longer 12-minute "Warriors") are all similarly excellent epic electronic tracks, breaking new sonic ground while still steeped in the long tradition of classical composition. The album is really stunningly original, and doesn't sound at all like German electronic artists or British progressive rock, not even bands that were more overtly adding classical elements to their music. Rarely has an album's title been so successfully realized.
Steve Tibbetts Steve Tibbetts (1977)
The 1977 debut album by Steve Tibbetts is a deeply strange affair. It's worth mentioning that on this album, it's stated somewhat vaguely that Steve Tibbetts plays "instruments, tape effects, vocals, and engineering," and that Tim Weinhold plays "percussion."
The first track "Sunrise," sounds like a very well done Windham Hill solo acoustic guitar track, if not for the weird sound effects that pop in and out from time to time, giving only the slightest indication of what's to come. The second track, "Secret," is similar, except that the sound effects take up maybe half the track, as opposed to the brief appearances they made on "Sunrise." Going back and forth between acoustic guitar and strange keyboard effects is quite odd, and yet very original and enthralling. And on it goes through the rest of side one, with each track having less acoustic guitar and more spaced out electronics.
By the time we get to "Jungle Rhythm," the opening track of side 2, this is a full-on electronic album, interrupted only by the brief song "Interlude," which brings back some nice acoustic and electric guitar. The last 2 tracks "Alvin Goes to Tibet" and "How Do You Like My Buddha" together comprise 10 minutes of highly experimental brilliant electronic music that also includes some throbbing bass, excellent electric guitar, backwards tape sounds, whispered treated vocals, etc. It's almost as if the album was meant to be an acoustic guitar album, but somehow the recording sessions were gradually taken over by aliens who attempted to make it a full-on freak-out experimental electronic album, or as if aliens were gradually ingesting the album as it went along. The end result is as truly bizarre as the album cover, and quite schizophrenic, but highly enjoyable.
Touch Touch (1968)
My original intention was to keep this article within ‘70's progressive rock, as I tend not to like most modern progressive rock, which to me sounds different enough from the vintage ‘70's material that it should almost be considered a different sub-genre, but I never expected to find a record from 1968. Touch is technically referred to as ‘proto-prog,' and is considered by some to be one of the first prog albums, or at least having enough progressive rock in it to be a significant harbinger of what was to come.
The opening track, "We Feel Fine," is over the top vocally, lyrically and musically in a wonderful way, featuring absolutely killer West Coast acid psych guitar soloing and some great chanting. I hear the Steve Miller Band, The Pretty Things and about a dozen other bands in this epic opener. "Friendly Birds" takes it down a few notches, and then starts to build, with the last couple of minutes containing some amazing and intricate piano and electric guitar. The short "Teach" contains very nice piano and some late 60's/early 70's style lyrics - again I hear Steve Miller, and even some elements of early ‘70's Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Then we have the first long track closing out Side 1, the 9-minute "The Spiritual Death of Howard Greer." It starts with some organ and ominous lyrics, sometimes chanted, then some marching band drumming, all reminding one of a funeral procession, before taking off into a very proggy organ/keyboard/electric guitar interlude, only to switch moods again with lyrics about Howard Greer's life in a way spiritually reminiscent of The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow, or Family Tree's Miss Butters. The final few minutes contain intense chanting and organ that threatens to spiral out of control.
Side 2 contains two shorter tracks, the extremely trippy and strange "Down at Circ's Place," and the lounge-singer piano ballad "Alesha and Others." The album ends with the 11-minute "Seventy Five." The song, like the album in general, is very eclectic, featuring long jams with great organ and guitar, some enthusiastic singing and general intensity and madness.
Yezda Urfa Boris (1975)
Yezda Urfa's Boris is the best progressive rock album you've never heard. I was completely blown away when I first heard it, as this is not only a great American progressive rock album, but one of the very best albums of the genre. Boris was recorded in 1975 as a demo for the band to shop around hoping to get a record deal, which didn't happen at the time, so it ended up as a virtually unknown, ludicrously rare artifact until it was "discovered" and released on CD many years later.
Back in 1975, however, they decided to more professionally record a second album, Sacred Baboon, containing some of the same songs as Boris re-recorded, and released it themselves again to garner a recording contract, but to no avail. While Sacred Baboon might be technically a bit more polished than Boris, I find Boris to be a bit more adventurous and pure sounding.
Musically, Yezda Urfa is all over the place with five tracks of intricately complex progressive rock of the highest order. They have a great sense of humor and of the surreal with titles like "Boris And His 3 Verses, including Flow Guides Aren't My Bag," "Texas Armadillo", "3, Almost 4, 6 Yea," "Tu-ta In The Moya & Tyreczimmage" and "Three Tons Of Fresh Thyroid Glands." A breakdown by song is somewhat pointless as the quality of the material is equally strong throughout with unexpected twists and turns and fantastic musicianship; great guitar and bass, fantastic drumming, killer flute and keyboards, and very pleasant vocals that crop up from time to time. Although the instrumentation is pretty standard as prog rock goes, the shortest track "Texas Armadillo" is a great mix of mandolin and banjo that's pretty unique sounding. While the band is often compared to Yes, Gentle Giant and other legendary prog bands that doubtlessly did influence them, their sound is bursting with originality and compositional excellence. A sure thing album for anyone who's a fan of the genre and likes exciting and musically adventurous albums.
Zoldar & Clark Zoldar & Clark (1977)
From 1976 to 1978, many albums were released on what is known as "tax scam" record labels, which were sometimes subsidiaries of larger record labels. These albums were printed in very small quantities, but the label would claim that thousands were printed and didn't sell so they could claim them as a major tax deduction. The scam supposedly ended when the tax loophole that allowed it was closed. Most of these albums were from unreleased tapes that these record companies owned or purchased or took, some of which were demos or unfinished albums, and very often the bands themselves didn't even know of their existence as band and song names were changed.
Zoldar & Clark is actually Jasper Wrath in disguise. They recorded two albums after Jasper Wrath that were both released as tax scam albums under the names Arden House and Zoldar & Clark. I've yet to track down Arden House's album Coming Home to listen to that one, but reviews seem to state that it's the weakest of the three. The original album release of Zoldar & Clark contained only 7 tracks, and all songs are excellent, extremely accessible progressive rock with crystal clear lyrics and production like Jasper Wrath. Standouts are the very trippy instrumental "Lunar Progressions," and the 6 and a half minute "The Ghost of Way," which is one of the best songs I've ever heard, full of incredible singing, multiple time changes, tremendous musical diversity and even the occasional mellotron thrown in for good measure.
To add to the confusion, not only has Zoldar & Clark been released on CD in its original 7-track format, but it also exists as an 11-track CD called The Ghost of Way, which contains only 5 of the 7 original tracks, 1 track from the Jasper Wrath album, 1 track from the Arden House album, and 4 tracks unique to that collection, and again, every song is more of the brilliant, accessible progressive rock that would appeal even to people who aren't usual fans of the genre. It's worth getting both versions to have all the tracks as this is essential stuff that would appeal to a very wide audience. The 11-track The Ghost of Way especially flows really well, as if the album was always meant to contain this configuration of tracks, although we may never know how these albums were originally meant to be released.
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