In the early part of the 19th Century, near the end of the Romantic era of classical music, composers were stretching the limits of our musical minds, using more, and more varied sounds in their works. The mantra was to ‘break all boundaries’ and they certainly succeeded. As the Fifties waned and the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties took us all on a magnificent aural ride, the advent of bands such as Miles Davis, The Beatles, Gentle Giant, Frank Zappa, and other groups too numerous to mention showed the listeners that here, in very normal garages across the country, were musicians as brave as their predecessors. Through the amalgamation of rock, jazz and blues, folk, classical, and experimental structures, they created some of the greatest progressive rock songs of all time. My favorites – what I consider my top 3 (for the moment), follow.
1. “2112” Rush
Not only is the lyrical premise (penned by drummer Neil Peart) of 2112 massive in its scope, so is the accompanying music. Of course this piece is actually a series of movements, but for our purposes, I’m considering side one of Rush’s “2112” album as a single piece of music; that’s how it was intended, and I happen to agree with the authors/composers. This work is bombastic, sometimes terrifying, gentle, passionate, and has some of the best rock guitar solos ever recorded, thanks to Alex Lifeson’s tasteful playing. Backed up by one of rocks most outstanding rhythm sections (Geddy Lee, Neil Peart), the musical journey to recover humanity’s long lost musical ways contains a plethora of interesting parallels with our fight for the arts in society today
2. “Heart of the Sunrise” Yes
From the album “Fragile” (which arguably contains more than one great progressive rock song on it), this track is incorrigibly driven by Chris Squires bass groove, offset perfectly by Bill Bruford (on drums) throughout. The 3:40 intro is enough to set any music lovers stereo on fire. Yet when Jon Anderson’s vocal line finally enters, Steve Howe’s perfectly orchestrated electric guitar contrasts it beautifully against the previous sections. No stranger to odd time signatures, Yes continued to explore the dynamic crossovers of classical, rock, and folk with this exquisitely written and produced track. With Rick Wakeman on keys and no fear on ballot, Yes are truly one of the most outstanding progressive rock bands to emerge from the post-60’s musical blaze.
3. “Cosmik Debris” Frank Zappa
No list of progressive music is complete without an entry by the premiere experimentation specialist, Frank Zappa. With solid grounding in jazz, classical, rock (of course) and any other format one might care to mention, Zappa blew away all boundaries with his creative harmonic structures and arrangements; no one ever came close to the achievements in his extensive catalog. Cosmik is a vocal track (the lead by Frank himself) with some excellent contrasting lines, both in range and phrasing. Additionally much of the track bounces between straight and swing feel and of course contains a signature Zappa guitar solo.
With so much amazing music out there, each listener should make his or her own choice about the greatest progressive rock songs. For me, these three songs set much of the standard for edgy progressive tracking.