Prog Rock Epics 101
- Best of List
Why bigger is better in prog rock.
In a style as ambitious and expansive as progressive rock, bigger is almost always better. If you're after a true prog experience, you can't simply dip into the relatively concise likes of the hits: sure, the unedited version of Yes's "Roundabout" runs eight and a half minutes, but it's still contained within a relatively concise song structure, as its classic-rock radio-staple status proves. Prog rockers have always known that you've gotta pucker up if you want to kiss the sky: that's why they've thrown themselves into crafting complex, suite-like compositions that move through multiple moods and modes, sometimes taking up an entire album to complete their arc. After all, there's nothing particularly progressive about writing a three-minute song with a verse-chorus-verse format, is there? In the interest of offering the proverbial proof of the pudding, here are some of the finest epic-length prog pieces ever to alienate ADD sufferers. Spotify listeners can find an adapted version of this playlist at Prog Rock Epics 101
Procol Harum - "In Held ‘Twas In I"
Arriving in 1968, this five-part, 17-and-a-half-minute piece was one of the first real prog suites. With everything from spoken-word passages and classical flourishes to Eastern touches, it doesn't miss a trick.
Yes - "Close to the Edge"
The definitive prog-rock suite, this four-parter took up the entire first side of the original LP, and it came startlingly close to musically contextualizing the line "rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace."
Genesis - "The Battle of Epping Forest"
This 12-minute track presents Genesis at their peak, with Peter Gabriel voicing a variety of roles in a sort of British equivalent to The Gangs of New York.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer - "Pirates"
As a whole, 1977's Works, Volume 1 is actually one of ELP's least impressive albums, but its saving grace is a soaring, orchestra-accompanied sea-dog's tale that could have inspired its own miniseries. It was originally intended to be the instrumental soundtrack to a film of the mercenary-soldiers novel Dogs of War, but when that fell through, Emerson brought Pete Sinfield in to add lyrics, and voila!
Camel - "The Snow Goose"
In 1975, Camel based an entire album around Paul Gallico's 1940s novel The Snow Goose, crafting several sections that blend together as an instrumental illustration of the story. Crabby Gallico's insistence against a lyrical adaptation of the tale turned out to be a blessing in disguise, making for one of prog's finest long-form instrumental suites.
Jethro Tull - "Thick as a Brick"
Another conceptual piece stretched across an entire album, this one's a single, continuous track, based around a supposed poem by a fictional boy wonder. In fact, it was Tull's opportunity to thumb their collective nose at those who thought Aqualung was a concept album, by showing the world what a concept album really sounded like.
King Crimson - "Larks' Tongues in Aspic"
Parts one and two of this imposing piece bookend the album of the same name, this mood- and mode-shifting instrumental piece moves from doomy Wagnerian grandeur to fractured Captain Beefheart-tinged art-funk without batting an eyelash.
Pink Floyd - "Echoes"
‘70s Floyd was frequently an art-rock affair as opposed to outright prog, but this 23.5-minute piece is Pink Floyd at their proggiest, two years before Dark Side of the Moon, and really must be seen played amidst the ruins in the Live at Pompeii film to be fully appreciated.
Riccardo Cocciante - "Mu"
Italian singer/songwriter Cocciante eventually became a sappy MOR pop star in Europe, but his very first album is a multi-part conceptual piece that stands up alongside anything the best Italian prog acts (Le Orme, PFM, etc.) had to offer. It's a shame he became the Italian Neil Diamond almost immediately afterwards.
Twelfth Night - "Sequences"
The best of the early-‘80s wave of British neo-prog bands, Twelfth Night proved the prog suite was still viable even in the New Wave era. "Sequences" was impressive enough as an instrumental piece on Live at the Target before the band got a permanent singer, but once frontman Geoff Mann arrived and gave it an intense anti-war theme, it became even more powerful.