Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

“Mountains Come Out Of The Sky: The Illustrated History of Prog Rock” by Will Romano (Backbeat Books)

Back in May, I posted a review in my other blog, “GenEc DVD Review”, of a documentary DVD exploring the modern-day progressive-rock (or “prog rock”, if you prefer) scene, “Romantic Warriors”, at If I may borrow from myself - in that review, I made mention of the fact that “the perceptions most people seem to have of prog-rock is that it was either a moment of glory that was too good to last, or an aberration in the history of rock that went on much too long, depending on one’s personal tastes and open-mindedness.”

Personally, I prefer to go with the “moment of glory” characterization, but whether it was “too good to last” is open for discussion. The fact of the matter is that it just plain didn’t last, as the great bulk of first-rate prog bands lost their direction after a few groundbreaking albums. That is one of the sub-themes running through Will Romano’s welcome survey of that moment of glory, those heady days which expanded out of the psychedelic 60’s into ever greater artistic realms, then fell apart as bands struggled with personnel instability, ego trips by band members who wanted to showcase their individual skills, and the inevitable clash between the perceived need by some bands to continually top themselves and the desire of other bands to become more accessible to the general record-buying public. Ah, but while the glory days lasted, mountains certainly did come out of the sky. (The title is taken from the lyrics to the Yes song, “Roundabout”).

Romano correctly traces the history of prog back to the Beatles, Syd Barrett’s work with the original Pink Floyd lineup, Frank Zappa, and the Moody Blues’ “Days Of Future Passed”. But we generally think of prog as a phenomenon of the 1970’s, since that is when it reached its greatest heights. There’s an irony to the fact that progressive rock was denigrated by a great many critics during that decade for being too pretentious, too dependent on classical-music influences, too concerned with virtuoso musicianship, too this, too that, when for so many other styles of music and the visual arts, progress/innovation were for many decades looked upon as being desirable elements, needed to advance the artform. Once prog bands seemed to abandon the African-American roots of rock and looked more toward European art-music influences as major sources of inspiration, the critical fraternity tuned out. Of course, the majority of the major prog musicians were English/European by birth, trained musicians by background, so they were only being true to THEIR roots in a way that white rock bands playing the blues generally weren’t. Perhaps Romano could have made this point more forcefully, but his emphasis is, as it should be, more on who the prog bands were and what they accomplished than on what the critics failed to hear.

Romano devotes full chapters to the major bands - Pink Floyd, King Crimson (who get two chapters, due to Robert Fripp’s re-emergence in later years), Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, and Camel, discussing how they formed, who their influences were, examining each of their albums in chronological order and in refreshing detail as concerns songwriting processes and instrumentation, keeping track of musicians leaving bands as others come in (and there was a LOT of goings and comings), looking at the producers and the impact they had on each band, incorporating interview excerpts and opinions (both from older press sources and recent conversations), in general tracing the arcs of their careers. One wishes at times he would have spent more time analyzing than describing, but in any case their is a lot of information here.

A number of lesser bands (in terms of international popularity, at least) are also covered - Colosseum, Greenslade, Soft Machine, Hatfield and the North, Gong, Barclay James Harvest, Strawbs, and a much-too-brief look at Mike Oldfield. His definition of “prog” is narrow enough to largely exclude much coverage of Led Zeppelin or Hawkwind, who certainly were “progressive”, albeit within somewhat different (yet, I would argue, related) subgenres of rock. I would have liked to learn more about obscure bands such as Flash or Public Foot The Roman, but any history of any musical field must be selective or be unwieldy.

Although most fans on this side of the Atlantic automatically think “British” when they think of prog rock, Romano thankfully includes chapters on Italy, German, the US (namely Kansas and Styx, who are now largely remembered more for their pop singles than their prog LP’s), but the only non-English band to get their own chapter is, perhaps not surprisingly, Rush. The chapter on Germany strikes me as not inclusive or detailed enough. However, the chapter on Italy will be an eye-opener to Western Hemisphere readers who may possibly remember PFM, but none of the others. There are also chapters devoted to prog bands which emerged after the Golden Era - U.K. Marillion, Dream Theater, plus one that briefly surveys a few of the modern-day, current-century prog bands. There is also a chapter devoted to the sorry state of affairs Yes, Genesis, and the members of ELP found themselves in after the bottom fell out on the halcyon days of the prog era. The author is brave enough to entitle this chapter “Throwing It All Away”.

Romano includes a list of 297 (why 297?) essential prog albums, which should prove to be of some value to newcomers, as well as a checklist for fans. There will be arguments, to be certain. (Magma are on the Top 20. Why is there no coverage of the Kobaian masters otherwise?) The large color photos of bands are nice, but the thumbnails of LP covers are sometimes too small to mean anything (and a few are repeated). The foreword is by Bill Bruford, who pops up often throughout these pages, as you might expect.

In all, this may not the perfect prog history, but it’s certainly the best thing I’ve seen on this under-served topic to date.

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