Read: Illustrated History of Prog Rock

 

 

 

The recent Mountains Come Out of the Sky: The
Illustrated History of Prog Rock, written
by Will Romano and published by Backbeat Books, is a mixed bag and gives short
shrift to the contemporary Prog scene, but otherwise covers a lot of valuable
ground.

 

By Rev.
Keith A. Gordon

 

Progressive
rock (or “prog-rock,” if you will) is one of the most contentious
subjects in rock music criticism. Not that long ago, to admit that you liked
prog-rock was, for a rockcrit, akin to sleeping with Britney Speers (or her
1970s or ’80s pop-schlock equivalent). Mainstream music colleagues would look
at you like you were a syphilitic leper and a member of the Republican party…a
grimace usually reserved for those unabashed heavy metal fanzine types, while
indie rock dilettantes would dismiss you with a wave of the hand and some
under-the-breath mumbling about “musical masturbation” and
“selling out” or something….

 

Well,
kids, the Reverend didn’t achieve his lofty reputation as a rock ‘n’ roll
fanatic by living below other people’s expectations, and my lengthy love affair
with prog-rock is no exception. Yeah, I’ll admit it; I listened to King Crimson
and Yes as an apple-cheeked teen in the early 1970s, spinning prog on my cheap-o
BSR turntable alongside wax from Sabbath and Deep Purple. I’m not too proud to
say that my friends and I would, at times, imbibe in fruity battery-acid-tasting
wines that cost around a nickel a swallow, and venture out onto the edge of
prog-rock turf and listen to such avant-gardists as High Tide or Nektar.

 

Through
the years, my dedication to prog-rock would wax and wane much like the music’s
commercial fortunes, my attention distracted first by punk and the British
“New Wave of Heavy Metal,” later by college rock in the 1980s and
grunge in the ’90s. Prog always hung around on the peripheral of my interest,
however, bands like Marillion and Pallas keeping the flame alive during those
dark days, those British stalwarts later joined by fellow travelers like
Spock’s Beard, the Flower Kings, and others in a neo-prog wave during the
latter part of the 20th century.

 

It’s a
safe bet that writer Will Romano, who has penned bios of blues legends Jimmy
Reed and Hubert Sumlin and contributed to such publications as Modern Drummer and Guitar Player, is a fellow prog-rock fanboy. He’d have to be, to
put together as lengthy a history of the music as he has with Mountains Come Out of the Sky,
sub-titled “The Illustrated History of Prog Rock.” While Romano’s
impressive tome falls short in a few areas, it’s a respectable, herculean
effort nonetheless, and probably the first such published by a major music book
imprint…a further testimony to the genre’s growing popularity and commercial
re-awakening during the past decade.

 

Romano
opens Mountains Come Out of the Sky with a lengthy chapter in which he attempts to tie the emergence of progressive
rock in the late 1960s and early ’70s with the 1960s-era music of the Beatles,
early Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, the Mothers of Invention, and even, ahem…the
Beach Boys. OK, so I don’t really get the last one, but yeah, all of the
aforementioned bands had some influence, however insignificant, on the music of
prog bands to follow, but it’s an ephemeral argument and one that doesn’t
really gain traction in my mind. Chapters on Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, and
Emerson, Lake and Palmer do a fine job of establishing prog-rock’s roots and
subsequent commercial success. Romano follows with chapters on Genesis and
Jethro Tull, describing in some detail the effect of the progressive undercurrent
on British folk-rock and its gradual evolution into prog-folk. 

 

From this
point, Mountains Come Out of the Sky is rather hit or miss, Romano approaching his subsequent subjects with shotgun
accuracy, scattershot chapters covering the more jazz-influenced music of
Colosseum and Greenslade; the “Canterbury” scene that yielded bands
like Soft Machine and Caravan, among others; Krautrock and German proggers like
Eloy or Triumvirat; and full-blown prog-folk bands like Strawbs and
Renaissance. Gentle Giant and Camel merit their own chapters, and Romano
develops an interesting, albeit brief narrative for both. Ditto for the chapter
on American prog, which glosses over the popularity and influence of Kansas in
a mad dash towards a section on Styx, a band that no one – including many of the
band’s members – believes is progressive in any way, whatsoever.

 

A chapter
on Italian prog-rock bands like P.F.M. (Premiata Forneria Marconi) is a blur of
band names and record titles that mean little to anyone except fellow Italians
and niche collectors, never really developing into a coherent story. Mike
Oldfield’s ground-breaking Tubular Bells album is afforded a few pages, and a lengthy chapter on Rush sets the stage for
progressive metal and a later section on prog-metal trailblazers Dream Theater.
Romano returns to King Crimson, ELP and Yes, updating each band’s story through
the present, and a chapter on Marillion provides a welcome capsule history of
the band.

 

Romano
closes Mountains Come Out of the Sky with an unsatisfying chapter on prog-rock in the 21st century. He largely
ignores the strides made in the popularity of prog over the past decade,
providing Spock’s Beard, one of the leading lights of the neo-prog movement,
with barely a page-and-a-half of coverage; Sweden’s Flower Kings, as popular among
the European prog community as Spock’s Beard is in America, is given just six
or seven paragraphs. Porcupine Tree, perhaps the most mainstream successful of
the 1990s prog bands, is provided only a couple of pages and largely ignores
frontman Steven Wilson’s worthy side efforts like Blackfield or No Man.

 

As
impressive an effort as Mountains Come
Out of the Sky
is, the book also disappoints somewhat. It is profusely
illustrated, especially with album cover graphics which, for many prog-rock
bands, are as important as the music between the covers, and Romano includes
photos of a lot of rare or hard-to-find album covers. There are a lot of color
band photos as well, but I personally would have liked to have seen a few more,
especially of those obscure artists that received little music mag coverage in
the U.S. during the 1970s and ’80s.

 

Ultimately,
it is what Romano overlooks, more than what he covers, which vexes the
dedicated prog-rock fan. Little or nothing is said of influential bands like
Canada’s Saga (still thrilling prog fans today), Scotland’s Pallas, or
England’s Family, among many others. His coverage of the last, say, fifteen or
so years of prog-rock is abysmal, with the aforementioned and too-brief
mentions of Spock’s Beard, the Flower Kings, and Porcupine Tree, each of which
could merit a chapter of their own. Among those worthy candidates for inclusion
that are missing in action are bands like Abydos, Tiles, Threshold, Arena,
Glass Hammer, Kaipa, and Kino, among many others, all of whom have significant
followings and rich catalogs ripe for discovery. A chapter further exploring
the development of prog-metal and bands like Opeth or Fates Warning would have
been welcome, and maybe even something on the influential music and career of
King’s X could have been added.

 

Choices must be made, I suppose, and Romano does
a decent enough job with what he has, and the writing is informative and
entertaining. It’s just that Mountains
Come Out of the Sky
could have been so much more. Another 40 or so pages
with some of the content mentioned above would have done more than bulk up the book;
it would have made it a truly representative history of this often-maligned,
but enduring genre of rock music.

 

 

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