Of all the many subgenres that rock has diversified into over its long history, few inspire more enduringly fierce fan devotion than prog. And concurrently, few genres spur more hotly contested and vigorously defended debate over just what the real thing is and what it isn’t than prog.
Progressive rock. It’s very much alive and well in 2014, even enjoying something of a resurgence among younger bands and artists who either fly its flag proudly (Coheed and Cambria), or happily incorporate elements of it to electrifying effect (Muse). That’s some story arc for a genre that arose from 1960s psychedelia to become huge in the 1970s, then became generally maligned by the mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, and then suddenly became popular in the 2000s (Rush’s 2013 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Yes’s 2013 nomination would’ve seemed unthinkable a decade earlier).
Prog, in fact, is in better shape today than ever; maybe even the best shape since its mid-’70s heyday. It may have long since moved out of the center spotlight, but it has never left altogether. It has indeed soldiered on bravely, and those who played it then and still play it today have always relied on Fender guitars, basses and amps to bring its adventurous sounds to life. Here then, in no particular order, are 10 great Fender prog rock tracks, plus one more for extra credit.
“One More Red Nightmare” (King Crimson, Red, 1974)
A Rickenbacker 4001 was practically standard issue for prog bassists in the mid 1970s, but not for John Wetton, who stuck to his guns and to his 1961 Precision Bass. And what a sound. Throughout his 1972-74 stint with Crimson’s acclaimed third lineup, Wetton’s tone got progressively (zing) bigger and more overdriven, and his impeccable playing was the most prominent bass work yet heard in the band—no small feat considering that he was the lead singer, too.
Crimson had whittled itself down to a trio by seventh album Red, which was recorded in summer 1974 and released that October despite the fact that guitarist Robert Fripp disbanded the outfit in the intervening month of September 1974. Wetton played in prog outfit U.K. in the late ’70s before scoring chart-topping mainstream rock success with Asia in the early 1980s, but if you want to hear the huge Precision tone bassists love him for most, Red is your album, and the heavy, oddly funky “One More Red Nightmare” is a hair-raising example. As for King Crimson, that was it for the rest of the decade (except for posthumous 1975 live album USA; another fine showcase of Wetton’s enormous Precision sound).
“The Gates of Delirium” (Yes, Relayer, 1975)
In the March 2014 Guitar Player, writer Barry Cleveland reviewed a new Yes box set encompassing the group’s studio albums from 1969 to 1987. After saying nice things about the two ’60s albums with guitarist Peter Banks and the two ’80s albums with guitarist Trevor Rabin, he got to the point: “The other eight albums in this collection, however, are where the real 6-string magic happens, and the thought I kept having while listening to them was, ‘Steve Howe is a f***ing great guitarist.’”
The astute observer will note that while Steve Howe is known for playing a lot of different guitars, his work has been remarkably Fender-y at times. Take “The Gates of Delirium.” Actually, just take all of Relayer for example, because just about the whole album is Howe and his hot-rodded 1955 Telecaster. This is about as out-there as it gets for Yes—which is to say way out there—and Howe’s dexterous Jimmy Bryant-meets-George Orwell Tele work is positively dizzying, as seen in this 1975 performance of “Gates.”
“YYZ” (Rush, Moving Pictures, 1981)
Moving Pictures went quadruple platinum. Not bad for a prog album. Not bad at all. And its torturously intricate instrumental, “YYZ,” was nominated for a Grammy. Not bad for a prog song. Not bad at all. And if some enterprising sculptor ever carves out a Mount Rushmore of electric bass, Geddy Lee will be its Teddy Roosevelt, because when it comes to his work on the instrument, the vast Rush catalog is an embarrassment of riches and a comprehensive education in the art of the low end (Lee would likely be the most recent player in the sculpture, which is why he’s T.R. and not, say, Abe Lincoln).
“YYZ” perfectly embodies all this in a dazzlingly kinetic four-minutes-plus display of deft bass prowess that has had many a player hitting pause, backing up and saying, “How does he do that?” And you can bet your last Canadian dollar that those are the most nimble bass breaks since “My Generation” back in 1965 (speaking of which, formative Lee influence John Entwistle would probably be Lincoln on the bass Mount Rushmore). There must be an isolated bass track somewhere on YouTube that would give you an unobstructed earful of Lee’s impeccably fast and furious riffing on his beloved black ’72 Jazz Bass, but for our purposes here let us marvel at a recent live version.
“A Favor House Atlantic” (Coheed and Cambria, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, 2003); “Welcome Home” (Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One, 2005)
This one’s a double feature, and if those aren’t full-on prog album titles, then we don’t know what is. We even had to abbreviate the second one listed above, which in its unshorn entirety is actually called Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness. Based on that alone, we’d say the modern age finds the genre alive and well.
We’re happy to feature contemporary prog masters Coheed and Cambria here because current bassist Zach Cooper and former bassist Michael Todd have both burned up the fingerboards of a number of Precision and Jazz basses. Cases in point, dig Todd’s snarling Geddy Lee Jazz Bass tone on the live version of “A Favor House Atlantic” from 2005 double DVD/CD Live at the Starland Ballroom, and have a look and a listen as Cooper holds down the signature Coheed epic “Welcome Home” with a Precision through a huge Fender amp rig in a recent Guitar Center Sessions performance.
“Elephant Talk” (King Crimson, Discipline, 1981)
King Crimson gets to be on this list twice because the version that Robert Fripp convened in 1981 was so radically different from all the previous incarnations as to constitute an entirely new musical entity. No Mellotrons this time around, but rather a two-guitar lineup for the first time ever, New Yorker Tony Levin on something called a Chapman stick and plenty of new-wave-esque rhythms, polyphony, the kitchen sink and more. It was fascinating. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide described the new 1980s King Crimson as having a “jaw-dropping technique” of “knottily rhythmic, harmonically demanding workouts.”
Which brings us to Adrian Belew, Crimson’s then-new vocalist and resident Stratocaster monster. His resume included David Bowie, Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads, and he brought with him a startling array of unexpected Strat voices and unorthodox techniques. When you hear the “elephant” in “Elephant Talk” here, for example, that’s him. Belew with a Stratocaster on Discipline sounds like birds, bugs, lions and tigers and bears; sounds like industrial machinery; sounds like hell on earth one minute and who knows what else the next. And when was the last time anyone heard a humorous King Crimson lyric? That was Belew’s demented touch at work, too. They actually played this song on U.S. television once.
“Atom Heart Mother” (Pink Floyd, Atom Heart Mother, 1970)
Well, that is the big question, isn’t it—is Pink Floyd prog? We’re going to say … sort of. Partially. Sometimes. If indeed it isn’t, as one side contends, you can certainly argue convincingly that in between Syd Barrett and The Dark Side of the Moon especially, the Floyd’s particular brand of psychedelia sure walked and talked like prog. Several of the genre’s hallmarks were definitely there circa ’68 to ’73 if not most of the rest of the time—lengthy compositions and multi-part suites, odd time signatures, fantastical lyrics, general sonic weirdness, etc.
And so, submitted here is 1970’s “Atom Heart Mother.” All six parts. All 24 minutes. As the guitar solos readily attest, this was one of the early and unambiguously clear confirmations that David Gilmour was simply not capable of not playing impeccably. Of particular note to Fender fans, it was in May 1970, during the recording of this album, that Gilmour acquired the 1969 Stratocaster so dear to him ever since and long known as the “Black Strat.”
“Cogs in Cogs” (Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory, 1974)
Bassist Ray Shulman gets a lot of camera time in this 1974 Gentle Giant appearance on German television, and you really have to marvel at it. That’s because GG turns in a positively blistering performance of impossibly convoluted track “Cogs in Cogs” during the first three minutes here, and there’s Ray (one of three Shulman brothers in the band) smiling and bopping along like he’s playing “Louie Louie” or “Brick House” or something far simpler than the impossibly convoluted parts he’s actually playing on his Precision Bass. He’s even dancing to it. And singing an impossibly convoluted backup vocal part.
This track is from 1974 album The Power and the Glory, which Gentle Giant’s cult following generally considers the band’s most musically complex album. No argument there. If you can get past what the guys in Rush would good-naturedly call the “absurdly prophetic robes,” there’s serious musical muscle and finesse on ferocious display here, and it’s not hard to draw a line from material like this and, say, later Jethro Tull to prog elements at work in modern outfits such as the Mars Volta, Porcupine Tree, Coheed and Cambria, Dream Theater, and others with a shared love of mind-bending technical complexity.
“Tempus Fugit” (Yes, Drama, 1980)
Yes gets to be on this list twice, too, because Steve Howe is that good and, we repeat, he played Fender gear a lot more than many probably realize (still does). Plus, like the dramatically different iterations of King Crimson included above, this is a very different version of Yes. In between classic 1970s Yes and chart-topping 1983-94 “Yes West” (of which Howe was not a part except for all that Union business around 1991), there came the short-lived 1980-81 lineup, which turned in the surprisingly hard-edged and new wave-esque Drama.
In a newly post-punk era circa 1979-80, some wrote off Yes as a lumbering prog sauropod whose extinction comet struck probably sometime around late 1978. This was a mistake. Surprising everyone, the band reinvented itself by replacing the departed Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman with the Buggles’ Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes (of “Video Killed the Radio Star” fame) and issuing the quite well received Drama. Breakneck sonic workout “Tempus Fugit” finds Howe in full-on Chet Atkins-meets-William Gibson mode this time, with fiery, stabbing and soaring Stratocaster work and a galloping psycho-country middle section that keeps things really interesting.
“This Strange Engine” (Marillion, This Strange Engine, 1997)
Marillion’s resident guitar genius, Steve Rothery, often made brilliant use of a hot-rodded mid-’80s Japanese Squier Stratocaster. His beautifully shimmering Gilmour-like tone is the icing on the elaborate cake that is the Marillion catalog, and devout fans consider Rothery a vastly underrated player deserving of much wider recognition.
Marillion fronted a new generation of prog practitioners who kept the traditional flag flying during the 1980s and ’90s as first-gen outfits such as Genesis and Yes reconfigured themselves for greater mainstream success. Melody Maker noted in the late ’80s that while Marillion in 1982 “stood out of time” by six years and “were the un-hippest group going,” they also “turned out some singles that everybody quietly liked,” “did not need the support of the hip-conscious” and were hugely successful—“one of the biggest groups of the decade” that “might have been an anomaly but were monstrously effective.” Rothery’s superb Squier Strat tone and phrasing had a great deal to do with all this; bask in it here with a live version of 1997 track “This Strange Engine.”
“Catalyst” (Oceansize, Effloresce, 2003)
We’re off into dramatically new and different territory here—modern prog that owes more to ’90s grunge and alternative than ’60s psychedelia and its more ambitious ’70s descendants. Here we give you Oceansize, a Manchester, England, quintet with a three-guitar lineup led by Strat/Tele-wielding lead vocalist Mike Vennart. They were around from 1998 to 2011, and let’s make a subtle but important distinction here—whereas contemporaries such as Radiohead, Muse, Tool, et al. can certainly be described as incorporating elements of progressive rock, Oceansize is much more readily described first and foremost as modern prog.
“Catalyst,” from 2003 debut album Effloresce, is a fine example. Noise intro, offbeat undulating time signature (7/8, but not always here), captivating guitar interplay, trippy lyrics—the whole shebang, with a potent dose of dense ’90s sonic heaviness. The album earned much acclaim, and words like soundscape got thrown around a lot by reviewers who mostly appreciated what Oceansize was doing. In a 2007 interview, guitarist Richard “Gambler” Ingram said, “When we formed the band we didn’t think we were going to be this or that sort of band,” but also noted that “We have been tied into the whole progressive thing for quite a bit now.”
And that bonus track we mentioned …
“Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part I” (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery, 1973)
And you thought we forgot Greg Lake. Brain Salad Surgery is the 1973 magnum opus on which ELP really pulled out all the stops, and up to and including it, Lake deftly and tastefully held everything together with a black Fender Jazz Bass. Held it together very well, too, for a guitarist who never even picked up a bass until age 19, on joining the first King Crimson lineup in the late 1960s.
Most are undoubtedly more familiar with “Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part II”—that’s the one you hear on classic rock radio all the time; the one that begins with Lake bellowing “Welcome back my friends …” in that magnificent baritone. But have a listen to Part I and tell us that isn’t some exquisitely phrased Jazz Bass work. We’re a long way from I-IV-V here, and don’t forget that Lake is the lead singer, too, compounding the impressiveness.