See the Writing on the Wall
Let’s face it—ever since its inception in the late 1960s, progressive rock has been revered (or dismissed, depending on the listener) for its extravagance, complexity, exploration, eccentricity, innovation, colorfulness, and pretention. It’s easily one of the most polarizing musical subsections, as its artists love to take their audiences on wild journeys filled with elaborate arrangements, wacky imagery, outlandish concepts, clever continuity, and captivating melodies. Of all the staples and trademarks that make progressive rock so distinctive, perhaps none is more essential than the epic track. Just about every band in the genre has done at least one. Usually, these songs surpass the 15-minute mark—some have been twice or even three times as lengthy—and they often begin or conclude an album. Furthermore, these pieces represent their creators’ highest level of artistic ambition and self-indulgence, and they’re often declared the group’s best composition.
Classic opuses like Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”, Jethro Tull’s “Thick As a Brick”, and ELP’s “Tarkus” are definitely among aficionado’s most treasured selections; likewise, newer gems like Porcupine Tree’s “Anesthetize”, Dream Theater’s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, and the Mars Volta’s “Cassandra Gemini” are surely at the forefront of every prog lover’s consciousness. However, there are plenty of other relatively recent epics that are either underappreciated or under the radar. Below are ten such tracks, listed alphabetically by the artist’s name (rather than by rank). If you’re familiar with them, you’ll likely agree that they deserve as much attention as their more celebrated siblings; if you aren’t, you’re truly missing out.
Also, these are merely a sample of the many epics that deserve to be touted in the genre. Feel free to comment with any additional suggestions.
*All of the following quotes come from interviews conducted between the artists and myself unless otherwise noted.
(from Sleeping in Traffic: Part Two, 2008)
Formed in 2001 by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rikard Sjöblom and guitarist David Zackrinsson (and later completed by drummer Magnus Östgren and bassist Robert Hansen), Sweden’s Beardfish oozes creativity and distinctiveness. Influenced by the usual ‘70s pioneers, such as King Crimson, ELP, and Gentle Giant, Beardfish’s music is arguably more zany and risqué than many of their peers, but those qualities certainly don’t undermine the group’s serious focus and craftsmanship. Their output exudes magnetic hooks, dizzying dynamic shifts, exhilarating energy, and a great sense of freedom (although their songwriting can venture into more dramatic topics, of course). While their music is extremely intricate, it’s also a lot of fun, and this duality is what makes the closing track of their 2008 album Sleeping in Traffic: Part Two so damn enjoyable.
According to Sjöblom, the track was inspired by “a pretty vivid and crazy dream I had back when I was younger. It was written in 2002 and we didn’t put it on an album until 2008; that’s just because of its length. It was tough to place on an album with other songs so that’s why we decided to build a theme around it and then it turned out as two albums.” As for how the two records connect, he says…
The concept was thought out after many of the songs were already finished and recorded. We basically thought it was time to release the song, and since it was quite an important one in our catalogue, we decided to build not one, but two albums around it. We managed to create a somewhat vague storyline about this guy who ends up in a whole lot of crazy situations and everything happens during 24 hours in his life. Of course, it ends with the suite on SIT2, which is basically a dream.
“Sleeping in Traffic” begins simply enough with a strong bass note and an awesome guitar riff (which recurs throughout the piece). Soon Zappa-esque counterpoints and charming bursts of technique take the spotlight, demonstrating how complex and varied Beardfish’s music can be. Soon, things quiet down as Sjöblom sings an introductory melody that’s urgent yet peaceful. Behind him, keyboard and guitar flourishes decorate the auditory space. A fourth of the way through, a new section begins, and it’s highlighted by eccentric effects and a very commanding chorus. Halfway through, the group channels the chord progression of Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” for an instrumental break, which transitions into a funky, almost Vaudevillian bit of playfulness, complete with drunken pirate voiceovers. Following this, Sjöblom narrates his thoughts before adding some heaviness to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive”. It’s here that Beardfish truly displays its carefree, warm attitude; these drastic changes would feel out of place if it weren’t for how ingeniously integrated they are.
Of course, the song recalls its opening (though modified) near the end, allowing its central motifs to come full circle. Throughout the piece, Sjöblom exemplifies why he’s one of the best singers the genre has ever seen, as he alternates between singing softly and forcefully (of course, he would go on to explore a touch of growling on latter LPs). The most remarkable thing about the song is how assorted it is; in addition to the aforementioned genres, it incorporates hard rock, psychedelia, and jazz into its vibrant palette, making it thoroughly surprising. Overall, “Sleeping in Traffic” still stands as one of Beardfish’s greatest tracks, and many fans rank it amongst the best prog journeys one can take.
(from The Parallax II: Future Sequence, 2012)
Progressive metal quintet Between the Buried and Me (who took their name from a Counting Crows lyric) have been wowing fans and critics ever since they released their third LP, 2005’s Alaska. Since then, they’ve had several other releases, including fan favorite Colors (which consist of a single 60-minute song) and its calmer, more diverse follow-up, The Great Misdirect. With ever-changing vocal styles, overwhelmingly frantic musicianship, dynamic arrangements, and fascinating production, theirs is some of the most melodic, schizophrenic, and technical music currently being made.
Last year, they set the bar even higher with The Parallax II: Future Sequence, the concluding half of a storyline that began with 2011’s The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues EP. A 72-minute song cycle, the album is a painstakingly crafted synthesis of everything that makes Between the Buried and Me so revered, and it truly reveals new textures and motifs with subsequent listens. Not only is it their finest release, but it’s nothing less than a work of genius and one of the best progressive metal albums of all time. Nowhere is this perfect formula more evident than on its grandiose and dramatic conclusion, “Silent Flight Parliament”. Adventurous, bleak, and oh so intense, the track leaves listeners breathless.
Structurally, The Parallax II begins at the end of the tale (“Goodbye to Everything”) and then recaps the events leading up to it (think Christopher Nolan’s Memento). Conceptually, it’s almost as complicated as its music (which isn’t to say that it’s not also brilliant), but essentially it tells the story of two “prospects” living parallel lives during an ill-fated journey in space (for a more in-depth, song-by-song explanation, check out this article from Heavy Blog Is Heavy). Like with most concept albums, understanding the storyline is only a bonus—the real treat comes from appreciating the ambition, continuity, and construction of the auditory experience. In that respect, “Silent Flight Parliament” (and the record as a whole) succeeds with flying colors.
All of the tracks on the album flow together, so this one segues seamlessly from “Melting City” (which happens to house the best chorus in the band’s discography) with suspenseful and precarious guitar work and percussion. Underneath it, Rogers plays mournful piano notes in the instruments highest octave. After awhile, everything but the piano is replaced by more psychedelic and tranquil textures as Rogers sings thoughtfully. It isn’t long, however, before his trademark growling emerges and is accompanied by rapidly changing rhythms and riffs. The fact that they can create and perform music this intricate and sporadic is simply astounding. Halfway into the track, things change completely, as synthesizers and various effects take a more prominent role and textures and arrangements become more spacey. Meanwhile, Rogers sings his most prophetic verse, signaling that the end is near. Following this, hyperactive guitar solos dance over wild syncopation until everything stops and dissonant strings seize the spotlight. The characters finally realize that the future holds nothing, and so they accept death. The track ends with an ascending guitar riff that masterfully leads into “Goodbye to Everything Reprise”.
“Silent Flight Parliament” is even more noteworthy because of how its conceptual continuity. In a recent interview with Loudwire, bassist Dan Briggs states that the first half of the song consists of “reoccurring themes that have happened earlier in the record,” and dedicated listeners will definitely notice this. For example, the percussion alternates a rhythm used in “Extremophile Elite,” and midway through the track Rogers says, “Say goodbye to everything,” which is a key phrase throughout The Parallax II. In the end, the track epitomizes how scrupulous, inventive, catchy, and daring its genre can be, which is just about the greatest thing a song can do.