Sunday, April 04, 2010

Heldon - A Dream Without Consequence?

Ask any music fan to name you five good bands from France and I guarantee you they will struggle. France has made many great and notable contributions to culture and the arts, but it is a popularly held belief that this does not extend to rock and roll. Perhaps the national stereotype of the French is just too sophisticated and cultured to really rock out with abandon; when French recording artists do become famous, they tend to be in the sleazy, suave balladeer mode a la Serge Gainsberg or arch yet tasteful electronic artists such as Air or Daft Punk. Scratch the surface, however, and there is a wealth of exciting and original French rock music, from Gong’s mystic space-funk to Magma’s apocalyptic alien operas to Ame Son’s acid fried freak outs. It’s tempting to conclude that, much like the Germans and the Japanese, the French rock groups’ very inability to convincingly reproduce American and British rock sounds allowed them to develop their own refreshingly idiosyncratic take on the form.
So it’s probably not without knowing irony that Heldon titled their third album It’s Always Rock And Roll. Here was music as thrillingly far out as anything produced at the same time in Germany or Japan, but handicapped as a French product, it was pretty much doomed to be ignored from the offset. If they had been British, Heldon’s musical invention, embracing of electronics and aversion to bombast would likely have landed them in with the select prog groups whose reputations survived the punk culling, such as King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator. Had they been German, they would be spoken of in the same breath as other krautrock hipster touchstones. As it stands, they remain to this day a glorious undiscovered secret.
Heldon were formed by guitarist Richard Pinhas, France’s own guitar hero. Pinhas was a suave left-wing intellectual who had experienced the political unrest of the 1968 student riots. Looking for some form of self-expression, he moved into rock and roll. Taking their name from a Norman Spinrad sci fi novel, the band fused Pinhas’ Fripp-like guitar playing with spacey synthesisers. It’s entirely appropriate that Pinhas should take his band’s name from Spinrad’s alternate universe masterwork The Iron Dream, partly because of that novel’s sound kicking of right wing ideology would have appealed to Pinhas’ politics, but also because the group themselves sound like they don’t quite belong in our universe. Although Pinhas’ heavy Crimso influence and the band’s penchant for sidelong epics places them firmly in the prog camp, their pioneering use of droning electronics is more aligned with Cluster or Tangerine Dream’s experiments than Wakeman or Emerson. Indeed, at times Heldon achieved a nasty, spikey minimalism that predates Suicide or Throbbing Gristle, and their use of clangy metallic percussion echoes Kraftwerk and anticipates Einsturzende Neubauten. Their integration of synthesisers is particularly remarkable in how successful it is – synths played their part in the downfall of many great prog acts, simply because the rigid technology of the time was hard to square with the dynamic time signature and tempo shifts that gave the music so much of its colour. At times, Heldon’s mastery of the tension between man and machine recalls The Who’s defining work on ‘Baba O’Reilly’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and their ability to work with the mechanical groove is reminiscent of Manuel Gottsching’s seminal E2-E4 and of course the Gottsching-indebted LCD Soundsystem.
Heldon released seven studio albums in their lifetime, each one worth owning, and the best ones being very special indeed. As information about them is relatively scarce on the internet, here follows a rundown of their studio output, in chronological order and with mock Pitchfork ratings out of 10.0, in the hope that people will be moved to investigate these wonderful albums. Personnel info adapted with apologies from, apologies to the band and musicians if any of it is incorrect.

Electronic Guerilla (1974)

Gilles Deleuze – Vocals
Patrick Gauthier – Synthesiser, keyboards
Georges Grunblatt – Synthesiser, keyboards
Ariel Kalma – Keyboards
Richard Pinhas – Guitar, keyboards
Alain Renaud – Guitar
Coco Roussel – Percussion
Pierrot Roussel – Bass

Interestingly enough, the first album from France’s guitar hero Pinhas doesn’t feature any guitar until the second track. Electronic Guerilla opens with ‘Zind’, two minutes of throbbing electronics that wouldn’t be out of place on a Cluster LP. Electronics are woven into the whole album, their ominous buzzing providing a counterpoint for Pinhas’ wild guitar soloing. While Robert Fripp is obviously the main influence on his playing, Pinhas is definitely his own man. The sonic debt is clear in both the fuzzed out, searing soloing and the delicate acoustic passages, especially on ‘Ballade Pour Puig Antich, Révolutionnaire Assassiné en Espagne’, where it is doubled with soft mellotron. However, Pinhas’ style is less disciplined than Fripp, favouring a raw and unhinged edge that gives his playing its own identity.
The title of the album betrays the bands politics, as does ‘Ouais Marchais, Mieux Qu'en 68’, which features a spoken word piece about the student riots in France in 1968, and Pinhas’ anger is audibly simmering on this track some six years later. However the album is not at all as violent as this might suggest – indeed the tone is lyrical and sedate, with disconcerting eddies of anger and violence felt underneath, almost subliminally.
Electronic Guerilla is an impressive debut, and Heldon’s potential is on ample display. However, it’s audibly a formative work. Pinhas’ guitar playing is yet to reach the peaks it would on later albums, and there are odd moments where the synthesiser backings and the guitar playing feel somewhat clumsily wielded together, almost as if they belong to separate songs. This is especially noticeable on ‘Ballad…’, whose pastoral, early Crimson tone is constantly offset by an intrusive synthesiser buzz. Having said that, all the tracks have something to offer, and even at this early stage it’s clear that Heldon were going to develop into a very exciting band indeed.

Rating: 7.6

Heldon II: Allez Teia (1975)

Allain Blanche – Guitars
Georges Grunblatt – Synthesiser, guitar, keyboards, mellotron, ARP
Richard Pinhas – Guitar, synthesiser, keyboards, mellotron, tapes, ARP
Alain Renaud - Guitar

And the terrorist chic continues with the cover for Heldon’s second LP, with its cover showing a grainy black and white picture of an activist running from an armed policeman. Ill-advised, but admittedly miles away from Roger Dean. One wonders if the cover is the reason why Pinhas himself reportedly thinks little of this LP, as it’s another solid effort in the same vein as the debut. The album start off with the band’s strongest ever shout out to their musical heroes, ‘In The Wake Of King Fripp’, a lyrical piece of mellotron, acoustic guitar and acid-drenched soloing that indeed would not have sounded too out of place on the first two Crimso LPs. Not that Heldon have sacrificed their individuality – the rest of the album sees them refining and developing their own sound, growing ever more confident with their mix of kosmiche electronics and proggy guitar heroics. Pinhas’ brilliance is often in the way the band’s two distinct voices – guitar and synthesiser – work in distinct harmony with each other, as in conversation. Instead of man fighting the machine, as on The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, Heldon sound like a fully integrated cyborg, the organic and mechanical effortlessly interwoven. In this way the sound and feel of Heldon II reminds me of Manuel Gottsching’s E2-E4, at this point still nine years in the future, especially on tracks like ‘Moebius’. Like E2-E4, Heldon’s songs are already beginning to organically evolve, slowly and lyrically mutating over the course of their length. ‘Fluence’ is a prime example of this, Heldon’s first track over ten minutes long and the best thing on the album. Its serene deep space synthesisers wouldn’t be out of place on any classic German space rock album, and though there is a gap between it and the next song, they could just have easily flowed together. It illustrates the band’s increased confidence and gives a hint to their future direction. ‘Alphansis’ and closer ‘Michel Ettori’ feature no synthesisers, just Pinhas’ acoustic guitar weaving elegant melodic patterns.
Heldon II is perhaps a little less impressive than the band’s debut, suffering as it does from feeling largely like more of the same and lacking the shock of the new factor. Perhaps like their heroes King Crimson, their second album simply follows the pattern of their first a little too closely. It also feels a little less focused, drifting in some places. However, it drifts very nicely indeed, and with their next album, Heldon would begin to realize their massive potential.

Rating: 7.4

Third: It’s Always Rock And Roll (1975)

Gilber Artman – Drums
Aurore – Vocals
Didier Batard – Bass
Patrick Gauthier – Synthesiser, keyboards
Georges Grunblatt – Synthesiser, keyboards
Jean Mytruong – Drums
Richard Pinhas – Guitar
Alain Renaud – Guitar

Richard Pinhas’ work ethic is nothing if not impressive – Heldon’s second album of 1975 was a double LP, and one that saw his band really start to kick into gear. Like The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, The Fall’s Grotesque or XTC’s Drums And Wires, It’s Always Rock And Roll (or Third – Heldon were already starting to get confused with their numbering) marks the point where a formerly good band with potential made the leap into greatness. One of the reasons for this new-found rock raw power is the addition of Didier Batard on bass, who would later become part of the core Heldon power trio on later albums. Here his brutal, precise bass playing, with its shades of Jannick Topp and John Wetton, gives the music that extra kick that was missing on the earlier LPs. A good double LP is often seen as the hallmark of a good prog band, as it gives a group a real chance to stretch out and express their ideas to the fullest. Heldon’s spaced out sprawl suits the format brilliantly, and the band waste no time in freaking out with a vengeance over four sides of vinyl.
The album opens yet again with a guitar free track, ‘ICS Machinique’. The shimmering synth arpeggios are reminiscent of Tim Blake’s excellent work for Gong. Also notable, though, is the interaction between the synthesisers and the nervous drums, almost tripping over itself to keep up with the synthesiser’s mechanical whirring. From here on in, drums would play an increasingly important part in the human side of the Heldon cyborg, providing a muscular anchor and counterpoint to the spacey explorations of the synthesisers and guitar. ‘Côtes de Cachalot à la Psylocybine’ features sinister Blade Runner synths and some truly twisted soloing from Pinhas. If the first two Crimso albums were the original Heldon reference point, here he sounds like ‘Prince Rupert’s Lament’ off of Lizard, or ‘Requiem’ from 1982’s Beat – tortured guitars howling their pain in the distance while the ship goes down. ‘Méchammment Rock’, with its clomping, rhythmic guitar and thrillingly unhinged percussion could almost be Lark’s Tongues-era Crim, or Magma on the warpath.
The band’s gnomic sense of humour comes through in the song titles, whilst at the same time restating the endless possibilities of rock music that had by this time fallen into dull cliché – see the Stones album referenced by the title. ‘Cocaine Blues’ has little to do with the blues and more to do with oscillating, cosmic synths. ‘Virgin Swedish Blues’ is a bit closer to the blues in that it features more prominent guitar, albeit heavily phased and joined at the hip to pulsing electronics and more Fripp-tastic guitar solos. ‘Ocean Boogi’ is more of the same. ‘Zind Destruction’ cleverly references Spinrad again and the group’s own debut album. Angry buzzing synths and menacing guitar create an appropriately apocalyptic track.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an epic prog rock double LP without sidelong tracks, another worthy measure of a prog band’s quality. On their first side-swallowing epics, Heldon don’t disappoint. ‘Aurore’ takes up all of side 2, and is a dark slab of timeless deep space, all atonal kosmiche synthesiser drones, cut from the same cloth as Tangerine Dream’s Zeit. Closing the whole affair on side 4 is the Philip K Dick-referencing ‘Doctor Bloodmoney’, which is even better. Heldon create a suitable soundtrack for PKD’s post-apocalypse world that develops throughout its whole length from kosmiche gloop through periods of hysteria and oceans of calm to a stunning drum-led climax that could really be nobody else. This is a perfect example of just how good they were with synthesisers – witness how the drummer effortlessly keeps up with the shifting and mutating synth patterns through a deft command of jazz technique and rock dynamics.
It’s Always Rock And Roll is a triumph. Truly cosmic, it is lightyears away from most people’s standard definition of rock music, yet in its endless invention and sheer attitude, it’s about as rock and roll as you can get. The only reason that I haven’t awarded it the full 10.0 out of 10.0 is that stunningly, Heldon would keep on developing and progressing, soon surpassing even this wonderful record.

Rating: 9.2

Heldon IV: Agneta Nillson (1976)

Alain Bellaiche – Bass, guitar
Michel Ettori – Guitar
Patrick Gauthier – Synthesiser, keyboards, Mini Moog
Richard Pinhas – Guitar, keyboards, electronic sounds, mellotron, electronics
Gerard Prevost – Bass
Philibert Rossi – Synthesiser, mellotron
Coco Roussel – Drums

And we’re back to Roman numerals with Heldon IV, not to mention dodgy cover art, this time featuring a baby in an intensive care unit. The music sees the band following on from the innovations of the previous release, and gearing up for what would be the most successful phase of their career. Heldon are beginning to devote entire sides of vinyl to concept pieces that allow their music to stretch out for 20 minutes at a time. The suite on side one is a bit weaker then side two, but it’s still pretty impressive. ‘Perspective’ parts I to III shift across Tangerine Dream synthesisers into arpegiator land coupled with some droning industrial-esque guitar work, reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle, who wouldn’t release their first album for a year yet. The atmosphere is perhaps overly oppressive, the metallic clangs and harsh distortion grinding away through all of part III (excellently subtitled ‘Baader-Meinhof Blues’). The side concludes with a solo bass piece, which rivals in its melodic invention Chris Squire’s ‘The Fish’, if not possessed of quite the same rhythmic dexterity. Although Batard, Pinhas’ natural second in command, decided to sit this one out, the twin ex-Magma team of Alain Bellaiche and Gerard Prevost fill his shoes amply. However, if side one occasionally lacks focused, this is more than made up for in side two. The epic ‘Perspective IV’ anticipates the devastating sonic potential of the full Heldon power trio, which would be unleashed later that same year. The rhythm slowly builds out of the synthesiser drone, becoming a bubbling and heaving juggernaut over which Pinhas lays down some aweinspiring noise-funk madness, sounding at times like the ‘Sweet Thing’ coda from Diamond Dogs played by a particularly frenetic Can. The whole thing fades away and the synthesisers come back again, to lead us through another stellar drum and synth work out like the one on ‘Doctor Bloodmoney’. Again the way the drummer navigates the ebb and flow of the arpegiator is simply astounding in its dexterity and inventiveness, this display really ought to put the drummer up there with the other prog greats. Just as it seems he’s about to nail the whole thing down to a solid hard jazz groove, the whole thing comes to a sudden stop. Unsurprisingly, this track would provide the template for much of the rest of Heldon’s career.
Heldon IV is a great album, but it’s really the sound of a band gearing up for the big ones, and side one is a tad less compelling than the sheer sonic mastery displayed on side two. Over the next three albums, Heldon would refine their approach even further, achieving even greater heights of cosmic glory.

Rating: 8.7

Un Reve Sans Consequence Speciale (1976)

Francios Auger – Drums
Didier Batard – Bass
Patrick Gauthier – Synthesiser, keyboards
Richard Pinhas – Guitar, keyboards
Jannick Top – Bass

Once again Pinhas’ insane work ethic gave us two classic Heldon albums in one year. Losing the numbers entirely this time (on my copy at least, allmusic refers to it as Heldon V), Un Reve Sans Consequence Speciale is even better than its predecessor, and as an added bonus, features a guest spot on bass from Magma’s legendary second in command Jannick Top on side two. The end result isn’t quite the unholy Magma/Heldon mashup you’d imagine, but it’s still pretty awesome. In fact, Reve… is a step up from all of Heldon’s previous releases, largely thanks to the fact that Pinhas had finally found a bassist and drummer who could keep up with him in terms of passion and intensity. Didier Batard, previously heard anchoring the sonic maelstrom on chaos, returns to the fray for some more, and this time is accompanied by the excellent Francois Auger on drums. Auger’s dextrous command of jazz technique and rock power, not to mention his sheer off-the-wall inventiveness, make him the perfect choice to complete Heldon’s monstrous rhythm section. Finally with the pieces all in place, Heldon from this point onwards were an unstoppable sonic behemoth, purveyors of cosmic doom and redemption in about equal measure.
‘Marie Virginie C’ is a stunning assertion of all of Heldon’s strengths, a long form workout with screeching synths, wild distorted guitar and powerful drumming. Once again the mechanical theme here is strong, with the percussionist’s use of sheet metal violence making the group sound like some giant factory. Pinhas’ work here is acid-damaged and extreme, similar to Manuel Gottsching’s cosmic freak outs. This is followed by the percussion only ‘Elephanta’, which really gives Auger a chance to shine all by himself. Over eight minutes, the piece is never dull, as he channels both the mechanical and the tribal, using an astonishing range of instruments and sounds. Playing with the apregiators clearly paid off here, as the way he sets up the overlapping and shifting rhythms is not dissimilar to the melodic mutating patterns of the synthesiser. The end result sounds like robots playing gamelan at a party. Side two continues with ‘Marie Viriginie C’, this time building up from a mechanical groove and Top’s monstrous bass, opening up dub-like caverns of sound over which harsh synthesisers buzz and metal clashes. ‘Mvc II’ is an excellent example of the kind of weirdness that prog can throw up that you’d be unlikely to come across in any other genre. The rest of side two is taken up by ‘Towards The Red Line’, a mesh of whirring synths that approaches This Heat in its sonic density and detail. Rolling drums and Fripp-like guitar heroics burst through the chaos at key moments, humanity adding its voice to the joyful mechanical chaos. Eventually the group achieve an anchoring groove, somehow bringing the whole glorious mess into sharp focus.
Un Reve… shows Heldon confidently straddling the gap between prog and krautrock, whilst anticipating the sound of industrial and post punk’s most out there groups. Truly now they were in a league of their own, something that their final two releases would bear out.

Rating: 9.5

Heldon 6: Interface (1977)

Francois Auger – Synthesiser, percussion, drums
Didier Batard – Bass
Patrick Gauthier – Moog bass, synthesiser, keyboards
Richard Pinhas – Synthesiser, guitar, keyboards, electronic sounds, moog synthesiser

The punk and post-punk years would not see any change in the public image of French rock, although Paris’ execrable Metal Urbain have the distinction of their debut 7” being Rough Trade 001. It’s entirely appropriate to Heldon’s perverse attitude that they would achieve perfection when the gates had closed for prog. Had Interface (or Heldon 6 – their only LP to be graced with Arabic numerals) been released a couple of years earlier, perhaps its sheer brilliance would have allowed it to transcend the silly Frenchies can’t rock stereotype and set the world alight. Released in punk’s year zero, it didn’t stand a chance. Listened to today, Heldon’s (first!) masterpiece is a timeless piece of kosmiche prog-funk, guaranteed to blast you straight to seventh heaven.
Side one is linked conceptually by the ‘Volantes’ segments, bubbling synthesisers aided and abetted by funky bass and drums, which features some truly epic guitar mangling from Pinhas on the final segment. In between we get the glorious cosmic doom of ‘Jet Girl’, all synthesiser drones and mourning guitars, and ‘Bal-A-Fou’, which morphs from its all synth beginning to a sunny, sparkling whirl of interlocking guitar and melodic bass, anticipating the rock gamelan approach of 80s Krim whilst harking back to Neu! at their shimmering motorik peak. Batard really shines on this track, his melodic and rhythmic range is quite stunning. More of this is on display on side two, which is swallowed by all three parts of the title track. A slow beginning evolves into a confident, limber and funky groove, with the bassist locked into the pulses of the synthesiser and more fine displays by Auger, leaving Pinhas to solo at his acid-drenched, unhinged best over the top. The drummer engages in some truly impressive rolls and fills, pushing aside and playing with the beat. The third part builds up again from phased drums, the bass subtly entering and then the synths, creating a kosmiche drone-out worthy of Klaus Schulze. This builds up into a weird, electro dub, more in line with Kraftwerk or Suicide than anything else, or like Sister Ray reimagined as a techno nightmare. Then the whole mix is topped off with Pinhas’ malevolent guitar soloing, and the band really kick off. Again, the mix of spacey guitars and synthesisers puts the listener in mind of E2-E4, only much more sinister, with undercurrents of violence making themselves felt underneath the bubbling surface. Pinhas’ guitar playing is still audibly influenced by Fripp, but his work here shows you just how far the guy’s come. There is a thrillingly dangerous edge to his playing, an off-the-cuff wildness as he loops clusters of sound, generates blistering bursts of noise and lets the ends of phrases disintegrate into harsh feedback. This approach prefigures Keith Leviene’s revolutionary work with Public Image Limited a couple of years later; indeed with Leviene being a Yes fan and PiL being Can and Magma-heads, could Leviene himself be a fan of this album? Brilliantly, this slice of mutant space electronics ends on a joke, the groove fading away leaving us briefly with a distorted guitar cheekily playing a fuzzed-up Chuck Berry riff before the tape cuts. It’s Always Rock And Roll, indeed.
Interface is utterly glorious, the raw, monstrous Heldon power trio at its utter, cosmic peak. As well as cementing Pinhas’ reputation as a guitar whiz, if Auger and Batard weren’t the best rhythm section in rock by now, I’d like to know who was. Heldon now found themselves facing the age old dilemma for great bands – how can you possibly follow up perfection? The correct answer is, of course, you release another stone-cold, all-time classic.

Rating: 10.0

Stand By (1979)

Francois Auger – Percussion, piano, drums
Didier Badex – Synthesiser
Didier Batard – Bass
Klaus Blasquiz – Vocals
Patrick Gauthier – Piano, keyboard, polymoog, mini moog
Richard Pinhas – Guitar, keyboards, moog synthesiser, vocoder, electronics, polymoog

Appropriately enough, Heldon’s seventh and final album receives no numbers in its title. It took the band two years to complete the follow up to Interface, the longest time they’d ever taken between releasing albums. Yet even a cursory listen to Stand By reveals that the band clearly had lost none of the fire and intensity that made Inferface so essential. Heldon’s second masterpiece would also be their last, though this album shows no signs of an ailing creative force. They split at the peak of their powers. Stand By is possibly Heldon’s most complete album. Before you notice the tautology, let’s move on to the music.
Stand By opens with the title track, possibly Heldon’s single finest composition. An awesome piece of prog rock, it shifts organically through a number of changes of pace and mood. The influence of both King Crimson and Magma is strong here, especially on the monolithic and very Top-like bass playing from Batard. Its knotty structure of interlocking riffs and its cerebral development through them puts the listener in mind of great Crimso instrumentals like ‘Red’. The band switch from brutalist hard rock to menacing funk and back again on a dime, and everyone gets a chance to show off their instrumental prowess. ‘Une Drole de Journee’ is another example of sequencers and drummer operating in perfect harmony, Auger totally locked into the shifts in tone and tempo. It also features a wonderful guest spot from Magma’s Klaus Blasquiz, spraying his trademark bizarre wordless vocals over the top, quite possibly in Kobaian, the constructed language Christian Vander invented for Magma. Or maybe it’s just gibberish, perhaps a slightly tongue-in-cheek tribute. Certainly, the rich harmonies are closer to Gentle Giant’s playfulness than Magma’s choral malevolence. Side two is given over entirely to ‘Bolero’, which is split on the CD into 8 parts with creative subtitles, but really it’s one big piece. In stark contrast to the sheer malevolence of ‘Interface’, ‘Bolero’ is lyrical and melodic. Indeed, this is as close as Heldon would get to E2-E4, and it shares many of that piece’s traits, anticipating Gottsching’s masterwork by some years. In the motorik pulse running through the track and its melodic expansiveness recall Kraftwerk’s driving epic ‘Autobahn’. It’s sheer joy and almost pastoral tone is markedly different from the industrial themes that run through their later albums, and there’s a nice sense of circularity that their final album should end with a piece that recalls in spirit the gentler tone of their early albums while at the same time displaying just how far the band had progressed from those days. Again, Auger’s locked groove in tandem with the synths proves just how much a master he was of his craft.
Really, it’s down to personal preference which of Heldon’s two masterpieces you prefer. I personally don’t think there’s much in it, so I’ve awarded them both perfect tens. Stand By doesn’t give any indication of a band drifting apart musically, and it suggests that even more great music could have followed. However, kudos to Heldon for splitting at the peak of their powers, rather than dragging on long past their sell-by date. This way we remember them at their best, untainted by years of rot and decay. The 80s were not an easy time for prog, and it’s understandable that Pinhas would want to continue as a solo artist, free from the musical and financial constraints of a prog group. If you’re going to go out, this is some way to do it.

Rating: 10.0


So, in their brief six years of existence, Heldon released seven albums of top notch prog, which anticipated some of the most original and groundbreaking music released in the next decade. Heldon were musical pioneers certainly, but is it reasonable to cast them as this great lost influence? Probably not. Much as I would love to find out that everyone from Manuel Gottsching to Keith Leviene to Fripp himself is secretly a Heldon fan, I think it’s unlikely at best. Heldon are probably one of those groups who made fantastic music ahead of its time that sadly you could erase from the timeline without causing significant damage. This is unquestionably a travesty. Hopefully I’ve inspired my hypothetical audience to investigate these albums, because they are all worthy of your time and attention, and just because nobody paid attention at the time doesn’t mean that Heldon didn’t produce a wealth of awe-inspiring and exciting music. Richard Pinhas should be regarded as a guitar hero, and Interface and Stand By are prog classics of the first order, and hopefully one day they will be rightly seen as such. And Didier Batard and Francois Auger really deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as their British and German peers for their musical prowess and invention. The power trio version of Heldon, in all its punked up, progged out glory, is truly a thing of wonder to hear in full flow. Musicians looking for new artistic directions in these retrogressive times could do worse than take inspiration from Heldon’s heady mix of prog, krautrock and electronica.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Radiohead: Do They Suck The Young Blood?

The end of decade lists recently published betray a lack of critical consensus about the greatest music of the past ten years. A result of the increasingly fractured and subdivided musical genres, a function of the way the internet has changed the way we listen to and think about music? Perhaps, but that’s not what this article is about. One of the things that the lists generally agree on is Kid A. This puts Radiohead in the curious position of having two albums widely considered to be among the best of the decade they were released in – indeed Pitchfork would have you believe that both Kid A and OK Computer are the single best albums released in their respective decades. OK Computer regularly tops lists of Best Ever Albums, by both expert panels of critics and the public. Yet, for all this adoration, universal acceptance still eludes Radiohead. A small yet significant and very vocal minority cries out against the canonization of their albums, painting Yorke and co. as whiny bores overintellectualising rock, or simply getting credit for poorly recycling other people’s ideas. In terms of influence, fan worship and controversy, it’s all too easy to compare Radiohead to The Smiths. Certainly they inspire equal amounts of worship and vitriol in their supporters and detractors respectively.
Where do I stand? Good question. I consider myself a lapsed Radiohead fan. I heard Pablo Honey and The Bends at an impressionable age, and they were one of the few modern bands that made a mark on my prog-addled teenage brain. I remember hearing OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac later, after all three had come out, and being impressed that the post-grunge band from the first two albums had changed so much, but finding the latter two distinctly unmemorable. To stop this from morphing into a life story, I eventually became a much bigger fan, only to find my affection cooling off later. I’m pretty sure some of this is a reaction to the hype – so much intensive information and discussion about music only serves to dull its magic in your mind. However, I’m not sure that’s entirely it. I don’t argue with Radiohead haters in music arguments because, to a certain extent, I see their point and even kind of agree with it.
I don’t think Radiohead overintellectualise rock, I think that’s a load of nonsense. No artist should be bound by other people’s preconceptions of what they should or should not be doing. Also, in this world we are cursed by Radiohead’s vastly VASTLY inferior mirror universe copies Muse and Coldplay, who actually both emphasise Radiohead’s own strengths quite nicely. Muse’s stodgy and sonically ugly schmindie rock and Coldplay’s horrifically bland U2-isms not only vindicate Radiohead’s choice to follow a more interesting path after the success of The Bends and OK Computer but also show how damn good Radiohead were at schmindie rock and bland U2-isms before they got bored with them.
However, none of Radiohead’s albums are consistently brilliant, even the admittedly excellent OK Computer. And, for all their vaunted pushing of the envelope, there’s nothing radically new in OK Computer, Kid A or Amnesiac. The surprising thing is that they came from a fairly competent rock band and the latter two sold impressively for what they are. Which is a user-friendly rehash of experimental rock down the years. Many of these ideas were pretty old by the time Radiohead got to them – Pink Floyd and krautrock leave their fingerprints over both records – and many of them aren’t even from particularly obscure sources. Sure, there’s the odd shout out to Faust, but Floyd were and are hugely popular. Radiohead were beaten to the punch in exhuming Pink Floyd and Genesis by Marillion, whose excellent Brave is surely an influence on OK Computer, with its spooky ambience derived from a haunted castle and its premillenial dread pre-empting Radiohead’s effort by a number of years, and the end result is much more generous spirited as well. Other more modern influences, from Sigur Ros to the entire 90s output of Warp Records, may have been a bit closer to the cutting edge, but still were hardly old news and actually sold reasonable amounts. While Kid A was intended to be alienating on first lesson, it’s not as if Radiohead dropped their listeners entirely in the deep end.
But, perhaps more importantly, there is something very worthy and po-faced about Radiohead’s music, which maybe stems from their angst-fuelled early days in the aftermath of grunge. They make serious art, dammit. Look at many of their (more adventurous) sonic sources though, and you will see bands with much more of a sense of humour. From Faust to Aphex Twin, the best experimental music is able to be fun and engaging whilst pushing the boundaries. And for all their moping, Radiohead are unable to summon the bleak, frightening austerity that makes records like The Marble Index and Closer so bracing. At the end of the day, for all their risk-taking, there is still something incredibly white bread about Radiohead.
Enough on the rhetoric. How do I actually feel about Radiohead’s actual music? I don’t know. It’s been ages since I’ve been able to listen to them. The thought occurred to me that being here in Costa Rica is as far away as I’m likely to get from Radiohead, so this is an excellent time to revisit their albums away from all the noise, and try to assess them fairly and objectively. And then give each one a crass Pitchfork rating out of 10.0. I am genuinely curious to find out what I make of the music now. I have decided that I will listen to all their studio albums, including frakking Pablo Honey, as well as the officially released live album I Might Be Wrong. I’m not going to delve into Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood’s solo albums here, as they don’t have quite the cultural cachet that their day job has, so my opinion of them is less likely to be influenced by all the hype if I ever get round to hearing them. I have also decided not to listen to all of Radiohead’s B-sides or any compilations thereof. However, I will be talking about the odd B-side in between albums when appropriate, largely because two of my favourite ever Radiohead tracks are B-sides and I have nowhere else to cram them in. In my review of In Rainbows, I will ignore the way the record was released, and judge it entirely on the merit of the music itself, which is what all the idiots who reviewed it at the time should have done. But while I’m here, I may as well point out that I thought the whole thing was a cynical attempt to get attention and ultimately get the fans who care about the band the most to pay twice for the same thing. Bands as diverse as Marillion, Coil, Einsturzende Neubauten and Ghost Box records have been using the internet for most of this decade in increasingly innovative ways without making such a bloody fuss. You can still download Marillion’s excellent Happiness Is The Road from their website free of charge, long after Radiohead took down In Rainbows and replaced it with the traditional paying version. Lastly, I’m magnanimously going to spare Radiohead the utter embarrassment of dredging up the execrable ‘Pop Is Dead’, because I’m such a nice guy.
Onward to the reviews! But first: ahahahahahahaha, ‘Pop Is Dead’ is so shit! OK done now.

Pablo Honey (1993)

And so the Radiohead story starts not with a bang, but with a whimper. Pablo Honey is infamously not very good, and perhaps the only surprise here is just how poor the debut of one of the most widely respected bands in the world now is. But then again, perhaps part of Radiohead’s appeal stems from the fact that instead of arriving fully formed, they started off rough and ready and drastically improved.
Amongst the daft things frequently written about this band is the epithet ‘last’ – Radiohead are the last great guitar band, the last band to really matter and so on. Palpably rubbish, but in one way it makes sense, at least for now – any band around today who released an album this uninspiring would be lucky to be allowed the time and funding to develop into something better. Radiohead’s get out of the scrapyard free card was, of course, minor indie hit ‘Creep’. Listening to it today, you’re reminded why it became a hit in the first place and why you never want to hear the damn song ever again. As a whole, the album is firmly rooted in its time. In 1993, Simon Reynolds used the term ‘post rock’ to describe a movement in music that Radiohead would later be associated with, but there’s no sign whatsoever of that on this recod. Instead we get grungey alternative rock. It’s a genre that has yet to really have a hipster revival, and really that’s for the best, because by and large it just wasn’t really any good.
While in retrospect it’s kind of interesting to hear the defining features of Radiohead’s sound – Johnny Greenwood’s guitar and Thom Yorke’s voice – in their nascent form, both sound decidedly unformed and unsure of their own strengths. The music is a mix of fairly standard alt-rock influences – the most prominent being stadium-era REM and U2, and of course Nirvana – but it rarely coalesces into anything individual or interesting. The exceptions are ‘You’, a hard rocker that builds up from delicate guitar picking and hints at where the band would go next, and ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’, a compelling mess of Sonic Youth-esque guitar nailed to a snarky lyric.
The rest of the album drones by in a haze of angsty awkwardness. Radiohead have three guitarists, which always seems on paper somewhat redundant, and though later on they would figure out a sensible way to orchestrate them, here they just obfusticate and cloud up the already muddy and confused songs. ‘Thinking About You’ is vaguely memorable for being the first showing of the band’s gentler, acoustic side, though lyrics equating masturbation with self-loathing can’t quite raise the song into genuinely good territory. ‘Stop Whispering’ betrays the band’s Pixies influence, though the band’s lackluster musicianship and uninspiring writing make the comparison a decidedly unfavourable one. ‘Prove Yourself’ is kind of cute and kind of pathetic. The rest of the LP is deplorable, to the extent that you feel embarrassed for the band listening to it, (‘How Do You’ is actually hilariously awful). In particular, the adolescent, angsty lyrics must make Thom Yorke cringe these days. Pablo Honey has never been reassessed by anyone, and, frankly, it’s unlikely to be because it doesn’t deserve it. Listened to today, it’s remarkable how un-Radiohead-like much of the music on Pablo Honey is. Don’t worry, they got better.

Rating: 3.8

The Bends (1995)

The Bends is a remarkable improvement on Radiohead’s debut. It’s far more assured and confident, the music stronger and more coherent. It’s actually a pretty good album. That being said, it’s not quite the unadulterated masterpiece many would have you believe. Exactly half of The Bends is utterly fantastic. Sadly, the other half is less convincing, and sees the band still stumbling over some of the problems that plagued their debut.
The good songs first. The album starts off strong, with ‘Planet Telex’ arriving in a cloud of spacey whooshes and dry ice, with echoplexed guitars and much improved vocals, followed by the title track. The songwriting is much more complex and well realized right off the bat, as are the arrangements, which find time to incorporate weirder, quieter moments amidst the clarified rock punch. ‘The Bends’ takes a well-aimed swipe at Britpop nostalgia, firmly setting the band against all that self-important, retro nationalistic tripe, the fear and self-loathing of the lyrics almost undercut completely by the song’s glorious, anthemic chorus. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ is still just beautiful, undulled by years of familiarity. A nuanced study of the hollowness of modern life, it swells up from an acoustic beginning to a grand climax, and shows just how inventive Radiohead were becoming with their arrangements – the texture of the song morphs subtly through spacey keyboards to full on guitar rock. ‘Black Star’ is a far better rewrite of ‘More Than A Feeling’ then ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ ever was, replete with twinkling guitar fade in and mellow harmonies contrasted against a brutal crunching guitar riff. ‘Just’ sees self-loathing from the other side with a snarling guitar line derived from Magazine’s ‘Shot By Both Sides’, and has some very nifty guitar work. Nocturnal closer ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ is a thing of limpid wonder, with its cyclical guitar riff perfectly complementing the blurred, dreamlike shifts between nightmare and dream in the lyrics.
These songs alone make The Bends more then worth your while, but unfortunately, that’s only half the story. The rest of the songs are not so strong. While there’s little here that’s outright embarrassing, (though ‘Nice Dream’ comes close), there’s also very little that’s up to much. Radiohead’s songwriting was still letting them down. ‘My Iron Lung’ is a compelling song with a cool guitar riff, until the band completely lose the plot with an almost comically bad heavy section. ‘Sulk’ is utterly forgettable and ‘Bones’ is a clumsy mess. Another problem is the horrible guitar sound that the band seem to favour on their first two albums: not noisy enough to be truly bracing and lacking enough low end to give the sound definition, the end result is an indeterminate, heavy yet curiously limp sounding mess. The real surprise here is how poor Radiohead’s gentler, less rocky songs are. ‘High and Dry’, ‘Nice Dream’ and ‘Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was’ are all horrifically bland and approach U2-esque levels of crassness and painful sincerity. They really don’t suggest at all how well Radiohead would manage once they ditched their alt-rock tendencies.
Another thing I feel I must mention at this juncture is Radiohead’s lyrics. Thom Yorke trades in vagueness and inscrutability. When this works, it works very well, creating an underlying sense of paranoia or dread that’s never specifically pinned down, allowing the listener’s imagination to fill in the blanks, and Yorke would eventually wind up very good at this indeed. However, at this stage, there are many cases where it simply doesn’t work – Yorke sounds like he really is singing about nothing, or else nails together a phrase so gutwrenchingly clumsy it wrecks the entire mood of the song. ‘Now I can’t climb the stairs/ Pieces missing everywhere….’ Sometimes it sounds like he isn’t even trying. Or trying too hard and failing. There are many such examples on the album, ‘Nice Dream’ is particularly bad.
So, while The Bends is a definite step up from Pablo Honey and marks Radiohead’s first step on the trail towards greatness, the band still encounter teething troubles on the way. Its good songs are often great, but its poor songs are often very poor indeed, and The Bends doesn’t quite manage to stand up by itself as a truly great LP. However, there is magic to be found in its grooves for sure, and they were getting there.

Rating: 6.7

‘Bishop’s Robes’/‘Talk Show Host’ (1996)

They were getting there very fast indeed. These two B-sides from the ‘Street Spirit’ single show that by the next year, Radiohead were leaving The Bends behind full speed and gearing up to make their masterpiece. Both of these songs could have sat on The Bends, and while they would have wrecked the flow of the album completely, they would have sat happily with the album’s best songs. ‘Bishop’s Robes’ is a glorious, string-laden ballad of the type Coldplay wish they could write. ‘I am not going back,’ sings Yorke wistfully at the chorus as he gives Oxford a quietly brutal kiss-off. If ‘Bishop’s Robes’ anticipates OK Computer’s melodic grandeur, then ‘Talk Show Host’ marks out Radiohead’s path afterwards. Twinkling keyboards and Yorke’s paranoid yelping are repeatedly undercut by a monstrous bassline and breakbeats copped straight form The Happy Mondays copping Can. Truly a thing of twisted beauty, and one of my favourite Radiohead songs.

NOTE: From this point onwards, all of Radiohead’s studio albums suffer from lousy mastering. I don’t want to talk about this at great length here, but if you master and album entirely in the red it removes all the dynamics, makes the instruments not sound like real instruments and makes the whole thing unpleasant to listen to. Radiohead’s albums certainly aren’t the worst mastered out there, but it is noticeable, and it does effect my enjoyment of this on the whole very good music. All these albums deserve better then that.

OK Computer (1997)

Apres ca, le deluge. After this album, in the eyes of the world Radiohead could do no wrong. And as much as the wind up merchant in me hates this, it’s hard to deny the quality of this fantastic record. Certainly it remains Radiohead’s greatest achievement, the perfect blend of mature songwriting and sonic experimentation. Calling it the greatest album of all time is ridiculous, but it doesn’t stop OK Computer from being a really good LP.
The album storms in on a guitar riff copped from the middle section of ‘Red’ by King Crimson, all thundering break beats and shimmering guitar, as it races to rip through Magazine’s ‘Recoil’ in the coda. This is where the prog comparisons started in earnest, and it actually is a little deserved. ‘Paranoid Android’ adroitly navigates through three seemingly unrelated musical sections to create a coherent whole, ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ features mellotron, and the whole album flows together so well the band would forever be fighting off accusations that it’s a concept album. The comparison most frequently made is to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, which shares the album’s vague theme of the way the evils of society slowly drive you insane, but the album has an even more recent precedence in Marillion’s excellent Brave, and the two albums share a similar sound and musical ambition. Both albums also go to the brink of despair to find redemption and a new love of life at the end. OK Computer is positively dripping with alienation – to the extent that the extraterrestrials seem like a friendly alternative on ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ – but the album opens and closes with the image of a person walking out of a potentially fatal accident simply happy to still be alive. You can practically see Thom Yorke’s grin as he sings, ‘In an interstellar burst I am back to save the universe’ on ‘Airbag’, perfectly capturing the change of perspective forced on you by a brush with death. ‘Lucky’, at the other end of the album, is less outspoken about its joy but more profoundly moving for it. Possibly Radiohead’s single greatest track, ‘Lucky’ is quietly content to rise above all the bullshit in the world and serenely wait for the waters to subside, knowing that the important things will still be there. ‘The head of state has called for me by name / But I don’t have time for him…’ The song rises from delicate guitar effects and ghostly keyboards, through a fantastic Johnny Greenwood guitar breakdown all to leave the listener hanging on an interrupted cadence.
There is a deep vein of melancholy running through many of these tracks, particularly on the brutal, wounded ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, which ends with Yorke murmuring brokenly, ‘We hope that you choke’, all aggression spent, all hope gone. ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ and ‘No Surprises’ both yearn for any sort of escape, however unlikely or horrific, from the crushingly mundane. However the album is not without humour, particularly on the justly iconic ‘Karma Police’. In the age of Oasis, Radiohead show you how to rip off a Beatles song (in this case ‘Sexy Sadie’) and come out looking intelligent on the other side. The lyrics call out for the Karma Police to come and arrest various unpleasant characters in an increasingly hysterical tone – it’s chorus of ‘This is what you’ll get / If you mess with us’ makes me think of Pink’s vile rant towards the end of The Wall – before the glorious coda reveals the whole set up to be a joke. Radiohead’s rhythm section, sometimes wondrous, sometimes a liability, shine particularly brightly here. Indeed their parts for the coda could almost be from a jazz standard, with the gentle, rolling drum fills and walking bass line. ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ almost resurrects Bauhaus for some tongue in cheek gothic horror, and ‘Electioneering’ is a coruscating, sneering attack against slimy politicians, and the first real sign of Radiohead’s political awareness on record.
Sadly the record just falls short of perfection. Much noise has been made about ‘Fitter Happier’, which, while it’s pretentious, is so short that it’s not really any sort of a problem. More damaging are ‘Let Down’, the dying echoes of Radiohead’s U2 influence coupled to some truly cringe-worthy lyrics, and ‘The Tourist’, the uneventful Johnny Greenwood song faced with the unenviable task of following ‘Lucky’ and closing the LP. However these are minor gripes on what is a very good record indeed. If Radiohead are unlikely to release anything ever as good again, neither are that many other bands. Greatest album of all time? Not by a long shot. Greatest album of the decade? Not even close. Bloody marvelous? You bet.

Rating: 9.2

Kid A (2000)

Inevitably this album was subject to ridiculous amounts of analysis on its original release, but I don’t really want to talk about that here. Hindsight allows us to look at Kid A as a transitional album rather then an end in itself, and as Radiohead advance on and on, this viewpoint makes more and more sense. It’s not that Kid A is a bad album – like The Bends, half of it is very good indeed. The album sounds like a band desperately trying to distance themselves from their previous album, and only partially succeeding.
Kid A makes a big song and dance about how different it is from OK Computer, but at the end of the day it’s not as if Radiohead went and released Metal Machine Music. Kid A is still identifiably a Radiohead album. Hell, many of the songs still have guitar and Thom Yorke’s unprocessed voice. In retrospect it’s a little surprising that it caused quite so much fan outrage. ‘How To Disappear Completely’ is a limpid aching ballad that could have easily fit on OK Computer, though it succeeds in being more depressing then anything on that album.
If OK Computer gets labeled prog, Kid A gets labeled post-rock. In some ways you can see what people are talking about, as the band was taking its experiments integrating rock with electronics to further, more leftfield extremes. ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, still one of Radiohead’s greatest songs, opens the album on an incredibly strong note. Like Sigur Ros if they were any good, the song is a hallucinatory swirl of keyboards and Yorke’s echoing, cut up vocals, turning his oblique lyrics into a kind of mantra. ‘The National Anthem’ is another top moment for the Radiohead rhythm section, all pounding drums and idiot bassline as all chaos breaks out over the top. The 5/4 time signature throws the whole band, but ‘Morning Bell’ is still an incredible song, with its melodic bass line and soaring melody hiding some truly disturbing lyrics, until the song breaks down halfway through and Yorke is left muttering to himself like a psychopath. ‘Idioteque’ truly is a thing of wonder, all glitching beats and wobbling keyboards while Thom Yorke’s paranoid rant about communication technology and government surveillance seems more and more chilling with each passing day. If you’re stuck in Britain, hahaha.
Unfortunately, not all of Kid A is an unqualified success. ‘Kid A’ is a poor Aphex Twin retread, and ‘Treefingers’ is nothing that Eno or Cluster didn’t do loads better in the early 70s. These tracks have all the hip post-rock influences of krautrock and electronica but unlike ‘Idioteque’ or ‘National Anthem’, they fail to do anything interesting with them, and the end result is self conscious and uninspiring. Not all of Kid A fails because Radiohead’s ambition overshoots itself either. ‘Optimistic’ is a dull, droning guitar lead song that is simply lacks the necessary guitar distortion to fit on side two of Pablo Honey. ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ opens off threatening to be an awesome Nico rip off, but simply peters out into nothingness, to pointlessly return in a cloud of confusing before slouching off again. I actually spent ages with the guitar tab of ‘In Limbo’ trying to find out if anything was actually happening in the song, because its very elusiveness fascinated me. Turns out it’s just a really boring song.
In a strange way, Kid A resembles The Bends more then any other Radiohead album. Once again, Radiohead felt the need to distance themselves from their past. Both albums see the band struggling against the boundaries of their previous work whilst containing hints of the rewards this struggle would eventually reap. As a result, Kid A is a far from coherent album, but it does contain some top drawer material, and its experiments allowed Radiohead to advance to the next stage in their musical journey.

Rating: 6.9

Amnesiac (2001)

Although a collection of offcuts from the Kid A sessions, Amnesiac is easily the superior LP. I think at this early stage, Radiohead wanted their transformation to appear more radical then it was, and so wound up second guessing themselves and putting out weaker material first in an effort to be weirder. With the benefit of hindsight, the connection between OK Computer’s sonic experiments – basically rebooting prog with electronica and post punk influences – runs through to Kid A and Amnesiac’s most interesting moments, and the more self consciously ‘experimental’ moments come off as more conservative because of how closely they ape their source material. In retrospect, the 12 track album they should have released in 2000 goes something like this:

Radiohead – Amnesiac Kid Is Wrong

Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box
Pyramid Song
National Anthem (I Might Be Wrong Live version)
You And Whose Army
I Might Be Wrong
Knives Out
Morning Bell (I Might Be Wrong Live version)
How To Disappear Completely
Idioteque (I Might Be Wrong Live version)
Like Spinning Plates (I Might Be Wrong Live version)
Everything In Its Right Place
Life In A Glass House

See? Most of it’s Amnesiac, cause it’s a better, and better sequenced, album. Your welcome Nigel Godrich.
Anyway. The album starts off with another great Radiohead opener, ‘Packt Like Sardines…’, in which Yorke and the beat stutter across each other, the song’s protagonist driven to paranoid breakdown. ‘Pyramid Song’ is a gloriously daft choice for a single, an Egyptian death mantra set against an oblique piano line whose alien geometry would have HPL running for cover. ‘You And Whose Army’ lyrically mirrors the bunker mentality of ‘Talk Show Host’, switching from a bluesy croon to a full band march of defiance. ‘Knives Out’ could have happily sat on OK Computer, with its mesh of guitar lines and straightforward chorus. ‘Dollars And Cents’ is a dark, warped mess of krautrock and electronica which is genuinely compelling, as Thom Yorke turns himself into the information running through networks. I feel genuinely bad about leaving it off the above tracklist, but I suppose it could have been an awesome B-side.
Above all, Amnesiac proves that Radiohead’s strength comes from their openness to all sonic possibilities. Whereas Kid A sounds hermetically sealed in from the rest of the world, Amnesiac’s best moments steal from everything from krautrock and electronica through to blues and wonky jazz. Indeed, this is seen clearly in some of the album’s best tracks. ‘I Might Be Wrong’ is a bluesy, almost Stones-like grove overlayered with interlocking riffs and thudding electronic percussion, which all drains away for a glorious acoustic guitar break. ‘Life In A Glass House’, Radiohead’s most satisfying album closer since ‘Street Spirit’, is even more bizarre, a collaboration with jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton, which successfully nails Yorke’s paranoia to a woozy, almost drunk horn section. It shows just how far out Radiohead’s music can get without loosing any of its signature qualities.
This time round, the only songs that don’t work are the pointless ‘Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors’, actually a more interesting experiment in punctuation then in music, the slight ‘Hunting Bears’ and ‘Like Spinning Plates’, whose mix of backwards vocals, churning chords and electronics never quite coalesces into anything coherent. Also, ‘Morning Bell’ is reprised, inexplicably turned into a rather dull 4/4 ballad. But for the most part, Amnesiac is a powerful and fully realized album, the sound of a band confidently exploring new waters and becoming accustomed to its natural voice.

Rating: 8.3

‘Trans-Atlantic Drawl’ (2001)

This little gem wound up being relegated to B-side status, which is a bit of a shame as it really is fantastic. Rocking harder then anything from the Kid A sessions, ‘Trans-Atlantic Drawl’ hits the ground running. Pounding drums, fuzzed out guitar flying off at every angle and a demented playground lyrics of something about magazines, it comes across as Faust playing ‘Kandy Pop’ by Bis, especially as it reaches the chorus, where the fuzz reaches anthemically daft levels. Then, instead of verse two, someone cuts the tape and glues it half way through an exploration of frigid ambient drones. Brilliant.

I Might Be Wrong (2001)

Rather then take my sequencing advice, Radiohead may as well have waited for another year and just put out these live recordings instead, in which every version trumps the studio recording, apart from the muddy rendition of the title track. Forced to just play the songs instead of agonise over arrangements, the songs are stripped of the ever so slightly fussy studio versions’ ponderousness and take on a much more spontaneous and fun feel. Here Radiohead sound mischievous, drugged up, spaced out and muscular.
The album opens stunningly with the all-time classic version of ‘National Anthem’ riding in on a wave of static. The great thing about the original is that it’s basically just that riff, you can do what you like with it, and the band proceed to do just that. Overlaid with radio static, wooshy keyboards and spacey guitars, the song takes on a cosmic element only hinted at by the somewhat clinical studio version. The rhythm section is tight, brutal and focused, and Yorke’s vocals, as opposed to being processed to hell, are breathless and excited. ‘I Might Be Wrong’ is poorly recorded and not as exciting as it should be, lacking the subtle shade and build up of the original, but it still retains a murky charm. ‘Morning Bell’ is stunning, the playing here simultaneously more passionate and more focused then the original, with Yorke working himself into a frenzy during the coda. The band’s command of dynamics here is fantastic, as the guitars rise to a storm only for everything to suddenly cut back to menacing quiet. ‘Idioteque’ similarly benefits from a more immediate arrangement, the contrast of the band’s impassioned playing and the brutally mechanical electronics creating a tension entirely appropriate to the song’s lyrics. The result is a piece of electronic-tinged krautrock dance mash-up that anticipates LCD Soundsystem. ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ gets expanded into a sea of languid atmospherics, taking on an almost lullaby-like purity. It even starts off with Yorke singing, ‘Here comes the flood’, a shout out to Peter Gabriel surely. ‘Dollars And Cents’ becomes the dark cyberpunk nightmare it was always meant to be, with some particularly adroit drumming, and the delicate acoustic song ‘True Love Waits’ shows the band can still write conventional songs when they feel like it. But special mention must go to Amnesiac filler ‘Like Spinning Plates’, which, shorn of its messy backwards tape arrangement, becomes a glorious, proggy epic building effortlessly to an emotional peak.
Far more then simply a market filler in between studio works, I Might Be Wrong actually works out as Radiohead’s most satisfying post-OK Computer album. It’s to the point, deadly focused and shows off the sheer range and potential of the band’s new musical direction. At the end of the day, when forced to stand on their own two feet, this era of Radiohead prove that they’re an experimental force to be reckoned with, and a kick-ass rock band to boot.

Rating: 8.5

Hail To The Thief (2003)

If such a thing as an underrated Radiohead album is possible, then Hail To The Thief is it. Following on from the fawning admiration heaped on Kid A and its companion releases, perhaps the album simply lacks the shock value of those releases. Certainly, there are few surprises here in terms of content – the songs that integrate experimental textures into Radiohead’s standard bag of tricks work, the glitch experiments don’t. It doesn’t help that much of the fan base had patiently put up with Kid A and Amnesiac and was hoping for a return to standard alt-rock, which needless to say it didn’t get. It also doesn’t help that Hail To The Thief looks like someone taking the piss out of a Radiohead album, with its cover of a twisted alien landscape made up of bricks containing scary buzz words, the clunky political reference of the title, and each song’s portentous/pretentious subtitle, a trick not seen in a mainstream rock record since Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans. (‘Softly Open Our Mouths In The Cold’ and ‘Brush The Cobwebs Out Of The Sky’ are pretentious and vague enough to be Mew track names. Urgh.)
Which is actually a shame, as Hail To The Thief is bloody brilliant really, and at times equals and even surpasses its immediate predecessors. The two opening songs in particular are absolute Radiohead classics. The sort-of title track ‘2 + 2 = 5’ manages not to sink into anvilicious preaching despite its self-conscious Orwell reference, and instead its comparison of Bush and Blair to Chicken Little is a surprisingly effective way of calling them out over their handling of the truth during the Iraq war. Musically it opens with delicate guitar arpeggios before switching unexpectedly into an intense rocker, Yorke spitting ‘You have not been paying attention!’. The band sound more fired up then they have in the studio since OK Computer, but without loosing any of their experimental tendencies, as the next track so effortlessly proves. ‘Sit Down. Stand Up’ (punctuation trouble again) again manages to switch between wildly contrasting moods and timbres without missing a beat. This time, eerie strings and mournful vocals give way to an electric storm and massed, idiot chanting of ‘The raindrops/The raindrops/The raindrops…’ over and over again. If the whole album kept up this pace, it would be a stone cold classic.
Perhaps inevitably the pace drops. ‘Sail To The Moon’ is pleasant but forgettable, the setting that a lot of Radiohead’s ballads seem automatically set for these days. Then we have the inevitable electronica experiment, ‘Backdrifts’, which works about as well as you’d expect. To Radiohead’s credit, they seem to have realized that straight up ripping off Aphex Twin doesn’t work for them, so this time round Yorke’s voice is unprocessed, and pools of acoustic guitar are added to the mix. As a result it sounds less derivative and more like a Radiohead song, but sadly still not a very good Radiohead song. They repeat the whole exercise again a few songs later with ‘The Gloaming’, to equally inconsequential results. ‘Go To Sleep’ is another winner though, all sweeping guitar lines and a bleepy malfunctioning robot solo at the end. ‘Where I End And You Begin’ sees the band exhuming their U2 influence, but oddly enough in a kind of appealing way. This is in no small part due to the excellent, firely display by the rhythm section here, as they utterly outdo Larry Mullen Jr and the other twat with a rolling, funky groove that gives the song a genuine undertow of passion and darkness, making Yorke’s ‘I will eat you alive’ at the end darkly seductive as opposed to just silly. ‘We Suck The Young Blood’ is Radiohead attempting a kind of goth cabaret, appealing on paper but more odd then good in practice. The same goes for the intermittently engaging Motown influences cropping up in ‘A Punch Up At A Wedding’. Our heroes liked ‘Optimistic’ so much they rewrote it here as ‘There There’, the album’s somewhat lackluster lead off single. It’s an improvement on the original, but then that’s not really saying much.
After a bit of a lull in the middle, the album gets interesting again towards the end of side 2. ‘Myxomatosis’ is a snarling rocker, with the band all foaming at the mouth and disintegrating before your ears. It’s the most gloriously unhinged thing on the album. ‘Scatterbrain’ is a sweet, delicate song brimming with dark humour – it’s title is literal. ‘Wolf At The Door’ sees Thom Yorke sing-speaking over an elliptical riff in a song that doesn’t really sound like Radiohead at all. It’s a brilliantly off-key way to end the album.
Hail To The Thief is at times brilliant and at times frustrating, sometimes in the same song. For all its warped sonic experiments, the songs don’t ever really offer up a new coherent direction for Radiohead to move in. At the end of the day, this isn’t really a problem – Radiohead’s sonic palette is now wide enough to encompass all these different songs and still sound sonically consistent. If it never feels as radical a departure from the past as Kid A, it’s because its stylistic detours are handled with the grace and subtlety of a band that has well and truly found its feet. Because of this we can easily forgive the odd misstep.

Rating: 8.1

In Rainbows (2007)

In Rainbows is the only Radiohead record I hadn’t listened to previously before writing this article. As such it’s the record I’ve had the least time to live with. However I feel it might be my favourite record they’ve done in the last decade. It’s certainly the most consistent album they’ve released since OK Computer, and it sees them finally nailing the balance between warped, everything but the kitchen sink experimentation and their natural way with a melody.
The very presence of ‘Nude’ should feel like something of an ass pull, seeing as the song’s been hanging around as a live favourite since the OK Computer days, but when the end result is as shimmering and gorgeous as this, it’s hard to complain too much. It really is a fantastic track, all swooning strings and Thom Yorke’s delicate falsetto crooning, matched to some nifty 50s sci fi keyboard effects. ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ is a wonderful piece of modern prog, interlocking sections of cyclical guitar and keyboard. They even get away with some almost U2-esque vocals at the climax, until it switches into a spaced out krautrock groove for the finale. I assume that’s the ‘Arpeggi’ bit though I really don’t know why. ‘All I Need’ is a sensual slow burner, with vibraphone and wonky droning keyboards, (and ‘I’m an animal / Trapped in your hot car’ is a pleasingly surreal come-on), and ‘Faust Arp’ has an almost poppy melody wrapped in its complex arrangement. ‘House Of Cards’ wryly paraphrases a crappy old pop song in its opening lines and gets away with it thanks to its gentle arrangement and lush melody. ‘Reckoner’ is another slowburning epic, and ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ is driven by kinetic drum and bass lines under a writhing, bluesy acoustic guitar part. ‘Videotape’ is a lovely, blurred closing track. Elegiac and sinister, it builds up from just Yorke’s voice and piano to a gloriously oblique finale, drums rolling like distant thunder underneath dreamlike clouds.
Again the album is not quite perfect. Opener ’15 Step’ (where are they getting these titles?) is engagingly odd, but not much besides that. It does suggest that eventually, if they keep plugging away at the electronica tracks they might wind up somewhere interesting, but it’s still not clear if it will be worth all the time and awkwardness. ‘Bodysnatchers’ charted higher then any Radiohead single since ‘Creep’, though listening to the song the thought occurs that it probably managed that through luck more then quality or pop appeal. The song aims for exciting and messy but just hits messy. The bonus disc continues in much the same vein as the album proper, and the two actually blend into each other rather nicely, even if the songs on the second disc don’t give the impression of going anywhere.
In Rainbows really is remarkably assured. It contains many of Radiohead’s most successful experiments and most gorgeous songs. While the material shows just how far out Radiohead can go, it also demonstrates just how canny they are with a good tune. At this stage I feel we ought to know what to expect from Radiohead, but on the strength of this album I’m not so sure. Hopefully they can keep up this balance of the boldly experimental and the effortlessly melodic for some time to come.

Rating: 8.7


Like my similar article on The Smiths, I originally started this piece wanting to give Radiohead much more of a kicking, but at the end of the day I found the music ultimately means too much for me to do that. I have to confess that I really enjoyed returning to all of these albums. Even the thoroughly crappy Pablo Honey retains some nostalgic charm for me, and I’d forgotten just how good a lot of Radiohead’s best material is. In particular I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Hail To The Thief, and it was nice to finally get around to hearing In Rainbows, which I’m glad I was able to do away from all the hype. In my introduction, I take Radiohead to task for their negative influence on modern indie rock. While it’s unfair to praise or shoot the parents for the sins of the children, it’s something that inevitably happens quite a bit in the world of music criticism. And if we have Radiohead to blame for Muse and Coldplay, it also strikes me that we have them to thank at least partially for Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors. It’s possible to hear the influence of Radiohead’s latter work on many of the more interesting and daringly experimental bands, in their post-everything, all channels open approach and also in their refreshing lack of concern about apparent coolness. Even in the cases where they didn’t act as direct influences, Radiohead almost certainly opened up the headspace of 2000s indie rock, making the audience more ready to listen to and accept other people’s innovations.
Returning to their music, it really is remarkable how much they’ve matured over the years. In a market that specializes in churning out the same thing over and over again, Radiohead have never been content to rest on their laurels, and each new release sees them expanding not only their sound but also their outlook on life. Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows in particular are refreshingly free of the misery and angst that they are so well known for. Even back in the days of The Bends, they were tempering their navel-gazing tendencies with a wry sense of humour and self awareness, and their music is all the better for it.
As to the question of Radiohead’s originality, they have their influences sure, and sometimes they wind up sinking under the historical weight of them. But Radiohead have proven that they can stand on their own to feet, and these days their best material sounds like no one but themselves, as they coherently mould all their disparate musical sources into a compelling whole. They will never beat the krautrockers or Warp Records at their own game, but it’s enough that they play their own game very well.
Comparing Radiohead to the two other bands put in similar position reveals a lot to their credit. Rather then being sickeningly populist and earnest like U2 and REM, or loosing what made people interested in their music in the first place, like REM, Radiohead have simply continued to follow their muse down whatever path it leads them. There are certainly worse bands we could have at the top. And I for one am glad that we have them.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Top 10 Prog Albums of the 80s

"Dawn of light lying between a silence and sold sources,
Chased amid fusions of wonder
In moments hardly seen forgotten
Coloured in pastures of chance..."

The opening lyrics from Tales From Topographic Oceans (1974). Average number of songs per side of vinyl: 1

"I never meant to be so bad to you
One thing I said that I would never do
A look from you and I would fall from grace
And that would wipe the smile right from my face"

The opening lyrics from Asia´s self titled debut (1982). Average number of songs per side of vinyl: 4.5

If the early 70s represents the peak of prog (and, by extension, pretty much all culture), then by the 80s, things were looking decidedly grim. Punk didn’t immediately sound the death knoll for prog, much as it would like you to believe, but whilst1977 still delivered a reasonable harvest of prog classics, by the early 80s a combination of critical ridicule and commercial indifference put progressive rock in a decidedly tenuous position. Part of the problem seems to be that the ridiculous creative splurge of prog’s golden age – you can pretty much set the goal posts from the release of In The Court Of The Crimson King in 1969 to the disintegration of 70s Crim in 1974 – left many of the bands artistically exhausted or burned out. However, the core of the decay stems from the sad fact that, faced with New Wave and FM radio’s demand for shorter songs and greater approachability, many of prog’s leading lights ditched cosmic lyrics and expansive song structures in favour of toothless, airbrushed AOR. At the end of the day, these people who were at home stretching crazy cosmic jazz across entire sides of vinyl simply had no idea how to write a three minute pop song, and it shows. Just look at the difference between the lyrics above. However you feel about Tales (I love it, but that’s a different story for another day), its cosmic mysticism is surely infinitely preferable to Asia’s trite, adult relationship clichés.
Asia are an unbelievably easy target, but in this case they are an entirely deserving one. It’s hard to imagine any prog fan looking at that line-up and not salivating – John Wetton, Carl Palmer, Steve Howe (and Geoffry Downes, but there’s a black sheep in every family)… you can almost imagine the monstrous hybrid of Larks’ Tongues Crim, ELP and Yes, all thundering, malevolent precussion coupled with soaring, complex guitar lines – don’t tell me you’re not all hot and bothered now. But put on the disc and what do you get? Slick, soulless stadium rock, with some of the most distinctive musicians of their generation phoning in unbelievably anonymous performances. Interestingly, pretty much all of Asia have admitted that the problem was they chased the money rather then following their muse. Sadly, this album is prog in the 80s in microcosm, as once great acts shed what made them so brilliant, innovative and interesting in the first place to make a living pedaling listless MOR. Like the clichéd dragon Roger Dean cover of Asia’s debut compared to the mythic crystal caverns he painted for Yes’ Relayer, the music was familiar yet wrong, the complexity, soul and idealism missing, creating an ersatz prog-not-prog that pleased no one (the millions who buy this nonsense excepted, I guess). Tellingly, the inscription on modern prog legend’s Astra’s myspace reads “Not named after the Asia album.” Britain’s short lived prog revival would give us Marillion, IQ and Pendragon, who went some way to rectifying the ills of the decade, but unfortunately, most of the prog revivalists who followed in their wake were more And Then There Were Three then The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, many being little more then overplayed stadium fodder.
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom in the prog world. Though the decade saw Magma largely out of action, their influence spread to a new generation of European zeuhl bands, ready to pick up where Vander and co. left off, and often take the music into radically different and unexpected directions. The influence of prog, especially zeuhl and RIO, was still prevalent in the Japanese underground, where to this day it never really went away. Marillion and IQ would produce consistently good records up into the new millennium, and runts of the litter Pendragon would ultimately grow into themselves, astoundingly so with last year’s Pure. And some of the prog greats adapted to the times with all the sensitivity, intelligence and imagination we came to expect of them.
So, here are 10 great prog albums from the 80s, which deserve to sit side by side with the classics of the genre. These people kept the prog flame burning when all about them were losing their heads, and made some unbelievably imaginative and innovative music, some of them considerably after post-punk’s glorious period of creativity had drawn to an end. They are heroes, every one a wizard and a true star.

10. IQ – The Wake (1985)

IQ’s best album – at least until Subterranea – was released the same year that Marillion stormed the charts with their masterpiece Misplaced Childhood (more of which later, naturally), so it inevitably finds itself in that album’s shadow. This is a shame, because in its own right, The Wake is an absolute prog rock classic. A concept album, of course, about life, death and the afterlife, the album features Peter Nicholls at his most subtle and Peter Gabriel-like, and he sings with a delicacy and restraint missing from later albums. However, the real stars of the album are guitarist Mike Holmes and keyboardist Martin Orford, who, despite the inevitable comparisons to Steve Rothery and Mark Kelly, manage to hold their own quite comfortably, displaying robust and lyrical musicianship throughout. Orford’s gothic keyboards give ‘Outer Limits’ and ‘Magic Roundabout’ a real sense of drama and grandeur. The guitar solo on ‘The Thousand Days’ is particularly glorious, and ‘Widow’s Peak’ allows Holmes to work his whole bag of tricks, from periods of acoustic delicacy to stomping Crimsonesque malevolence. And in fact, it’s worth seeking out the reissue for the bonus track ‘Dans Le Parc Du Chateau Noir’, which sees him rip it up

9. After Dinner – Paradise Of Replicas (1989)

After Dinner were a Japanese band influenced by RIO, particularly Henry Cow and Art Bears, which is pretty much the only thing that gives them any context whatsoever. Their music is a similarly hard to pin down mix of modern classical, jazz and rock influences, creating something wonderfully individual in the process that doesn’t really fit in anywhere. They only ever released two albums, but both deserve to be remembered as classics of the first water. Haco is something of a Japanese Dagmar Krause. She has an incredible voice, capable of stunning power and ridiculous leaps, but retaining a sense of playfulness not seen in Krause since her Slapp Happy days. Indeed, After Dinner, despite their esoteric influences, are a more open and playful proposition then the Art Bears. As a result, their albums switch effortlessly between cabaret songs and tape loops of metal on metal. Exotic percussion and eastern modes mix with classical formalism and jazz experimentation to create something unique.

8. Shub Niggurath – Les Mortes Vont Vite (1986)

I actually think this may be a contender for the oddest record I own, and I own a shedload of really really strange music. Shub Niggurath were a Belgium band who answered the question none of us had the wit to answer – ‘wouldn’t it be awesome if Magma had brutal No Wave tendancies?’ The answer, surprisingly enough, is yes, yes it would. Songs like ‘Incipit Tragaedia’ and ‘Yog Sothoth’ start of as claustrophobically dark and tense zeuhl, Kontarkosz filtered through a black hole, then mutate into crunching, bass-led chasms of white noise. The feedback solo in ‘Yog Sothoth’ is particularly merciless, screaming at the heavens whilst the rhythm section gallops along in multiple time signatures. The nightmarish intensity is kept up throughout the whole album, with barely a moment of light to break the darkness – Shub Niggurath only use quiet passages to build up interminable dread for the coming destruction. Shub Niggurath would release one more album that almost reaches the same levels of demonic intensity before disappearing forever into the shadows.

7. Eskaton – Ardeur (1980)

Magma’s influence is a strange thing. They have few fans, but the fans they have treat them with a rare devotion. One of the side effects of this has been the appearance of many zeuhl bands throughout Europe, extending as far as Japan. These bands often seem to be extensions of Christian Vander’s work themselves, as if the sheer power of his influence alone is enough to put these people in his thrall, to turn them into vessels designed to carry out the man’s work. Eskaton were a zeuhl band from France, who basically dealt in MDK-era Magma, the Kobaian replaced with politically influenced French, spiced up liberally with a bit of Gentle Giant and driving funk. A simple trick, but pulled off exceptionally well. Ardeur was their second and final album, before they split up due to the world’s mass indifference to such eccentric product. A shame, because Ardeur is a corker. Despite their obvious influences, Eskaton possess a robust and subtly funky rhythmic drive which makes their sound their own. Additionally, in keeping with the dictates of the time, and in contrast with their first LP, on Ardeur Eskaton keep their prog-outs relatively short, managing to get in, do the damage and get out in a fraction of the time it would take Magma to work through MDK’s first movement. However, when they do stretch out, the results are stellar. ‘Dagon’ is 10 minutes of Lovecraft-inspired prog horror, all rhythmic bass detonations, female choral massed wordless ululations and sudden snaps of driving terror.

6. Art Zoyd – Phase IV (1982)

Art Zoyd were the original Magma spin-off band, but ultimately developed a life of their own. Phase IV is still their finest achievement, a sprawling, malevolent double album of zeuhl wonder. Like a more orchestrally inclined version of Magma, it’s easy to see why they eventually wound up scoring ballets and soundtracks – their music has a very natural sense of drama and movement. ‘Etat D’Urgence’ sets the scene for the whole LP – large acoustic passages for violin and guitar give way to rumbling bass and goblin chanting. If Art Zoyd rarely achieve Univers Zero’s nerve-shredding intensity, they are more willing to let light and shade into their music, creating a richer and less foreboding album that’s still able to create enough moments of chilling terror to keep you on the edge of your seat.

5. Univers Zero – Ceux Du Dehors (1981)

Ceux Du Dehors is a sunny picnic of an album by Univers Zero standards, but a twisted monster by most people’s standards. Daniel Dennis was Magma’s second drummer in a line up that went sadly unrecorded, so we can only imagine its unearthly intensity and dread. He left over creative differences to form Univers Zero, who mixed zeuhl with RIO and modern classical influences to fulfill Dennis’ own dark, HPL-fixated vision. This is further evidence for the theory that all Magma-heads also have a Lovecraft fixation. Ceux Du Dehors is less intense then the primarily acoustic efforts the band put out at the end of the 70s, but then again, most things are less intense then the utterly terrifying Heresie. More prominent use of electric instruments and keyboards makes Ceux Du Dehors sound more aligned with classic prog, but it’s still a bumpy ride, as the worst nightmares of Larks’ Tongues Crimso and Henry Cow go up against sections that are pure Stravinsky. The album also features the direct Lovecraft homage ‘La Musique d’Erich Zann’, whose scaping viola and wheezing horror conjure up suitable music to split open dimensions with.

4. Art Bears – The World As It Is Today (1981)

Henry Cow were equally infamous for their radical left wing politics as their radical fusion of free jazz, modern classical music and rock. Their vision was already bleak and angry in the early 70s, but, unsurprisingly following Britain’s political development in the late 70s and early 80s, they only got bleaker and angrier. The Cow, composed as it was of diverse and outspoken individuals, fell apart due to musical and political differences, but the core of guitarist Fred Frith, vocalist Dagmar Krause and drummer Chris Cutler continued making music together as Art Bears. Chris Cutler’s lyrics reached their peak of political expression with The World As It Is Today, a brutal attack on capitalism which would have warmed the cockles of Gang Of Four’s hearts, whilst their more minimal take on prog, integrating Cutler’s use of tape effects into their already singular mixture, further aligned them with the post punk vanguard. Indeed, This Heat were in many ways Henry Cow and Art Bear’s post punk reflection. The World As It Is Today is a modern song cycle, with Cutler’s pared down percussion, and enlivened by Frith’s virtuoso yet brutally noisy guitar, particularly prominently on ‘Democracy’.

3. Marillion – Misplaced Childhood (1985)

Arguably still Marillion’s greatest achievement, and certainly the most iconic album of the prog rock revival, Misplaced Childhood still sounds simply wonderful today. Inspired by an acid trip Fish went on after receiving a tab from an ex-girlfriend in the post, the album takes us on a journey through the singer’s failed relationship, which results in Fish coming to the realization that there are worse troubles in the world then his, giving him the strength and resolve to move on. The album was conceived as a single, coherent work, and whilst ‘Kayleigh’, ‘Lavender’ and ‘Heart Of Lothian’ work well enough on their own to have stormed the charts when released as singles, the album really is a song cycle, best enjoyed in one sitting. Fish’s lyrics are at their poetic best, and he gives a rousing, passionate performance throughout. While his characteristic bitterness and cynicism is still present, there are moments of pure, simple and open emotion, like the aforementioned singles, and the uplifting ending gives the whole thing a generosity of spirit. However, as was later shown, the band was far from simply Fish’s backing act. Steve Rothery’s glorious guitar playing is fantastic throughout, echoing David Gilmour and Steve Hackett at their most lyrical. Mark Kelly’s keyboards are dramatic and sweeping, switching effortlessly from moody to ecstatic. And Marrillion’s often underrated rhythm section is in full force here, just listen to the way Pete Trewavas and Ian Mosely punctuate each line of ‘Kayleigh’, so together they could almost be a single organism, the way they effortlessly navigate the time and tempo changes throughout, and their unexpected integration of African and calypso rhythms on ‘Waterhole’. Truly a case of a band operating at their absolute peak. It should be noted that Marillion also put out four other absolute classic studio albums during the 80s, any of which could have made this list.

2. Rush – Moving Pictures (1981)

By Moving Pictures, Rush must have seemed unstoppable. Whilst many of their peers disintegrated or degraded during the latter half of the 70s, Rush kept going from strength to strength. And just kept going. They opened the 80s with the all time classic Permanent Waves (stop what you are doing right now and listen to ‘Natural Science’. No, really. You can thank me later), and followed it with the just as all time classic Moving Pictures. The album opens with the brilliant ‘Tom Sawyer’, the portrait of a modern-day rebel replete with snotty lyrics from Neil Peart, buzzing synthesizers, a snarling guitar solo in 7/8, and a series of thoroughly epic Peart drum rolls. The album just keeps on going from there – every track is a solid gold classic. ‘Red Barchetta’ enters on a haze of guitar harmonics before erupting into a full speed car chase, ‘YYZ’ comes across like 70s Crim on holiday, and the gorgeous melody of ‘Limelight’ is contrasted by the ominous bass rumbles and Alex Lifeson’s haunting guitar moans of the instrumental section. Despite being as proggy as you can possibly get, the songs here are all relatively concise – only ‘The Camera Eye’ lasts over 10 minutes, and many of the others finish before the five minute mark. Indeed, here Rush show how many of the prog bands could have adapted their material to make it shorter and more approachable – Moving Pictures is just such fun! – without losing any of their classic prog idiosyncrasies. Rush were willing to adapt to the new technology as well, making the most out of modern synthesizers, and even adopting a dub/reggae influence successfully on closer ‘Vital Signs’, in which Geddy Lee plays perhaps the greatest bass solo in rock music history. The band’s strong songwriting and ability to adapt to new musical ideas without losing their core identity would see them produce more great albums in the 80s, particularly Signals and Grace Under Pressure, and indeed in the 90s as well.

1. King Crimson – Discipline (1981)

This album inevitably tops the list. In 1974, King Crimson disbanded ‘for good’, with Fripp saying that it was all over for ‘dinosaur’ bands. He spent the rest of the decade hanging out with Brian Eno and David Bowie, absorbing new musical influences and observing the changing musical tides. After playing on various other people’s albums and releasing an underwhelming solo LP, Fripp decided it was time to get a band together again. The band was originally going to be called Discipline, and featured former Crimso drummer Bill Bruford, but also Adrian Belew, an ex-Zappa acolyte who contributed searing noise guitar to Talking Heads’ Remain In Light LP, and Tony Levin, who played bass on Peter Gabriel’s solo LPs. This new group was far removed from Fripp’s previous band, with influences extending from New Wave to krautrock to Afrobeat and gamelan. As rehearsals continued, Fripp decided to resurrect the King Crimson moniker, and Discipline became the name of the album instead. It’s an apt title – prog rock’s epic sprawl was replaced with an interlocking mesh of guitar lines and cyclical percussion; lyrics about Crimson Kings and Prince Rupert’s tears gave way to Belew’s gnomic word play. Only two songs go past the five minute mark. And yet, it’s hard to imagine an album more true to the ethos of progressive rock – here was a genuine, original music taking the influence of modern classical tropes such as minimalism, the rhythms and structures of traditional African and Asian music, and contemporary pop, and fusing them all into a coherent whole with stunning musicianship. Adrian Belew’s development as a guitarist is simply astounding, though the music is diverse enough to allow him to indulge in his old, untutored squall when it suits the song. Bill Bruford’s drumming is a revelation, as he all but abandons the bombast of his earlier sound to subtly and playfully support and subvert the simple rhythmic patterns of the music, whilst integrating electronic percussion for the first time. The music itself is complex yet approachable, with Crimso showing real pop leanings without compromising their vision an iota. The album is immediately in line with Japan and Talking Heads’ idealistically similar explorations of the same era, whilst paving the way for many of the better post-rock bands of the 90s. Whilst Yes and Genesis were looking more and more like fish out of water, Crimso were sounding effortlessly contemporary and full of energy and new ideas.

… And Five From Classic Prog Acts To Avoid

1. Yes – Big Generator (1987)

90125 was a worrying development for Yes fans, but was at least partially redeemed by the cheesy party classic ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’. Big Generator has no such redeeming features. John Anderson’s lyrics have degenerated to new age doggerel, and the music is as lame and as unimaginative as his lazy hippy dippy clichés. Nobody on this album sounds like they are even trying, and the end result is one of the most boring records ever created by man. Although Yes had been in decline since Relayer, their last great album, this was arguably the point of no return. A thoroughly pointless LP.

2. Genesis – Invisible Touch (1986)

Following the departure of Gabriel and Hackett, the extent to which Rutherford, Banks and Collins went to embarrass themselves is nothing short of legendary, but for all the wrong reasons. There is much to dislike about all their albums of this period, all of which have dragged Genesis’ once good name through the dirt in all kinds of nasty ways, but Invisible Touch is arguably the nadir. Largely indistinguishable from Phil Collins’ anodyne solo work at this stage, Invisible Touch is half-assed, emotionless AOR at its absolute worse. Gone was any trace of prog, replaced with bland synthesizer arrangements, clunky electronic percussion and trite lyrics. Though, on the upside, it doesn’t have ‘Illegal Alien’ on it.

3. Magma – Merci (1984)

It gives me no great pleasure to talk about Magma’s only sub-par album. Unable to cover the costs of recording, Magma had been cutting wood on the road for years, and for the first and probably only time in his life, Christian Vander considered that compromise might be a reasonable option. His idea wasn’t actually a bad one – to record an album that mixed all the usual zeuhl trademarks with modern funk and R and B. On their previous album, the excellent and underrated Attahk, Magma had proved that they could do funky with ‘The Last Seven Minutes’. Unfortunately, Merci is a disaster. One of the all time greatest drummers replaces himself with a drum machine, the band get stuck repeating ‘ooh baby’ on top of overly slick and soulless arrangements, and all the Magma idiosyncrasies are ironed out in favour of radio-friendly blandness. Unsurprisingly, none of this helped the band gain any more radio play or fans, and when Magma returned, it was to return to their strengths with the all time classic Kohntarkosz Anteria, and we could all pretend Merci never happened. Oddly enough, if you make it through three quarters of Merci, you are rewarded with the obscure Magma classics ‘Eliphas Levi’ and ‘The Night We Died’, gorgeous pieces arranged for choral vocals and solo piano, which lay out much of the ground for Vander’s spin-off group Offering, and suggests that, had Vander simply stuck to his guns like he usually does, Merci could have been brilliant.

4. Pink Floyd – A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987)

More like A Momentary Lapse Of Quality Control, amiright? (Sadly, that suggests that the Floyd ever got it back). I hate this album. David Gilmour and Roger Waters had a symbiotic relationship – Waters needed Gilmour’s musicianship to support his bleakly misanthropic vision, but equally Gilmour needed Waters’ distinctive lyrical vision to bring out his best music. This is immediately shown by this incredibly lackluster LP. The feeling of confusion and disorientation expressed by the man awakening on a beach of beds on the cover reflects the fan’s reaction upon hearing Floyd’s first Watersless release. Without Waters’ lyrical output, Floyd are utterly toothless, and without his strong aesthetic vision, Gilmour and Mason and a bunch of session musicians bumble about in AOR Purgatory, composing limp power ballads and tuneless rockers. Fun fact – Antony Moore from Slapp Happy penned some of the album’s insipid and preachy lyrics, allowing the record to embarrass two prog rock legends for the price of one.

5. Marillion – Holidays In Eden (1991)

This album wasn’t actually released in the 80s, but as it falls prey to many of the same faults, and really it only just misses out, I thought I’d include it here, in the company it deserves. Marillion’s only crap album was a result of the record company simply not knowing what to do with the band. With Fish gone and the times changing, the hits were drying up, and the execs wanted to make sure the band behind such mega hits as ‘Kayleigh’ and ‘Lavender’ still delivered the goods. Want to hear the incredible, innovative solution? Ever thought Marillion would sound absolutely awesome if they sounded more like U2? Neither has anyone else in the history of the world, but that’s the album that EMI thought Marillion needed to make to keep shifting units. Holidays In Eden is a horrible record, the songs drowned in generic stadium rock production, all bland keyboards and Edge-inspired guitar parts. The whole process so disgusted Marillion that they withdrew to a European haunted castle, boarded themselves up for three years and returned with the awe-inspiring but thoroughly unsellable concept album Brave, beginning the end of their relationship with major labels and their switch to internet autonomy. Frustratingly, the bonus disc on the remastered reissue of Eden is all but essential, featuring raw live and stripped down acoustic takes of songs from the album. In this context, the songs are revealed to be brilliant, suggesting that, without executive meddling, Holidays In Eden could have been another classic.