Psych and Prog

Flower Travellin’ Band “Satori” (1971)

Mindblowing Japanese rock classic, heavier than a thousand planets: meaty, doomy power chords on top of driving basslines and tribal drums with a sinewy, molten, eastern-tinged lead guitar soaring above it all like hookah smoke — the bastard love child of Black Sabbath and Godzilla emerging from the sea not to destroy Tokyo but just to ROCK!!!! Intense and partially unintelligible English vocals plus a smoking harmonica solo on Satori IV round out the incredible sound. Each track is a masterpiece. One of the finest albums to come out in the early 70s, which of course makes it one of the finest albums ever and possibly the best album you’ve never heard. This is one heavy album that might go into heavy rotation for the rest of your life, or at the very least for the rest of the year. —Ben

Stackridge “Stackridge” (1971)

Among the most legendary names of the British folk rock movement, this Bristol-based band were formed in 1969 by Andy Creswell-Davis and James Warren as Stackridge Lemon, soon to be named simply Stackridge. 1970 finds the band having an intense live activity, playing at the first Glastonbury Festival and, a year later, supporting Wishbone Ash on their UK tour and signing with the MCA Records.

“Stackridge” is actually a mixed bag of short Beatles-esque pop tunes and longer arrangements played in some sort of symphonic/folk style. Even the short accesible tunes are well-played with rich instrumentation and good multi-vocals, blended nicely with folsky violins, tracks which even The Beatles would be proud of creating. But it is these long arrangements which make this album so special like the great “The Three Legged Table”, starting off like Phillips-era Genesis, pastoral acoustic-driven musicianship later to become a catchy brass/violin-rock heaven with perfect vocal lines. “Essence of Porphyry” is another instrumental highlight with complex instrumentation featuring violin and cello in a medieval style and excellent acoustic passages with fantastic flute work, always under a classical nature, like a cross between Genesis and Gentle Giant…or the 14-minute long “Slark”, which closes the album, a beautiful composition split between folk ballad, medieval music and symphonic rock with again some superb vocals. A real treasure.

Stackridge’s debut is more than simply a great album. Even the easy-listening side of the band contains unbelievable professionalism and unmet personality, marking this effort as one of the most significant and impressive debut’s in UK’s prog history. —Apps79

Scorpions “Lonesome Crow” (1972)

Fans of the MTV Scorpions from the 80’s are in for a shock; Lonesome Crow has no pop hooks, no rocking us like a hurricane, and no cheesy love ballads. The lyrics and melodies are Avant Garde and the instruments are mostly in odd time. Generic hair metal fans of the “Love At First Sting” era will have their heads explode.

The album is a mix of psychedelic sounds, fusion, free-form jazz progressive rock and Krautrock influences. Also the bass playing is almost at Jaco Pastorius-like levels, melodically running up and down the jazz minor scales and popping out hundreds of incredible bass fills. “In Search of the Peace of Mind” has these beautiful haunting acoustic guitars in it that I’ve never heard anywhere else. Or how about those haunting wind sounds in “Leave Me”, where Meine cries out “Womaaaaaan…leave my mind!” Also this is the only record where Mikey is a full time band member and he is already a God, having hundreds of solos spread all over this album. Rudolf is more of less in the background with little Michael stealing the show with his jazz/proto metal solos. The title track is a 13 minute headphone trip, sounding like a soundtrack to a underground art film. Lonesome Crow is a musical masterpiece! —Ultra Magnus

Love “Four Sail” (1969)

When people talk about Arthur Lee and Love, it’s generally not Four Sail they’re talking about. A pity – because this album is just as crucial as the first three “classic-lineup” records – albeit for slightly different reasons. Some would argue that Love lost much of the magic that initially drew listeners in after the career-defining Forever Changes – that Lee had nothing left to say and nowhere to go. An understandable stance, in light of his already significant achievements, but simply not true.

Four Sail features a completely re-tooled lineup – with a more muscular power trio augmenting Lee’s still ornate songwriting sensibilities. While the new band works squarely in the zone of the changing times (post-Hendrix acid-blues virtuosity), there are more than enough of Lee’s trademark flamenco guitar lines and intuitive songwriting twists and turns to mark this as something that could only be a Love album. Frankly, it’s exciting to hear his singular instincts applied to a new model, and to their credit, the band run with it, sounding vital and electric, re-animating some of the scrappy garage-band energy that made “Seven And Seven Is” so invigorating. Incredibly, Lee’s fragile humanism still manages to cut through the din, scaling new emotional heights in songs like “Robert Montgomery” and “Always See Your Face.” One of the things that set Love apart, and that remains undissipated here, was Lee’s fearlessness in laying his heart and soul out for the crushing, conveying the joy and terror of the human experience in ways that few dared, or would have had the eloquence to articulate. Things would go downhill pretty quickly for Lee after this, but Four Sail remains the defiant last stand of a formidable creative mind, still capable of flipping the script and brokering triumph out of dissolution. —Jon Treneff

Vanilla Fudge “Renaissance” (1968)

Renaissance has a dense, intense sound that permeates every track. It is an emotional whirlpool – the introspection of “Thoughts”, the triumph of “Thats What Makes A Man”, the bliss of “Paradise”, the desperation of “The Sky Cried When I Was A Boy”, to the utter horror of “The Spell That Comes After”. Played a high volume, the overwhelming climax on “The Spell That Comes After” will plaster you to the back wall whilst the poem in the middle of “Season of the Witch” will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The album has a consistency of style throughout from the opening crash to the spooky whistled signature of “the beat goes on” at the end, always intense and often at the point of mental and physical breakdown. Blistering guitar drenched in Hammond organ pumped through a wall of Leslie speakers backed by one of the best rhythm sections ever, not to mention Mark Stein’s powerful emotional vocal.

No other record sounds like this record, it is truely unique. —Tony

Paul Kantner & Jefferson Starship “Blows Against the Empire” (1970)

If you’re an Airplane fan, you want to give this one a try. Yes, this is the earliest album to use the “Jefferson Starship” name, but it’s not the first official Starship album, this is simply a Paul Kantner solo project in between Airplane albums (Volunteers, Bark) with an all-star cast of musicians helping out with the name Jefferson Starship (including several Airplane members like Grace Slick, Jack Casady, Joey Covington as well as three Dead members, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, plus David Crosby and Graham Nash, and ex-Quicksilver Messenger member and future Airplane/Jefferson Starship member David Freiberg, plus Peter Kaukonen, Jorma’s brother). The Airplane at this point was in flux having just lost Marty Balin and Spencer Dryden, so this gave Kantner the idea for a solo project. Luckily the music has much more in common with the Airplane sound circa Volunteers, so if you’re fearing a precursor to the Red Octopus sound, don’t worry, Pete Sears and Craig Chaquico ain’t here! Not to mention no Papa John Creach. To me, Blows Against the Empire is one of the last great West Coast psych albums. 1970 was obviously difficult times for the counterculture, as it was pretty much on decline, no doubt helped by the Kent State shootings, so this album was basically about a bunch of hippies who hijack a starship to sail off to the stars because they no longer feel welcomed on Earth. The album was nominated for a sci-fi Hugo Award, but didn’t win. Strange that an album of recorded music would be nominated by such an award.

“The Baby Tree” is a silly little folk-number about babies growing on trees while “Let’s Go Together” sounds like a missing number from Volunteers. “A Child is Coming” is a nice pleasant acoustic number, which seemed to coincide to Grace Slick having a child that was to be born (China Kantner). “Hijack” is a totally wonderful epic number, where the band almost enters prog rock territory near the end with some wonderful use of piano. There’s a couple of short pieces that simulate the sounds of a starship taking off, oddly they remind me of such Krautrock groups of the time like Ash Ra Tempel or early Tangerine Dream. “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight” is the group exploring space rock with spacy psychedelic effects. It reminds me a tad of Crosby, Stills & Nash, but then Crosby and Nash do appear on this album. “Starship” sounds like how the Dead and Airplane might sound like if they teamed together as you hear a strong Dead/Airplane sound to this piece (not to mention Jerry Garcia giving his trademark lead guitars).

A totally wonderful, if often underrated album of West Coast psychedelia which I highly recommend. —Ben

The Electric Prunes “Mass in F Minor” (1968)

The album works almost as one long song filled with dynamic psychedelic jams with Gregorian chants, searing guitar leads, string and horn sections, and a pounding rhythm section. [The album’s producer] David Axelrod’s “Song of Innocence” comes to mind with the fusion of psychedelic guitar and orchestral arrangements and one could consider this to be Axelrod’s first album because this music is clearly his vision and influence. However, “Mass in F Minor” is far more rock influenced as each song rises and falls emotionally with horn and string sections embellishing the guitar chords rather than vice versa (which, I believe to be the case on “Song of Innocence). The buildup of the entire album climaxes with the final guitar chords of “Agnus Dei” and mark the closing ceremony of a truly unforgettable and holy music experience.

As a fan of out-there, experimental psychedelic rock from the late 60’s, “Mass in F Minor” strikes a chord with me in ways that other Electric Prunes albums can’t. Sure, those garage psych songs from their previous albums are great, but it’s hard for them to really stand out above the rest of all the other garage psych albums of the time as it was such a common sound. There isn’t a category for psychedelic concept albums simulating a church experience. For those who enjoy the more experimental parts of the Chocolate Watchband, H.P. Lovecraft, Ultimate Spinach, David Axelrod, USA, Beacon Street Union or Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies (just a few off the top of my head), do yourselves a favor and brush aside the mainstream reviews of the more “level-headed” rock fan and check this out. —Coldchisel/RYM

Peter Hammill “The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage” (1974)

The absolute pinnacle of Peter Hammill’s solo career. The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage is every bit as impressive as the finest records from Van der Graaf Generator, although with most members of the (temporarily-defunct) Generator chipping in it’s arguable as to what degree this is a true solo album. Many of the tracks here are especially reminiscent of the intense vocal/sax-centric sound featured on the upcoming Generator classics Godbluff and Still Life, and fans of either of those albums will almost certainly love this release. Yet Silent Corner is a somewhat different kind of album than Hammill ever produced with the Generator. Every song here is extremely “intimate”, be it via deeply personal lyrics or via a stripped down production that brings everything back to Hammill’s voice. It’s also an extremely “weird” and “difficult” album, even compared to the average Generator release (only Pawn Hearts compares here). Bizarre lyrics, sudden shifts in dynamic, and absolutely no percussion until track four(!!!)- after dozens of listens there are parts of this album that I’m still trying to “figure out”. Yet before I scare away all but the most devout prog rock fans, let me emphasize that this album is totally worth your effort. A true classic of progressive music that repeatedly rewards the thoughtful listener via a wealth of magnificent details.

As for the tracks themselves, Silent Corner is bookended by what are arguably the two finest tracks of Hammill’s solo career: “Modern” and “A Louse Is Not a Home”. The first of those tracks contributes one of the most memorable opening sequences of any album from my collection, gradually developing into a glorious mindfuck of a song that perfectly epitomizes Mr. Hammill’s unique musical vision. The latter of those two tracks is representative of the record’s Generator-esque tendencies- a 10+ minute epic rocker in which Hammill’s energetic vocals are complimented by an equally-remarkable instrumental arrangement. Other highlights include a slow-building piano-driven “ballad” in “Forsaken Gardens” and another Generator-esque rocker in “Red Shift”. Preventing a perfect 5.0 star rating are the relatively straightforward ballads “Wilhelmina” and “Rubicon”, which carry over the “singer/songwriter” aesthetic that was more pronounced on the previous Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night. As with a number of tracks from that earlier album, I find both of these songs to be nice yet remarkably unmemorable.

Alongside the subsequent In Camera, the cornerstone of any Hammill collection. Strongly recommended to any progressive rock enthusiast, and a record that every Van der Graaf Generator fan should seek out. —Paul

Wigwam “Fairyport” (1971)

Third album by the Finnish Prog Masters Wigwam, marking the arrival of the group at a point of maturity after the initial period of searching for their unique voice, as reflected on their first two releases. This album is often considered as one of the finest examples of Finnish Prog and together with its follow up “Being” it presents Wigwam as one of Prog’s all time highest achievements. The band’s core: vocalist Jim Pembroke (a British expatriate living in Finland), keyboardist Jukka Gustavson, who was the band’s principal composer, bassist Pekka Pohjola and drummer Ronnie Osterberg are joined by several guest musicians, mainly guitarist Jukka Tolonen, who often cooperated with the band, and woodwind / brass players, including Jazz saxophonists Eero Koivistoinen and Pekka Poyry, expanding the overall sound of the basic quartet. The compositions are all outstanding, moody and full of unexpected turns and twists. Superb instrumental sections allow all musicians to express their talents, often moving into lengthy Jazzy improvisations. Pembroke’s English vocals were a great asset for the group and contributed to their immense popularity outside of Finland. Almost four decades after this material was recorded, it still sounds fresh and exciting, ready to be discovered by new generations of music lovers. Absolutely essential! —Adam

Barclay James Harvest “Barclay James Harvest” (1970)

A magnificent piece of early symphonic progressive rock with some of the most enduring melodies of all time. Barclay James Harvest’s first album can be categorized somewhere in the Procol Harum and early Moody Blues school of musical thought while still carrying their own personality. In many ways this debut album gives off a rather “Beatles’ish” feel as well; vocals are like velvet with superb musical harmonies and excellent lyrics which seems to fit the music with perfection. Recorded in ’69 and ’70 using only two eight-track machines with the assistance of Robert Godfrey (The Enid), the Barclay James Harvest Orchestra and a mellotron. Trivia buffs might be interesting to note that Jim Litherland (Colosseum) added some guitar brilliance to the opening number “Taking Some Time On”. Although sounding a little dated at times, this is still a tremendous recording which I fondly treasure. —James

Van Dyke Parks “Song Cycles” (1968)

In 1968 Warner Brothers were preparing to make pop music history by releasing an album by a young musician and songwriter called Van Dyke Parks. Song Cycle’s budget at the time made it the most expensive album ever recorded back then. The Warner bosses weren’t worried, they knew it was going to be the biggest thing since Sgt. Pepper and probably bigger. They were wrong, they were very wrong.

When Song Cycle was released it just didn’t sell. It had received unprecedented pre-release rave reviews saying it things like: “The most important, creative and advanced pop recording since Sgt Pepper”; “a work of creative genius”; “the most vital piece of musical Americana since Gershwin”. Parks also had an impressive pedigree as a musician on The Byrds ‘5D’ and the first Tim Buckley album; songwriter for Harpers Bizarre and others; a musical arranger on Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’ and most famously as a collaborator with Beached Boy Brian Wilson. Despite the advance press and the pedigree it’s hard to see how on earth Warners thought this was going to be a real big seller. It is undoubtedly a work of unique vision and ambition. Truly a masterpiece but with zero “radio friendly” 3 minute sound bites packed with catchy hooks. Even today Song Cycle is not an easy listening experience but it is a challenging and ultimately rewarding one.

I can think of no other record like it. Song Cycle is a musical travelogue, a sonic trip across the America of Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Busby Berkeley musicals and John Ford Westerns. It has moments of real beauty such as ‘The All Golden’ and ‘Donavan’s Colours’ but just as you’re beginning to feel like you know which direction you’re moving in, it whisks you up like a hayseed in the wind and then lands you somewhere completely different.

Warner Brothers reaction to the lack of sales was a strange but entertaining one. They started to run a series of adverts in the press stating they didn’t care they, ‘lost $$,$$$ on the album of the year’, because it was a great album and people shouldn’t worry about them, as they could afford it as they were making lots of money from lesser artists. Then they offered people the chance to send their worn copies of the album with one penny to Warners and they would send back two new copies, ‘one to educate a friend with’. After all they had so many copies pressed up. Whether or not this reaction by Warners was a bluff or not they have stuck by Van Dyke Parks, continuing to finance his self indulgent, uncommercial but often wonderful fare. The latest of these releases being a collaboration with Brian Wilson ‘Orange Crate Art’. For me ‘Song Cycle’ remains his finest work. —D Stewart

Irmin Schmidt & Bruno Spoerri “Toy Planet” (1981)

A great forgotten 1981 album from the Can keyboardist, Irmin Schmidt. Delicate synth passages a few sudden astonishing gypsy disco stomps. Slightly camp, but in a good way. Sometimes sci-fi creepy, like watching Tron after eating Nutmeg. Irmin’s album does not overstate itself or outstay its welcome. It cheers me up with happy tunes. —TheGreatCurve