Proggy bits and pieces. . .
Jethro Tull — Aqualung (1971)
Sure, there's a lot of guitar flashing and just an in general 'overplayed' vibe to the whole thing, but there are also really tuneful songs at the heart of everything here. And, you'll just never know when a song will go straight into acoustic folk rock territory. Wonderful stuff. The title track is a good indicator for the rest of the album: hard rocking and intense one minute, strummy and folky the next. There is a bit of a (what the band said in retrospect was unintentional) concept to the album of how religion in society is used to cover up unpleasantness (and subsequently, how organized religion is a bit of a noble failure in this respect). Conceptually, very "deep man." But musically, it's more folk rock than it is prog to my ears. It actually really reminds me of Fairport Convention albums from the same period. Songs like 'Mother Goose' and 'My God' are just excellent, regardless of how you want to classify them.
Jethro Tull — Thick as a Brick (1972)
First of all, the packaging for this record is completely and fully impressive as to the amount of detail and work that went into it. A gatefold sleeve that contains an entire fake newspaper. I even went through and read a good portion of it and, not only is it completely detailed, much of it is downright hilarious. The music feels like it had just as much consideration given to it, as the album is just one piece that is divided into two sidelong parts; and while it definitely has distinct parts and unique 'song within a song' passages, it's all part of the greater work. While there are also lots of light and folky acoustic passages, the album is much more electric and focused on soloing this time around. At that point, it becomes very clear that this was intended to be a more 'proggy' album. A glance at the lyrics is pretty impenetrable, actually. It's definitely got some poetic qualities to it, but there are lots of sidebars within sidebars and no thoughts ever really get fully completed. In any case, it's a profound work regardless, because it's just musically interesting. There is plenty of soloing and noodly purely technical passages (hey, it is a prog album after all), but unlike a lot of other prog that is technical for technicality's sake, the tunes here are impeccable and smart. Hard to pick a favorite between these two Tull albums.
Egg — Egg (1970)
One of the great bands of the legendary Canterbury scene. Definitely more classical-minded for a rock trio (heck, side two of the album is dedicated to an instrumental "symphony"). For a guitar-less trio, Egg manages to color their music with a surprising amount of tonal ambiance thanks to Dave Stewart's organ work. Take a song like 'I Will Be Absorbed' for instance: tons of dynamics shifting and a general sound about it that there has to be more than just three guys playing. There is also a real emphasis on tunes here. Take the group's adaptation of Bach's 'Fugue in D Minor' in which they transform the piece into a somewhat funky two minute psychedelic trip. The symphony (billed as 'No. 2') is a twenty minute instrumental experience that simply expands on the idea. It's a bit reminiscent of ELP, if they were more concerned with tunes than skills (and not to mention, it gets pretty wacky and dissonant at points). As a deluxe reissue on the great Esoteric boutique label, this features bonus materials that are all just as strong as the proper album.
Soft Machine — One and Two (1968/1969)
Neat two-fer CD reissue of the first two Soft Machine albums. Soft Machine was, of course, from the same Canterbury scene that Egg also rose from. Where Egg was a bit more focused on playing a sort of "classical rock," Soft Machine is more in the vein of playing "jazz rock." Be it through Robert Wyatt's decidedly jazzy drumming and occasionally even scatty vocals or Michael Ratledge's undeniably Herbie Hancock-esque keyboard work, there is definitely a sense here that group was raised just as much on jazz as it was on rock and roll. Both albums are divided into two sidelong suites that range in length from less than a minute to in excess of seven minutes. For all of the idiosyncratic and (presumably) sarcastically narcissistic lyrics and patience-trying density of the layout of the albums, you have to really take a step back and marvel at just how revolutionary and new this music must have sounded like in 1968. There is plenty here that could easily be considered right alongside the Krautrock bands that people seem to give a lot more credit to (for whatever reason). You really have to scratch your head with something like 'We Did it Again.' Essentially a fuzzier ripoff of 'You Really Got Me' — and yet, it still sounds fresh. The first album is a bit more solid overall, as Kevin Ayres is still in the band on guitar and it's just the trio playing some wildly psychedelic pop. The second album goes a bit more jazzy, with the addition of a horn section and Ayres being traded out for bassist Hugh Hopper. Two very distinct affairs, but both equally as revelatory in their own ways. Pretty fun stuff.
Hugh Hopper and Alan Gowen — Two Rainbows Daily (1980)
An all instrumental duets album that features Alan Gowen on various keyboards and Hugh Hopper playing his electric bass through various effects and pedals, both playing several parts through overdubbing. While not strictly a jazz album, it ventures closer to jazz than anything else. Kind of in an ECM mode, as it does get very ambient and nearly new agey at certain points. Something like 'Morning Order' (famously sampled by Common) is the kind of song I think of when I envision two aging British hippies getting together to have a cup of tea and make music. Lovely stuff, actually. The fuzzy bass tones and early synths do date this one pretty quickly, but the musical conversations these guys have are interesting to eavesdrop on, for sure. The album closes out with the fantastic nine minute ballad 'Waltz for Nobby.' This CD reissue features five tracks from a one-off trio performance (that features the headlining duo with Nigel Morris on drums) that is most certainly a jazz date. It does not compliment the proper album very well, but as its own session, it's not too bad. Highlighted by the eerie 'Little Dream,' it definitely illustrates that these guys were just as comfortable in a purely jazz setting.
Radiohead — Go to Sleep and There There EPs (2003)
Six b-sides from the Hail to the Thief album. As Radiohead b-sides go, they're all over the place, from acoustic numbers (the lovely 'Gagging Order') to glitchy electronic tunes (the surprisingly tuneful 'I am Citizen Insane'). The Amnesiac b-side 'Fog' shows up in a live solo Thom rendition, where he accompanies himself on piano and that's just fun (seriously, a b-side getting live love is awesome anyway, but to actually put out the live recording is great). 'Paperbag Writer' and 'I am a Wicked Child' sound like the album that birthed them, while the paranoid electronic doodle 'Where the Bluebirds Fly' sounds like a leftover from the Amnesiac b-sides. Definitely hardcore fan fodder, but good for what it is.