So what is prog-rock, really?
Damn, genres are hard to define. Academics sometimes resort to listing… stuff that might or might not be identifiable features of a genre. Most of us just say “I know it when I see it.” Neither way really gives you a succinct definition. Alt-rock? How can I say this? It’s rock that’s underground, or mainstream rock that sounds like that the stuff underground rockers make, or mainstream rock that sounds mainstream by people who used to be underground… I love you, Kurdt Cobain, but you really screwed up the definition of alt-rock for all time.
Prog-rock, however, is somewhat easier to define. In its classical incarnation, prog-rock is music from the 60’s and 70’s (and maybe the 80’s, but that gets into late prog) that pushed the boundaries of rock-and-roll in some specific ways: prog-rock was more open to longer songs, instrumental jamming, new instrumentation, and lyrics that explored philosophical themes, fantastic worlds. In this framework we began to see album-oriented rock for the first time, and more than that, we began to see stories told in all aspects of the album: lyrics, instrumentals, artwork, liner notes–this almost Wagnerian idea of “total art” was where narrative entered rock in a big way.
Why does this work for rock and not for, say, pop, folk or jazz? Because rock has always had a broad scope. Rock is about life. Rock, from its earliest days when blues and country came together, spoke about romance, work, sorrow, religion, travel and everything else a human life contains, in the language of sex and dancing. Why? Because sex and dancing are not only ubiquitous, but work as metaphors for nearly everything else (as well as each other).
Prog-rock came at precisely the moment that talented rockers were both educated enough and stoned enough to realize that the frontiers of rock were, by their very nature, wide open. Its predecessor, acid rock, led naturally to the frontier, and prog-rock forged ahead from there.
So it’s a genre that a lot could be said about, and, because reviewers tended to shaft prog-rock at the time, it’s a genre that not enough has been said about…. he says, trying to convince himself that he’s not wasting time on Monday night.
So today we’re looking at an unappreciated prog-rock classic, one that most of us know only because it produced its band’s greatest hit, a rather bizarre cover of what had been a mediocre Bruce Springsteen song called “Blinded by the Light.”
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s seventh album is a hideous, hideous package. It’s a big ear with a little mouth inside it. Why didn’t they learn from the hideous mess that was Floyd’s Meddle album cover? Ears aren’t good cover art, people. This album, at least, is a disappointment in the “total art” department.
But then you slip out the shiny black disc and put it on the phonograph and it acquits itself moderately well, with some glaringly bad moments and some soaring moments, a disc to encapsulate the entire range of its genre from “bloody awful garbage” to “WHOOOO YEAH MOTHER****ERS.”
Let me sober up. (No, I’m not actually high on anything in particular, just naturally a total clown.) The album opens with the aforementioned “Blinded by the Light,” an organ-driven jam on what had been a rather weird Springsteen song. (And yes, Springsteen was weird early on. Every really listened to “Born to Run?”) Blinded is a song about being a teen rebel on the early rock and roll scene, complete with light-hearted references to teen sex, masturbation, vandalism and drug use. I like either version alright, but the Earth Band’s version has a better melody, sometimes aided by lyrics changed somewhat to fit the rhythm.
(But yes, as everyone likes to joke about, the singer, Chris Thompson, pronounces “deuce” as “douche.”)
It’s got some nice solos from the guitarists and the headliner himself, Manfred Mann on organ. He even does Chopsticks on the long edit! I find that oddly endearing. While the song is really not that special (and it might not even stand on its own as prog), instrumentally, it gives a good taste of what the band is capable of. I especially like the singers singing the verses as a round at the end. Watch out for this little idea; it comes back. 7.5/10.
But if I took points off the other ear album (or “earlbum”) I mentioned earlier just for containing the abomination “San Tropez,” you know I’m going to be hard on this album for containing “Singing the Dolphin Through,” Mother of Harlots and Abominations. No one can be told what this song is, Neo. You have to hear it for yourself.
Actually, this is pretty funny now that I look at the lyrics. It’s… very British. It’s about two guys going on a head trip and/or making music because Plymouth, England is so violent and depressing. “Singing the Dolphin Through” is short for “singing the Dolphin through still waters;” do they propel their craft by singing? And more importantly for the purposes of this review, do I… do I like this song? Escapism works on me, it’s safe to say. You may find this song too silly, as I did before I looked closely at the lyrics, and may well hate it as I did.
Musically, it’s pretty great, with female backup singers, more synth, more organ, a little saxophone solo… it’s the first definitely prog song on the album, musically as well as lyrically.
I swore I’d do more reviews of albums I don’t love. But I guess I like this one more than I’d remembered. Alright, “Dolphin” gets 7/10 because I’m feeling very generous just now.
Oh, yes, it isn’t even Dolphin that I hate. It’s “Waiter, There’s a Yawn in my Ear.” This thing… Oh, God, this thing. I just remember it having stupid lyrics, really and totally stupid.
So I have the album on as I’m writing, of course, and I’m just getting to “Waiter” now. The intro is pretty cool… Man…
Wait, is this an instrumental? And is that synthesizer real? Can it exist in our dimension? How many PhD’s did it take to program such a thing? And in what subject(s)? Is a mile of patch-cord involved?
And wait, what did I hate again? Was I just that closed-off to Dolphin? Was it the song I was thinking of? Am I gushing again? This review isn’t going the way I wanted it to. I wanted to prove that I’m not just gushing about albums I like. I purposely chose an album that had a couple of songs I could sink my teeth into. And now, boots on the ground, my plan has fallen apart in the face of the enemy. Plans do that, I guess. 7/10.
So the next song was going to be my absolute standout, the deep-cut that made the groaners kinda worth it. But now I’m not sure there ever were any groaners. “Road to Babylon” begins with the female singers from earlier singing “Waters of Babylon,” a round composed by Phillip Hayes in the Classical era based on the 137th Psalm. Some of us might have learned it in Sunday school as children; I personally didn’t but I know people of much the same upbringing as myself who did. Simple text, effective text: it’s a lament for the lost city of Jerusalem, from the perspective of Jews who have been led into captivity in Babylon. Combined with an effective and elegant contrapuntal melody, it makes a beautiful piece of music on its own; particularly brilliant is the fact that “for thee, Zion” in the first voice coincides with “of Babylon” in the second voice, making the dichotomy ever so poignant. And then the band come in and take it off the rails. Drums and guitar enter, the choir fades out, and Thompson leads with the pith of a new story; a story of mind-control, evil sorcery and death along the “road to Babylon.” “A golden helmet blinded minds,” the opening line goes, “among ten thousand swords along the road to Babylon.”
Some minds are like that when sober (if they can ever be said to be sober), and some minds would have to be stoned off their asses to write such a story. I don’t know which is the case here, but if you like fantasy it’s a song to blow your mind. It’s some high-concept stuff, and if you’re open to it, it’s a great song, with a great sound and great overall composition, with a gospel-esque “well, well, well” in the backing voices as a key motif. At intervals, the melody of “Waters of Babylon” returns, before a recapitulation at the three-quarters mark. If the band had needed to prove their literacy in terms of classical form, they would have been surplus to requirement, so to speak.
Not everyone is going to dig such a high-concept prog-rock song, but I have to give it a good rating on technical ground, if on nothing else: 8/10.
And then “Road to Babylon” abruptly stops, and a little bell starts ringing. It’s the intro to “This Side of Paradise.” This is a fairly slight and idyllic little number, about a tropical paradise on Earth. I like it okay. The intro is annoying. 6/10.
Starbird was the B-side to “Blinded by the Light,” there called “Starbird #2” for whatever reason. I guess on my first listen I assumed it was a cover of the theme-song to another of those 70’s puppet-based sci-fi shows like Thunderbirds. It begins with Chris Thompson and Manfred Mann (I think) singing in a round, once again. The lyrics are an ode to some sort of heroic creature, the “Starbird.” “Starbird, you can fly me, take me everywhere you go…” and the melody will be familiar to Yes fans as an excerpt of a theme from Stravinsky’s Firebird score, which they played a recording of as the overture to many of their famous 70’s concerts, for instance at the beginning of Yessongs. You know, like how Metallica play “The Ecstasy of Gold?”
Then there’s an instrumental breakdown that owes a lot to Billy Preston’s instrumental “Space Race,” which was one of the very first records I ever owned, and which some of the older generation will fondly recall hearing whenever Bandstand had technical difficulties. Weigh the two together and Starbird will be found wanting, instrumentally speaking, but it’s a cool instrumental on its own. At the end, the a capella A-section gets recapitulated. 6/10; brevity certainly works in this little guy’s favor.
“Questions…” Ah, yes, this is the one that grates on me. It’s about going in a dream to speak to beings of great wisdom, who tell you that the answers are within you all along. Stop pandering to me! 6/10, but it missed being a 5 by having a catchy melody, which is taken from a light composition by Schubert.
So do I like the album? Hell yes. I can’t stay mad at Questions or Starbird, even, much less Yawn or “Singing the Dolphin Through.”
Highest Point: “Waters of Babylon”
Lowest Point: Questions
Whole Album Average: 6.8/10
Bonus for mind-blowing synth throughout: 1.0
Penalty for being good when I wanted to write a bad review: I guess I can’t penalize for this.
Penalty for being a little light on original content: -0.5
Overall Score: 7.3/10