When I became interested in progressive rock, like most people in the English-speaking world I was totally unaware of the richness and depth of the international scene; that’s because native English-speakers think the world revolves around our language and its cultures. It’s arrogant, colonialist and just plain wrong, but it’s the way we are.
Case in point, progressive rock. Sure, a lot of the standard musical motifs used originated with trailblazing international stars like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson, but in most of the world’s industrialized countries you could also find a plethora of shockingly skilled and imaginative musicians spewing out bizarre and creative prog albums that blended genres and cultures in innovative ways. Man, the seventies were great for music! In fact, a lot of these albums take rock in directions that the giants of British prog never even imagined.
So I thought I’d point out a few of the best ones here, possibly sending some of you on a journey of discovery. But beware; once you go in you may not come out. I’ve got several dozen Spanish and South American prog albums on my hard drive.
Note that having already put together specific lists on the mighty French and Italian scenes, I have left those countries off this list. I should also note, in case you are a patriotic prog citizen of any of the below countries, I know full well that each of those scenes could justify its own top 10 — I ain’t implying any scene was better than any other. The Spanish scene alone was incredibly deep. It just leaves me with more material for future lists, don’t it?
The only English-language album on this list, it’s a real symphonic gem from the mid-70s. Ragnarok was New Zealand’s premier prog group (I’m saving Split Enz’s bizarre debut for another article), and this record stands up with the best of the genre. It reminds me a lot of Australia’s Sebastian Hardie in its lush textures and excellent guitar playing, but in fact this is much better. The vocals are good but unobtrusive and perhaps a little lacking in excitement, but I’ll take on-key over exciting any day. The band had two keyboard players who were allowed to stretch out on a number of beautiful, pastoral ballads with an array of classic synth sounds. There’s even a brief section of boogie-rock à la Status Quo, which oddly doesn’t feel out of place. The Moody Blues-esque acid-folkery, including some sweet ensemble backing vocals, of “The Volsung” is probably the highlight, though the hypnotic space-rock groove of “Fourteenth Knock”, which gives Gong a run for its money, is a close second. Overall, it’s hard to pinpoint why this album is so appealing, but it is undoubtedly a very melodic, peaceful and engaging listening experience. I love this album and insist that you listen to it.
Triumvirat was basically Germany’s answer to ELP or Colosseum, a jazzy power trio based on omnipresent Hammond organ deployed with very Emerson-esque sounds and panache. Still, the band had its own identity, as evidenced by concept albums like this one, which is indeed a retelling of the Roman story. The music is very classical in tone, with sprightly melodies played on an array of synths. Vocalist Helmut Köllen may not be Greg Lake, but he has a very nice tenor voice of his own, and the often poppier nature of the songs (“The School of Instant Pain”) makes for a much pleasanter listen than ELP’s typical wankery. “The Walls of Doom”, featuring some very funky Hammond, is one of the groovier seventies prog pieces I’ve heard, and let me assure you I’ve heard a ton. The rhythm section also, by the way, somehow has mimicked the very tones of Lake’s bass and Palmer’s drums (Lake had an easily identifiable bass sound). If you like organ, if you like pompous balladry, and if you like a concept album, I do believe Spartacus will send you into rapture, if you have not been so lucky as to experience it.
Novalis was one of the leading German non-Krautrock prog bands and is often classified as “symphonic prog”, meaning on the epic and beatific side of things. This is generally heralded as the best of the band’s albums, and while I haven’t heard all of them, I can see why, though the album’s reputation is mainly predicated on the title track. The first song, “Aufbruch”, awkwardly mixes pretty string synths and Rhodes with some rather out-of-tune hard rock riffing, though fortunately it soon morphs into a very spacy neo-classical ballad. Fortunately it all gets better with “Wunderschatze”, which has some really lovely acoustic playing and choral background vocals. Finally, the money shot is the 18-minute title track, the appeal of which lies in the ethereal, pastoral mood set by the combination of mournful string synths (I love that sound!) with delicately plucked acoustic guitar. There’s a pleasantly elegiac synth melody accompanying as well. Despite a rather raunchy upbeat jam section toward the end, on the whole this is one of the finest spacy prog pieces of the era, on a par with the best of France’s Pulsar, definitely conjuring up the waning sunlight of a summer evening. Not an essential prog album but something to consider adding to your collection.
Highlight: the summery title track
Earth and Fire without the Wind was a Dutch band that released a series of excellent prog albums in the early seventies, the band’s calling card being the elegant lady vocals of Jerney Kaagman. The band could be best described as a continental iteration of Curved Air (“Marie Antoinette”, “Back Street Luv”, etc.). However, I’d say Earth and Fire had a bit more psychedelia in its sound and less propensity for tweeness. Hammond is definitely the musical engine behind this moody, 5-track set of groovy psych/prog. Some of it’s actually quite gothic in tone, such as the Teutonic “Storm and Thunder”. The way Chris Koerts’ axework blends with Gerard Koerts’ pretty mellotron parts throughout the album is similar to the matching tones of John Lees and Woolly Wolstenholme in classic Barclay James Harvest. Like any great prog album of the era, this record contains an epic, the 18.5-minute title track, which goes through some great moody sections of things like Krautrock-esque volume swells, epic mellotron and harpsichord, and it has some great melodies as well. It concludes with a tension-filled acoustic coda followed by a stentorian military beat accompanied by maximum ‘tron. Incredible!
Highlight: the title track’s epicness
Spain’s Canarios, who had not done anything remotely like this up to that point in their career, produced a monumental album. A potentially cheesy concept, a space opera with music based on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, ought to have fallen flat on its face, especially at 73 minutes running time. But it’s such an explosion of unbridled creativity that it just plain works. The songs are excellent and the choral arrangements are stunning. Both female and male lead vocals are excellent. The Vivaldi adaptations rock surprisingly hard, driven by some of the best (rock critics would say “propulsive”, for which they should be shot) drumming I’ve heard on a seventies album (and some of the best-produced drum sounds as well). Unapologetically strident synths alternate with lush mellotron, and thunderous upbeat sections contrast with pleasant ambient sections. The music’s so good, I’ve never even bothered to follow the storyline, which of course seems to have some kind of sci-fi theme. Despite many abrupt changes throughout the long album sides, the music never fails to be melodic and interesting. The group was wise to quit after releasing this monster … they couldn’t have done any better. This record’s glorious pomposity represents symphonic prog at its best.
Highlight: “Tercer Actos”
South American bands tended to be very artistically ambitious, even by prog standards, and this passion is reflected in the fact that the genre remains quite popular there to this day. Bubu’s one-off album is quite the monster, covering so many styles over three tracks that it becomes almost dizzying. This is quite the cast of virtuosos. The instrumental “El Cortejo de un Dia Amarillo” definitely shows the influence of jazzy, aggressive proggers like King Crimson, Henry Cow, Area and Van der Graaf Generator, alternately crazy avant-jazzy and tranquil, classically pretty (some excellent flute and violin parts). “El Viaje de Anabelas” contains elements of the horror chamber music of Univers Zero but also elements of spacy Euro prog and zeuhl and even a Ligeti-like choral section. And finally, “Suenos de Maniqui”, with its tinkling piano, starts with pretty sounds that could come from a Genesis or Le Orme album and also contains some very Frippian overdriven guitar lines before a crazy choral/zeuhl-type conclusion that comes straight from a Magma album. Each of these styles is performed masterfully. Not an album that any serious prog collection should lack.
Highlight: “El Viaje de Anabelas”
This late seventies album looks from the title and cover like it should be pretty scary, and in places it doesn’t disappoint, though on the whole it’s more notable for containing some really lovely, spacy synth parts, as on the opener, “Om”, which will appeal to Tangerine Dream/Klaus Schulze fans. However, the piece soon turns into an energetic prog odyssey featuring some oddly effected vocals. The singer sounds a little like Fish. “Zephyrus” is another piece of futuristic-sounding synth-prog. But the highlight track is “π”, yes, the pi symbol, so I assume this piece is aimed at smartypants. It’s a jazzy guitar showcase. Tantra’s music is not genius by any stretch but is very well put together, well-played and well sung, with plenty of great keyboard textures; it has a lot of similarities to French prog of the period, or funkier hippy stuff from the likes of Steve Hillage. Check it out if you’re a synth-lover.
This is first of two double albums that ambitious Argentinian band Arco Iris recorded, the second being Agitor Lucens V. This is an essential South American prog album in every way. Arco Iris combined elements of psychedelia, jazz (the excellent sax playing resembles early Crimson), symphonic prog, some Floydian spacy elements, and Andean folk in a stew that is not too far off from Los Jaivas’ early sound but is still distinctive. This long album is comprised of a number of short pieces (occasionally a recurring melody pops up from the overture) and two long tracks. The long tracks tend to devolve into guitar-based jamming, which is not entirely my cup of tea, but the level of musicianship is very high. The short songs are all wonderful, usually characterized by great harmony vocals and often some lovely acoustic playing. South American folk instruments pop up from time to time, as well as some very tasty flute playing. For the time and place the production is very good, clean and clear. If you come across it, you will not regret picking this album up. It’s ambitious, artistic and a great musical journey into the realms of South American prog.
Highlight: “La Cancion de Nahuel”
As with the Tantra album, this eighties release from a band named after Lem’s famous novel has one key appeal: synths, upon which its reputation justly rests. If you don’t like synthesizers used on rock songs, stay a few miles away. If you like, say, Rush’s Grace Under Pressure and Power Windows, then you will love this. The Marsbéli Krónikák (Martian Chronicles) suite takes up most of the album, and suitable to its sci-fi theme, it’s max synths all the way, towering cosmic walls of ’em playing grand melodies that could come off a Jarre or Kitaro album. However, this is very much a prog album too, so elaborate Pink Floyd-influenced solo guitar is here, some flute, and some complex parts from the rhythm section. The album is very, very early eighties, as I said, but I get the same pleasure out of it as I get from the Eloy albums of that period; if you immerse yourself in the early digital atmosphere, it really does work quite well. “Ha Felszáll a Köd (If the Fog Ascends)” is the loveliest and finest piece on the record, and “Orchideák Bolygója (The Planet of Orchids)” has some great synth sequencing. On the whole, a nice combo of prog and European electronica.
Los Jaivas is a huge name in South American music, both in the fields of folk and progressive rock. This, their best-known and most ambitious album, with lyrics adapted from Pablo Neruda, is an amazing fusion of seventies-style progressive rock with the sounds and mythology of traditional Andean culture. Right from the first notes of “Del Aire al Aire”, which mingles pan flute with ambient synth, you know you are in for a different experience listening to this. Expertly combining these haunting traditional melodies with elegant progressive rock, Los Jaivas truly bring to life thousands of years of history through music. They actually did this on a number of great albums from the seventies through the early eighties, but this one is definitely the finest. Just check out the sheer beauty of the piano and rippling guitar on “Aguila Sideral” to get what I mean. There is an indefinable elegance and mystery to this recording, even on the upbeat tunes like “Sube a Nacer Conmigo Hermano”. Fine singers and amazing players, Los Jaivas should really be considered amongst the giants of international music, considering their impressive discography.