Prog Me Two Times!


In the category of "better late than never," here, finally, is the follow-up to my original article on Culture Catch from 2007. In that article, I noted that "as punishment for the insane level of angst this is causing me, I have blackmailed Dusty: if he wants me to do this, he has to accept two lists: one of 'classic' prog, and one of 'neo-prog,' since the latter is a major subset all to itself." I added (a bit too hopefully it seems) that "the latter list will follow in a few weeks." I don't know if 624 can be considered "a few," but that is how many weeks it has been.

In order to get some sense of what I am about to offer, it would help (a lot) to read the introduction to my original article, in which I offer a working definition of "progressive rock."

That said, let me get to it.

Obviously, "neo-progressive" rock is of a time period sometime after seminal or "classic" progressive rock. And while it may seem odd, there is even less agreement on when neo--prog began than on when classic prog began. Classic prog initially developed out of the early and mid-period efforts of artists such as Frank Zappa, The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and a few others in the mid-1960s. Sgt. Pepper is also cited (correctly, in my opinion) as being a proto-prog album, though I would argue that parts of The Beatles' Revolver may qualify as well. It is important to note that another "thread" of prog was being developed simultaneously by what became known as the Canterbury School in England. And there are additional threads that came out of Germany and Italy in particular. In any case, classic prog developed during the mid-to-late 1960s, and is generally agreed to have had its "absolute" beginning with King Crimson's debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King.

"Neo-prog" is not as easy to pin down. Classic prog reached its apotheosis in the early to mid 1970s, but died a heinous death at the hands of disco beginning in the mid-1970s and boy bands and corporately manufactured music (including many solo female arists) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. True, some of the classic prog bands were still out there, putting out albums (some of them superb and highly important and influential) and playing concerts (some among the highest-grossing concerts of all time). And at least two "new" prog bands arose during this period, Canada's Rush (who were highly influential in at least one or two subgenres of neo-prog), and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Kansas. As well, bands such as Pallas, Twelfth Night, Solstice, Quasar and Pendragon had begun putting out what would later come to be considered the beginnings of neo-prog.  But neo-prog is usually said to have begun in earnest in 1983 with the near-simultaneous release of Marillion's Script for a Jester's Tear and IQ's Tales From the Lush Attic. These were quickly followed by a wealth of new  progressive, or "neo-prog" bands, including Arena, Spock's Beard, Flower Kings, Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Echolyn, and Transatlantic, as well as a wealth of non-English and non-American bands, such as PFM and Deus ex Machina (Italy), Anglagard (Sweden), Ark (Norway), Magma and Gong (France), and Tangerine Dream and Can (Germany), among many, many others.

One interesting fact about neo-prog is that a great many of the bands were influenced specifically by Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, The Moody Blues and Gentle Giant (in that order). Even more interesting is that the "sound" that many of the Genesis-influenced bands adopted came from  two specific albums, Trick of the Tail and, especially, Wind & Wuthering. Not even my truly brilliant colleagues at can figure out why that is. (Although it is true that the "sound" Genesis achieves on Wind & Wuthering is extraordinary.)

One issue with choosing an "absolute" list for neo-prog, as opposed to classic prog, is the sheer number of subcategories of the genre.  In choosing my list, I have kept to the same philosophy as I did in my classic prog list: "Imagine yourself -- a progressive rock aficionado -- on that hypothetical desert island to which you can only take a given number of albums (usually around a dozen). Now imagine that you are going to share that island with someone who has a keen interest in, but little real knowledge of, neo-progressive rock music, and you are looking to choose the dozen or so absolutely essential albums that will not only serve to give this person a fairly broad perspective of neo-prog. but will not become tedious after a few hundred listenings: i.e, the cream of the genre." That last part is critical.  So that was my goal.

Finally, as before, I have derived my list by choosing what I believe to be the dozen or so most “essential” neo-prog bands, and choosing what I believe to be their most important or representative works.  This time, however, the albums are listed in alphabetical order by artist. So, off we go: the dozen neo-prog “Desert Island Discs” -- some of the absolutely essential neo-progressive rock albums. And even more so than last time, I expect to have lots of CDs by unchosen bands and albums thrown violently at my head. But that's okay, I am at peace with my choices, and will enjoy them whether you do or not.

I. Neo-Prog (1983-?)

The Church Priest=Aura (1992) 

:Although The Chruch had been putting out albums since 1981, and their 1983 album Séance had definite elements of neo-prog, it was not until this, their seventh album, that they entered the realm of neo-prog -- with a vengeance. With bassist-songwriter Steve Kilbey's amazing lyrics and chord progressions, and a new highly atmospheric sound that simply envelopes the listener, The Church would go on to become a driving force in neo-prog from this point on. (2nd choice: Forget Yourself, 2003)

Deus ex Machina: Equilibrismo da Insofferenza (1998)

I simply had to include at least one of the non-English, non-American neo-prog bands. And it doesn't get much more non-English-speaking than an Italian singer almost screaming lyrics in Latin. But don't be fooled. This quintet is among the most musically and technically accomplished groups you are ever likely to hear (their drummer, Claudio Trotta, may well be among the best drummers in the world), and their writing is as ultra-progressive as anything ever written. This is complicated, sophisticated stuff, and their catalogue is well worth delving into. (2nd choice: Cinque, 2002)

Dream Theater: Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory (1999)

I never thought I would like "metal" music in any form. Yet Dream Theater, almost unarguably the leader in the subgenre of metal neo-prog, is something different: a truly "musical" metal band. Even guitarist John Petrucci's speed metal guitar is more melodic than anything I have ever heard in the genre. And Mike Portnoy (now sadly gone from the group) is definitely the most melodic speed metal drummer ever. This album is not simply a brilliant concept album, but is included in another list I hope to present, the greatest concept albums of all time. It ranks up there with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick, Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and Marillion's Brave (see entry below). (2nd choice: Systematic Chaos, 2007)

IQ: Dark Matter (2004)

As noted in my introduction, IQ was one of the progenitors of neo-prog. So this was among my two most difficult choices by far. Every album beginning with Seventh House (2000) is worthy of inclusion. I chose Dark Matter because I think it respectably represents what IQ was and is about. A somewhat "darker" view, and a "heavier" sound, occasionally even approaching "metal." They remain one of my three favorite currently active progressive bands.  And Peter Nicholls is my favorite neo-prog vocalist. (2nd choice: The Road of Bones, 2014)


Marillion: Misplaced Childhood (1985)

I am giving myself two picks here (both of them difficult, for the same reason as my pick for IQ), since Marillion has had two very separate lives. The first one included their original lead singer and songwriter, Fish. Of the four albums he recorded with them, this is the one that I believe does him the most justice as a songwriter, lyricist, and singer. It is a quasi-concept album, and shows off Marillion's early style of Genesis influence, filtered through their own prog sensibilities. (2nd choice: Clutching at Straws, 1987)

Marillion: Brave (1994)

Marillion's second life began with the departure of Fish and the arrival of singer-songwriter Steve Hogarth (simply referred to as "h"). And it took just three albums for him to come up with not only Marillion's best mid-period album, but one of the greatest concept albums ever written. Taking off on the true-life news story about a girl found wandering on an English bridge, who did not know who she was or where she came from, and otherwise refused to speak on her own behalf, Hogarth wrote a back story that is simply one of the most spine-tingling and sometimes breath-taking quasi-musicals you will ever hear. The album is filled with lyrical, musical and sonic brilliance. (2nd choice: Marbles, 2004)

Mars Volta: Amputecture (2006) 

When Mars Volta released their first album, De-Loused in the Crematorium (2003), the response from critics and prog fans alike was, one either loves it or hates it, there is no in between.  It was among the most unexpected and (to many) unintelligible neo-prog debuts ever. But for those who "got it," it signaled the entry of a formidable new progressive band, and sound. Their approach had more in common with King Crimson than with Genesis, and their sonics were among the most dissonant and innovative in quite some time. Led by singer-songwriter Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist-songwriter-producer Omar Alfredo Rodriguez-Lopez, the band took an unapologetically uber-progressive approach to their music, which shows in both the often schizoid lyrical and songwriting style, and the extremely technical virtuosity required of every player who recorded with them, not least the frighteningly brilliant guitarist John Frusciante. (2nd choice: Octahedron, 2009)

Neal Morse: Sola Scriptura (2007)

Neal Morse is the busiest progressive rock artist out there. In addition to his own output, he was a founding member of Spock's Beard (see below), a founding member of Transatlantic (see below), and has recorded with his own band (The Neal Morse Band) and with Flying Colors. Both Transatlantic and Flying Colors are "super groups" of some of the top currently active progressive rock artists. Morse is a Christian minister, and his solo output is what could be classified as Christian progressive rock.  However, it is completely approachable by anyone. Among those albums, this is the most interesting and exciting. Morse is uncompromising in his approach to progressive writing, and his solo work is among the best prog out there today. (2nd choice: Momentum, 2012)

Pendragon: The Masquerade Overture (1996)

As noted, Pendragon is among the earliest of the neo-prog bands. Their 1985 album, The Jewel, is considered almost as seminal as the debut albums of Marillion and IQ. However, although some of their other albums were also critical in building their reputation, it was The Masquerade Overture that cemented their standing as a standard-bearer of neo-prog. A concept album, many progressive rock fans consider this among the best neo-prog albums of all time. Given the range of musical motifs and emotions the album covers, it is difficult to argue with that assessment. (2nd choice: The Window of Life, 1993)

Porcupine Tree: Deadwing (2005).

Steven Wilson may be the second busiest progressive rock artist after Neal Morse. In addition to founding Porcupine Tree, which, like The Church, has become a standard-bearer for neo-prog, Wilson is also the founder of Blackfield and Opeth, and somehow also finds time to produce and/or remix albums by many other artists, most notably King Crimson. And although Wilson had put Porcupine Tree through a number of style iterations, from its early experimental albums to its heavier, even quasi-metal style, Deadwing is the album that probably did the most to bring them to the masses.  It is uncompromising in its strength and heavy atmospheric rock style, and every song is a gem. (2nd choice: In Absentia, 2002)

Spock's Beard: The Light (1995)

Although it is true of many neo-prog bands, with Spock's Beard the best place to begin really is the beginning, with their debut album, which sets out their style perfectly. The album includes not just one but two extended conceptual compositions, "The Light," and "The Water." As noted above, the driving force in Spock's Beard for at least its first few albums was co-founder Neal Morse (see entry above). But Spock's Beard was truly a group effort, and each member contributes his own stylistic approach to the whole. (2nd choice: Snow, 2002)

Transatlantic: The Whirlwind (2009)

Transatlantic is a neo-progressive rock "supergroup" comprised of keyboardist Neal Morse (Spock's Beard), bassist Pete Trewavas (Marillion), guitarist Roine Stolt (Flower Kings), and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater). Almost needless to say, everything they have done is great neo-prog and worth a listen. However, it was their third album that really brought everything together. Working from a Christian concept (care of minister Neal Morse, but fully endorsed by the other members, all of whom are Christians of one ilk or another), the writing on Whirlwind is the strongest they have done, unrelenting in its refusal to be pinned down within progressive rock. Some passages are absolutely breath-taking in their complexity and technical virtuosity.  (2nd choice: SMPT:e, 2000)

And there you have it. As noted, I realize that many people will argue with my choices, and I fully admit that I have left much out. Maybe I will do follow-ups to both of my lists. Watch this space.

And there you have it. As noted, I realize that many people will argue with my choices, and I fully admit that I have left much out. Maybe I will do follow-ups to both of my lists. Watch this space.


Mr. Alterman is a Senior Writer and a founding moderator of, the number one progressive rock website in the world. He writes there under the name Maani. (Don’t ask.) He has been a contributor to Culture Catch since 2007.

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