A beginner's guide to progressive rock in five essential albums

Segments of five classic progresssive rock album covers
(Image credit: Island/Atlantic/Charisma/EMI/KScope)

As the drug-fuelled experimentation of psychedelia waned after the Summer of Love, bands either went heavy, like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple or Black Sabbath, or retained a spirit of musical adventure, marrying seemingly ill-matched sounds originally heard on Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds and Frank Zappa's Freak Out! and adding some symphonic or classical flourishes. Add a tidy amount of musical prodigiousness, and progressive rock was born. 

Of course it wasn’t called that back in the day, and whilst the early movers and shakers may not have sounded anything like each other, the one thing that linked the likes of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, ELP and Pink Floyd was a fearlessness in the recording studio that matched the grandiosity of their musical ideas.

These days prog’s influence is felt far and wide, although, 50 years on from its arrival, arguments still rage on what exactly constitutes progressive rock – alongside metal, prog probably has more gatekeepers and crashing line-up bores than any other genre. 

Despite the onset of punk rock in the late 70s, prog has continued to flourish. It had something of a rebirth in the 80s, spearheaded by Marillion, and the arrival of the prog metal sub-genre in the late 90s again boosted the genre’s fortunes.

Today prog can be heard in the crushing heaviness of Meshuggah through to the artful leanings of Radiohead, and a myriad of bands delighting fans with their refusal to conform or work within perceived boundaries. Here are a selection of classic early albums alongside some examples of how the genre later moved forward. Which should offer fans a chance to indulge in their second favourite pastime, after listening to the music: telling anyone who’ll listen, "that’s not prog!". 



King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)

While it’s not the first progressive rock album, King Crimson’s incendiary debut album is without a doubt the one that put the genre on the map. It began a decades-long search by founding member Robert Fripp for his own musical nirvana, introduced the world to Greg Lake, later to form prog’s first ‘supergroup’ with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer, while Ian McDonald would later resurface in AOR giants Foreigner! 

21st Century Schizoid Man is proto prog metal, something the band would explore later in the decade, while the title track and Moonchild are longform progressive rock in excelsis, and the delightful Epitaph remains a highlight of the band’s recent live sets. Whisper it, but most Crimson fans probably wish the band still sounded just like this.

Yes - Close To The Edge (1972)

If Crimson were eclectic and ELP bombastic, Yes operated with the finesse of a chess grandmaster. As prodigiously talented as their prog peers like ELP, Yes were on a massive creative roll in the early 1970s, releasing both The Yes Album and Fragile in 1971, both albums building on the promise shown by their first two albums, 1969’s self-titled debut and 1970’s Time And A Word

The arrival of guitarist Steve Howe for The Yes Album and former Strawb Rick Wakeman on keyboards for Fragile upped the band’s game, which all came together with no small amount of majesty with 1972’s Close To The Edge, which is frequently voted not just the best Yes album of all time but the greatest prog album too. 

Inspired by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the side-long title track is both powerful and beautiful, while the other two tracks, the folkier And You And I and Siberian Khatru (not even Jon Anderson knows what a Khatru actually is!) maintain the class. Drummer Bill Bruford left the band following Close To The Edge, and some maintain Yes were never quite the same again.

Genesis - Selling England By The Pound (1973)

If any band captured the essence of Englishness, long-deemed an integral part of progressive rock’s DNA, it was former Charterhouse schoolboys Genesis. By the time of their fourth album their line-up with drummer Phil Collin and guitarist Steve Hackett had settled, thanks to a successful first US tour. 

While preceding albums Nursery Cryme (1971) and Foxtrot are hardly slouches, Selling England… remains probably the finest offering from the Peter Gabriel era, offering up bona fide Genesis classics such as Dancing With The Moonlit Knight, The Cinema Show and Steve Hackett’s guitar showcase Firth Of Fifth, all offering visions of a decaying Olde England falling prey to Americanisation. And in I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)// the band had their first UK hit single. Like Close To The Edge, it’s often hailed as one of the greatest prog albums ever.

Marillion - Script For A Jester’s Tear (1983)

Following the wind of change punk brought with it at the tail end of the 70s, many hipsters in the music press decided progressive rock was done, a bloated corpse buried in the ground. Five young men gathered in Aylesbury (in the prog heartland of middle England) had other ideas. 

Inspired by the likes of Genesis, Camel and Van der Graaf generator, and fronted by a giant Scotsman who wore face paint and sounded like the bastard son of Peter Gabriel and Peter Hammill, Marillion were at the forefront of a new prog revival that captured the imagination of The UK and Europe throughout the 80s, and laid the groundwork for what a lot of modern-day progressive rock is about. 

The newer breed brought with them a social awareness sometimes missing from the originators of the genre, as well as more modern musical influences. Marillion would go on to have a Number One album with their third release Misplaced Childhood, but their debut remains a remarkable feat. An unashamed prog band, getting a deal with a major label and reaching No. 7 in the charts. In 1983. No, you were not dreaming.

The enfant terrible of modern prog, Wilson is either feted for reviving the genre and taking it to greater commercial heights over the last two decades, or reviled for that same commercial success and more recent musical experimentation. But in terms of modern progressive rock, no one has been more pioneering either solo or with Porcupine Tree, whose own In Absentia and Fear of A Blank Planet vied with this solo option for the final spot here. 

2013’s Raven… is an album of dark ghost stories that saw Wilson co-producing with 70’s prog legend Alan Parsons and backed by some of modern prog’s finest musicians. It’s got the lot - giant epics such as the opening Luminol and The Watchmaker, gentle frail melody in Drive Home and in the heartbreaking title track, one of the finest and most emotive pieces of music Wilson has ever created. Regardless of your feelings on his more recent music, you simply cannot deny Wilson’s huge impact on prog.

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.