“My earliest memory of prog is being about seven, living in Manhattan, New York, and my older sister had a big record collection, from Led Zeppelin to The Beach Boys.
She was playing stuff like Roundabout by Yes and that was probably the first prog record that I heard. That was the first time I’d heard anything with different time signatures. I really didn’t know what it was at the time. I knew it was incredibly complicated but cool when you got it.
But the real explosion into prog was when I started going to this total hippie summer camp. We’re talking America in 1976, ’77, ’78 and I’m 12, 13, 14 years old. It was like the movie Dazed And Confused; everybody I knew was smoking pot and listening to Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer. So for those three summers I was immersed and thrown into progressive rock culture, but it’s not just nostalgia because I like current prog too.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer were massive here, they would sell out Madison Square Garden, so would Yes. The first ever concert I saw was there, October 9, 1978, Jethro Tull. I don’t consider Tull all that proggy except for Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play but Ian Anderson’s very interesting because he flirts with prog, then he says, ‘I’m gonna be a short-song, heavy guitar folk-rocker.’
I still don’t understand what Peter Gabriel’s going on about with Lamb… but I don’t care!
The first prog album I emotionally invested in was In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson. It was my sister’s and it’s so proggy, it might even be the first true prog album, lyrically and with the time signatures, complexity, strangeness and the way Greg Lake’s voice is treated on 21st Century Schizoid Man. Then, right after that it was Yes’ Close To The Edge, to me the definitive prog record. The title track is maybe the greatest prog rock song ever.
When you have an older sibling they’re very influential on your taste, so when my sister came home with Renaissance’s Novella, I was like, ‘What’s that?’ I would never have found out about Annie Haslam if it wasn’t for her. She was much more sophisticated than me.
I eventually took off on my own. I had an allowance of about four or five dollars a week and I either spent it on records or comic books until I was about 16. There was a record store right around the corner from my school. After school, and sometimes before, I would nip round. I was always envious of movies of British record shops where you had the listening booths ’cos we never had anything like that in America. It was here I got The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis. Peter Gabriel might be my favourite voice to listen to. I can remember listening to that album for the first time and being completely spellbound by his vocal control and delivery and storytelling. That was the lightbulb moment for me with prog music. I still don’t understand what he’s going on about but I don’t care! [Laughs] I like that it’s a jumble and you have to put it together. Not everything in life has to make sense – Talking Heads have got it right when they say Stop Making Sense.
The next big album in my collection was Danger Money by UK. My friend, who lived across the street from my dad in Virginia, was big into prog rock, Brand X, Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu Orchestra. He played me the title track of Danger Money and I was absolutely hooked. It’s still one of my favourite prog records, I love John Wetton and Terry Bozzio is an incredible drummer. The musicianship is incredible in that band.
I found Nektar’s Remember The Future recently on Spotify – I travel a lot so I use Spotify all the time. I liked A Tab In The Ocean but this just stunned me. I love side two – or maybe I should say the second half – it’s amazing. Not only can they still play, but probably better than 40 years ago ’cos they’ve had all that practice.
For ELP, I’m choosing Trilogy. I love Brain Salad Surgery to death but I listen to Trilogy more. I love The Endless Enigma, Hoedown and From The Beginning. ELP have two primary legacies. They introduced bombast and grandiosity to the prog scene for better or worse and you could argue that it was Keith Emerson who introduced the classical influence into progressive music. It makes sense that it’s keyboard players who do that because they’re playing things like Bach’s Toccata And Fugue. That’s how you get things like one of my favourite prog songs ever, Parallels by Yes.
I was kind of a classical fan. My mother’s uncle had a giant classical music collection and he would sit in his back room drinking whisky and smoking cigars, listening to classical music. I’d be about five or six, he would give me chocolate-covered cherries and we’d listen to Mozart concertos.
Heading towards the future we have Rush, Moving Pictures. Neil Peart is the greatest drummer of all time. All three of them play their instruments with staggering ability. I’ve seen Rush about five times, and the fact that Geddy Lee will sing, play bass and play keyboards with another hand, his multi-tasking is ridiculous. Their longevity, and the consistency to the stuff they put out from 2112 to Clockwork Angels is just jaw-dropping.
One of my all-time favourite bands is Tool. I loved Ænima, but then when Lateralus came out I was so excited with anticipation I listened to it for a week straight. The Grudge has a really simple, pounding guitar riff about three minutes in that just hooked me. I’m concerned about Tool – they’ve been away a long time and I worry they’ve lost their focus.
I’m a massive Steven Wilson fan. I heard about Porcupine Tree about 10 years ago when I was listening to one of the earlier streaming services, Rhapsody. I stumbled upon them because the title In Absentia was so interesting. And it’s the Steven Wilson connection that led to me finding Pale Communion by Opeth. I don’t find that death metal and prog meld together all that well, except on Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries. But I can play Pale Communion to anybody and they go, ‘Wow.’
An honourable mention goes to Big Big Train. I have a good friend who’s a prog fan and he tipped me off to them. It took me a week to click on the link he’d sent, then I devoured their back catalogue on Spotify – you can tell by now that’s my modus operandi. They have the Genesis comparisons but it sounded urban and contemporary and yet essentially prog. English Electric Part One is my favourite.
Have I heard of [Gremlins-named] Mogwai? I have and I know they’re post-rock, but I haven’t listened to them. But I’ve always wanted to introduce them onstage. Maybe that’ll happen one day!”
Find Zach on Twitter at @zwgman.