The most underrated albums by 10 major prog bands

Segments of the sleeves of five underrated prog album
(Image credit: Anthem/Atlantic/Charisma/Chrysalis/Mechanic)

Every prog band’s fans can rell their best and worst albums, but there’s another category of record – those that, for whatever reason, don’t get the love they deserve. It might be down to the fact that they were released long after the band’s glory days were over, or perhaps they’re simply overshadowed by better known albums. But it’s time to show a little love the forgotten treasures and lost gems released by 10 major prog bands, from Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis to Jethro Tull, Rush, Dream Theater and beyond.

Metal Hammer line break

Yes - Drama (1980)

Yes started the 80s after kicking out Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman and bringing in Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of Buggles. For some, that merger was a dealbreaker but the Yes DNA runs deep, long, and true through every minute of this album. After the listlessness of 1978's Tormato, Squire, White, and Howe sound invigorated and eager to run on follow-up Drama, high on the creative rush injected into the band by the new arrivals. Bookended by Machine Messiah’s frantic twists and the hurtling corkscrewing riffing of Tempus Fugit, not a single second is wasted in between.

Pink Floyd - Obscured By Clouds (1972)

There’s something both endearing and liberating about Floyd’s film soundtracks. Freed from the weighty expectations following Atom Heart Mother or Echoes, they give themselves permission to become a series of fractal Floyds, going wherever the muse takes them, be it the glam rock Floyd of The Gold Its In The…, the country-tinged Wots…Uh The Deal or the geezer singalong pop of Free Four. While Rick Wright’s laconic When You’re In recalls their earlier psychedelic naiveté, Mudmen's wailing guitars and cathartic keyboard washes foreshadows Dark Side Of The Moon's prismatic creativity.

Genesis - Duke (1980)

For many Genesis diehards, Duke marks the point where it all started going wrong. Prog partisans point to megahits Turn It On Again and Misunderstanding as evidence once great band selling, conveniently ignoring the former’s utterly maverick time signatures and that fact that it was conceived as part of an abandoned suite titled Duke alongside Behind The Lines, Duchess, Duke's Travels and Duke's End. The latter two would survive as the epic two-part 11 minute album closer, providing a direct link to the past that they would revisit throughout the ensuing decade (see: Invisible Touch’s Domino).

Rush - Presto (1989)

Presto is held up as the point where Rush moved on from their “keyboard phase”, even if still sounds like an utterly 1980s proposition. Produced by Rupert Hine, it boasts echoing drum sonics and a glistening sheen, while the rhythms of Scars could almost be ABC or Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Still, it’s strong on actual songs, with Chain Lightning and The Pass sounding like accidental power-pop, and War Paint, with its rousing, anthemic refrain of ‘Boys and girls together/Paint the mirror black’ coming on like a futuristic Sweet. A better Rush album than most Rush fans realise.

King Crimson - Islands (1971)

While lacking the thematic cohesion of its predecessors, the contrasting moods of King Crimson’s fourth studio album nevertheless provides a portrait of a band still adjusting to change and producing some absolute gems. The introspective title track, with pianist Keith Tippetts’ delicate adornments and Mark Charig’s pungent cornet salvos over surging Mellotron, The Letters’ darkly expressive free-jazz musing and Robert Fripp’s future-pointing scything guitar on Sailor’s Tale, all exemplify Crismon’s deftness at wielding scalpel-like precision or emotive blunt trauma terror in equal measure. Little wonder that Fripp would revisit all three numbers when he reformed KC in 2014. 

ELP - Emerson, Lake & Powell (1985)

The thundering bravura of Emerson, Lake And Powell's sole studio release during their mid-80s lifetime stands up remarkably well to modern scrutiny, easily outgunning 1978's Love Beach and giving 1992's Black Moon more than a run for its money. With Carl Palmer embedded in Asia, ex-Rainbow powerhouse drummer Cozy Powell, delivers a forceful directness that keeps both Emerson and Lake on task. Bristling with a new breed of digital synthesisers, Emerson’s trumpeting fanfares, soaring melodies, and orchestral flourishes on The Score, Learning To Fly, and The Miracle all deliver heavyweight punches. They coulda been contenders.

Jethro Tull - Stormwatch (1979)

The third in Jethro Tull’s trails a distant third after its celebrated predecessors Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses. Unfair, given that it’s the dark horse of the so-called ‘folk trilogy’ – and of Tull’s 70s output in general. It largely ditched the ‘folk’ elements that had defined their recent sound in favour of a noticeably harder and more ominous edge, one that was mirrored in both the broiling clouds reflected in Anderson’s binoculars on the striking cover and the frontman’s prescient focus on impending climate change on North Sea Oil and Dark Ages.

Van der Graaf Generator - Still Life (1976)

Overshadowed by Van der Graaf Generator’s brilliant 1975 comeback, Godbluff, Still Life as a whole confirms their surprise reappearance was no lucky fluke. Aside from the barnstorming La Rossa and Pilgrims, and the title track's brooding presence, impassioned performances abound. Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End finds Peter Hammill’s detonating his belligerent roar to stupendous effect on the word “silence” while at the other end of the emotional scale, the anguished cries of David Jackson's acidic sax etch deep into the icy surfaces of My Room. No wonder it remains the band's own favourite from the period.

Dream Theater - When Dream And Day Unite (1989)

‘Metallica meets Rush’ was the revolutionary pitch for Dream Theater’s debut album, released at a time when the relationship between the metal and prog scenes could broadly be summed up as ‘never the twain shall meet’. Those used to James LaBrie’s powerhouse voice may find original vocalist Charlie Dominici’s helium-fuelled voice weirdly jarring, but otherwise A Fortune In Lies, Afterlife and finger-blurring showcase Yste Jam deliver on the promise of marrying the complexity of prog to the energy and attack of metal. It flopped on release, and the band themselves are sniffy about it, but it remains a foundation stone for the whole prog metal genre.

Porcupine Tree - Lightbulb Sun (2000)

Porcupine Tree were fully in their imperious stride by the time their sixth album emerged in the year 2000. The fierce chemistry between Wilson, keyboard maestro Richard Barbieri, bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Chris Maitland was on display throughout, with bleak closing epic Russia On Ice and the shimmering alt.rock of the title track representing two distinct sides to the band’s personality. Somewhere between the two, elegantly muscular jams like Hatesong and Four Chords That Made A Million highlighted what a dynamic ensemble the quartet had become. The albums that followed solidified the PT legend, but this is still a huge part of it.

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