If the 1970s was prog’s heyday, then the 80s was when it reinvented itself. At the start of the decade, the genre’s big hitters may have been a little bruised by the upheavals of the previous few years, but for the most part they were still standing. Pink Floyd, Yes and Jethro Tull all released albums, while Genesis became bigger than ever – albeit by streamlining their sound to fit prevailing pop trends. At the other end of the scale, the neo-prog movement produced a new generation of bands, most notably Marillion, Pallas, I.Q., Pendragon and, a few years later, It Bites.
That’s not to say the 80s was an easy time for prog bands or their fans – 25 minute epics were considered passé. In truth prog’s peak had passed – at least for the time being. But these were the bands keeping the flame burning.
Rush – Moving Pictures (1981)
The final of the four albums in Rush’s second cycle, this is one of the Canadian trio’s three strongest albums irrespective of the decade. The menacing introduction to the Mark Twain-inspired Tom Sawyer is merely a prelude to the equally wonderful Red Barchetta and the stunning instrumental YYZ. Moving Pictures is Rush at their best, pulling off the tricky balance between virtuoso musicianship and superb musical material and thought-provoking lyrics. Limelight’s take on fame remains ever-pertinent more than 30 years later. Subsequent Rush albums in the 80s would get bogged down in synths, but Moving Pictures is the sound of the band at its peak.
Asia – Asia (1982)
A marketing man’s dream, Asia were a prog rock supergroup: Yes guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Geoff Downes, ELP drummer Carl Palmer and King Crimson/UK/Uriah Heep bassist/vocalist John Wetton. This, the band’s debut, spent nine weeks at the top of the US album chart. Hugely commercial but with strong prog undertones and impeccable musicianship (plus the prog stamp of approval of a Roger Dean logo and cover), the likes of Heat Of The Moment and Only Time Will Tell earned Asia a huge audience.
Yes – 90125 (1983)
The eleventh-hour involvement of vocalist Jon Anderson meant that this extraordinary album appeared under the Yes name. With bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White on board, plus the return of keyboardist Tony Kaye, the band may have looked like Yes, but 90125 represented an astonishing sonic transformation. The mastermind behind its compelling songs and unique sound was South African guitarist Trevor Rabin, abetted by some-time Yes vocalist Trevor Horn. The almost metallic riff of lead track Owner Of A Lonely Heart may have shocked old fans, but it also ensured Yes’s survival.
Supertramp – Brother Where You Bound (1985)
With Roger Hodgson departed for a solo career, keyboardist/vocalist Rick Davies assumed control of Supertramp’s musical direction. And with Brother Where You Bound that meant for a unique Supertramp album. Cannonball and Still In Love have Davies’s piano to the fore, with plenty of horns thrown in for good measure, while No In Between is darkly atmospheric. And just edging Better Days, the highlight is the thunderous 16-minute title track featuring Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on guitars. An atypical Supertramp album, but also one of their strongest.
Marillion – Misplaced Childhood (1985)
Standard-bearers for the so-called neo-prog movement, Marillion had already enjoyed some success before the release of this, their third album. But with the timeless Kayleigh and epic ballad Lavender making serious inroads into the singles charts, Fish and Marillion suddenly became household names. Prog just wasn’t expected to be this catchy, but Kayleigh was instantly memorable, and Steve Rothery’s signature guitar sound throughout satisfied the purists. A bona fide concept album, Misplaced Childhood is one continuous piece of music. And at 41 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome either.
Emerson Lake & Powell – Emerson Lake & Powell (1986)
The cynics may have carped that in Carl Palmer’s absence Keith Emerson and Greg Lake brought in Cozy Powell only to maintain the ‘ELP’ continuity, but it’s the former Whitesnake drummer’s power that propels this superb album. The Score and The Miracle are marvellous mini-epics. Elsewhere there are shorter tracks such as the jazzy Step Aside, the ballad Lay Down Your Arms and the memorable Touch And Go, plus Mars, The Bringer Of War, from Holst’s The Planets. This stands proudly alongside the best of the Palmer ELP albums
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Pink Floyd – A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987)
Defying Roger Waters, who had tried to shut the band down in the wake of 1983’s acrimonious The Final Cut, Messrs Gilmour, Mason and Wright reunited in 1987 for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Derided at the time by Waters, it’s effectively a Gilmour solo album. And while it’s not a patch on the Floyd masterworks of the 70s, it merits inclusion here. The ironically titled Signs Of Life is an instrumental prelude for Learning To Fly which showcases Gilmour’s guitar, while the pulsating The Dogs Of War is considerably darker, and the uplifting On The Turning Away simply sublime.
It Bites – Once Around The World (1988)
A prog rock band with strong pop sensibilities to boot, It Bites were an unlikely looking and sounding proposition. This second album manages to mix hugely commercial tracks like Midnight and Kiss Like Judas with epics like Old Man And The Angel and the astonishing 15-minute title track without seeming contrived. While Frank Dunnery’s voice is an acquired taste, his guitar playing and musical vision held enormous promise which as yet remains unfulfilled following the band’s implosion a couple of years later.
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe – Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)
Yes in all but name for legal reasons. After that band’s Big Generator failed to match the success of 90125, vocalist Jon Anderson regrouped with former Yes members guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Bill Bruford and keyboardist Rick Wakeman for this one-off project. More quintessentially prog than 80s Yes, ABWH stretch out with several mini epics – Themes, Brother Of Mine, the borderline twee Quartet and potent Order Of The Universe among them. Elsewhere The Meeting and Let’s Pretend are reminiscent of Anderson’s work with Vangelis.
World Trade – World Trade (1989)
Formed by Lodgic bassist – and future Yes man – Billy Sherwood, World Trade’s debut is one of prog’s great lost albums. Clearly influenced by early-80s Yes, World Trade fashioned a sound that was a hybrid of AOR and prog. A throwaway opening instrumental aside, this record is 10 near-flawless tracks. Highlights include Life-Time, driven by Sherwood’s bass riff, the uplifting Revolution Song and caustic Fight To Win. Sherwood’s current membership of Yes aside, World Trade are a footnote in the prog annals – but this is essential listening.