If your attention span can cope with more than three-minute sing-alongs, you may well already be a fan of that glorious beast: the progressive rock epic. Every self-respecting prog band has at least one song that glides majestically past the 10-minute barrier, embracing complexity and indulgence along the way, quite often with a lyrical theme that either makes no sense whatsoever or that would give Tolkien a run for his money in the implausible conceit stakes. Either way, prog epics offer supreme musical nourishment.
Here are the 20 greatest plunges down the prog rock rabbit-hole…
20. Grobschnitt - Rockpommel’s Land (from Rockpommel’s Land, 1977)
German prog rock is routinely ignored in favour of the cooler Krautrock sounds of Can and Neu!, but the country’s contribution to more traditional prog is unquestionable and Grobschnitt were its most batshit crazy protagonists. Symphonic prog at its most fearless and sumptuous, Rockpommel’s Land will either have you in raptures or sprinting towards the off-switch. Either way, it’s epic as fuck.
19. Jethro Tull - Baker St. Muse (from The Minstrel In The Gallery, 1975)
A less obvious choice than the one-song conceptual splurge of 1972’s Thick As A Brick, perhaps, but this towering centerpiece of Jethro Tull’s eighth album is every bit as mesmerizing. Divided into four distinct parts with individual titles (the best: Pig-Me And The Whore), it’s an exercise in sonic people-watching as Ian Anderson tells tales of bus stops, Indians restaurants and “Ale-spew, puddle brew” (which sounds delightful), underpinned by a dazzling ensemble performance.
18. Dream Theater - Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence (from Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, 2002)
Once you hit the 40-minute mark, you know that you have reached peak prog status. Dream Theater have never done things by halves, but the second half of their sixth album took the cape-wearing biscuit. An intricate story of six people and their respective mental illnesses, it’s not exactly cheery stuff, but the music that underscores the lyrical intensity is wonderfully grandiose and bursting with moments of dynamic brilliance.
17. Rick Wakeman - The Battle/The Forest (from Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, 1974)
Progressive rock’s curry-favouring talisman has never knowingly released a record that wasn’t ever-so-slightly ludicrous, but as much as cynics might mock the Wakeman oeuvre, the sheer breadth of imagination and musical invention that shine through on Side Two of Journey To The Centre Of The Earth deserve to be celebrated. Actor David Hemmings provides the narration, Rick provides the rippling keys.
16. Hatfield & The North - Mumps (from The Rotters’ Club, 1975)
Canterbury’s contribution to the British prog revolution is undeniably huge, but Hatfield And The North seldom get the props they deserve. The closing track on the band’s classic second album, Mumps is a prog epic with a jazz heart: 20 minutes of artful noodling and convoluted harmony delivered with an exhilarating lightness of touch and a strong sense of (very British) humour. Listening to it will not cure mumps, of course, but it certainly can’t hurt.
15. Ritual - A Dangerous Journey (from The Hemulic Voluntary Band, 2007)
Unsung heroes of Sweden’s reliably fruitful prog scene, Ritual like to write songs about Moomins. If that means nothing to you, then don’t be put off. Ritual also make some of the most sublime and imaginative prog records ever written, and A Dangerous Journey is the pinnacle of their infrequent achievements to date. And yes, Moomins are from Finland. Doesn’t Sweden have its own squad of doe-eyed, benevolent gonks?
14. Caravan - Nine Feet Underground (from In The Land Of Grey & Pink, 1971)
Caravan’s gently psychedelic meanderings have an ageless quality that make even their longest, most rambling tracks seem too easy on the ear to be regarded as demented flights of fancy. But there is subtle madness within Nine Feet Underground’s mellifluous undulations, not to mention blissful melodies and an invigorating sense of swing that many other prog bands failed to achieve through being overly concerned with technical proficiency. This whizzes by in what feels like less than half of its 22-minute duration.
13. Beardfish - Sleeping In Traffic (from Sleeping In Traffic: Part Two, 2008)
As the world mourns the end of Beardfish (No? Just me?), there’s never been a better time to revisit their most adventurous and extravagant song to date. The Swedes could easily have released this 35-minute behemoth on its own and called it an album, but that is not the true prog way, is it? Instead, Sleeping In Traffic appears midway through an album that bulges with great moments, offering a fantastic journey-within-a-journey that is as vivid as it is generously proportioned.
12. Cathedral - The Garden (from The Garden Of Unearthly Delights, 2005)
Cathedral were never a prog rock band in the true sense of the phrase, their dogged stewardship of the doom metal scene precluding them from fully being assimilated. There is no denying that The Garden is an authentic prog epic, however. There are still crushing Sabbathian riffs and plenty of metallic oomph, but this unhinged mystery tour through Eden’s ignominious shadows owes far more to the freewheeling wonder of flat-out proggery (not to mention acid folk).
11. The Flower Kings - The Truth Will Set You Free (from Unfold The Future, 2002)
If any criticism can be leveled at The Flower Kings, it’s that they never know when to stop. Fond of releasing gargantuan albums stuffed with gleaming epics, the legendary Swedes have never sounded more focused or potent than they do on the opening track from 2002’s Unfold The Future. The central melodic theme is spellbinding, but it’s the seamless changes of mood and pace that take the breath away. Half an hour of your life that you won’t want back.
10. Peter Hammill - Flight (from A Black Box, 1980)
Despite being a founder member of dark prog lords Van Der Graaf Generator and a remorselessly prolific solo artist with more than 30 albums to his credit, Peter Hammill has never been too quick to pen something that extends beyond the 10-minute mark. When he does do it, however, he makes it count. Released at the dawn of the ‘80s, Flight is a masterpiece of elegant but unruly songwriting married to tight but volatile performances: it’s a prog epic, but resolutely perverse and quite unlike anything else on this list.
9. Focus - Eruption (from Focus II/Moving Waves, 1971)
Never mind Hocus Pocus (although it is fucking great): Dutch prog’s head honchos displayed their true potential and brilliance most noisily on this tour-de-force of ensemble histrionics. If you’re a fan of explosive flute solos, thunderous rhythm sections and the limitless possibilities of free jazz, then Eruption is guaranteed to blow your mind. And no, there isn’t any yodelling on it. Sorry about that.
8. Soft Machine - Slightly All The Time (from Third, 1970)
Much like Canterbury affiliates Hatfield And The North, Soft Machine were in thrall to prog’s possibilities but inspired by the truly liberated sounds of the free jazz movement. As a result, this epic mutant jam from the Softies (duh) third album came as something of a shock to those who had previously been enjoying the band’s perky, psychedelic rock songs. Not for those with a short attention span, Slightly All The Time is genuinely mind-bending.
7. National Health - Tenemos Roads (from National Health, 1978)
Yet more jazz-infused experimental derring-do from Canterbury, National Health specialised in wilfully complex arrangements and semi-improvised skronking (yes, it’s definitely a thing), making them an instant hit with beard-stroking nerds everywhere. Tenemos Roads is simply the greatest thing they ever recorded: a towering voyage through unfamiliar sonic realms, with a central melodic theme that sounds like the best TV theme tune of all time played by magic mushroom-munching Martian scientists. Or something along those lines.
6. Magma - Rïah Sahïltaahk (from 1001° Centigrades, 1971)
Skewed and unsettling jazz fusion played with ferocity and verve, Magma’s sound remains one of the great unexplained wonders of prog history. This 22-minute sprawl tells the story of its titular anti-hero, a renegade Kobaian (Kobaia is the planet invented by Magma founder Christian Vander and the setting for Magma’s first ten albums) who abandons his people and ends up stranded on an uninhabitable planet. Or something like that. It’s mental.
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5. King Crimson - Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part 1 (from Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, 1973)
Robert Fripp’s perennially amorphous crew always stood apart from their prog peers, not least due to a strong sense that theirs was a sound beamed in from some alien dimension. Decades ahead of its time, the first part of the Larks’ Tongues saga starts like some transcendent Buddhist ritual and then erupts into an angular, dissonant assault of riffs and choppy grooves. Christ knows what they’re on about, of course, but genius is unmistakable.
4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Tarkus (from Tarkus, 1971)
Is there anything more triumphantly proggy in all of human history than this 20-minute colossus from the official kings of flagrant self-indulgence. The combination of the late, great Keith Emerson’s near-psychotic organ solos and a tale of a giant half-armadillo/half-tank monstrosity from the future (or is it the past? WHO KNOWS?)… well, let’s just say that Tarkus ticks the “prog epic” with a preposterous flourish.
3. Marillion - Grendel (B-side to Market Square Heroes, 1982)
Inspired by author John Gardener’s novel of the same name – a dark re-imagining of the Beowulf myth – Marillion’s now legendary first true epic emerged at a time when prog rock was slightly less fashionable than acne scars. Yes, it owes plenty to Gabriel-era Genesis and the band have since produced an unfathomable amount of much better music, but Grendel is a special and barking mad moment in prog’s fight for survival.
2. Yes - The Gates Of Delirium (from Relayer, 1974)
Masters of the elongated prog exploration, Yes became arena-filling giants by releasing music that sounded like this. Both their longest and most intricate epic, the opening track from 1974’s Relayer album isn’t so much a song as an entire, self-contained musical universe, wherein the laws of rock’n’roll no longer apply and no bizarre idea is left on the cutting room floor.
1. Genesis - Supper’s Ready (from Foxtrot, 1972)
The undisputed daddy of all progressive rock epics, Supper’s Ready stands as a monument to untamed creativity and a mischievous spirit that would almost be punk were it not for the shrieks of dismay that such a description would elicit. Just under 23 minutes of musical ingenuity and lyrical trickery, it still sounds extraordinary 44 years later.