How many prog rock fans does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: that’s not a real lightbulb. It takes a brave soul to tackle a history of prog, given the strength of opinion that the topic provokes among its acolytes as to what does and does not constitute prog rock in the first place, never mind who should be considered pivotal artists. But as the man who launched this very magazine in the face of scepticism, Jerry Ewing ventures where others fear to tread.
Published in a generously illustrated coffee table format (the better to club people with when they say, “Prog? Is that still a thing?”), Wonderous Stories travels in roughly chronological order from the genre’s birth in the hazy aftermath of psychedelia right up to the present day. Along the way, Ewing casts his eye over the cornerstone albums that built the genre, as well as those more recent releases that have provided extensions and renovations. Plus, there are scenic detours via Krautrock, art rock, fusion, the Canterbury scene, and progressive metal along the way.
Any selection of progressive rock’s defining recordings is sure to leave someone’s feathers ruffled, but it’s hard to argue convincingly against the importance of ‘The Big Six’ as they are dubbed herein – Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Volumes upon volumes have been written about the likes of Pink Floyd, so what you’ll find here is essentially an introduction to these bands and their output, rather than a blow-by-blow recounting of their entire careers. However, the upside to this approach is that it allows Ewing to cast a wide net, pulling in lesser-known groups from across the progressive spectrum.
The section on European prog may help introduce readers to the varied delights of Riverside, Magma and Focus, while the chapter on neo-progressive highlights the hardy spirits who flew the prog flag in the 1980s, such as IQ, Pallas, and Pendragon. Ewing’s selection of ‘The Albums That Define Prog’ concludes with Opeth’s Blackwater Park from 2001, proving that the genre is both active and still evolving in the new millennium. And yes, death metal growling can be scary if you’ve never heard it before.
There is some repetition – the solo careers of former members of Yes and Genesis are covered both in their respective band sections and the chapter titled ‘Away From The Day Job’ – but Wonderous Stories is a beautifully designed archive and an impeccably cogent defence of our favourite genre by one of its most dedicated advocates.