My friend, Bradley Birzer, has put together a terrific new blog dedicated to all things prog, called Progarchy. It is visually beautiful (I’ve enjoyed trying to identify the various albums in the background), and the initial posts are very informative and entertaining.
I was inspired to pull out some old prog albums of my own, and as I listened to them I decided it was time to write a music-related post of my own. So here’s my tribute to an album that slipped through the cracks in the late seventies. You might say it was the last gasp of the classic era of prog music.
I first heard U.K. in my college dorm in 1982. One of my suitemates put it on his turntable late one evening. After the hiss and crackle of the needle hitting the vinyl, an amazing wash of synths, complex rhythms, and intricate guitar work enveloped us. I was immediately hooked, even though at the time I was listening almost exclusively to new wave music.
In England in 1978, when Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Buzzcocks were riding high, you could not go more against the grain of musical tastes than to record a prog-rock album featuring veterans of Yes, King Crimson, Roxy Music, and a fusion jazz guitarist. Yet that is what John Wetton (bass & vocals), Bill Bruford (percussion), Eddie Jobson (keyboards & violin), and Alan Holdsworth (guitar) did. Released on the EG label, the eponymous lp was pretty much ignored in the U.S. Bruford was a former member of Yes, and he had played with Wetton in King Crimson during their “Lark’s Tongues In Aspic” through “Red” period. Eddie Jobson had played keyboards and violin in Roxy Music, and Alan Holdsworth had been a member of the jazz drummer Tony William’s fusion group Lifetime as well as Soft Machine.
“Supergroups” often end up being much less than the sum of their parts, but U.K. is a stunning exception. The first two tracks, “In the Dead of Night” and “By the Light of Day” are, like their titles, complementary and form a mini-suite. A thundering bass/synth intro soon segues into Wetton’s impassioned vocals that are tastefully accented by Holdsworth’s guitar work. Throughout both tracks, Jobson’s keyboards provide a sonic foundation that is surprisingly timeless. Too often, synthesizers from the late ‘70s are cringe-inducing, but Jobson proves himself to be a master of the instrument’s sonic palette.
Another highlight is “Thirty Years”, which begins with an understated, mournful synth motif underlying some delicate acoustic guitar work by Holdsworth. Wetton’s vocals are mixed to sound far away and disembodied as he sings, “Chasing rainbows for a lifetime/ then left to go/Like shadows from the sun, /Run into traces/ Of faces you thought you saw/ But never seemed to mean/ much more /than echoes of a day gone by /When someone else would have to try/ To light the stars/ ……In your sky.” After another verse, Bruford’s drums begin to roll, then suddenly everything kicks into high gear with bass, electric guitar, and stabbing synths.
To my ears, though, the best song on the album is “Nevermore”. Beginning with some classically-tinged acoustic guitar work by Holdsworth, it soon builds into a bulldozer of a tune, with Holdsworth and Jobson trading licks back and forth like dueling bebop jazzers. Even though it is over 8 minutes in length, it never drags; there isn’t a single wasted note.
U.K. went on to record another studio album and a live album, but unfortunately Bruford had left by that time (he was replaced by Terry Bozzio), as well as Holdsworth. As a result, the magic was gone, and both albums are pale reflections of the debut.
Jobson, Wetton, and Bozzio reunited earlier this year for a world tour, with almost every performance a sellout. Maybe there really is a prog renaissance happening!
Listen to “Nevermore”: