Four Progressive Rock Albums for People Who Don't Like Prog Rock

Progressive rock can be hard to get into, but here are four prog albums that cross into more popular and accessible genres.
Progressive rock is hard to get into. Most people who are interested will Google or Wikipedia "progressive rock," find a song from one of the classic prog bands like Yes, Rush, or Genesis, and are instantly turned off to the music, for any number of reasons: too long, too pretentious, sounds weird, and so on. Curious first time listeners might be put off by the flamboyance, extravagance, and pretension that plague the genre. All three words are accurate descriptors of most prog rock--but with good reason. 

After the rise in popularity of traditional pop and rock music throughout the fifties and sixties, classically trained musicians wanted to hop on the major label bandwagon during the seventies, and combined the complexity and technical proficiency required to play classical music with the strut-across-the-stage flamboyance of rock'n'roll bands to mixed success.
The combination meant impressive technical proficiency, but listeners who were used to traditional rhythms, melodies, and song structure found the genre unpalatable. Some of the less successful attempts, such as the "supergroup" Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (or ELP), are still followed by an extremely loyal fan base, but the general consensus is that many of these early groups--ELP, Kansas, Focus, almost any offshoot of Yes--are, with the exception of a few good songs (Kansas's "Dust in the Wind," for example, is surely one of the best "classic rock" songs), not worth listening to. In fact, in 2003 the music magazine Blender (Rest in Peace) published a list of the 50 Worst Bands Ever (it can no longer be found on Blender's website, but the entire list is reprinted on Stereogum's website), and ELP was number two on the list--the second worst band of all time, beaten out only by Insane Clown Posse, which, well, nobody can argue with that choice.
Because Progressive rock is so different from other genres, most people need a "way in" via a band or album that combines progressive rock with some other genre they like. For instance, I started getting interested when my local rock station started playing songs by Coheed & Cambria and The Mars Volta. Coheed sounded like a beefed up version of an alternative rock band, and Mars Volta gave off a weird but enticing combination of Spanish jazz and metal (just listen to "L'Via L'Viaquez," starting around 0:40 when the song kicks in, and the eleven minutes of bliss that follow).
Since the early 70s, progressive rock has grown outwards in all musical directions--with the possible exception of country and R&B (that I know of)--and now a lot of bands combine prog rock influences with some other genre. If you don't like progressive rock, chances are that there is a band or album that crosses over with a genre you do like. Here are eleven borderline progressive rock albums for people who don't like prog rock (yet), and where you can go from there. But, lastly, remember that all this is limited in scope; there's a lot of prog that I haven't listened to, and a lot I don't even have the space to talk about. This is just a limited guide, and an encouragement for you to seek out more.
1. King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
Crossover genres: classic British rock, folk, jazz

If you've ever seen Alfonso Cuarón's masterful film, Children of Men, you may have wondered what song is playing in the taxi when Clive Owen's character visits his cousin to obtain exit visas. Whenever I watch this movie with friends, they always say something like, "Oh, I've never heard this Pink Floyd song," which I like to hear, because it gives me a chance to correct them and appear like I actually know something. The song playing in that scene is actually "In the Court of the Crimson King," the title track to this album.

In the Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson's first album, is often considered the first progressive rock album. Released in 1969, many people didn't know what to make of the album, including "dean of rock critics" Robert Christgau, who gave the album a grade of D+ and called it "ersatz shit." But hey--we can't all be right all the time. Over the years, this album has proved to be one of the best and long-lasting of the genre. I include this album not just because it came first, but because it sounds so similar to classic British rock of the 60s and 70s like (early) Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, even The Who.

There are songs full of weird riffs and feverish jazzy sounds, particularly in "21st Century Schizoid Man," which was actually sampled by Kanye West for the song "Power," the first single from his 2010 slammer My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Other songs, like "I Talk to the Wind," "Moonchild," and the title track "In the Court of the Crimson King" are slower, more melodic, and distinctly British. People I know who can't stand modern prog rock usually like this album.
Here's the second track, " I Talk to the Wind."

Where to go from here: any one of King Crimson's albums from the 70s, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick or Aqualung, Gentle Giant's first, eponymous album Gentle Giant, Big Big Train's The Difference Machine.

2. Opeth's Damnation (2003)
Crossover genres: singer-songwriter, acoustic, gothic rock

"Epic" is a word that is probably overused when describing prog rock, but there is no better word to describe the band Opeth. An Opeth album, in progressive rock, is the equivalent to a summer blockbuster in film--and I don't mean Michael Bay special-effects-o-tron, I mean like a Lawrence of Arabia or The Great Escape epic blockbuster. Something that's unshakably solid art yet deeply entertaining.
Opeth's seventh album, Damnation, was co-produced by Steven Wilson, leader of the popular modern progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, who had a great influence over the band's sound by suggesting a softer, more "acoustic" sound. Complex, melodic, and harsh, Opeth's music has always packed a serious punch, and most people, even if they like the music, are distracted or turned off by lead singer and guitar player Lars Mikael Åkerfeldt's throaty "death guttural" style of singing that many death and black metal singers employ. Åkerfeldt tones it down for this album and just sings, and, would you know it, he actually has a beautiful voice.

Damnation sees Opeth drop their heavy metal roots and go more acoustic, which, like The Mars Volta's "acoustic" 2009 album Octahedron, didn't mean dropping electric guitars in favor of acoustic ones (though acoustic guitars are still used in both albums); it meant moving toward softer, easier to digest songs whose lyrics focused on subjects that acoustic singer-songwriter artists focused on: love, friendship, loneliness, and loss. Songs like the album opener "Windowpane" (with a pun on "pain") and "To Rid the Disease" manage to be both soft and powerful.

The album's opening track, " Windowpane."

Where to go from here: Anathama's We're Here Because We're Here, anything by No-Man (a band that also features Steven Wilson), Porcupine Tree's In Absentia, Alcest's Écailles de Lune, and Cynic's EP Re-Traced, which is also a stripped-down, "acoustic" version of some songs from their second album, Traced in Air.

3 & 4. The Decemberists' The Crane Wife (2006) and The Hazards of Love (2009)

Crossover genre: indie, folk, baroque pop

Okay, so I kind of cheated by adding two albums by the same artist. And, granted, Hazards of Love isn't as good of an album as The Crane's Wife, but it's worth talking about because it's actually quite proggy. At first glance, The Decemberists themselves don't seem at all like a progressive rock band. Paste magazine (again, R.I.P.) awarded The Crane's Wife best album of 2006, also bagging good nods from college radio stations, difficult-to-please publications like Pitchfork, and major music publications like Rolling Stone. The Decemberists is actually a good band. They're…indie, right? I don't know what that word means anymore, and yes, I think they'd be considered "indie," but there are two features of this band that make them fall (just barely) under the prog rock genre. First, they've got long narrative song suites with multiple sections--check out "The Tain," an 18-minute single from early in their career, or "The Island" and from The Crane Wife. The Hazards of Love is actually one entire song, almost an hour in length, broken into seventeen smaller parts so that the album is easier to digest. The one-long-song-that-makes-up-a-whole-album method has been employed by other progressive rock bands, such as Echolyn's mei, Transatlantic's The Whirlwind (the longest song-album I've ever seen at 77 minutes), and Porcupine Tree's The Incident (which was also broken into smaller tracks), and pretty much all albums by Acid Mothers Template, just to name a few.
The other thing that makes these prog albums is that they simply sound like 70s progressive rock. Listen to "The Island," and notice the change the song takes at around 6:30; it shifts out of baroque pop and into prog territory. These two albums manage to capture the classic progressive rock sound and strip it down to make it more accessible, excluding or tweaking some of the prog elements that annoy most listeners: long guitar solos, lyrics whose meaning you can understand, difficult time signatures, melodies you can't sing to.
Admittedly, there are songs on these albums that aren't proggy at all--the fantastic ballad "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" and radio-friendly rock song "O Valencia," but you can't deny the prog-tastic sounds of "The Perfect Crime 2" and "When the War Came," and the almost-metal "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing" and "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid." Add a mellotron and some extravagant guitar solos, and you've got a full-fledged progressive rock album.
Here's " The Island."
Where to go from here: Yes's Fragile or Close to the Edge, Rush's 2112, Genesis's Selling England by the Pound or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

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