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The sophomore problem

By ProgBlog, Apr 26 2015 09:27PM

There’s a fair amount of literature that refers to the second album by a group as the ‘sophomore’ effort. This is largely a result of American journalistic influence, the term coming from the American education system and, while any increase in the quantity of material relating to or simply discussing progressive rock is to be welcomed, I have a problem with sophomore and I’d like to register my disapproval of the term; I believe the word is an interloper.

There are many bands, especially those from the 70s progressivo Italiano scene, that only managed to release a single album but there can be a problem with a second release, in terms of critical appraisal by fans and professional music journalists, if the first album garners acclaim but the subsequent release doesn’t meet expectations. Though it’s good to diversify, in true progressive spirit, a conscious decision to avoid criticism of producing a ‘son of…’ it’s certainly not inappropriate to develop a style.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the problem occurs for both groups that developed during the late 60s and those that arrived on the scene with pre-formed expectations, like ELP. For most groups that evolved from acts that were in existence during the pre-progressive days of psychedelia and blues, Pink Floyd, The Nice, Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, 'progressive' describes the process of becoming prog itself and this journey was informed by cultural, demographic and technological changes. In this way The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, though certainly not prog rock, caused something of a stir and managed to reach no.6 in the UK album charts; the next album, A Saucerful of Secrets might have made it to no.9 but the ousting of Syd Barrett disappointed fans, critics and the group’s management. It’s no surprise that Piper and Saucerful are stylistically disparate; the overriding impression of Piper is the Barrett-penned whimsy and not the instrumentals that formed the core of their live set. Saucerful simply moved the band in the direction of space-rock and I get a sense of music organised as architecture, something that I think was a defining idiom of their far better, progressive material in later years.

I prefer Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Time and a Word to The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack and Yes respectively where there’s evidence of maturity of song writing but I have a preference for Air Conditioning over Curved Air’s Second Album because Second Album merely rehashes the same formula as on their first release. It’s my opinion that the first, fully formed prog album is In the Court of the Crimson King and, because it was a genre-defining release, anything that followed was liable to disappoint. In the Wake of Poseidon is very much in the style of In the Court but that’s no great revelation because much of the material that would go on to comprise Poseidon had already been written and road-tested by the original band members; the structure of the tracks Pictures of a City and In the Wake of Poseidon closely resemble 21st Century Schizoid Man and In the Court of the Crimson King respectively. The example of Crimson reveals another factor that needs to be taken into account: the impact of personnel changes on the direction of a group. Whereas Yes replaced members one at a time (until the joint departure of Anderson and Wakeman between Tormato and Drama) which gave the impression of a group positively seeking direction in a controlled manner, the shifting personnel involved in the very early years of King Crimson appeared as seismic changes; that In the Court and Poseidon sound closely-related is also due to the retention of key players Greg Lake and Michael Giles as guest musicians. I would class Genesis as a band who developed their style in a manner similar to Yes, and despite replacing a guitarist and a drummer at the same time, their stylistic refinement followed a smooth path, reaching maturity with Foxtrot, their fourth release; Yes reached their pinnacle with their fifth album, Close to the Edge.

ELP arrived on the scene in 1970 as individuals from known, successful groups and produced a distinct and coherent first album that still rates as one of my favourite albums of all time. Tarkus, their second album contains more developed ideas, culminating in the side long suite that gives the record its name, but it lacks the overall balance of Emerson, Lake & Palmer with two decidedly non-prog compositions, Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddy? The first supergroup, ELP had to hit the ground running or face the ignominy of artistic failure. I think their output, taken album by album up to and including Brain Salad Surgery is consistent but, within each of these records there is always some material that is below-par and unnecessary.

Mike Oldfield may have spent a number of years as a jobbing musician before stunning the world with Tubular Bells but his first solo effort was a game-changer, affecting him personally and also inadvertently helping to establish the fledgling Virgin empire. That he would release a second album was beyond doubt. Whether it could possibly be as original as Bells was a far more difficult question to answer. After selling my original vinyl copy of Tubular Bells (but later regretting it) and keeping my original Hergest Ridge LP, I’ve grown to believe that his second album is a much more satisfying effort. Of course there are similarities between the two compositions but Oldfield seems to have learned and remedied the deficiencies in Bells. Embracing the talents of his erstwhile band-mate David Bedford and expanding the instrumentation to provide a symphonic scope, Hergest Ridge conjures a sense of place, of open countryside and wilderness, something that a piece titled Tubular Bells could never do. I’ve come to this conclusion after 40 years, so perhaps it’s best not to dismiss any band’s second album as ‘more of the same’ or a ‘dramatic departure’. Both approaches, seeking a definitive style and radical departure can be equally valid as long as the goal is to further the music through increased proficiency or taking on new ideas.

On reflection, most second albums by exponents of progressive rock are of a similar standard to their first albums. There aren’t that many groups who stun the world with a brilliant debut and then go on to produce a stinker but there are plenty who follow the same formula with good results; Greenslade and Bedside Manners are Extra, Trace and Birds, Fruupp’s Future Legends and Seven Secrets. The downside to this approach became evident as the 70s moved on and prog lost favour with the media and the buying public; changes in style were dictated by the requirements of the music industry and not by the artists. One of the last great prog albums of the 70s was UK by UK; the second album which contained some good material was already showing signs of a more commercial appeal.

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