Synchronicity? Prog Rock Woo Woo! Double Albums!
Synchronicity, coincidence, conspiracies... David Taylor continues to explore in another article he wrote exclusively for DPRP.
In an earlier article exploring meaningful coincidences, or synchronicity, in progressive rock, we saw tomatoes pop up on album covers for Yes and Italian proggers Banco the same year as the release of the film, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
Here's another coincidence to reckon with: the large number of double albums by prog-rock groups that just happen to have been their sixth release. Genesis, Yes, Led Zeppelin (who I would argue were pioneers of more-simply-constructed progressive rock), Dream Theater, Spock's Beard, IQ and, more recently, Norwegians Tusmørke (if you exclude their two children's albums).
What gives with so many groups going double on their sixth recording? Is this another example of synchronicity? Incidentally, you also have the jazz-rock fusion group Chicago, after their first three double albums, returning to the double-album format one last time for their sixth studio album. And even though the deliciously folky French Canadian group, Harmonium, went double on their third and final studio recording, the second one was titled Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison (If We Needed A Fifth Season). And the title of the double, L'Heptade, refers to seven stages of man depicted by the recording's seven core tracks.
There are numerous prog-rock groups whose sixth studio release is not a double album. Jethro Tull, Ange, Teru's Symphonia - this list is long, of course. And for several more recent groups, their CD releases often require triple and quadruple albums on vinyl, especially The Flower Kings, whose single releases often run the length of double vinyl. Does that argue for all those sixth-release doubles being mere coincidences? Well, maybe not synchronicity events, but still laden with extra significance, especially where Genesis, IQ, and Spock's Beard are concerned.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
We will start with none of the above: Emerson, Lake and Palmer's only double album, Works Volume 1, released in 1977. It was their fifth, not sixth, recording, yet still strongly hinted at the sort of artistic turmoil omnipresent in the Genesis and Spock's Beard doubles. Only one of the four vinyl sides features ELP performing group compositions, including one of their culminating masterworks. Among other delights, Keith Emerson performed his excellent piano concerto on side one.
If you subscribe to numerology at all, you might find it significant that according to numerous sources, the number five represents restless freedom of thought, wanting to go whichever way the wind blows, becoming easily tired with travelling familiar territory. As applied to ELP, you might say they had all turned restless while still trying to hang together as a group.
Or you might say it was just dumb luck such restlessness didn't wait to manifest itself until their sixth recording.
In the case of Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti might have found them stretching new directions, especially for their cinematic classic, Kashmir. But it basically felt like two vintage Zeppelin albums rolled into one.
According to the Wikipedia entry, though, bass guitarist and occasional keyboard player John Paul Jones came close to quitting during early recording stages.
So the same as with ELP, the strain of committing to a group was also starting to manifest.
Yes's famous sixth, Tales From Topographic Oceans, saw them make a moon shot, trying to sustain a single composition for eighty minutes spread across four movements. Ironically, Bill Bruford left the group for King Crimson shortly beforehand, characterizing Close To The Edge as the artistic peak beyond which he had nothing more substantial to offer Yes.
Even though Rick Wakeman made important contributions to Oceans, especially oceanic mellotron washes for part two, he said the piece bored him and that he didn't really understand it. (During one performance he even famously had a curry brought on stage for him to keep busy.) Unsurprisingly, Wakeman subsequently skipped out on Yes until they returned to shorter song formats on Going For The One.
So once again, a prog-rock group's most ambitious effort also saw fraying edges start to develop. (Personal note: I am in the big-fan camp regarding Topographic Oceans, and while part four is my favorite, I don't think the dreamy second part gets the respect it deserves, especially for its epic conclusion.)
The Curious Case Of Genesis, IQ, And Spock's Beard
Which brings us to the curious case of the sixth-release doubles by Genesis, IQ, and Spock's Beard: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Subterranea, and Snow. Comparable to ELP's Works Volume 1, all three of these recordings favour a more fragmented, shorter-track approach compared to prior work, the exception being IQ's twenty-minute conclusion, The Narrow Margin. But as with Yes's Topographic Oceans, all three releases are concept works. And their similarities seem as significant as their dissimilarities.
The first of this trio, The Lamb, is arguably a surrealistic, Salvador Dali spin on The Who's earlier ground-breaking Tommy (also a double album) mixed with a bit of The Who's Quadrophenia (a double album as well, and the band's sixth release!). Whereas Tommy is beset by realistic traumatizing experiences on top of his sensory deficiencies, Genesis's Puerto Rican Rael has to endure a massive wall appearing out of nowhere, the serpentine Lamia, etc. etc. And Rael is Puerto Rican in name only; nothing notable pops up either lyrically or melodically specifically tied to that origin. While Tommy escaped from his circumstances via playing pinball games, Rael escapes by reconnecting with himself. The entire work is much more fragmented than Genesis's three earlier masterpieces. And the conclusion, IT, celebrating Rael's freedom, feels strikingly bland to me, contains little of the haunting grandeur of the final moments of The Fountain Of Salmacis, Supper's Ready, or Cinema Show. To be sure, The Lamb is chock-full of Genesis at their best; Fly On A Windshield is as dramatic as anything else they ever recorded. But it all feels like it was taken out of the oven too soon, needed to ferment a bit longer. And it was Peter Gabriel's swan song with Genesis, his freedom from the group paralleling Rael's reconnection with himself.
23 years later, 1997, sees IQ's double CD concept work, Subterranea. À la The Lamb, a central character goes through a series of adventures, including falling in love and leading a rebellion. But whereas Rael is cast into a surrealistic fantasy world, Subterranea's star slides away a manhole cover to escape a sensory deprivation experiment, back to the real world, and is overwhelmed. And most notably, rather than embracing liberation, at the conclusion he returns inside the isolation chamber. The last sound we hear is that manhole cover sliding shut.
As for the music itself, comparable to The Lamb, there's more fragmentation with the notable exception of the twenty-minute closer, The Narrow Margin. The same as Genesis, that's not to say there are not plenty of tremendous high points, among them the addictive melodies of Tunnel Vision and Failsafe. About that epic closer, though, while the first half rumbles along quite adequately, there is something too drawn out about those final ten minutes that leaves me unsatisfied in a manner similar to how I felt about IT.
Coincidentally, while Peter Gabriel departed Genesis post-Lamb, pre-Subterranea IQ's vocalist, Peter Nicholls, essentially slid the manhole cover back over himself, returning to IQ for their neo-prog masterpiece, Ever, after having abandoned them for two albums. It is easy to suspect the IQ and Genesis double releases speak to one vocalist's decision to return to the fold, and the other's decision to leave the nest. Incidentally, writing as a big fan of both groups, I've found the Genesis output since Gabriel left rather radioactive, a certain undefinable restlessness haunting even its most commercial non-prog aspects. But IQ's series of albums post-Subterranea have a staid consistency, even after keyboardist Martin Orford left.
This final one of this trio is Spock's Beard's 2002 sixth release, the double CD, Snow.
Snow gets its name from the main character, a seventeen-year old albino who leaves the countryside for New York City, where he experiences an epiphany that releases him in spiritual directions. Difficult not to suspect that Morse had in mind Rael's New York City jaunt in amidst all the surrealistic shenanigans. And way too much of a coincidence, it would seem, that main composer/lead vocalist Neal Morse fled the Beard after this in his turn to Christianity, although he has not been averse to the occasional return to the Beard.
The same can be said for the Snow music as on Genesis and IQ's sixth releases. Lots of vintage Spock's Beard; am especially fond of Parts 1 and 2 of Open Wide The Flood Gates. But again, even though several tracks segue together, everything is much more fragmented than before, and the Wind At My Back conclusion has the same bland feel, for me, of IT.
Three double albums about characters struggling to be free, three lead vocalists deciding whether to stay with or quit their groups, three sixth releases...
Dream Theater - Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence
Can't close the manhole cover on this investigation without a final word about Dream Theater's double album sixth, released in 2002, entitled Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence. Six tracks address human difficulties, including Mike Portnoy's struggle with alcoholism. And the sixth track, the epic forty-plus minute title track, addresses six mental conditions including bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Unlike the conclusions to the Genesis, IQ and Spock's Beard double albums, I found the concluding minutes of Inner Turbulence satisfyingly moving. This entire project makes a very appealing plea for greater understanding and compassion for people's various struggles. The sixth release, six tracks, a conclusion addressing six mental conditions... 666, the number of the beast? Dream Theater seem to very self-consciously embrace some sort of deeper meaning to six. And what might that be?
Returning again to numerology, on Master Mind Content we find a few things that even have me as something of an agnostic on this matter going, “Huh.” According to Master Mind Content's Richard J Oldale, “The esoteric meaning of the six relates to self-awareness. Sometimes, the sixes will be an indication that you need to allow the contents of your unconscious into your conscious mind. Observe your thoughts and feelings and ask yourself whether a repressed emotion is trying to break free.”
And so, several sixth recordings seem to center around trying to break free, whether from human frailty, a music collective, or whatever.
Meaningful, or mere coincidence?
Which is... IT?