Supernatural Fairy Tales
The Sea and the Bells
By Rick Reger
In the mid-80s, a decade after punk rock's coup d'etat, the movement's fervor still saturated the independent rock scene--and its dictates were clear. Progressive rock was flabby and inauthentic. Synthesizers were evil. Suites and instrumentals were pretentious. Four legs good! Two legs ba-a-a-ad!
But one of the most beautiful things about time is the way it can turn a dogma on its head. While Yes and Genesis are about as rehabilitated as Richard Speck, many of their partners in prog are in the clear. Can, Faust, Amon Duul II, and even King Crimson are "influences" again. Analog synthesizers are as hip as pierced nipples, and long, multisectional epics are drawing raves.
Rather than shunning these developments as echoes of one of rock's more dubious tangents, critics and fans alike have embraced them, declaring guitar rock null and void and heralding "post rock" as a whole new pop vocabulary. All of which raises the question: So who's pretentious now?
Into this morass the Rhino label has hurled a real depth charge. The five-CD progressive-rock comp Supernatural Fairy Tales is a fairly exhaustive survey of the era (1967-'76), and it sheds some light on the music of our own era as well.
The collection is not ennobling: the entire spectrum of prog rock is on display here, from its most hideous hacks (the Electric Light Orchestra, Le Orme, Savage Rose) to its edgiest masters (Henry Cow, Gentle Giant, Hatfield & the North). If Premiata Forneria Marconi's hackneyed "Celebration" remains nauseating after all these years, the knotty charm of Wigwam's little-known "Prophet/ Marvelry Skimmer" is an unexpected treat. But Supernatural Fairy Tales explodes the perception that prog was a uniformly bloated genre--bloated, perhaps, but uniform, hardly. Lard Free's craggily dissonant spewing ("Warinobaril"), Roxy Music's twisted mix of pop crooning and techno graffiti ("Ladytron"), and the Nice's gleeful desecration of icons ("America") all take a high road around the stylistic limitations of rock, but their paths are wildly divergent.
Supernatural Fairy Tales also makes the case that Yes, ELP, and their ilk weren't the only ones prone to giant lapses in taste. Check out the overwhipped poesy that tops the otherwise fine music on Amon Duul II's "Mozambique," or the turgid jamming of Ash Ra Tempel on "Der Vierte Kuss." And while Can's "Oh Yeah" is a faultless selection, this is a band that smeared its Tago Mago LP with ten minutes of earnest, distorted yodeling, proving itself (to quote Pere Ubu) thoroughly "lost in art."
But Supernatural Fairy Tales isn't just a journey through the past; it's also a tarnished mirror in which one sees uncanny reflections of the post-rock present. Today's arty experimenters may not wrap themselves in gold capes, but they are resuscitating prog rock's ambitious musical climate. Tortoise's most recent opus, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, opens with "Djed," a multisectional epic that fits snugly into Henry Cow's long-form chamber rock mold. Even Japanese noisemonger Zeni Geva injected the music on its recent Freedom Bondage with tricky meter and sophisticated compositional development; leader K.K. Null has described it to me as "progressive hardcore."
As Supernatural Fairy Tales makes clear, what starts off as musical adventure can turn to bombast or self-indulgence in a heartbeat. At Tortoise's last Chicago performance there were a few scary moments when the band's more upbeat jams recalled those of jazz fusion pioneer Weather Report. And instrumental ensemble Rachel's recently released a record that embodies many of prog's worst tendencies.
The Rachel's new The Sea and the Bells comes with a thick, handsomely printed booklet containing page after page of misty poetry like "See delicate motions in the night air / Puffed up like a pastry behind the curtains / Where she lays beside the heavy sleeping body," and "And here now / In the dark / I can't remember who I loved more / Camille or the
sea / But I do know I had to possess them both." How different is this from "In and around the lake / Mountains come out of the sky / And stand there / Twenty-four before my love and I'll be there"?
Musically, with the exception of one brief atonal burst, the album is swollen with romantic cliches. Strings sob in minor keys and piano arpeggios unfurl with Chopin-esque drawing-room sentiment. At least Yes had the decency to rip off a modernist composer (Stravinsky, on Close to the Edge), and ELP to cover a microtonal contemporary (Alberto Ginastera, on Brain Salad Surgery).
The key to understanding this renewed fascination with the grandiose and the complex may be in the section of the box set's liner notes that points out that many of the original proggies had been knocking about in various musical settings well before the heyday of prog. Prog and post rock alike are mostly the work of slightly older musicians who, bored with rock's basic Sturm und Drang, were searching for something new and more challenging to play. While some of their experiments have been less than successful, their motivation is admirable.
What remains to be seen is which post rockers will one day be compared to effete windbags like Seventh Wave and Rare Bird and which will measure up to substantive adventurers like Quiet Sun and Van der Graaf Generator. One thing is certain: it doesn't pay to dismiss your predecessors as irrelevant. For as Supernatural Fairy Tales beautifully illustrates, those who don't learn their history are destined to repeat it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rachel's photo/ Supernatural Fairy Tales album cover.