10 Best Prog Albums of 1980

Best Prog Albums of 1980

When looking back at the 1980s from this point of time, many people will despise the whole decade when it comes to Progressive Rock due to the fact that Pop and synthesizers took over Jazz and Experimental sound which was a big part of a decade before. Many, if not all, groups that were releasing albums in the 1970s fell under the pressure of the popular culture and New Wave, and that could definitely be heard in the music.

Still, Progressive Rock continued to live in a changed form, but many good releases were put out.

After spending hours listening to the albums that were released in 1980, below is the list of ten albums that in our opinion are the best releases of the year.

10. Asia Minor – Between Flesh and Divine

Asia Minor is one of those obscure and unfairly underrated from Europe, that have incredible potential and talent, technically speaking, and even with enormous songwriting talent.

The style is typical symphonic prog, with highlighted keyboards and guitars. The beautiful use of the flute is another characteristic of the band. The atmospheres sound always desperate, haunting, and emotional like rarely a prog band is able to do, and everything is accompanied by Satrak Bakirel, one of the most underrated vocalists abroad.

Between The Flesh And Divine is a beautiful little gem that is unfairly obscure.

09. Peter Hamill – A Black Box

Adopt and adapt or die. This was the choice facing many of the progressive rock acts who had achieved commercial success in the 1970’s but for whom the onset of the new decade was proving to be a markedly hostile environment. Half-heartedly embracing contemporary sounds and incorporating it into their own music was about as far some of these stalwarts went, sometimes to quite risible effect (’80s Camel being a case in point). For sonic pioneers such as ex-Van der Graaf Generator frontman Peter Hammill, however, merely reacting to the current scene was not enough. Hammill had often seemed to be ahead of the curve. The almost prescient Nadir’s Big Chance in 1975 had anticipated punk rock and by 1978 Hammill had already incorporated electronic music on his transitional The Future Now. By 1980 Hammill was fully ensconced in the possibilities provided by electronics and the release of A Black Box marked a notable chapter in his musical evolution.

In here the contrast between the electronic pastiches and the straight up new wave rock songs is quite marked at times and gives the album a disjointed feel. But there is little doubt that a true innovator was at work. Whether you warm to Hammill’s style or not, this album, among others of his during the period, stand as notable episodes in the evolution of electronic music.

08. Richard Pinhas – Iceland

Iceland is a magnificant-haunted-majestic piece of art that can be considered among the most synthesized-ambient like albums from Richard Pinhas. It could perfectly been used as a soundtrack for an existential-post nuclear sci-fi movie. Despite the presence of dense layered electronic atmospheres the ambience and sound aesthetism is at thousand miles aways from tripped kosmische synth epics of the Berlin electronic school.

07. Genesis – Duke

With 1980′s release of Duke, it’s been a long three years since we last saw Steve Hackett as a member of Genesis, and an even longer five years since Peter Gabriel was in the band. New Wave music is beginning to take over the music industry and we are seeing a strong shift towards pop music in our once beloved Progressive Rock groups. Genesis would be one of the first to begin this strong movement, shredding their last bit of progressive rock credibility in 1980.

Clearly Genesis has continued slightly further along their pop trail, Phil Collins has just gone through a divorce, and understandably wants to write more personal songs. Although he gets most of the blame for “ruining” GenesisTony Banks was still the chief songwriter in the band. Although most diehard fans dismiss this album as pop garbage, it still contains an array of very strong tracks, including “Duchess,” “Heathaze,” “Cul-De-Sac” and “Duke’s Travels.”

This would be the last album in which Genesis still had progressive elements in their music, as shown by “Duke’s Travels” and “Cul-De-Sac,” two songs that could fit in on any ’70s era Genesis album. Overall Duke is a very underrated album which often gets ragged on by the older Genesis fans, even though it has its very strong moments. I reccomend it to anyone who has an open mind to ’80s influences on their beloved Progressive Rock.

06. Yes – Drama

Relatively speaking, Drama would stand out as one of Yes‘ strangest records, for it lacked Jon Anderson, singer and one of the band’s co-founders. Anderson, along with keyboardist Rick Wakeman, had become disillusioned with the music planned for the follow-up album to the 1978 album Tormato, and so decided to quit the band. The remaining members of Yes - Chris Squire, bass; Steve Howe, guitar; and Alan White, drums – decided to continue on, rehearsing as a three piece while they decided on their next move. Eventually the duo known as the Buggles - Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn - were brought in to complete the line-up.

While this album is often over-looked by Yes fans, it is actually a very strong, cohesive album. Howe and Squire especially are fired up, as if they had something to prove is light of Anderson‘s departure. Or perhaps their playing became tighter from working as a power trio. In any case, this album showcases some of Howe‘s best playing ever, and Squire, of course, is upfront and aggressive as usual while White keeps things rooted as he locks in perfectly with Squire. Even Downes and Horn, though not quite of the same calibre as the others, hold their own. The result is an album as intensive and powerful as it is focused. Moreover, the band demonstrates that, whatever each member’s skill level, everyone knows how to act as an ensemble, without hogging the spotlight or stepping on another member’s part.

05. The Alan Parsons Project – The Turn of a Friendly Card

The Alan Parsons Project‘s 1980 The Turn Of A Friendly Card is an observation of the world of gambling. It’s an outstanding prog-pop album, and one of the group’s very best works. The music composed by Parsons and Eric Woolfson is simply stunning, the arrangements lush and breathtaking, the performances powerful. This album is a glowing gem from Alan Parsons and the band; one of their finest.

04. Art Zoyd - Génération Sans Futur

Génération Sans Futur (Generation Without a Future), Art Zoyd‘s third LP originally released through Atem Records, returns to the sound (and lineup, plus Daniel Denis (Univers Zero)) of the group’s first album, Symphonie Pour le Jour où Brûleront les Cités . The 17-minute “La Ville” is a powerful epic, featuring Thierry Zaboïtzeff‘s prehistoric grunts, complex time shifts, and a tribal/ritualistic feel once again close to the spirit of Magma. But unlike “Musique pour l’Odyssée” (the title-track of Art Zoyd’s second album), the music here is fast-paced, less atmospheric, more organized. It plays on the tension that would remain the basis of Art Zoyd‘s originality: a tribal, atavistic feel contrasting with contemporary classical aesthetics.

Génération Sans Futur may lean more toward the contemporary side, as exemplified by pieces like “Divertissement,” “Trois Miniatures,” and the manic “Speedy Gonzales.” “Génération Sans Futur,” on the other hand, taps into a more visceral Progressive Rock format and percussionist Daniel Denis actually gets to play drums for a couple of minutes, giving the piece an unusual drive.

03. Kate Bush – Never for Ever

If you think about it, Kate Bush could have gone in any direction after promoting Lionheart. Her second album had some high points and some cute vocal deliveries but ultimately came up short in quality. Kate‘s third album could have been another decline in quality. It could have just been Kate treading water with more adorable pop singles. Instead, the follow up was an important step into new territory.

Never For Ever shows Kate Bush at a much more mature stage. While Lionheart had embraced maturity quite well in comparison to The Kick Inside, it didn’t help Kate break out of her cute pop singer shell. Most people were still infatuated with her first single, “Wuthering Heights.” A new direction was something Kate needed to assert. She managed to do that just enough with Never For Ever.

Kate‘s third solo album was no masterpiece but a fascinating and necessary step in her discography. Bush‘s writing had finally evolved enough to the point where she could write without relying too much on image or style. Whether it’s experimenting with her remarkable vocal range, creative arrangements, or vivid lyrics, Never For Ever shows Kate Bush improving in all the right ways.

02. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Doc at the Radar Station

If ever there was an artist whose output sums up the word “eclectic” it would be Don Van Vliet, more commonly referred to by his stage name Captain Beefheart. Whether you believe that the man was a genius and a visionary or merely an overrated buffoon, there is no doubt as to his abject refusal to play by the rules. Such is the reputation of his bizarre musical experiment entitled Trout Mask Replica, which was released to a generally dumbfounded audience in 1969, it is often the first place someone will go who is unfamiliar with his work. A common reaction to the album is one of unbridled hatred and a vow to never go near his music ever again. This is unfortunate because this often maligned piece of work is quite far removed from the main bulk of his material which, while still being admittedly quirky and rather bizarre, is rather more accessible.

After losing his way during the early to mid 1970′s Beefheart assembled a new virtuoso Magic Band featuring future Pixies member Eric Drew Feldman, guitarist Gary Lucas, and old sidekick John “Drumbo” French on drums. The revitalised ensemble released the well received Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) in 1978. Fuelled by the positive reaction to this album he went on to record Doc At The Radar Station which was released to favourable reviews in 1980. The musical landscape at the time was of course dominated by punk rock and the looming onset of the new wave but Beefheart was anything but a conformist and refused to embrace the contemporary norms. What we have here is a selection of lean and abrasive Delta blues influenced rock songs infused with shifting rhythms, unequal phrase lengths and jagged riffs, all stamped with Beefheart‘s indelible brand of craziness and humour. If you told someone they could tap their foot to a catchy Beefheart tune after they had just listened to Trout Mask Replica they would probably laugh in your face. Stick on the album opener “Hot Head,” with its relentlessly infectious groove and angular stomping rhythm propelled by an inexorable stomping beat, and they might just be convinced. The song exhibits subtle shifts in meter that induce an unresolved quality to the music which drives it along as a suitable backdrop for Beefheart‘s characteristic barks and growls. The vicious slide guitar attacks that permeate the music also serve to enhance the overall feel of unhinged aggressiveness.

This is an angry, intense album with untamed rhythm lurches and restless tempo shifts which act to keep the unwary listener continually off balance. In spite of these qualities this was about as close to the mainstream that Beefheart ever wandered and it stands as possibly his most approachable release.

01. Rush – Permanent Waves

January 1st, 1980 was a very important day for Rush. After a large string of commercial successes in the ’70s, Rush returned to the studio to work on their first album of the ’80s, Permanent Waves. Not having released an album during 1979, many people were wondering what the band’s new record would sound like; was it going to follow in the hard-hitting progressive rock and long-winded epics of previous albums, or would it signal a rebirth for the band’s sound? Released on New Year’s Day, you’d expect this to be a completely new phase for the band, right? Well, Permanent Waves certainly sounds a bit different from its predecessors, but it has that noticeable Rush familiarity in terms of overall sound as well.

To be honest though, a mix of the old and the new is a great method for a band like Rush; it’s interesting to hear them integrate the sounds of the specific era while retaining their progressive rock approach. Points of interest include: Geddy Lee toning down his voice (like the near-absence of high Robert Plant-esque wails), more synthesizer use, and more accessible arrangements. The latter point is the most notable one, considering that new wave was very popular at this time and Rush were heavily influenced by UK rock band The Police around this point. However, Rush were one of the biggest influences on The Police‘s earlier material, so the influence essentially became the influenced; it’s pretty ironic to say the least. Anyway, no song goes over the ten-minute mark, so while you may consider album closer “Natural Science” an epic at 9:17, it isn’t separated into individual segments like the previous epics by the band.

Instrumentally, the music is a bit more conventional this time around. Despite heavy synthesizer use and the introduction of more eclectic rock elements (even reggae rock!), the overall sound is more reserved this time around. “The Spirit of Radio,” “Different Strings,” and “Entre Nous” are all mostly in 4/4 time with only a few variations rhythmically; the former in particular is a very tightly structured hard rock tune that switches frequently between a slow swinging rhythm and the driving guitar riffing that occurs around the verses. Nonetheless, the song is still fantastic as it seems to be a perfect mix of emotion, accessibility, subtle technicality, and anything else it may tie together. “Freewill,” despite its popularity, seems to be the real odd man out on this album when you get down to it. The sound of the verses is slightly sparse, mixing a mildly heavy guitar riff (syncing with the bass) with light guitar chord “bursts” as the drums are keeping everything in place. The 7/8 rhythm is also a bit off-putting initially as well, but it grows on you, as with the rest of the song.

So with all of these details, what’s the big reason the record’s so good? The consistency. Even in the two “epics,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Natural Science,” there’s not much musical baggage to bring the record down. Nearly every note feels where it should be; the band also know when to space out their dynamics, such as how the acoustic ballad “Different Strings” follows the energetic rocker “Entre Nous.” The album’s running time is only about 35 minutes, but the record feels completely satisfying at that length when you consider the replay value of each track. While the album is safer than some other Rush albums as I said, there are plenty of “wow” moments to offset the conventional ones. For example, the solo break in “Freewill” has Geddy Lee showing off his impressive bass playing with some exceptionally tricky runs as Alex Lifeson is adding his own soloing to the fray and Neil Peart is performing complex nuanced drum patterns underneath. It’s cool to hear the interplay between every member of the trio as they play so technically and fluidly at once. “Natural Science” is a song full of surprises; the soft acoustic opening is pretty unexpected as it is, but a surprisingly heavy riff comes in after the main motif ends. Suddenly everything sounds frantic and tense as the song starts frequently switching between time signatures and tempos. It’s stuff like this that combines well with the more accessible moments of the record, and it’s a great balance all around.

So yeah, this record is an awesome follow-up to Hemispheres. It’s not as technical or intense, but rather a nice mix of accessibility, technicality, dynamic variation, and consistency. The amount of control on display is actually very beneficial to this album and that’s why it works. However, the band had yet to really reach their commercial peak… as Moving Pictures would definitely prove.

Honorable mentions:

Do They Hurt? by Brand X; Adventure by Brainticket; Private Parts & Pieces II – Back to the Pavillion by Anthony Phillips; Dregs of the Earth by Dixie Dregs; Defector by Steve Hackett, Six Pieces by The Enid; Colours by Eloy; Tangram by Tangerine Dream; Levitation by Hawkwind

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