10 Best Prog Albums of 1981

Best 10 Albums of 1981

Although 1980 brought some very good Prog releases (see the post here), 1981 definitely was a far better year for Prog.

Rush returned with another album, King Crimson released one of their best works, Jazz Rock has seen some very tasty releases. We made a choice of ten records that marked the 1981 year, in our opinion.

10. Eloy – Planets

Planets was the first of two Eloy‘s concept-albums about the planet Salta and its inhabitants the Ikareens in the solar system Hel. The heavy riffs of the previous album Colours had obviously only been a one-time experiment, as they were mostly absent here. What Planets offered instead was a very well produced symphonic progressive rock sound with all the most important trademarks of Eloy, but still with the tight and more compact song-structures of Colours. The atmosphere was also even more spacey than before, and this was a natural consequence of the story and concept. Planets showed the band at their best, and remains their creative peak from the ’80s.

09. Brian Eno & David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Before My Life in the Bush of Ghosts came into being, Brian Eno and David Byrne had worked together on Talking Head‘s Fear of Music and Remain in Light, with Eno handling production duties. Bush Of Ghosts started through their fascination with tribal music and culture. Originally, this project was going to be a field recording from a fake tribe. Byrne once said “We’d invent a whole culture to go with,” and from their original plans, it isn’t hard to believe it.

However, these plans were drastically changed when they decided to weave in disco-funk, and even further when became obsessed with American radio hosts, callers to call-in-radio-shows, and evangelistic preachers. Their obsession was only with American radio, because the people in charge of the airwaves were nutters. Upon being asked what made radio hosts, and particularly evangelists so fascinating, Eno stated “when people speak passionately, they speak in melodies.” This is certainly evident on Bush Of Ghosts, as it uses tape splicings of many of these people. While the boundary between talking and chanting is crossed on “The Jezebel Spirit” and “America Is Waiting”, the reverend Paul Merton on “Help Me Somebody”; almost seems to burst into song. This chanting has a suprising amount in common with the other half of tapes used: Egyptian pop singers, and Lebanese mountain singers.

08. Camel – Nude

The concept album can be a dangerous thing: it could either yield an utterly mind-blowing experience that forever alters the listeners’ sonic palette, or be a pretentious, drawn-out waste of recording time. Since the dawn of the concept record musicians have consciously and subconsciously walked the fine line between a fantastic piece of art and a craptastic piece of…well, you see where I’m heading. Some of the 20th century’s favourite records have either been concepts or loosely based on a unifying theme. With some talent, a creative plot line, cohesive instrumentation, and some experience there lies the potential for an extraordinary musical marvel.

Often compared to Pink Floyd, progressive rock underground darlings Camel are no strangers to the concept record, finding themselves on both sides of the good idea/bad idea pool. Snow Goose saw ideas wandering around a little too much, resulting in a record that would polarize fans. It would take the band a few records and a couple different line-ups, but eventually 1981’s Nude was conjured up as the basis for the group’s 8th studio offering. Nude tells the story of a Japanese soldier of World War II who becomes marooned on an isolated island for several decades. Throughout his time on the island, the soldier is oblivious to the war’s end, all the while slowly battling his own internal demons and desperately trying to survive. Upon his rescue and realization of the world around him, the soldier is culture-shocked and once again experiences a sense of isolation.

Despite the album’s rather heavy predominant themes of isolation/loneliness, longing, confusion and survival, Andy Latimer and company are always able to maintain an upbeat signature with the accompanying instrumentation. The instruments really play the staring role here, especially considering the barrage of instrumental tracks that include “Docks,” “Beached,” “Landscapes,” “Changing Places,” and “Pomp & Circumstance.” With little lyrical content for the first half of the record, the listener should pay close attention to the shifts in the instrumental moods as well as viewing the lyrics that would come later on to completely digest the story. The truth is that even here we find another rather ambitious project by a progressive rock band that is just going to be too much for some. The music, however, is more than accessible, and is actually quite a tranquil listen. There is little doubt that Nude holds a special place in Camel’s discography, at least amongst its fanbase.

07. Eskaton – 4 Visions

This second album by Eskaton is widely considered as one of the best Zeuhl albums out there. And to be honest it’s hard to disagree. It was originally released just as a cassette and the first vinyl pressing wasn’t made until 2013. That’s kinda odd when you think about the reputation this fantastic record has.

Anyway the album includes just four pretty lengthy tracks which are all high quality. None of the songs really stands out as the ultimate highlight which in this album’s case means that the material is solid from the start to the end. If I need to complain about something here that would be the fact that the female vocals might be a bit annoying at times. But that’s actually the only negative thing I can think of.

4 Visions is a classic of Progressive Rock. There’s no denying that. One of the most important Zeuhl albums of all time is highly recommended to anyone interested in this kind of music.

06. Terje Rypdal, Miroslav Vitous, Jack DeJohnette – To Be Continued

Essentially a continuation of Rypdal Vitous DeJohnette, this album somewhat lacks the atmospheric keyboards of its predecessor. It is nonetheless quite compelling, particularly in DeJohnette’s propulsive drumming on the title track, and his phantasmic piano and voice on “Uncomposed Appendix.” This album also features one of Rypdal‘s best-loved works, the gorgeously stark and stately “Topplue, Votter & Skjerf,” an idiomatic phrase implying the onset of their long and cold winter.

05. Pat Metheny – Offramp

This album pretty much epitomizes Pat Metheny‘s work. While following albums differ from this, this pretty much demonstrates the route of his approach as a musician; tasteful, atmospheric, and often quite clearly themed in a particular way. Naturally, this breaks the monotony of some musicians (yes, John Scofield that does include you), and it does set Offramp apart from a lot of other jazz fusion albums. The atmospheric tendencies are very much present on tracks like “Baracole” and “The Bat Part II,” which both have minimal use of guitar, only for simple leads, but successfully use synths to a great sense of size in the former track and a sense of wonder in the latter. when the more traditional jazz instrumentation is present, it isn’t used unwisely, instead relying on fairly simple or crowded elements that help to distinguish all the tracks very easily. The instrumentation is definitely extremely skilled, with a series of excellent leads and bass lines present from various jazz staples, but with a great deal more competence and thought being used.

04. This Heat – Deceit

Music for after the apocalypse had already been established. Barren, deserted and unidentifiable sounds all play host to their inhuman masters, music written by robots, not by humans – obviously. Spooky, true. But if there is music after the fallout, there must be by that definition, music immediately before it. Conscious of their impending doom, This Heat are that band, a band who recorded an album in a frenzy, because they knew the end was nearer than anyone could ever have predicted.

Retroactively, it’s very easy to lump Deceit, This Heat‘s second album in with the other standard post-punk of it’s time. The B-52‘s were partying on the other side of the Atlantic, Wire were making groundbreaking sonic experiments in New Wave, and Joy Division had just recently called it a day, albeit it, not on their own terms. This Heat fit neatly in with these bands, just another experimental blip on the hugely creative late 70′s music scene, but of course, on closer listen, This Heat are probably the most downtrodden band of their time, and with good reason, they were convinced the world was going to end.

Musically, the band’s style toed the thin line between experimentalist krautrock, and the obvious punk influences at the time. The mix was a popular one, yet no other band managed to make it sound so authentically obscene and doom laden as This Heat. Featuring tape loops, skittery unpredictable drumming, chanted vocals, and extremely twangy and discordant guitars, Deceit is the sound of a band losing control, but maintaining their creativity. It’s loose instrumentation is a vital component of the chaotic and frightened sound that the record manages to build on throughout.

03. Univers Zero – Ceux Du Dehors

It almost seems like chamber rock is a bit of cliché these days, but if UZ didn’t invent the merger, they still defined it, at least in the post-Magma sense. One thing the band did well is balance dissonance and melody, in a way that created memorable songs that were still on the front of the avant-garde at the time. And of course they always give off a clinic in dynamics, whether it’s the slow build up or the quick jump. The harmonium and Mellotron help give the work a lot of space so it avoids being cold and clinical like a lot of this music can be. Most importantly it’s still an exciting listen and it also has a pretty interesting attempt at “The Musique d’Erich Zann.”

02. Rush – Moving Pictures

As with other Rush albums, Moving Pictures is a great example of how technicality, songwriting mastery, and a thoroughly emotional touch combine in an exceptional way. Lyrically, the album continues in the vein of its predecessor Permanent Waves in how it touches more on real-life subjects than the fantasy elements of previous works like Hemispheres or A Farewell to Kings. Due to drummer Neil Peart expanding his range of lyrical themes, we get songs about the price of fame (“Limelight”), the moods and lifestyles of different places (“Camera Eye”), and even automobiles (“Red Barchetta”). Geddy Lee‘s singing is improved and more varied range-wise on this record, establishing him as a more solid storyteller as he sings the tales that Peart is weaving. The instrumental work is, as usual, absolutely fantastic; the trio play off each others’ contributions wonderfully and there’s a great sense of unity that prevents anything from sounding like aimless noodling. Even in the sole instrumental “YYZ,” the band know what time to devote to soloing and what time to devote to composition. The Morse Code-inspired 5/4 section in the beginning is still an iconic Progressive Rock moment and luckily the song just keeps on giving, with a trade-off solo segment and a synth-ridden slow portion keeping things interesting.

01. King Crimson – Discipline

I still remember the day in this period when I first heard Discipline, King Crimson‘s first ’80s album. I had been entranced with the dark setting of Red, and the all-out avant-garde feel of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic so I felt it would be a good time to move out of the ’70s, and into another decade. Upon first listen, I couldn’t take Discipline seriously. Where did all the sharp, trippy tunes go? They evolved, into a massive mess of bouncy, interlocking guitar lines and chapstick action. This was all too much for me, but then I came to my senses and realised: bands develop and grow, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worst. My other first impression was that the band was slowly conforming to the popular New Wave genre of the time, but no less, this is distinctly King Crimson.

Profilic session musician Tony Levin kicks off the album, with a crazy chapstick riff in “Elephant Talk,” a perfect opener if there ever was one. Tony and Robert Fripp‘s parts collide with each other into one powerful force, accumulating into great chemistry between them. Adrian Belew‘s vocals and rhythm guitar lines add a sense of spontaneity to the band. While the other members are primarily musicians, he’s definitely a bit of a showman and personality. Adrian‘s yelps of, “Talk, its only talk. Babble, burble, banter, bicker bicker bicker. Brouhaha, boulderdash, ballyhoo. Its only talk…” introduces a sense of eccentricity that is fields away from the serious nature of middle-70s King Crimson.

“Frame By Frame” is our first glimpse of sadness on the record; while the intro continues the story of “Elephant Talk,” the song progresses into a dismal atmosphere that illustrates glances of hope. The lyrics don’t seem to have any specific meaning, but there is a chance that they are completely interpretational due to their broad nature. The album trails along onto my personal favourite, “Matte Kudasai,” a completely chilled-out nostalgic song. The instrumental backing here doesn’t go off into virtuoso standards but contains itself to fit the mood of the song. This track also features some of the best vocals on the album. “Indiscipline” crawls along now, and while it’s superb, it’s certainly a lesser offering from the LP.

However KC don’t disappoint and throw out their most erratic song with “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (an anagram for “Heat in the Jungle”). It’s funky, spaced out and weirdly fun, but still has a strict King Crimson personality. Robert Fripp plays his guitar in 7/8 time while everything else plays in 4/4, eventually coming into syncopation with each other later. “The Sheltering Sky” shows Fripp and Belew feeding off each other perfectly. Robert Fripp‘s Frippertronics system is in full effect here with some of the most interesting rhythm guitar I’ve ever heard. “Discipline” also portrays this profound chemistry between two of the most thought-provoking guitarists ever and creates a flawless statement in minimalism.

Discipline‘s full-blown ’80s sound isn’t hard to recognise, especially when everything dabbles in chorus and other sounds that would sound dated coming from any other band. King Crimson made a vital progression with this album, instead of keeping with the same sound like so many of their progressive rock contemporaries. Robert Fripp‘s guitar lines have never been so refreshing while Tony Levin‘s chapstick device and Bill Bruford‘s expansive drum sound have all added another layer to King Crimson‘s ever growing domain. Red may be more influential and sentimental, but Discipline manages to better it in a lot of different ways. It’s sad that In The Court of the Crimson King is considered their best, because in reality, Discipline and Red better it out by a wide margin.

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