10 Best Prog Albums of 1986

Best Prog Albums of 1986

1986 saw the emergence of Progressive Metal, as a few bands including Crimson Glory, Fates Warning and Queensryche released their albums. Apart from that, 1986 saw a few releases which brought a mixture of Progressive Rock and Pop, presenting another step in the impending transition of the genre.

Below is a list of 10 albums released in 1986 which, in our opinion, are the best releases of the year. Make sure to check our previous posts about albums released in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985.

10. Miriodor – Miriodor

Miriodor are one of a handful of French-Canadian groups who subscribe to the RIO (Rock-in-Opposition) school of progressive rock, whose originators include ’70s innovators Henry Cow, Art Bears, Slapp Happy, and guitarist Fred Frith. Miriodor‘s opening salvo reveals an accomplished band steeped in instrumental whimsy. The tracks have the flavor of classic ’70s Canterbury groups such as Egg and Hatfield And The North, among others, but Miriodor‘s tricky time signatures, deft percussive abilities, and lyrical sense of play show they don’t take themselves too seriously. But they do take their music seriously—some of the performances here are jaw-droppingly proficient. Guitars etch out wonderful moire patterns, percussion and horns spar with each other, and the band’s imaginative use of synthesizers finds new vocabularies and uses for the future that resonate with today’s post-rock. Miriodor are one of prog’s few originals, giving the term “progressive” a fresh and invigorating new meaning.

09. David Sylvian – Gone to Earth

David Sylvian’s 1986 Gone to Earth was an interesting crossroad: he’d kicked off his solo career with Brilliant Trees two years previous on which he embraced an almost ambient sound (with various musicians which included Holger Czukay, Jon Hassell, double bassist Danny Thompson who had played with John Martyn, ECM jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and others). He followed it with the instrumental Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities (a very Eno title) which was originally a cassette-only release—and then came Gone to Earth.

The album came in two versions: a single disc and a double disc, the latter which had four further instrumental tracks which were beautifully minimal, rarified and imbued with a sense of quiet. The double disc allowed for the vocal tracks to be heard slightly differently in the larger context, as extensions of the ethic which was behind the music.

Pianist and co-producer Steve Nye contributes piano and others on hand are Fripp (who also co-wrote two pieces and takes out the album with the six minute-plus “Upon This Earth”), guitarist Bill Nelson (co-author of Answered Prayers), session saxophonist and former King Crimson member Mel Collins, and Japan‘s keyboardist Richard Barbieri and drummer Steve Jansen (the latter Sylvian‘s brother). It isn’t all an easy listen if the word “ambient” has drawn you in: the title track is full of stuttering guitar frippertronics from Robert, throughout the drums come at you from peculiar angles which can be unsettling behind Sylvian‘s languid vocals (akin to Scott Walker in places) and tracks like the atmospheric and slightly discordant “Wave” are far from a smooth ride.

That juxtaposition of Sylvian‘s beguiling melodies and slightly quivering vocal style over the neo-jazz backdrop caught a few by surprise at the time and the album didn’t quite get the kudos it deserved for its courage or Sylvian‘s restless quest for a unique expression. But time has not only been kind to it and its pop elements seem more obvious given all that has happened in music since, but you can also hear how it was a breakthrough for Sylvian and allowed him to explore further this style (on Secrets of the Beehive the following year) and also these associations.

08. Adrian Belew – Desire Caught by the Tail

Adrian Belew used his third release to blatantly demonstrate his love and talent for avant-garde guitar work, but many of the tracks on Desire Caught By the Tail take his passion for boisterous distortion, warped notes, thick sound, and highly experimental playing methods into absurdity.

But those who appreciate the many facilities that an electric guitar can perform, musical or otherwise, will feel right at home with Desire‘s eight tracks. There’s no question that Belew is a master at what he does, and even though cuts like “Laughing Man,” “Z,” and “The Gypsy Zurna” are indeed unorthodox, there’s a certain attraction to the way he creates music out of, well, non-music. There is a method to Belew‘s madness, and there are moments on the album when his phrasing and note control create some fascinating effects and textures, but a whole album’s worth may be a little much for even a die-hard guitar fan. The laboratory-styled essence of “Guernica,” “Portrait of Margaret,” and “Beach Creatures” are Desire‘s most favorable pieces, since it’s here that Belew seems to put a bit more universal appeal into his experimentation. Both Lone Rhino and Twang Bar King offer a bit of his off-the-wall guitar work, but only in moderate doses and not so much for true sonic effect than for musical decoration. Four of the tracks, “Laughing Man,” “The Gypsy Zurna,” “Portrait of Margaret,” and “Guernica,” can be found on Desire of the Rhino King, which takes the better tracks from his first three albums and combines them on one CD.

07. Steve Roach – Empetus

This release finds Steve Roach visiting the very familiar territory of his early years. Empetus is a profoundly rhythmic recording, with dashes of ambient atmospheric textures here and there adding a luminous aura of color to each of the tracks. Empetus, like many of his early recorded works, has a bit of a Berlin School feel, a lá Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and Ashra, but there’s something about even Steve Roach‘s earliest work that is distinctly American in flavor and composition. As noted, this is a rhythmic recording, consisting of beautiful and cool analog and synthesizer sounds, which truly date the music as being from the mid-’80s, but Empetus is a refreshing, almost vintage recording rather than a schlocky, almost insubstantial synth/new age excursion that, unfortunately, the ’80s yielded many of. There’s also a bit of a minimalist feel, similar to some of Steve Reich‘s work, but more organic and less cold. One track that really sticks out is “Conquest,” with Weslie Brown‘s fervent vocals passionately resonating throughout the track, set against the backdrop of Steve Roach‘s organic, and isolated, synthesized minimalism. This is a great recording and one that is truly a wonderful place to start exploring the massive catalog of Steve Roach.

06. Frank Zappa – Jazz From Hell

While Frank Zappa had ostensibly been “on his own” since the dissolution of the Mothers of Invention in 1969, never before had he used the term “solo artist” as literally as he does on the Grammy Award winning (in the “Best Rock Instrumental Performance by an orchestra, group or soloist” category) Jazz from Hell (1986). After two decades of depending on the skills, virtuosity, and temperament of other musicians, Zappa all but abandoned the human element in favor of the flexibility of what he could produce with his Synclavier Digital Music System.

With the exception of the stunning closer “St. Etienne”—which is a guitar solo taken from a live performance of “Drowning Witch” at the Palais des Sports in St. Etienne, France on May 28, 1982—the remaining seven selections were composed, created, and executed by Zappa with help from his concurrent computer assistant Bob Rice and recording engineer Bob Stone. Far from being simply a synthesizer, the Synclavier combined the ability to sample and manipulate sounds before assigning them to the various notes on a piano-type keyboard. At the time of its release, many enthusiasts considered it a slick, emotionless effort. In retrospect, their conclusions seem to have been a gut reaction to the methodology, rather than the music itself. In fact, evidence to the contrary is apparent as it brims throughout the optimistic bounding melody and tricky time-signatures of “Night School.” All the more affective is the frenetic sonic trajectory coursing through “G-Spot Tornado.”

Incidentally, Zappa would revisit the latter—during one of his final projects—when the Ensemble Modern worked up Ali N. Askin‘s arrangement for the Yellow Shark (1993). Another cut with a bit of history to it is “While You Were Art II,” which is Zappa‘s Synclavier-rendered version of the Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar (1982) entry “While You Were Out.” Speaking of guitar solos, as mentioned briefly above, “St. Etienne” is the only song on Jazz from Hell to feature a band and is a treat specifically for listeners craving a sampling of Zappa‘s inimitable fretwork. The six-plus minute instrumental also boats support from Steve Vai (rhythm guitar), Ray White (rhythm guitar), Tommy Mars (keyboards), Bobby Martin (keyboards), Ed Mann (percussion), as well as the prominent rhythm section of Scott Thunes (bass) and Chad Wackerman (drums). Zappa-philes should similarly note that excellent (albeit) amateur-shot footage of the number was included by Zappa on the companion Video from Hell (1987) home video.

05. Swans – Greed / Holy Money

Featuring two bassists—Crosby and newcomer Algis Kizys—and no less than three drummers—Gonzalez, Ted Parsons, and Ivan NahemGreed marks the initial turning point of Swans towards more varied and ultimately even more astonishing musical heights than the early records, which were aggressive beyond all words, ever indicated. The opening track “Fool” demonstrates as much, being almost wholly piano-based, though the portentous echo of the notes along with grinding guitar noises underlying Gira‘s ever-more commanding, raspy singing (as opposed to shouting) mean that it’s all still very much Swans. An increasing spaciousness and sense of more stripped-down arrangements also show up, along with some slightly more active tempos. “Anything for You” has Gira‘s strangled wail of earlier days, but the music is a little calmer, a little more restrained; “Stupid Child” uses a delicate playing of cymbals as effectively as the expected slow percussion rumbles. Lyrically, unsurprisingly, things are little different from before, with images of utter self-loathing, power, domination, and economic corrosion of the soul dominating Gira‘s words, though at times interesting new elements creep in as well. On “Heaven,” for instance, Gira resignedly sings of a “heaven” which could be that of dying victims or of exhausted lovers, a fascinating double image. Jarboe makes her presence known on a number of songs, most effectively on the title track, where her wordless background vocals constantly loop in and out of the mix (notably, despite the title, Gira here sings of emotional isolation rather than the monetary greed expected given such other songs on the album as “Money Is Flesh,” a slightly calmer semi-cousin to “Time Is Money (Bastard)”).

Also recorded at the sessions for Greed and A Screw (the album actually contains the “Holy Money” mix of said single), Holy Money is logically similar in general tone and feel to those releases, mixing the established Swans blueprint of lyrical and musical extremity with an ever-broader range and, at times, a broader delicacy than before. “A Hanging” helps to showcase Jarboe‘s increasing role with the band. Her striking, semi-gospel wails mix with the storm-cloud-laden music, which builds into a massive tribal drum pattern, while Gira sings of self-sacrifice to what sounds like a very unforgiving deity. This immediately leads into the brief “You Need Me,” where Jarboe‘s haunting voice sings a lyric of apology solely over echoed piano. Such unexpected twists crop up throughout Holy Money, as the band engages in a fruitful search for new musical directions. Greed‘s “Fool” is revisited as “Fool #2,” transformed into an equally ominous track, but this time accompanied by almost majestic electric guitar and drums along with the original piano and keyboards. Gira‘s vocals are notably clearer in this piece, though the lyrics are hardly any less gentle. Another Greed track, “Money Is Flesh,” gets its own drastic remake on the album as well. “Another You,” meanwhile, has distinctly strange and beautiful—in an alien way—guitar scrapes and shades which provide texture to the lengthy track, with one of Gira‘s most obsessive interpersonal lyrics (and one of his best vocals up to that time) further gracing it. Ending with “Coward”—contrasting almost intimate if still haunted upfront Gira‘s spoken vocals set against a buried series of his screams and shouts in the background of the mix over a repetitive crunch of guitar, bass, and drums—Holy Money well documents the continuing transformation of Swans into a more complex, intriguing beast.

04. Peter Gabriel – So

Peter Gabriel introduced his fifth studio album, So, with “Sledgehammer,” an Otis Redding-inspired soul-pop raver that was easily his catchiest, happiest single to date. Needless to say, it was also his most accessible, and, in that sense it was a good introduction to So, the catchiest, happiest record he ever cut. “Sledgehammer” propelled the record toward blockbuster status, and Gabriel had enough songs with single potential to keep it there. There was “Big Time,” another colorful dance number; “Don’t Give Up,” a moving duet with Kate Bush; “Red Rain,” a stately anthem popular on album rock radio; and “In Your Eyes,” Gabriel‘s greatest love song, which achieved genuine classic status after being featured in Cameron Crowe‘s classic Say Anything. These all illustrated the strengths of the album: Gabriel‘s increased melodicism and ability to blend African music, jangly pop, and soul into his moody art rock. Apart from these singles, plus the urgent “That Voice Again,” the rest of the record is as quiet as the album tracks of Security. The difference is, the singles on that record were part of the overall fabric; here, the singles are the fabric, which can make the album seem top-heavy (a fault of many blockbuster albums, particularly those of the mid-’80s). Even so, those songs are so strong, finding Gabriel in a newfound confidence and accessibility, that it’s hard not to be won over by them, even if So doesn’t develop the unity of its two predecessors.

03. Talk Talk – The Colour of Spring

With It’s My Life, Talk Talk proved that they could pull off an entire album of strong material. With The Colour of Spring, they took it one step further, moving to a near-concept song cycle, following the emotional ups and downs of relationships and pondering life in general. Musically, they built on the experimental direction of the previous album with interesting rhythms, sweeping orchestration, complex arrangements, and even a children’s chorus to create an evocative, hypnotic groove. Though the songs were catchier on the earlier efforts and the ambient experimentation was more fully achieved later on, The Colour of Spring succeeded in marrying the two ideas into one unique sound for their most thoroughly satisfying album.

02. Peter Hammill – And Close as This

Peter Hammill seems to alternate between releasing unpredictable work (the rock opera The Fall of the House of Usher, the electronic, experimental Loops & Reels, etc.), and his trademark style (straight-ahead arrangements for voice and one other instrument, usually guitar). And Close as This would fall into the former category, since it’s comprised exclusively of pure arrangements (in this case, voice and keyboard). It’s hard not to be impressed by the emotion in Hammill‘s voice on the songs “Other Old Clichés” and “Beside the One You Love.” And like all of his past work, Hammill will often unite gentle music with sometimes overtly intense vocals (“Too Many Yesterdays”). The keyboards on the album have been filtered through a computer, updating the classic Hammill sound laid-down on his earlier (and best) work, Chameleon In the Shadow of the Night. But Hammill would unfortunately not pursue this style for a while—his next album, In a Foreign Town, would be the complete opposite of And Close as This, containing overblown production, and an extremely dated ’80s sound. And Close as This, however, is one of Hammill‘s finest.

01. Univers Zero – Heatwave

For years after its release, Heatwave was presumed to be the Univers Zero group finale, until the band re-emerged over a decade later with The Hard Quest in 1999. On Heatwave, the transition from acoustic chamber music to electric rock is complete, and the somewhat uncertain steps of Uzed, Univers Zero‘s previous release, have become purposeful and confident. Almost all the Uzed musicians have returned for this date, together with Andy Kirk on keyboards and original Univers Zero violist/violinist Patrick Hanappier. Perhaps the only criticism that could be levied against the first three tracks on the CD is that they fall a little too comfortably into the prog rock genre, although they compare favorably to the best (and darkest) of King Crimson.

However, Andy Kirk‘s long final track, “The Funeral Plain,” is something else altogether, and demonstrates that the band was still capable of stunning originality. Kirk opens with some eerie alien raspings on synth, followed by high-pitched drones and then a quiet but relentless two-note piano pattern. Hanappier joins in with a pensive viola melody, as does Dirk Descheemaeker on clarinet and then Hanappier on violin. Daniel Denis and Christian Genet weigh in with some ponderous unison drum and bass work, tension builds, the tempo increases, and then everything stops. The original alien scrabbling returns, except this time with a relentless, clock-like rhythm, new themes are introduced, and tension builds once more through the skilled use of unresolved chord progressions, continually changing key signatures, and the ultimate wild wailing of synths and electric guitar. The tempo changes to a dirge, then staccato bursts, and finally subsides with the desolate sound of dripping water. Kirk dedicates this piece to “all living hardships that lead into self-awareness,” and like the best of Univers Zero elsewhere, it transcends prog rock or any other known musical form, occupying a unique niche all by itself.

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