10 Best Prog Albums of 1984

Best Prog Albums of 1984

We’ve come to the year 1984 in our quest for the best prog albums of the ‘80s. We have previously covered 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983. 1984 was a year when Marillion released their sophomore album, Rush came up with their tenth studio record, Roger Waters released his first solo album, King Crimson and Camel offered their new efforts…

Below is a list of records that in our opinion are (among) the best releases put out in 1984.

10. Univerz Zero – Uzed

Regarded by some as the least successful recording of Univers Zero‘s early years, Uzed is still well worth hearing. The CD starts quite impressively with “Présage,” which has one of those haunting Univers Zero themes, equal parts lyrical and dramatic, and is certainly the equal of anything else in the Univers Zero oeuvre. Subsequent tracks, though, are rather nondescript. One problem is that the band, with only drummer Daniel Denis and bassist Christian Genet left from the original lineup, is beginning to move away from the acoustic chamber music of prior releases (especially those immediately preceding Ceux du Dehors) and toward a more contemporary progressive rock sound, with electric guitars and prominent synthesizers. All compositions are penned by Denis, and the usual Univers Zero precision is evident in the execution of the scores, but the instrumental voicings seem a little tentative and the mix is somewhat muddy, even on the excellent first track. The last long track, “Emmanations,” also has its moments, but on the whole, Uzed lacks a full measure of the high drama and musical tension that are so much a part of the Univers Zero sound.

09. Marillion – Fugazi

At the conclusion of the Script for a Jester’s Tear tour, Marillion decided to give drummer Mick Pointer his marching orders, replacing him momentarily with Camel‘s Andy Ward and later by American studio whiz Jonathan Mover. Mover‘s recruitment proved to be short-lived, as Fish ushered in Steve Hackett‘s drummer/percussionist, Ian Mosley, whose spot-on drumming was the perfect foil for Marillion‘s meticulous musicianship. With Mosley, the band set out to record its sophomore effort. The first track to emerge from the Fugazi sessions would be “Punch and Judy.” In hindsight, this wasn’t a smart move—the single quickly vanished into chart oblivion. As the sessions turned into a grueling and at times exasperating multi-studio juggling act, Fugazi proved to be a somewhat disjointed follow-up to the classic Script for a Jester’s Tear. Despite its superlative arrangements, the album lacked its predecessor’s cohesion and focus, but all was not lost: Buried in the album’s murky mix are three Marillion classics. “Assassing,” “Incubus,” and especially the album’s title track showcase the band at its melodramatic best. The cryptic “Fugazi” was a highlight of the band’s live set for many years to follow.

08. Diamanda Galas – Diamanda Galas

Diamanda Galas‘ second recording came out on Metalanguage, a label associated with ROVA, Henry Kaiser, and others, with connections to the avant-garde jazz scene in San Francisco, and offered a hint to one of her lesser-known but primary influences. Her expressed admiration for musicians such as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman provides a reason why her vocal improvisations tend not to degenerate into mere pyrotechnics but retain a substance even at their wildest.

This recording consists of two side-long pieces, both employing electronic effects to amplify some of her unusual techniques and to multiply her voices, creating a choir-like atmosphere. “Panoptikon,” named after a circular prison where all occupants could be kept under constant observation, deals with the loss of personal identity and the psychosis derived therefrom. “Tragoutha Apo to Aima Exoun Fonos” deals with murderous oppression in Greece from 1967-74, the grief and rage it engendered. Both pieces are intensely emotional but without bathos, bitter yet without a shred of self-pity. Among many other qualities, Galas‘ radiates an enormous reserve of strength and resolve. Diamanda Galas was a fine follow-up to her sensational debut album The Litanies of Satan.

07. Swans – Cop

Cop takes the crushing brutality of Filth and takes it into overdrive. The songs here are slower, sludgier, heavier and dirtier than anything they had done previously, and it packs a ***ing whallop. Listening to Cop is much like the aural equivalent of kicking someone’s ass and having your ass kicked at the same time; it is a primal, satisfying experience, but it can also be an intensely painful one.

The switch from the faster tempos of Filth to the slower, sludgier ones found here is demonstrated quite well by the first track, “Half Life,” and Cop only gets better from there. Songs like “Why Hide,” “Your Property,” and “Cop” are among the most primal, savage recordings the band ever made, and they paint a portrait of a dark, hopeless, and gruelling industrial world where you are the slave and he is your master. You will submit, goddammit, or die trying.

Cop is one intense and fulfilling experience of an album. It has been called “one of the most brutal albums ever made” by some, and they are not lying. This is the human psyche at its most raw, disturbing, and violent, and consequently, in some twisted up sort of way, its most beautiful.

06. Scott Walker – Climate of Hunter

This massively maligned album was Scott Walker‘s only album of the 1980s and the only fruits of a lucrative contract with Virgin Records that promised much and delivered so little. It seemed inconceivable that a stellar and legendary talent like his own could fall so dramatically from both critical and public grace, but that is what occurred with Climate Of Hunter. Tilt, ten years later, did nothing to redress the matter. A great shame, because both albums, especially this one, took a hell of a lot of balls to make. And I believe the time is right for a reassessment of an album that, unlike so many released in the 1980s, has dated very little and, weird as it is, actually seems to make sounder sense now than it ever did.

To those who’ve never heard Climate, it’s not an easy record to describe. It’s a short album of seven highly original songs and one blues cover, only half of which bear proper titles, set in a wash of dischordant, jarring keyboards and rippling bass lines. Lyrically it makes very little sense, not that it matters when a top-form Engel is caressing his patent tones into the very depths of your willing soul. And, whatever else may strike you about this very left-field record, you can’t fail to melt to THAT VOICE which, mixed right into your face, dominates Climate so wonderfully. Backing the man is the most esoterically-assembled posse of international talent it’s possible to imagine—there can’t be many single-artist albums that feature artists as disperate as Mark Knopfler, Evan Parker and Billy Ocean for example—but they bring to the album a stratospheric range of sounds and influences that help make the overall result so damn strange and unique. But, make no mistake, this is Scott‘s baby. Period.

Climate Of Hunter is probably the worst-selling record Scott Walker ever made. It didn’t stay in Virgin‘s full priced range for long and even at mid-price was deleted by the turn of the nineties, hardly helped by the universal tide of lousy reviews it garnered on first release. In a sense, I can understand that—after over a decade of waiting, something as unusual and unexpected as this hardly immediate collection of largely untitled and unconventional songs was well hard to take. But an album as adventurous and brave as Climate can’t be cast aside forever. Over the years I’ve played it rarely, then occasionally, then regularly, to the point where I simply could not be without a copy. Pick up a second hand copy somewhere—probably very cheaply—and bear with it. I think you’re going to like it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.

05. XTC – The Big Express

The Big Express recaptures a lot of the manic energy of the band’s early sound but channels it into longer, more sophisticated song structures. In fact, the whole structure of the album closely mirrors that of Black Sea. The sharp hooks and aggressive guitar are refreshing after the acoustic remoteness of Mummer, and the band’s pop instincts are spot-on throughout. Colin Moulding‘s “Wake Up” is a bracing opener to the album, and Andy Partridge contributes two of his most delightfully demented love songs, “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her” and “You’re the Wish You Are I Had.”

In keeping with the mood of the time, there is a running theme of nuclear-war paranoia running through the album (this was the peak of Reagan-era Soviet confrontation), but the resulting songs are not at all preachy. Instead we get the jazzy riff of “I Remember the Sun” and the lush “This World Over.” And if it seems rather ridiculous to hear Andy whining about being an old man at age 30—well, at least the result is the goofy onomatopoeia of “Train Running Low on Soul Coal,” with Andy singing so fast that he is basically scatting. Fun stuff, made even better with three bonus tracks originally issued as B-sides to the “All You Pretty Girls” single.

04. Roger Hodgson – In the Eye of the Storm

Vocalist/guitarist Roger Hodgson must have really felt stifled toward the end of his tenure in Supertramp in the early ’80s—despite co-writing and singing many of the band’s biggest hits—because his solo debut, 1984′s In the Eye of the Storm, is a remarkable work of explosive creativity. Hodgson wrote, sang, arranged, and produced In the Eye of the Storm, but the real kicker is the fact that he played every instrument himself, with a few exceptions such as drums and fretless bass guitar on a few cuts.

As a result, In the Eye of the Storm is easily the best synthesis of pop and progressive rock since, well, prime Supertramp. The spirit of traditional progressive rock experimentation is alive on this album; five of the seven songs exceed six minutes. The brilliant leadoff track, “Had a Dream (Sleeping With the Enemy),” is nine minutes long. An edited single just missed the Top 40, but every second of the sound effects, driving piano, tasteful guitar, and Hodgson‘s aggressive singing of this cynical song must be heard to be fully appreciated. “In Jeopardy” has a cha-cha, shuffle-like flavor and Hodgson‘s monotone vocals provide a faintly creepy effect. The gentle ballad “Lovers in the Wind” is sweetly arranged. “Give Me Love, Give Me Life” is exuberantly optimistic and hyperactively bouncy. “I’m Not Afraid” fearlessly flows back and forth between darker sounding melodies and upbeat pop. The creamy “Only Because of You” can be favorably compared to the floating instrumental passages on Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. Without question, In the Eye of the Storm is an exceptional piece of highly listenable craftsmanship.

03. Cardiacs – The Seaside

Formed in the late ’70s and fronted by Tim Smith, lauded by Thom Yorke and Faith No More/Mr. Bungle frontman Mike Patton and often derided as a novelty act, Kingston-upon-Thames’ Cardiacs appear initially as mad as a barge of lizards until you analyse their music. There are no words to classify what you’re about to hear. Vaudeville-on-speed, theatre-thrash, sick pop, deranged indie, whatever. Think again.

Stop-start riffs and rhythms and nonsensical lyrics all add up to be Cardiacs‘ unrelenting charm. They look like they sound. Google ‘em. See? Loons with tunes. And excellent musicians, it must be observed.

The Seaside first appeared in 1984 as a cassette, before finally getting the vinyl and CD treatment in 1990 after the band scored an unlikely indie hit with one of the UK’s truly greatest singles of all time, the rifftastic Is This The Life? Said song appears here in rough demo form but it isn’t the only brilliant slice of high-octane wizardry on here. “Nurses Whispering Verses” and “A Wooden Fish On Wheels” are terrific as is the album’s unforgiving opener “Jibber and Twitch,” two words that sum up the following fifty minutes or so.

There’s something wonderfully contrary and stubbornly pre-modern about Cardiacs. The Seaside is a blazing bonfire to the mouldy old rockers that still fill our supermarket shelves with their best-of tat. This is hugely amusing, a spectrum tasting joy of many happy returns and cathartic sing-a-long-ability.

02. David Sylvian – Brilliant Trees

Released in the summer of 1984, Brilliant Trees came about as the logical conclusion to Japan in general. The rhythmic grooves ever present on tracks such as “The Art of Parties” had reached its limit; and yet “Pulling Punches”, the opener, had all the elements that had made Japan a success—fluid, yet punchy bass work, booming drums and stellar guitar play. And that voice—that voice, Jesus Christ. David Sylvian could croon the yellow pages for hours on end and I guarantee you it’d be a stone cold classic, but I digress.

The point is, going into Brilliant Trees and expecting Sylvian to deliver something out of left field is like patiently awaiting to be disappointed. While a magnificent cut of sleek art rock with funk leanings, “Pulling Punches” greatly misrepresents the album as a whole. It’s with the two follow-up tracks, the jazz-inflicted “The Ink in the Well” and the Eno-esque “Nostalgia” that Sylvian begins to fully stray from the ghosts of his past and toward green pastures. Returning to a more pop-oriented sound, “Red Guitar” reflects Sylvian’s still-growing lyrical abilities amidst an organic backdrop that marked a great contrast to his past works. As the second half comes along, all pop sensibilities are thrown out the window in favor of abstract instrumentation (thanks in no part to the presence of Can’s Holger Czukay on drums), extended airy trumpet solos courtesy of Jon Hassell, and perhaps the strongest songwriting of Sylvian’s career to date in “Weathered Wall” and the title cut. This half of the album, most notably the tense “Backwaters”, show why Japan absolutely needed to break up. The sound of Japan had reached its logical conclusion with Tin Drum and the first half of Brilliant Trees—with the heavy experimentation present on the final three tracks, it’s clearly evident Sylvian had outgrown the pop format once and for all.

01. Rush – Grace Under Pressure

Grace Under Pressure was written during the Cold War. A scant few years after the harrowing Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat of nuclear fallout and the end of the world was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Neil apparently decided to write his lyrics about this foreboding topic, and as such Grace Under Pressure is very dark, compared to Rush‘s other albums. The synths are almost constantly going, but they create a sad, or ominous sound rather than the futuristic role they played in previous Rush efforts. This is by no means to say that there’s anything wrong with the music. As a matter of fact, it’s all spectacular. The opening “Distant Early Warning” has Alex clashing high-pitched chords to Geddy‘s slick keyboards, the “Body Electric” has a plodding, rhythmic guitar-synth duo, with Neil pounding away in the background, and “Red Lenses” is a strange, otherworldly-sounding montage of ingenious chaos. As always, the music of Rush is original and flawlessly executed. The synths really give Grace Under Pressure a full and rich sound, but the guitar never fully gives way, only pausing for brief periods to build emotion.

If the music is dark, the lyrics of this record are even darker. “Distant Early Warning” refers to “singing in the acid rain,” and “Red Sector A” inquires “are we the last ones left alive?” In fact, nearly every song seems to have an underlying message of the end of the world, with the exception of “The Body Electric” and “Kid Gloves.” And while those two songs don’t deal with a Soviet takeover or Nuclear war, the “Body Electric” is about an android escaping the slavery of factory work, and the “Kid Gloves” is about the pressures of youth to conform (like “Subdivisions”). No happy-go-lucky Marathons or Freewills here. However, this is once again not a bad thing, in fact it makes this one of the most atmospheric albums in Rush‘s repertoire.

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