10 Best Prog Albums of 1987

Best Prog Albums of 1987

1987 will be remembered by new albums of the bands that years ago put the foundation of the Progressive Rock genre. A year with new releases from Rush, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd a decade ago would possibly result in something of epic proportions, but in 1987 that didn’t seem to be the case.

The mentioned groups were arguably reaching to their very bottoms, except maybe Rush, who were keeping it under control in one way or another. Big Generator by Yes, Crest of a Knave by Jethro Tull, and A Momentary Lapse of Reason by Pink Floyd are among the groups’ weakest moments in their respectable careers.

However, 1987 still gave birth to some great records, and below is a list of 10 albums that, in our opinion, left a significant mark on the year.

10. Art Zoyd – Berlin

Le Mariage du Ciel et de l’Enfer (1985) announced a transformation in Art Zoyd‘s sound, a move away from acoustic instruments, replaced by multi-layered keyboards. Two years later Berlin confirmed the new direction, establishing a sonic framework that would remain unaltered for more than a decade. Exit trumpeter Jean-Pierre Soarez and saxophonist Didier Pietton. André Mergenthaler fills the gap with his cello, alto sax, and percussion, thus bringing the group to the size of a quartet with Patricia Dallio, Gérard Hourbette, and Thierry Zaboïtzeff. Cello, violin, and saxophone still have a place in the picture, but they are constantly dominated by the keyboards, which serve as both the rhythmical and harmonic purveyors — except for a few passages of snare drum and tom-toms, the role of percussion has been reduced considerably. Berlin is not Art Zoyd‘s best effort—the film trilogy (Nosferatu, Faust, Haxan) would achieve better results with the same ingredients. Yet, even though the music has slightly ossified, it remains genuine Art Zoyd music: doom-laden, disquietingly martial, the chamber music of hell if Satan were a Nazi. The album takes the form of two 20-minute suites and five shorter pieces. “Epithalame,” the first suite, moves about slowly but has a few nice shifts that keep it interesting. “A Drum, a Drum” includes lyrics (taken from Shakespeare) sung by Mergenthaler and presents in 20 minutes what the horror film trilogy would rework in three hours. Hourbette‘s “Petite Messe à l’Usage des Pharmaciens” (Short Mass for Pharmacists, in three parts) introduces a lighter side, but it hardly manages to be more than filler material. A decent album nevertheless, Berlin does not deserve to be overlooked.

09. Rush – Hold Your Fire

Hold Your Fire is an album in the purest sense; infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, it gradually draws in the listener by slowly revealing its nuances and secrets. While the use of keyboards is still overwhelming at times, Geddy Lee employs lush textures which, when coupled with a greater rhythmic and melodic presence from guitarist Alex Lifeson, results in a far warmer sound than in recent efforts. Of course, drummer Neil Peart is as inventive and exciting as ever, while his lyrics focus on the various elements (earth, air, water, fire) for much of the album. Opener “Force Ten” is the band’s most immediate number in years, and other early favorites such as “Time Stand Still” and “Turn the Page” soon give way to the darker mysteries of “Prime Mover” and “Tai Shan.” The multifaceted “Lock and Key” is quintessential Rush, and sets the stage for the album’s climax with the sheer beauty of “Mission.” As was the case with 1976′s 2112 and 1981′s Moving Pictures, Rush always seem to produce some of their best work at the end of each four-album cycle, and Hold Your Fire is no exception.

08. Pip Pyle – Equipe Out

Recorded in 1985 and originally released on a tiny French label in 1987 before finally becoming widely available through the progressive reissue label Voiceprint in 2000, Pip Pyle‘s first solo album is a Canterbury Scene supergroup outing, starring Pyle on drums, the Soft Machine‘s Hugh Hopper on bass and Elton Dean on saxophones, Pyle‘s former Gong bandmate Didier Malherbe on flute, and French keyboardist Sophia Domancich. Unlike most ’70s progressive artists who ran out of ideas sometime around the turn of the decade, Pyle and his cohorts create an impressive set of seven tunes that are as vital and interesting as much of their earlier work. (Equipe Out is a true collaboration, with all five participants contributing to the songwriting.) The saving grace of the Canterbury Scene, even in its most ponderous moments, was a sly sense of humor that comes through even on instrumentals like the witty, Ashley Hutchings-like dance tune “Foetal Fandango,” which features a wonderful lead melody played in unison by Dean and Malherbe. Equipe Out is clever without being precious, challenging while remaining accessible (for all the tricky time signatures and abrupt tempo shifts, this is not “difficult” music), and hugely entertaining.

07. Voivod – Killing Technology

Voivod‘s third release, Killing Technology, still has elements of the band’s early extreme metal sound, but they show hints of things to come—namely, more mature and interesting songwriting. All you have to do is listen to the beginning of the appropriately titled “Tornado” to hear the young metal band grind and thrash with the best the ’80s had to offer. There are several tracks that stretch past the six-minute mark (the opening title track, “Forgotten in Space,” and “This Is Not an Exercise”), but Voivod knows how to hold interest during these extended pieces. The group is comprised of excellent musicians who have no problem whatsoever with the challenging song structures and odd time signatures that arise on Killing Technology. One of the band’s all-time classics, “Ravenous Medicine,” resides on this album, which makes it an essential purchase for Voivod fans. The group was still developing on Killing Technology, though—vocalist Denis Belanger relies a bit too often on screaming rather than singing, something that he would work out on future releases. An interesting metal album nonetheless, one that doesn’t sound too shabby years after its original release, something that’s all too uncommon for the majority of metal acts from the ‘80s.

06. Tony MacAlpine – Maximum Security

Guitarist/keyboardist Tony MacAlpine really hits his stride on Maximum Security. While it’s not all that different from his first album, Edge of Insanity, it’s just much better. The album’s captivating neoclassical/fusion forays are filled with plenty of beautiful melodies and hair-raising solos; MacAlpine simply lights up the fretboard —and the keyboard, for that matter. Opening with a stormy harpsichord motif, the album’s leadoff track, “Autumn Lords,” sounds promising from the start. The piece soars with dramatic classical precision and features some truly breathtaking guitar/keyboard interplay. The album rarely falters from there; the flash guitar workout of “Hundreds of Thousands,” which moves at warp speed, gives way to the gorgeous “Tears of Sahara,” featuring guest solos by George Lynch. MacAlpine‘s penchant for dramatic soundscapes gives his pieces a rich, cinematic feel. The variety of textures on this album—not to mention a wealth of beautiful melodies—keep it continually interesting. Other highlights include “Porcelain Doll”—its lilting melody borrowed from Chopin—and MacAlpine‘s verbatim recital of Chopin‘s “Etude #4, Opus #10.” Maximum Security is essential listening for anyone interested in instrumental guitar music.

05. Swans – Children of God

Kicking off with “New Mind”—which, while having the same general pace of most earlier Swans songs, also sounds distinctly different with its clearer, inventive arrangement, call-and-response vocals, and Gira‘s declamatory but not screamed lead vocal—Children of God finds the band making their own particular great leap forward.

The simmering changes that were apparent in the albums just before this one’s release fully come to the fore, as Swans take the courage to explore both their huge-sounding, bombastic side and gentle, if often still disturbing, delicacy (due credit especially to Westberg, Kizys, and Parsons, possibly the best musical lineup Swans ever had until the final years). The results are fascinating, ranging from the spare piano melting into ambient feedback of “In My Garden” and the twisted gospel blues of “Our Love Lies” to the acoustic guitar and organ on “You’re Not Real, Girl” and the raging pounder “Beautiful Child.” Equally importantly, if not more so, Jarboe now assumes a full role with Gira as co-leader of the band; while all lyrics are still Gira‘s, the two share lead vocal duties (though aside from the title track, no duets) throughout the album. The weary, evocative croon which Gira developed into his major vocal trademark here emerges to full effect (though he can still roar with the best of them at points) while Jarboe‘s cool, rich tones are simply astounding, as evidenced on an even more compelling version of “Blackmail,” originally from the A Screw EP.

Though Children is dedicated without any apparent irony to Jesus Christ, Gira‘s words remain as irreverent, challenging, and obsessed with overarching issues of religion, power, sex, love, and control as before, but with an ever-increasing depth and beauty to match the lusher musical textures. With flute, oboe, and strings adding further texturing to the often quite lovely songs created by the band, Children remains perhaps the key album of Swans‘ career—the clear signpost towards their ever-more ambitious albums in the future.

04. John Zorn – Spillane

Using his “file card” technique to create the title piece “Spillane” (whereby musical ideas written on note cards form the basis for discreet sound blocks arranged by way of a unifying theme), John Zorn forges an impressionistic narrative out of stretches of live-music jazz, blues, country, lounge, thrash, etc., and a variety of samples and spoken dialogue inspired by Mickey Spillane‘s Mike Hammer detective novels (recited by John Lurie). Like he did on his Ennio Morricone tribute The Big Gundown, here Zorn blends a disparate array of sound sketches into a pleasing, if not especially determinate or always logical whole. (In his self-penned and expansive liner notes, Zorn says that the text and his overall conceptual take on Mickey Spillane‘s work form the thematic structure of this piece.)

Clarity aside, Spillane comes off as an exciting and atmospheric evocation of the clipped prose, seedy dives, and back alleys found in hard-boiled Spillane books like Kiss Me, Deadly. Sticking to the disc’s tribute theme, Zorn uses Japanese actor Yujiro Ishihara as the inspiration for “Forbidden Fruit.” Working with the Kronos Quartet, turntablist Christian Marclay, and Japanese vocalist Ohta Hiromi, Zorn concocts an exotically frenetic, atonal cut-up piece to evoke the actor’s films from the ’50s. And bringing things back home, so to speak, Zorn features Texas blues guitarist Albert Collins on the lengthy and slightly abstract blues jam “Two Lane Highway.” Helping “The Iceman” out are organist Big John Patton, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, among others. In addition to these veterans of past Zorn recordings, the likes of keyboard player Anthony Coleman, guitarist Bill Frisell, and drummer Bobby Previte contribute to the Spillane disc as well. Spillane is not only one of the highlights in Zorn‘s catalog, but also makes for a fine introduction to the composer’s vast body of work.


03. Marillion – Clutching at Straws

Written and conceived during a period of inner-band turmoil, Clutching at Straws would prove to be Fish‘s swan song, and perhaps Marillion‘s most unheralded masterpiece. Teaming up once again with producer Chris Kimsey, Clutching at Straws showcases some of the band’s most satisfying compositions, including the magnificent “Warm Wet Circles” and “That Time of the Night (The Short Straw).” Bookended by Fish‘s disgust with not only himself, “Torch Song,” but also with the burgeoning neo-Nazi uprising in Europe, “White Russian,” the great Scot delivers an inspired condemnation. The commercial pomp and circumstance of “Incommunicado” also gives way to a self-parodying confessional inspired by Fish‘s inability to see himself as a bona fide rock star and celebrity (“I want to do adverts for American Express cards, talk shows on prime time T.V.“). Tour opener “Slainte Mhath” is simple and elegant, building to its dramatic crescendo only to be upstaged by “Sugar Mice”—quite simply, one of Marillion‘s best commercial singles ever. The album’s stunning closer, “The Last Straw,” is Fish‘s self-realization that yes, the band is not only over, but that in his mind, it’s null and void (“and if you ever come across us, don’t give us your sympathy“). Steve Rothery‘s blinding guitar solo brings the whole thing down to a crashing finish (prophetically, announcing his arrival as the band’s true musical instigator on subsequent Fish-less records).

02. David Sylvian – Secrets of the Beehive

Streamlining the muted, organic atmospheres of the previous Gone to Earth to forge a more cohesive listening experience, Secrets of the Beehive is arguably David Sylvian‘s most accessible record, a delicate, jazz-inflected work boasting elegant string arrangements courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto. Impeccably produced by Steve Nye, the songs are stripped to their bare essentials, making judicious use of the synths, tape loops, and treated pianos which bring them to life; Sylvian‘s evocative vocals are instead front and center, rendering standouts like “The Boy With the Gun” and the near-hit “Orpheus”—both among the most conventional yet penetrating songs he’s ever written—with soothing strength and assurance.

01. David Torn – Cloud About Mercury

This 1987 production signifies experimental guitarist David Torn‘s second effort for Germany-based ECM Records. Here, the artist exhibits a sound, style, and methodology that are clearly his own, amid superb support by Bill Bruford (drums), Tony Levin (Chapman Stick/bass), and Mark Isham (trumpets). Torn generates gobs of excitement via his cunningly articulated phraseology, while also incorporating North African and East Indian modal concepts into these power-packed performances, fabricated upon climactic opuses and steamy crescendos. The guitarist’s rippling harmonics and off-kilter voicings make for an engaging listening experience, especially when he trades sprightly fours with Isham atop the often-circuitous rhythms. Simply put, Cloud About Mercury looms as one of the finest jazz fusion dates of the ’80s, and should be deemed a mandatory purchase for aficionados of this genre.

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