Essential Modern Progressive Rock Albums 1990-2016 (Book Review)
Released: 2017, Royal Avenue Media
The steady climb in Metal related publishing continues unabated with not one but two genre-specific book published in late 2017. In the early days of Metal publishing, books were all or nothing and they often fell short trying to encompass everything under the sun. Now, we are seeing more genre-specific books, written by local experts, appearing on the market. I have selected two brand new books, one about Doom and one about Prog, (they are just about as sonically opposite as you can get!) to be spotlighted. It was a fun exercise in contrast and I reviewed both this month; DOOM METAL LEXICANUM and ESSENTIAL MODERN PROGRESSIVE ROCK ALBUMS. Take that Christmas gift money you got from your aunt who hasn’t got a clue about the music you listen to ‘with all that screaming’, and go buy one (or both) of these awesome books!
Roie Avin is one mean Prog Rock dude! He knows his stuff! As the main guy behind The Prog Report and one of the top dogs at InsideOut Music, I can’t think of many better people to write this book.
At first glance this monster, 285 page book is simply gorgeous. It has really nice glossy paper, tons of eye-popping colour and a very cool layout and design that is eye-catching and easy to read and find information. It’s coffee-table design will sit proudly in your living room for when people come over and flip through it and say, ‘Who? I’ve never heard of any of these bands!’. The book starts with a warm and heartfelt essay from Avin about the nature of modern Prog (categorized for the purposes of this book as 1990-2016) and I agree with everything he says. ESSENTIAL MODERN PROGRESSIVE ROCK ALBUMS (or EMPRA, as I’ve decided to call it) has all the usual features as well as 16 more bonus albums in an appendix.
To break it is down to it’s essence, EMPRA is a list of 54 albums by 32 bands in chronological order (by releases date) and an essay on each album. It is much more than that. Each chapter/album is loaded with trivia, interviews, history and in a nice touch, most of the chapter ends with a few brief sentences of summary of where the band is at. One thing that struck me was… supergroup after supergroup after supergroup! The creativity of Prog dudes like Neal Morse and Steve Wilson is endless. As cliché as it might sound, the quotes drawn from the interviews with the musicians, really got behind the inspiration of the creators of these albums.
Each album/chapter was very fascinating, and as can be expected the chapters of the albums that I own were more interesting as I had a more personal connection to the music. The chapters of the albums I don’t have are almost equally interesting for research and knowledge purposes. Avin knows more about Prog than I ever will although it’s not a contest pe se. I consider myself a reasonably knowledgeable Prog fan, (leaning towards the Metal side of the genre) owning a good chunk of these albums (34 of the 54) but reading this made me realize I have a long way to go!
One factor I enjoyed is that, while clearly a knowledgeable and dedicated fan, he did not talk down to non-prog readers. Nor did he make assumptions that everyone knows what he knows and get too technical and over-analytical. With his prose he struck a great balance between introducing all this great music to people who might not know as much about the genre, and for those who do, he provides tons of great insight and information. EMPRA was very informative and extremely readable.
It wouldn’t be a review without a bit of critical analysis and maybe even a hint of criticism! Avin works for InsideOut, a very cool job I can imagine, but I must admit, it almost, not quite, but almost, felt at times like a commercial for InsideOut with 18 of the 32 bands represented (over 50%) are, or have been, on InsideOut Music. We don’t see a ton of albums represented from the competing Prog record labels like Sensory, Magna Carta or Musea. In fact, I think someone ripped the letter ‘M’ out of Avin’s Prog Rock dictionary with arguably essential 'M' bands like Magnum, Mastermind and Magellan all having no representation! Other notable omissions were Dead Soul Tribe, OSI, Ozric Tentacles, Pallas, Pendragon, Redemption, Shadow Gallery and Threshold. I would have added those 11 bands, dropped three of the borderline, questionable metal-core leaning bands and presented this as a Top 40 list..because so much of Prog rock is Top 40! (Lame pun fully intended)
However, in his defense InsideOut is the #1 Prog record label on the planet, they have all the best stuff, including, as of time of writing, the announcement of the addition of Dream Theater to the roster. It is not surprising that a huge chunk of the bands in this book are on the label. It was clever of Avin to define this list and title the book as 'essential' not 'The Best Prog Albums Of All Time, (or something equally inflammatory) to avoid endless hours of heated, on-line arguments in prog forums across the planet. I have very little argument about any of the inclusions or omissions. The book is roughly broken into thirds, probably just a coincidence but is anything in Prog world, a world obsessed with detail, ever truly a coincidence? There are 18 bands who get one album in the book. There are nine bands who get two albums in the list (18!) and lastly five elite bands account for another 18 albums; each band getting three or more albums that make the cut, with DREAM THEATER, OPETH and SPOCK'S BEARD each getting four albums in the final list.
I see this standing as sort of a cool companion book to Jeff Wagner’s 2010 book MEAN DEVIATION, both mandatory reading (and ownership) for any self-respecting prog-head. EMPRA serves a dual purpose. It stands as a very solid affirmation of this misunderstood and misrepresented sub-genre of Rock and Metal, and it serves as an indispensable guide. Prog-Tastic!