There are many more American progressive rock bands than you might think – and a surprising number are from the Midwest. The biggest, in terms of commercial success and recognition, is Kansas. If you only know their hits, “Dust in the Wind,” or “Carry On Wayward Son,” you really haven’t heard their progressive side. Of course, the name Kansas isn’t exactly your typical prog band appellation.
KANSAS: I was working in a record store in San Francisco when their self-titled first album was released. A co-worker put it on the store system, and by the end of the first side, I was a fan. Two lead guitarists (Kerry Livgren and Rich Williams), a keyboard player/vocalist (Steve Walsh), a violinist (Robbie Steinhart), and a great rhythm section (Dave Hope on bass and Phil Ehart on drums) – what’s not to like? The two opening tracks were up-tempo rockers followed by a ballad, “Lonely Wind,” that didn’t really hint at what was to come. Neither did “Belexes,” but when they closed out the side with “Journey From Mariabronn,” a nearly eight-minute epic, they were clearly on their way.
The title track from their second album, Song for America, was further evidence of the progressive direction the band would take. “Lamplight Symphony” and “Incomudro – Hymn to the Atman” are the other prog epics on that album.
Masque was their third LP, and it contains one of their best compositions, “Icarus – (Born on Wings of Steel),” along with “The Pinnacle.”
Speaking of pinnacles, the fourth Kansas album, Leftoverture, was a high point, chock-full of progressive epics. It is ranked #32 on Rolling Stone’s list of “50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time” (not that I put much stock in their opinion when it comes to progressive rock). Listen to the passage in “Miracles Out of Nowhere” from 2:22-2:50 and that same point (!) in “Opus Insert” – they must have been listening to Gentle Giant.
The success of “Carry On…” set them on a more commercial path. Point of Know Return, their follow-up album, yielded another huge hit in “Dust in the Wind.” A number of personnel changes followed, including the addition of Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse (who later became a member of Deep Purple).
BABYLON: This band came from St. Petersburg, Florida, and released their only studio album in 1978. A couple of lo-fi live albums were released a decade later. They were clearly influenced by the likes of Genesis, Gentle Giant, and Happy the Man (see below), and had the classic five-piece prog lineup of keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.
DIXIE DREGS (later shortened to The Dregs): What an unlikely name for a band with prog tendencies! Guitar, keyboards, strings, bass, and drums come together in a fusion of rock, bluegrass, and jazz that is quite unique. Check out “Odyssey” from their second LP, What If:
After The Dregs had disbanded, I saw former members Steve Morse and Rod Morgenstein (with a bass player) as the Steve Morse Band and was blown away. The guitar and drums were in sync on a level I hadn’t seen before or since.
DJAM KARET: As much an instrumental jam band with wildly diverse influences as they are progressive, California’s Djam Karet began in 1984 as a more guitar-oriented quartet. They became a quintet in the early 2000s, incorporating more keyboards. They are still working, and have produced 19 albums. Here’s a track from their 2005 release, Recollection Harvest:
ENCHANT: Re-discovering this band made me glad I decided to write this piece. I knew some of the band members when I was working at a record store in the East Bay, but hadn’t listened to them in many years. They were originally called Mae Dae, with a different vocalist. Strong vocals from Ted Leonard (who later joined Spock’s Beard), searing guitar work from Doug Ott, and killer drumming by Paul Craddick make 1995’s debut, A Blueprint of the World, a first-class prog album. The leadoff track, “The Thirst,” has it all:
ETHOS: Another Midwestern band, one of my favorites, this time from Indiana. Their first album, Ethos (ardour), showed a strong King Crimson influence at times. With two keyboard players, there’s lots of mellotron (and chamberlin – a mellotron sound-alike). “Atlanteans” shows their range, including a jazzy guitar-and-scat-singing passage.
Main composer and vocalist Wil Sharpe played a double-neck guitar. Listen to his beautiful solo at the end of “Longdancer.”
On their second LP, Open Up, they were down to a four-piece (the aptly named keyboardist L. Duncan Hammond left), and the resulting music wasn’t as strong. Even the cover art seemed to indicate a move away from prog. Relics is a compilation of previously unreleased material. It features a different vocalist, and is quite rare.
FIREBALLET: With a lineup similar to Ethos, Jersey boys Jim Como (vocals, drums, percussion), Bryan Howe (keyboards), Ryche Chlanda (guitars), Frank Petto (keyboards), and Martyn Biglin (bass, bass pedals) released their first album, Night on Bald Mountain, in 1975. Ian McDonald (King Crimson, Foreigner) produced the album and contributed some flute and saxophone as well. The 19-minute title track draws on Debussy as well as Moussorgsky and includes original passages.
“Atmospheres” evokes the sound and feel of very early Genesis.
Their King Crimson connection includes this rare live performance from 1974 of two early Crimson tracks. The recording quality is sub-par, but the playing is impressive. I have to assume that’s McDonald on woodwinds.
Also like Ethos, their second album was a disappointing attempt at more commercial songs. The cover art for Two, Too…was especially embarrassing, featuring the band members in tutus cavorting like ballerinas.
HAPPY THE MAN: Named for an obscure early Genesis song, with roots in Virginia and Indiana, they were primarily an instrumental band. They were signed to Arista Records in the mid-seventies and put out two albums produced by Ken Scott (who had worked with Supertramp and David Bowie). The second LP, Crafty Hands, is an especially well-engineered blend of prog and jazz-fusion. Take a listen to “Ibby It Is.”
The moody “Wind Up Doll Day” features the album’s lone vocal, sung by guitarist Stanley Whitaker.
Main keyboard player Kit Watkins would go on to join Camel after the breakup of Happy The Man. He also released several solo albums. A compilation of previously unreleased tracks was issued as Happy The Man 3rd – “Better late…”. A reformation occurred (without Watkins) in the early 2000s, resulting in a new album, The Muse Awakens. Whitaker and founding keyboard/woodwind player Frank Wyatt formed Oblivion Sun in the last decade.
THE LOAD: Ohio’s answer to Emerson, Lake & Palmer released their first album, Praise The Load, on their Owl Records label in 1976. Brothers Sterling and Tom Smith (keyboards and drums, respectively) are joined by bassist/guitarist Dave Hessler in a fiery display of instrumental virtuosity and classical influence. A second album, Load Have Mercy, was not released for twenty years. Starting with “Fandango,” you can check out both albums with this link:
NETHERWORLD: In the mid-seventies, San Jose-area band Atlantis found out there was already a group in Europe using that name, so they became Netherworld. Strongly influenced by the classic British prog artists, they recorded just one album, In the Following Half-Light. Guitarist Scott Stacy provides some excellent solos, and they even incorporated cello into their sound, as evidenced on the standout track, “Isle of Man.”
SPOCK'S BEARD: One of the best-known and most prolific of the American prog bands, Spock’s Beard has released 13 studio albums since 1995. Brothers Neal and Alan Morse formed the band in 1992, with Neal doing the lion’s share of the writing as well as playing keyboards and singing lead. Nick D’Virgilio and Dave Meros joined on drums and bass, respectively. Keyboardist Ryo Okumoto was originally a live performance fill-in who became a full-fledged member shortly after the release of their first album, The Light. Neal Morse left the band after the release of their sixth album, Snow, setting the stage for D’Virgilio to take over as front man (shades of Genesis…). Their compositions became more of a group effort, with the additional input of non-band members John Boegehold and Stan Ausmus.
Neal Morse has since been involved in a number of collaborative efforts involving major players on the prog scene (Transatlantic, Flying Colors) as well as releasing albums on his own.
Nick D’Virgilio ultimately left the band and went on to work with many other prog artists, including Genesis (on their album Calling All Stations). Ted Leonard (Enchant) became the lead vocalist after having subbed for D’Virgilio at some live gigs in 2011. D’Virgilio rejoined in a limited capacity a few years ago.
Unlike many prog bands, their sound is not obviously reminiscent of, though influenced by, any of the pioneering outfits such as Genesis, Yes, or Gentle Giant. “At the End of the Day,” from their fifth studio album, V, will give you a good idea of their range.
STARCASTLE: Can you say Yes? – yes, you can. This Illinois band came along at a time in the mid-1970s when the group Yes seemed to be taking a break. Starcastle would be considered a tribute band if they were playing complete Yes songs instead of crafting their own compositions out of snippets, riffs, and passages already found on Yes albums. Former REO Speedwagon lead singer Terry Luttrell is clearly emulating Jon Anderson. If you can forgive the blatant plagiarism (including a little from ELP, as well), their first album is quite good. Here’s the leadoff track from their eponymous debut:
Roy Thomas Baker (of Queen fame) produced their second and third albums, Fountains of Light and Citadel. Both continued their Yes-like sound and fantasy-art album covers. Starcastle’s last album for Epic records was Real to Reel, marking a radical change in both cover art and musical style that was not well received.
Styx: Hailing from Chicago, Styx was a fairly mainstream rock band until the arrival of second guitarist Tommy Shaw. Sure, they had lots of hits, but The Grand Illusion, with its faux-Magritte cover art, was a prog album squarely in the Kansas mold. One of the album’s best tracks, “Man in the Wilderness,” would be right at home on the second or third Kansas album – in fact, the opening riff and vocals are practically pure rip-offs.
Subsequent albums marked a gradual return to more commercial rock and even greater sales.
This is by no means a comprehensive look at American prog. I tried to pick a cross-section of artists, both well-known and obscure. I would appreciate feedback in the comments section about bands that you feel should (or could) have been included.
Header photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Danielle Cannova