In this article we sample some of the most innovative popular music ever created to come up with a list of the best progressive rock bands of all time…
Progressive Rock – An Introduction
Progressive rock first appeared in England in the late sixties. It was created by rock musicians who wanted to break out from the boundaries of traditional popular music. By creating longer songs which required greater technical skill to perform, they sought to create music that was more akin to classical music. The popularity of progressive rock grew and by the mid seventies ‘prog’ bands were among the biggest and most successful acts of the time. Today, progressive rock is making a comeback as bands once again start to experiment with the traditional rock format.
Of course this list of the best progressive rock bands is subjective and by no means definitive. Feel free to let us know what you think of our choices in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
Best Progressive Rock Bands – A List In No Particular Order
Cardiacs manage to incorporate more original ideas into just one of their songs than many other bands do in their entire career. Led by musical genius Tim Smith, the highly influential British progressive rock band released albums throughout the eighties and nineties. Combining a mix of frantic energy, twisted melodies, punk-like vocals, and psychedelic imagery, Cardiacs’ music encompasses all of the human condition – usually in the space of three or four seconds. Despite being ignored by the music press, Cardiacs’ influence has spread far and wide, even crossing the Atlantic to inspire a new generation of US-based progressive rock bands. If you are new to Cardiacs, a good place to start is ‘On Land And In The Sea‘. This album is a musical and emotional roller coaster and quite simply one of the greatest albums ever made.
Cardiacs official site.
British? Check. Capes? Check. Virtuoso musicians? Check. Concept album? Check. Concept double album? Check. Concept double album with just one half-hour song per side? Check. Internal bickering, line up changes, fall-outs and making-ups? Check. Massive commercial success (aka sell out) in the eighties? Check. Still going against all the odds? Check. Ticking all of the prog boxes, Yes are the definitive progressive rock band. The classic line up features Chris Squire on bass, Steve Howe on guitar, Rick Wakeman on keyboards and Jon Anderson on vocals. Yes’ music is characterized by warm vocal harmonies, psychedelic lyrics, wandering bass lines, spiky guitars and innovative keyboard sounds. Even during their commercial period, Yes always came up with something that was more than just popular music. To sample some classic Yes, check out ‘Close To The Edge‘.
Yes official site.
There has always been a natural crossover between progressive rock and metal. Both genres require high standards of musicianship, and there is a mutual respect between fans of both styles. Iron Maiden have been one of the biggest names in metal since the eighties. Their songs are often long and multi-structured, and the prog influence is not hard to find. Iron Maiden have always stuck to what they do best, and the formula has changed little (ok, not at all) since the late seventies. Only the spandex pants have gone (replaced, thankfully, by jeans). Various members have come and gone, but most of their guitarists find a way back eventually. On the last tour there were seven or eight of them. Check out ‘Powerslave‘, and the awesome live album, ‘Live After Death‘. Exciting, passionate and epic. Everything that prog / metal should aspire to be.
Iron Maiden official site.
Genesis are part of the great British progressive rock triumvirate that also includes Yes and ELP. They made their greatest progressive albums while Peter Gabriel was still a member, including the classics ‘Foxtrot‘ and ‘Selling England By The Pound‘. These two albums will be in the collection of any true progressive rock fan. Despite what purists may say, several of their post-Gabriel albums are also well worth a listen. While arguably the least sophisticated of the ‘big three’ in terms of technical ability (although they were no slouches), the music of Genesis has a warmth that is sometimes lacking in that of the others. Gabriel’s costumes and theatrical delivery, together with the nursery-rhyme imagery of the covers, complemented the story-like subjects of the songs.
No list of the best progressive rock bands would be complete without Rush. The Canadian trio released their first album in the seventies, and quickly evolved from a straight-forward rock band into the prog giants that they are today. Rush are known not only for their consummate musicianship, but also for the strong story-telling in their songs and albums. Geddy Lee’s distinctive vocal delivery still divides opinion, but it has helped shape the sound of one of rock’s biggest bands. Recommended albums: either ‘2112‘or ‘Moving Pictures‘ will provide a great introduction to Rush.
Rush official site.
Best Progressive Rock Bands – Gentle Giant
Although Gentle Giant failed to achieve the commercial success of their British contemporaries, they are still considered to be one of the most influential bands of the progressive rock movement. Gentle Giant’s music was highly complex and less commercial than that of many of their peers. If you want to explore a less-known and more challenging side of British progressive rock, then Gentle Giant will not disappoint. Check out ‘Free Hand‘ or ‘Octopus‘ – albums such as these serve to highlight just how inventive British music was in the seventies.
Emerson, Lake And Palmer (ELP)
Sorry guitarists, with ELP it’s the keyboard that takes center stage. Keith Emerson was a pioneer not just in the use of synthesizers (especially the Moog) in rock music, but also in the raw energy and visual aspect of his playing. Emerson was ably supported by Carl Palmer’s solid drumming and Greg Lake’s (underrated) guitar and bass playing. ELP tracks often incorporate pieces of classical music and are among the most successful attempts to combine the two types of music. Newcomers should listen to 1972’s ‘Trilogy‘, considered by many fans to be the band’s greatest work.
ELP official site.
Van Der Graf Generator
Van Der Graf Generator are another progressive rock band who never quite made it commercially, but who have attracted a large number of die hard fans. One of the more ‘out there’ prog bands (which in itself is quite a feat), and definitely an acquired taste. Van Der Graf Generator are held in high esteem by prog aficionados. If your discovery of prog has so far only brought you as far as Yes, Genesis and ELP, you should definitely get hold of ‘Pawn Hearts‘.
In North America, progressive rock is closely associated with metal. Following in the footsteps of bands such as Iron Maiden and Rush, many US metal bands started pushing the parameters of the genre to create music of ever increasing complexity and intensity. Prog metal is now a genre in itself. One of its most successful exponents is Dream Theater, whose founding members met at Berklee College Of Music. Driven by John Petrucci’s classically influenced guitar lines, the band have released many notable albums and built up a legion of devoted fans. A good introduction to Dream Theatre would either be ‘Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From a Memory‘ or ‘Images And Words‘.
Dream Theater official site.
More of a psychedelic band than a true progressive rock band, Pink Floyd nevertheless deserve a mention in a list of the best progressive rock bands. Known more for their atmospheric albums and imagery rather than for being technically outstanding musicians, Pink Floyd found huge mainstream success with their ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ album. David Gilmour’s melodic playing has influenced many guitarists and his solos from ‘Another Brick In The Wall’, and Comfortably Numb’ are among the most widely known guitar solos of all time. No fan of popular music should be without copies of ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon‘ and ‘The Wall‘, although many Pink Floyd fans would consider work from the Syd Barrett era work to be the band’s most important.
Pink Floyd official site.
The Best Progressive Rock Bands Conclusion
Compiling a list of ten of the best progressive rock bands is no easy task. Did we pick the right albums to recommend? Who are your favorites? If you think we should have made space for The Enid, Radiohead, The Moody Blues, Porcupine Tree, Strapping Young Lad, Meshuggah or any other bands, let us know in the comments below…