Even prog doesn’t always have to be complicated! An essential characteristic of progressive rock and metal is elegantly described in the label’s first word it’s meant to be the music that lives on the fringes, subverts expectations, and pushes the boundaries in creative and engaging ways. Because of that very same tendency, prog has acquired an elitist reputation of being hard to get into and having to be enjoyed purely intellectually.
However, that doesn’t always have to be the case. At the end of the day, there are heaps of beauty to be found in simplicity, and famous prog-heads past and present had to understand that if they were as clever as their fans took them to be. As a result, there are more than enough songs written by progressive bands that simply “get you going” without much fuss, and today we’ll be looking at some of the best examples. Now, let’s begin.
Yes: I’ve Seen All Good People
Parent album: “The Yes Album”
Year of release: 1971
“I’ve Seen All Good People” is an excellent proof that even fabled prog wizards such as Yes sometimes enjoy making simple, catchy tunes, even when they pull as signature a prog move as arranging a song in more than one segment. Essentially, “I’ve Seen All Good People” is two songs under one title, with both suites “Your Move” and “All Good People” being immensely radio friendly.
Pink Floyd – Money
Parent album: “Dark Side of the Moon”
Year of release: 1973
“Money” was the only song from “Dark Side of the Moon” to chart on the Billboard’s Top 100 list, and given the song’s nonchalant likeability, it’s really no wonder. Although every single song from Pink Floyd’s breakthrough LP today gets recognized almost instantly by most rock fans out there, “Money” is really the only one that “works” just as well when taken out of the album’s context.
The sounds of cash registers, coins being jingled and checkbooks getting ripped construct a catchy beat that draws the listener in right from the get-go, while the song’s bluesy groove and unusual time signature provide weirdness enough to be engaging but are neutral enough to keep the groove first and foremost
Rush – Tom Sawyer
Parent album: “Moving Pictures”
Year of release: 1981
Now, there’ several albums’ worth of Rush material that could fit in this list just as easily should we decide to label the band’s ’80s synth era “prog rock” (we probably should). However, things didn’t really start getting neon-colored before 1982’s “Signals”, and 1981’s “Moving Pictures” still felt more like honest-to-god prog rock, hence the choice of “Tom Sawyer”.
Although the song starts getting a bit extravagant with Alex Lifeson’s twitchy guitar solo and Geddy Lee’s funky bass groove in the middle, the majority of it is carried by a simple enough premise – Neil Peart drums up a mean beat, Alex Lifeson lays some laid-back riffs, and Geddy Lee’s narrative singing neatly anchors the listener’s attention. Also, that breakdown is beyond awesome.
King Crimson – Sleepless
Parent album: “Three of a Perfect Pair”
Year of release: 1983
Rush wasn’t the only iconic prog band that inched towards the dance floor in the early ’80s, and King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” is arguably the most new-wavey/post-punkey of the string of albums King Crimson released early in the decade. Accordingly, there’s an unmistakable haunted disco feel to “Sleepless” that makes it sound almost like a piece by Siouxie and the Banshees.
As if King Crimson weren’t genius enough, “Sleepless” is a great example of those songs where people do very complicated things on their instruments, but the whole song is a breeze to follow.
Dream Theater – Another Day
Parent album: “Images and Words”
Year of release: 1993
Following the lackluster sales of their debut “When Dream and Day Unite”, Dream Theater’s second studio album “Images and Words” turned out to be the band’s big breakthrough, as well as one of the band’s best-loved studio outings of all time. In addition to much better treatment by their new label ATCO, the success of “Images and Words” could be also put down to a tasteful balance of the progressive and the popular, with the latter cleverly reserved for the album’s lead singles.
Like “Pull Me Under”, “Another Day” never gets ahead of itself; instead, it uses relatively simple means to convey the emotion and the vulnerability of the subject matter, John Petrucci’s hopes and fears as his father was battling cancer. On a brighter note, could we also take a moment to appreciate James LaBrie looking exactly like one of those hunks from the covers of cheap romance novels?
Queensrÿche – Eyes of a Stranger
Parent album: “Operation: Mindcrime”
Year of release: 1988
Queensrÿche is largely considered to be a part of the “Big Three” of US progressive metal, alongside Fates Warning and Dream Theater. Eventually, Dream Theater turned out to be arguably the “biggest” as well as the “proggiest” of the trio, but it was Queensrÿche who first started causing waves with its intriguing sound in the metal mainstream.
Granted, when “Operation: Mindcrime” came out in 1988, the idea of “progressive metal” as a distinct style of heavy music didn’t really exist, and Queensrÿche’s material tended to be on the catchy end of prog either way. With all that said, it’s no wonder that Queensrÿche made a song as tasty as “Eyes of a Stranger”. Although it takes its time to get going, you know you’re into some heat-seeking stuff as soon as the first verse hits, not to mention Geoff Tate’s soaring chorus. Although “Operation: Mindcrime” is for all intents and purposes a concept album, “Eyes of a Stranger” works best alone even when we take the album’s overarching story into account, as it kinda sums up the whole album in one song. “Eyes of a Stranger” also happened to be the first Queensrÿche song to chart on the US Mainstream Rock chart.
Devin Townsend – Life
Parent album: “Ocean Machine: Biomech”
Year of release:1997
Throughout his insanely thick discography, Devin Townsend has experimented with nearly every direction, mood, or style known to rock and metal music, so it’s really no wonder that he’s got a fair share of simple, catchy songs under his belt.
Likewise, there’s a vast array of songs that could take the place of “Life” here, but in addition to being driven by a light and bright melody and having a user-friendly song structure, I chose “Life” in particular because of the following YouTube comment by a certain Nate G: “This is what I like to call college-metal… The stuff that plays at the end of a college movie assuring you everyone is happy and has gotten laid.”