Friday, February 5, 2010

NONDESCRIPT OBJECTS ON PROGRESSIVE ROCK ALBUM COVERS ARE THE BEST THING EVER (Part 1 of 2)

Few musical genres can claim the compositional integrity or technical prowess that progressive rock does. It is a genre for music nerds, "cool" dads, guys with ponytails and/or goatees, and the morbidly obese. It is a haven for the reclusive, an enchanted isle for the obsessive.
But just as that acne-ridden, bespectacled creep in the Dream Theater shirt next to you on the bus has an extensive collection of Rush bootlegs at home in his parents' basement, so too is it safe to assert that one of prog rock's finest aspects is the quality of its associated cover art. From the profound to the mundane, the triumphant to the catastrophic, the eternally overwrought creations splashed across hordes of prog albums are always sure to entertain.
But let me get a little more specific: My obsession is with objects depicted ON progrock album covers. Obtuse, obscure, often unexplained, these strange blobs of psychedelic detritus leave me baffled, fascinated, joyful, and often more than a little frightened. That weird swirly thing on the cover of Rick Wakeman's Piano Vibrations? I want to put it in my pocket and have it with me at all times. Those blurry, amorphous blocks on the cover of Genesis' eponymous 1983 release? Fill an aquarium with 'em, I'll put that shit in the middle of my living room. It's hard to explain, but somehow the more ambivalent the artwork, the more striking I find it. But I guess you guys probably need more examples.

I meant for this all to fit into only one post, but once I started research on the subject it became quickly apparent that this was NOT a possibility. Part 2 coming soon...



The whole inspiration to write this (these) post(s) in the first place was The Computer Mouse Spaceship Beetle Thing on the cover of Journey's Escape (above). Bursting forth from some sort of exploding orb, it makes no apologies for itself, nor does it attempt any sort of explanation. Nor does it need to. It just IS.
Perhaps this is why I find nondescript prog objects so compelling. They simply ARE, in a state of entropic inertia so much like life itself.
The Computer Mouse Spaceship Beetle Thing is no exception. Sure, it blossomed into a much more concrete Bird-Winged Beetle Thing on Departure (above, right), but consider this: At the time of Escape's release (1981), the computer mouse hadn't even been invented (this point is debatable).
Think about THAT.


Another case in point: Genesis - Foxtrot. What is your purpose, Woman In Red Dress With Head of Fox Standing On Ice Floe? And why is there a very small whale swimming nearby? Are these questions meant to be answered?


Another 70's/80's progressive rock band with its collective finger on the throbbing pulse of postmodern art was England's CAMEL. These guys basically made my life worth living by introducing me to Crucified Astronaut on the cover of I Can See Your House From Here (above), but upon closer inspection, Camel has a certain talent for vague Impressionism that I find just as striking.


Above: Well hello, Camel/Train Thing Entering Tunnel In Space. How lovely to see you here. Sexual entendre? Perhaps. But ambivalent enough to keep us guessing.
Below: See-Through Guy and See-Through Horse commune with Poorly-Drawn Face In The Sky on the cover of A Nod And A Wink.



Below: Steely Dan's Squiggly Neon Sperm Things on the cover of Can't Buy A Thrill: Legendary.



Of course, no discussion about progrock album art would be complete without a lengthy dissertation on the striking graphics of YES.
From Tales From Topographic Oceans (left) to Relayer (below, right) and beyond, Yes practically wrote the book on listless, quasi-psychedelic 70's imagery, presenting underwhelming alien landscapes as a counterpart to their underwhelming, quasi-psychedelic proto-smooth-jazz.

Yes were constantly turning the knobs on their album covers all the way up to "BLOW MINDS", even as they were turning the knobs on their amps to "SUCK". Somehow, the muted earth tones and drab mountain ranges were more compelling than anything wrought in flashy neon, and the imagery Yes brought to the table is surely the most memorable thing about the band. But they dealt not only in odd landscapes:

Below: 1977's Going For The One, or as I like to call it: Naked Dude Contemplates Zig-Zagging Neon Lines Near Triangular Buildings.




Above: 1978's Tormato or: Exploded Vegetable On Crotch Of Guy In Suit Holding A Pair of Sticks.


Above we see the cover of Yessongs, illustrated by main Yes artist Roger Dean. Dean was one of the most successful psychedelic artists of the 1970's, and almost single-handedly defined Prog Rock Art as we know it. If I could find a Roger Dean font, I would use it in every word of every post on this blog.


Above: Dean's majestic airborne mountains were a defining trait in his work, just as much as his use of swirling clouds and water.
Below: As we can see by Dean's delicate use of color, his understanding of shade as metaphor was some--GODDAMN IT CAN'T I HAVE ONE GODDAMN DISCUSSION ABOUT ROGER DEAN WITHOUT A FUCKING NA'VI POKING ITS HEAD IN?!?! JESUS FUCK!!!





While we're on the subject of Yes, we might as well take a minute to explore the solo career of Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman, who produced quite a few memorable Nondescript Prog Objects himself. That's Rick up there on the cover of Journey To The Center of The Earth (which is actually a really good album), conducting an orchestra (?) in a gold cape (?) inside of a large, round stone or something (?). That's also him over there on the right, being totally down-to-Earth and NOT pretentious at all. Rick's cool like that.
Rick produced what I consider to be some of the whitest "rock" music I've ever heard. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, Wakeman's music is just ultra-nerdy, cerebral, and corny in a way that only a British guy in a sequined cape could do it. In a word, WHITE. Don't kill the messenger here, Rick himself said the same thing:


In addition to The Brown Curved Thing That Might Be A Skier, Wakeman also delivered other inexplicable images like the one shown below. It seems his years in Yes were not wasted.



Below: Italian prog rockers Museo Rosenbach pretty much nailed it with the cover of 1973's Zarathustra. I have no idea what's going on here, nor do I want to.




Above: Grobschnitt fascinates me.
Below: Van Der Graaf Generator's strangely-titled 1970 release H to He, Who Am the Only One. Are those testicles? And what's with the legs and feet? Are we in space?
Congratulations, Van Der Graaf Generator. You have accomplished nothing less than the utter and complete blowage of our minds.





I've discussed Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's Tarkus here on IC in the past, specifically its, um, "resemblence" to the Armored Tank-Dog Thing on the cover of Judas Priest's Defenders of the Faith. But allow me to elaborate a bit further on my feelings about The Tarkus.
If it were a realistic possibility for me to keep a metallic armadillo with tank treads and a cannon in my apartment, I would. I would feed it and care for, and on weekends we would go for playful romps in Golden Gate Park, where The Tarkus would use its powerful Prog Lazers to incinerate hippies and its sturdy treads to crush their percussion instruments.
But alas, The Tarkus is not meant to be taken from its native environment, which is apparently a striped, rainbow-colored plain decorated here and there with the bones of dead animals.

ELP had their fair share of odd album covers, most notably the Giger-drawn piece on the front of Brain Salad Surgery (left). But it is The Tarkus that draws (and, resultingly, holds) my attention, because, hey, what IS that thing?
If only someone were kind and generous enough to purchase some sort of Tarkus-themed article of clothing for me... Gee, that would be swell.

Oh well, that's enough for today. Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we will discuss flutes, man-ass, bomb-dropping doves, and analingus.

Until then - Play us off, Keith!

7 comments:

cory said...

Can't Buy a Thrill is the grossest album cover but the cover of Katy Lied is CLASSSIXXX 4 ALL TIME.

Steven said...

The Yes covers for 'Going for the One' and 'Tormato' were whipped up by the design nerds at Hipgnosis, who were responsible for plenty of other curious '70's rock album sleeves from the likes of Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Sabbath, 10cc, Peter Gabriel, Nazareth, Wishbone Ash, ELO, ELP, UFO, AC/DC, etc, etc, etc...

I'm with ya on the Tarkus. I'd wear that tshirt everyday.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Magnum Opus.

Camellia sinensis said...

http://www.ubu.com/film/ra_space.html

tripped out 70's jazzy progness...spaceships landing in oakland.....you've been warned.

Jack said...

rick wakeman has never made a bad album, at least in my opinion (but i'm drunk, so whatever)... and, from what i've heard, he's one hell of a nice guy...
what's amazing is how prolific he's been... check out his discography - apparently he never sleeps...
nice post, shelby... can't wait for part II...

mikeTM said...

Tarkus, fuck yes. That Museo Rosenbach album got me, going to find that right now.

Andreas Deranged said...

not to mention the nasty monsters Tarkus slays inside the gatefold!
funny thing: in the book "Progressive Rock Reconsidered" my Edward Macan - the first scholarly and almost exhaustive treatise on this fabulous genre, he dissects the Tarkus artwork completely - it's a suite right? the different parts in it are when Tarkus battles the strange beasts. they are robots - Tarkus is semirobot/animal, just like progrock (organic classical/folk music merged with electric rock/synthesizers). BUT, Tarkus is ultimately destroyed by the Manticore, which is mythical but all animal (and also the mascot of ELP). comment on the Vietnam war? increasing reliance on technology severing us from our origin (the gap which progrock tried to bridge)? fascinating, ain't it?