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Prog-Rock 'Supernatural': Well, the Packaging Is Nice

September 15, 1996|Robert Hilburn


"Supernatural Fairy Tales: The Progressive Rock Era,"



There was a time in the early days of CD boxed sets when critics actually debated whether you should judge an album by its packaging or its content.

Was it fair, for instance, to dismiss an album by an uninteresting artist even though a record company put together a great-looking boxed set, complete with striking cover design, handsome photos, helpful liner notes and previously unreleased tracks?

After all, you would never think of giving a lousy new release a higher grade just because it was nicely packaged. That would be like those guys on TV giving two thumbs up for a hack film just because it came with nice lobby cards and they got a handsome souvenir program on the way into the theater.

The debate was so intense at one time that boxed sets were sometimes given two scores: one for content and one for packaging.

Under that system, this five-disc set devoted to the progressive rock movement of the '70s would most certainly get four stars for what you see--but decidedly fewer for what you hear. Ponderous music is ponderous music.

It's not fair, of course, to dismiss an entire genre of music--though it's tempting in this case.

Q: How do you spell "pretentious"?

A: E-L-P.

That was a widespread joke back in the '70s when the team of Emerson, Lake & Palmer represented for most rock fans the strengths and the weaknesses of progressive rock.

Steve Hochman, who writes Calendar's Pop Eye column, mentions the joke in a commentary on prog-rock included in the album's booklet, and he gives us ELP keyboardist Keith Emerson's reaction to the joke:

"I suppose what we do could be interpreted as pretentious," he says. "We like to play European-based music, a large part of which is classically oriented. I mean a lot of it came from the fact that we're not blues-oriented."

It's not a perfect definition of prog-rock, but it's a good starting point, and it helps explain why the music (which is also without country, soul and gospel roots) has had so little influence on the most vital strains of '80s and '90s rock.

Indeed, you can find more echoes of the other musical whipping boy of the '70s--disco--in such contemporary pop-rock movements as techno and experimental British dance music than you can find traces of prog-rock.

That's not to say there aren't some appealing moments in this sprawling collection, which defines prog-rock in terms wide enough to justify the inclusion of some art-rock acts and others that do draw upon mainstream blues, folk and rock traditions. Among them: Roxy Music, Traffic, Procol Harum, the Electric Light Orchestra and the Strawbs.

The other acts represented by one or two tracks in the set include the aforementioned ELP, Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis, Focus and Van Der Graaf Generator. Some of them--especially Can, the German band whose tense, disorienting sound has had a lingering influence--may sound interesting enough for listeners to check out the groups' individual albums.

As a whole, however, I'd trade almost all of "Supernatural Fairy Tales" for a single-disc collection of the best of ABBA or even a great Oasis B-side.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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