Band: Yes
Album: Fragile
Best song: “Roundabout” is a fantastic record.
Worst song: “We Have Heaven” isn’t great.

One of the rituals did for DJs at KCOU during training was the music staff training meeting. As the PD, I ran this meeting, which was intended to explain KCOU’s format to DJs. Part of the ritual was to have the DJs go to the stations’ library of CDs and records to pick three albums and explain why they loved said records.

Now, obviously, this is a partial step in the judgment of these kids. The music staff and training execs want to see if the freshman have anything other than entirely mainstream tastes and, moreover, can actually talk about the music they enjoy.

As a freshman DJ, I chose the first Mogwai album, a Smog record and… I don’t remember. I really should remember that third one, but I don’t. Anyway, I sort of talked about post-rock and how much I enjoyed Mogwai, but ultimately, I prefer Tortoise.

As an exec, I spent two and a half years doing these training sessions, so I probably did 7 or 8 of them. I always used the second Death Cab for Cutie album as one of the three because I held up my relationship with the record as a success story of the station.

(Back story before you read that story: At KCOU, reviews were, essentially, taped to the front of the CDs. A key part of most reviews was the notion of comparing the CD to other, similar bands and bolding the similar bands in the review. So, someone might write “This record has strains of the Cat Power mixed with a Sonic Youth guitar sound.” It makes it easier for DJs to discover new things. Similarly, the reviewer would highlight top tracks from the album and those which could not be played, due to FCC rules.

Here’s the Death Cab story: The second semester of my sophomore year, I had a 1-4 Friday shift. No college radio DJ times his or her music perfectly to end with his or her shift, so there’s normally some space to just throw something on that could work. Because I was a total kiss ass, I normally took new stuff from format.

One Friday in early April, I grabbed a record by a band with a funny name and read the review. The reviewer was a guy I idolized (the PD my freshman year) and he wrote a longish piece that explained the record’s familiar yet diverse sound by dropping names of many bands I enjoy. Dinosaur Jr. Elliott Smith. Modest Mouse. So, I threw on one of the highlighted tracks and stopped immediately. I could not believe how good this song was. I took note of the band name and the album name and bought it the next time I was in Chicago. I remember it like it was yesterday.)

I normally chose a new record as my second record to present to the DJs-in-training, just to highlight the new music we had at the station. The third record rotated in theme, but for a spell, I almost always took out one of three albums: King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Yes’ Fragile.

My progressive rock phase never really stopped, but it really blossomed my senior year of college when I got way into those three records. It stemmed from a few magazine pieces I’d read claiming — rightfully, probably — comparing Tortoise (and the entire post-rock genre) to progressive rock. It turned me onto King Crimson and Yes — I was already a fan of Gabriel-era Genesis.

All the criticisms of progressive rock hold true. Often, it’s complicated solely for the same of being complicated. Most of the time, the subject matter of the music falls somewhere between the patently ridiculous (In the Court of the Crimson King) and the totally absurd (The Genesis albums about greek mythology or the alien weirdness of Lamb). Nearly all the songs are far too long. The concept album is overused and the genre tops are often nerdy.

None of those criticisms are incorrect. Indeed, it makes for interesting listening and a worthwhile experience. I like prog rock because it has all those things, though I often hold my nose thinking about the songwriting process for these bands (“Hey, Phil, how about a song about the Foundtain of Salmacis?” “Is Salmacis the naiad that tried to rape Hermaphroditus?” “Of course.”). Overall, it’s fun to follow the lyrics, pick out the wacky time changes and really deconstruct the music.

This is, of course, why I’m such a fan of Pink Floyd, progressive rock’s greatest triumph. The band never fell into wizardry, dragons and Greek mythology to write songs. Moreover, the band’s ear for hooks and melody is lost on far too many prog bands.

While cooking dinner with a friend — a friend not entirely familiar with Pink Floyd — I was giddy with excitement in describing the greatness that is Dark Side of the Moon. I enumerated the lyrical theme of the album — Floyd was never a stranger to the concept album — and the greatness that is the album’s melding of the themes and the band’s music. My friend looked at me like I was crazy and that was the end of that.

Anyway, Fragile has its Dark Side moments. The singles, “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround” are both eminently catchy and easy to enjoy. The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)” is very interesting and shows Chris Squire’s ample songwriting ability. “Hartt of the Sunrise” is an opus, but a good one and worthwhile when one is in the mood.

But, as with all prog rock, the album is a little bloated and inaccessible. Outside of the singles, the album is not hummable at all and the songs make for difficult sing alongs. Overall, progressive rock is what it is; a fun way to pass the time, but hardly the music to soundtrack our lives.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

    You can contact me at rjgianfortune at gmail dot com.

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