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The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock written by Charles Snider

Review by Scott Montgomery

The preface takes us “back in time: The 1970s…”  The personalized context introduces Snider’s authorial tone – relaxed, knowledgeable and thoughtful, without even a hint of pretense or pomposity.  Gliding along as a pleasurable read, the text is entertaining and informative without being overly challenging.  It is not a heavy-weight scholarly tome.  Nor is it shallow.  It is an enjoyable read that will not likely challenge or change any preconceived notion of progressive rock that one might bring to the reading.  The occasional lapses into a cheeky tone can be alternately distracting and amusing, particularly when in the form of a prog inside joke, the likes of which will likely be lost on the novice but might bring a smile to the face of those well-versed in prog history.  It makes for a lighter, easier, and perhaps more enjoyable read, but at the expense of any gravitas that might elevate the author’s authority.  But, as a survey of progressive rock that is largely cast in a chronological discussion of key albums, this book is quite effective.  It is the organizational framework that provides the book’s greatest contribution by clearly laying out the progression of progressive rock from its formative years through its hey-day.  Woven into this framework is a larger discussion of progressive rock, replete with both anecdotal asides and background context.  Throughout, Snider lays out his rationale for the arrangement and emphasis of the book – an essential chronology of the first (classic) wave of progressive rock by album release.  Snider’s clarity and disclosure add to his credibility, allowing one to approach his tale on its own terms and with an open mind.  And he delivers.  It is a tale well told.

The prologue is brief, but effectively covers a lot of ground.  The overview provides a broad but impressively informative background on the broader context, ranging from the influence of The Beatles, psychedelia, the physicality and art of the album, the art school and essentially English background of the lion’s share of major early prog groups, as well as technological developments, ranging from electronics and instruments such as the Mellotron to formats of delivery such as album-oriented radio.  Snider lays out a duo of distinctive features that he sees as foundational to prog - extended composition and virtuosity in execution – that combine to create rock music that demands attention from the listener.  In short, this combination includes structure, performance, and audience interaction.  Filtered through a lens colored with classical Romanticism and avant-garde, this binary fusion model works remarkably well for a very broad and appropriately nebulous nod toward a definition of prog rock.  The difficult issues of semantics and categorization are well-handled in their brevity, though somewhat through wisely sidestepping the issues entirely.  Nonetheless, some nomenclature is necessary, and Snider sketches a few distinctions: prog rock (inclusive of symphonic, Canterbury, RIO and Zeuhl), art rock, krautrock, fusion, and electronic.  Sure we could go further with that, and I wish he might have taken on the challenge of outlining characteristics of these sub-genres.  But, he offers an acceptable start.  

The bulk of the book is broken into thirteen sections – one devoted to each year in the span of 1967-1979, generally considered the formative and classic period of the genre.  Each year is chronicled through a discussion of significant albums.  Snider’s decision to discuss them in order of release date is a nice touch, one that allows the narrative of progressive rock to unfurl chronologically – progressing through its progression.  This organization is far more effective in charting the larger narrative of prog’s development and flourishing than the simple alphabetical list (essentially the encyclopedia format) as presented by Paolo Barroto’s somewhat simplistically list-like, albeit useful The Return of Italian Pop.  Though at times veering dangerously close to an “essential album” list, Snider’s book pulls this together into a meta-narrative of the development of a musical genre.  This contextualization of his cannon of critical works is one of Snider’s greatest achievements here.  Each entry generally gives some background (and future) history of the band, including band members and instruments, as well as cover art (in some cases).  Though I would have enjoyed additional discussion of the visual elements – album covers and stage design – Snider’s consideration of the visual aspects is a move in the right direction (for the music is not all that matters).  As one progresses through the litany of brief entries, the larger history of prog rock emerges.  From The Beatles seminal masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (June 1967) to Pink Floyd’s equally epochal The Wall (December 1979), Snider guides us through the topographic tale of progressive tendencies in rock music during one of its most formative, influential, and significant periods.  It is the tale of rock music’s most artistically aspirant explorations and realizations (both musically and visually). 

Snider follows conventional wisdom in describing King Crimson’s watershed In the Court of the Crimson King (October 1969) as “arguably the first prog rock record” (p. 61), but his organizational timeline insightfully nuances the point by placing it over two years into the story of rock’s growing progressivity.  The release of Zappa’s Hot Rats the very same month reminds us that progressive explorations were not limited to England.  In fact, one of the interesting revelations of reading The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock is the way that some months seem to literally overflow with significant releases.  The hey-day of progressive rock is thus traced with great detail regarding the cavalcade of releases.  For example, noting that November 1971 witnessed the release of ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Genesis’ Nursery Cryme, Pink Floyd’s Meddle, King Crimson’s Islands, and Led Zeppelin IV makes the reader recall the notable dent in the pocket that such months made in even casual rock listeners.  More significantly, it chronicles the speed and intensity with which rock progressed and came of age in the progressive era.  These were musically heady times, and challenging new sounds came quickly and abundantly.  Furthermore, the inclusion of less iconic albums within this timeline fills in the picture, demonstrating the ways in which progressive rock was a far broader field than just the “big bands.”  Thus, September 1972 sees Yes’ magisterial Close to the Edge alongside Bo Hansson’s delightful Lord of the Rings and Nektar’s A Tab in the Ocean.  Thus, major canonical works, such as Close to the Edge are contextualized within the bigger picture, highlighting both their singular importance and their place within the overarching arc of the tale.

I know of no other book that shares this particular approach in being organized strictly by release date - a direct, chronological, album-by-album discussion of prog.  The conceit is simple, perhaps obvious, but Snider is to be credited for organizing his book in such an illustratively linear fashion – there is much to learn from the unfurling of history along its own course.  Clearly ensconced within this logical organizational framework, each succinct entry further allows the book to serve as a bit of a quick reference as well as a larger meta-narrative.  While much of the information included has long been available, what is novel and instructive is the chronological arrangement.  Coupled with Snider’s relaxed prose, this makes The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock essential, pleasurable, and ultimately very informative reading.  It is not dense and theoretically-inclined (such as Bill Martin’s excellent, thought-provoking, and at times ponderously overwrought Listening to the Future).  Snider’s personal assessment comes through, but not in a bad way.  He offers opinion, but is neither heavy-handed nor negative in his approach.  As such, it comes across as very genuine.  This quality couples nicely with the chronological arrangement and subdivision into succinct entries to create something that is both educational and pleasant to read.  This straight-forward concept, combined with the author’s impressive knowledge base and unassuming air, add up to a most felicitous contribution to the growing bibliography on progressive rock. 

Yes, we all will have our “hey, why did he not include (insert beloved obscurity) in the chronology?” moment, but perhaps that is part of the fun.  (What, Locanda delle Fate’s Forse Le Lucciole Non Si Amano Più is absent?).  If one is so engaged in an informed reading of the book as to argue for a certain album’s inclusion within its scope, then that person is already a pretty hard-core progster, and probably actually enjoys the righteous ire of noting the absence of some ridiculously obscure gem.  The reasonably extensive discography at the end is a nice reference and a fine companion to the focus of the book by inserting them within a band’s larger output. There are a few “essential” lists at the very end.  I applaud Snider’s inclusions on the whole, though I am astounded to see Close to the Edge nowhere in the seventy-six entries on the lists.  This album is arguably one of the few “perfect” albums in terms of the music and the artwork – and positively central to just about any canon of prog.  (Though I can hardly be accused of calling for the inclusion of an obscurity here, this does illustrate how one will naturally engage in a debate/dialog with any such list).  Perhaps this just goes to show why I find such lists to generally be pointless.  Everyone is going to leave out someone else’s “essentials.”  That said, Snider provides several superbly interesting, instructive, and refreshingly inclusive lists that find room for such relatively obscure gems as Celeste’s Principio Per un Giorno and Shylock’s Gialorgues, as well as more recent suggestions such as Opeth’s Damnation and Magma’s K.A.  Anyone wanting to really delve in the rich array of progressive rock from its formative era will find much to explore within this suggested listening.  For an introduction, this book is stupendous – laying out a well-argued canon that is welcomingly inclusive.  For anyone wishing to acquire veritable progniscience, I would consider this one on the list of essential reading.  It is a fine place to start as well as one that rewards those already knowledgeable of the genre.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 2 at

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