It’s not enough to just tell the story of obvious figures like King Crimson and Yes and Steven Wilson. These are important figures, yes, foundational stones upon which the rest of the tale is constructed, but there is more to progressive rock. We paint the image of the genre space sometimes as unnecessarily narrow. The reasons for this are fairly understandable; prog underwent an apocalyptic contraction in the late ’70s with the rise of punk, suddenly finding its social esteem and aesthetic image carved away nearly to nothing, and so efforts to preserve it would take place. And it’s right that they did! Without the much more limiting definition of what constituted the high apex of progressive rock stylistics, we might not have gotten later groups like Spock’s Beard or Dream Theater, let alone the more widely flowering resurgence of progressive music we’ve seen over the past two decades.
But this limited scope of prog—which privileges extended suite-like song structures and a very particular set of tonalities with guitars, synths, and chord modulations—often leaves out entire worlds of progressive music that deserves to live in the same conversations, even if they don’t hold precisely the same shape. What’s worse is when we begin to detect in the comparison of what bands are allowed into these discussions versus which are left out notes of bigoted ideas that seem to be rooted more in the patriarchal, white notions that gird rockist ideologies regarding music. Groups like Supertramp and Saga and even Todd Rundgren are often looped into discussions of prog, and rightfully so, but the likewise mind-bending explorations of groups like Funkadelic, mid-’70s Stevie Wonder and the more stridently avant-garde record Here, My Dear by Marvin Gaye are left out. Certainly there is a noticeable gap between these artists and the more generally rock timbres of some of the larger prog bands, but this only makes sense when limiting the discussion to a purely rock context, one devoid of pop and soul and psychedelia that even a great number of the biggest groups of the style never shied away from themselves.
There is clearly a racialized component to resistance in acknowledging the progressive spirit at play in certain works of R&B and soul, one not necessarily paralleled in jazz, which groups like Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra (let alone their mothership, the great Miles Davis) brought into discussions of progressive music over the decades. Parallel to this racism, which in fairness is not often deliberately held by specific people but instead is upheld passively through institutions of criticism and culture, is a misogynistic one, one that views pop as inherently “anti-prog” and thus things tinged with the presence of pop as somehow antithetical to the spirit of progressive music. This mindset bit the biggest prog bands in the ass in the ’80s, when groups like Yes and Genesis turned their works to more approachable structures while still producing plenty of odd time signatures in songs like “Changes” and extended multi-part suites in songs like “Domino,” only for longtime fans to turn their noses up and declare these works betrayals to the spirit of the enterprise. This fact becomes more confounding when squared against the fact that pop had always been in the genetics of these groups, from the first two Yes albums’ deep deployment of psychedelic pop sensibilities and the early Bee Gees vibes of Genesis’ debut, let alone the persistent presence of pop singles in the early records of those same groups. But more pernicious than the confounding idea that progressive music only counted if the progressive ideals were at a maximum and never tainted by the presence of other genres was the way that this functionally locked out a great deal of tremendous progressive music from being broadly considered within the prog rock canon, chief among them the profound and perfect work of art pop’s queen, Kate Bush.
In fairness, before diving more deeply, it’s worth noting that dismissal of pop music isn’t inherently misogynistic. To say that would be to say effectively that pop music is inherently feminine and by implication that rock music is inherently masculine, that there are objectively “girls’ toys” and “boys’ toys” in the world of art. This is tedious enough when we see it deployed in film criticism, people insisting that slow art cinema and action movies alike are “boy films” and romantic comedies and sentimentalist period pieces are “girl films” based on flimsy and abstract modal arguments. There is something worthwhile, at its root, of examining how modes of art uphold or reflect different lenses with which to view the world and modes with which to engage with it, and from there to witness that patriarchal notions intertwine with the mechanics and prose of art making and often stain the art itself. And there is something of merit, too, to the commonly held perception of rock as masculine and “boys’ stuff” and pop as feminine and “girls’ stuff”, even if this gender essentializing only seems to exist in perceptions of art and not the materiality of it.
Keeping those things in mind, the complexity of diagnosing misogynistic and patriarchal attitudes as they appear in production and consumption of art, of where and why we draw the lines we do and how sometimes the process of drawing those lines is admittedly more complex than just knee-jerk bigoted notions about the world we tend to internalize from living in a world already stained by them, it is hard to conceive of why Peter Gabriel’s solo work sits intermingled with the world of prog and Kate Bush’s doesn’t. There is Peter Gabriel’s direct tie to prog via his career with Genesis up till The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, one of the (rightly) most celebrated runs in the genre. But a fair response for defenders of Bush’s work being brought into this pool is how she was discovered by David Gilmour, no less a figure of prog royalty. (Sort of; she was actually discovered by Ricky Hopper, a Bush family friend, but his key action was passing her tapes on to his friend, Mr. Gilmour.) There are those who dismiss Gabriel’s solo work as belonging to the world of progressive music too, of course, but between the all-star prog supporting cast of the records and deep and pervasive art rock influence across all of his solo albums let alone their deep future influence on progressive music of the ’90s forward, that stance is a functional non-starter. And if we’ve already largely broken down the barriers between art rock and progressive rock, viewing both as inherently coming from the same base spirit and often being perfectly interchangeable with one another, what remains to keep art pop out of the equation?
These theoretical arguments could spin in circles endlessly if you wanted them to. The root of them, however, is the what unifies the later period of Marillion’s work with the vast domains of prog, that sees Radiohead enjoined in the discussion, that views the IDM of Aphex Twin folded in to the discussion, that being that progressive music is more a spiritual motive than something as reductive as saying it is music that sounds like In the Court of the Crimson King. Even King Crimson themselves seemed to tire of that tedious and narrow definition, pushing themselves constantly to rapidly evolve and shed the dead skin of their older sonic ideas after only a few albums. While we retroactively have many instances of progressive rock we can identify occurring before the seminal release of King Crimson’s debut, there are still few better figures than Robert Fripp when it comes to determining that truer internal spirit that guides prog, that tremulous quivering uneasiness that jitters otherwise regular musicians into provoking the forms they work within to mutant to wilder and more ambitious forms.
After all, the intent of progressive rock is precisely the same intent as art rock and art pop; not merely to make long songs and have odd time signatures, but instead to challenge the form of popular music, to take the known and puff it full of ambition until it feels somehow firmly different. This difference sometimes challenges the staid and static image of “prog rock” as well, asking us to iterate on that form in a manner that is commensurate not just with the aesthetic shape of prog but also the spirit of the thing, much as Robert Fripp has done all those many times. Just as Fripp shed orchestral rock for jazz-metal and then jazz-metal for nervy, paranoid, deeply New Yorkian New Wave, so too must our perception of progressive music judder and shake and expand beyond the beloved forms we know. This is the third great strand of the story of progressive rock as I see it; not just the foundational classics of the genre and not just the contemporary stalwarts keeping that shape alive, but also those groups that are often left out of the equation but nonetheless carry that Frippian evolutionary progressive spirit in their work and so too belong to be discussed as peers at the table.
My first experience with Kate Bush was in high school, that magical language acquisition period of musical taste, the moment when the shackles of the tastes of our parents and cousins and older siblings begin to fall away like scales from our eyes freeing us to roam the vaster worlds music has to offer. I had thankfully discovered a number of things already by that point, from IDM to death metal, but was only just starting to seriously explore the vast worlds of jazz and prog and folk music. I was, like many teens beginning to cut their teeth on such things, obsessed dually with the canon and defying it, of tracking down those seminal albums I heard so much about so often from so many people as much as digging into the piles of genres, artists and records that others had declared worthless to see if there was something worth salvaging there.
The paradox of this experience is I was utterly non-unique but at the same time I felt like a brave explorer, making with gumption and spirit what I lacked in experience, hoping that there was some in-born kernel of wisdom that would awaken and show itself through my youthful judgments of the art of the world. I would go back and forth then as I do now whether I did this because I had nothing better to do, being no good at sports and too awkward to successfully socialize; this strikes me now, more days than not, as being too harsh on my younger self and too denigrating to the real love and passion I felt in art. The abuses and difficulties of my childhood aren’t worth going over again here, but in these explorations of the world of art I felt a real and profound sense of peace, of usefulness, a sense that those voices in my head and in the world that I had nothing to offer were at last wrong even if I did not have a demonstrable example of it yet. That part gets skimmed over sometimes by people looking in from the outside; they see the puerile dick-measuring of tastemaking and obscuro interests, a real phenomenon for sure, but seem to miss the sincere childlike love underpinning this for many of us. The problem seems to be more that we don’t quite know how to express ourselves in our youth, in our twenties, sometimes even later, the shame and embarrassment of sincerity getting covered with a cloak of sneering hipsterism and gatekeeping, a radical defense/devourment of the classics, setting up idols and smashing them in seemingly random order. But thankfully, mercifully, time mellows these impulses, and the sincerity of love and art begins to seep out first in drops then in rivers.
By my mid to late teens, I had thankfully eased off of my vocal hatred of pop music. As a kid, of course, I’d loved the stuff; I cut my teeth on Motown records and Michael Jackson, with a hefty dose of the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll that was the music of my parents’ early childhood, and with babysitters into Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and the like it was hard not to get swept up in things. There were, of course, my teenage rockist years, where I swore off the rap records I’d grown up with (despite having been alive and aware during the rise of Wu-Tang and Tupac and Biggie and Snoop Dogg and more!) just as much as I swore off the supposed thinness of pop music for more ambitious music. But if you’re honest about an artform, life has a way of breaking down those artificial barriers, and after catching the then-new video for Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” and subsequently digging out my ancient CD copies of Madonna’s first few records, I had to admit that I was just plain wrong on. Plus, referencing once more the teenage music fan’s penchant for hipsterism, digging straight up pop music was at the time a good way to twist the knife in the supposedly hip teenage fans of groups like The Strokes and The Unicorns and the like that suffused my high school, this being the early- to mid-2000s, the undoubted golden age of that particular type of indie rock. They hated that I was an unabashed fan of prog rock and death metal, something I reveled in, and this gesture back to the music of normal people that nonetheless was absolutely great was another petty pleasure, certainly a sweet icing on the cake if ever there was one.
I arrived at Kate Bush, ironically, not through pop (necessarily) but through Peter Gabriel. I was an enormous Genesis fan already, albeit one that still had the hangup that the band effectively died when Steve Hackett left, a sentiment that would soften over time. I of course knew the iconic scene in Say Anything, had enough babysitters that were kids and teens in the ’80s to have heard “In Your Eyes” blaring out of tinny car stereos as I was shepherded to and from houses and hangouts, but I didn’t really dive into his solo stuff until after getting into Genesis. I caught a stray YouTube video of “Solsbury Hill” which, despite my assumptions about what his solo material would sound like based on “In Your Eyes,” was remarkably closer to Genesis to my ears. I played the song on a loop like a miniature religion; the next time I was in my local Best Buy (at the time the largest record selection in town), I picked up his then-new concert DVD Growing Up Live, obsessed with concert films ever since watching that once-in-a-millennium masterpiece of Pink Floyd: Live At Pompeii. An indication of my social skills at the time: I forced not one but two friends to come over to watch Growing Up Live in the darkness and silence of my brother’s old bedroom that I’d since converted into a private computer/gaming room for myself, asking them to leave shortly after it was done.
There was a woman who kept showing up, album after album, song after song. I assumed it was the same woman on the Secret World Live concert and who showed up quite frequently across the Us record; but there was something off, some slight timbral difference, the little quirks and fluctuations that are the fingerprint of a singer and part of what making replacing iconic voices so very difficult. The second woman seemed either to be purposefully replicating this mysterious first or perhaps selected because she naturally sat in a similar space. But they weren’t the same. I’ve always been the kind of at-times tedious nerd about these kinds of things, looking up information on who engineered and produced records and what the session players were and what instruments were deployed on various records ever since I was a boy. In retrospect, this should have been indicative to my parents to get me tested for the autism that would later be confirmed in adulthood, but as a kid it was just an annoying quirk, boring friends and family to tears with endless minutiae about records they didn’t even otherwise care about. In this instance, that quirk paid off; I discovered that, yes, the two women were different, the second was an accomplished and clearly talented vocalist in her own right, but that mysterious first voice that entwined so powerfully, like a divine oracle, with Peter’s voice was someone named Kate Bush.
The voice was vaguely familiar, though I couldn’t place where. I’ve been in and around music types my whole life, but the amount I was giving focused attention would come and go in waves. That I might have heard a name and filed it away without knowing much else didn’t surprise me, but it did enthrall me, indicative in some way that this was a name worth remembering and relaying by others. So I pulled up a video, the first one that came up. “Wuthering Heights.”
I hated it.
I couldn’t get over her vocals. This struck me even then as hypocritical, since I adored Yes at the time and Jon Anderson’s vocals are, um, a bit eccentric themselves. But I couldn’t deny what I was feeling. I played the song a second time, a third time. People in the comments were calling it a masterpiece. All I could hear was this caterwaul; maybe I didn’t get it. Maybe I wasn’t legit. Maybe my love of music was all a sham. All the childish confused overreactions you could imagine.
But then I found myself humming it in the shower, stray lines forming in my head and uttered in a half-groan. I didn’t realize what it was until I got out of the shower; I shuddered and carried on with my day. Then I’d catch myself doing the same in school, at work in the movie theater that was my first real job, while playing video games with friends. I’d shown them the song as a joke, look at how awful this singer is, so they knew the song and couldn’t tell if I was just fucking with them or not. But just as I couldn’t deny hating it at first, I couldn’t lie to myself anymore; “Wuthering Heights” was sinking in, intoxicating me, revealing like a blossoming flower the curve and contour of its petals and strange mystical power, as ethereal and ghastly as the titular figure of song. I tracked down a copy of the novel and devoured it in two days; it remains my favorite work by any of the three Bronte sisters. I began parsing Kate Bush the way I had many others, learning she was discovered by David Gilmour, that she had an appreciation of the prog greats alongside the greats of orchestral music and pop music (which explained to me her phantasmagorical power). I also discovered that, while “Wuthering Heights” was beloved, it wasn’t her peak; that was Hounds of Love.
I worked at a movie theater at the time a short drive from my house. I’d inherited, in a way, an old Mercedes from the 1980s, a workhorse of a car picked up used for cheap that, incidentally, had no working air conditioning but did have a nice stereo we’d installed as the one inexpensive upgrade for quality-of-life purposes. My friends all hated Kate Bush, at least at the time, and while my parents were broadly accepting of my exploration of progressive rock, especially compared to my equal love at the time of extreme metal and industrial/electronic music, I was worried that Bush’s unique timbres would be a bridge too far. The result was an unintended magic: Hounds of Love lived eternally in my car, tucked safe in the little interior storage compartment of the door, swapped freely with records by Atheist and Pig Destroyer and Gentle Giant, a solitary experiential cocoon of startling humid Virginia summer heat and the freedom of my first car a fertile soil for musical seeds to grow. I could close my eyes at the red lights and be swept into the icy haze Kate Bush would conjure, sheer fabrics and freezing rain, a lone figure gazing down from British cliffs to foundering vessels in the consuming sea. It was a symphony to me, private and singular, contained entirely in those brief passages between my home and work or vice-versa.
What may be shocking to some is that these associations I have regarding her album are ones of love and beauty, not the brute survivalism of Grace for Drowning or the pure imaginative capacity of In the Court of the Crimson King. I was at time trapped between the two poles of the suffering of youth and the coming suffering of young adulthood, something I was vaguely aware of; I’d had enough older friends, read enough novels and seen enough shows, to know that your twenties are always a trial, suffering produced by the paradox of freedom and inexperience. But for that brief window, I was brave, I was safe, I was confident. I was in love; the relationship wouldn’t last, obviously, but I was two years into a four-year relationship, one that helped begin to break the callus of scar tissue built up around my heart that made me act cruel as a defense mechanism, echoing the shame and pain I felt I had been dealt. Hounds of Love, the white of the cover mirrored by the white of my first car, was a field of flowers in a hybrid of hi-definition and watercolor.
I would acquire her other albums, and from them construct a treasured sequence of songs. But, while there were favorites among her catalog such as The Dreaming and The Sensual World, none ever surpassed Hounds of Love for me.
A great deal of this is due to the structure of the record. Not unlike Rush or any number of other great progressive artists before her, she would deploy the two lobes of the vinyl as a means of producing two inter-related but functionally separate song suites, allowing each to pursue its own thematic and musical ends before entwining them with some binding name and image.
In this case, the first half (the half titled Hounds of Love, incidentally!) were resplendent, perfect art rock, symphonies in miniature. These types of tightly bound but still boundless progressive epics-in-minutes was something that more well-known prog bands had been struggling with for some time with mixed success. Lead song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” may be overplayed for some who lived through the initial commercial sonic boom of this record, but for those of us spared that (rightful) dominance of the airwaves, it contains this endlessly sensuous allure. There is an implication of deep theology, of nuns and monks in monasteries as a parallel for the long suffering of youth trapped in the high-walled apartments of empire; that it turns out the song is about sex, that the deal in question is swapping consciousnesses of male and female bodies in heterosexual sex, feels a fulfillment of this conceit, not a betrayal. There’s great value to songs that treat all the angles of sex, from pure pleasure to sorrow to giggling joy, but to have this painfully intimate spiritual rendering feels profoundly necessary. There are airs of peak Genesis and of Peter Gabriel, but striated with some unnameable novel thing, like if progressive rock had never existed before and simply burst fresh and complete into being right here, right now.
The title track meanwhile extracts from the endless cinematic lushness of the opener a neoclassical atmosphere, which then gets rendered through a post-modernist lens, timpanis turned into sample-blended drum hits married to sawing cello and synth string patches. There is a theatricality in Bush’s vocals that feels once more deeply indebted to the pomp theatrics of early Gabriel-era Genesis; you can practically hear the on-a-dime voice changes of songs like “Supper’s Ready” or long stretches of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway in her trembling. “The Big Sky” meanwhile feels like a hybrid of the dressed-up psych pop of early Yes, taking Donovan songs and busting them up with rumbling Rickenbacker bass and inventive arrangements, with the contemporary post-prog new wave of Duran Duran. The song even includes the same kind of compressed-and-distorted heavy metal guitar sounds and approaches that Trevor Rabin would deploy in the context of Yes starting in the ’80s up until the mid-’90s. “Mother Stands For Comfort” is a curious blend of lite fusion balladry in the bass, classical balladry in the piano, prog rock theatrics in the synth arrangements all against a perpetual avant-garde lite industrial percussive palette, all huddled like monks against the cantare of Bush’s soft, wounded voice. These elements are tensely and precariously balanced, none overtaking any other, in a manner that feels constantly refreshing. Right as you think you can settle into listening to the track as mere background noise, having successfully mentally slotted it into one of many archetypal forms, one of the sonic elements juts forward just a bit, the arrangement giving it a brief break or some pleasing sharpness, and suddenly you have to reconsider things. The only real break from this constant slow deliberate turning comes in the finale, which tapers off into uncertain synth patches before departing, like a phantom.
Though each of these songs are brilliant masterclasses that would hold fast the heart of any listener of any other album, side-closer “Cloudbusting” is the masterpiece of side one. Once more, things feel somewhat indebted to Genesis; I can’t help but hear faint resemblances, at least in terms of emotional timbre and mode, to songs like “Burning Rope,” “Afterglow” and “The Carpet Crawlers.” While those songs are good, excellent even, “Cloudbusting” is something beyond, one of the greatest pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life, even now. This was the track that, on first listen of the album, I stopped and rewound over and over again, driving endlessly in aimless circles, spellbound. It grabs on to that standard genreform of the emotionalist ballad that starts with a spare arrangement, new elements added gradually and with great care, unfolding almost like a post-rock song with its deepening complexity. Its key difference isn’t in some startling new twist on the formula, some novel injection, but instead perfection. I’m generally a fairly emotional listener to music, admittedly, but there seems to be an endless well of power in this song, where everything from the notes chosen, the gentle butterfly fluttering of stacked background vocals, the budding drama of the arrangement, to the absolutely perfect timbre of every voice and every instrument and every vocal inflection. There is, admittedly, a personal connection here. I lost my father about a decade ago, early in my twenties. That kind of thing is hard always, but is especially hard in the midst of the turmoil of those times, which for me were marked with the blackness of suicidality and substance abuse and isolation and a deepening descent in schizotypal and manic-depressive fits. This entire album became a solace for me then, a beam of love in darkness, but every time I get to the gentle refrain of “Every time it rains / you’re here in my head,” all I can think about is my father, and how I miss him, and I become an ugly wreck, every time, even almost a decade later. Not out of pain, but out of love.
If it were only for the immaculate first side of this record, which so perfectly recontextualizes the at-the-time fading light of progressive rock into the worlds of symphonic and art pop burgeoning in the wake of the revolutions post-punk and New Wave music, Hounds of Love would rightly be regarded as a masterpiece. After all, masterpieces are frustratingly a great deal more common than we are led to believe, an almost uncountable number of compelling-to-great records coming out every single year since more or less the dawn of recorded music. What propels Hounds of Love into the hallowed halls of perfection, what makes it so commonly ranked among the very greatest musical works of all time, is its second side, comprised of a single extended song suite titled “The Ninth Wave.”
The title already stokes an amount of interest. The name is plucked from Celtic mythology via Tennyson, the great Romantic poet, who deployed it in his poem “The Coming of Arthur,” the first of a a cycle of 12 narrative poems concerning the life of Arthur titled Idylls of the King. She uses a quote in the liner notes, listed between the title of the suite and the beginnings of its first movement, which in its original source refers to a ship shaped like a dragon breathing fire descends from the mighty heavens to the perhaps mightier seas, bearing on it the infant Arthur to the feet of Merlin. The “ninth wave” in particular here is the presumed barrier between the earthly realms and the heavens of Hy-Brasil, a kind of phantasmal and otherworldly island somewhere to the west of Ireland said to be viewed sometimes through veils of mist, not unlike Avalon, an island of great importance in Arthurian legend. The ninth wave refers more specifically to a real phenomenon related to the physics of liquids and how they form waves, tight whirling spirals gaining more and more energy, casting what appear to be smaller and smaller waves before a single enormous wave roars out from the deep almost from nowhere at all, an enormous wall of water erupting seemingly from nothing. This was regarded as perhaps a barrier as metaphysical as physical, as spiritual as material, separating our earth from other worlds, a sentiment Tolkien would later borrow in part for the divisions of Middle Earth.
These tense tangle of names, from Tennyson to Arthur to the Celts to Tolkien, all outline an unnameable but ever-present literary Britishness, something of a perpetual project not just of Kate Bush in specific but of the more pastoral English progressive rock in general. There is an underlying nationalist politics here, of course, one which can tilt very far to the right if you aren’t careful, but is just as likely to err toward the Celts and the Britons and the nature of Britain as an island of perpetual intermingling rather than a fixed and static ethnostate that right-wing forces sometimes, often, present it to be. Just as, in the case of Bush’s “The Ninth Wave,” this tangle of references becomes more an experiential and literary bedrock upon which a new project is constructed, less the stones of its making and more the soil that nourishes its roots as it reaches out to other regions. Her “Ninth Wave” doesn’t deploy those referenced figures directly save for the title and the concept of that girding wave which separates earth from the otherworld, here rendered as the threat of drowning following a shipwreck but, like all great prog, begs us not to consider the story as pure literalism but also as an allegorical symbolic piece of theater. The references serve more to gesture to the tenors of mythology and poeticism, especially as rendered by the Romantics, a set of poets who also happened to have been broadly favored by the big prog rock artists Britain produced in the early ’70s.
“The Ninth Wave” is often treated in critical spaces as a single composition second and a set of songs first, which is improper. It seems most are tricked by the tracking, separating out the movements as separate pieces rather than a single, uniform, unskippable piece of music. But this seems to have been done more as a response to a growing concern in critical and commercial spaces in the late ’70s about the epics that had begun to consume the worlds of rock, folk, jazz, and even R&B and pop rather than a pure effort to portray it as fully disconnected pieces. Kate Bush in her brief interviews regarding the record has described it as functionally a soundtrack to a film never made, something she would explore later with her project The Line, the Cross and the Curve comprising a song suite plucked from her then-new record The Red Shoes, developing the material for that film project largely from the first side of that album. This can be correlated mostly to the narrative requirements and how they differed for each project. The Line film, with its varied scenes ornamenting the central narrative tension of the magical realist conceit of cursed ballet shoes, functions more like a novel, with discrete and self-contained scenes or chapters that built holographically into a new three-dimensional whole when viewed as a piece rather than as separate installments. “The Ninth Wave,” meanwhile, is closer to a novella, a single extended scene that undergoes fantastical permutation but still functionally adheres to traditional theatrical conceits of unity of place and figure. Viewing the pieces of The Red Shoes first side as separate on their own but unified only within the context of their film works because they were constructed to be emotionally self-contained figures; the pieces of “The Ninth Wave,” while compelling and powerful in their own right, become structurally confusing if isolated and stranded from one another, with pieces like “Waking the Witch” and “Jig of Life” feeling odd as standalone pieces.
The approach on “The Ninth Wave” in terms of musical singularity and through-composition may admittedly differ from such prog epics as “Close to the Edge” which, despite its 20-ish minutes of length, functions in a fairly typical A-A’-B-A” format structurally, but its more self-contained movements still have a direct antecedent in the world of prog. Thick as a Brick, for instance, despite being a 40-plus minute single composition over two sides of vinyl, structurally has rather disconnected movements, unifying them more in terms of instrumental palette and techniques deployed rather than necessarily discrete musical or lyrical reference, save for key structuring moments in the middle and end of the piece. The clearest example, however, is “Supper’s Ready,” a bonafide prog classic and hallmark of the genre which, like “The Ninth Wave,” fills its side, especially if you view the brief acoustic instrumental “Horizons” as more or a prelude than a standalone piece. The music of the movements of “Supper’s Ready” are largely disconnected from one another, having little in the way of callbacks and much in the way of pure variety, but are instead unified by their direct storytelling efforts, each movement bent to consideration of narrative needs rather than purely musical ones (though admittedly with a narrative that is quite, um, unique, and especially atypical of standard storytelling).
One can find this approach to epics scattered all about the history of prog, from Spock’s Beard to the Flower Kings to the classic epics of Rush and even replicated within Genesis’ history on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and the disconnected side-long epic of Duke that was instead spread out over the whole of the record to obscure its presence. The connection of the first side of Hounds of Love to prog more generally functions on a song-by-song sonic basis, with clear connection and sonic influence being drawn from those theatrical and moody setpieces deployed in a rock and pop context, but “The Ninth Wave” in particular with its jarring mood shifts and emotional developments around the mythologically- and poetically-driven story of a person battling through the oneiric/thanatopic realms of sleep on the edge of death in the cold waters of England’s seas absolutely screams prog rock.
Its lack of inclusion in these discussions happened for such a long stretch and by so many figures largely for two reasons. First is a generalized disinterest in certain fans’ minds of pop music, something derived from rockist attitudes and a generalized bitterness after losing the cultural wars to punk in a certain way. Second is a general disdain for prog and what it came to represent to people, even as they indulged joyfully in its fruits. Take, for instance, the long cultural battle to get Radiohead to admit that they’re a prog band, Marillion’s famous brief spurning of the term or Steven Wilson’s long resistance to seeing his music labelled as such. Hell, Slint’s masterpiece Spiderland was once described as sounding like Red-era King Crimson, but meant as a slag and not a compliment, despite that particular King Crimson record also being a masterpiece. So it’s no wonder that certain fans of Bush’s work would seek to protect her music from those associations, even as she consistently worked with and cited records and groups from that world alongside her other influences.
She would even strike back against the dismissal of “The Ninth Wave” as a single longform composition with her record Aerial. On its release, it was a double disc album with each disc bearing its own subtitle, just like Hounds of Love, here with the titles “A Sea of Honey” and “A Sky of Honey”. Just like Hounds of Love, the second disc was a single long-form composition broken up into multiple tracks for ease of listening but intended always as a single piece of music. This comparative form makes sense; this was, after all, her first record in over a decade, and what better way to return than by emulating the structure of her most beloved masterpiece record? On later editions, the second disc was even indexed as a single piece, now called “An Endless Sky of Honey”, a 40+ minute long epic, though this was later reverted to its original indexing for the 2018 remaster.
The final piece of this puzzle came during her brief run of concerts in the mid 2010s under the title Before The Dawn. These concerts were multi-act theatrical affairs, drawing on and expanding the blend of theatrical rock and pop concert idiom developed initially by psychedelic and prog bands before being adopted and explored by mainstream pop figures such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and more. In these performances, the second act was “The Ninth Wave” in its totality, with lightly expanded theatrical elements to account for staging and to more properly convey literal components of the narrative of a person floating in cold water awaiting rescue, while the third act was “A Sky of Honey” in its totality with more surreal and naturalist symbolic imagery. These are, notably, the only official live performances of material from either suite, indicating at least the artist’s view of them is that they are individual interlocking but ultimately inseparable bits.
The relevance of this abundance of information is a single message in two directions. Kate Bush is, full-stop, a progressive music artist, and furthermore is a progressive music artist above any other genre consideration. This is an important thing to stomach for people both within the world of prog who may view her as outside but also just as important for even fans of hers that view her as apart from the worlds of Gentle Giant and Dream Theater and Magma. She dresses her music with more discrete melody, certainly, and focuses much more on certain perfections of pop songwriting, but between the avant-gardeist song collage elements of “Waking the Witch,” the mythologically-tied Irishness to mirror the Hy-Brasil guarding magic of the ninth wave itself in “Jig of Life” to even the sonic recapitulation of key melodies from “A Deal With God” in the movement “Hello Earth,” Bush’s “The Ninth Wave” alone shows more than enough of the experimentalist and boundary-pushing tendencies necessary to be viewed as progressive music. That she does so with commanding melodies and harmonies and absolutely perfect tone choices and compositional pacing is a boon, not a detriment, and to say otherwise is to imply that we or others define prog by being, to be blunt, bad at song, which is emphatically untrue. Tony Banks, perhaps the greatest prog keyboardist of all time, holds that position precisely because of his ear for endlessly beautiful melodies and chordal accompaniments and perfect tonal/timbral choices; that Kate Bush comfortably lives in precisely that same air is only a credit and never, ever a detriment.
With Hounds of Love, Kate Bush transcended the clouds of we mere mortals, breathing the same rarefied air as other all-time greats as Bob Marley’s Exodus, Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Beethoven’s ninth. But, beyond that, it is also one of the greatest progressive rock albums ever recorded. It’s broad acceptance and success beyond the shores of prog shouldn’t be seen as a betrayal of its own proggy nature but, instead, closer to Pink Floyd’s massive appeal and acclaim. The fact that Kate Bush in general and Hounds of Love in particular meant so much to so many, even in the years were prog was a four-letter word as far as rock criticism and acceptance were concerned, is evidence that these sounds and ideas always had power and always were loved. The only thing that changed was our response to a label, not to the fundamental function that label represented.
But, more simply: Hounds of Love is a perfect album.
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.