“I do hope that [this book] succeeds in going some way to shedding light on the intrigue of progressive music. Of where it came from, and where it’s going. And more importantly, how it got to where it is today.” — Jerry Ewing, from the introduction.
To cut to the chase: Jerry Ewing succeeds at all of the above with Wonderous Stories. If a friend or relation asked me “why are you so fired up about ‘prog rock,’ anyway?” this just replaced Will Romano’s fine Mountains Come Out of the Sky as the book I’d loan them. After extracting solemn promises in blood to return it ASAP.
Ewing knows what he’s talking about; he’s been spreading the news about progressive rock since the early days of Marillion, ultimately founding Prog Magazine as a “focal point and filter” for the genre in 2009, and steering it through the choppy straits of modern periodical publishing till now. Wonderous Stories distills Ewing’s love of the music, his experience of the scene, and his considered take on prog fandom into a sumptuous coffee table book you didn’t know you needed.
Yes, “coffee table book.” A big part of Wonderous Stories’ appeal is its gorgeous graphic design by Carl Glover, pulling together band shots, album covers and live concert pics on each page to accent the text. The book works better for browsing than reading from cover to cover; each chapter is self-contained, often repeating information or opinions found earlier, with minimum cross referencing. You pick it up, read a bit, put it down because you’re satiated — until you want to enjoy some more. So you pick it up again …
And there’s plenty to enjoy. After laying his foundation with intros to the 1960s & 1970s, Ewing tackles his mainstream “big six” of prog (Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson and ELP), then branches out to far-flung tributaries (the Canterbury and folk scenes, Krautrock and art rock, American and European bands, neo-prog and prog metal, and much more). Along the way, he spotlights a dozen “albums that define prog,” from the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed to Opeth’s Blackwater Park, including full band biographies as he goes. Some selections are surprises, but they’re all deserving — three of them are on my Amazon wishlists now.
But unlike other recent books on the genre such as David Weigel’s well-intentioned but sloppy The Show That Never Ends, Ewing doesn’t leave the story of progressive rock sucking in the ’70s. He makes a strong case for the 1980s as better years for the music than opinionated fans think; then he insightfully posits grunge, not punk, as the fad that killed prog for the mainstream music industry, forcing survivors like Marillion and neophytes like Porcupine Tree to fend for themselves. In Ewing’s telling, this do-it-yourself ethic and the Internet’s ability to connect bands and fans worldwide sowed the seeds of renewed creativity and interest in progressive music, culminating in “The Steven Wilson Effect” (winner for best chapter title!) and the state of the genre today: “a thriving form buoyed by a big worldwide market.”
To sum up, this is a thoroughly delightful book, worthwhile both for newcomers to prog and to long-time fans. While a few copies of Wonderous Stories’ limited edition are still currently available through Pledge Music, a hardback trade edition costing substantially less but looking just as yummy is coming out in the UK (on February 15) and in the US (on April 1). Don’t hesitate to order it! — Rick Krueger