The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Two): Island

If the album cover looks familiar to you, that’s because it was designed by the same man responsible for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery and Ridley Scott’s Alien: H. R. Giger. Island may be the strangest thing to come out of Switzerland since that eccentric creator of biomechanical horrors. That small, idyllic mountain country may not come to mind when one thinks of avant-garde, but, like Giger, Island certainly does not fit the Swiss mold – or any mold, for that matter. Pictures is easily one of the bolder, more original releases that I have ever heard. Like Van der Graaf Generator, Island relied not on bass or guitar (in fact, they feature not a single guitar on the entire album), but rather on percussion, keys, and woodwinds. Like Gentle Giant, Island’s free jazz-style approach offered the band opportunities for some incredibly complex improvisation. And like King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, Island wasn’t afraid to add a dash of black humor to their lyrics, providing the album with a (somewhat) lighter tone than is suggested by that horrifying album cover. Now to the music itself:

The album opens with the appropriately titled “Introduction,” which sounds like Ligeti’s Requiem or something out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This brief piece ends with some eerie words whispered over a cacophony of sound before it transitions rapidly to…

The dynamic “Zero,” which opens with a flourish of keyboards. The interplay between keyboardist Peter Scherer, drummer Guge Jurg Meier, and woodwind wunderkind Rene Fisch is impressive and will probably remind most listeners of King Crimson or Gentle Giant. But we do not hear the vocals of Benjamin Jager until…

The title track. Jager, who sounds a bit like Peter Gabriel, has some fun on this song (it takes a quirky fellow to sing about “gastric juices”), but the focus remains on the instruments, and Jager himself is no slouch on percussion. In the middle of this complex piece we are entertained to both a gentle clarinet solo and smooth sax work courtesy of Fisch. These mad scientists of music continue to experiment on…

“Herold and King / Dloreh,” a fitting title for such an odd piece. After some three minutes of beautiful but somewhat dark piano melodies, we get a good half minute of silence before Jager’s vocals fade in…singing the lyrics in reverse, of course (look again at the title of the song). Once again, we are treated to some fascinating interplay between keys, sax, and percussion, and at one point the ominous sound of a drone provides an additional layer of eeriness. To up the weirdness factor, the track includes some whispered vocals (reminiscent of Goblin or VDGG) and scat (or something like it) throughout. The strange brew continues to satisfy on…

“Here and Now,” the closing track. This piece features (briefly, alas) a gorgeous and textured organ sound, and the percussion and sax shine as they have throughout. The drone effect is again put to good use, adding a haunting layer to what is otherwise the most “upbeat” track on the album.

This is a challenging album that may not initially appeal to your tastes. In fact, it may take three or four spins before you can appreciate it, and it is certainly worth more than one listen: this is top-notch musicianship with a healthy dose of dark humor. Anyone who appreciates Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, or King Crimson will be impressed by this little-known avant-garde masterpiece. Just don’t let Giger’s monster scare you off.

Stay tuned for number twenty-three!

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