The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Eighteen): Principal Edwards Magic Theatre

One of the hallmarks of the classic era of progressive rock was the theatrics: Peter Gabriel’s eclectic costumes, Keith Emerson’s knives and flying piano, and Rick Wakeman’s flowing capes are just a few that come to mind. But few prog bands ever included an entire troupe on tour. Enter Principal Edwards Magic Theatre (PEMT), a fourteen member ensemble that included singers, musicians, poets, dancers, and sound and light technicians. This cast of characters, who at the time were students at the University of Essex, initially sought to express their artistic abilities through the medium of print, but it did not take them long to realize that it was more enjoyable to display their talents on stage.

Although they managed to release only two albums (in 1969 and 1971) before splitting up, they rubbed shoulders with some of the luminaries of prog and classic rock, including Pink Floyd (Nick Mason even produced their second album), Elton John, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, and King Crimson. Combining whimsical lyrics with flute, violin, acoustic guitar, a healthy dose of electric guitar, and spoken word vocals, PEMT sounds something like a blend of Fairport Convention and Pink Floyd. Here are a few standouts from their debut album, Soundtrack:

“Enigmatic Insomniac Machine,” besides earning the award for best-titled song on the album, is as bizarre as the title suggests. And if you can’t follow the story the song tells, you can at least enjoy Vivienne McAuliffe’s soothingly beautiful vocals. Fans of Judy Dyble, Sandy Denny, or Sonja Kristina will be impressed.

Root Cartwright’s electric guitar explodes onto the scene in “Sacrifice,” a song concerning, well, a human sacrifice. Cartwright’s guitar calms down for a few minutes before taking centerstage again after the murder of the poor lady about halfway through the song.

The peculiar man of La Mancha who fought windmills is dispatched in a somewhat unorthodox fashion in “The Death of Don Quixote,” a patchwork epic that jumps from one mood to the next without much warning.

The album closes with “Pinky: A Mystery Cycle,” which features some eerie violin courtesy of the multi-instrumentalist Belinda Bourquin and ominous spoken word vocals courtesy of McAuliffe. Cartwright again shines on electric guitar.

Soundtrack is an eclectic patchwork of psychedelia, folk, grunge, and prog. The album is neither particularly coherent nor consistent, but for some this will be part of its charm. For those who enjoy Curved Air, Fairport Convention, or Strawbs, this will be worth a listen. And judging by the live performance below, they must have been quite a group to see, too.

Stay tuned for number nineteen!