Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Musings On Modern Progressive Rock

 I've been a fan of progressive rock for most of my musical life. It's the first genre of music I connected with besides pop-punk and listening to bands like Rush and Yes was one of the main reasons I decided to take music as seriously as I do now However, as I have grown older and have had a little bit more perspective on music, I have come to realize that progressive rock may be the most improperly named genre that doesn't contain the prefix "post-".

The exact imagery that Explosions In The Sky mean to invoke.

If you already know your prog rock history, you can either skip this paragraph, bear with my ramblings, or scour it for mistakes which you can then post triumphantly in my comments section. If you don't know your prog history, it is generally accepted that progressive rock was started in the late 1960s when obscure artists like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Frank Zappa started to experiment with broad and conceptual album and song structures. Personally, I think that the first real prog rock album was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band  and I'm sure many would agree. Later on in the 60s and early 70s bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson (to name but a few of the man examples) sprang up and prog rock was born. In the late 1970s prog's mainstream popularity died a horrible death at the hands of Yes's meandering double-album Tales From Topographic Oceans, a showcase of almost all of the negative aspects of prog rock. In addition many of the other successful prog bands, most notably Genesis, abandoned prog in the 80s to move in a more pop-oriented direction. Fans were not pleased. But despite this, the genre of progressive rock has continued to flourish throughout the 80s to today in an underground form.

  Progressive rock is defined by lengthy songs, often with multiple movements and lengthy instrumental passages, and unconventional song structures even in the shorter songs. Prog lyrics tend to be about more abstract concepts like philosophy, fantasy, or sometimes absolute gibberish. Many prog musicians have classical or jazz backgrounds and like to show off their technical skills with extremely fast, complex music and odd time signatures and rhythmic patterns. Critics of progressive rock, though usually not professional ones, deride these musicians for "wanking" and showing off. In some cases, these critics can be very correct.

 So now that all the base information is out of the way (people who don't like being told things they already know, please resume reading from here), what problem do I have with the name of the genre? After all, these bands are doing things that are different than most bands. They're progressing music into new places, right? Well, here's the thing. Take a listen to these two songs:

           Heart of the Sunrise by Yes on Grooveshark                    Life in Motion by The Flower Kings on Grooveshark

The tune by Yes is from 1971. The tune by The Flower Kings is from 2007. Besides the obvious increase in sound quality, what exactly are The Flower Kings progressing? They're called progressive rock because they sound like prog rock from the 70s, but isn't that exactly against the spirit of calling them "progressive" in the first place? I'd just like to take this time to mention, angry internet guys, that I'm not saying bands like this are bad. I still enjoy their music very much. I just don't think "progressive rock" is a proper term for a genre that, in its modern form, is more based on regressing to the past than progressing to the future.

It's okay, angry internet guy. I slipped a typo in there somewhere for you to find.

 It's not like "retro rock" isn't a thing. Bands like Wolfmother and White Wizzard have found success playing music that blatantly harkens back to the "good ol' days"and aren't ashamed of it. And yet bands like Spock's Beard and Beardfish aren't generally considered to be part of this retro movement. Progressive metal has it even worse. It seems like that while half the genre is legitimately unique and inventive, the other half is just based off of ripping off Dream Theater and Meshuggah. For every Indukti we get five or six TesseracTs whom fans lap up for their technical playing despite doing absolutely nothing new.

 What's even more baffling is that there are tons of bands that have changed and progress rock and metal music in new ways today, and have been ever since the 1980s when original prog rock disappeared into the underground. Instead of being considered progressive, the innovators since the mid-80s have been shoehorned into new genres. People started calling bands like Sonic Youth and Radiohead experimental and alternative, while in the 80s the label of progressive rock was given to bands like Marillion, innovators in the field of sounding exactly like Genesis:   
                                                      Script for a Jester's Tear by Marillion on Grooveshark

 Humorously enough, Alternative Rock itself has morphed into a blanket term to describe most modern sounding rock bands, due to the influence and the uniqueness of the older Alternative bands having such a huge impact on music (similar to old school prog rock in the 70s.) But really, who's to say that Radiohead isn't progressive, but instead Alternative? Reviews of Kid A from Allmusic, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork say, respectively, things like "it doesn't even sound like the work of a rock band", "Radiohead defied all expectations by reinventing themselves", and "Comparing this to other albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper." All of this sounds pretty progressive to me. And yet, though Radiohead and other bands progressed rock to new places, they're not called progressive rock.

Thom Yorke also progressed the art of interpretative dance to new places.

 Now of course there are exceptions. Bands like The Mars Volta, Coheed and Cambria, and Porcupine Tree have found their own unique sounds within the prog rock idiom, though generally by combining traits of of it with other genres. And many of the aforementioned bands, while sticking to a 70s progressive rock style, still write excellent music. It just seems bizarre to me that bands labelled as progressive now often don't do anything new, and the real innovators of music are buried under a mess of less-descriptive genre names. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. One thing though: the "progressive" in progressive rock refers to the music itself, not to its wider social context. Simply put, prog-rock songs change, whereas most songs of the day (and often today) followed some variation on verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc, finishing more or less where they began.