Thoughts

What is Progressive Rock?

By September 22, 2007No Comments

Progressive rock (shortened to prog, or prog rock when differentiating from other “progressive…” genres) is an ambitious, eclectic, and often grandiose style of rock music which arose in the late 1960s, reached the peak of its popularity in the early 1970s, and continues as a musical form to this day. Progressive rock began in England and remained largely a European movement, although there are a few notable American and Canadian progressive rock bands. This music style draws many influences from classical music and jazz fusion, in contrast to American rock, which was more influenced by rhythm & blues and country. Over the years various sub-genres of progressive rock have emerged, such as symphonic rock, art rock, math rock and progressive metal.

Progressive rock artists sought to move away from the limitations of popular rock and pop music formats, and “progress” rock to the point that it could achieve new forms, often but not always alluding to the sophistication of jazz or classical music. It is complexity, not the virtuosity of the musicians, which most distinguishes progressive rock: mainstream rock has some extremely talented musicians who work solely in simple meters and harmonies.

Progressive rock is difficult to define in a single conclusive way, and outspoken King Crimson leader Robert Fripp has voiced his disdain for the term. The major acts that defined the genre in the 1970s (Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Rush and King Crimson) do not sound especially alike. There is also debate on whether the musical output of artists and bands as varied as Frank Zappa, Phish, and Radiohead belongs to the genre.

Some common, though not universal, elements of progressive rock include:
* Long compositions, sometimes running over 20 minutes, with intricate melodies and harmonies. These are often described as epics and are the genre’s clearest nod to classical music. A very early example (perhaps the first multi-part suite to appear in prog rock) is “In Held Twas I” by Procol Harum, clocking in at 17:30. Other famous examples include Pink Floyd’s 23-minute “Echoes”, Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” (43 minutes), Yes’ “Close to the Edge” (18 minutes), Rick Wakeman’s “Music Reincarnate” (28 minutes), Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready” (23 minutes), and Van der Graaf Generator’s “A plague of Lighthouse Keepers” (20 minutes). More recent extreme examples are the 60-minute “Light of Day, Day of Darkness” by Green Carnation, “Garden of Dreams” by The Flower Kings and “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” by Dream Theater.

* Lyrics that convey intricate and sometimes impenetrable narratives, covering such themes as science fiction, fantasy, history, religion, war, and madness. Most of the English progressive rock bands avoided direct political commentary, preferring to couch their views in fictional or allegorical settings — for example, Genesis’ album Selling England by the Pound is tied together by a theme of commercialism versus naturalism, while Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery gradually progresses from nature to technology to illustrate the dangers of man being replaced by machine. Other early 1970s progressive rock bands (especially German ones) featured lyrics concerned with left-wing politics and social issues.

* Concept albums, in which a theme or storyline is explored throughout an entire album in a manner similar to a film or a play. In the days of vinyl, these were usually two-record sets with strikingly designed gatefold sleeves. Famous examples include Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Rick Wakeman, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes, 2112 and Hemispheres by Rush, Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall by Pink Floyd, and the more recent Operation: Mindcrime by Queensrÿche, Metropolis Part II: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater and Snow by Spock’s Beard. The Mars Volta’s albums “De-loused in the Comatorium” and “Frances the Mute” both follow storylines which are conveyed by both the music and the lyrics. Aqualung, perhaps the best-known record by Jethro Tull, is often regarded as a concept album due to its recurring themes, but songwriter Ian Anderson has always claimed that the album is just “a bunch of songs”.

* Unusual vocal styles and use of multi-part vocal harmonies. See Magma, Robert Wyatt, Gentle Giant, Ian Anderson, Spock’s Beard, and James LaBrie.

* Prominent use of electronic instrumentation — particularly keyboard instruments such as the organ, piano, Mellotron, and Moog synthesizer, in addition to the usual rock combination of electric guitar, bass and drums. More recently, many bands have experimented with wave manipulation and editing, as well as the methods mentioned above.

* Use of unusual time signatures, scales, or tunings. Many pieces use multiple time signatures and/or tempi, sometimes concurrently.

* Solo passages for virtually every instrument, designed to showcase the virtuosity of the player. This is the sort of thing that contributed to the fame of such performers as keyboardist Rick Wakeman and drummer Neil Peart.

* A coordination between the rhythm section of the band, more specifically between the bassist and the drummer. The rhythm section often uses countertempos and other techniques that contrast what the rest of the band is doing in conjunction. Examples of this can be found in rhythm sections like those of Chris Squire and Bill Bruford of Yes, John Wetton and Bruford of King Crimson, Michael Rutherford and Phil Collins of Genesis, and others.

* Inclusion of classical pieces on albums. For example, Emerson Lake and Palmer have performed arrangements of pieces by Copland, Bartók, Moussorgsky, Prokofiev, Janacek, Alberto Ginastera, and often feature quotes from J. S. Bach in lead breaks. Jethro Tull recorded a version of a Bourrée by J. S. Bach, in which they turned the piece into a “sleazy jazzy night-club song”, according to Ian Anderson, Renaissance frequently used Rakhmaninov-style piano interludes and Marillion opened their live album of the same name with an excerpt from Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie).

* An aesthetic linking the music with visual art, a trend started by The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and enthusiastically embraced during the prog heyday. Some bands became as well-known for the art direction of their albums as for their sound, with the “look” integrated into the band’s overall musical identity. This led to fame for particular artists and design studios, most notably Roger Dean, whose paintings and logo design for Yes are so essential to the band’s identity they could be said to serve the same function as corporate branding. Hipgnosis became equally famous for their unusual sleeves for Pink Floyd, often featuring experimental photography quite innovative for the time (two men shaking hands, one of whom is in flames, are featured on the re-release album cover of Wish You Were Here). H.R. Giger’s painting for Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery is one of the most famous album sleeves ever produced. Hugh Syme is another artist to become famous, mostly for his work on every Rush album cover since 1975’s Fly By Night.

* The use of sound effects in compositions. For example: the sound of a heartbeat at the beginning and end of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; sounds of warfare throughout Jethro Tull’s single “Warchild”.

Progressive rock compositions sometimes take the following forms:
* A piece that is subdivided into movements in the manner of a classical suite. Examples are the four-part “Tales from Topographic Oceans” by Yes, six-part “Hemispheres” by Rush, and the seven-part “A Change of Seasons” by Dream Theater. All of TransAtlantic’s epics are multipart. In addition, The Mars Volta’s “Frances the Mute” features three tracks, out of the five, which are broken down into movements. In a few cases, a progressive rock piece follows the outline of a specific classical form, such as the four-part sonata form used by Yes’ “Close to the Edge”.

* A piece that is composed of a patchwork of musical themes that could conceivably stand as individual songs, but together serve to relate a complete narrative through music. Examples are “Supper’s Ready” on Genesis’ Foxtrot (the “Willow Farm” section of which was played as a single), “A Day in the Life” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the B-side of Abbey Road by The Beatles, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung from the album of the same name, and “The Gates of Delirium” on Yes’s album Relayer (from which the single “Soon” was taken).

* A piece that allows the development of musical ideas via progressions or variations in the manner of a bolero or a canon. “King Kong” on Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat is an example.

History of progressive rock
Progressive rock was born from a variety of musical influences in the late 1960s. The later Beatles and many psychedelic bands began to combine traditional rock music with instruments from classical and Eastern music. Psychedelic rock continued this experimental trend and began to compose very long pieces, although usually without any carefully thought-out structure (for example, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”). Bands such as The Nice and the Moody Blues began deliberately combining rock music with classical music, producing longer pieces with deliberate structures. These bands are sometimes considered “early progressive” and sometimes considered a transitional genre between psychedelic and progressive.

Many music historians point to King Crimson as the first “true” progressive rock band; their first appearance was in February 1969. They were quickly followed by other English progressive rock bands, including Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd. It is worth noting that Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd all began their careers before King Crimson, and all changed their musical styles considerably following the release of “In the Court of the Crimson King”.

Progressive rock was especially popular in continental Europe. Indeed, progressive rock was the first form of rock that actually captivated countries such as Italy and France. This era saw a great number of European progressive rock bands, most notably Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, and Le Orme from Italy, and Ange and Magma from France. Of these bands, only PFM was significantly successful in the English-speaking world.

Fans and music historians have a variety of way to categorize the flavors of 1970’s progressive rock. The Canterbury scene can be considered a sub-genre of progressive rock, or simply another collection of true progressive rock bands. Other bands took the genre in a more commercial direction; these bands, including Renaissance and Electric Light Orchestra are sometimes classified as “progressive rock”, “commercial rock”, or “symphonic pop”.

Progressive rock’s popularity peaked in the mid-1970s, when prog artists regularly topped readers’ votes in mainstream popular music magazines in England and America. By this time, several New World progressive rock bands had been formed, including Rush (from Canada), Kansas (from Kansas, of course), and the Dixie Dregs (from Georgia).

With the advent of punk rock in the late 1970s, popular and critical opinion in England and America moved toward a simpler and more aggressive style of rock, with progressive rock increasingly dismissed as pretentious and overblown. This attitude has remained common to the present day, though it has begun to diminish since about 2004.

The early 1980s saw something of a revival of the genre, led by artists such as Marillion, IQ, Saga, and Kate Bush. Groups that arose during this time are sometimes termed neo-progressive. Around the same time, some progressive rock stalwarts changed musical direction, simplifying their music and including more obviously electronic elements. In 1982, the much anticipated supergroup Asia, composed of Steve Howe (Yes), Carl Palmer (ELP), John Wetton (King Crimson), and Geoff Downes (Yes), surprised and disappointed with their pop oriented debut album. In 1983, Genesis achieved international success with the song “Mama”, with its heavy emphasis on a drum machine riff. In 1984, Yes had a surprise number one hit with the song “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, which contained contemporary electronic effects and was accessible enough to be played at discos, and more recently has been remixed into a Trance single. Many progressive rock fans were unhappy with the direction taken by such bands during this time

It should be noted that the term “progressive” in the early 1970’s had been coined to emphasize the newness of these bands, but by the 1980’s the term had become the name of a specific musical style. As a result, bands such as King Crimson which continued to update their sound were not always called “progressive”, while some newer self-described “prog” bands purchased vintage mellotrons in order to recreate the sound of early 1970’s prog. Fans and hostile critics alike had established “progressive rock” as the permanent name of this genre, and so the connection to the usual meaning of “progressive” became irrelevant.

The progressive rock genre enjoyed another revival in the 1990s with the so-called “Third Wave”, spearheaded by such bands as Sweden’s The Flower Kings, the UK’s Porcupine Tree, and Spock’s Beard from the United States. One of the most important bands of the alternative rock movement, The Smashing Pumpkins, incorporated progressive rock into their unique, eclectic style, going so far as to release two albums dealing with the same concept.

In recent years, the most commercially viable category of prog has been progressive metal. These bands are usually happy to be known as progressive, although the music bears very little resemblance to the original progressive rock form, and produce very long pieces and concept albums. Several of the leading bands in the prog-metal genre (particularly Dream Theater (U.S.) and Opeth (Sweden)) cite pioneer progressive hard-rockers Rush as a prime influence, although their music shows more influence from bands such as Yes or Metallica. Meanwhile, other heavy metal bands not generally considered prog-metal, such as System of a Down, have nevertheless incorporated prog-influenced elements like bizarre shifts in time signatures and tempo in their music.

The work of contemporary artists such as Ween and post-rock bands like Sigur Rós and Godspeed You! Black Emperor could be said to incorporate some of the experimental elements of progressive rock, sometimes combined with the aesthetic sensibilities of punk rock to produce music which many find challenging, innovative and imaginative. A better example of a contemporary post-rock band however is probably The Mars Volta, who are notable for intentionally fusing punk with progressive rock, two elements once polar opposites. Among more experimental and avant garde musicians, the Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu publicly cites progressive rock bands as a prime influence on his work.

There are also a number of contemporary prog bands, such as Mostly Autumn that combine Celtic, and sometimes pagan, influences with earlier prog rock styles.

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