Thursday, September 24, 2009

Prog Rock Makes Big Comeback

Next to 80s metal, prog rock is one of the most maligned music forms out there.

It’s easy to see why people slag the 80s metal bands – look at their promo shots. Even the greatest of these bands (Maiden, Priest etc – who really started in the 70s anyway) look a little silly in the leather/spandex/big hair gear that is a staple of the look.

Bands like Cinderella, Krokus, Ratt etc took the look to the extreme and made a lot of people disregard the bands before they even heard one note of the music. Which is too bad, because there are lots of great bands from that era. For an excellent and very funny overview of this genre, buy the book Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman.

Progressive music has a bit of the same issue. Who can look at old photos of Rush, Genesis, Yes and ELP and not have a chuckle? Capes, silk blousy shirts, really bad porn moustaches, tight satin pants and the crazy unclassifiable “pieces” Emerson used to wear onstage. Ooof.

Only Pink Floyd seemed to buck the trend, seeming to wear whatever they woke up in to go onstage.

But many of these bands overcame the image issue and continued to make excellent, groundbreaking music for at least a couple of decades. Rush is still at it, as is various forms of Yes and once in a while, reunited Genesises and ELPs.

A BBC News article this week does a great job of tracking the prog genre to modern day, citing that Porcupine Tree and Muse’s new CDs debuted very high in the charts this month, despite the fact that these bands have been defined as ‘prog rock.’ Or because of it. Hell, look at Porcupine Tree – Not a single in sight on their new 55-minute opus The Incident, yet the CD broke through at number 23 on the UK charts. Muse, a bit more accessible to the average listener, debuted at #1.

The article tracks prog torch carriers Marillion and Dream Theater in the 80s, Radiohead in the 90s, and now Porcupine Tree and Muse. From the article: "To see someone like Muse and Porcupine Tree cracking the top 25 together shows the huge shift in terms of where people see progressive music is coming from, and also how popular it is becoming," says Jerry Ewing, editor of Classic Rock Prog Magazine.

This is great news, as this is great music. I remember hearing Radiohead for the first time. Sadly, aside from the song Creep, I had not listened to a Radiohead album until Kid A. But I loved that CD and would listen to it in the car all the way through on my way to work. Then I saw it was #1 in the charts and could not believe it. How did that many people embrace this very proggy, experimental album? Frankly, it gave me a lot of hope for the current state of music at the time.

Next up was The Mars Volta who I found utterly fascinating until they got too weird even for me. But for example, Rolling Stone loves that band, which I don’t understand but am grateful for. Maybe that is why RS finally did a proper article on Rush last year. Or why Genesis is finally a Hall of Fame nominee. These new bands (who don’t dress like elves) are bringing back legitimacy of the genre.

Record sales aside, these bands cling to one thing that is sadly lacking in the industry today, which is live performances that challenge the audience to pay attention and focus instead of using the show as an excuse to text on cell phones and yammer about anything except the event they are supposed to be attending. The Porcupine Tree show I saw last week is a case in point. Watching the band play The Incident all the way through was like going to see a great movie. We paid attention, let the artists deliver, and were moved (and rocked at the same time – bonus!).

So thank you Porcupine Tree, Muse, Riverside, Mars Volta and all the other torch carriers for music with artistic vision that moves people, pushes the boundaries, and fights upstream against the stagnation that has plagued the industry for a long, long time.

Check out the full BBC article here.


Gwyn Hughes said...

Well said! It's about time bands who clearly have artistic direction and a sound philosoghy as to why they are creating music in the first place are given a chance to be successful.

Dr. John said...

Wow, writing music for the sake of music. Imagine that...

For some good prog, check out Frost* (yes the asterisk is in the name). Not bad. You may need to search for their 1st album, Milliontown, on iTunes as iTunes does not like the asterisk in the name.

Great post!

Kevin Brown said...

Nice commentary, Paul. The new Riverside and Porcupine Tree albums have given me a lot of great music to decrypt. Look forward to jamming with you soon...


Wik said...

I can't agree with you.