Two words cause an involuntary shiver through music lovers everywhere. They manage to conjure up all that is excessive, bloated and wrong in music, recalling a misguided time when an unsophisticated audience could be taken in by horribly egocentric musicians who in any other field, in any other time would have been ridiculed as annoying dungeons and dragons’ freaks or tragic sci fi nerds.
I’m referring to progressive rock, and before you stop reading, throw Inpress in the bin, burn the bin and put a hex on the family of the person who built the establishment that you picked up Inpress from, consider this: there is more to prog rock than you might think.
Of course there’s the mid 70’s cliché, Emerson Lake and Palmer’s three trucks and 120 member road crew for their 1977 Works tour, or Yes’ keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who’s live show at Wembley Arena for The Myths And Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table featured knights on ice skates and a full orchestra. But what if you could trace the origins of progressive rock through not just folk, but also fusion, and through the likes of Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Gong or the Soft Machine? Interested yet?
It’s exactly what Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell do in Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960’s (Continuum), citing the jazz fusion of Davis on Bitches Brew as mirroring the exploration and freedom in progressive rock, whilst offering guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Weather Report as two examples of bringing jazz to rock and offering a greater complexity and virtuosity to the music. The connections are loose, yet pleasing to consider, and the authors are keen to utilise them as a tapestry, or a delta of ideas and influences, as opposed to a straight continuum. Of particular interest is the way they unpack essential albums in the prog rock cannon in order to discuss some its central tenants, such as myth, imagery, virtuosity, and of course the concept album. We’re talking albums by the likes of Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, yet they also find ways to draw in the likes of Italian synth soundtrackers Goblin, George Clinton’s Parliament/ Funkedelic, Magma, and Henry Cow. It’s these fringe outfits that prove the most revelatory, allowing you to hear their music with a whole new set of ears.
But then punk came and killed the bloated corpse of prog. And to paraphrase Captain Sensible of the Dammed, rich coke fuelled stadium rockers stopped singing about irrelevant things like Merlin and pixies and Henry VIII’s wives. Right? Well no. It’s the common consensus, but whilst punk did influence the direction of prog, with bands eschewing the mystical for more direct lyrical obsessions and at times even delving into more counter cultural directions, it didn’t kill it. In fact stadium rockers flourished, whilst punk quickly became a caricature of itself. Hell there were even punk prog hybrids like the noisy avant-garde This Heat.
By the 80’s bands like Genesis became more middle of the road (mor) and neo progressive music evolved with bands like Marillon and IQ, where the songs became shorter and the concepts less stringent. More recently exponents have included Spocks Beard, Glass Hammer and Magenta. Yet it’s the post prog music that bears a greater relationship to the musical world of today. Think Sigur Ros, Flaming Lips, David Sylvian and yes, Radiohead, who’s OK Computer with its dissonant strategies, extended take on alienation, the use of visuals to augment the music and desire to sequence the album as a whole, give Hegarty and Halliwell enough ammunition to suggest it’s a new form of prog that doesn’t need to return to 1977 to take its cues. In fact that seems to be the issue. No one wants to acknowledge prog has evolved; the bloated cliché is too attractive as something to rail against.
Hegarty and Halliwell, choose to pick through more recent practitioners, keen to point out their prog like characteristics. Bands like the Fleet Foxes, Midlake, the Decemberists, Dream Theatre, and The Mars Volta all contain elements of prog, yet also elements of numerous other genres. Their point is prog is still alive, evolving, fusing, yet with none of the coherence of the 70’s. And this just makes it all the more exciting. “It’s as if all of the times and potentials of prog exist now, in the present,” they write. And if you’re willing to accept this then prog no longer has to be a dirty word.