Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Essay: Prog Rock isn't a genre

The term "Progressive Rock" has always been a shaky way to define a genre of music. The biggest problem with it is that it has no aesthetic base. What I mean is that even when you only take the "big" and "legendary" bands that I tend to focus on here at the "blog", (another meaningless term in and of itself) there aren't really many things in common between them. ELP sounds nothing like Genesis. King Crimson has very little to do sonically with Yes. You know exactly what I mean. It has always been a problem from not only the bands who are weary of being slapped with the Prog label, but the fans of the bands who have no idea why the band they enjoy is lumped into the same group as others who sound nothing alike. Just because you happen to be the biggest Porcupine Tree fan in the world doesn't mean you don't find the music of The Flower Kings appalling, or vice-versa. Within lies the dilemma; how does one define Progressive Rock?

Googling Progressive Rock points you to a Wikipedia article. The first paragraph, usually where one finds the sumation and definition of a term, reads as follows:
Progressive rock (also referred to as prog rock or prog) is a subgenre of rock music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of a "mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility." (link)
While that will certainly satisfy many, I have a plethora of problems with it. Thankfully, the article does go on with a lengthy descriptions of the various characteristics that make Progressive Rock unique. In reality though, it hardly scratches the surface. Within each description, either sonically or historically, you find a listing of bands that serves as an example. Any student of the music can take one look at the listing and find all sorts of exceptions and contradictions within. The problem is that Progressive Rock can't really be
called a "subgenre" of Rock music. This has really become a problem recently as the ideals
and philosophies of the classic Prog bands are no longer considered musical taboos.

It was so easy in the 80s and 90s. The term "Progressive Rock" was to be
avoided at all cost. If the music you were making could ever fall into this pigeon hole, you were automatically blacklisted by mainstream critics and thus were doomed to live a life of underground obscurity. The institutions that held the candle of Rock popularity, namely Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame amongst others, decided that the ideas that emerged in the late 60s and early 70s were a mistake of the past.
The idea that Rock music could be anymore than a blues-based verse-chorus pop song was a silly and pretentious idea that could have only come out of the minds of drug-addicted hippies and had no place amongst the 'real' and 'true' definition of Rock and Roll. Playing with the structure and incorporating outside influences into the fold was simply unacceptable behaviour. Never mind the fact that some of the most praised 'proper' rock bands of the 70s often did exactly that (I'm looking at you Led Zeppelin). Two decades of hypocrisy amongst the k
eepers of the keys of mainstream Rock has opened a new level of confusion. While "Prog" never really passed away, like say "Disco" did, the term was vastly accepted as a derogatory label to be slapped on any band breaking the rules. Pretentious was almost synonymous with Progressive Rock. Then the internet came along.

There really can't be any understatement of the importance the internet has had in the re-acceptance of Progressive music in western culture over the last decade. While it was deemed a silly and dated idea of the past, many of the Progressive albums of the 70s have actually stood up well against the more 'popular' music of the decade and don't appear nearly as dated. When you limit the structure of music in the way that Rock critics tried to do, the only way to create a new sound is to use the latest production gimmicks. This dates music rather quickly. Look no further than the 1980s for the worst examples of this practice. The so called "Progressive" bands instead focussed on moving forward the ideas behind the music. This is why an album like King Crimson's Red sounds almost contemporary almost 40 years after its recording. The production and instrumentation is very simple,
but the music itself is still original and unique. Thanks to the internet the keen minded music fans could discover this album, long deemed "wrong". King Crimson's stock has scarcely been higher because of this fact. That leads us to bands that have built a reputation through the internet, such as Porcupine Tree, who whilst never selling out, are now heard playing over the loud speakers of supermarkets in North America. If anything they have only pushed the boundaries of their music with each album. Now, despite the best attempts of certain 'journalists' to keep this from ever happening, the term 'Progressive Rock' is actually becoming more popular than ever before.

I have longed followed the mainstream press' use of the term "Progressive Rock". In fact, there isn't a mention of those two words in the same article that doesn't pass through my Google Reader account. When I first started keeping track of such things, almost a decade ago now, it was scarcely mentioned. You wouldn't find it being used in anything but a negative light.
For example a newspaper review of a new rock album could say "The band gets carried away, almost treading the pretentious waters of silly Prog Rock bands like ELP". However, in the last few years, helped by the growing popularity of bands like The Mars Volta, Muse and of course Porcupine Tree, I can't really keep up with each mention of the term like I used to. New bands are no longer afraid to describe themselves as Progressive Rock in interviews, and concert reviewers often use Progressive Rock next to words like 'unique' or 'creative'. In short: the use of the term has completely flipped in the span of a decade. This, in reality, only furthers the confusion as to the term's actual meaning.

Steven Wilson, someone who gets plenty of free plugs on this blog, has been trying to encourage a new term for the kind of music he makes. While he no longer denies that Porcupine Tree's music is probably best defined as "Progressive", (he use to actively deny this fact) he much prefers the term "Ambitious Rock". In reality, this probably can be used to describe just about anything under the Prog Rock umbrella. He might have a good point. In fact, I almost think you can best define Progressive Rock by saying that it's ambitious rock. Doing this automatically make the use of Prog Rock in the title of this blog to be meaningless. However, saying that this is the Ambitious Rock Blog would only confuse matters. At the end of the day, the music that people who claim to be fans of Progressive Rock enjoy is undefinable. Would it be fair to say that we just like the idea of Rock instrumentation used in unconventional ways? Well, not entirely. Such a grose simplification of the facts just confuses matters more.

It's really simple. Prog Rock isn't a genre. It's more of a philosophy of music. While you can keep following this blog to find out what's happening with "the bigs" like Pink Floyd and Gentle Giant, I can't claim that these bands have anything to do with each other. I almost like the fact that this is the focus of the blog. An undefinable grouping of musical ideas is a far more interesting than limiting what I can write about based on the aesthetic principles of something more narrow like "Heavy Metal" or "New Age" or whatever. I also can't say I see anything wrong with the growing use of the term 'Progressive Rock'. As bands like Genesis are settling into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and bands like Porcupine Tree reach greater popularity the more ambitious they become, I can only take this as a sign that the world is beginning to lossen its collar a bit. People are expanding what they listen to and in turn may find an expansion in what they accept and enjoy. This, in my mind, is a positive trend for a global community who are increasingly able to reach out to each other. While just four or five years ago there was growing fear and anxiety between cultures, perhaps the loosening of musical acceptability will lead to greater peace and understanding on earth. It's a bit of a stretch, but what's wrong with pushing the limits in such a way? Eh?

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