Saturday, November 20, 2010

Progressive Rock: Why Its Influence Just Won't Die

Progressive rock is a sub-genre of rock that began to develop during the early 60's. The term progressive could be thought to be synonymous with the term experimental, but experimentation is just one of the many facets of what we call Prog. Few could deny that the 60's were ripe with musical experimentation, especially with the emergence of musicians like the Beatles and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. To Find the earliest roots of Prog, one would have to look no further than The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), which laid the groundwork for popularizing another facet of Prog, the concept album. A concept album was a record that had a instrumental, compositional or narrative theme that unified the music. Meanwhile, Frank Zappa, a musical pioneer known for being unconventional, was responsible for one of the most thought provoking debut albums of the 60's, and possibly in rock history, with the debut Freak Out! (1964). Armed with the talent of The Mothers and Zappa's bitingly sarcastic and satirical song lyrics, the band set out to destroy and dispel the modern myth of what rock music should be. The first half of the album is filled with catchy satirical do-wop pop songs such as “I Ain't Got No Heart” and “Wowwie Zowwie”, while the second half consists of more experimental and socially charged commentaries, which are more evident in songs like “Trouble Every Day” and “Help I'm a Rock”. These albums, with the addition of Bob Dylan going electric and the early recording experimentation of Phil Spector would help in progressing bands, like the Beatles, to give us masterpieces like Let It Be.

The experimentation of the 60's would eventually lead to the culmination of the cornerstone of what would become Progressive Rock with King Crimson's seminal debut In the Court of the Crimson King (1969). This masterpiece would be darker and more esoteric than it predecessors, leading King Crimson to be dubbed the “Think mans Floyd”. While Pink Floyd would exhaust much of it career exploiting the story of their first lead singer, bands like King Crimson would delve into fits of non-structured improvisation of free jazz in songs like “21st Century Schizoid Man”. In the Court of the Crimson King would establish progressive rock as its own style of rock music, giving impetus for more commercially successful bands like Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. These bands would chart a musical territory outside of the mainstream, while still be accessible to a large following of fans. It is important to know that Progressive rock was not localized to England, Canadian Rockers Rush were charting new grounds, while Germany bands like Faust were also experimenting with a style of music called Kraut-Rock, and Focus, a little known band hailing from Amsterdam, with their unlikely smash hit “Hocus Pocus”.

Progressive Rock established itself in the 70's as a force to be reckoned with. Prog bands were infamous for combining their intricate song structures and esoteric themes with grandiose arena shows. These extravagant theatrical performances were spiritual, artistic gatherings to some, while to others the obsession with artistic authenticity was considered pompous and pretentious. This pompousness would lay the foundation of the punk ideals that would set out to unseat the Goliath of prog-rock. Punk rockers called for a return to the roots of rock with more rebellion and simplicity. In 1975, with Peter Gabriel announcing he was leaving Genesis at the height of their career, the emergence of the more banal Prog rip off, known as Arena Rock with bands like Journey, Kansas and Boston, and the catchy angry wave of punk coming from bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols, it seemed as though progressive rock would be slain by its own commercial success. Progressive rock would suffer the setbacks of the late 70's, but this sleeping giant would soon return more poised than ever.

In the 70's, with the emergence of punk and disco, traditional hard rock was on the verge of extinction. Kiss began to make disco records, while hard rock god like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC lost key members in John Bohnam and Bon Scott to pools of vomit. Disco was short lived, while punk seemed poised to take over the hard rock reigns. Hard rock bands had no choice but to start playing faster, heavier and more proficiently then those in the punk scene. This ideal was reenforced by a DJ named Neal Kay who said, “Nobody should be allowed to stand on stage unless they can present the total professional thing. That is to say that unless they can really sing and really play. Punk was a total anti attitude towards music.” As this pissing match ensued, bands like Motorhead, Judas Preist and Iron Maiden began combining the heavy sound of Black Sabbath with the speed of punk rock. Out of these bands which were refered to as the “new wave” of British heavy metal it seemed as though Iron Maiden was the best at integrating prog rock elements into their music. Motorhead had become the darling of both camps. Iron Maiden, was a lot like Rush, that is to say that even if you don't like the music you know that they are extremely smart and talented individuals.

Bands like Iron Maiden would influence numerous metal bands that also would experiment with elements of prog and musical proficiency. Many of the early Thrash bands like Slayer, Anthrax and Seplutura are known for their musical proficiency. Iron Maiden would also influence the more purist neo-prog in the late 80's with bands like King's X and Dream Theater. Many of these bands became aware of how the theatrics of the evil, or more likely paganism, could enchant an entire audience. For instance, contrary to popular belief bands like Slayer did not write about or worshiping Satan, they used Satan as a personification of the evil and greedy forces that controlled the world. It is because of this that when the song about the Holocaust, specifically “Angel of Death”(1986), were released people tried to label bands like Slayer as satanic, racist skinheads, failing to see that the song is about the horror perpetrated by Dr. Joseph Megela during the holocaust, and that two members , Tom Ayrara and Dave Lombardo, of the band originally hail from South America.

On the Punk side of the coin, you had a lot of bands who grew up with the first wave of punk. The first wave was mostly comprised of bands like The Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Ramones. Eventually, many musicians decided that punk was too narrow-minded, and lacked experimentation. As a result, more innovative and artsy bands like Joy Division, The Velvet Underground and Wire began to emerge. These bands would influence the disaffected musicians from the second wave of punk, called “hardcore”. Once again, these bands thought punk was becoming conventional and reactionary and, as a result, began to learn more than three or four chords and branch out into uncharted territory. A good example of this was Minneapolis' own Husker Du, a band that started like any other hardcore band, when they released their debut album Land, Speed Record (1981). Like a lot of the hardcore bands at the time they played fast and angry, with little or even no attention for melody or riffs. But by 1984, with the release of the epic Zen Arcade (1984), everything had changed. Husker Du had produced an album that had the energy of punk, with a more technically tight song structures. This would lead to the advent of what would become known as “post-hardcore”, and just like the post-punk bands before them bands like Fugazi and Sonic Youth paved the way toward unexplored areas. I use to hate the 80's until I realized that, contrary to popular belief, what really made the 80's truly amazing was all of the underground music, not the fetishistic nostalgia for Debbie Gibson, Duran Duran and stirrup pants that we see on VH1's “I love the 80's”. Underground music was being played on college rock radio stations across the country, laying the ground work that made the 90's possible in the first place.

By the late 80's nothing was off limits. More and more bands began to experiment with different fusions of styles and genres; everyone was listening to everyone else, and slowly but surely the influences began to blur. It had been five years since Tipper Gore received her fucking sticker, a battle fought and won by the most unlikely heroes of Dee Snider, John Denver and Frank Zappa. Summer festivals like Lollapalooza were in full swing, and so was the PMRC with pickets in hand. But this didn't stop bands like Jane's Addiction, Faith No More and Tool from producing music video that were disturbing and weird, but nothing really that shocking, at least to the fans. Rage Against the Machine was hard at work fusing rap and rock in face melting ways, before and after they stood before a confused audience naked, with P-R-M-C taped across their chests, at Lollapaloza. In fact, the zanier bands seemed to have the most progressive the sound. King Buzzo, of the Melvins, began playing everything in drop D, while Joshua Homme from Kyuss tried to keep up by plugging his guitars into bass amp and tuning them down to G. Les Claypool was experiencing notoriety with his band Primus, gaining a reputation for melting your soul with his muddy bass.

At the top of this sweaty pile of underground, grungy alternative music you had the Pixies, or what should be known as “Our Beatles”! The Pixies were far from Prog, but they experimented more than anyone in a time when “Alternative” music actually meant something. They had created an aural dynamic that wasn't like anyone else. And when the Pixies broke up, musicians everywhere where as heartbroken as the day The Beatles played on the roof of Apple Records. David Bowie in an interview with French magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, said that he, "felt very depressed the day I heard about the Pixies split. What a waste...I could see them becoming huge.” he went on to state later that, “when I heard Nevermind from Nirvana for the first time, I was really, really angry. The dynamics in the songs, this was a total Pixies rip-off. I would have like so much the Pixies and Sonic Youth to be at the top. The former have split, and the latter accept too much compromise.” Eventually Kurt Cobain would admit that he did in fact rip off the sound of the Pixies for Smells Like Teen Spirit. And as the narrow-minded narrative goes; Kurt Cobain blew his fortune on heroine and Courtney Love, and his talent against the wall behind him, and that my friends was the day that the music died, or so most people thought.

Things were pretty bleak after Cobain's death. Most alternative bands were ready to pack it up and call it a show. Many of the grunge bands split up or sold out. The rest became unemployed musicians, who still wanted to keep making good music. After Kyuss disbanded Joshua Homme started the garage influenced prog outfit Queens of the Stone Age, while bands such as The Melvins, Clutch, and Tool were still going strong. Tool and the Melvins would eventually work together producing a 14 minute epic simply titled Divorced, and albums like Colussus of Destiny (2001) and Pigs of the Roman Empire (2004). Tool's Lead singer, Maynard James Kennan, began working on a side project called A Perfect Circle, while bands like Neurosis progressed from a trashy grindcore band to a lumbering, dark and ambient doom metal outfit, which has outlasted most of the bands they had influenced, such as stoner metal legends Isis. In fact stoner rock was filled with progressive influences, while early alternative bands, like the Flaming Lips, were still making music. Producing experimenting with insane idea like the four disc album Zaireeka (1997), which was intended to be played on four synchronized stereos simultaneously, or progressive acid rock excursions like Embryonic (2009), that even Frank Zappa would have been pleased with.

If you think about it thing actually have been looking up for music, which may have something to do with the Pixies reunited in 2004. Radiohead's Thom Yorke, and Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne lost their shit when they found out the Pixies were going to be the secret act at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. “That's just not right! The Pixies opening for us is like the Beatles opening for us.” Thom Yorke exclaimed on stage. At the same time more experimental bands began to gain recognition. Mastodon had produced 4 thundering epics each based on the 4 elements of magic; Fire: Remissions (2002), Water: the Grammy award winning Leviathan (2004), Earth: Blood Mountain (2006) and Wind: Crack the Sky (2009). Also the Prog two piece, Big Business, has joined forces with the Melvins producing the mind numbing drumming tandem of Cody Willis and Dale Crover. A drumming duo so good, the only way this band could get any better is if Buzzo got his wish and added, “ Neil Pert, Bootsy Collins and Paul McCartney”. Even fossils like John Paul Jones jumped at the opportunity to work with two veterans like Joshua Homme and Dave Grohl, who were taking time off from their respective bands, in order to work produce the supergroup known as Them Crooked Vultures. And with rock giants like Faith No More, Primus and the Pixies touring again, there looks to be more experimental music, influenced by Prog, then this concert going, music loving freak can get his hands on.

-The Dead Guy


  1. Nice full body on this one. Kudos!

  2. Great synopsis. I hope that "progressive rock" never dies but I will say this:
    while there have been a few great acts to emerge in the past decade, the 2000s overall were by far the most lackluster decade in terms of the evolution of progressive rock and rock in general. However, as digital tools become even more accessible to budding musicians worldwide I think we'll see a movement of some sort in the near future. It's way overdue.