“It’s a question that has baffled mankind throughout the ages, namely, can the frog tap dance? The answer is… hit it!”
Kermit the Frog
If you are anything like Mighty Matt, you will probably have found yourself asking the question “but… what is Prog?” on more than one occassion. If you are anything like Mighty Gary, you might try to write an essay expaining it in terms even an idiot like Mighty Matt can understand. Thusly, below for your delectation is a treatise on the nature of the beast…
A Beginner’s Guide to Prog-World
For too many people, “Prog” has been a dirty four-letter word for a very long time. There are so many negative connotations that it’s hard sometimes to get any perspective on this genre of music, even though it’s encompassed some of the biggest, most successful and most experimental artists in contemporary popular music over the last 40 years.
If the word means anything at all, it’s likely to be tinged for most by a sneering dismissiveness, but it’s hard to simply and concisely cut through this – all definitions are mere shadows of the full truth, and nothing said here will change that, but we have to try to start somewhere.
Historically then, “progressive rock” was a label created to encompass a group of bands who were clearly using the “rock” idiom, but were otherwise trying to do something very different with its form – pushing back the accepted boundaries of musicianship; drawing on influences from outside pop and rock music; being experimental with sounds, arrangements and production; creating something which acted as a challenge to those performing it as well as those listening (or trying to listen !) to it – truly “progressing” rock music, moving it forwards. A number of artists helped lay the groundwork for this “new” approach to making music – many prog artists would cite albums such as Sgt. Pepper (and the suite of songs from side two of Abbey Road), Pet Sounds, Zappa’s Freak Out, and The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, as being important influences on the whole movement.
From about 1968 until about 1977, prog-rock was one of the most successful musical styles in the world. Pink Floyd, ELP, Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson sold albums by the truckload and toured on a scale matched by few other artists of the time. While never making huge in-roads to “mainstream” TV and radio, this barely touched the fortunes of the artists involved – if you sell-out Madison Square Gardens and your albums are selling consistently over periods counted in years rather than weeks, who cares if you’ve had a “hit single” ?
After the mid-70s, and this huge success of a small number of bands, the whole genre took a kicking (some might say “well deserved …”) from the burgeoning punk and new wave boom. Suddenly, prog wasn’t “contemporary” enough, it wasn’t “relevant” and the artists were accused of pomposity and of being overblown, self-indulgent and out-of-touch. In a way, this period also saw the label “progressive-rock” change subtly in meaning – it became less about the truly “progressive” nature of the material being produced and more about a certain style of composition and playing. Of the original progressive bands of the late-60s/early-70s, there is really only King Crimson which still makes records and has managed to retain the label, whilst consistently throwing curves at its audiences, rejecting comfortable rock conventions, continually exploring and experimenting and seeking to completely confound expectations with almost every release.
Considering the difficulties involved and accepting that we are talking less about a “movement” and more about a “style” of music, the following may all be indicators that you are watching/listening to a prog band/artist – any one or two of these may not mean anything, and all of them may be present without resulting in prog. But, taken as a whole (with some careful blurring of the boundaries at times,) and we could be getting close to an understanding –
- The music contains themes and arrangements that might be described as “symphonic” in nature – prog isn’t just about stealing ideas from western classical music, but many of the melodies and chord progressions, along with how these are used in combination, often owe much to this tradition. Of course, if a band or artist can also reference jazz, medieval and baroque music, eastern European folk, Indian scales, reggae, electronica, and ambient sounds … then it’s all to the good !
- A high level of technical facility – by and large, prog. musicians are pretty good players (perhaps not always as good as they or their fans like to think, but that’s another debate entirely) … and they make damn sure you know this !
- Odd Time Signatures – do a proportion of the band’s songs contain sections in 5, 7 or 9 ? Better still, do they contain sections in compound time signatures ? Always an added bonus !
- There is liberal use of a Hammond organ and/or a mellotron and/or a Moog and/or 70s analogue synths and/or bass pedals – triple prog points for pieces of music demonstrating the use of all five !
- Songs contain themes and imagery of an “other-worldly”, spiritual or philosophical bent – not always a guarantee, but often a good indicator. This isn’t to say that the central subject matter is so much different from other pop and rock styles – it pretty much all boils down to love, lust, life and loss – the key difference is in how it’s packaged and presented. Sometimes, this manifests itself as clever, thoughtful twists on clichéd themes, but can descend into wilful obscurity. One of the biggest prog bands ever is Yes, and I have almost no idea what any of their songs are about ! However, this isn’t a major problem for me, since they are consistently delivered with such craft, such beautiful melodies, and in a manner that suggests that they must mean something, that I am free to imagine all sorts of possibilities as to their originally intended meaning.
- Comedy and Eccentricity. There is often a healthy “quirkiness” about prog bands and the music they create – with the possible exception of the aforementioned Yes, most of the classic prog bands have allowed humour, mischievousness, surrealism and an acknowledgement of the absurd to come through in their work, albeit that they’ve taken the production of that work very seriously.
- Many songs have a duration of more than five minutes – again, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, and sometimes you’ll get many shorter pieces linked together to form a “suite” of music. But you can bet that if you pick up any non- jazz or non-classical album with songs listed at over 20 minutes, the likelihood is very high that it’s full of proggy goodness.
- The band/artist has at least one major “concept album” in their catalogue – it is simply inconceivable that any self-respecting prog band would be without a sprawling, involved concept album (or, at very least, a few rather long, sprawling, involved “concept songs”) in their body of work. Indeed, some bands make nothing BUT concept albums. Admittedly, the concepts can be less than inspiring sometimes, and many are just down-right silly, but concept albums are to prog what lies are to politicians, a central pillar of their existence !
- Audiences for the band/artists are largely devoid of women – Prog. is almost exclusively a man’s world … it really is as simple as that. It would be nice to find a more female-friendly approach to the music, but this has eluded many an artist for most of the last 30+ years. This wasn’t so true in the late 60 and early 70s heyday of prog, to be fair … and (if we can set our cynical, older-self prejudices aside for a moment,) if you take a look at photos of major figures like Dave Gilmour, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Greg Lake, Carl Palmer, Jon Anderson et al, from “back in the day” it may be easier to understand why (all fairly good looking chaps, I reckon !)
- Dramatic dynamic shifts – many younger rock fans may still think that the “very quiet verse, very loud chorus” device was invented by those old grunge acts in the early 1990s … Ha ! In prog. quiet, atmospheric, moody sections (often with piano, strings, and other extraneous electronic noises) are frequently juxtaposed with huge, over-blown, majestic accents and restated themes. Tranquillity and noise, light and dark, soft and hard, yin and yang …
- Arresting melody – it may seem like a strange observation, given that prog is often seen as “complex” or “difficult” music, but the best “Symphonic” prog has at its heart strong memorable hooks, tunes and songs, (to my ears at least.) Of course, these are sometimes framed within otherwise long instrumental workouts and structures, but it’s this marriage of music and voice that does it for me. Creating melodies and lyrics that are at once involving, memorable, clever and emotive in this context is a real skill, exercised with great effect by the best prog artists. It’s also worth mentioning here the high level of attention that prog bands tend to give to multi-part vocal lines and harmonies, with sometimes stunning effect.
- The wearing of capes – this is, of course, a nice touch, but entirely optional !!
Listening to and becoming familiar with prog-rock is a bit of an art, I’ve found. Let’s be honest, our ears and brains in 21st century western society are largely geared up to digest music in not much more than 3 minute chunks (and often very simplistic and easy chunks, at that). Attempting to apply this mind-set to 30 minute long prog epics can be a bit of a struggle/challenge (delete as appropriate) and certainly not for the faint hearted or for those with ADHD. There is a lot of music to get your head around given the sheer volume of material available, and it takes time for the themes, melodies, lyrics, changes, hooks, playing, sounds, etc. to become familiar. I find invariably that having this music on in the background about 3 or 4 times before actually sitting down and listening to it properly can be a real help – by then, the overall feel and direction have been subconsciously absorbed, allowing the listener to get into the music more fully, then further enhanced by repeated sessions with the same piece of music. This repeated listening process even has a name in prog circles – the “PRAT” (unfortunate acronym for “Prog Rock Acid Test” but it works for many !) If you aren’t grooving along to it after about 10 listens, you probably never will !!
Lastly, it’s worth noting something about the people who play this music, to retain for further reference – almost without exception, they all utterly believe in what they’re doing. You cannot be in a prog band (except in a few very rare cases) and “fool around” with prog. It’s not a genre of music that lends itself easily to musicians who want to parody it or who think that it’s the road to a fast buck. With the stigma attached to prog, who’d play the stuff if they didn’t REALLY want to ?!