A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress

I balked for a few moments at the temptation of writing an indulgent, long, complex, and idiosyncratic post about my journey to and into prog, and then realized: hey, this is Progarchy.com! If I cannot string together tenuously-related, semi-mystical concepts and conceits imbued with mythical overtones, quasi-autobiographical meta-narratives, and intertwining (and purposely confusing) philosophical musings here, then what’s the point of this wonderful blog? (No need to answer that, as I’m already soloing  on my inner Moog without regard for the boring 4/4 time signature others might wish to force upon me.) Actually, much of what follows was already presented in a long-ish comment I left on a previous post below. But Brad, as he often does, inspired me to do more, even at the risk of embarrassing the shy and retiring Olson clan. So here goes.

I was oddly oblivious to most music until my early teens. This was due in part to being raised in a Fundamentalist home and church, both of which largely frowned on rock music as the rhythmic spawn of the devil, meant to corrupt good morals and encourage bad haircuts. Yes, the stereotypes do hold, at least to some degree.  I heard a lot of church music (classic Protestant hymns, some of them very good) and mostly bland to bad contemporary Christian music. Then, around the age of fourteen or so, I started listening to the radio (one station, weak signal) and began to slowly accumulate a few tapes. My road to prog went through AOR acts such as Journey, REO Speedwagon, Loverboy, Foreigner, and Styx, with a helping of popular mid-80s albums by ELO, Elton John, Toto, and Queen. I found the standard rock of the day (including some of the stuff above) to be rather dull; I was fascinated by the more extended songs of Elton (the early 1970s albums especially), Queen, Asia, and the Moody Blues. I’m happy to say I was hooked on “Bohemian Rhapsody” long before “Wayne’s World” re-presented it to my generation. Also, I thought the usual popular, party music about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll was mostly shallow, even if occasionally diverting. Which is another way of saying I secretly listened to my share of Van Halen while playing some laughable air guitar (oh, wait, all air guitar is laughable). I did not, however, ever party. Seriously.

Around 1985 or so, I bought a copy of “The Best of Kansas”. That opened the door to prog. There was something about the mixture of Livgren’s lead guitar, Steinhardt’s violin, and Steve Walsh’s amazing voice, along with lyrics soaked in spiritual longing and Americana, that grabbed me by the scrawny neck. Over the next three or four years, I ended up collecting everything by Kansas, Kerry Livgren (solo and with AD), and Steve Morse (solo, Dixie Dregs, etc.). My favorite Kansas albums are “Song for America” and “In the Spirit of Things”, although they weren’t the chart-toppers that “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture” were. I also went on a serious Moody Blues binge, focusing on the early stuff, prior to their more pop-oriented work of the mid-’80s. Then I really got into Yes (both Rabin-era and the early classic albums with Howe), Rush, and Pink Floyd; in fact, while in Bible college (1989-91), I freaked out some of my more staid classmates with my obsessive interest in Pink Floyd, Queen, Queenrÿche, and King’s X (and, yes, I also listened to Petra, David Meece, White Heart, White Cross, Russ Taff, and Margaret Becker). King’s X was a major revelation, especially the brilliant, crunching, melodic beauty of “faith hope love”, which was a masterful blend of hard rock, metal, prog, blues, and Beatle-esque harmonies. And I recall very clearly driving across the Montana plains to school in Saskatchewan, blaring “Fly By Night” and other brilliant Rush tunes. Ah, to be young again.

A quick aside here, in the spirit of musical indulgence: while in high school, I also developed a semi-secret soft spot for country artists such as Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, and Jim Reeves. And two composers: Mozart and Brahms. I tried to get into opera (our family doctor, who owned a massive classical collection, gave it his best shot), but couldn’t get there. I would try again in the late 1990s, failing again. And at one point I must have listened to Eric Clapton’s 1989 comeback album, “Journeyman”, about a thousand times. Go figure, as it’s the only Clapton album I’ve ever fixated on. Okay, back to prog.

In my early-to-mid twenties (1989-1995), I launched into Van Morrison, Seal, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and jazz, five of my big musical loves ever since (I’ll eventually write some disturbingly long posts about each, I hope). My interest in prog advanced in fits and starts. Yes was a constant, as I worked through most of the band’s catalog, with excursions into solo projects by Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, and Steve Howe. The next big breakthrough was Dream Theater in the late 1990s, followed by Spock’s Beard, then Porcupine Tree and a bunch of others. Then, around 2004, I “discovered” Frank Sinatra, which led to the purchase of about 1,000 Sinatra tunes (favorite album: “In the Wee Small Hours”). I mention Sinatra because I have the semi-crazy idea of writing a blog titled, “Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog?”, that will either get me ejected from Progarchy, or enshrined in the Progarchy Hall of Fame.

I fully agree with Brad: we are living in a new, golden age of prog. There is such a stunning array of prog and prog-ish music to be had, I’ve long given up hope of keeping abreast of it all. Current favorites, in addition to the already mentioned acts, include Pain of Salvation, Threshold, Riverside, Muse, Animals As Leaders, Big Big Train, Anathema, Devin Townsend, Three, Astra, Blackfield, The Pineapple Thief, King Crimson, Headspace, and Mars Volta. But there are still huge holes in my prog knowledge and experience. I’m making prog-ress, but the road continues to rise and wind ahead. Which is exciting, as it means there is more to discover and hear.

6 thoughts on “A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress

  1. Pete Blum

    Prog has always been criticized as “self-indulgent.” Is it self-indulgent if the gift that you give from your self resonates with something in my self? If so, then let’s do be self-indulgent.


  2. Carl, great post. Of your proto-prog influences, my faves are Styx and Queen. I always felt that Styx was unfairly derided, but they are a great gateway experience into prog. And gosh, some great songs.

    I remember one week walking around the campus of the University of Calgary with a Sony Walkman and two cassettes: The Grand Illusion and Three of a Perfect Pair.

    Interesting remark about Van Halen. You know, I can’t get “Dance the Night Away” out of my head ever since I heard it again a few days ago in Ben Affleck’s “Argo” — even though I tried washing it away last night with three hours of Steve Hackett and and a hour or two of Ayreon!

    If Ayreon ever records a double album called “Fly Me to the Moon”, then maybe your Frank Sinatra thesis will be plausible. But I am skeptical until then. Nevertheless, the idea of defining prog through such musings appeals greatly to me. Were Socrates alive today, he would be having a conversation about: “What is prog?”

    Socrates would interject this: “But what you call ‘self-indulgence’, is it not rather a kind of discipline?”


  3. djlarne

    Thank’s for that Carl; I had the impression somebodies’s reflecting my life; besides the Sinatra Theory! But maybe I am just getting old…..:-)

    Cheers Larne from Prog Alley


  4. Carl, your musical journey is interesting. My prog revelation started with Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway back in 1976! If you’re not familiar with it, I think you’d appreciate Peter Gabrielle era Genesis.

    King’s X is a sad story. I first heard of them when Dogman came out in ’93 I think it was. Just loved the heaviness and drive and lyrics. I believe or heard that it was the lead singer’s struggles with homosexuality that led them away from their Christian roots, and so much so that I got a CD several years ago that I had to eventually throw away. The anger and venom toward God and faith was just too much to take.

    Thanks for sharing your journey.


    1. carleolson

      Hi, Mike! Always great to hear from you. It’s funny that you mention early Genesis as that is THE seminal prog group I have never really listened to. I see that Steve Hackett has a “Genesis Revisited II” CD out that is getting rave reviews, and the cuts sound really good. I may start there and work back.

      As for King’s X, it does seem to be a sad situation. Yes, Doug Pinnick (bass/singer) came out about his homosexuality several years ago (1998). Ty Tabor (guitarist/singer) and Jerry Gaskill (dummer/singer) also went through nasty divorces in the ’90s, I believe, and so the band had some crises going on. The quality of their albums since “Dogman” have been mixed; the lyrical content as certainly changed. The anger is very obvious; the early albums have some incredible lyrics about faith, beauty, life, and seeking, and were obviously influenced by thinkers such as C.S. Lewis. No more, alas. Back in late ’90s, I worked with their former drum tech; he didn’t divulge anything, but I knew the band was having struggles. Early this year, Gaskill almost died from a heart attack; I’m not sure if he is back to performing yet. Tabor has done some really fine solo work; I know Pinnick has been keeping busy as well, appearing on a number of albums with other artist. A bit of trivia: Pinnick and Gaskill met in 1979 when they were in short lived band project with Greg X. Volz, former lead singer of Petra. And then they toured with Phil Keaggy a year or two later.


  5. Pete Blum

    Mike, I’m always pleased to hear that The Lamb is important for others as it is for me. Even when I’ve been at my most apostate in relation to prog, The Lamb remains one of THE reference points.



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