Progarchy.com is an awesome music site because we have a contrarian community here with truly excellent taste in music. I love reading everyone’s 2013 lists! It’s a real thrill to share this site with so many thoughtful people. One of the things I especially enjoy is how individual personalities really shine through in the Top Ten lists. And yet we also have some common rallying points. For example: witness the huge love for Big Big Train on this Web site.
So far we have had superb year-end reflections from Alison Henderson, Kevin Williams, Thaddeus Wert, Craig Farham, Russell Clarke, Brad Birzer (in two parts), Erik Heter, John Deasey, and James Turner.
Today, I am going to start my year-end reflections. Like last year, I will spread it out over many days. (Just trying to keep it epic and proggy here, eh?)
But, this year I will also do a couple of things differently. First of all, I am not going to do a Top Ten. In the spirit of Spinal Tap-like excess, and in celebration of the release this year of the riff-tastic 13, Black Sabbath’s fine return to form, I am going to do a Top Thirteen list. (And, after all, it is also the year 2013.)
So, I am going to do my Top Thirteen list in alphabetical order for the first Ten. Then, the last three will be three bonus additions, given out of alphabetical order. (I will explain my rationale further when I get to the final three.)
However, I want to start off my Top Thirteen list with a bit of a dissenting argument. And this argument accompanies the band that I deliberately have coming up first alphabetically into my Part 1 position… namely, Big Big Train.
Notice that I am putting their English Electric Part Two on my list. That’s because I absolutely cannot endorse English Electric Full Power with a Top Ten slot.
I vehemently object to the idea that a prog band can rip apart their two preceding albums and then assemble them into an alternate playlist, mixing in some new bonus tracks, and calling this playlist the final product. What ever happened to the prog ideal that a concept album was a carefully-sequenced work of art that was meant to be digested uninterrupted as an organic whole?
Perhaps that ideal was often more musical B.S. than reality on the artist’s side. But still, on the listener’s side, even if the alleged epic unity was half-baked and overly pretentious, at least it encouraged artists to strive toward that ideal nonetheless, and to encourage listeners to critique the music with those highest of aspirations as setting the bar of judgment of success whenever hearing the approximate realization of the ideal.
So, where are we with prog now in the twenty-first century, if one of the absolutely upper-echelon prog bands is caught up in the technological whirlwind that encourages musical projects to be released in less-than-finished form as mere works in progress?
Well, I am never going to be able to accept the reconfiguration of track order when it comes to excellent prog music. This is because, as I get to know the albums, I become deeply immersed and I internalize every detail. One of the very greatest things when listening to a beloved album is, as one track ends, anticipating — in the brief moment of silence — the beginning sounds of the imminent next track.
J’accuse! By monkeying with the track order of English Electric Parts One and Two, Big Big Train has done violence to the intimate musical memories that are forged as the listener forges a bond with the prog cycle of unfolding experience!
For me, Full Power is not the glorious final form of the magnificent English Electric achievement. I mean, get serious: how can it be? Let me quickly annihilate the thesis: Full Power begins with “Make Some Noise,” which is a great song, but it is a stand-alone single. If you try and argue that it is the indispensable overture to a final-form epic, I will laugh in your face. Get real. It is a B-side, a bonus track, a novelty song. It’s not the unmistakeable “Theme to English Electric.”
Therefore, I say English Electric Part One was the Best of 2012. And English Electric Part Two is the Best of 2013.
But admit it, people: Full Power is an imposter of an album.
Make Some Noise is, yes, a really nice EP of bonus tracks mixed into a short highlights playlist for English Electric fans. But Full Power is as much a playlist as Make Some Noise! How could it possibly be the best form of Parts One and Two?
Okay, wait a minute. Maybe some of you are going nuts at this point. Maybe both you and the band will want to demonstrate to me how Full Power most certainly does work better as an overall track order for the English Electric musical vision.
But you know what? I don’t care. Even if the band were to agree with you.
Because you’d still be wrong about prog in general, even if you might be right about this album. (Honestly, I stopping listening to Full Power after a while because it was just doing too much violence to my already-established, deeply internalized, fond musical memories of Big Big Train’s work. So, maybe you could argue I didn’t give it enough of a chance. But really! Why should I have to?)
But, to conclude, I have saved my main point for last…
I have read a number of people on this site celebrating how 2013 has been such a great year for prog. So much great prog music. More than we have time to listen to. How wonderful. Yada yada yada.
But you know what, people? It is exactly this sort of situation that creeps me out. Look where technology has brought us — a surfeit of prog to tickle our ears in 2013! Now, on the one hand, my immediate reaction to that is joy and excitement. Kid in a candy store, right? But, on the other hand, on further reflection, what does that situation say about prog?
That it has become a commodity!
Which is truly a great danger to the health of the art form, in my opinion. Because, if prog is becoming a generic “commodity,” and you can easily (and without too much effort) get your “fix” of it almost anywhere, then the art form is flattening out, and entering into a decadent phase.
The only hope we have, then, to resist the commodification of prog, is to adhere to critical standards, and to unfurl our annual Top Ten lists as setting the very standards by which we must judge the true upper-echelon achievements as showing best how to resist the commodification of prog.
Therefore, by placing English Electric Part Two on my list — and not English Electric Full Power — I am saying that at all costs we must resist the “playist-ification” — the commoditization — of prog!
I can endorse only fully formed artistic statements as worthy of upper-echelon rank. And if the artists themselves laugh and say that there is no such thing… well, then you know what? They are giving up on one of the key ideals of prog. If you want to do concept albums themselves as time-delayed, track-order improv… well, good luck with that. This ain’t jazz! What new sensibility are you bringing to bear here? Commoditization!
Hey artist, you can go remix Vapor Trails, or go slice up English Electric, if you like… but you know what? I might still enjoy it. But it’s not you at your best. And we fans must refuse to give our critical endorsement to any kind of playlist mentality. Otherwise we may as well go back to Top Forty land.
So, there you have it. Has it really been been prog’s luckiest year ever? Think again…
I say we will always remember that 2013 was when the great Big Big Train gave us an illustration of the greatest danger facing prog: its commodification. (Now, let the debate begin!)
More of my Top Thirteen will soon follow, in celebration of this un/lucky year…
It was the best of prog, it was the worst of prog.