Is Prog Really Still Prog?

J.C. Harris posted this in the comments, and I thought it was too interesting to leave it there.  Thanks, J.C.–BB

Samey. I honestly can’t tell one of these ‘new prog’ bands from the other. And I have tried. What originally drew me to progressive rock almost 50 years ago now was the -originality- of the best groups. Each band had a truly distinctive voice. And on almost every album, the groups were really -trying- to incorporate new instruments, cultures, chord structures, rhythms, techniques, etc.; -anything- to widen the variety. -That- was the essence of ‘progressive’. How far things have fallen.

The only response people have to the above critique seems to be, “Man you’re -old-.” Which doesn’t address the point. Whenever I hear almost any new (cough) ‘progressive’ group it makes me wonder, “Are bands like this -really- the best we can manage in 2017?”

IOW: this will sound naive, but back when I was 15, I thought that progressive rock would -grow- just like jazz and classical and other serious art forms. And that the ‘prog’ records of -today- would feature even -better- playing, more outrageous compositions and even more imaginative stories. And mostly? That hasn’t happened.

10 thoughts on “Is Prog Really Still Prog?

  1. Boy,sounds like he’s almost RIGHT ON TARGET with THAT feeling!!! Unfortunately,this has not only grown in MUSIC per se’…………but ALL forms of what can be considered “art” nowadays!!! Movies? Wow,don’t even get me STARTED there!!! I can’t even REMEMBER the last time I truly watched a MEANINGFUL,Emotionally MOVING movie!!! Television is NO better either!!! Only has gotten worse and worse as the years roll by!!!

    It’s like,the “writers” of movie,television,music,……….etc…………have ALL just sat back,staring at what they wrote on paper,and thinking………….”Eh,that’s good enough”!!! As if,the “boundary-pushing” was cut-off at the knees years ago,and NOW,is locked up in isolation!!! Is this just ME who feels this way? NOT from the comments I often encounter when reading about a NEW piece of music,movie or television program!!!

    I suppose these writers,need to take a break from their craft until they FIND that magical feeling that led them to writing in the first place!!! Just sayin…………..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michał

    I don’t categorize, I never think that way. But, as an academic exercise:

    My understanding of ‘prog’ is ‘I’ve never heard anything like it before!’ It may be just a different mixture of old ingredients, a visionary application of production values, or – true to the hardline definition – innovation on a purely musical level. So, for me, prog in this millenium is, e.g.:

    King Crimson “The ConstruKction of Light” and the projeKcts (an all-out assault on rock as we know it)
    Anathema “Weather Systems” (known ingredients, but subtly different chord structures, and a true eye opener to the pure beauty of music)
    Deafheaven “Sunbather” (they pretty much reinvented two stale genres in one)
    Steven Wilson “Hand.Cannot.Erase” (see Anathema)
    Marillion “Marbles” and “Anoraknophobia” (they successfully reinvented themselves here)

    Prog is not:

    Steven Wilson “The Raven That Refused to Sing” (adds nothing new to the genre)
    Anathema “Distant Satellites” (the atypical elements sound contrived and the album sounds stale)
    King Crimson nowadays (as much as I enjoy them, they lack the spark of Belew’s line-ups)
    Marillion “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” (a good album, but see “Raven”)
    Deafheaven “New Bermuda” (a great album, but almost nothing new)

    In other words, the prog albumsmade me go ‘wow!’, the non-prog albums did not.

    Am I making sense? Feel free to ignore 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. To quote Steven Wilson:

    “For years I had dismissed metal as music for adolescents, which a lot of people do, because I was only exposed to the stuff that is in the mainstream. And then suddenly I tapped into this whole group of bands from the underground. Actually, it’s because I read a book called ‘Lords Of Chaos’, because I was fascinated with this guy from BURZUM, that led me into the whole world. So I started listening to bands like MORBID ANGEL, some of the doom bands and eventually found my way to MESHUGGAH and OPETH, which to me, were the holy grail of that whole scene. I suddenly realized where all the musicians that were making truly progressive music had gone. They weren’t making old-style progressive music, they were making a completely contemporary form of progressive music by using metal as their kind of conduit, if you like. I mean, Mike from OPETH is completely into progressive rock. But he’s not doing it in a nostalgic way, he’s doing it in a completely cutting edge contemporary way, using metal as his vehicle. And he loves metal just as much as anything, and so do I. And that was kind of a real eye-opener for me, to find musicians who are obviously very much coming from the tradition of the way people made records in the ’70s, but doing it in a completely new and contemporary way and with musicianship that I just didn’t think existed anymore.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well since my thoughts were grist for this mill, I should add that I am not a disinterested party. My ‘day job’ is as a severely under-paid ‘prog’ musician so I take this quite personally. Those who want to hear how I ‘put my money where my mouth is’ may do so at the web site jchmusic.com.

    Frankly, I had -no- idea that much of the ‘prog’ community even existed until recently. I may be dumber than a bag o’ hammers but I thought I was (mostly) out here on my own doing house concerts. I really had no involvement with social media. Stupid man! When CD sales started to tank, in desperation I finally ventured forth to (cough) ‘market’ a bit and -that- is when real despair kicked in. I had been aware of larger acts like Spock’s Beard and then Transatlantic, but that was about it.

    I am truly -amazed- at how many sound-alike 50 something guys there are out there who vaguely resemble Pink Floyd or Marillion off-shoot. None of the virtuosity of the bands I grew up with. Certainly none of the compositional chops. Mostly? I hear a LOT of ‘angst’ and hand-wringing, which is all very well, but so -what-?

    Then there is the the other extreme: the ‘Djent’ bands; the screamers. The math bands, who post their latest Youtube video with pride, “I have 132 time signatures in this one!”

    And somewhere in the middle are bands like Dream Theater that have taken pretentiousness to a whole new level. They remind me of where I used to make my living—playing fusion jazz: a billion notes that wowed audiences but said pretty much -nothing-. I applaud D/T’s ability to monetise this, but frankly I have to repeat myself: when I listen to their records, I don’t hear -compositions-. I hear FORMULAE. I hear a noodly solo, then an ’empassioned cry’, then white noise on an epic plain of sorrow… and so on. Over and over and over. Album after album.

    WTF?

    Now look… if all this is -your- cup of chai? Groovy. If you enjoy the currrent state of affairs, who am -I- to ruin things? But because this -is- my job, you can forgive me if my opinions are a bit more ‘passionate’ than yours. I want these to be good pieces of music and not just an enjoyable listen. CTTE? Karn Evil 9? Power And The Glory? Those are -great- pieces of music. They -endure-. I can listen to them pretty much -any- day of the week, just as I can a Beethoven piano sonata. And there’s a reason for that. They hold together. Whether by accident or intention, they’re great COMPOSITIONS in a way that 99.9% of the stuff done today just is -not-.

    Now look, I play -OK-. But where are the younger guys who -really- play great? The next generation should be coming along and they should be taking it to the next level. And they AREN’T! Where are the guys who play and compose -better- than Keith Emerson? Who do lyrics better than Ian Anderson or Pete Sinfield? Who sing better than Jon Anderson or Peter Gabriel? Just as in sports, we should be moving forward. Making PROGRESS. Instead? We’re stuck. In fact, I would suggest we’re fading. Fast.

    To paraphrase The Joker, This town deserves a better class of Prog. And it’s time to start demanding it. Before it’s too late.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bryan Morey

      Mr. Harris – thanks for your thoughts. As a reviewer and fan of prog (of all eras), I always enjoy reading artists’ perspectives on things.

      While you may be right on all your points, I want to say in defense of current prog musicians (young and old alike) that it is almost unfair to expect them to be as good as Keith Emerson or Ian Anderson or whomever you want to compare them to. Sometimes people so outstandingly magnificent come along that their talent cannot be surpassed. Keith Emerson was one of the greatest pianists and composers of the 20th century, and he was truly one of those once in a lifetime people. He also happened to play progressive rock. Maybe the person of this generation with that much talent has decided to pursue a classical career.

      Ian Anderson was one of the greatest cultural critics in recent memory, yet I would put Andy Tillison (of The Tangent) toe to toe with him any day. If you want excellent composition, thought provoking lyrics, and some of the best vocals in music (of any genre) today, then you have to listen to Big Big Train. They’ve equalled, if not bettered, Genesis at their creative best. Start with “The Underfall Yard” and go forward.

      While younger bands like Haken, whose members I’m guessing are all in their early 30s, may not have the chops that earlier musicians had, they are exceptional when it comes to songwriting. Their brand of progressive metal is also remarkably unique. Sure, there are mild similarities to Dream Theater (how could there not be – DT invented the subgenre), but no one else really sounds like them. Ross Jennings also has one of the best voices in metal (clean vocals, no screaming), and their drummer is exceptional. They are a band taking what has come before and molding it into something new and fresh. Their song, “The Cockroach King,” is a perfect example of that.

      I will say that the prog market is pretty well saturated – just look at the sheer number of reviews the Dutch Progressive Rock Page publishes every week, most of bands no one has ever heard of. However, just because a lot of bands out there are making music that sounds like it could have been made 40 years ago doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t bands making music that progresses the tradition. It’s out there – it’s just hard to find because it gets 0 attention from popular culture and there are so many prog bands out there now that it is easy for a band to get lost in the chaos.

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      1. The problem with discussing music is that it quickly devolves into “I like what I like.”

        What made Keith Emerson great was not his technique (which on his best day was probably not up to snuff for any professional classical pianist). Rather it was his desire to incorporate Ginastera and 8 to the bar into his work. What made Steve Howe so cool? He worked so hard at making flamenco -and- Chet Atkins -and- Jimi Hendrix licks an organic part of his vocabulary. Ian Anderson? “A small man playing an even smaller guitar.” These guys -worked- at have their own style.

        I do not hear -today’s- artists trying to be -different-. Just the reverse, in fact. I do not hear any of the bands you mention having truly unique styles where you hear 5 seconds and go, THAT’S YES! THAT’S GENTLE GIANT! All great bands back in the day had that kind of sonic footprint.

        In my view, music in general (and Prog in particular) became encased in amber starting in about 1990-ish. Jaron Lanier describes this process very well in his excellent book “You Are Not A Gadget” and he blames it on the Internet. An old jazz musician friend of mine put it more succinctly: “Maybe all the good notes are already taken.” 😀

        Best.

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      2. Bryan Morey

        “I do not hear any of the bands you mention having truly unique styles where you hear 5 seconds and go, THAT’S YES! THAT’S GENTLE GIANT! All great bands back in the day had that kind of sonic footprint.”

        I respectfully disagree. I can listen to five seconds of a Big Big Train song and know it is from them for any number of reasons – from the drums to the keyboards to Dave Gregory’s unique guitar tone. Same with Dream Theater – they have an incredibly distinct sound that no one else really does. Even if you don’t like it, it still is unique.

        Furthermore, to second what Dave Smith said somewhere in this comment thread, music has for millennia built upon what has come before. Being able to electrify music and record it for repeated listens is what has uniquely shaped music in the last century. Viewed through that lens, it is clear that just about every era of music in the 20th century was remarkably groundbreaking. Thus, anything that comes after it is obviously going to pay some sort of tribute to what came before. No one can completely abandon their influences.

        I’m reminded of the idiots who tried to sue Led Zeppelin last year for “stealing” a chord progression that the band used in “Stairway to Heaven.” The family of a deceased member of Spirit claimed that it came from one of their songs, when in actuality that particular chord progression has been in use for at least 400 years. There really is nothing new under the sun, and to disparage contemporary prog because it sounds similar to music made in the 70s just doesn’t seem fair to me. Furthermore, lyrics are evolve with the times, so there’s always something unique and fresh to enjoy in them. There are great lyricists in every era of music, and they are great for different reasons.

        As a final point, I wonder how much of the identifiable-ness of the greats from 70s prog can be attributed to the fact that people have been listening to that music for over 40 years. Of course it can be identified in 5 seconds – fans have probably heard the songs over 5,000 times!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I write for DPRP and yes i struggle to keep up with all the new bands that emerge every week but this year three bands ahve impressed me greatly, This Winter Machine’s debut the man who never was is a great mix of old prog influences and moder day value with a great guitarist and singer
    Kaprekars Constant have impressed with their historically driven songs about real people and events and great songs to boot
    and The Mute Gods second album Tardigrades will inherit the earth with it politically charged lyrics is a must so I propse there is plenty of great new prog if you know where to look
    If you seek challenging music listen to Marcus Reuter and Pat M astelotto’s album Face that should do the trick

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  6. I an never that articulate so I am just going to fly by my seat of my pants here and let’s see what comes out. There’s nothing new in prog and it’s all a bit samey. Is that what we are saying here?Why is prog getting the bashing? Classical music. Takes many hundreds of years to move from barok to romantic to modern all using the same orchestral instruments. Did someone complain that Bach should invent a new instrument to make his compositions sound different and all the other guys writing music were just copying him? Folk music. Apart from the electric interpretations it’s never changed in many a century. Country music has evolved into a more popier sound but I don’t hear folks saying it is finished because it hasn’t evolved. Pop music is still three chords in different orders with a beat. There will never be another Beatles.
    Sometimes we are blessed with genius. The reason we know about Keith Emerson and Jon Anderson and Ian Anderson is because in the Seventies progressive music was popular and these artists sold tens of thousands and in some cases millions of records. There was plenty of money to spend on producing masterpieces. Now imagine if Karn Evil 9 was written and released today, or close to the edge. How many people would hear it or buy it. 100,000. No chance. It would be just how Big Big Train are now. Producing wonderful music to a very small group of devoted fans. Stephen Wilson would have been a multi millionaire superstar if hand cannot erase had come out in 1972. We are lucky that we had the golden era and those of us who lived through it are even luckier. Because of today’s technology there will be more people making music that will never be heard by the masses than there ever were in the past. I am one of them. And forget the masses. My music gets heard by virtually no one.
    I like music. I happen to like the genre we call prog music but I wish it didn’t have that name attached to it because all you hear is “if it’s prog it should be progressing and moving forward”. I am just happy that there are people out there like Andy Tillison and Greg Spawton and Steve Babb who can be bothered to make music I like, for little or no reward. Thanks guys.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. As expected, pretty most of the comments boil down to… “Hey, Keith and Jon were GENIUSES! and TIMES WERE DIFFERENT… and… and… well… I like Big Big Train so…ummm…. what can I say? Bugger off.”. Fair enough. People like what they like.

    But my original point was that today’s music sounds -samey- Now I’m 30 years out of music school. But I -did- go to music school. So I took a bit of time and seriously listened to the Big Big Train records suggested, used the hot wax treatment on my ear canals and… it STILL sounds like Transatlantic and Marillion and a dozen other bands I’ve heard recently. The quality of the prose may be a bit better, the timbre of the vocalist may be a bit more to your taste, but frankly has -none- of the individuality of Yes or GG or PFM or ELP, et. al. It sounds like any of the increasingly interchangeable cast of new prog groups out there. The drum sounds. The guitars. The mellotron. And I don’t just mean the timbres, I mean the -styles-. There’s simply nothing that says ‘Steve Howe’ or ‘Geddy Lee’, etc. Instead of getting defensive, I think the community should start to recognise this as an existential problem. Perhaps everyone has started using so many damned ‘samples’ or using the same ‘modeled amps’ or watching the same Youtube tutorials that they’ve lost the ability to become their own kind of singer/guitarist/lyricist. I heard the guys in Meshuggah actually program their tunes ‘mathematically’ in Cubase and -then- learn to play them afterwards. Maybe that says something profound. But -something- seems lifeless when compared to Heart Of The Sunrise. I’m not being nostalgic. It’s a stylistic choice. The music -feels- depressing-. It’s not just about sad topics. I mean there’s something literally not quite organic that is present in earlier Prog (or at least in what I try to do.) OK, I’ve said what I set out to say. Thanks. I do appreciate the counter-examples.

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