Prog 2.0

toolThis is a piece written for Classic Rock two years ago, a rant about the rise of the new prog scene.

It’s official: prog rules…still. Whether it’s the neo-Floydian stadium prog of Tool, the sheet-metal art of Isis or the pulverising complexity of Mastodon, we have new prog bands coming at us from every angle. We have bands like Radiohead, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Ros who emerged from the late 90s indie scene, former Norwegian black metallers like Enslaved, Ulver and Solefald  who have reinvented themselves as avant garde experimental bands. Then you have a whole movement of countless bands spawned by the US hardcore and emo scene, such as The Mars Volta, Coheed & Cambria and The Dillinger Escape Plan who have forged their own particular take on artrock. You have bands like Spock’s Beard and Symphony X inspired by Dream Theater and Iron Maiden who have emerged from the more traditional realms of metal. And there are too many to count – English folk-prog eccentrics Circulus for example and British prog stalwarts Porcupine Tree – who just don’t really fit in anywhere neatly.

These bands have one thing in common, which is a desire to push themselves beyond the commonplace, to place themselves at the head of something new, apart from the crowd. It’s not necessarily a kind of elitism – they are all, at the end of the day, entertainers – but in a world dominated by anonymous meat and two veg bands, they are reclaiming their position as artists in an artless world.

These bands are pretentious as fuck, but as Brian Eno wrote in his 1996 book A Year With Swollen Appendices, it’s time to stop using the term as an insult: “Pretension is the dismissive name given to people’s attempts to be ‘something other than what they really are’. It is vilified in England in particular because we are so suspicious of people trying to ‘rise above their station’. In the arts, the word ‘pretentious’ has a special meaning: the attempt at something that the critic thinks you have no right even to try… The common assumption is that there are ‘real’ people and there are others who are pretending to be something they’re not. There is also an assumption that there’s something morally wrong with pretending.” 

Time then too for everyone to get over the term progressive, which is still used as a pejorative term by some snooty critics, bands and fans.

“I like the term in terms of the dictionary definition of progressive music, moving forward and trying things that push boundaries,” says Cedric Bixler of The Mars Volta.

Mostly its detractors focus on the easily mocked surface characteristics that were actually only applicable to a small handful of progressive bands. In terms of making music that progresses, however, prog rock never ever really went away.  

In the immediate aftermath of punk – which, according to many lazy hacks, “finished” prog – a new school of bands tried to make music that did more than repeat the same three chord formula. Public Image Ltd, John Lydon’s post-Pistols combo forged a truly uncompromising and original fusion of dub, metal and avant garde noise that owed more to Can than the New York Dolls; Glasgow’s Simple Minds, particularly on their Steve Hillage-produced 1981 double album Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, incorporated many elements from classic Genesis along with krautrock, disco and the avant garde; Ultravox, on their classic Systems Of Romance, made an album that seemed to continue the direction that Roxy Music abandoned after For Your Pleasure; Wire – arguably a synthesis of Ramones-style minimalist punk and high prog complexity – recorded a 15 minute track called Crazy About Love for a John Peel Show session in 1979, and Peel grumbled that it was a step backwards.

Rather than punk seeing prog off there’s a case for saying that it was prog that ultimately triumphed.

Throughout the 80s there were bands like Marillion and IQ who were unashamedly prog and others, from the Cocteau Twins to Sonic Youth who may never have used the term, but who were undoubtedly progressive in their approach to music. In the 90s techno artists like The Orb, Orbital and Ultramarine started making music that evoked everything from Pink Floyd to Canterbury bands like Caravan and Soft Machine. Indie bands like ex-House Of Love guitarist Terry Bickers’ Levitation and the much hyped but short lived Ultrasound heralded a short-lived revival of interest in prog in some quarters. And plugging away without much in the way of commercial or critical acknowledgement was Steven Jones and Porcupine Tree, who virtually was prog rock in the UK.

Prog rock has always survived and thrived away from the attention of the mainstream media. Without press coverage, TV or radio support, unashamed prog bands like Dream Theater are able to sell out major venues.

“We used to be resentful in the old days when we were starting out, we’d turn on MTV and see these bands that can’t play their instruments and only play three chords selling millions of records. It used to piss us off but those bands don’t have a career anymore and we do. It’s proved that our long hard road has paid off,” says Mike Portnoy.

So why has prog come out of the closet now? Possibly the word itself has lost the embarrassment factor that conjures up images of Rick Wakeman staging King Arthur on ice – magnificent but bollocks – and possibly after years of relentless simpleton music both bands and fans want something more.

“I see us as much as a band coming from punk rock and hardcore as from a progressive tradition,” says Cedric Bixler. “I think that we represent a synthesis of a lot of those ideas. The energy of punk and the creativity of progressive bands like King Crimson and Yes and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.”

“I hope that Blood Mountain [Mastodon’s third studio album] pushes a lot of people to do something better, to try and outdo us” says Mastodon founder and drummer Bran Daillor. “I think that rock music has been complacent for years. I really hope that this is a new age of progressive music. That doesn’t mean that the bands should all sound like Yes but that they should be trying something different.”

“You listen to those bands from the 70s and there’s a sense of friendly competition,” says Cave In’s frontman Stephen Brodsky. “It’s not like Yes were out to rip off Genesis or vice versa, they were just pushing their own craft to the furthest possibilities. Listen to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, they went 100 per cent. It couldn’t get crazy enough and they just kept going.” 

The release of Tool‘s masterpiece Laeteralus and its subsequent commercial and critical success was a kick in the teeth for the legions of marketing-led dumbed down Muppets. A 70 minute album with no perceptible tunes, songs averaging 7 minutes, no pictures of the band on the cover (who aren’t exactly what you’d call pretty boys anyway) and lyrics written in Enochian, the language supposedly spoken by Adam in the Garden of Eden? Eminem was not exactly shitting himself but when the band went on tour in 2003 with King Crimson, it was pretty clear that something was happening.

Tool attract thousands of goth metallers who I’m sure have no idea who King Crimson are yet these people are sitting through 13 minute long songs so there’s obviously a market out there,” says Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy.

“[King Crimson guitarist] Robert Fripp said he’d been writing a lot of heavier songs in response to what he’s heard from us, which is terrifying to have him go out and open for us, because he’s the master,” says Tool singer Maynard James Keenan. “We’ve always copped to being influenced by King Crimson and to have them play ahead of us…. I’m afraid that the kids are going to hear King Crimson and go, ‘Tool ripped these guys off.”

These were young kids packing out these stadium shows and not only were they not merely tolerating Crimson, they were actively digging it and then sitting through two hours of Tool. They were obviously unaware of the received wisdom that kids today have goldfish-like short attention spans.

Tool‘s success along with the continuing superstar status of Radiohead and more recent hits like Sigur Ros’s Takk and Muse’s Black Holes And Revelations is part of a general reaction to dumbed-down pop world. Whether this shift is something to do with a reaction against the over-produced over-marketed over-simplified ‘rock-lite’ that fuels the MTV/modern rock radio axis of evil may be wishful thinking but the evidence shows that not everyone is content with slick metal fodder from the production line.

There’s a story that may or may not be true: when the head man at EMI heard Radiohead’s Kid A, he immediately cancelled everyone’s Christmas bonuses. Kid A, despite being an incredibly difficult album, sold respectably well but this does show the mentality of the major labels. They are quite uncomfortable with ‘art’ these days.

‘Art’ is one of those nebulous terms that makes you sound like a jackass the second you try to define it. In this context art means reaching for something profound, pushing the limits of what you can do with rock and roll, having the guts to do something exactly the way you want to do it and not how ‘the market’ dictates that you should. At its worst, it means making noise that nobody actually likes or making it for a few hard core punters who will, in an emperor’s new clothes style, hail you as a genius, but that’s only because it makes them feel superior to the rest of us. In other words, one man’s art is another man’s arse.  

It’s ironic, that there are some self-styled progressive bands who are actually very retro. There are loads of progressive revival bands out there, laboriously recreating Peter Gabriel era Genesis or Tales From A Topographic Ocean period Yes.

But the new school of bands are not so much a revival as picking up the baton that was dropped somewhere in the 1980s and running with it again. They are informed by everything else that has happened in music since, from punk, thrash, hardcore, hip hop, house, techno, death metal, doom metal and nu metal. Recent works Tool, Enslaved or Porcupine Tree could not have been by any stretch of the imagination actually made in 1974.

This is progressive rock 2.0; a reboot of the open mindedness that made the early 70s the most fertile period in rock’s history. Reviving that will be real progress.

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