By ProgBlog, Apr 3 2016 06:21PM
As I begin to type I’m listening to Seconds Out, bought from Cob Records in Porthmadog during the HRH Prog 4 trip. This is relevant because on the return journey from Wales we (from now on to be referred to as 'The Committee') discussed the provenance of the bands performing at the festival, resolving to come up with either a scientifically derived formula (The Committee, at that stage, was comprised of scientists) or to autocratically pronounce whether a piece of music conformed to our naturally correct definition of progressive rock. Jim later went on to suggest that there could be two lists within the catalogue, so that Genesis would be included as a prog band, but their album Genesis (1983) wouldn’t make the list of progressive rock albums; the first tenet is that post-Hackett Genesis albums are not prog, so I’m listening to the last Genesis prog album.
The problem of hitting upon a comprehensive and logical catalogue has been documented in all books about the genre as well as played out on the letters pages of Prog magazine. Apart from perhaps Math Rock or some JS Bach, music is emotive and emotions are not controlled by logic, so though there can be some convention by which the definition is set, these rules are inherently fluid. There is a degree of agreement between most of the authors of the earliest academic or serious works on the subject, Bill Martin, Edward Macan and Paul Stump but their studies primarily relate to what Martin calls ‘the golden era’ of progressive rock (1968 – 1978), a time when there weren’t so many groups, albums or different genres; the advent of neo-prog in the early-mid 80s but more so the Lazarus-like emergence in the early-mid 90s really complicates the field as divergent influences and a propensity for the music business to come up with ever more labels to package their charges. I don’t believe that the original defining traits of prog can now be applied to exponents of the genre, because alongside virtuoso performances, ‘stretching out’ whether by improvisation or structured development including passages of divergent dynamics to create long-form compositions, the utilisation of technology to produce innovative sounds and the adoption of more thoughtful, often literary or philosophical themes that demanded some form of intellectual engagement with the audience, so called ‘head music’, was the absorption of multiple influences of musical style, central to which was the importance of European art music.
The jettisoning of blues-based American influences and the belief that a form of rock that borrowed from classical music could bridge the divide between high culture and popular culture were catalysts in the formation of progressive rock. Though the title wasn’t applied to music at the time (I called it 'techno-rock', to highlight the importance of the [mostly] keyboard technology and the technical dexterity required to play the music), progressive was an appropriate term because it was a musical form that seemed to actively push at boundaries. Keith Emerson hints at this in the sleeve notes to the proto-prog Five Bridges album and Emerson himself was one of the main bridges between the two schools, writing a piano concerto and continuing to play blues riffs during piano solos.
I think that politics and sociology also played an important part in the formation of the progressive rock movement, where the hippie ideals of the late 60s were carried on by musicians; 70s prog was generally positive, inclusive and questioning, all qualities that constitute a progressive form of politics, and some of the musicians explored what at the time were considered niche interests like vegetarianism. The progressive rock movement was incredibly successful, due in part to the ‘college circuit’ as higher education was opened up to more of the population in the 60s and student unions began to take responsibility for booking acts, bringing groups and their target audience together. When I was applying to universities in the late 70s, I placed considerable importance on the ability of a campus to attract bands though by the time I went to uni punk had come and largely gone.
Some commentators and musicians have suggested that playing the greatest hits from your 70s heyday is not progressive and that to live up to the term there has to be evidence of progression, a continual development. The Committee briefly discussed the use of the terms progressive rock and prog and maybe it’s best to apply the phrase ‘progressive rock’ to the music produced between 1968 and 1978 where there was a genuine direction of progress, strictly encapsulating a particular musical form within a specific time period. This leaves us with ‘prog’ which covers both progressive rock and idioms that used progressive rock as a blueprint: neo-prog and the music produced in the resurgent period from the early 90s to the present day. Prog is able to borrow from more sources, has some remarkable technology both in terms of the instruments and software available for recording, such that file sharing allows musicians to contribute to a recording remotely and their contribution slotted in without ever physically getting together with their collaborators, but while still boasting a healthy number of practitioners with amazing technique, the virtual studio allows less dextrous exponents to shine, ensuring that successful prog is more about concepts than mere execution, otherwise music-making would be reduced to an almost mathematical process devoid of emotion; there is even a new set of socio-political factors from which to choose a grand theme that will allow prog to remain relevant, rather than just looking back to the 70s for inspiration, including burning issues like the continuation of wars, the mass migration of peoples displaced by war, austerity and its flip side, the enrichment of the very few, the impact of globalisation, and the urgency of the need to accept and combat climate change. These concepts could be described under one banner: the Anthropocene era.
It goes without saying that original progressive rock is included under the prog umbrella but it’s the relationship between prog and progressive rock that is critical to the definition of prog; although progressive rock elements appear in other contemporary genres, the degree to which this music conforms to the principles of ‘golden era’ are crucial to whether or not the music is prog. This is where objectivity ends and subjectivity begins, so, with the terminology sorted out, it’s time for The Committee to compile the lists...