Perfect Sound Forever

ATTEMPTING TO EXPLAIN THE OUTCAST: The Tenacity of Prog Rock

King Crimson and Don Caballero- blood relatives?

By Scott McGaughey
(February 2000)

Progressive Rock, the scorned and battered stepchild of rock 'n roll, has rarely been held in high esteem. Not that respect dictates musical value, but Progressive (or prog) rock is one of the least regarded genres in the vast world of rock music. For some, prog rock equals pretension and pomposity - pansy virtuosos singing of wizards and moons and laying down pseudo-classical epics, all the while emitting a nauseating aura of gaudy 'high culture.' This caricature is greatly exaggerated, but not without some truth. Even King Crimson, the best of the batch known as prog, sang of 'fire witches' and 'Prince Rupert'. But this accusation outright assumes that such material should be seen as BAD; an unfortunate, artistic misstep.

The prejudices against this genre have remained intact and as Robert Fripp points out "mainly consist of recycled views of careless musical history"(Epitath liner notes p. 43). It is hard to ignore the nasty baggage of prog rock, and its reputation has been "regurgitated over a period of years" by critics and fans alike (Epitath liner notes p. 43). Out of laziness and blindly following what is known as 'good', 'bad', hip or unhip, the general hatred towards the genre perpetuates, and is almost taken as fact ('prog rock' is arguably the highest cringe-inducing musical term in existence, second only to 'New Age'). But in my defense, I keep in mind that there really are loads of horrendous stuff out there too (ELP's rendition of "Fanfare for the Common Man" comes to mind). But with all the negativity surrounding prog rock, I have to wonder why its mark and influence is everywhere in today's rock music.

First of all, prog is possibly the broadest genre in the expansive realm of rock 'n roll. Everyone from Captain Beefheart to Queen has been identified as having prog-ish tendencies. That comparison is certainly debatable (Beefheart seems to usually be called experimental, avant-garde, art-rock, proto-punk, etc. etc.), but I've seen it with my own eyes. So how can Beefheart, an artist known for difficult and dissonant music even be in the same ballpark with the flashy, show-stopping anthems of Queen? The established notion of progressive rock remains somewhat exaggerated: Music that is classically-influenced, mystical, high-concept, flamboyant and built upon lengthy and complex 'compositions.' When comparing Captain Beefheart to this list, the only semi-accurate quality would involve the complexity found in his music. Yet still he could be, and has been, considered prog rock.

But the idea of progressive rock has undoubtedly changed over the years, even as its reputation remains based on its original characteristics. Modern bands drawing inspiration from the genre have avoided the plodding drama and theatrics (not to mention the vocals usually), and maintained a few vague similarities. It's unlikely that many contemporary, or any, bands set out to play the 'prog rock' sound. But many of these artists find themselves somewhat pigeonholed due only to a slight resemblance. Today, the term almost seems to loosely mean rock music with a degree of complexity played in above-average song lengths. This is based on my opinion and may be a skimpy definition, but explaining the term leads to a barrage of exceptions, contradictions and special cases. Current bands that could arguably be identified with the genre all have individual traits related to prog rock - The Ruins (virtuosity, precise & convoluted arrangements), Don Caballero (unusual & King Crimson-esque time changes, long songs), and the list of bands that simply resemble the contemporary idea of prog rock is endless: Trans Am, Boredoms (particularly Super ae), June of '44, Champs (C4AM95), etc. Of course following my generic definition creates a number of contradictions also.

Still, it's surprising that most of today's bands with prog influences are found in the indie/underground, a world usually associated with the DIY/punk ethic. How have prog rock and punk rock, the extreme opposites in sound, attitude and overall 'theory' become linked in the slightest way? It seems less likely that in the '70's Yes could, in any way, even faintly resemble the sound or community of a punk band. Yet recently, we've had such punk inclined artists as the Flying Luttenbachers constructing prog-rock symphonies of sorts (Gods of Chaos). Not to mention, the appearance of the term "prog-rock hardcore" (in reference to the now deceased Dazzling Killmen). The categories of music (and especially rock) are melting together. I have a feeling that statement is na´ve and overly-obvious given the idea of post-modernism in music, but my knowledge on the subject is meager, so allow me to quietly dodge that loaded gun.


Maybe the explanation of prog's appearance in today's indie/underground music can be found easily (though I'm sure I'll jumble it up somehow). Recently, the interest in avant-garde music seems to have increased greatly. Much has been made of indie/'post-rock' groups like Gastr del Sol and Tortoise incorporating the more accessible aspects of the avant-garde into their music, thus possibly providing a window into new musical worlds for many whom may not know of such music. There's no doubt that this factor, along with Jim O'Rourke and David Grubbs' (members of the now defunct Gastr del Sol) reissuing of albums by Derek Bailey among others, has contributed to the strong interest in the avant-garde. Now there are hordes of former indie rockers turning their ear towards, and incorporating into their music, the experimental side of things. Surely this could result in some new, interesting music but unfortunately will also (and already has) mean the appearance of bland and unoriginal 'avant-garde' music.

So how does the avant-garde relate to prog? It probably doesn't. But indie rock's incorporation of the avant-garde has sounded more like indie rock's incorporation of progressive rock. When it comes to rock, you're not going to get many bands toying around with serialism. But you will get artists stretching out their songs, messing around with time changes and using electronics. These characteristics, among others, will not likely sound new, avant-garde, or cutting edge, but they will be experimenting with what a standard rock band usually does, and that's similar to the role of progressive rock groups of the past.


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