Progressive Rock: What's Working, What Isn't, and How It Can Be Fixed

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but progressive rock is in kind of a weird place right now. It isn't quite dead but it sure as hell isn't thriving, and while groups like The Mars Volta, Muse and Coheed and Cambria are doing well in the mainstream, those are probably the only three modern prog rock bands you pick out from the radio, and at this point it's common knowledge that all three by and large suck in a big way(a couple exceptions can be made for TMV). If one were to turn to metal, one would see a lot more creativity and daring (Opeth, Mastodon, Porcupine Tree and Tool are all pushing boundaries and gettin' scrillions) along with a creative black hole that threatens to keep the genre bogged down in the muck forever(God help us, Dream Theater is still making albums and, were one to spend a few minutes crawling through iTunes, one would find that the number of bands who have made a career of ripping off their sound is incalculable).

Certainly, prog isn't flagging as much as it was during the '90s, but things could still be going a lot better. The simple fact of the matter is that, despite the label of the music, many bands have refused to evolve, forever shackled by their grandiose gods and fathers of the 1970s. Certainly, one always has to be aware of their past in order to push forward, but at this juncture many artists aren't so much taking influence from their fore bearers as they are becoming content to be nothing more than glorified Rush cover bands. It doesn't have to be this way. There are some simple things that can be done to keep progressive rock from fossilizing.

What Works

Ambition: This is maybe the most needed aspect of modern progressive rock. Groups like King Crimson and Yes didn't become labeled as prog icons by copying other groups: They forged their own path and defined a genre. The Mars Volta's Frances the Mute is an excellent example of this. Did it always succeed at what it was trying to do? No, but it was interesting, and half a decade later nobody has released anything quite like it, and I guarantee you that in ten years it'll be held in the same regard as 2112 and Selling England by the Pound.

Abstraction: You don't always have to let the audience know what you're talking about. Lots of the fun of early prog albums was simply listening to the singer spray out poetic nonsense, or looking for all the hidden meanings and references in the lyrics. Prog is, by nature, a fairly hard to grasp beast, but if you're more upfront with it it's easier to accept and, in the long run, more rewarding for the listener.

Goofy Album Art: This seems like a weird one, but it's important to make sure you have a flag to wave. Check out the ludicrous sea-dragon on the cover of Asia's self titled debut or the menagerie of British beasts and noblemen on A Trick of the Tail. Silly? Yeah, but memorable, and what's more, it's indicative of the music on the inside to boot. For that matter, look at the artwork of the album I posted at the top, Thought Chamber's Angular Perceptions. In concept it's utterly ridiculous, but I'll be Goddamned if you wouldn't at least pick it up if you saw it in a record store.

Virtuosity: This is almost too obvious, but some bands have been disobeying this rule as of late: If you're not an expert at your chosen instrument, find another genre to work in. An ability to draw from a multitude of influences, from jazz to classical to Latin American, is the surest way of not only making sure your music has flavor, but that it can be appreciated by the widest audience possible without alienating them.

Storytelling/Bombast: And of course, this ties in with maybe the most important aspect of prog: Go big or go home. By nature of the genre, you're already putting yourself on a pedestal. You might as well go the extra mile and turn it into a stage. Progressive rock can be the ultimate form of musical escapism. I want to hear about monsters, heroes, robots, societies at war and massive conflicts between good and evil. I want the music to swell, to lift me up, take me somewhere else. Progressive rock is nothing without grandeur, and a great story can be one of the surest ways of giving your music scope. Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Pink Floyd's The Wall and Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery are remembered as much for the music as they are for the tale that each one tells.

What Doesn't

Keyboards: This is not to say that keyboards shouldn't be used in prog at all. This is to say that every time your keyboard makes a "ZWEEE DWOMM BEEEEM" noise, somewhere in the world a child steps on a landmine. It's garish at best and absolutely unbearable at worst. Emerson, Lake and Palmer relied on those sounds because they had no other options. In the '70s. We're in the 21st century now, folks. Add some new sounds to your repertoire.

Self-Seriousness: When I turn on a prog record and start to get excited listening to the jazzy drums, the driving bassline and the soaring guitar work, the last thing I want to hear is some drip moaning about his relationship problems. The notoriously tightassed Robert Fripp himself would tell some of these singers to lighten up. Prog is about escapism. Nothing's a bigger buzzkill than angst, and nothing is more pathetic/hilarious than an album with a spaceship on the cover that's focused entirely on girlfriend troubles.

Songwriting: And while I'm on the subject, most of the songwriting in modern prog albums flat sucks. Pick any Dream Theater song at random and try not to bust a gut: At one point they seriously use the phrase "Ever-deadly suicide". You almost feel bad for making fun of them. Sadly, many others don't fare much better, and even the otherwise dependable Porcupine Tree has had a few missteps when it comes to lyrics. If you can't make lyrics as poetic as your instrumentation, get somebody else to write them for you. It worked wonderfully for King Crimson.

Overdoing It: Even some older bands were guilty with this, but most of the time, they had the technological limitations of the LP to keep them in check. Modern bands have no such gatekeepers, which is how bands like the Flower Kings can release a two and a half hour double album and somehow still be able to live with themselves. It's why a song like the Mars Volta's "Cassandra Gemini" can be around fifteen minutes of solid, majestic musical content and twenty of murderously dull filler. When you can't keep the energy and excitement up, stop. Just because you can play a guitar solo for ten minutes doesn't mean that you should. Showing off your chops is one thing, but seriously: Learn when to shut the fuck up. Your audience will adore you for it.

Homaging: Jon Anderson sung in a goofy falsetto. That doesn't mean you have to sing in a goofy falsetto. Keith Emerson used ridiculous, dated keyboard sounds. That doesn't mean you have to use ridiculous, dated keyboard sounds. Neil Peart has a 30-piece drum kit. That doesn't mean you need a 30-piece drumkit. This goes back to the beginning of the article: We realize that you idolize these old bands, and that there's a lot to learn from some of them. But that doesn't mean you have to content yourself with always standing in their footprints. Do you know why lots of people loved those bands? They were doing something new. They were breaking boundaries. You aren't. And if you're content to stagnate, then you don't deserve the title of "progressive".

When progressive rock first emerged in the '70s, there were very clear leaders. Visionaries. You had people like Robert Fripp who were doing things with the guitar that nobody had heard before. Songwriters like Peter Gabriel who knew how to play with words and yank a smile out of even the most jaded listener, and drummers like Bill Bruford who launched a legion of young percussionists to try and pull off the wrist-snapping time changes that he could.

I don't really know that there are any real pathmakers working in prog today. I spent hours trying to find one a couple of days ago and came up empty. And I do think that, without a group of daring artists willing to slap people's preconceptions upside the head, prog will fail. And these musicians will have nobody to blame but themselves.



  1. Fuck me, that is an awesome cover.

  2. You need to listen to Beardfish! And The Mars Volta's Amputechture is the closest to prog rock they have done.