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ProgBlog goes to the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice but still manages to find prog connections - and a relatively new record store...

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...




By ProgBlog, Oct 11 2015 09:38PM

The October edition of Prog magazine is obviously the best edition there’s ever been but not because of the feature content, good though it is (Peter Gabriel), it’s because the covermount CD includes Brocken Spectre, my tone poem from Shadows and Reflections (2012.) I submitted the track and it was accepted for the Prog Unsigned CD in 2013 but the finances were a little prohibitive; the cost of a covermount is much lower. The blurb that the Prog team have included next to my photo paraphrases a description by my brother Richard that appears on the Agnen Records website, a possible attempt to avoid plagiarism that comes across as pretty meaningless and not strictly true; Richard’s review covers the entire album, not just the opening track. Also, I hardly think “hauntingly unusual” is great praise but I‘ll take it, anyway! The actual recording isn’t very good, unless that’s just the system I’m using, but there’s some distortion and the volume is rather low. The next track on the CD, Kestrel by Scale the Summit is very professional (and interesting) modern prog but I think I detect some distortion on that, too. It’s somewhat embarrassing to be included on a promo CD that demonstrates the huge gulf between incredibly technically competent groups and my bedroom/keyboard/guitar/PC set-up but it is nice to appear on the same disc as The Enid. I’m going to check out the Scale the Summit album from which their piece has been taken, Von Prosthetic.

I’ve questioned the content of Prog magazine before http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/How-prog-is-Prog-magazine-(originally-posted-24-11-13)/7823668

but decided that it does meet the requirement for catering for unreconstructed 70s prog-philes whilst still managing to preserve a place in the competitive periodicals market. It’s something that I can’t really do without and, like my six days a week subscription to The Guardian, I read at least 80% of it (The Guardian maintains that rubbish like The Great British Bake Off is worthy of news content. No, it’s an awful TV show.) The frequency of Prog ensures that there is sufficient new or freshly reappraised copy and now that we’ve reached a time point where the current wave of musicians can reflect on the music played by their parents, it brings a new perspective to the genre, one of the reasons, I believe, that progressive rock found a new respectability in the 90s. Prog magazine somehow remains sufficiently niche, albeit with a spectrum that takes in progressive-minded metal, electronica, folk, jazz and ambient and though Classic Rock magazine (for instance) might overlap on some content, most likely material on a part-time progressive act like Pink Floyd (for instance) there are so many bands that they miss entirely, just because they’re either not filling stadia or aren’t seen as the next big thing. I used to buy Q or Classic Rock if there was a long enough feature on a band, or individual, that I was interested in; most often these occasions coincided with a lengthy journey, something to take away the boredom of a long flight. Contrast that with buying the second edition of Prog magazine whilst on the holiday of a lifetime in New Zealand: I’ve kept the Prog, the Qs have long gone. Though much music journalism now references progressive tendencies (Muse and Tame Impala come to mind, acts that are likely to be covered by mainstream media) these are handy epithets that confer a description of a group that doesn’t always follow the ordinary; conventional publications concentrate on image and advertising revenue, requiring an understanding of style in its broadest sense.

I’m not into style. When punk was spreading like an infection through the UK and new wave was migrating westwards across the Atlantic from New York clubs, I was growing my hair and wearing flared cords. Original cut-price jeans emporium Dicky Dirts, based in an old cinema in Camberwell, used to have a stall at Goldsmiths’ College every so often. They can’t have believed their luck when they found someone (me) to buy up Levi flares in the very late 70s and very early 80s. You could argue that in my ex-RAF trench coat I was conforming to the style of a hippie and on my first ever trip to central London as an impressionable fresher in search of culture I was accosted in Trafalgar Square and asked if I’d like to buy some dope. However, the hippie movement, and prog, had died out some time before. I was simply wearing clothes that I felt comfortable in.

I was somewhat surprised to see free copies of the NME available outside Whitechapel station on my way to work last Friday. Sporting an image of Taylor Swift, with a prominent yellow bubble appearing like a peeling sticker announcing MUSIC FILM STYLE, I realised that the long descent of the NME had finally come to an end, at rock bottom. Like other magazines handed out at transport hubs, NME has become nothing more than a listings magazine but hangs on to its former USP as a music journal. I’m not sure exactly when style became more important than the music. There had been obvious tribes, with their own form of dress in the past but it may have been glam rock, covered by the serious music papers at the time, where the manufactured rather than just the manipulated, became ascendant. It’s deeply ironic that anti-fashion punk should emerge from a clothes store though it was post-punk synthesizer pop that most benefited from the emerging concept of style magazines. It’s an interesting historical note that NME and The Face journalist Robert Elms used to write a column for one of the early free listings publications, either Ms London or GAT (Girl About Town) that was pushed into my hand at Barons Court Underground station on my way to work at Charing Cross Hospital during the mid 80s; now the newspaper Elms used to work for is given away free in a victory of style over substance. I always preferred Melody Maker over the NME and it’s a shame that the former had to merge with the latter at the end of 2000, at a time when rock music was once more becoming interesting.

Though electronic media has played some part in the demise of the printed word, the best strategy seems to be balancing both forms of medium. I’d rather hold a book or a magazine than hold a phone, looking at tweets or posts to Facebook. I recently read Armando Gallo’s early Genesis biography I Know What I Like on my Samsung tablet and found it deeply unsatisfying; I can only imagine that reading a magazine that way would be equally disappointing but I know that one of the secrets to commercial success is to mix formats.

Hats off to Prog magazine for not only publishing some of my music on a covermount CD but for keeping going, seemingly from strength to strength, in a fiercely competitive environment.



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