Sunday, 4 August 2013

Progressive Rock Is Magnificent


I have written a number of negative posts about things I dislike, such as golf, opera and Shakespeare. I think it’s about time I started to be a bit more positive and perhaps a little more self-indulgent; I aim to pepper my inane drivel with posts about things I truly love.

I will start with a music genre that you may or may not be familiar with: progressive rock.

What is progressive rock?

Progressive rock (or prog rock) is a subset of rock music where the normal accepted rules about what constitutes a song or the music are cast aside in favour of experimentation, key changes, lengthy masterpieces and fusions with other styles of music to elevate the pieces above the normal formulaic rock recipe.

Basically it is rock music without rules.

Progressive rock music tends to be experimental and the songs range in length for you normal four or five minutes up to 15 minutes, 20 minutes or more. The songs are full of key changes, time signature changes and are serious musical works of art in some case, comparable with classical music. Some songs I have even fused genres I’m not keen on into the mix, such as jazz and although I am not too keen on every experiment they try, for the most part the result is resounding success.

The very first single I ever bought was a progressive rock single by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. My favourite band is Rush, a progressive rock band that are approaching their 40th anniversary. My CD collection is full of albums by artists such as Rush, Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd the true heavyweights of the genre in my view.

And these days, Muse are carrying the torch, producing commercially acceptable music but filling their albums with superb progressive songs.

I have mates who share a lot of my musical taste and we often go to rock gigs together. The overlap is significant and I have seen some phenomenal rock bands with them.

However, they draw the line at progressive rock and leave me alone in my love of the genre. I don’t like going to gigs on my own but have recently been forced to simply because I can’t persuade anyone to part with their cash to see a band who, in my opinion, is full of technically brilliant musical virtuosos.

“Why don’t you fancy going to see Dream Theater? “ I asked my mate two years ago.

“Because their songs last about 15 minutes and go on and on and on,” he replied. To him a song should last five minutes at most.

I can see his point but I disagree. When I listen to classical music, a symphony for example, I listen to a musical masterpiece that lasts for ages and carries me to a happy imaginary place.

Progressive rock does the same for me.

Of course, not all of their songs are that long. For example, these days, the average length of a Rush song is around five or six minutes. The problem is that these shorter songs are also technically stunning, intelligent songs that challenge the status quo in terms of acceptable music.

Detractors of progressive rock argue that the genre is self-indulgent, long-winded and pretentious. I know Mrs PM thinks so. To her and many others you should be able to dance to a song and it should be a short sharp bout of happiness. To her, progressive rock is all about fantasy, geekdom, weirdness, self-indulgent solos and nonsensical lyrics.

Her views are summed up in this entertaining  little parody from Bill Bailey:





However, when I listen to prog, I have no desire to dance, mostly I simply want to sing, conduct or play the air guitar or drums or simply close my eyes and let the music take me on a long journey through my imagination. The lyrical content, particularly from Rush, is intelligent and well-crafted.

Music is more than little pop songs. It’s much, much deeper than that.

Here are some examples by my favourite progressive rock bands, that I think illustrate the diversity of the genre. If you are expecting a load of noise, rock guitars and heavy metal, then you will be surprised. Have a listen and see what you think. Don’t get me wrong, some output can be extremely heavy and noisy; the difference is that even the loudest and fastest songs are technically brilliant:

Muse – The Second Law: Isolated System 

If you have seen World War Z then you will recognise this song as it was used as the main theme of that movie. This particular song is almost orchestral, extremely melodic and is a far cry from some of their more commercial output.



Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb

There are certain songs that bring a tear to my eyes and Comfortably Numb is one of them. Again, it is a wonderfully enchanting song with a beautiful orchestral feel to it, yet with a suggestion of malice as an undercurrent to the song. 



Rush – Mystic Rhythms
Rush are one of those bands that have a loyal army of fans but only few people have heard of. I went to see Rush this year and when I told Mrs PM that the venue was the MEN Arena, Manchester’s biggest musical venue, played by people like Madonna, she simply couldn’t understand how they would manage to fill the place. They did and the concert was fantastic. The fans are loyal because Rush have been producing brilliant music since I was a teenager. Mystic Rhythms is the song I selected because it reminds me of a key moment in my life in 1985. I could write a book about my life with the music of Rush as the soundtrack.



Porcupine Tree – Arriving Somewhere, But Not Here

This song is an example of a relatively long song that is a classical masterpiece. I love songs that start off slowly and melodically, and then build up and up taking you along for the ride. It is a beautiful song and reaches a crescendo about half way through before drifting back to a soothing melodic conclusion. I love it.



Dream Theater – Bridges In The Sky


Dream Theater are classed in some quarters as progressive metal, that is, their music has a much harder edge to it. Furthermore, the average length of their songs is well over ten minutes, some of them approaching and exceeding twenty minutes. This is a typical example of a Dream Theater masterpiece, with throat singing at the start, a choir and an almost orchestral mix before the guitar kicks in and we find ourselves in heavy metal heaven. Dream Theater music is extremely complex and musically very challenging to play, I imagine. Yet at the same time, some of the band’s music is melodic and almost classical.



One of my favourite songs by Dream Theater is the 24 minute Octavarium and I recently found a symphonic version of the song covered by an orchestra. If you are a fan of classical music and have the stamina, listen to this masterpiece below and then look up the original Dream Theater version for comparison.



This sums up why progressive rock is magnificent and my favourite music genre. It is moderan classical music.

Over to you dear reader:

Have you heard of progressive rock?

Are you a fan of progressive rock? If so, who are your favourite bands?

Do you think progressive rock is a load of old pretentious crap?

As usual, if you disagree with me, let me know. I don't mind.


14 comments:

Grace said...

Well I certainly had never heard of 'prog rock' until this morning - it was part of a clue in the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle (4 letters - ___ rock). I listened to a few seconds of each song - skipping around the song. I can't say that at any moment any of it caught my attention. Tho the last one has possibilities. I'm an old R&B fossil so I can't really appreciate any of this.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Grace,

To be honest, bands like Pink Floyd and Rush are bordering on being fossils - as am I.

You may not like the original version of the last one I suspect.

:-)

Cheers

PM

River said...

I agree with your mate who doesn't like songs that go on too long. I especially am not fond of a song where the lyrics are long since finished, but the melody or the la-la-las continue until I race over and flip the switch on the radio.
I don't believe I've heard any prog rock and probably don't want to.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

I'm sure you've heard some prog rock River - maybe Genesis?

Cheers

PM

jeremy north said...

Interesting post as usual.

My favourite bands in those days were Yes Genesis and ELP. A few months ago I came across a podcast by a Yes fan, called the Yesmusic podcast. It renewed my interest in my old albums.

I've really enjoyed going back into my music of the 70s.What I like about prog is the high quality of musicianship, as well as the way the music sucks you into another place.

I've long wondered why it is considered naff ever since, and has never had much of a renaissance. All that considering how popular these bands were in the 70s.

A popular misconception of the birth of punk rock is that it was a reaction to these 'overblown' prog rock bands, with concept albums and massive stage shows. However it was more a reaction to the overblown pop bands like queen. Broadcaster Danny Baker has held forth on many occasions on this subject. A very interesting listen in itself. Baker is a massive fan of Prog, citing bands of which I've never heard.

For me, Rush was a sort of tributary, rather than the real thing, but that's because they came along later. 2112 and Xanadu were works I admired but never loved. Geddy Lee did play a Rickenbacker bass so that was a reason to respect them. What I didn't like was the way their longer pieces seemed to change in a random fashion, without the aplomb of Yes, who were masters of the genre.

Floyd I see more of a blues band straining at the leash. Gilmore is one of my top two guitarists, the solo on Comfortably Numb is magnificent. My preferred version of the song is one their live album, played as an encore with Run Like Hell the other. Awesome.

I'd better leave it at that for now.

... do you like the Guillemots?

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Jeremy,

Yes are one of those bands I've skirted around. You will probably roll your eyes but I love "Owner of a Lonely Heart" - a more commercial effort. They are a band I need to look into - together with King Crimson.

The musicianship is incredible - taking Dream Theater as an example, Jordan Rudess is a wizard on the keyboard and John Petrucci is a maestro on the guitar.

Not heard of the Guillemots - but I will certainly look them up.

:-)

Cheers

PM

monkey_gamer said...

I enjoy Pink Floyd and Rush. I've got Moving Pictures, Fly By Night and 2112. What album should I try next?

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi monkey_gamer,

Where do I begin?

It's up to the style you like.

The latest album "Clockwork Angels" is fantastic, but my favourites include "Moving Pictures", "Hemispheres", "Signals", "Hold You Fire", "Power Windows"and "Counterparts". The ones I haven't mentioned are pretty special too.

:-)

Cheers

PM

River said...

Genesis is prog rock? I did not know that and I do like some of their songs. I have some Phil Collins on my i-pod, but I'm not sure about Genesis, maybe one or two.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

Yes indeed. Sadly, when Peter Gabriel left, they kind of became a bit more like an AOR band.

I'm not a fan of Phil Collins' solo stuff at all - but his Genesis stuff (probably up to Invisible Touch was pretty good).

:-)

Cheers

PM

jeremy north said...

Hi PM
Owner of a Lonely Heart is great. I love that album. Look up a later album "Talk" you'd love it too.
The Rush clip you put here is a bit too 80s, can you find something older?

River
Early Genesis is prog all the way. After Gabriel left is did turn to a different style, but great anyway. Amazing musicians.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Jeremy,

I certainly can. This one is hot off the press from their latest album "Clockwork Angels" - last year.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcFGrWjOX0E

Enjoy!

:-)

Cheers

PM

Big D said...

Prog is one of those genres where I like the odd artist but never got deeper.
I love me a bit of Rush, frequently partake of Marillion (Fish-era only, I'm afraid) and every rock fan in the country has at least one Floyd album, mine being "Dark side...".
When it's done properly it's majestic.
Screw it. I'm going to go put "Comfortably numb" on.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Big D,

Dark Side of the Moon, Animals and The Wall are my Pink Floyd albums.

Fish - era Marillion - yes. I particularly like Incommunicado (a bit commercial but still a great song).

Check out Dream Theater - I think you'll like them.

:-)

Cheers

PM