Progressive Rock In Retrograde

(The article was first published on Medium in November 2019)

by Dmitry M. Epstein

November 2019 will see the debut edition of Carl Palmer’s Prog Rock Camp taking place, which is a travesty of the very idea behind this genre. As one third of ELP, one of its progenitors, he, of all people, should know: progressive rock has always been a way of thinking — forward-thinking — as opposed to merely technical playing of highest order. But this is the sign of our controversial times.

Prog rock has been rotting for decades now. It’s impossible to hear original sounds today, when every influence is within reach, because everyone tends to snap to a prefab sonic template instead of going back to roots and trying to construct something new upon a stable foundation. Such an IKEA approach might be convenient yet it’s also lazy where creativity is involved.

Those templates were original. Pink Floyd and Yes, King Crimson and Genesis, Gentle Giant and Hawkwind were always easy to tell apart because they sounded dissimilar, while drawing on the same influences — they just mixed the DNA strands differently — and they were never obsessed with any particular style. Even when Yes and Genesis moved on to what was perceived as pop pastures in the ’80s — with the likes of, respectively, “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and “Invisible Touch” — they were still moving: moving forward or, in other words, progressing.

The term “progressive rock” didn’t exist in the preceding decade, at the movement’s onset. As opposed to their epigones, the genre’s protagonists used to draw on everything in order to create original material, something that would be uniquely their own and would define them as musical entity. They went for essence, for primary elements: blues and symphony, jazz and rock ’n’ roll — there wasn’t anything they considered not worthy of being ingredients which would go into a melting pot of what’s known as prog now. When Peter Gabriel sang, “Hello, babe, with your guardian eyes so blue,” in “Supper’s Ready” — an epic where many styles are interlaced — you might not pinpoint Otis Redding as his hero, but the influence of soul on him was obvious.

Hung on epics and concepts — something that Ian Anderson detested to an extent of mocking it on Jethro Tull’s “Thick As A Brick” which, as if to illustrate fans’ inability to take the genre less than seriously, became a quintessential prog album — later artists forgot about the “rock” part of the term they admire, let alone the rock foundation the old guard was and is rooted in. It’s nigh on impossible for today’s artsy crop to come up with a pure blues record like Steve Hackett turns in time and again; more so, it’s not what they want from his ilk, because the genre proved to be too self-indulgent for its own good.

While no one would deny the pleasure fans derive from hanging out with musicians on “Cruise To The Edge” and similar gatherings, they have a negative effect on artists who, despite being in the same space at the same time, rarely arrange fresh collaborations, opting instead for guesting on each other’s albums and, thus, going for the one homogenous, rather than distinct, sound.

Of course, the old guard is still able to hold their own, and it’s younger musicians who resort to their predecessors’ templates. Even worse, the post-neo-prog generation likes to have classic artists add parts, via the Internet as opposed to sharing a studio, to their records, and although it’s gratifying to see veterans make a living from what they do best, this prevents latter-day players from trying to replicate their heroes’ style and, as a result, learn and develop their individual style. That would mean moving forward, but they’re not up for the task, finding an easier way out and seeing themselves as an elite force, a niche echelon — which, of course, they are not.

Neither are their listeners: the fact stressed by the cruise type of entertainment the genre has been sliding to in recent years. But these listeners are also full of hubris, as if loving Rush entitled anyone to be considered an intellectual; they’re always ready to dismiss anything they narrow-mindedly deem non-prog, such as The Beatles — the prime example of constant progress — unlike the very receptive metal crowd.

This metal crowd doesn’t usually include those in thrall to prog metal, a travesty within a travesty: a sub-genre that prides itself on cerebral ideas and blistering technique while eschewing those primal, primary elements. They forget about a band who used to mix baroque with rock ’n’ roll and, not really caring about occasional bum note, raved on for 20–30 minutes, yet Deep Purple, the ensemble in question, remembered and returned to prog on 2013’s “Now What?!” — 45 years down the line from the group’s progressive beginnings — but with a focus on substance, not a track’s duration.

In a perverse way, the album’s length became new measure of music quality, with even self-conscious musicians being delusional in thinking that available CD space somehow obliges them to use it all and that it increases the record’s value for the listener. But the listener’s attention span is much shorter today than it was in the LP era when 40 minutes were perfect for getting an artist’s message across (there’s no such thing as an immaculate double studio album anyway), so padding it out with extra material only weakens the impact the right amount of music would have.

More often than not, this right amount boils down to a set of songs, to a number of simple melodies, but progressive rock has been distancing itself from the song form for decades now, whereas the genre’s prime movers were consistently returning to the gist of what they used to do. Not for nothing Pink Floyd’s decade-long development spiraled to disco’s four-on-the-floor of “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2”; after all, there’s nothing wrong with commercial success and the acceptance of wider audience — just ask Marillion.

Spiraling also means progress — an iterative process, the incremental evolution that’s well-anchored but reaching for the sky, the proverbial limit. Yet this is not the way of most modern art-rock. It’s in retrograde, edging backwards and losing any right to be called progressive but pretending to be clever for cleverness sake. This is the dead-end, the sign of our controversial times, and no boot camp can prevent such a turn of events.

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