To be honest, I was hoping to be writing a totally different article. Specifically, it was going to be a review of the Between the Buried and Me/Cynic/Devin Townsend/Scale the Summit show (billed as ‘The Great Misdirect Tour’ after BTBAM’s latest album) at Irving Plaza a few weekends ago. However a little over a month before the show something very peculiar happened that caused me to write this particular article instead.
The show sold out. Not only did it sell out, but it sold out ridiculously quick. Not the ‘oh crap I forgot Phish tickets were going on sale at noon today and now it’s 12:05pm and all three nights at Madison Square Garden are sold out’ level of bullshit I suffered through in December, but all things considered this might have been even more surprising. To have a show sell out over a month before the first band takes the stage is not something any progressive rock fan born after 1980 is used to. At first I blamed myself for waiting to buy tickets, but then I realized that I could surely pin this on someone or something else besides my own procrastination.
The first question that popped into my head was ‘Did they underestimate the size of the venue?’ Irving Plaza holds 1,200 people according to Wikipedia. That’s a pretty tiny venue to hold a show featuring four bands, even if none of them are even remotely famous. I think the bar downstairs in my building holds almost half that.
On the other hand, I can’t blame the organizers for booking such a small venue either. Until now the only way a progressive rock band could fill any venue was if said band was an established group made up of older British gentlemen in their 40s-60s, in which case an audience of 30-50 year old fans would drastically over-pay to see their idols musically masturbate on stage for a few hours and maybe play some of their hits (note: this trend is not exclusive to prog. I’m looking at you, Rolling Stones). So when the ‘Great Misdirect Tour’ was announced, it was safe to assume that there was no chance that any of the performances would be held in a major venue. New, young prog bands for the past 20 years have almost universally generated zero hype and zero money, and multiplying zero by four bands is still $0.00. I can count the number of fresh prog faces that have seen major success in the past 20 years on one hand, at least here in the US.
I spent the remaining weeks before the concert looking for tickets everywhere I could. Except for one string of extremely sketchy ticket broker websites that were charging hundreds of dollars for individual tickets that they probably didn’t actually have, no one had even a tiny glimmer of hope for me. Something I noticed as I made my search, however, was that NYC wasn’t the only city that had zero tickets available weeks before the tour’s stop there. In fact I could only find two cities on the tour that consistently had tickets available during my searches (note: The capital region of New York state and Charlotte, North Carolina are apparently prog-haters).
So my disappointment here in NYC appeared to be more than an isolated incident. While I’m sure the promoters were happy to be selling out the venues they booked, I have to hope that they also came to the same conclusion that I came to. At some point while no one was paying attention, progressive rock crossed some threshold and became somewhat popular with new fans.
Now hold on, I’m not saying that next year we’re going to see Emerson, Lake, and Palmer play the Super Bowl. But look around, and you’ll see more and more that prog has started to creep out of nerd’s basements and into the mainstream. Some examples for you to consider:
– Rush is rumored to have been scheduled to play the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics, but their segment was scrapped as being too ‘up-beat’ following the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. Notice how the show was themed around the different provinces of Canada, moving from east to west? Also notice how Ontario and the Great Lakes region were skipped over? I’ll tell you who noticed, Rush fans. I don’t know why line-dancing-lumberjack fiddle battles were deemed to be more appropriate than the country’s chief musical export, but I guess it’s just another reason to hate Canada.
– Speaking of the Super Bowl, the Who worked TWO segments of their rock opera Tommy into their half time show, something I am declaring the ‘proggiest moment in Super Bowl history’. Ringo’s kid also did a pretty good job of pretending to play drums.
– Continuing with our current theme, prog has inched its way into sports via other avenues as well. NBC has used Dream Theater as background music for sports vignettes in the past, and the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs enter the court to Dream Theater every game. This puts Dream Theater in the same stratosphere as such illustrious artists as Baha Men, Sisqo, Rednex, and The Village People.
– Porcupine Tree, long lauded by the progressive rock community as ‘the band we love that eventually the mainstream is going to listen to and steal from us’ is finally starting to slide down that slippery slope into popularity. First in April they’ll be performing at Coachella, one of the biggest music festivals in the US, along with other prog-curious artists Les Claypool, Coheed and Cambria, and headliner Muse. Then in September they will be playing at Radio City Music Hall here in NYC, which is especially impressive considering that they were playing tiny bars here in the states five years ago. The ascension of Porcupine Tree into the mainstream is something progressive rock fans have been both dreading and praying for, as this may be a major sign of the pending prog-pocalypse, where the prog-faithful will be raptured to prog-heaven. It’s in the prog-Bible, you should read it some time.
– As of this writing, the game Rock Band has 24 songs available specifically labeled as ‘Progressive’ or ‘Prog’. The fact that this surpasses the number of songs they have available labeled as ‘Emo’, ‘New Wave’, or ‘Glam’ is extremely satisfying.
– Classic Rock Magazine has begun issuing a quarterly piece they’ve titled Prog! dedicated to the genre. It’s an English publication so I haven’t gotten my hands on it, but hopefully they’ve put more effort into writing articles for Prog! than they did coming up with the amazing title. (note: I realize I’m criticizing someone for title originality on my progressive rock blog titled ‘A Progressive Rock Blog’. Shut up.)
So there are just some examples of progressive rock’s progression (ha!) into main stream society. I’ll be the first to admit that prog hasn’t exactly climbed to the top of the pop culture mountain, but it’s certainly in a more prominent position than the one the genre was occupying for the past two decades.
What does this mean for progressive rock? I know a lot of music listeners who for the most part stick to genres that they feel are ‘underground’, and who extract some amount of joy from the idea that their music is ‘pure’, as it hasn’t been touched and corrupted by the masses. Prog has plenty of fans like this as well, and they readily admit that they don’t want their favorite bands to become popular. I understand this motivation, but personally I feel the exact opposite way. All I’ve ever wanted is for other people to listen to the same music I enjoy and find their own level of pleasure in it, instead of instantly dismissing it as comical or foolish (note: To be fair, this is exactly what I do to country/emo/nu metal/any kind of music with the word ‘Jesus’ in it. I’m not trying to be musical Gandhi here and treat everyone as equals). If all of this is stupid speculation based on the fact that I couldn’t get tickets to a show I wanted to go see, and chances are that it is, then shame on me for creating hype where there is none. But if on New Year’s Eve I look up at a TV at whatever party I’m at, and Beardfish is playing as the clock hits midnight, and I’m not in Sweden, then I’m going to be shouting ‘I told you so’ as loudly and joyfully as a drunken prog fan can.
RIP Dr. Zoltan Øbelisk, He Was the Only One Who Truly Knew Me (with a slight tangent on progressive rock in general)
I take a pretty sarcastic tone when discussing progressive rock, but I don’t want that to confuse anyone from that fact that I love the genre more than any other style of music available to my ears. My outlook comes from the fact that I’ve been surrounded for many years by people who consider my musical tastes a source of great comedy. They let me know this any time I bring progressive rock up in conversation, and while this never keeps me from enjoying my music, it has allowed me to keep a fairly healthy perspective on the genre. For instance, writing a song in 5/4 creates a different sense of feel and flow that catches the listeners ear and really makes them listen to what is going on in a phrase. Writing a song in 17/8 is basically a way for you to wave your giant progressive dick in the air and tell the audience ‘look how fucking skilled I am, suck it peasants!’ Of course I still enjoy the song in 17/8, but I’m fully aware of the artist’s intentions when he/she writes the song. No one’s brain is so mutated that they feel like they can best express themselves using phrases 17 beats long.
To wave my own giant progressive dick in the air, I have to say I feel pretty unique in this outlook. Progressive rock nerds don’t take it too kindly when you try to poke fun at their music, most likely because they’ve been poked fun at for their entire lives for various non-musical reasons. So while metal fans can thoroughly enjoy shows like Metalocalypse that thrust every single metal stereotype in their face and show them how stupid being a metal fan can be, even suggesting to a progressive rock fan that Neal Peart’s hat is kind of funny looking will result in massive nerd-rage.
As it turns out, I’m not as unique in my love/hate relationship with progressive rock as I thought. At least, I think I’m not. It’s kind of hard to tell. To be perfectly honest, it’s nearly impossible to wrap my head around the music and personas of one Dr. Zoltan Øbelisk/Sir Millard Mulch/Carl King (no, I don’t know why he needs two fake names to release music under, maybe there was a buy-one-get-one-free sale). Regardless, I think I may get what he and his music are all about. Or maybe I’m so far off that he’ll track me down and kill me for spreading lies about him and his music. Whatever, here’s what I do I know for certain:
-I can barely handle his music, and that’s part of the reason I love it. Melodies and phrases fly by so quickly that it’s worthless for your brain to try to grab a hold of anything and interpret what it just heard because it’s under a constant bombardment. You just have to experience what you heard and move on, otherwise you’re going to be buried under and avalanche of x-tuplets. To be stupidly pretentious (and I want to stress the ‘stupid’ part of this), there’s something very Zen about the whole experience of listening to his music and being totally unable to become attached to what is passing through your ears, to only be able to listen and have that one immediate reaction.
-He’s absolutely amazing at programming his music. Yes, he programs a very significant portion of his music, and considering the deep attachment most progressive rock fans and artists have to authenticity, I’m kind of surprised by total acceptance of this practice. To be perfectly honest it bothered me for all of 10 seconds for the sole reason that he is talented at what he does. Regardless, the music is complex to the point where it almost HAS to be programmed, because having people play his stuff live would probably cause the Higgs Boson to appear (look it up).
-All of his music free. All of it. You just sign up for his mailing list you can download everything. I don’t know, maybe he robs banks (it’s not like his music career has made him universally recognizable and thus unable to hide in public), or maybe he has some sweet black mail gig going.
So all of that being said, what does his music sound like and why do I feel like I have another sarcastic kindred spirit in prog appreciation? Well to answer the first question, think of him as a cross between Frank Zappa and Weird Al Yanchovic, only with less polka. There’s a huge throbbing vein of comedy in his music, and it’s always popping up in different ways. Maybe he’s lamenting the common criticisms toward the music industry as it exists today, with its lack of artist talent or originality, but suddenly you’ll be thrust into an incomprehensible instrumental track that changes meter totally illogically. Then before you know it you’re back listening to something with verses and a chorus again, lamenting the good Doctor’s experience working as a sales rep. The humor in his music is obvious at some points and at other times you find yourself wondering “Ok…that passage was ridiculous…it wasn’t even the slightest bit musical…and I loved it…did he just play a joke on me for liking that kind of shit or is he just as fucked up as I am?” But then before you can even think about answering the question you just asked yourself, you’re smashed in the face with something new.
The music is also extremely drum heavy, to the point where Keith Moon would probably tell Øbelisk to chill out a little bit. Another reason I have this music crush is that when he’s not programming drums, Øbelisk recruits the most beastly drummers available for his albums. It honestly seems like he opened up an issue of Modern Drummer and just started circling names, telling himself “Ok, I want him and him and him and him and him.” And yet at the same time I get the impression it’s almost another joke, being able to say that you had Virgil Donati, Nick D’Virgilio, Marco Minnemann, and Morgen Argen, amongst other prog heavyweights like Devin Townsend, all perform on your albums. It’s kind of like rounding up Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Brian Wilson, and Freddy Mercury and having them sing the most bad ass version of “Good Vibrations” ever recorded, but then having them sing “Happy Birthday” during the harmonica solo, because why the fuck not.
All of this results in a final that product that is clearly progressive rock, but what is even more clear is the love/hate relationship Dr. Zoltan has with the genre. He knows his music sounds complex for the sake of being complex, and he lets you know that he knows that his music sounds that way, so in the end we all have a good laugh and then go back to enjoying a piece of music that changes key and time signature ever single measure. I personally think that’s a healthy way of looking at the genre, and it’s extremely rare that someone can look at their own music in such a way.
I titled this entree ‘RIP Dr. Zoltan….” not because the artist has passed away, but because his most recent album, “Why Am I So Wise? Why Am I So Clever? And Why Do I Write Such Good Songs?” may in fact be his last, according to his news letter anyway. I’m depressed that this may be his last amazing effort, but at the same time I think my brain is happy to throw in the towel, like a drug addict’s brain must enjoy the concept of never having to deal with another acid trip. So thank you, Dr. Zoltan Øbelisk/Sir Millard Mulch/whatever name you decide to assume next, for sharing a joke with me. I think.
The progressive rock community is a bit like a cult. We’re always looking for new members to indoctrinate with our absurd rules and customs, but we’re also totally cool with simply calling you a heretic and setting you on fire if you don’t want to drink the kool aid. Thus every new band that introduces itself to the public is subjected to this trial by prog, and depending on their music, image, and various intangibles that no one really discusses but we all innately agree upon some how, the band is either forcibly branded with the prog label like cattle or they’re condemned as a source of musical decay, an inferior strand of musical DNA in the progressive master race.
To be fair, progressive rock is not unique in this process. Most niche music genres have their own methods for including or excluding new artists. I do feel though that prog community is exceptional in the sheer scope of artists it’s willing to try to associate the prog tag with. Hip hop, blue grass, jazz, metal, techno, trance, industrial, R&B, basically any genre with the work ‘rock’ in it, classical, hardcore, emo, punk, alternative, I honestly can’t think of a genre that doesn’t have at least one band in it that at some point didn’t also get slapped with a ‘progressive rock’ tag. We’re like the super spoiled kids no one likes in elementary school who invite the entire grade to their birthday party. We don’t actually have many friends ourselves, so we force as many people to be involved with us as possible to make it look like we’re popular. (and HOLY SHIT if you brought a gift we don’t like, you can kiss your turn on that kick-ass moon bounce goodbye).
So today I’m going to look at some of the bands making an impact in popular music and I’ll be asking the all important question, “will it prog?” Is this a band that music nerds are going to claim as their own, a savior of ‘real’ music for the masses, or shun as yet another cancer slowly crushing the vital organs of popular music? (note: according to progressive rock fans, popular music has had terminal cancer for about 40 years now).
Them Crooked Vultures: Super groups almost automatically always get recruited by the prog army. By nature, super groups are pretentious (Hey, I’m an awesome musician, screw my band, I only want to work with other awesome musicians) so the ground is fertile for a pompous progressive rock view point. Also, the odds prog infestation increase exponentially for every member of a classic rock group involved in the project(in this case, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin).
Result: IT WILL PROG. It will prog hard. I will say that, to me, the music I’ve heard from this band sounds like a more straight forward Queens of the Stone Age than anything actually stereotypically progressive rock. How the music actually sounds doesn’t matter though, they’ll be assimilated by the end of the year, unless they sign some kind of exclusive deal with Target, in which case a hit will be put out for Dave Grohl.
Phoenix: A band growing in popularity with hipsters and people who want to be hipsters. You’ve probably heard a song of there’s in a commercial without realizing it, so your opinion of the 2010 Cadillac RX is no doubt linked directly to that of the band. They’re French, and France is basically the lamest country in Europe when it comes to Progressive rock for some reason. Lamer than Sweeden. Seriously.
Result: IT WILL NOT PROG. No question here. It’s not the immediate corporate shilling (For instance Porcupine Tree has been played on MTV multiple times) or even the hipster association (see: The Decemberists). What it comes down to is that France is the only place in the world that can out-pretentious progressive rock fans. At least that’s one battle they can claim they’ve won.
Cage the Elephant: Cage the Elephant reminds me of Sublime, replacing the southern California influences and replacing them with Kentucky drawl. Their popularity has been steadily growing since they played some big festivals (Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo), tv spots (Letterman), stuck their big single up for free on iTunes, and lent it as an opening theme for a videogame. They also look like they haven’t come out of their parent’s garage in 10 years, making them ripe for the prog-ing.
Result: IT WILL NOT PROG. The music is just too generic to catch the attention of the public, and I keep finding reports of emotionless, sloppy live shows, something prog fans will NOT tolerate. They ARE being tolerated by the jam band and festival scene apparently, so the hippies can have them!
Passion Pit: Another hipster band, using heavy doses of electronics and synths to cover up the actual guitar/bass/drums being used on stage (simple formula: acoustic guitar and sounds controlled with a keyboard or iPhone=hipster. Drums and bass that aren’t produced by a computer=not hipster). Those traditional instruments are actually there though, I swear. Also, I get the feeling that I’m listening to rejected and remixed Sesame Street tunes listening to their material. This is not a criticism.
Result: IT WILL PROG. Their vocalist sings like his balls got ripped off. Automatically this lands them in progressive rock territory. Also, with lyrics like ‘Rapunzel Rapunzel let down your hair’ I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve been stealing their lyrics from the same book of stories and rhymes that most early 70’s progressive rock groups were using.
Hopefully you learned something by looking into this crystal ball. Progressive rock has the ability to sneak up and steal your favorite bands when you aren’t looking, so be on your guard, lest you wake up and find that all of your music has been progged during the night.
I was pleasantly shocked when I first heard rumors that Transatlantic had reformed to record a third album. Their first two albums, SMPT:e and Bridge Across Forever were not only amazing pieces of work, but they introduced a lot of the newer prog fans to an style of progressive rock that hadn’t been recorded or appreciated in decades, melodic 70’s prog. Of course all of that came crashing down when Neal Morse, one of the two primary members of the super-group, left the progressive music scene to focus on faith-based music, effectively killing both Transatlantic as well as his main project, Spock’s Beard (note: Spock’s is still around, but the music isn’t nearly as creative. Neal, if you’re reading this, you broke my heart.) So when I started hearing rumors that the band had gotten back together to record another record, I thought it was just the wishful thinking of a obsessed fan base (and trust me, they’re obsessed. A lot of prog fans would have rather had a Transatlantic reunion than lose their virginity, and the band had only been gone seven years). Yet here I am, with a brand new Transatlantic album streaming through my headphones.
And this IS a Transatlantic album. First of all, the first disc is one solitary 77 minute piece. Transatlantic always prided itself on writing the most epic of epic epics, and they certainly accomplished that here in terms of shear volume of material. The second disc is more original material as well as some covers, which is something fans should be used to from their first two albums as well as their live shows, which always featured the integration of classic prog covers from artists like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, and Genesis. The covers on this album are fairly solid, with “Return of the Giant Hogweed” being pretty fucking stupendous. “Soul Sacrifice” is also decent, but I can’t help but feel like it was put on the album as an excuse for Mike Portnoy to record a drum solo.
The 77 minute title track is quite the beast. I’ll commend the band here for creating something so large that still manages to sound like one cohesive piece. I was afraid when I learned that they were only giving themselves four weeks to write and record the entire album that the result would be a rushed, choppy, and unimaginative product, but this certainly isn’t the case. At the same time, there’s a ton of very diverse music to wrap one’s head around, and I’d be very impressed if they try to perform it live (which of course they will, because they’re a ridiculous prog band). I LOVE the fact that the first voice we here is Roine Stolt’s instead of Neal’s, because, while I think Neal may be the superior vocalist technically, I find Roine’s voice to be infinitely more unique and entertaining to listen to. There isn’t as much vocal interplay between the member of the group as there has been in the past, but we still get a healthy cross section of the different vocal textures that make up the band. The song writing is kept fairly simple through out and the only member who seems determined to show off his chops is Portnoy, which is normal for the style of the band. That isn’t to say the record doesn’t reek of prog, it’s just a style of prog that doesn’t focus on technical proficiency. The high-energy sections are thoroughly invigorating without being overly complex or blazing fast, something that has become a crutch for less creative prog bands. This is precisely the classic 70’s-style prog fans of Transatlantic love the band for.
That being said, there are some things that keep The Whirlwind from being on the same level as the bands previous albums. There are a lot of high points where I find myself becoming really engaged in in the title track, but these sections are punctuated by stretches of material that don’t really add anything to the piece. If they had cut the piece down to something more reasonable (you know, like 45 minutes) the result could have been a truly great piece of music on par with their previous efforts. Instead we have something that has large stretches of brilliance accompanied by chunks of stagnation. I’m not saying it’s a bad piece of music, because it’s not, I just find myself skipping around a lot to find the awesome parts (which again, there are plenty of). One other thing that is a bit of a bummer is that it does sound like Neal was given the reigns on the lyrics for a lot of the piece (which may have been a condition for him agreeing to do the project in the first place), because many sections of the song are full of references to ‘eternal glory’ and ‘the giver of life’ and there being ‘a reason you’re here, it’s not by chance’. I understand that that kind of topic matter his focus now, which is fine for him, but it’s also why I don’t listen to his new music. Having these kinds of lyrics dominate the piece is kind of a let down, albeit one I expected.
The original material on the 2nd disk so far doesn’t strike me as the best work they’ve done. While the band has always been known for their epic, 15+ minute plus songs, their other albums have been rounded out by really strong supporting tracks like ‘We All Need Some Light‘, and so far I don’t hear anything nearly of that caliber on the second disk. ‘Spinning’ is probably the best track of the bunch of the new material on this second disk, but that’s mostly because the rest of the songs don’t do anything for me. To be fair the 2nd disk is a ‘bonus’ disk, so I guess it’s possible these tracks are supposed to be B-sides. The one totally redeeming aspect to these secondary tracks is that they give us the very first Pete Trewavas lead vocal song, ‘Lending a Hand’. It’s not even a great song, I just love hearing him try to sing the high notes that for some reason he feels the need to reach (though I guess it IS prog, where everyone feels the need to sing outside their range). In the end I’m glad I got the second disk because the covers are really fun to listen to, but the original material besides ‘Spinning’ could have bee left off and I would have been fine with it.
What I take away from this album is that it was a solid effort by some of the best musicians in progressive rock (or outside of progressive rock, as the case may be). I’m glad they got back together to give us this very enjoyable album and I’m excited about their announcement that they will be touring sometime in the future. However I’m not going to be starry eyed about The Whirlwind either and say that it’s just as good as their previous albums. I think they may have tried too hard this time to create an ‘epic’ album, the second disk’s original material probably could have been left on the cutting room floor, and Neal’s direction with a lot of the lyrics leaves me a little peeved. Still, the good outweighs the bad and I’ll be listening to this for quite awhile longer.