Prog has always claimed that it was ‘music for musicians’. It’s a pretty attractive label, and much better than the alternative ‘music for geeks who aren’t getting laid’. Regardless of the tag-line, the point is that even if you don’t actively listen to progressive rock, chances are that the bands you DO listen to count progressive rock artists among their influences. When young bands (that don’t suck) are talking to the press and the reporter asks them who their influences are, if they’re brave enough to mention people outside their own genre 90% of the time the drummer will include Neil Peart and/or Mike Portnoy, bass players will mention Geddy Lee, Tony Levin, and/or Chris Squire, and keyboard…well…ok, if they have a keyboard player, chances are he isn’t being given any face time unless he’s also the front man and super duper pretty (guitarists gets more genre dependent, but I see Steve Vai’s, David Gilmour’s, Frank Zappa’s, and Steve Howe’s names thrown out a lot).
So what happened to all these progressive-rock-influenced artists? How come none of them ended up making progressive rock? The answer is that you are simply being a naive fool. Progressive rock has worked long and hard to covertly work its way into more mainstream genres, and the fruits of decades of labor are now beginning to ripen. Below you will find examples of some genres where artists are now becoming popular who show significant signs that they’ve been infected with the prog.
Metal was one of the earliest and easiest genres for prog to branch into. For one, a lot of metal musicians are extremely talented. I realize that, to people who aren’t fans of metal, a lot of the music just sounds like loud noise and unintelligible lyrics, but under the growling and the corpsepaint you’ll find some of the most technically skilled musicians around. Good metal guitarists can play diminished augmented pentatonic chords using alternate sweep picking just as fast as the proggy-ist prog douche bag guitar player, they just chose not to so because it’s not brutal enough (note: metal people judge all things on a scale of 1-brutal). Metal drummers and prog drummers are in an eternal pissing contest over who can play double bass faster, and just like how metal singers and prog singers are always trying to see how high they can sing without causing a sonic boom. Also, they put equal emphasis on physical activity and hygiene in their personal lives. So prog and metal have been pushing each other’s buttons for a very very long time, and the results have been enjoyable for both fan bases:
Examples of prog/metal marriages:
Dream Theater – Basically the flag bearer for progressive rock. Train of Thought is their most metal album, but every album has significant metal overtones through out. Scenes from a Memory is widely considered to be one of the best prog album of the 1990’s if not of all time. (Dream Theater Example – “Painc Attack”)
Opeth – If Dream Theater is a prog band with metal overtones, Opeth is a death metal band with prog overtones. The band drifts between melodic haunting passages and crushing metal destruction almost too freely. If you can’t handle cookie monster-style vocals you’d best start with Damnation which is their ‘mellow’ album, but then quickly get Deliverance and give that a spin as well. (Opeth Example – Death Whispered a Lulaby, and then The Drapery Falls)
The other genre that prog was able to easily seduce was jazz. Jazz has been the most popular kid in school basically forever. Everyone wants to claim that they’re influenced by jazz, or that they have jazz tendencies, or that they once slept with jazz at a party but jazz wouldn’t remember it because jazz was really drunk that night. No matter how much jazz wants to deny it, jazz and prog did in fact hook up a few times in the 60s and 70s, resulting in the genre fusion. If you know jazz, think of Kind of Blue. Fusion is the exact opposite of that. It’s fast, complicated, crazy shit that most of the time sounds like a bad jam session made up of really good musicians (note: I love fusion). If someone tried to dance to fusion they’d be mistaken for a seizure victim and taken to a hospital. The people who play fusion are of course ridiculously talented to the point where they could probably have a full conversation with each other using only their instruments. One problem fusion inherited from jazz is that any band that considers itself to have drawn from jazz and some other genre automatically considers itself to be ‘fusion’. What can I say, jazz was a whore:
Examples of prog/jazz marriages:
Mahavishnu Orchestra – If there was ever a band that sounded like an acid trip, I’d pick Mahavishnu Orchestra. Drawing from Indian, European, jazz, and classical music, as well as John McLaughlin’s own eccentricity, the music they produced was frantic, intensely complex, and mind blowing once you manage to wrap your brain around it. Birds of Fire and Apocalypse may be the best characterizations of the band’s sound, but if you don’t enjoy either album that’s fine, you’re probably still too sane. (Mahavishnu Orchestra Example: “Trilogy”)
Frank Zapppa – I’m not even going to try to explain Frank Zappa in three lines. I don’t even know if I can call the majority of what he did ‘fusion’ but he’s fucking important and he fits best here. Go listen to Hot Rats, Roxy and Elsewhere and Apostrophe, and if you don’t like those don’t worry about it, there’s about five billion other albums that sound totally different that you can get into. (Frank Zappa Example: “Waka/Jawaka”)
Unlike jazz and metal, prog hasn’t shared a lot of common ground with the jam scene. The Grateful Dead were thoroughly un-complicated and yet they became extremely popular by touring their asses off and playing a lot of simple country and blues covers in cool new ways (making them…….progressive? MY BRAIN CAN’T HANDLE THAT). For a long time hippies were content bopping along to country and blues music, and probably would have been fine like this forever, until Phish came along and expanded the genre by writing songs that made as little sense as possible. Moving from the relatively comfortable confines of country and blues to the total nonsense that Phish produced (note: I love Phish) blew hippie’s minds. So hippie musicians, being totally incapable of rejecting any art form, started incorporating every possible genre of music into the covers they played, into their huge and totally awesome music festivals, and eventually into their own music. Alternative and bluegrass were some of the first genres to gain popularity with hippies, then some electronica and punk weaved its way in, and now metal and prog are starting to poke their heads in as well:
Examples of prog/jam band marriages:
Umphrey’s Mcgee – UM is the cream of the crop as far as blending technical skill and musicality. It’s really an amazing balancing act that they pull off, and they do it flawlessly. I also find their live improv stuff to be far less meandering and self indulgent than a lot of other jam bands. Anchor Drops is the place you start for their studio efforts, but after that I suggest downloading their eight billion podcasts, as a lot of their best songs haven’t ever been recorded in the studio. Honestly I’m not even going to bother discussing other prog/jam band marriages in depth, Umphrey’s is really the top of the line and an experience like no other. (Umphreys Mcgee Example: “Bridgeless”)
Other prog/jam bands (and their albums that you should check out):
I’m going to be upfront about this. I hate country music more than any other genre of music on the planet. Most of the performers are talentless and I think the stereotypes it generates are more damaging to rednecks than gangster rap is to urban youth. That being said, I also think the slide guitar/dobro, mandolin, and banjo are some of the coolest instruments ever. So I compromise and enjoy bluegrass. Bluegrass to me, is what happened to all the talented southern musicians. They sing about all the same topics the crappy country artists do, but their songs are ten million times more interesting and their lyrics are ten million times more creative. To be honest I don’t know if bluegrass is actually even aware of progressive rock, but both genres are fast, technical, and full of energy, so if they haven’t met maybe I can help.
Examples of prog/bluegrass marriages:
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones – This band probably only gets lumped in with bluegrass because it features a banjo. It’s also probably one of the few, if not only bluegrass band to include sax and electronic drums (note: electronic drums that are actually awesome, unlike most electronic kits which sound horrible). All of that being said, Bela Fleck might be the most well known and universally respected banjo player ever (even more than Steve Martin!), and Victor Wooten is part of the pantheon of modern bass gods. Kind of bluegrass, kind of fusion, whatever, it’s extremely creative and fun to listen to. Little Worlds is a 3-disc set that’s probably less bluegrass-y than their past efforts, but it’s a great introduction to their sound. (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones Example: “Next”)
Yonder Mountain String Band – The shining symbol of ‘new grass‘, YMSB is talented and technically proficient and blah blah blah, but that’s probably the least attended to part of their music. What makes them such an incredible band is how they’ve taken bluegrass out of the realm of genres like polka (i.e. dance music that’s a joke to most people) and made it emotional and joyful. I’ve never seen so many universally happy people in my entire life as I’ve seen at YMSB shows. The crowd just emits rainbows and sunshine and good emotions. They make 80 year old men act like 10 year olds on their birthday, and the coolest hipster turns into a Appalachian mountain dweller before their onslaught of elation. Mountain Tracks: Volume 5 is a great selection of live tracks to check out, and their new album The Show is pretty solid. (Yonder Mountain String Band Example: Sideshow Blues)
Other prog/bluegrass bands (and their albums that you should check out)
Hopefully this has given you a decent idea of how prog isn’t actually as alien a genre as one might think. There’s a lot of common ground between prog and genres that are far more popular, and there has been and will continue to be bleeding between groups as new bands find their own unique sounds.
P.S. – I do want to mention one band that I left out, that being Muse. Muse has a totally absurd amount of popularity for a band that prog fans consider to be ‘one of us’. It’s not super duper technical, but it at least creates the illusion of being super duper technical, and sometimes that’s good enough. It is high energy and features a guy who sings high enough to make the guy from The Darkness jealous so I guess the leap in prog-faith isn’t too absurd. I can’t really explain why the rest of the world loves them, not that I’m complaining either. So I guess if a band like Muse can be touring with U2 and performing on the VMAs then I can still hope that prog will take over all of music one day. A man can dream can’t he…a man can dream…
October 22, 2009 | Categories: Modern Progressive Rock | Tags: Bela Fleck, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Between the Buried and Me, Bluegrass, Chris Squire, Coheed and Cambria, David Gilmour, Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Frank Zappa, Geddy Lee, Jam Bands, Jazz, Keller Williams, Liquid Tension Experiment, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Metal, Mike Portnoy, Modern Music, moe., Muse, Neil Peart, Opeth, Oysterhead, Pain of Salvation, Phish, Queensryche, Railroad Earth, Scale the Summit, Steve Howe, Steve Vai, Symphony X, The Disco Biscuits, The Dixie Dregs, The Grateful Dead, The Mars Volta, Tony Levin, Tool, Umphrey's Mcgee, Victor Wooten, Yonder Mountain String Band | Leave a comment