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Prog Rock Used To Be So Cool, Until It Did All That “Progressing”

ATTENTION MUSICIANS: Who the hell do you think you are? Don’t you realize that you’re leeches on society, only able to subsist because you’ve been able to deceive and exploit your audience into overpaying for the small modicum of entertainment you provide? Don’t you realize that you owe your fans your very lives, as well as the lives at least two of your more-preferred offspring? The very thought that an artist, especially in progressive rock, would even consider producing music that didn’t conform to the totally reasonable and valid expectations of their fan base makes me sick to the point of hallucination. And surely I must be hallucinating if my ears are hearing what they think they’ve been hearing from some of my favorite prog artists over the past few months.

Breakfast of champions

Hey Opeth, did you guys forget what metal sounds like? At what point did you decide that Heritage  needed to be an hour-long tribute to crappy 70’s prog bands? I listen to you because Mikael sounds like a demon who was fed a strict diet of motor oil and broken Christmas ornaments. I need some brutal death metal growling! I don’t particularly care that you were able to resurrect elements of classic prog that had been lost to majority of the new prog generation by seamlessly integrating those elements into your already eclectic interpretation of progressive metal, or that Mikael actually has an amazing voice when singing cleanly. I don’t pay you to expand the genre, I pay you to play “Deliverance” really fucking fast! DOUBLE BASS DRUMS, CAN YOU PLAY THEM?!?!?!

Yo, Steven Wilson, what’s with all the not-Porcupine-Tree you’ve been doing lately? Did I tell you that you could take a break, and do totally awesome things like re-master classic King Crimson albums? Why did you think it would be accetpable to do another solo album? You didn’t even get Gavin Harrison to play drums on it this time! Get back in the studio, on the side of the glass WITHOUT the mixing equipment, pick up that acoustic guitar, and play something that sounds vaguely Pink Floyd and/or Radiohead-ish. So help me God if you play something that sounds at all like Krautrock…

Mike Portnoy, listen, I know it’s been a rough year for you. I’m sure it’s been painful for you to watch as your former band-mates move on with another drummer (named Mike no less!) while you’ve been left to fend for yourself, out in the cold, with only six or seven projects to pass the time (Adrenaline Mob, Hail, Transatlantic, Neal Morse’s band, playing with Stone Sour, that thing with John Sykes, I think I heard you’re opening up a pro-wrestling school with Chris Jericho…) but come on man, you’re starting to bore me. When am I going to be able to hear the exact same beats I heard on Systematic ChaosOctavarium, Black Clouds and Silver Linings again? I’m not digging this whole “variety” thing across your new projects. And don’t you think it’s time for a Liquid Tension Experiment reunion, again? Tony Levin could turn into a pile of dust at any moment, time is running out! (Note: I would still pay money to hear a pile of Tony Levin-dust play Chapman Stick).

The structural damage done to one's face when first hearing "Juular" can be devastating.

Oh man…Devin Townsend…I don’t even know where to begin with you. Pick a genre and stick with it man! Do you know how long I’ve had to go without being able to pigeonhole you with traditional labels? You’re metal, you’re pop, you’re electronic, you’re new-age, I think I even heard some bluegrass recently. You’re like a hairless Canadian Frank Zappa sometimes!  If Epicloud isn’t another concept album about coffee and cheeseburgers narrated by the Ziltoid puppet, I’m going to strongly consider canceling my pre-order for the DTP box set. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Look music slaves, it’s very simple. Progressive rock isn’t about progressing. It’s about doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over again. The only thing progressive rock fans want to change about their music is the time signature. The sooner you all remember this important concept and get back to doing what you were doing back in 2000 the happier we’re all going to be, OK? This genre isn’t based on innovation, or expansion, or exploration, or any of those fun-sounding hippie words. The reason you all practiced your rudiments is so that you can play rudimentary music (it all makes sense now!). The sooner you all revert back to your established formulas the happier we’ll all be. And by “we” I mean everyone except you.

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Is Prog Becoming Popular? Is that Even Allowed?

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.

*Insert Macaulay-Culkin-Home-Alone-Style-Face-Slap-And-Scream here*

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.

A typical progressive rock concert crowd

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:

Oh yeah, this is WAY better than 'Closer to the Heart'.

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.

'Maxim' probably would have been a better name for a prog magazine, is that taken?

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.


Will It Prog? Nov 19

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.


Porcupine Tree @ Terminal 5

People often ask me “Why is it called ‘progressive’ rock? What’s so ‘progressive’ about it? Shouldn’t it be called ‘stupidly complicated self-important bullshit?'”(to which I usually say this) The truthful answer is that ‘progressive’ refers more to the genre back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and the name has simply stuck since then. That isn’t to say though that a lot of progressive rock bands haven’t had their sounds ‘progress’ over time. Porcupine Tree might be one of the best examples of this.

Over on the left, someone was stealing their car.

Over on the left, someone was stealing their car.

Porcupine Tree started out as just Steven Wilson, and the music he produced was very different from what you’ll find the band making today. Under the guise of Porcupine Tree, a name that actually started out as a joke between Wilson and a friend (what, you think anyone would actually have a good reason for naming their band Porcupine Tree? Prog isn’t THAT pretentious), Wilson started recording music that focused on soundscapes and was more akin to trance, psychedelic, and noise rock. The music evolved from there, and as the project grew in popularity Wilson was basically forced to include other musicians so that live performances could happen. With the addition of Richard Barbieri (ex-80s art rock band Japan) on keyboards, Colin Edwin on bass, and Chris Maitland on drums Porcupine Tree’s music started to change into something much more structured and easily accessible to the public ear. The band’s sound continued to change over time, with a major shift happening in 2001 when Maitland left the band and was replaced with Gavin Harrison, who is currently regarded as one of the most talented drummers in prog rock. The band’s sound over the last 5 years has gotten significantly heavier, most likely due to Wilson’s work with death metal band Opeth.

Porcupine Tree was probably the second modern progressive rock band that I discovered, and they’ve always been the prog band that I figured would eventually develop the biggest fan base. Not only is their music amazing, but their music doesn’t fall into a lot of the traps that usually kill a prog band’s momentum. Their songs aren’t about totally inaccessible concepts like the behavior of subatomic particles, the music isn’t so complicated that you need a masters in jazz performance to understand what’s going on, and the songs are short enough that you can actually squeeze them into a radio edit without totally destroying the product. They aren’t the biggest prog rock band in the world currently (Dream Theater currently holds that title, but their success is always associated with national tragedies for some reason, so I’m hoping they stop selling albums before we’re all killed), but their latest album The Incident debuted at #25 on Billboard’s top 200 and #7 on their Rock chart.

I’ve seen PT two times before this, and while I’ve been extremely happy to see the band grow, each time I’ve seen them it’s been in a progressively (ha!) larger venue and resulted in a less and less intimate experience with the band. Not that this is a bad thing in some ways, as both of my previous PT concerts have been slight adventures. The first time I saw them was in college with a friend who I had introduced to the band that year. For some reason I was able to convince him to drive 3 hours from Schenectady, New York, where we were going to school, to Syracuse, for a band he had just started listening to. The band was playing in a small bar that held about 200 people, which was cool because we ended up being only 10 feet away from Wilson. It was also next to a strip club, which sounds like a good thing, but in reality it just made the area around it sketchy and unsafe. Honestly I have no idea who booked them there or why, but I’m glad they did because it was a GREAT show and I can say I saw the band in a tiny little shit hole.

Club Tundra in Syracuse, NY. Biggest asset: Bar 30 feet away from the front of the stage.

Club Tundra in Syracuse, NY. Biggest asset: Bar 50 feet away from the front of the stage.

The next time they came to the US (they’re British, did I not say that?) the same friend and I drove 3 hours in a totally different direction, this time to see them in Boston. This time we saw them in an actual theater and instead of getting 10 feet away from Wilson we were probably 3 million feet away. At least that’s what it felt like in comparison. Again it was a great show and totally worth it, but I did feel like I was in even more danger than I had been at the sketchy strip club bar. I made the mistake of wearing my fraternity letters, and as I have since learned, progressive rock fans are not generally members or fans of members of fraternities. Something about being socially isolated their entire lives. We made it out of Boston without incident, and the show was once again phenomenal.  They previewed some of the (good) material that ended up on their next album, which was really cool to hear for the first time with hundreds of other fans.

So after missing them on their last tour for various reasons, I really wanted to be sure that I saw them on this one. Now living in Manhattan, I have the advantage of not having to drive 3 hours to concerts anymore (minus Summer festivals, and All Points West does NOT fucking count). Now I simply have to walk 3 blocks over to times square to the Nokia Theater, walk down 10ish blocks to MSG or the Hammerstein Ballroom, take the subway up to the Beacon Theater, or walk 10 blocks up to get to Terminal 5 (I kind of live in the best location ever in the history of Manhattan), where PT ended up playing in NYC this time around. The same friend and I thus made the epic trek up to Terminal 5 (not before stopping at The Pony Bar, delicious American craft  beer goes extremely well with progressive rock) for our 3rd PT show.

For those who haven’t been to Terminal 5, you kind of have to know where it is (usually the entrance isn’t blocked by vans, I assume). It’s on a side street on the far west side of Manhattan, and there’s no giant TERMINAL 5 sign anywhere. It’s in the middle of about 8 billion car dealerships, so if your car gets stolen or you don’t feel like paying for parking, you can just buy a new car after the show. Once you get in it’s kind of like an M.C. Escher painting in that you’re confronted with lots of random staircases that take you up, down, around, and who knows where else. There’s an outdoor area with a bar and lots of couches covered in pigeon shit that they stick you in if you show up before the show. It would be a nice area to hang out in if it wasn’t so fucking grimy from being outside. The bar was also serving something that looked like fried hot pockets. Still undecided if this is a great or horrible concept.

So they eventually funnel you out of the pigeon shit lounge up and down more staircases and into the actual venue:

A drum set this sized fits two-three normal drummers, or one prog drummer.

This is actually an optical illusion. If you're a normal drummer you see two or three drum sets, and if you're a prog drummer you see one.

As you can see, those on the bottom floor are packed in tightly enough that there are probably a few accidental pregnancies every show. Now usually I’m of the opinion that, if I’m seeing a show, I want to be as close as possible, otherwise why go see a show? Otherwise you might as well just put in a DVD and turn your stereo up enough to cause permanent structural damage to your living room and save the money on the concert ticket. However for this show I ended up on the 2nd floor on one of the railings. After the usual waiting and chatting with the other concert goers the opener appeared, King’s X.

Now one of the things I had always heard about Terminal 5 was that the sound was HORRIBLE there. However PT has always been known for making sure their concerts sound crystal clear, so I was going into this show with an open mind. That open mind was immediately filled to capacity by whoever was doing sound for Kings X. It was almost impossible to discern different bass notes, and the cymbals on the drummer’s kit might as well have been not miced, because you couldn’t hear them resonate at all. I was most pissed over the fact that Doug Pinnick’s amazing vocals were so far down in the mix. I enjoyed the show for what it was, but going into PT I was scared for what their set was going to sound like.

Luckily whatever issues were going on with King’s X were totally absent with PT. All of the instruments came through clearly and the band itself was extremely tight. They opened with the entire first disk of their new album and their performance totally redefined my opinion of said album, which to this point had been positive but not stellar. After this show the entire album has shot way up in my mind. The second set was all older tunes with the exception of one new song from the second disk of the new album. Again, spectacular. Absolutely crushing versions of some of their heaviest tunes as well as appearances by some of their less often heard songs. A full set list is at the bottom.

One thing I did have a problem with was the lighting they had. The light show was pretty mediocre, and I think Gavin Harrison was playing in complete darkness the entire time. I seriously could barely ever see him. I know Wilson also puts a lot of thought into the video package that plays with each song, but I honestly don’t think I looked at the screen behind the band more than twice. The action is on stage, let us see the fucking musicians!

All in all, a great concert experience. Terminal 5 isn’t anywhere near the top of my list for venues, but I won’t bitch about seeing a show there if the show itself is good. Next time I’m gonna try to get on the floor and see what the experience is like there, where hopefully my height advantage will give me a good view while keeping other people from seeing anything.

Setlist:

The Incident
-intermission-
Start of Something Beautiful
Russia on Ice/Anesthetize
Remember Me Lover
Strip the Soul/3
Mother and Child Divided
-encore-
Sound of Muzak
Trains