The case for prog rock

By Mark Schiffer

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Several years ago, the Danish indie-rock band Mew instigated a small progressive-rock revival, which, for a brief period of time, managed to unify both well-rounded fans of music with devotees of virtuoso-oriented bands like The Mars Volta. The unfortunate fading of this trend has led to current music fans lumping together what is actually a solid amount of well-written and well-composed music with bands like Rush.

As a genre, progressive rock was one of the many reasons punk came into existence. The excesses – and yes, even the best stuff had excesses – had to come undone. Which was all well and good. But at the end of the day, it’s difficult to deny that. For example, in their prime, Yes was a truly wonderful band and the best material of Genesis almost reaches the level of The Beatles.

Probably one of the most unjustly maligned bands this genre has spawned would have to be Yes. Let us get one point out of the way: Listening to Yes will not get you laid. Indeed, the moment Jon Anderson’s vocals emerge from the speakers in all their heavenly glory, the genitalia of the person you are currently courting will most likely shrivel up with fright.

Having said that, it goes almost without saying that, for at least several years, Yes produced what quite frankly was some of the best rock music of the 1970s. What separated them from the worst excesses of their era – which could be said to have been contained in the music of Rush and Kansas – was a solid grasp on songwriting, something many of their progressive brethren could scarcely dream of possessing. Contained within their side-long suites and endless live albums is a literal treasure trove of pop-music melodies. While the soloing commonly associated with the genre is present, Yes never really lost sight of the songwriting.

When asked what their favorite Yes album is, many people will say either “Fragile” or “The Yes Album.” Maybe “Close to the Edge,” if they want you to think of them as a Fan. Maybe “Tales From Topographic Oceans,” if they love acid. All of these are wonderful albums, which act as perfect introductions to the band. Personally, I recommend “Going for the One.” The surf-guitar of the title track lets the listener know that what they are listening to is a band that not only knows how to play their instruments, but also how to engage their audience.

Another extraordinarily over-discounted progressive rock band is Genesis, due to the awful reputation the band developed when Phil Collins took Peter Gabriel’s position as frontman. Although the material produced after Peter Gabriel left is emblematic of the worst aspects of the music industry in the 1980s, every pre-1976 album has its shining moments, some of which happen to last for the entire course of their respective albums. “Selling England by the Pound” would most likely be the best starting point for the hesitant listener. From the opening questioning plea “Can you tell me where my country lies?” listeners know that they are listening to a band with a sense of humor about themselves.

That very aspect is something that many people choose not to acknowledge about progressive rock and which usually tends to lead to its dismissal. The medieval theatrics and operatic singing utilized by Genesis in the early years is, nine times out of 10, being done in the spirit of good fun. The songs themselves have incredibly strong melodies, and at times one can even see an influence on modern bands like Radiohead.

This goes especially for the two-lp concept album “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” which uses surreal imagery and unsettling instrumental segues to tell to story of a Hispanic street youth named Rael and his adventures in the sewers of NYC. There is nothing quite like it, and songs like “The Carpet Crawlers” hold the distinction of being incredibly underivative songs with original melodies.

By no means is this meant to be a definitive introduction. There’s so much left to discuss. There’s the avant-jazz of King Crimson, the medieval flute-based guitar rock of Jethro Tull and the art-school nightmares of Gentle Giant, to name a few. Undoubtedly, for the music fans of today there is much to be gained by digging into the best of progressive rock.

Mark Schiffer can be reached at [email protected]