Features | Retconning

VI :: Prog I (Art, Symphonic, Space)

By Mark Abraham | 2 February 2007

History (Take One): screw history; prog is a hoax, right?

We could drown in semantics; as a descriptive term “prog” is about as touchy as Caligula’s mood. It’s like the entire history of German philosophy expressed in haiku; it’s a pretty idea, but try to use it too efficiently and you’ll end up with Electric Light Orchestra, the Art Bears, and Cluster in the same frosty breath. And while using subgenre buzz terms may map out the formicinatic detail, they tend to crush the anthill: Canterbury, art rock, symphonic prog, Italian symphonic prog, progressive electronic, krautrock, avant-prog, RIO (rock in opposition), zeuhl — what are we even talking about anymore? Try to mean too much, or too little, and the exceptions will pull the punch line. And just try saying it, ‘cause you’ll choke: the letters probably spell “Magma.”

If we want to define it, we need to simplify: all “prog” means is rock music that moves out of rock to embrace classical, jazz, or electronic music (whereas, for example, “fusion” denotes the opposite movement of jazz into rock). As a rule, it’s usually either/or, although there are always exceptions that prove that rule (…Magma).  For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to follow a very loose framework and divide my deliberations on prog in three: this installment will deal with symphonic, art, and space prog (which, at least in composition, generally embrace orchestral and romantic influences). Forthcoming columns will deal with RIO and avant-prog (the free jazz and free improvisation side) and krautrock (generally, the electronic end). This disclaimer is for anybody who read this list and feels gypped at the lack of Beefheart, Zappa, Art Bears/Henry Cow, Univers Zero, Samla Mammas Manna, or the entirety of Germany: they’re coming. Basically, as long as the real nerds (hi! We should go for coffee!) can deal with zeuhl (or, I guess, just Magma) being present here, everything should work out fine. (Also worth noting, I guess, that Magma is the exception to everything I’m about to say, since, y’know, they’re Magma.)

History (Take Two): my history. Because some of the albums that are in this list routinely get shit on. Sometimes by me. Let me show you my cards:

I started Junior High in 1991; I had like maybe 40 cassette tapes. Among them were the kinds of things you might expect: “Weird Al” Yankovic whatevers, MC Hammer and other notable sock hop jamz, and awesome stuff like Salt-N-Pepa, N.W.A., and Public Enemy that I understood as “awesome” for all the wrong reasons at the time. I would quickly own both Use Your Illusions. Nevermind was released around the same time, but my junior high remained largely immune to grunge (I didn’t; I just didn’t hear it right away from schoolmates). I also believe I had Reebok Pump-Ups. I was totally, disquietingly cool. Then my father bought a stereo system with a CD player, bought the Led Zeppelin box set, played me “Black Dog,” and I proceeded to listen to everything on that set approximately 867 million times; I made my own cassette dubs with handmade covers, and I loved the (quite proggy) shit on Houses of the Holy (1973), Physical Graffiti (1975),and Presence (1976). My father then bought a copy of Dark Side of the Moon (1973). I went out and bought everything by Pink Floyd I could find. Umma Gumma (1969) and Meddle (1971)shocked me. I can’t quite remember how I got into Gabriel-era Genesis; I’ve always had a pop streak, so it’s possible I stayed in the Collins years until 1993, when the early January release of The Longs gave me “Old Melody” and sent me flying backwards through their collection. I bought Phish’s A Live One (1995) on a whim (due to song title “Chalk Dust Torture,” I believe); this was grade ten, and I used the same logic when I read “The Rejected Mexican Pope Leaves the Stage” on the archival Mothers of Invention album Ahead of Their Time (1993) later that year. By the end of high school I had most or all the albums of all of these bands, as well as Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Mr. Bungle, Mike Oldfield, King Crimson, Captain Beefheart (well…the in-print ones I could find at the time), Yes, and Frank Zappa’s solo collection (at 60+ albums, some of my friends actually came with me to celebrate the purchase of the final addition, which…lame, but also: hee!).

Even though Beefheart and Zappa are RIO, these are all prog albums in the most traditional of senses: long song formats, heavily orchestrated or entirely free improv that relied on technical prowess and experimental tendencies. They are also, often, albums that get shat on by experimental enthusiasts. I mean, who actually listens to Yes or Pink Floyd, really? I certainly didn’t, by university. Why? I was fortunate enough to have my definition of “prog” irrevocably altered by friends I met in first year that introduced me to Can and Neu! and Cluster (which sent me off into both electronica and krautrock on my own) and a lovely record store where I could actually buy albums by John Zorn (who had produced Mr. Bungle [1991]) and related RIO work. Consequently, when I heard somebody playlisting “Money” next to “Tripping Billies” on a party list it would only reify my out of the blue and ill-formed suspicion that Dark Side of the Moon was lukewarm compared to Future Days (1973). Or, to use an averted tragedy to explain it differently, Can and Neu! are the reasons I was able to hop off the Phish train before it was too late, and they’re the same reason that the burgeoning New Brunswick jam-scene bored me to fucking tears. I say “out of the blue and ill-formed” — it’s not that I still don’t think Neu! (1972) is better than Fragile (1971), or that the New Brunswick jam-scene isn’t still tear-fucking boring; it’s just that at the time I based the decision on cache, rather than content.

I think it runs one of two ways: you hear, say, Pink Floyd, and that becomes your inverted glass ceiling, your fringe, that’s what “experimental” comes to mean for you, and you stop your frontier right there. Or you keep going. And, really, the “keep going” factor isn’t just about being more musically conscious, or adventurous, or worst of all better; it relies on all sorts of factors: access, allowance, random chance. If Eric Hill (who writes wonderful out reviews for Exclaim, but who also filled Backstreet Records with wild and crazy shit during my undergrad) hadn’t been stocking certain things and testing them out on me, I wouldn’t have been exposed to so much of the music I had been at such an early age.

Point being, you latch on, and once you move deeper, suddenly Aqualung (1971) doesn’t sound quite so innovative. So you get crotchety and snobby, pissed off at all your buddies simultaneously playing shitty air drums to “Ants Marching” for the sixtieth time in a row at a party. There’s really two points to make here. Because history (Take Three!) matters, and I’ve been deliberately comparing albums released around the same time so far to make a point: comparing Can and Pink Floyd is fine, but it’s really myopic to expect that Aqualung should sound more innovative than, say, Here Comes the Indian (2003); it’s unhistorical, and — okay, it could be my day job — but I really think the hardest part about becoming a competent, non-annoying music snob is being able to historicize your tastes.

Second point: the second hardest part is acknowledging relativity. In simplest terms, I probably could never have appreciated Autechre if I hadn’t heard “Achille’s Last Stand” first. And even if that’s a specific historical and cultural situation to me (via my father), Yes and Pink Floyd are critical albums in my own musical history because they taught me how to listen the way I do. Except, experimentation in music runs the same way. “Prog” by default dominated as a descriptive term for so long because it was the easiest way to isolate a constantly advancing fringe still dominated (until the rise of electronic music forms in the late ‘80s) by something still recognizable as a rock band. As a result, what was “progressive” was constantly delineated by what was more “prog” than what had come before. None of which is to even broach the topic of how far ahead of the curve most metal listeners are. Well, semi-broached now.

These issues are especially crucial due to the proliferation of internet music fandom, in part because obscure bands like Can are receiving the kind of press that they couldn’t in their own radio-defined era. The more we rep those bands, the more mystique is pulled away from their popular contemporaries and successors. But should it be? The name of this column is a joke; we can retcon our tastes, as if we always knew about Can, or Neu!, or Magma, or whatever, and then the albums that prepared us for them (the ones we very likely heard and loved first) suddenly aren’t advanced enough. But is it because they aren’t as good? Or because they don’t represent the farthest reaching point of some weird influence + technology + reception + obscurity calculus that doesn’t make any sense anyway because rarely are historicity or relatively considered variables in present-tense taste.

It’s always both, for me, at least. Can is better than Pink Floyd, as far as I’m concerned, and nothing annoys me more than somebody telling me that my opinions are less valid because I only “listen to obscure music that nobody else has heard of.” But what annoys me in the exact same is “you still listen to that?” A rejoinder, then, to both sides, expressed as a spurious claim: even if the Dave Matthews Band deplorably reduces the more variegated ideas of prog into simple consumable feel-good party-ready tid-bits, from another perspective they open up minds to the possibilities of listening habits that reach beyond 4/4 rhythms and simplistic arrangements. In other words, DMB suck, of course, but at least their success wasn’t based on Nicklebackian derivatives. In other words, if you’re a fan and you ask me why I just can’t enjoy them, I’ll tell you all about how their promotion of care-free college fresh-baked stoner romanticism is wracked with boring platitudes that only serve to reinforce the sexism and heterosexism of liberal arts culture, but if you’re paying attention you’ll notice I’m not really critiquing the music. Which is why if you’re not a fan I won’t just write them off — I don’t like them much, but at least people that do are listening to something with a little more substance than James fucking Blunt.

That is my struggle: I loved Pink Floyd when I was 14; I could hum along with the instrumental portions of “Echoes.” As I got older, the dorky cynicism of Roger Water’s lyrics started to grate; the music seemed less tightly wound and more noodlingly guitar-based; the basic process of overdubbing became something I intimately understood, and therefore I also understood that the way Pink Floyd did it wasn’t that exciting. But those of us who fervently believe that experimental music is the exact point of making music at all — to push forward, to live in the future — need to keep in mind those moments when Pink Floyd was that frontier for us. Because if we don’t, we retcon the other way, acting as if the shit that turned us on then isn’t the same shit that turns us on now. The music and bands aren’t the same — even the quality of the music may not be the same — but the way you suck breath between your teeth is: we learn and expand through consumption, and my taste is only as good as yours if I recognize the way it grew.

All of which is to say that I think that ignoring the crucial position of the albums made in the more safe quarters of prog is a disservice. Nobody is born into loving Here Comes the Indian or Beaches and Canyons (2002); it’s a process started with “Money” and including “Careful with that Axe Eugene” and “Dogs” and “Roundabout” and “Discipline” and — yes, for me — “Harry Hood” and then suddenly Can and the Boredoms and Suicide and This Heat and all of Norway make sense because they aren’t simply luminous parachutes billowing in the wind; they’re attached to your body-as-anchor that can descend back through the history of music into Muddy Waters. Which is a long way of saying that we’ll cover the prog I’m still learning how to hear in the future; here’s a little tribute to albums that helped me get this far.