Features | Retconning

X :: Prog II (R.I.O. and Avant-Prog)

By Mark Abraham | 3 September 2007

The term “rock in opposition” (R.I.O.) was coined in the late seventies. It was the name of a festival held by the band Henry Cow (at that point pretty much on its last legs as Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, and Slapp Happy import Dagmar Krause were about to commit to Art Bears exclusively; also, on a tangent, love that Krause is the first fully accredited band member/artist to make a repeat appearance in this column) in 1978 in London that featured several avant-rock bands who believed the record industry was too interested in profit and not enough interested in fostering musical community and political consciousness. Of course, this wasn’t exactly a new complaint from those on the fringe of progressive rock.

As I mentioned the last time we visited prog, my first real experience with R.I.O. (or the less specific “avant-rock” or “avant-prog”) was the Mothers of Invention album Ahead of Their Time (a 1993 issue of a 1968 concert, also in London). A young music fan in grade ten, having no preconceptions of what I was going to hear, I was pretty surprised by what I did: half-jazz, half-rock instrumentals defined by weird horn work and odd time signatures (at that point, I think “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Money,” and all those Led Zeppelin songs that Bonham refused to not play 4/4 during were likely the weirdest signatures I was used to), bizarre humor that I sort of got the politics to, all intercut with serial-based chamber music and a developing narrative about the band breaking up. It was a weird way to get into the band; the album’s a bit sloppy, and the release was more for historical purposes than anything else, but I quickly worked on getting all the early Mothers albums. Zappa’s composition and wild production provide a natural point of inception for the genre. His equal love of Edgar Varese, Eric Dolphy, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson define the basic template for R.I.O.: taking free and atonal jazz and classical serialism as inspiration to mix the avant-garde (with varying degrees of seams) into rock music. His band, which couldn’t always perform the music he composed, forced him to use tape manipulation and other studio tricks to achieve the results he wanted.

Later variations tend to place less and less emphasis on the “rock” part of the whole equation. But even if results vary, the clear link between the avant-garde and R.I.O. unites these artists against the more traditional classical tendencies (apeing Brahms instead of Stravinsky, I mean) of their more traditional colleagues in art rock and symphonic prog. Another important link was the emphasis most of these bands placed on technology and the studio. Maybe that’s another influence of Zappa, but especially as the genre mingled with no wave and post-punk in a post-This Heat world, some avant-prog artists became increasingly reliant on technology as well as chops.

This is my bread and butter in a lot of ways. Avant-prog tends to blur the lines of all the other best music I like; it’s “out” music in the best of senses, interested in the way sound can work, experimenting with those boundaries but never letting experimentation get in the way of song craft. If you can get onboard with the rhythmic foolery and the wild instrumentation you’ll find a world of wild music that almost never feels like it’s talking down to you (which is sometimes the case with bands like Yes and King Crimson); these bands don’t want you to be geeked at how brilliant they are so much as they want you to join in and get out with them. Which is why this music is far more nuanced, humorous, and political than art rock or symphonic prog. Like the work of the serialists and free jazz musicians it aspires to, the point is always about employing and parodying a whole range of artistic impulses to create a venue where political and personal impulses can be engaged with. There is (almost) always a message with avant-rock: be yourself in the face of a world of systemic oppression. It’s not always clean, there’s a lot to criticize in the way those politics are presented; however, the basic premise of post-war avant-garde is always present: drag the art out into the streets and make it mean something. Instead of trying to create evidence of the progress of culture, try to create a springboard from which culture can proceed.