Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Progressive Music and You

I commonly hear of bands being referred to as being “progressive” or in the style of “progressive rock.” What irks me about this is that many critics who throw around those terms aren’t savvy as to what they really mean, at least in the context of music. While my ideas may not be truth, either, they are based on common threads that exist between bands that are, appropriately so, associated with the genre. I truthfully do not know the origin of the term, and can only base my argument on the elements in the set of progressive music bands, such as Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis.

Let me be clear – artists like Beck and Radiohead are not progressive. Neither are Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other similar bands. They may have been influential, and sure, they may have “progressed” music forwards through invention of new styles and sounds, but they are not “progressive music” in the same vain as Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis. They are simply unique and talented alternative bands.

So, then, let’s get at the heart of what progressive music is. Do you remember in English classes when you were learning how to write an essay? You probably learned the common structure of “thesis, support point 1, support point 2, etc, conclusion”. Similarly, most musicians learn music in either the classical sonata form or the modern rock form, which I’ll focus on here. Most modern rock songs have a very simple formula: intro, verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, solo, chorus, end. There are some simple variations, such as intro, verse 1, verse 2, chorus, solo, chorus, end and so on. The point here is that there is an accepted “form” that most artists follow for songwriting.

Now, let’s return back to English class. Suppose we altered the essay structure, and moved to a more organic or even poetic form, in which you just allowed the essay to go where it wanted to, each point building on the previous one but not necessarily relating to the original theme - just letting the mind flow. This style might be called “progressive” writing, in that within a piece of writing thoughts progress from one to another. Note that this definition has nothing to do with other writings out there – the word progressive only captured the behavior within a single piece. To repeat, it has nothing to do with influence or progress in literature at large – only the progressive writing structure within the document.

Now let’s apply that same concept to music, and we’ve got it. Progressive music refers to a style in which artists abandoned “common” song structures and moved to a more organic setup, letting the music flow where it “needed to go” and not being bound to rules about song forms. As a result, song lengths tended to move from the 3-5 minute range to the 10+ minute range and many songs became less pop-oriented and more “difficult” to grasp.

While Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis are considered as pioneers of this form (check out Yes’s album Close To The Edge if you want a good idea of progressive music), there are indeed several modern bands who truly are progressive (and are not Beck or Radiohead). Two worthy of mention are Tool and The Mars Volta. Listening to Tool’s Aenima or Lateralus album, you can see how each song (and the whole albums) represents a musical journey organically evolving from note to note. Sure, there are repeated themes and recurring choruses throughout, but only in so much as they relate to the previous element (a natural evolution back to the original theme). The Mars Volta’s De-loused in the Comatorium and Frances The Mute albums are equally progressive in nature.

So before you start classifying anything and everything as being progressive music, remember where the roots of the term come from. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not to say that many alternative bands aren’t good, influential, and/or unique – it has nothing to do with that. It’s just to say that if you’re going to classify a band, make sure you know what you’re classifying them as…


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