One of the musical revelations unfurled at the turn of the millennium involved the notion that there's a coterie of cool indie-label bands whose roots lie in something less hipster-certified than such easy namechecks as the Velvet Underground, Big Star and the Ramones. That unhip something is progressive rock.
It's important to realize that in the early to mid-1970s, progressive rock was one of the only viable mainstream alternatives to the endless boogie of lowest-common-denominator blues-rockers like Foghat and ZZ Top.
In those benighted, pre-punk days, prog's sophistication spoke volumes to kids too smart to swill Budweiser to "Slow Ride." And they - along with their more adventurous peers who veered slightly left to prog's Germanic cousin, kraut-rock - grew up to embrace their geekdom. In the '90s, some went on to become architects of the new sonic vistas that genre-hungry rock scribes would christen post-rock, math rock, space rock, and other monikers guaranteed to sprout beards at 10 paces.
For those unfamiliar with the origins of prog-rock, it grew out of the psychedelic sounds of '60s bands like Pink Floyd, Tomorrow (which included future Yes guitarist Steve Howe) and the Moody Blues. Prog-rockers mixed the structure and sensibility of European classical music with the sonically adventurous, anything-goes maxim of psychedelia, the grand gestures of the nascent hard-rock sound, and a lyrical dollop of then-prevalent Eastern philosophical modes. In the first few years of prog's existence, its major practitioners (Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer) shared a penchant for flashy displays of instrumental virtuosity, inscrutable fairy-tale lyrics and - to varying degrees - touches of classical grandeur and jazz-influenced extemporization. By the mid-'70s, greater stylistic variation could be seen, as King Crimson explored darker, more angular improvisatory routes, Jethro Tull created something akin to rock madrigals, and Peter Gabriel led Genesis toward more involved, theatrical stage shows.
Elsewhere, there was the lighthearted proto-fusion of the Soft Machine-centered Canterbury scene, the drug-fueled space rock of Hawkwind and Gong, and numerous other prog variants. By the end of the '70s, however, most of prog's front guard had either sold out to pop accessibility or been obliterated by the arrival of punk. In the mid-'80s, Brits like Marillion, Pendragon and IQ introduced neo-prog, which mated the influence of Genesis, Pink Floyd, etc. with a post-punk-derived sense of economy. But it wasn't enough to redeem the prog name that had been so tarnished just a few years earlier.
So prog continued to fester as an underground movement, its new blood known only to the fringe cognoscenti, and its past titans relinquished to the moldy shelves of older siblings' (or former-hippie parents') LP shelves.
Then, in the '90s, after guitar-based alt-rock played itself out, two related styles came to the forefront bearing the promise of fresh sounds free of grunge baggage: electronica and post-rock. Each essentially disregarded most of what had occurred in the previous 20 years or so, reaching back instead to the early '70s and further for inspiration. You can't help but hear German electro-shamans Tangerine Dream in the ambient synth shadings of Fuxa and Tomorrowland. Echoes of kraut-rock pioneers Kraftwerk have informed Kreidler, Trans Am, Mouse On Mars, and countless others. In England, Spiritualized has effectively channeled the spacey epics of early-'70s Pink Floyd, while Ozric Tentacles and Porcupine Tree have picked up where Gong and Hawkwind left off, throwing in an ambient/trance electronic edge.
In the avant-garde hotbed of mid-'90s Chicago, the genre that dared not speak its name seemed to be getting plenty of play as well. Soaking up the DIY vibe of the Drag City label and the free-jazz, post-Bitches Brew groundwork laid by the likes of Fred Anderson and the AACM, as well as the prog/kraut-rock excursions of their youth, a generation of musical wanderers created something (almost) new under the sun. Amid their Ennio Morricone spaghetti-Western guitars, dub basslines and Steve Reich marimba ostinatos, the post-rock godfathers in Tortoise offered expansive landscapes whose epic vistas wouldn't have sounded out of place on Yes' Relayer. The Sea And Cake's blend of rock instrumentation with inventive, jazz-like structure sans virtuosic improvisation brings to mind early Soft Machine. Meanwhile, the Chicagoans' U.K. contemporaries in Pram were mixing the avant-garde grooviness of kraut-rockers Can with the synth-enhanced psychedelia of late-'60s cult heroes the United States Of America.
Over the last few years, the post-rock world has grown in both numbers and visibility. It often overlaps with forward-looking electronic artists that have moved on from techno and other dance-oriented styles (To Rococo Rot, Mouse On Mars), and with the angular, rhythmically challenging, guitar-based style often known as math rock (Don Caballero, June Of 44).
Touch & Go Records is a leader in the area where post-rock and math-rock converge. The label's publicity director, Scott Giampino, believes Touch & Go act Don Caballero has been heavily influenced by prog-rock in the group's "non-linear song structure and latter-day (King) Crimson feel, especially on their latest, American Don." But he adds the following caveat:
"I always thought prog-rock, while usually being very technically proficient, was still very much human, earthy and warm. I think many adherents of math rock get far too clinical and cold. It's not very groovy at all, is it? It's very much like a cold equation on a chalk board."
Giampino also hears prog leanings in the dark, heavy, Middle Eastern-tinged sound of Polvo and the Don Caballero offshoot Storm And Stress, and he points out that the members of June Of 44 "admire the freeness of some prog bands, and, especially live, can stretch out in 15-20-minute 'jams.' "
While the modern indie-rock elite is fashioning new work that incorporates elements of progressive rock, there's also a huge subculture of bona fide contemporary prog-rock bands who wear their Yes and Genesis T-shirts proudly, carrying on the tradition of their '70s heroes without the slightest measure of ironic distance or postmodern genre-bending. United by the Internet, a vast underground of independent labels, magazines, distributors, and festivals supports the hundreds of bands bent on taking virtually unreconstructed prog-rock into the 21st century. Spearheaded by a vanguard that includes Spock's Beard, Under-ground Railroad and Sweden's the Flower Kings, prog marches proudly on at Pennsylvania's annual NEARfest, California's Progfest and other events around the world.
Ken Golden, owner of Laser's Edge Records (home to some of the finest contemporary prog bands), believes these artists are motivated by "a need to explore the limits of musical composition without any regard to commercial accessibility, creating complex non-commercial forms of music that allow the artists to challenge themselves and the listener on both an emotional and intellectual level."
"Many of the better current bands use the parameters that were established by the '70s prog-rock groups purely as a starting point and infuse their own personalities and style," Golden says. "For example, when they formed, [Sweden's] Anekdoten clearly had a musical link to mid-'70s King Crimson. However, their music was probably equally influenced by bands like Primus and Nirvana."
Rick Eddy of A Triggering Myth, among the best of the new progressive crop, says he is attracted by "the open-ended nature" of the music.
"There are no rules, and you can use everything you've ever heard or experienced - rock, jazz, classical, Indian ragas, Hungarian folk, African roots music, etc. Anything," he says. "I can't imagine ever running out of options."
Between the forward-looking artists who nod appreciatively in the direction of '70s beard-rock and those who reverently reproduce the prog sounds of yesteryear, could a major resurgence of public interest make prog hip again? It's doubtful. More likely than not, the hipper-than-thou clerk at your local indie record store still wouldn't be caught dead with a King Crimson album. But if someone slipped a Crimson cut onto a mix tape in between Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Don Caballero, he'd probably give a nod, secure in the knowledge that - like scads of other formerly d?lass?genres - prog has come full circle.