03 April 2009

Some thoughts on the Big Six and their dominance of progressive music today...

I’ve been putting some thought into the subject of this post for a few days now…amazing what large doses of decongestants and other cold medications can do to your thought process, eh?

Anyway…this post is somewhat inspired by a post I participated in on the Mike Portnoy forum. The original post can be found here:


The long and short of it, as outlined in the initial post:

“1) Assign your own rating to the top ten

2) List your own top ten prog albums of all time

1) Selling England By The Pound - Genesis
2) Close To The Edge - Yes
3) Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
4) Thick As A Brick - Tull
5) Dark Side Of The Moon - Pink Floyd
6) Foxtrot - Genesis
7) In The Court Of The Crimson King - King Crimson
8) Animals - Pink Floyd
9) Per Un Amico - PFM
10) Moving Pictures – Rush”

The provided top ten apparently is the current top 10 rated albums as decided upon by participants at the Progarchives website. One of the posters at MP.com had this to say about the PA top 10:

“That reads like a top 10 list of 70s prog albums (one's from 69 and one from 81, but close enough...).

The predictable and decidedly retro-sounding (although certainly great!) Anglagard disc on position no. 15 aside, the first somewhat recent album on their list is The Perfect Element - and that only placed 35th!

Going by this list you'd think prog is dead and has been for 25 years. Thankfully, that's very far from the truth. But I guess this just goes to show that the prog scene is still dominated by old farts.”

So, is it? Is prog music dominated by the ghosts of the past? What makes bands like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and ELP such huge weights that it becomes a Sisyphean task to overcome their legacy? I think there’s a wide range of answers to this question, and I doubt I could get into all of them in a single post. But I’m going to try and wade through the heap of broken images that my mind can be at times, and see what I can add to the mountain of text and babble (banter, bicker, bicker, bicker, brouhaha, balderdash, ballyhoo…it’s only talk) about the subject.

The bands I listed above are the ones generally considered to be the Big Six…they were the most commercially successful progressive bands of their time, all releasing debut albums between 1967 and 1969. Among them we have the basis for much of what we consider to be the building blocks of progressive music today…lengthy compositions, influences moving beyond blues music, atypical rock band instrumentation, extensive use of synthesizers and sound manipulation, lyrics that move beyond politics or relationships. You have the melodicism that neo-prog bands drew from (as well as many of the more popular prog bands of the 1990’s), you have the explorations into atonality and improvisation that fueled the avant side of things. You have folk, you have jazz, you have space rock. While other bands of similar vintage would explore the outer expanses of these core ideas, these six bands were able to distill those disparate concepts into something that they derived artistic and commercial success from. The fact that these bands were able to find some degree of commercial success doing what they did brings them a weight that other bands can’t quite match.

I say this, and at the same time want to try and lessen it somewhat. Obviously commercial success is only one indicator of a band’s influence or importance. Bands like Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, Camel, Caravan, Magma…while not ascending to the same level of commercial/chart based success that a band like Yes would achieve, are every bit as important to the evolution of progressive music, and their influences can be heard in bands like discipline., echolyn, Spock’s Beard, and so on.
What I am getting at, I think, is that these bands are the foundation. They are the basis on which today’s prog builds and evolves. This grants those bands, rightly or wrongly, an additional sense of gravitas or importance. This does not mean that prog is dead…but it might account for some of the smell ;-)

Obviously prog and progressive music have survived to this day. In terms of diversity, prog is as alive as ever, with countless bands vying for our ears and a share of our record purchasing budget. And amongst these bands are bands that I think come close to embracing the same explorative nature that the progenitors of the genre had…they are progressing musically, exploring different forms, styles, influences, instrumentation, and so on, in the hopes of creating something new and different. There are also bands that are working in the same areas as many of the classic groups, working in a by now delineated and almost codified style. And that can be OK too. There’s certainly naught wrong with working a particular style and doing it with skill and panache.

There’s been a pretty wide divergence within fans of the genre between these two schools of musical thought. On one hand you have fans of the more stylistic bands, the so called lower case p prog bands, who feel put upon by a ‘prog elite’ that looks down upon them with derision for listening to bands that seem to do little more than ape some classic band’s work. On the other hand, you have the fans of the so called upper case P progressive bands, who feel that the other side derides them for listening to music that doesn’t sound like anything they are familiar with. It’s frustrating, especially for me, as I find as much to enjoy in wild, atonal, avant stuff as I do in a carefully crafted melodic song. There’s something of value in both sides, and this divergence is every bit as responsible (IMO) for the current state of progressive music as the ‘no commercial potential’ aspect of prog is.

Prog fans have a tendency, I find, of eating their own. I’ve seen this in other scenes as well, with one classic example being Nirvana (no, not the prog band Nirvana that released 5 albums from 1967-1970 in the UK). Of course most people know then as a result of the massively selling Nevermind album from 1991/1992, but they did have an earlier album release on Seattle based label Sub Pop. And I know a lot of people who stopped listening to them as soon as they signed to DGC/Geffen…as they stopped listening to Mudhoney and other bands of a similar ilk. It’s easy to say that those were a result of the indie nature of that particular musical scene, but I saw similar responses to Porcupine Tree signing to Lava/Atlantic. I see a similar kind of response to Dream Theater being involved with Roadrunner records, with people inferring changes in writing style/playing style/whatever being the result of label interference. I wasn’t deeply involved in the scene in the early 1990’s, but I wonder if the same kind of response was lobbed at echolyn when they signed with Sony/550.

We bemoan the fact that our favourite bands aren’t listened to by more people, yet bristle when a band starts showing signs of expanding beyond the comfy confines of the genre. At the same time, we point out bands that are mass-market bands, and try to assign a prog label to them. Radiohead, Tool, Muse…for some of us, calling these bands prog is as natural as breathing (and this is not the place for me to assign labels to any of those bands, save to say I enjoy material by all of them as much as many dedicated progressive bands). I think at times, if I were to use a metaphor, prog fans want to see the mountain come to Mohammed rather than the other way around…they want the mainstream to come to our favoured bands, hat in hand, asking to be guided, asking to find the way, rather than bands from this genre finding ways to move beyond the genre...

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