01 July 2009

Some scattered thoughts about the Prog magazine top 50 list...

The top 50 all-time prog albums list solicited by Classic Rock presents Prog has been released. As one could have probably predicted, the list is…

a) primarily bands from the UK
b) primarily melodic/symphonic

c) dominated by Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd (30% of the list is these three bands)

What can we derive from this list?

Not a whole lot.

We can get a good guess at the readership of this magazine. We could probably put together a decent picture of their age, (25-55), gender (male), and place of residence (the UK, duh). We can tell that as expected the most popular bands still tend to be the so called Big Six (add in ELP, Tull and Crimson and 40% of the list is the Big Six). We see a dearth of non-UK bands (Rush, Dream Theater, Spock’s, Queensryche, Tool, Gong, Opeth). We see, in general, a decent snapshot of what is most accessible and easily digestible. And if we look at the publication, we see that in general it is this music that gets the bigger features, the most wordage, the most focus.

Is this that shocking?

Not really.

In the golden age of prog, bands like Yes and ELP did more than create some of the more complex rock music…they sold millions of records. Tull were much the same, while in many ways Crimson would be the odd man out…complex walls of sound, a propensity for improv and angularity…they are perhaps the most difficult band of the big six. Floyd came to prog via psychedelia, and their emphasis on soundscape, mood and texture puts them at odds with the rest of the batch. Yet there was always melody and structure guiding all of these bands (and yes, Crimson definitely dabbled there as well…Book of Saturday, Cadence and Cascade, The Night Watch…Fripp and co. could craft a hell of a catchy song when they wanted to).

What we miss on a list like this is the truly world based nature of prog. Where are the Italian bands…Banco, PFM, Le Orme, Area, Goblin. What of the German groups like Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream…the eastern European bands like Solaris or Collage or SFF? There’s a huge Scandanavian prog scene typified by bands like Kaipa, Trettioariga Kriget, Samlas Mammas Manna and carried on through White Willow, Anglagard and Anekdoten. Likewise, there are large numbers of important and influential Japanese bands like Kenso, Gerard, Ain Soph, Vermillion Sands, and countless others. We don’t see anything truly avant garde…no Rock in Opposition, no Zeuhl…almost no fusion or Canterbury, and nothing that to my mind pushes any limits or stretches boundaries.

I am not trying to say that in order for an album to be worthy of being in a top fifty list, it has to be by nature difficult and/or edgy. There’s nothing difficult or edgy about an album like Darwin! By Banco…unless you find gorgeous melodies, delicate arrangements, and passionate operatic Italian vocals difficult or edgy. My complaints with lists like the one put together by Classic Rock presents Prog is that it represents a narrow slice of the prog listenership/fan base…and as the magazine is on newsstands all over the place, it will tend to help ossify a general impression that this is the prog that matters. I could list a dozen or more albums equally worthy of being on this list that would both widen its characteristics and present a more complete view of what progressive music is…albums that are the equal to, if not superior to, those listed by the readership. But what would this solve? It’d be yet another narrow slice of what prog music is. I’d think it more complete and more enveloping…but it’d be just one person’s viewpoint.

Frankly, progressive music is insular and ghettoised enough as it is. Limiting it to a selection of melodic albums sung in English only marginalises it further than it already is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post. I'll admit, I don't explore enough, the real prog bands; but, I know sort of what it is by reading this blog a lot: I used to think prog meant moog synths, at first. Then I met Thomas Bodin from the Flower Kings and he told me he looked up "progressive" and found it to mean moving in a constant changing motion, and Thomas thought the Flower Kings were doing that, getting better and learning from each CD they did.
Actually, the bands most mentioned on this mag's list when pop, IMO.
But some prog music just bores me, like Gong. Marillion is a little better; I guess I tend to look for a melody like the Beatles usually did ...