Features / humor

Prog Conversations That Need To Die (But Never Will)

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I first dipped my toe into online discussions of progressive music in the late 90s, when message boards were still a thing. For the most part, I have really fond memories of those boards. As a matter of fact, I discovered some of my favorite bands through board suggestions. However, with almost 20 years discussing prog on the internet, there are a few conversations that I wish would just end, forever (though my wishes are in vain).  I thought I’d list out some of the most pointless and fruitless conversations that I see on online discussions about progressive music- feel free to add your own in the comments section.

1.) “Is __________ prog?”, or conversely, “_______ is NOT prog”

The genre label of “progressive rock”, as we all know, originated as a retroactive label. The most popular bands in the genre rejected the attempts by record labels and music critics to categorize them, as many of them were trying to push boundaries and explore new influences and styles. The reason for continually asking this question makes sense. We, as humans, have this impulse to categorize and contextualize. But, there is no unified, clear definition for what “prog” actually is. From what I can see, there are two overarching definitions at play- 1.) “prog” is a genre label for bands that have similar elements to bands that received that retroactive label, like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, etc. In other words: virtuosic musicianship, complex themes, epic compositions, etc. OR 2.) an adventurous, boundary pushing ethos that allows the band to use that label. An example for 1.) might be Spock’s Beard, and an example for 2.) might be modern Marillion or Anathema (neither of which would probably characterize themselves as simply a “prog” band).

The most offensively bad permutation of this is, “This song couldn’t be prog because it was popular.” WHAT? A song can have every element of traditional prog- it can be 15 minutes long, with a 4 minute zither solo and a choir of Buddhist monks, yet if more than 20 people like it, it’s suddenly not prog? Apparently, progressive rock also has to be unpalatable for it to be prog. I hate that Steven Wilson feels the need to preface his song “Permanating” with a monologue about how turned off all the progressive rock fans are about it. There’s nothing more self defeating for a genre that calls itself progressive. We’re locking an artist into a creative box and electrocuting them every time they try to leave. So, “Permanating” isn’t “The Revealing Science of God” by Yes. Does letting the whole internet know that make you feel better about yourself? Did that feel good? Did it, now?

Does knowing a band is “prog” make their music any better or worse? Are we just seeking validation for listening to a band? Are people just bored? Will we forever think like tribes? Whatever the question is, it’s one of the most boring prog conversations.

2.) Band X shouldn’t have continued after Person X left.

Conversations like this happen no matter what genre. I’ve never understood this mindset. As someone who went to college to be a musician (though I didn’t end up pursuing it professionally for personal, pragmatic reasons), I see both the artistic and pragmatic realities of playing music. So, to tell a band, which is essentially a job, to stop existing because a person leaves, to me, is akin to asking a company or business to shut down because a CEO or executive officer gets a job somewhere else. The most famous example of this might be Genesis, and from a purely pragmatic standpoint, Genesis, Phil Collins, AND Peter Gabriel all were better off financially following Peter’s split from the band. But there are many bands that continue on after a key member leaves. This does get murky when both parties get into spats about ownership, but luckily, this is relatively rare. But, generally, I think that bands, moreso than fans, have the right to choose whether or not they continue after changing members, both legally and artistically. And personally,  I can think of many success stories of a band continuing on and writing consistently good music after losing a key member- Spock’s Beard comes to mind immediately. With a string of very solid, powerful albums with 3 different frontmen, Spock’s Beard continues to make awesome music, and so does Neal Morse. I’d say it all worked out.

3.) Though Person X has expressed that they don’t want to reunite with a previous, less successful band, I think that they should, and I will bring it up every chance I get!

Devin Townsend is one of my favorite musicians. I am a fan of nearly everything that he has put out in the last 30 years or so, and I love his various side projects as well. Strapping Young Lad was a special project for many, and I think they released some incredible metal albums. But, Devin has spoken quite clearly that he is not interested in reforming Strapping Young Lad. His reasons are clear: Firstly, it was terrible for his mental health to be in Strapping Young Lad. He has mentioned this in many interviews. Secondly, fans tend to look back on this period with rosy colored glasses. Devin has stated that he is much more financially successful now than he ever was with Strapping Young Lad, despite critical and fan success.  In this particular case, I feel like seeing it in every interview is particularly painful, because I know how annoying it is for Devin to hear. This could apply to a number of other artists though- Peter Gabriel reuniting with Genesis (though they became more “successful” without him), Steven Wilson with Porcupine Tree, Fish with Marillion, and so on.

One really nice thing about music is that if you really liked a previous album from a band, but you don’t like a newer album, your previous album doesn’t disappear! It’s still there. You can listen to it whenever you want.

4.) Comparing technical skill, or even worse, “progginess” like there is some sort of objective measure

The currency in progressive music, as I’ve said, is novelty. So many bands have amazing instrumentalists and vocalists in the progressive scene. Freaking out about whether Virgil Donati or Marco Minneman or Mike Portnoy or Mike Mangini is better is so dumb, because the metrics are subjective, and really, will always be. Which Mike is the best drummer? Who is more proggy- Aphrodite’s Child, or Magma? The answer is: Who cares? There is no definitive answer except your opinion. But people will always try and make these tired statements, because really, they’re probably just trying to pass the time.

And finally,

5.) When progressive music becomes the National Enquirer

For those who aren’t stateside, the National Enquirer is a famous gossip magazine here in the states. I have always liked Mike Portnoy’s drumming, and consider myself a fan of several of his groups. But, ever since Mike’s split from Dream Theater, I’ve said that he could pass gas in a diner and Blabbermouth would write an article about it within the hour. This happens to many different bands and artists- they can do a 3 hour long interview, and say one thing that could potentially be click-baitable, and next thing you know, there are articles all over the place specifically about the one sentence. Sometimes the context is totally off, sometimes it’s horribly mangled and misquoted, and sometimes, it’s just an opinion. But really, guys? I’d hope that we’d be better than turning the progressive scene into an episode of Maury. It’s lazy, and it adds nothing to the conversation.

I’m not really optimistic that these will ever disappear, because they’ve appeared nonstop for as long as spaces for conversation have existed. But, hopefully, if you’re reading this and reconsidering your daily questioning of Pink Floyd’s progginess, you might reconsider, and instead, share something a bit more thought out and interesting.

What are your pet peeves for progressive rock conversations? Share below in the comments.

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6 thoughts on “Prog Conversations That Need To Die (But Never Will)

  1. I have always found the “name that scene” game alternatingly irritating and amusing.

    you’ve got your Canterbury, your Kraut-rock, prog-metal, symphonic rock, space prog, prog-fusion, neo-prog, math rock, “world music” (of the proggish variety)…

    True, all genres have it, but I thought JK the progressive music community in particular goes a little mental over it. And why can’t we have some cool-sounding sub-genre names? Like OUTLAW Prog, PROGadelic, JamPROG, PROGgae, FunkGRESSIVE, R & PROGRAM, RapPROG, AlternaGRESSIVE, PROGrunge… you see where I’m going with this.

    And if I wanted to, I could probably come up with an least one group for each sub-genre../

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  2. i throw used car batteries into the ocean. and the sounds they make when they hit the surface? that my friends. that is prog.

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  3. I think the trick is to look behind the actual words and ask yourself, what are these guys really saying? For example, if someone says “band X should have split when member Y left” they are really saying “I didn’t like what the band did after Y left”. That’s a valid opinion and has a place in discussions. So, keep cool and give those argumentative types some slack, Thomas. You’ll feel better for it, I’m sure.

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  4. The less likely something is to get airplay, the more progressive it is.

    If a song has structure, it cannot be prog.

    The word ‘love’ appears on the album, so, automatically, none of the songs are any good; and I don’t need to listen to side 2 because it *must* be as bad as side 1 — even though there’s a 20-minute suite, that, had there been fantasy artwork to further beckon, I might have otherwise taken a chance on.

    It isn’t weird enough to be prog.

    The biggest facepalmer is a newer one, being PC variations of: The band isn’t international, so…

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  5. Sorry, I had to return once more. This is worth sharing. From the (often humorous, mangly English) definitions of prog found in the online Urban Dictionary (yes, there are actually multiple definitions of prog there, shocked me, too) I found a quotable, had to share, maybe it’ll start some new misapprehensions: “…at the core of all progressive rock is the blues…Progressive rock was perfected in the 1970s by the Canterbury Scene musicians. Progressive rock that isn’t blues-based is not progressive rock.” All righty then! (And citing Canterbury seems quite the supporting thesis — or did I really miss out on some genre-defining B-sides?)

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  6. Generally I agree with your article and thoughts. However, when does a band morph into simply a brand? Yes is now the perfect example. With Squire’s passing away, and Anderson out of the “formal” band, there are no members of the original Yes left.Can a band be a franchise passed along to anyone as long as they play the old hits once in awhile? Using Yes as the example, I personally thought the band was at its creative peak with the line-up Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman, Bruford/White. I enjoyed the Rabin-Downes phase when Squire and Anderson remained as creative anchors. Both phases were connected by the chemistry between Anderson and Squire that they, as original members, brought to the other players. I don’t feel that Howe and White have that same weight holding the creative vision of the band now. (I personally think the last several albums are pretty mundane, even with Squire still anchoring the group.) Yes may go on to earn a zillion dollars without any original members, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything creatively or spiritually, and I feel Yes is just a money play turning Yes into a brand … rather than a band.

    By the way, I loved both phases of Genesis (but not the last album). King Crimson has had more awesome phases than practically any other band. I think the reason for the success of such groups is the vision of an artist or core group that not only survives but thrives with change, using change to reinvent and reinterpret that original vision. Gabriel and Collins balanced Banks and Rutherford with a playfulness; Ray Wilson did not. That chemistry wasn’t the same.

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