I’m grateful that over the last few years, Proglodytes has enjoyed the readership of several hundred thousand readers, all over the world (in 167 countries, to be exact). Yet, prog remains a somewhat obscure genre label, one that I find myself constantly explaining to friends and family that want to understand why I have a website called Proglodytes. I find the task of explaining what “prog” is to be pretty tedious, along with the endless debates I see on Facebook groups about whether or not band x is or isn’t “prog”. But, in this essay, I’ll attempt to make a case as to why the label hasn’t lost meaning- it never had much meaning in the first place- and then make a case as to why it needs a serious re-branding.
For some context: my parents came of age during the height of what would later be termed “progressive rock” by critics (mostly derisively) in the early 70s. They listened to bands that took the existing format of rock music at the time, and combined it with classical elements. Among those listed at that time were classics like Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Jethro Tull, but also the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Argent, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and other groups that are not often included in the lists of the most famous progressive rock bands of the late 60s and early 70s. None of these bands set out to write progressive rock, but they were placed by critics into that category retroactively- an important point we’ll revisit later. (you can also learn more in our podcast with Dr. Kevin Holm Hudson about prog origins)
Thanks to my parents and their family members, we were introduced to ELP, Yes, and Genesis at an early age. However, as an active listener (as opposed to a kid who just listened to whatever cassette tape he found), I remember discovering the genre of progressive rock in 5th grade or so. I was longing for a genre of music that was compositionally dense, like the classical music that I loved, but was played in the rock and roll format. My first exposure to classic rock as a conscious listener was Yes’s legendary album, Fragile. It had everything I wanted and more.
I became an obsessive prog rock fan- devouring everything I came across- everything from Soft Machine to Magma to Gong to Eloy to Marillion to modern acts like Pain of Salvation, Dream Theater, Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, etc. I was in a small Kentucky town, and no one I knew l was listening to progressive rock, and when I’d play it for them, almost everyone universally hated it. A part of developing an identity as a young person is a sense of pride, and an accompanying need to gatekeep. I remember my first post on an internet forum was blasting Metallica because their music wasn’t complex enough for my tastes. I became what one would call a “prog snob”- I truly believed I had found the genre of music that was the apex achievement of humanity and the final destination for musical progress.
Unlike my friends who might have heard a lot of new, obscure music in college and had their tastes broadened, I learned in college that the same genres I spoke of so negatively had virtues that I couldn’t understand due to my self-imposed blinders- hip hop, pop, bluegrass, country, punk rock all had their place and purpose and reason for existing. While I still loved my Zappa and Magma and early Genesis, I began to appreciate other genres as well.
With that context out of the way- I still always felt like “prog” was an underdog genre, so I started this website as a way to promote music that had that marketing label. After receiving probably tens of thousands of mailers, listening to thousands of advanced copies from “prog” bands all over the world (and I very intentionally use that parenthetical), I’ve learned first hand that one of prog’s biggest problems has to do with the label itself. It’s not descriptive enough for the uninitiated to understand without a crash course on the history of prog rock- not like Latin jazz, which pretty much alerts the listener what they’re in for. Prog bands anymore could do anything they wanted, and as long as they use that label, it’d fit.
There are two major definitions of prog that I see: The first definition, and maybe the most common definition among prog fans online, is referential to the most famous bands that received that label in the 70s. They might explore longer song forms, or use odd meter, or have synthesizers and/or unusual instrumentation, or use obtuse and multi-syllabic words in their music to explore urgent or distressing social themes, or whatever else, but they are called prog because they are sonically similar to the bands of yesteryear. Despite being called “progressive”, they aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel that a bunch of geeky, high-minded twentysomethings created 50 years ago.
There’s also another definition that is floating around that is used more as a marketing label- a spirit or ethos that expresses a desire to push boundaries or break conventions. There are a number of modern prog bands that use the genre label as a license to explore any territory that they choose- rather than letting it be confining, it instead liberates them from expectations. At Proglodytes, we are a bigger fan of this label, because it allows us as a page to listen to, review, and promote what we’d like, but we also have to endure the occasional, “this is not a prog band!” e-mail or comment. The exchanges usually look like this:
Person: Why would a prog site feature this? This isn’t prog by any stretch of the imagination.
Me: It features odd time signatures, dense lyrical themes, a high degree of virtuosity, explorations of form, irregular and unconventional composition, etc. Why wouldn’t you call it prog?
Person: (some convoluted answer that can basically be reduced to, ‘because my own subjective personal definition of progressive rock is limited to bands that I like’)
So now you have a problem where you’re not actually having discussions about taxonomy or genre, but semantics. When you’re trying to solidify a definition that never even had a definite origin, you’re setting yourself up for a futile exercise. I find it fascinating to read interviews with Jon Anderson or Robert Fripp or Ian Anderson where they gleefully trash the “prog” label, calling it unnecessarily confining and superfluous. They didn’t set out to create a genre of music called prog rock- they set out to write boundary-pushing music. In the case of the seminal “prog” album Thick as a Brick, Jethro Tull wrote with the intention to playfully jab and satirize the excesses of the genre.
Some modern progressive artists have embraced the label, acknowledging their similarities to the past masters, but other bands have adamantly rejected the label, despite having it forced upon them. One popular example would be Anathema- a band that, after winning an award for Best Album from Prog Magazine, flatly rejected the label of prog in subsequent interviews. Here is Daniel Cavanaugh on the assertion that they’re prog (interview here):
“It really is journalistic spiel to say we are a progressive band, you know what I mean? I do not consider us a progressive rock band, never have. In terms of where it is globally, I don’t care and I don’t even fucking know. If you’re talking about Pink Floyd, Kate Bush or Radiohead, that’s something I consider us to be closer to. If they’re a bit prog rock, then I’ll take that, but we’re not into lyrics about elves and we’re not into playing the fucking flute. We’re not about time signatures and time changes and solos and what prog rock seems to be known for; it’s got nothing to do with us. But I’m not knocking it! It’s just not for me. Pink Floyd, Radiohead and Kate Bush are for me.”
Steven Wilson, an artist that has never shied away from his pop sensibilities, has felt the need as of late to deliver a completely ridiculous monologue about how limited prog fans can be- ridiculous not because of the content, but ridiculous because he feels the need to preface a song with that. Other artists that employ the same things I had previously mentioned- odd time signatures, long songs, etc.- have instead decided to use the label art rock, simply to sidestep the pedantic, never-ending gatekeeping and genre policing of the prog community.
I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet many of my favorite musicians through this website, ranging from more obscure to relatively famous, and I feel like it’s important to note that so many “prog rock” musicians have echoed similar sentiments- they begrudgingly accept the label for niche marketing purposes, but they don’t let it influence their composition or even think about it much at all. In some cases, they hate the word, and I wish I had a nickel every time I heard a progressive musician say, “yeah, I definitely don’t listen to just prog.” Follow the lead of your idols! Be progressive with your tastes and ignore boundaries or labels.
And don’t get me started on the bizarre phenomenon of progressive fans rejecting music based on the mere fact that it’s more generally palatable than the prog they listen to. I have literally seen people say that the reason why “Schism” by Tool is not a prog song (despite the fact that it is written in odd times, explores dense metaphysical and relational themes, has a high degree of virtuoisity) is because it was popular. When you find yourself having THAT conversation, please, remember that life is precious, and no matter how pointless your life might feel, no one could justify the cosmic pointlessness of that conversation.
In short, the word prog may have had some descriptive meaning at one point, but anymore, it’s become a pretty worthless label. Should we discard it entirely from general use? I wouldn’t say so. I’d say in mailers, it tells me enough that I might know a band might have a more adventurous approach to their music. But, we could probably stop wondering whether or not Pink Floyd was a progressive rock band, or whether or not we are allowed to like popular band or album because it has songs written in more common time signatures and doesn’t have any zither solos or Balinese gamelan sections, and instead just shut up and try and enjoy the damn music.