Book Review: “Cult Musicians” by Robert Dimery

If you’ve been following Proglodytes for a while, you might have noticed that I have a pretty broad definition for what I’d consider “progressive”. This is a conclusion I’ve come to after years of grappling with the fact that, despite the name of this website (Proglodytes), the label “progressive” has lost its meaning for me. At some point, when music writers decided to create a term like progressive to describe a particular set of musical parameters, they created a sad paradox, an endlessly ironic label that more often than not, describes sounds and characteristics that are, at this point, half a century old.

That’s why I was so excited to see a book like Cult Musicians: 50 Progressive Performers You Need To Know by Robert Dimery. Rather than use the “progressive” term as a restrictive and arbitrary genre label, Dimery instead uses “progressive” in its more literal sense- artists that eschewed labels and conventions and forged their own path. He defines these individuals as “cult musicians”, and in this book, he curated a list of artists that are unique and groundbreaking in a variety of ways; iconoclasts, innovators, irreverent game-changers. . Most of the artists are widely admired and have rabid fanbases, but not all of them have enjoyed fame or an enduring, positive presence in music press, hence the “cult” label.

For folks that see the word “progressive” on the cover, there are several inclusions that would feel uncontroversial: the inarguably individualistic Frank Zappa, Canterbury legend Robert Wyatt, prog-pop darling Mark Hollis, and the indescribably weird Captain Beefheart. For those that find themselves more aligned with the parameters that are cheekily introduced in David Kamp’s The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, the inclusion of very popular artists like Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and Laurie Anderson will surely feel right.

Portrait of Roky Erickson, by Kristelle Rodeia.

But, Dimery also takes care to include artists that innovated within their sphere, that might not fall under either of the aforementioned umbrellas. For example: Among hip hop aficionados, there are few producers and rappers with as wide acclaim as James Dewitt Yancey, who was better known as J Dilla. However, in progressive and fusion circles, hip hop is frequently criticized and ignored, and doesn’t garner as much respect as I think it deserves. The inclusion of J Dilla on a list of more of the “typical” trailblazing musicians and artists like Zappa and Tom Waits might help broaden some horizons. The same goes for Manu Chao, who is quite popular among Spanish speaking listeners but is periodically ignored when Latino artists are discussed. And so on.

I don’t want to make this book review into a list review, as is often the case with books and articles like this, nor do I want to spoil it too much. I knew a lot of them, but there were others I had never heard of, and others that I might not have thought to listen to or appreciate. Of course, there will be readers that take issue with the selections, and might get hung up that an artist is included or excluded. In a lot of the other reviews I read on this book, there were often lists of people that they thought should have been included that weren’t. That, to me, isn’t the point of the book. If one views this list less as a hierarchical, authoritative list of the most “deserving” artist and more of a vessel to broaden one’s musical palate to include artistic pioneers in genres that they don’t typically listen to, then this book is a fantastic primer on a variety of artists who have sought to follow their own artistic voice, and who have managed to take risks and say something novel in a world where artistic integrity doesn’t often translate into cash.

The book takes care to highlight why each artist was worthy of inclusion, and I can’t overstate how much I appreciate the variety. The book itself is very aesthetically pleasing, with careful graphic design and clever layouts. I also loved the beautiful, wall-worthy portraits of each artist by Kristelle Rodeia. The product itself is very sleek and cohesive, and was very enjoyable to look at and read. In all, I recommend this book to folks who are looking to broaden their horizons.

Cult Musicians: 50 Progressive Performers You Need to Know was released in 2020 through White Lion Publishing.

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