Notes on Prog: Transcendent/Annoying (spiral staircase then turn left at the landing then kitty corner to the back hall open the hatch and one of those attic ladder thingies will drop down and you’ll take that to heaven)

Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Emerson, Lake & Palmer (Cotillion, 1971) This opens with “The Barbarian,” a keyboard showpiece (not to slight all the flailing and booming underneath) replete with the shifts of tempo, time, key, and dynamics beloved of these bozos. Does the title mean they see themselves as rock and roll Huns sacking nineteenth-century “classical” tradition? Or do they think they’re like Verdi portraying Ethiopians in Aida? From such confusions flow music as clunky as these heavy-handed semi-improvisations and would-be tone poems. Not to mention word poems. C
Robert Christgau, Consumer Guide

Prog gets reclaimed now and again.  Or the word does, on occasion, when a band wants to point out a certain level of complexity and virtuosity, or a particular take on the retro. However, what seem to me key characteristics of classic era prog–explicit classical music admixture, and an optional but frequently found hyperverbal style–still seems in the broader culture just not ok and rather embarrassing even to consider in retrospect.  Why this ill ease, I asked in an earlier posts; the dislike seems more visceral than can be explained by trends in music criticism or a few Tolkien references.  My explanation for this reaction follows.

A typical prog tendency is to start down the path of the rock-and-roll ecstatic, but switch directions on the listener, often rather abruptly.  Formal features, such as elaborate multi-part composition involving drastic switch ups in tempo, meter, instrumentation enable this; it goes beyond the formal, however, and into a more general, pervading matter of mood, of temperature.  Prog heats it up and then, ices it right down. Of course, lots of prog is purely instrumental, but, when present, lyrics are often elaborate, surreal, obscure, perhaps punning. These cerebral qualities can add to the distancing effect still further.  As do their presentation: prog vocalists do tend to enunciate with crystalline clarity.  There’s no encouragement  to lose yourself via some primal,  protoverbal looouuuie loooouieehh.

An ideal example of the characteristics I’m trying to describe:

Nevertheless, all this leaves the rocknroller confused: I was liking this but… Is it a joke but….. Confusion about what the game really is breeds anxiety breeds hostility.  Back to Christgau.  It’s clear from the quotes below that  the fact that proggy aims are not the same as rocker aims leaves to some dismay/disgruntlement, all the more meaningful because of the thoughtfulness of the ambivalence he demonstrates to Genesis’s projects/ambitions/talents:

Genesis: Selling England by the Pound (Charisma, 1973) The best rock jolts folk-art virtues–directness, utility, natural audience–into the present with shots of modern technology and modernist dissociation; the typical “progressive” project attempts to raise the music to classical grandeur or avant-garde status. Since “raise” is usually code for “delegitimize,” I’m impressed that on half of this Peter Gabriel makes the idea work: his mock-mythologized gangland epic and menacing ocean pastorale have a complexity of tone that’s pretty rare in any kind of art. Even more amazing, given past performances, organist Tony Banks defines music to match, schlocky and graceful and dignified all at once–when he’s got it going, which is nowhere near often enough. As for the rest, it sounds as snooty as usual. B

Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Atco, 1974) I wanted to call this the most readable album since Quadrophenia, but it’s only the wordiest–two inner sleeves covered with lyrics and a double-fold that’s all small-type libretto. The apparent subject is the symbolic quest of a Puerto Rican hood/street kid/graffiti artist named Rael, but the songs neither shine by themselves nor suggest any thematic insight I’m eager to pursue. For art-rock, though, it’s listenable, from Eno treatments to a hook that goes (I’m humming) “on Braw-aw-aw-aw-aw-aw-dway.” B-

(both at )

Now, what I’m describing is a question of trends, and not even 80% of the time trends. I nevertheless think the described prog characteristics may play a significant role in their reception over time.  Prog isn’t anti-rock or twee— that can be processed by critics pretty happily. Instead, prog plays by rock rules… some of the time.

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3 comments on “Notes on Prog: Transcendent/Annoying (spiral staircase then turn left at the landing then kitty corner to the back hall open the hatch and one of those attic ladder thingies will drop down and you’ll take that to heaven)
  1. HS says:

    I think that trends and fashions, maybe mindsets and aspects of newness may play a role here. You’d have to ask a kid, but my observation from the ivory tower is that at least the bulk of music today does not contain an explicit show of musicianship. I may be wrong, but it seems our generation got more turned on by solos and stuff like that.

  2. jacksundance says:

    Yup I remember when EVERY fucking song, from the most hard core guitar rich Yngwie/Steve Vai/Joe Satriani track to the worst 80’s synth pop shit had at least 8 bars worth of some sort of solo. bridge-solo-repeat until 1989, ad nauseam. I want my 8 bars back…

  3. HS says:

    Addition to ‘newness’ because I have to: extremes in music (10 minute solos, daggers in the keyboard, libretto style lyrics, etc.) and elsewhere (fill in your favorite) are often like magic tricks. You pull a rabbit out of a hat once, and you get ooohs and aaahs. You do it ten times, and you get yawns. That being said, when pulled off with skill, personality, and taste, I still like the guitar solo, but I grew up with it too.

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