My Progressive Education Plan

15 12 2011

I dread the question: “What kind of music are you into?” I tend to dawdle for a moment before doing that non-committal thing that people do… “Uh… Oh… you know, a bit of everything. A pretty eclectic mix” which tends to mean they’re embarrassed by the contents of their CD collection. And embarrassed I am; not because I think there is anything intrinsically wrong with my taste in music, but because I know that the moment I say I like progressive rock, people’s heads will be filled with images of aging rockers in capes, singing about pixies, with hair and voices more befitting of 1970s women!

I love This Is Spinal Tap, but it has a lot to answer for.

Truth is, progressive music is one side of my musical taste. The last ten albums I listened to were by Peter Gabriel, Adele, Alter Bridge, U2, Paul Simon, John Coltrane, Regina Spektor, John Mayer, Dream Theater and The Beatles. Only one of those bands is really progressive (I’ll give you a clue, it’s the one you’ve never heard of) but if I did have to nail down one genre of preference, progressive rock would be my choice… sans mythological lyrics, general weirdness and Stonehenge replicas.

So this week a colleague (with a discerning musical taste and an open mind) happened to mention that he didn’t really know anything about progressive rock, and I leapt on the opportunity. I took it upon myself to educate the poor chap, whether he wanted education or not, in the finer details of progressive rock. I made up a playlist, jotted down some listening notes, and inflicted them on him…

The initial results were better than expected, with him enjoying not only the first recommended song, but a couple of albums by the first band too. I’m not sure how deep into the education he’s got yet: I like to think he’s savouring it… And so I decided, why not road test my Progressive Education Plan on a wider audience?

Here are some initial thoughts and recommendations on how to get into progressive rock. It’s not exhaustive. I steered clear of things I knew I had no chance of selling!! I didn’t go too far back in time; though I did include one Rush track and one from Yes. I didn’t bother with any of those so called classic bands like Jethro Tull, or Caravan or Gentle Giant, partly because I find their names embarrassing (reminding me of cornish comedians, mobile homes and the green sweetcorn man) and because I find their music a little embarrassing too! I’ve even left off some of the real classics who I do very much enjoy: Pink Floyd for example, and to a lesser extend Rush and Yes. My aim was not a complete education in all things progressive, just a window into the contents of my ears… if you know what I mean!

I’ve left it more or less as I wrote to him, with just a couple of tweaks, hence some of the personal references. Load up the playlist, Give it a go… let me know how you get on:

My Progressive Education Plan

What draws me to progressive music is the intricacy of it. I love listening to stuff that is complex, which really shows off all the instruments, and which does stuff I could have no hope of playing myself. I tire quickly of listening to music that is predictable, unremarkable, and which the average busker on the street could replicate without breaking into a sweat.

I love the long songs, and the complex changing of time-signatures, but (and this is key), I love it when it’s done so naturally that you barely notice. That’s a real skill, and that’s why I like each of these bands here, and dislike many others. As well as being highly skilled musicians, most of the guys on this list are great songwriters too and have a feel for how to write a well-crafted track that doesn’t sound too jarring.

So here are some suggestions for a first foray into progressive music:

I’d suggest starting with a kind of quasi-progressive group like Porcupine Tree. Weird name, but by progressive standards it’s remarkably tame! There are some obvious progressive elements to their music: long songs, concept albums, odd time signatures, atmospheric sections, but also a lot of their music is just straightforward good song-writing. I imagine their style will not feel a million miles away from many of the bands you tend to listen to.

Start off with the track The Sound of Muzak, which is a great song in a weird time signature (also – the subject matter is the commercialisation of music, so I thought you’d appreciate that!) If you like this, I’d recommend checking out their album In Absentia, and then Deadwing, which is a bit more progressive and a little heavier.

Second, I’d suggest trying Dream Theater who are the leading progressive metal band of the moment. Each musician is absolutely top of their game, and their music is very complex, often revolving around a lot of intricate soloing sections. I’ve suggested two songs, which demonstrate various elements of their style. The first is Breaking All Illusions from their latest album. It’s not too heavy, but is quite complex musically, with some amazing riffs, some quirky fun parts and an absolutely beautiful guitar solo. Then secondly I’ve gone for Blind Faith for no other reason than because it contains my all-time favourite keyboard solo from 6:12-8:22.

To follow up on Dream Theater I’d recommend their latest album A Dramatic Turn of Events which is relatively heavy, but fresh and modern, or one of their older albums like Scenes from a Memory, which is a concept album or Images and Words which was their breakthrough album – note, it’s a bit dated, so sounds a little cheesy in places, but still is quite amazing, and less heavy than their more recent work.

Next up, completely, unapologetically self-indulgent showing off: Liquid Tension Experiment. This is an instrumental super group made up of a few members of Dream Theater, plus a keyboard player (who wasn’t in Dream Theater at the time, but now is) and bassist Tony Levin.

I’d suggest trying Paradigm Shift, which is a relentless and ridiculously fast masterclass in showing off! It’s their first track from their first album, it’s very technical, but as a musician it makes me smile because it’s just so intricate and fun. Then I’d recommend their first album Liquid Tension Experiment. To be honest, once you’ve listened to one or two tracks you’ll have a pretty good idea of what their music is like since it’s all pretty self-indulgent.

Fourthly, a band which is less about showing off and more about crafting strong songs in the style of some of the more retro progressive bands: Spock’s Beard. Their music is typically more keyboard led, which is due to the fact that their (now ex) lead singer plays keyboards primarily, and other instruments as and when required. There’s a lot of Hammond organ, long songs, still complex, but more based around well-written song structures. There’s a clear Beatles influence to a fair amount of their song-writing, which I love.

I recommend starting with one of their longest tracks At the End of the Day. In some ways it’s not typical of all their stuff, since they tend to have plenty of short tracks on their albums, but most of the elements are there: lots of organ, quirky bass work, Beatles-esque writing, a range of music styles, some brilliant keyboard soloing, and a little bit of brass for good measure. If you want more from Spock’s Beard I’d recommend their album V, followed by Snow (for a longer concept album made of shorter songs) or Beware of Darkness (if you want something a little more retro).

Fifthly, a band called Transatlantic. These guys are a super group made up of the singer/keyboardist from Spock’s Beard, the drummer from Dream Theater, a guitarist from a progressive fusion band, and a bassist from a British group called Marillion.

Their style is a mixture of Spock’s Beard and some elements of each of the other bands represented, and is characterised by (very) long songs, lots of Hammond and keyboards, lots of jazzy guitar work, very-beatles-esque lyrics. I recommend starting with Stranger in your Soul – don’t let the 30 minute song length put you off! These guys are expert song-writers as well as technical musicians, so if you think of it like an album rather than a song, it’s full of catchy sections, and holds together brilliantly. Then if you can stomach it, one of my all-time favourite albums is called The Whirlwind, which is an approximately 76 minute song… it’s better than it sounds! Complex, brilliantly written, and I could listen to it over and over. If you want something with a few more tracks, then check out Bridge Across Forever.

Once you’re done listening to those 6 songs, you will have spent the best part of a day listening to progressive music!! And you’ll have a pretty good picture of the landscape of modern progressive music.

Good luck, and enjoy,

LT

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2 responses

15 12 2011
Joey

🙂 Sooo… beards and pixies? 😀 Looking forward to listening to your mix my friend, back when I asked that question, online playlists didn’t exist! 🙂

22 12 2011
Jay

This is a genius post. Well done, sir!

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