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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Dear Peter Gabriel…

6 12 2011

Dear Peter Gabriel,

Since Sir Jimmy Saville is no longer, and I now know that Santa never was, I have come to the conclusion that I have no other choice but to lay my wishes at your feet: I wish, Peter, for Christmas, or a Birthday, or just some random occasion within the next year, for an album of brand new Peter Gabriel music.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my longings. I am quite positive that if I put my mind to it, I could find at least half a dozen of my friends who would feel similarly. And the rest? Well… they just don’t know what they’re missing! But they will do Peter. When your new album comes out, I’ll invite them all round, lock the doors and crank it up to 11.

Peter, I know you’re probably not a sucker for flattery, but I might as well start there before I have to resort to more stringent forms of coercion. Up truly is one of the all-time great albums. I’m not just saying that. Perfectly crafted songs, oscillating between naked minimalism and dense, multileveled orchestration. The lyrics are fun, moving and dark in equal measure (well, actually let’s be honest… not many of them are fun!)

Every track is perfect: The angsty ‘Darkness’, the infectious grooves of ‘Growing Up’, the spine-tingling-soulfulness of the Blind Boys on ‘Sky Blue’, the beautifully disorienting drumming of the ‘No Way Out’ outro, the two-headed beast that is ‘I Grieve’, with its industrial-ambience and ridiculously catchy middle section, the Levin-fuelled grooves of ‘Barry Williams’, the soaring note-perfect vocals of ‘My Head Sounds Like That’, the many-layered and perfectly toned guitar work of ‘More Than This’, not to mention the Hammond breakdown at the end, the rich strings and haunting vocals of ‘Signal to Noise’, made all the more poignant by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s posthumous contribution, and the vulnerable simplicity of ‘The Drop.’ I honestly don’t think I’d change a note…

So all I’m asking, Peter, is for more of the same, or better. Please.

Don’t get me wrong, pretty much everything you’ve produced since has been far better than the mediocre output of almost every other artist and band around, but it’s time for something new. Sure, you can sing Arcade Fire and Neil Young, and Regina Spektor, and do a pretty good job of it too! Sure, you can rework your old material in new, beautifully orchestrated arrangements that make the hair stand on end on the back of my neck. You can sing with apes, and get mentioned in a Vampire Weekend track and win Grammys… All of these are laudable achievements, but where’s the new stuff? Where are the 130 ideas you’ve been working on? Where’s the legendary I/O album I’ve been salivating over in anticipation since 2004?

I understand Up took you ten years to perfect. I’ll do you a deal, I’ll stay off your back until September 2013, by which time you will have had a full eleven years since Up. But if I don’t get something good by then, you can count on me coming after you! The clock’s ticking Peter! I’d settle for just a song or two, in whatever stage of completion… go on, stick some on a disc and post them to me, I won’t share them. It can be our little secret!

Anyway, I guess I’d better wrap this up before I end up sounding a little like that guy in the Eminem song ‘Stan’ (what was his name?). You know… “I hope you can’t sleep and you dream about it. And when you dream I hope you can’t sleep and you scream about it”, that kind of thing. I’m not crazy. I’m not about to offer to call my first child after you (though in exchange for a signed copy of the new album and a gig ticket, I might consider Gabriel as a middle name). I’m just a poor, eager fan, listening to Up, getting nostalgic, and writing letters that’ll never get read. But since Santa failed to give me a Mr Frosty and Saville never arranged for me to feed lions in a zoo, I’m quite used to writing unrequited letters…

Yours hopingly, longingly, jadedly,

Liam Thatcher

p.s. – I just realised, I quoted an Eminem song, the lyrics of which mention Phil Collins by name. Sorry about that. I hope you’ll forgive me, and please rest assured, Collins is top of the list of names I would never consider inflicting on any future child or pet!

p.p.s – Best not to tell my wife about this letter. She already thinks I’m a little bit strange…