Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock is Alive and Well

The sound-bite history of progressive rock is that it flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s and for a while it seemed as if bands like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer (ELP) were on the verge of elevating rock to a level on par with classical music. Then in the late 1970s came punk bands like the Sex Pistols, which had no patience for the pretensions of progressive rock, and the genre died, leaving in its wake straight-forward arena rock bands like Journey and Foreigner and new-wave bands like The Ramones and Blondie.

But this history only makes sense if progressive rock is narrowly defined as the kind of music that flourished during the Yes, ELP era, in which pieces were of extended length, technically virtuosic, built around overarching concepts, often with fantasy lyrics and long solos, and performed on grandiose stage sets by musicians wearing grandiose costumes.

But that’s only a sliver of what progressive rock is, say two U.K. academics in Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s(Continuum), recently released.

Paul Hegarty, a philosophy professor at University College Cork in Ireland, and Martin Halliwell, a professor of American Studies at the University of Leicester in England, set out to broaden the thinking about progressive rock. Rather than starting the story with The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which many music scholars cite as the first concept album, they reach further back, to experiments by jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane. In this same vein, they pull in artists from other genres and from different time periods to show that much of what we think of as progressive rock was being done—and is continuing to be done—by artists of all stripes.

On this view, bands like Tool and Porcupine Tree that are often referred to as neo-progressive aren’t so much a resurrection of progressive rock as they are the latest form of a genre that’s never really gone away. “If the past is always returning in new forms of progressive rock,” they say, “then we also have to note that the future is already with us.”

Rush fits in centrally to the authors’ narrative as a band that made a name for itself  as unmistakably progressive with its release of 2112 in 1976 and A Farewell to Kings in 1977 but never fell into the same trap as ELP and other progressive bands that were unable to adapt their music to the demands of listeners who in the early 1980s responded to punk’s critique of prog as rock that had lost touch with its roots. “Rush shifted its attention towards shorter, keyboard-oriented songs and a broad palette of musical styles and influences,” they say.

Hegarty and Halliwell spend considerable time talking about the progressive nature of several of Rush’s pieces, particularly “2112,” “A Farewell to Kings,” and “Xanadu.” These pieces look at our ambivalent relationship with modernity—a big progressive theme—by taking us into mythological settings, a futuristic one in the case of “2112” and historical ones in the case of “A Farewell to Kings” and “Xanadu.”

In turning to these mythological settings, Rush is expressing the common progressive concerns over lost innocence and alienation, both of which are characteristic of our modern world because of technology and invidious forms of authority. In “2112,” the theme is alienation in the face of technology and invidious authority—“a critique of a totalitarian, left-wing government”—and in “A Farewell to Kings” and “Xanadu”  it’s loss of innocence. In “A Farewell to Kings,” the authors say, Rush is using a mythical past so listeners can view the “crumbling” of courtly heroism as kings preside over cities of fear and the halls of truth are corrupted with slander. “The appeal of the song . . . is to rediscover a lost capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and to bridge ‘minds that make us strong’ with a belief that thoughts and feelings can be severed only at great cost,” they say.

Because of its successful pivot to shorter, sharper songs in the 1980s, though, Rush isn’t just another progressive rock band consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, it’s held up as an example of a progressive rock band that shows it’s possible to stay true to its progressive roots even while jettisoning the kind of baggage that sunk other progressive acts—the long concept pieces, the use of myth, the grandiose costumes. Along with other bands that were able to reinvent themselves, like Genesis, Rush took ‘the rich layering of progressive rock and epic development and [condensed] them into shorter rock or pop songs,” they say.

Even with its more radio-friendly albums (the authors over the course of the book mention many of them, including Grace Under Pressure and Hold Your Fire) the band maintained its core progressive values—virtuosity, innovation, the incorporation of other types of musical genres—and helped pave the way for the rise of new progressive bands that took a similar radio-friendly approach. “Over the last ten to fifteen years, groups that update progressive rock have been massively successful—think of Radiohead, Tool, Muse, The Mars Volta, and Porcupine Tree,” they say.

In this environment of newly invigorated progressive rock, Rush is doing just fine, completing the fourth part of its Fear series (an example of a progressive rock-type extended concept) in its 2002 Vapor Trails album with the piece “Freeze,” and exploring the very progressive theme of time in its latest tour, Time Machine, which closed in 2011. The fact that Rush is still acting in progressive ways 40 years after its debut is itself a characteristic of progressive rock, because, as Hegarty and Halliwell point out, “progressive rock needs time: time to arrive [and] time to develop.”
—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault

Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s (Continuum: 2011)
Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell
$24.95 (paperback)
$9.99 (Kindle)

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~ by rvkeeper on December 28, 2011.

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