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The Essential Elements of Symphonic Progressive Rock

by Tom Karr

Essential elements? Sez who? Me, that?s who. What right do I have to say
what is and is not progressive, or more precisely good symphonic
progressive rock? Well ? none really, which puts me in the same boat as
nearly every other writer on the subject. The people who could really say
with any authority what and what is not good progressive rock are far to
busy writing and performing it on stages around the world. So, we shall
have to do the best we can absent their expert advice. Let's get on with the
work then.
1- Symphonic progressive rock can be described as a foundation of
psychedelic rock, from which it developed, overlaid and infused with
generous portions of classical music, jazz, folk music, and various ethnic
music styles, both current and long abandoned. Religious music, in its many
forms also plays a large role in the genre known as progressive rock. This
vast and diverse gene pool allows the composer virtually unlimited freedom
of expression. Where some sub-genres of rock music confine the artists to
what is, in effect, a tiny canvas, symphonic progressive music gives the
songwriter the freedom to take their creations wherever their talent and
vision leads them.
Along with the wide array of styles to draw upon, symphonic progressive
rock bands also took some of the instruments common to other genres but
alien to rock music. The flute is probably the most common non-rock
instrument used in symphonic progressive, played most notably by Jethro
Tull's Ian Anderson, Genesis vocalist Peter Gabriel, as well as Thijs Van Leer
of Focus, to name but a few, and is heard in the music of a number of Italian
bands such as PFM, Banco, Ezra Winston and many, many others. A number of
other wind instruments such as oboe and bassoon make appearances from
time to time, and a variety of horns, including trumpet, flugelhorn and even
the krumhorn show up now and then, especially in the
music of Gryphon. Stringed instruments of all kinds are
not uncommon in progressive rock, and at one point or
another, Steve Howe ofYes can probably be heard playing
most, if not all of them. A typical performance by Yes
will feature Steve playing electric sitar, mandolin, what
looks to me to be a lute, a dual neck pedal steel guitar
and his usual collection of solid and hollow body guitars, acoustic and
electric. Yes is not alone in showcasing a variety of instruments. The
wonderful British group Gentle Giant featured five members, all of whom
played several instruments on stage and in the studio. Cello, violin,
xylophone, and vibraphone figured prominently in their music, and anyone
lucky enough to have attended one of their live shows will remember the
delight of seeing five extraordinary young men performing on five sets of
amplified vibes.
2- Progressive rock is often a vehicle for musical virtuosity. This virtuosity
need not be "in your face," and often it is not. A good phrase I have heard
is that the difficulty of playing a complex passage is no longer an issue. The
talents of the musicians can be displayed not only by the usual method
familiar to any rock music listener, the solo, but by the composition itself.
Difficult lines and melodies are often heard, and just as often, the technique
and compositional abilities of the writers and players blend so well that the
music may be first perceived as simple, when it is, in fact, quite demanding.
And, as in any rock music, there can be found an abundance of solos and
soloists, many very talented, and some who are, well?
Less commonly heard in popular rock music, but present in much of the
best progressive rock, is contrapuntal melody. This term describes the
combination of two or more melodies played simultaneously by a group of
musicians. This may result in a passage that sounds quite complex,
dissonant, or even atonal. On the other hand, the separate parts may sound
very odd, heard alone, but may combine to produce an effect that sounds
surprisingly simple, and belies the difficulty of the process and the skill
At any rate, it is safe to say that progressive rock, good progressive rock
anyway, will expose the listener to challenging and intriguing music and
I suppose that I would be remiss not to
address, as every other writer has in their
discussions of progressive rock's musical
technique, the role of classical music training, or
the self taught facsimile of this education. Most
progressive groups, certainly of the 1970s
anyway, had at least one member who could
claim some amount of classical music
instruction, formal, as in the case of Yes's Rick
Wakeman and Gentle Giant's Kerry Minear, or self taught as in the case
of ELP's Keith Emerson. Many of the less famous, though no less talented,
keyboardists could find their way around a fugue or a toccata with little
apparent difficulty. Yes, there were, and are still, many players of many
instruments who could be used as examples of classical skills in progressive
rock music. My emphasis on keyboards only reveals my own predilection.
No slight is meant to the loyal fans of Steve Howe or Carl Palmer, to name
but a few of the many educated non-keyboard players. I should like to point
out that these two fine players took their musical education upon their own
shoulders, hiring tutors, teaching themselves, and all of us in the process.
3- Good progressive - and by that, I mean my favorites, of course, as well
as a lot that I don't listen to - is often written and performed in unusual or
odd time signatures or meter. Isn't this, then, an element of virtuosity, as
covered above? Yes it is, but it is so distinct in its role in progressive rock
music, that I think it should be considered apart from its mere requirement
of technical skill. A drummer, for example, can consider playing in odd
meter as so instinctual that he or she does not even consider unusual time
signature as anything to be commented on. It is also true that for some
listeners as well as musicians, the element of odd meter in progressive rock
is an overlooked or unnoticed given, while a flashy guitar or keyboard solo
is the real attention grabber.
All this said, for myself, and others, time signatures like 5/4, 7/8 or even
more exotic forms such as 11/8 or 13/16 are a critical and indispensable
element of truly exciting and fulfilling progressive rock music. And, in this
area of musicianship and composing, progressive rock stands apart in stark
contrast to most, if not all, other rock and popular music genres.
I cannot and have not, I hope, understated the importance of time
signature as a defining element of progressive rock as a unique music form.
I do not mean to say that no good music, in general, or progressive rock in
particular, can utilize 4/4 time, but come on, haven't you heard enough 4/4
for a dozen lifetimes?
4- Song structure can be, and often is, unconventional. Anyone, musician or
not, who knows the definitions of the words intro-verse-chorus and bridge
can probably chart out the structure of 90% of the popular music of this
and the last century. And the figure of 90% is likely far too generous. This
common structure, with the dreaded 4/4 time signature, is the formula of
nearly all the rock music we hear.
Breaking out of the confinement of conventional structure of intro-verse-
chorus-verse-chorus-bridge, etc. is another of the crowning glories of good
progressive rock music. The utilization of challenging arrangements and
meter, as well as the combination of varying time signatures opens
countless doors of creativity. Consider, for example, the brilliant structure of
the Yes's ?Heart Of The Sunrise? from their 1972 release Fragile. Please, let
us have a moment of silence in honor of this seminal work?? Thank You.
This pi?ce de r?sistance features, within its first sixty seconds alone, a
furiously played opening theme, or riff for those of us willing to admit ever
listening to hard rock or metal, interpolating with dissonant lines of
Hammond organ, a second theme introduced on bass guitar thirty seconds
into the work, and a counterpoint chord progression performed on the
Mellotron complementing the bass line. You get the idea, right?
This style of intricate, ever changing and evolving arrangement, utilizing
multiple themes and stunning, exigent performance is another essential
hallmark of worthwhile progressive rock.
5- The lyrical content of much of the symphonic rock I describe is in many,
perhaps most, cases the antithesis of the typical rock and pop music subject
matter. Frankly, I for one hold that odes to sex, chugging down liquor,
cruising in your car and the joys of dancing are best left to, shall we say,
other forms of music.
Furthermore, to strike while the iron is hot, let's outrage half the people
reading this and say that the matter of lyrics or lyrical content, is, to me
anyway, of only secondary importance. I would also like to take this
opportunity to say that while most "music" writers would probably really like
to be the literary critic for The New York Times, I, for one, strike out bravely
and alone to say that the critical essence of progressive rock music is ? the
Ok, I'm sorry, really. On to the business at hand.
The lyrical content of much progressive rock music turns the eyes upward,
toward semi-mystical experience or thought, and exploration of deep love,
whether of our fellow humans or the earth and its creatures. This contrasts
with the content of most of today's songwriters who would have us lock our
attention firmly on our crotches (or theirs, for that matter). Lyrics dealing
with topics of fantasy, magic and science fiction were and are popular.
There are many fine examples of using this approach to deal with topical
issues as well. Jon Anderson, for one, has addressed the war in Vietnam,
through allusion and oblique references. I think? Ever the masters of
(intentional?) misderection, Yes' lyrics are renowned for the discussion and
introspection they have generated among their legion of listeners. How can
one dislike lyrics that allow the listener to project whatever interpretation
they were predisposed to have?
Another approach to topicality and direct social commentary can be seen in
the work of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. One of the most brilliant musical
composers of the 1970s, he was capable of matching, and perhaps
surpassing the best works of Yes at one moment, or the deified Lennon and
McCartney at another moment. Ian Anderson took a completely different
path in communicating his ideas to the listener than that followed by Jon
Anderson. With Aqualung, gone is veiled reference, replaced by direct,
cutting, straight talk. The more lyrically complex works that
followed Aqualung utilize analogy and will remind the listener of the great
English literature of the 18th and 19th century, but the clues as to the not
too hidden meaning of these works are plentiful, and while it is still difficult
to pin down the real intention and meaning of Yes' lyrics,
even 35 years down the road, the meaning and message
of Thick As A Brick, and particularly A Passion Play are none
too difficult to divine. He will always be known best for
the music contained on these three album's, and focusing
on the lyrical content of this string of intelligent and
beautiful work, one will surely hear the words of a
thoughtful yet deeply cynical observer of God and man.
He was able to bring the listener along on his own
journey through England and English class structure, shining a light on the
pride and the prejudices of the day. To vastly, and probably foolishly,
simplify the message that I took away from Mr. Anderson's song lyrics on
these works, I hear his message as a call to show more charity and concern
for the poor and downtrodden in our midst, and to worship the allmighty by
living up, as best we can, to the teachings of whoever it is we believe in,
every day of the week, and not by merely being first in line at church on
Sunday. Our legacy is what we create here on Earth, and we need to focus
on the here and not the hereafter.
I cannot leave this discussion of lyrical content without admitting that
progressive rock is not without its own pool of silly, shallow lyrics. Gong, for
example, loved by many in the 1970s, were called the "pothead pixies" by
some. The use of mind altering drugs was prevalent during the golden age
of progressive rock, and this led to a fair amount of bizarre if not downright
weird lyrics.
In conclusion, let me say that every time anyone attempts to define the
essence of progressive rock they will, in the end, only succeed in defining
what leads them to value one body of music rather than another, one era
over another, one composer over another. I can no more list an immutable
set of criteria for good symphonic rock, than I, or anyone else, can say with
certainty what a great book is or what a fine painting looks like. My ideas of
the essential elements of progressive rock music can only join with the
numerous expositions of others to hopefully paint a picture that can be
recognized by the music listener seeking to understand and add new
meaning to the sounds he or she hears when listening to this music.

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