Hi! Please allow me to introduce myself:
I'm Dr. Progresso, and I'm here to opinionate about music. My musical tastes are broad, and include 20th century classical, jazz and rock, but my primary emphasis here will be on rock, and specifically that subset of rock known as "art rock" or "progressive rock."
As part of this introduction (a drum roll, please), I want to fill you in a bit on my background, so you'll know where I'm coming from. If you live in or near the Washington, D.C. area, you may already be familiar with my name. In the second half of the 1970's I wrote the "Dr. Progresso" column (of import-rock reviews) for the late and lamented UNICORN TIMES, a monthly entertainment paper. From 1977 into 1979, I did the "Dr. Progresso" radio show on the late, and even more lamented WGTB-FM (90.1), on Friday afternoons. (Later I did a segment for the "Overnight Express" on WAMU-FM for a couple of years - until that station abandoned rock - and jazz - for a solid diet of bluegrass.) In more recent times I have contributed to EXPOSE (a progressive rock magazine) and ELEPHANT TALK, the internet newsletter for fans of King Crimson. In addition, I play saxes and keyboards with the long-notorious Barbara & the Bohemians. (Under my "real name," Ted White, I've written science fiction, edited magazines, been a jazz critic and, in 1965, became one of the first rock critics.)
Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My father listened exclusively to classical music (and bought an early FM radio so he could hear it better), and I absorbed most of the classical warhorses into my subconscious before I could read or write. My ears perked up, though, when something more modern was played - Prokofiev, say. I was attracted to modern sounds, and discovered Schoenberg and Duke Ellington at about the same time (my early teens). The first records I bought for myself (78's) were by Les Paul & Mary Ford. (Paul invented both the modern electric guitar and overdubbing/multitracking.) After that I discovered the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, and then jazz.
In 1955, while still in highschool, I discovered the music of Charles Mingus - who, like Ellington, created music that seemed to have an added dimension. (At the time I thought it was the unusual harmonies both musicians used; now I think it was more than that: a depth of emotion rarely found in most jazz or popular music, reflected in both the melodies and harmonies of their music.) I was a jazz fan then - although I was well aware, as a teenager, of the newly-developing rock and roll, which struck me then as a breath of fresh air after such popular hits as "Three Coins in the Fountain" or "How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?" I bought Bill Haley's early records (also on 78's), but turned up my nose at Elvis (although a friend whom I respected liked Presley's music a lot and turned me onto the earlier, Sun recordings). Ray Charles' foray into jazz (on Atlantic) excited me enough that I bought his rock/soul recordings as well.
In 1959 I moved to New York City and a (brief) career as a jazz critic, which allowed me to meet such heroes as Mingus, but also to experience a great deal more run-of-the-mill jazz than I'd ever before encountered. (Sturgeon's Law applies to jazz as it does to most things: what we value is the 10% that is superior; the other 90% we filter out and ignore. But as a critic it was my responsibility to pay serious attention to that other 90%. There were rewards - like discovering Roland Kirk on an obscure Argo lp - but ultimately it led to burnout on my part. And disillusionment. Too many jazz artists - even the best - had "off nights" in which they went through the motions and little more.) After five years as a jazz critic, I moved on. Career-wise, I started writing science fiction and became an Associate Editor of THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION. Music-wise, I listened to more modern classical music, and, in 1964, I started listening to AM pop radio. Cousin Brucie, Murray The K, playing music by the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys, the Shangri-Las, and, of course, the Beatles.
The sixties were an exciting time for popular music. The inmates took over the asylum. The bands started writing their own music (this was at the time revolutionary), and later, producing it (Brian Wilson). Young kids growing up in the fifties who listened to Little Richard and Chuck Berry were forming bands of their own in the sixties. The new rock (as opposed to rock'n'roll) was the true "folk music" of the time. The second half of the sixties was breathtaking in the development the music underwent: the incorporation of elements of what we now call "World music" began then, with such things as George Harrison introducing (to western ears) the sitar. And psychedelic drugs had their influence: still new to the culture, they filled many with a utopian optimism, and they imbued much of the music, which might be created under their influence ("Eight Miles High"), and might be listened to under their influence. (This had profound effects on production values, which improved enormously with technological growth aiding and abetting....)
In 1969 progressive rock was born with the release of one of the most revolutionary albums of all time, King Crimson's IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING. The wraparound cover had no words on it - just a hideously shrieking face. (Inside, the face smiled.) This album still sells steadily, almost thirty years later.
The seventies were a time in which "rock" separated itself from "pop", "progressive rock" flowered and withered, and rock fragmented into categories. Where once a rock group might make a hit pop record by rearranging and recording an old blues (like The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun"), in the seventies that was impossible. We had "Hard Rock," "Heavy Metal," "Progressive Rock," "Folk-rock," "Funk," "Go-go," and, of course, "Disco." Each category had its own following and fans, and groups were expected to remain faithful to their respective categories.
"Progressive rock" reached its greatest (sales) success with Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, early-middle Yes (from their third album through their fifth), and Genesis' mid-seventies releases just before and after Peter Gabriel left to pursue a solo career. But, like a pebble tossed in a pond, the early King Crimson, Genesis and Yes albums made spreading ripples that extended worldwide. Progressive groups popped up throughout Europe and South America, but nowhere with more impact than in Italy.
Progressive rock - and let's drop the quote marks - is in essence, music with ambition. This ambition is manifested in many ways, but in every case successful progressive rock is music which aspires to, and attains, higher levels of "art" than can be achieved by simple dance music (which is what rock, at bottom, is). Because rock itself is based on two simple forms - 32-bar pop songs, or 12-bar blues - any attempt to extend it beyond these forms calls into use advanced or extended forms of music. These forms - virtually all of them - were first developed, over a number of centuries, in what we now call "classical music." So it's inevitable that extended-form rock would borrow ideas, techniques, and forms from classical music. (This is what Yes claimed to do, for example.) This is separate from quoting actual classical music itself, which is easier and more superficial. (Ekseption, a late-sixties Dutch band, "rocked the classics" in this superficial manner.)
Obviously, anyone growing up in a culture permeated with classical music has a head-start on taking advantage of its extended forms. And this describes much of European culture - especially that of Italy, the birthplace of both opera and musical notation (to this day, still Italian-language-based). What became known as progressive rock elsewhere in the (mostly English-speaking) world was, in Italy, "Pop Italiano." And from roughly 1970 to 1976 this music flowered in Italy. Dozens of groups made hundreds of progressive albums. The best known (outside Italy) of these groups was PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi), who toured the US in 1974, and whose albums were (re)released on ELP's Manticore label here. PFM still exists today, but its history encapsulates that of Pop Italiano. Its first two albums (rereleased as one, with new English lyrics by King Crimson's lyricist, Peter Sinfield as PHOTOS OF GHOSTS) were the best. The next couple were a bit more mainstream, and then the band veered in the direction of "Fusion" (aspects of jazz coupled with aspects of rock) and then, following Genesis' lead, in the eighties became a non-progressive pop-song-oriented group. The advent of the CD in the eighties prompted a reissue-boom, which in turn triggered a revival of interest in progressive rock - in Italy, as elsewhere. Today PFM have a new album, which is not progressive (a disappointment to fans of the early PFM), but is still quite good, somewhat in the vein pursued by Peter Gabriel since he left Genesis.
A number of progressive rock magazines have appeared since the late-eighties. The oldest is England's AUDION. American magazines include EXPOSE and PROGRESSION. (There are of course a number of others in other languages, such as Italy's PAPERLATE.) And websites have popped up all over the world, some of them connected with progressive record labels (like France's Musea, or Italy's Mellow), others with publications (like EXPOSE), or linked to bands and musicians. (I enjoy ELEPHANT TALK, the website for followers of King Crimson and Robert Fripp - who occasionally replies to posts.)
It seemed, in the late seventies, that progressive rock had died. It hadn't, but record companies acted as though it had: they lost interest in it, and groups found themselves without recording contracts, or reduced to issuing their albums privately, in pressings of 500 or less. The record companies were hopping on the post-Sex Pistols punk wave and its successors, like New Wave. Long-standing groups like Genesis changed directions. Others simply disbanded, some of their members trying out newer forms of music with new bands, others dropping out of music altogether.
The first revival occurred in the early mid-eighties, when the British groups Marillion and IQ launched something that ended up known as "neo-prog." Marillion were shameless in their imitation of earlier-period Genesis, even to the costumed stage shows - but lacked the flair for melody which had fueled Genesis's success. Neo-prog continued to gather steam, however, reaching a nadir of sorts with the British band Pendragon. Taken all together, I consider neo-prog to be "generic Genesis." It has a slick sound, but no depth or breadth. The style Genesis had forged in the late sixties and early seventies was appropriated as a vocabulary, but the groups using it had little to say. They aped the style, but not the content. (Nonetheless, these neo-prog groups have their own following - made up mostly, I must assume, of those who had never heard The Real Thing.) Neo-prog groups can be found all over the world, now, unfortunately.
The CD revolution had as a byproduct the rerelease of back catalogs on CD, creating a massive reissue program in every area of music which continues even today (some albums have been issued on CD several times - first as CD versions of LPs, later reissued remastered with better digital technology and original-master-tape remixes). In France the Musea label began the task of issuing on CD French progressive masterpieces (bands like Pulsar, Ange, et al). In Italy the Vinyl Magic label began reissuing Italian progressive albums. Later the Italian Mellow label joined in (issuing over 300 albums in the 90's). South American labels like Progressive Rock Worldwide set up shop in Brazil. And in Japan - one of the first countries to issue CDs - progressive albums from all parts of Europe were issued by Edison, King, Made in Japan, and other labels. (Many progressive milestones - like MCDONALD & GILES - remain available only on Japanese CDs.)
The reissue of all these albums on CD not only brought them a new audience, it encouraged new bands to continue in this progressive vein. The nineties have witnessed exciting new bands like Hungary's After Crying, Italy's Finnestere, Barrock, and DFA, France's Minimum Vital, Halloween and Exclusive Raja, and even American bands like Glass Hammer and Mastermind. (America, the birthplace of rock, has more progressive rock fans than any other country in the world, but has never produced a major progressive band of its own. I think this is because of the general ignorance of classical music here. Musicians like Frank Zappa - who was heavily into 20th century composers like Varese - swam upstream with their attempts to integrate the ambitions of classical music with the vigor of rock.)
This brief overview brings us up, more or less, to the present.
Now, let's talk about some current releases.
If you are interested in obtaining any of the music discussed in
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