By Jennifer Elizabeth Rose (Social/Cultural Writer and Music/Arts Historian)
Progressive rock, lovingly referred to as “prog,” originated in England and developed in the rest of Western Europe (reverse of classical music) in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. It developed from the aforementioned experimental, psychedelic, and space rock genres, all of which are sometimes associated more broadly nowadays as forms of art rock. Musicians/composers all of these attempted to recreated music in a more artistic way drawing from visual art as inspirations for themes and concepts as well as literature… Much like how opera was always composed along side a libretto (script) as well as various other visual art forms like costume design.
Though the Beatles’ baroque pop elements and The Who’s rock opera reintroduced classical terms back to us, earlier in the 60’s and 70’s, progressive rock kept expanding on the overall musical complexity of the aforementioned which the flavors and textures instrumentation of the avant-garde instrumentations of experimental, psych and space pioneers. The standard 3-4 minute song that some of those pioneers still tried to adhere to turned to unabashed musical trilogies, epics that often stretched to 20 minutes (roughly equivalent to about one side of an album) or even 40 to 60 minutes in length (a whole album) like symphonic and jazz records in which one piece could possibly take up one whole side of a record or a whole record.
Indeed, artistic and literary concepts contributed to the eventually commercially successful psych/space rockers Pink Floyd, it was artists like Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Yes, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer that brought this term to even the radio, though the music was spliced into smaller parts or movements to accommodate radio play.
Perhaps the most imperative aspect of this first period in prog rock is the use of other instruments besides the standard guitar, bass, drums line up of most of rock’s history up to this point. The first most obvious is keyboards which each of its precursors re-established as well. (Brian Eno, experimental; Ray Manzarek, psychedelic; Richard Wright, space.) These keyboardists as well as the undeniable guitarists of the 60’s and 70’s such as Hendrix and Clapton (particularly his work in Cream) that were already established as great musicians kept fostering the reverence for virtuosity on said instruments but others as well.
This aided in the eventual symphonic accompaniments of Tull’s work and caused people to reexamine works such as The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed which ended up becoming a commercial success for them and subsequently paved the way for classics such as Yes’ Yes Album and Close to the Edge, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s self titled debut LP.
In North America, few bands followed this movement but the ones that did saw great respect. Bands such as Starcastle, Happy the Man, and highly recommended pick, Crack the Sky, had seen limited success relatively speaking but still have devoted fans to this day. Alan Parsons Project and the Electric Light Orchestra saw more success as they were a bit more radio friendly and as even more radio friendly hybrids inevitably came about like Southern rock-prog such as Kansas, arena rock from many regions like Boston, Styx, Journey, GTR, Foreigner and Queen came about. It was in this roar of the arena rock movement of the pinnacles of prog, its sub-genres arena and math rock combined, Canadian band, RUSH.
Rush’s numerous epic albums moved prog rock back to some of its purest forms. They raised the bar for this genre as well as the aforementioned sub-genres that came about and most importantly to the soon to develop, Heavy Metal. In fact, besides the other obvious proto/traditional metal acts such as Black Sabbath (and arguably Led Zeppelin) which shaped its heaviness it was bands such as Rush that shaped the technicality and speed that would find themselves prime features of what most people think of when they think of metal in its broadest, or perhaps most popular, terms.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Kraftwerk put out their famous lengthy epic, Autobahn, and then several Italian and French acts followed those sort of prog rock waves. In fact prog rock in its most pure form still enjoys a following attracted by even the most obscure of European bands. However, nothing was as successful as bands like Rush who remained steadfast all through the second and third waves of prog rock as well as many the greats from the first wave who continued to record all through the decades and influenced much rock and metal into the 80’s and 90’s such as Queensrÿche, Dream Theater, Tool, and modern acts as varied as Mastodon and Opeth, all of which I look forward to examining in my next series on the sub-genres of Metal. Stay tuned…
Jethro Tull – Thick As A Brick (Part 1)
Crack the Sky – Sea Epic
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – From the Beginning
Rush – The Temples of Syrinx
Dream Theater – A Mind Beside Itself II: Voices
Tool – Parabol/Parabola