Dealing with Neo-Prog – Perhaps once and for all - Part 1
Jerry Lucky Commentary February 2008
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2008 All Rights Reserved
Some of you will know that I am one of those people who truly DISLIKES the term Neo-Progressive Rock or Neo-Prog for short.
I have written about this pejorative many times and yet the term refuses to go away. But over the years, through the researching I've
done it seems more a matter of misinformation and personal bias that fuels what has become one of the more tempestuous debates
raging within the prog community. By the same token I'm one of those people who feels that misinformation can be corrected with reasoned clarification and logical perspective. It is, after all one thing to make the “assertion” that Neo-Prog actually is a viable descriptive or perhaps even a sub-genre; it is another thing entirely to defend that assertion with any form of substantive argument. I have yet to see such an argument. In fact I doubt one could be composed and legitimately supported. It is to that point that I intend to make my case in this series of commentaries.
I fully understand that there are some individuals who feel that it is very important that they let others know about bands that they think fall into the so called Neo-Prog category but regardless of their intentions, I hope to demonstrate once and for all the lack of conclusive evidence for any of the attributes normally attributed to Neo-Prog and thereby, if I do my job right, demonstrate that Neo-Prog is essentially a NON category description since all of what is normally labelled as such more correctly and accurately falls into the Symphonic category. To make this point, I believe it is vitally important to understand that by the mid-seventies Progressive Rock had become an "established musical tradition" whereby enough music had been created within the genre descriptives to allow for acknowledgement of what is and what isn't, or to what degree a piece of music might be considered to be Progressive Rock. Another words this particular musical genre had developed to the point where it displayed a consensus of musical attributes that if applied by a musician would logically lead to the creation of a musical composition that in every way be could described as Progressive Rock. Just as specific musical elements when applied will produce a piece of reggae music, a madrigal or even a country song, these specific musical attributes when applied in whole or even in part would allow for the creation of Progressive Rock. Most reading this will have at least some idea of what these attributes are. You can refer to my own detailed description/definition outlined in The Progressive Rock Files.
Now, since Neo-Prog is almost always compared to, or identified as an off-shoot of Symphonic Prog, it’s essential we identify the specific characteristics of Symphonic Prog. Symphonic Progressive Rock is described as such not because it necessarily sounds like a symphony but more because of the manner in which the music is composed and arranged. The bulk of what many consider Progressive Rock, from the Moody Blues to Spock’s Beard tends to fall into this sub-genre of prog. This is by far the largest and according to many surveys the most popular sub-genre of prog.
To describe Symphonic Prog in somewhat more detail, it is music that borrows’ much from the structure and style of classical music but it is blended with the harsher, more direct aspects of rock. What this means is that Symphonic Prog is music that is dramatic and dynamic. It has loud and soft parts throughout as opposed to a traditional pop or rock song which tends to follow a prescribed audio pattern of consistency. Symphonic Prog incorporates the rock element but blends it with the grander symphonic style of slow and fast, loud and quite, complex and simple. In other words, Symphonic Prog is the most inclusive of the prog genres. It is conceivable to hear huge swells of instruments forming dramatic crescendos followed by the most minimal, ambient passages leading into an aggressive rock based 4/4 section that then changes tempo and time signature to introduce a completely different melody that may never repeat itself. The overriding element in Symphonic Prog is melody. Melody is that one aspect of the compositional pallet that allows the composer to leave the listener with something to hum, a tune to whistle, an idea to bounce around in the brain. Melody is the thing our brains remember most. Symphonic Prog allows the composer the ultimate freedom in creating a piece of music that conveys every emotion needed to tell the story. But just for clarification, Symphonic Prog is called symphonic because of two things: the compositional structure and the arrangement.
Therefore we can expect to hear music that is layered, music that reflects changes in mood and atmosphere, music that for a variety of reasons seems at odds with what is heard on mainstream media. I say at odds in that it seems to be constantly defying musical custom, defying convention or at its best defying the pop-rock tradition. To the average listener Progressive Rock and within that genre the sub-genre of Symphonic Prog always seems to sound either too busy, to complex, or too confusing. For aficionados that may seem to be a strange reaction and yet it is not coincidental that were these people listening to actual classical symphonic music their reactions might be very similar. The reason for this is best exemplified in the music of YES. The musicianship established by this band (along with others in all fairness) has done much to confirm the symphonic rock tradition. What you have essentially, is a band ethic where everyone plays lead much of the time. Each member, guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards will for a good portion of the composition be performing their own distinctive part, rather than just supporting the others. It is the manner in which the band arranges these parts that then completes the symphonic effect. Whereas a traditional rock or pop band relies almost exclusively on the bass/drum rhythm being supported by harmonic open-chording and little lead-work, the symphonic prog approach has each member performing with a greater emphasis on lead-work almost as if each instrument were performing solo. So in truth it is more complex than what most people hear in the media. Symphonic Prog brings together the most accessible aspects of classical composition but yet demands a stringent level of rock music composition. It is in many respects it is the best of both worlds.
Having laid this groundwork, next month I will begin looking at 13 different descriptives that have been used to identify Neo-Prog, and I hope to show how each of these descriptives are actually based on misconceptions. Stick around...I think it's going to be a bumpy ride!
Jerry Lucky (2/4/08)