Art Rock vs. Prog Rock
Jerry Lucky Commentary January 2011
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2011 All Rights Reserved
When I first started researching the Progressive Rock Files I noticed there was some confusion over the terms
Art Rock and Progressive Rock. Some said that the former was more of an American descriptive while the later more British.
I never really found much credence in that explanation. But as I dug into it more there was no question in my mind that there
was a distinct difference between these two musical styles. So much so that I intentionally gave them separate space in my book.
And yet, as is the case with labels, the confusion persists. So let me try to help provide a differentiation. At least as I see it.
If you’ve read my scribbling over the years you will no doubt have seen that I identify bands such as 10CC, Roxy Music, Split Enz, Electric Light Orchestra, Supertramp and others such as those as falling more under the Art Rock side of things. While many of the others such as the big six falling clearly into the Progressive Rock side of the equation. There is no question that this a bit of a fluid demarcation and that at times any one of the bands mentioned may cross over the line any number of times. Still I feel there is reason for the differentiation.
Now the first thing one notices is that there are some on the Art Rock side who are not afraid to experiment with time and tempo such as Split Enz. And then there are others hardly afraid to experiment with instrumentation and complex arrangements such as 10CC. And still others like Supertramp who regularly crafted long and expansive epics. And yet if you listen to any of these fine bands you clearly hear a fundamental difference in their music from the music created by Genesis, King Crimson, or Yes. By the same token these three bands certainly produced more than their fare share of more mainstream, one could say arty musical pieces. So what is it that identifies the divide?
I think one of the first things we can see is that each of the Art Rock bands listed and many others who might fall into that category were first and foremost writing more straight forward songs. The songs may have been long or they may have been complex to a point, or they may have been multi-sectional, but they were first and most importantly songs where each part might well have stood on its own. They may have been linked together to tell a story but they were more individual pieces than not. That’s not something we can say about something like “Close to the Edge” or even “Suppers Ready” which was also bits assembled together. In “Suppers Ready” the bits couldn’t easily stand on their own. So that’s one thing
Another thing we can look to is the very upbeat, major chord approach taken by these groups. There many have been portions where things took a minor key turn for emphasis but it was only for that reason; emphasis. Unlike a King Crimson that could create something all doomy and gloomy or mystery laden, Roxy Music, or Split Enz would avoid that overriding sense of mystery and pursue a smoother melodic approach.
Oh and speaking of melody, this is yet another key ingredient in the Art Rock cadre of compositional tools. Not that prog bands avoided melody, far from it, it’s just that the melody line used by the Art Rockers was more straight forward and tended to form the core of the song. For those on the more Progressive Rock side the melody was more complex and strung out; even elusive at times. There may even have been multiple melodies going simultaneously. Try humming something from “Close to the Edge” and you see what I mean. If anything you tend to hum just a part of the song, while in an Art Rock setting you’ll very likely be humming the core melody of the whole song. It may even include humming the title of the piece. And that may be your biggest clue in identifying a musical style.
Another aspect to Art Rock, that isn’t as prevalent in Progressive Rock is an element of quirkiness. Quirky in a fun or uplifting tone. Art Rock might be identified as a little more fun, while Progressive Rock could easily be labelled more serious. Not that there wasn’t a crossing of the line, but fundamentally I think this holds true for each side.
In the end I enjoy both. Each of these musical approaches provides a different kind of listening pleasure and I’m happy that they both continue to exist. At least that’s what I think.
Jerry Lucky (1/1/11)