After the recent launch of the official prog chart, Joe Connell examines the place that an often caricatured genre has in music today
Prog rock was once something that evoked images of balding new age men in record shops discussing various pressings of Bitches Brew and high-pitched wailings of encoded Tolkien references. But in 2015 the genre has managed to stealthily carve a solid place in mainstream culture despite its potently uncool associations. In September an official albums chart for prog was launched, with modern bands like Public Service Broadcasting, Muse and Tame Impala all represented alongside the expected Waters/Gilmour fare. Prog is alive, and unlike the distinctly niche new/nu/post-prog of the mid-2000s, prog has a broad appeal.
With these three popular and often acclaimed bands alone, one can trace several legacies of the genre. Tame Impala offer a psychedelic and poppy sort of prog, a much more self-consciously cool take on the genre. PSB use the motif of progressive musical build-ups to represent an idealised view of scientific advancement, not unlike much of the sci-fi influenced prog of the 1970s. And Muse, far and above the most popular of the three, boast concept albums, long symphonic pieces, absurd vocal agility and The Wall-esque live performances.
Nonetheless, many sneer at the aesthetic of Muse, comparable to Freddie Mercury performing Banksy, and some may even sneer at the NME-approved Tame Impala or the kitschy Keep Calm and Carry On vibe of PSB. Yet the legacy of prog is further evident in some of the edgiest and most unique albums of the last few years. Notoriously, experimental outfit Swans’ 2012 album The Seer packed a guttural, confrontational and occasionally frightening type of progressive rock into six sides of vinyl. Moreover, Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s aptly named project DARKSIDE channelled some of the most endearing and exciting qualities of Pink Floyd and others through Jaar’s incomparable style.
These various successes are perhaps endemic of a wider shift in the prog/punk paradigm that has pervaded the discussion of popular music since the 1970s. In the era of mass musical consumption propelled by internet file-sharing, the binaries and tribalism of music fandom are at their least pronounced. The narrative of the year zero of punk toppling the Ancien Régime of prog seems much less reliable than it once did. As such, the King Crimsons and Rushes of the world enjoy a greater retrospective appeal, whilst the grotty works of Pistols-era British punk grow less and less interesting with each passing year. Sure, Matt Bellamy is still a wally, but is he any more of a wally than oh-so-controversial Tunbridge Wells punks Slaves, ostensibly singing about the shackles of corporate barbarism whilst dressed up as 1983 Joe Strummer ?
In a sort of turning of tables, the once-stale and indulgent ethos of prog sounds fresh again. It may even, by proxy, be cool, given the currently cool associations of being an indiscriminate connoisseur of multiple genres. So long as artists like those mentioned keep at skilful, prolonged and imaginative composition, who knows, we may even be ready to let some Jethro Tull flute solos back into our lives.