Is Progressive Rock Really Progressive: Part II

Several weeks ago I started to decipher progressive rock.  I concluded that music is naturally progressive and labels, such as progressive rock and alternative, assigned to artists are really a marketing ploy.

Today, I thought I’d contemplate how we should define progressive rock. As a starting point, I looked up the definition of progressive rock and art rock. Allmusic.com describes progressive and art rock as follows:

Progressive rock and art rock are two almost interchangeable terms describing a mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility. The differences between prog-rock and art rock are often slight in practice, but do exist. Prog-rock tends to be more traditionally melodic (even when multi-sectioned compositions replace normal song structures), more literary (poetry or sci-fi/fantasy novels), and more oriented toward classically trained instrumental technique (with the exception of Pink Floyd).

Art rock is more likely to have experimental or avant-garde influences, placing novel sonic texture above prog-rock’s symphonic ambitions. Both styles are intrinsically album-based, taking advantage of the format’s capacity for longer, more complex compositions and extended instrumental explorations.

ProgArchives.com provides the following description:

Progressive rock (“prog”) is an ambitious, eclectic, and often grandiose style of rock music which arose in the late 1960s principally in England, reaching the peak of its popularity in the early 1970s, but continuing as a musical form to this day. Progressive rock was largely a European movement, and drew most of its influences from classical music and jazz fusion, in contrast to American rock, which was influenced by rhythm & blues and country, although there are notable exceptions in the New World such as Kansas and Rush – considered by many to be the finest examples of the form. Over the years various sub-genres of progressive rock have emerged, such as symphonic rock, art rock and progressive metal.

The reality is that no accurate description exists that accurately describes progressive rock.   Even the Virginia Tech Online Music Dictionary states: “There is no single all-encompassing definition of progressive rock.” So the question remains, how should think about progressive rock? Should this musical classification of rock even exist?

Dictionary.com includes the following definition of progressive: “favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are”

Where this examination guides us towards is defining progressive rock as a musical form that has improved, changed or expanded on the musical characteristics that embody rock music. Those characteristics vary from band to band, but nonetheless include complex use of harmony, diverse instrumentation, virtuosic performances, evolution in musical form, odd time signatures, interesting rhythmic schemes, orchestration, and combining musical styles. Progress naturally takes place among musicians as we perpetually inspire each other to constantly move musical boundaries. The evolution in technology has amplified the ability to experiment in music as well as make musical progress easier.

Progress is progress no matter how you look at it. Music of five or ten years ago has evolved into something new. Artists such as Dream Theater, Pain of Salvation, Yes and Rush may push the musical envelope more than others, but that shouldn’t lead us to downgrade other musicians as less progressive. Nine Inch Nails doesn’t sound like Linkin Park. Nor does Linkin Park sound like Metallica, but each brought unique characteristics to the musical playground when they emerged onto the music scene – making each of them progressive by definition.

Labels are so overrated.

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One comment on “Is Progressive Rock Really Progressive: Part II
  1. Interesting point of view. Of course not all music progresses, but it is the nature of the creative artist to progress their art, to learn and develop, to explore and, well, create. However, that does not, as you have observed, make the final product Progressive Rock (or Progressive Metal, which most of your examples could more narrowly be described). Artists like NIN can be progressive with a small ‘p’ without being Progressive Rock, with a big ‘p’.

    “Progressive” in this instance is used as a noun, not an adjective, Progressive Rock artists do not have to progress their art to be Progressive, (though most do, some don’t). In that context it sounds like a contradiction (or even an ironic term), however, in the modern usage it is not the same animal that created such luminaries as King Crimson or Yes for whom the term was originally coined.

    Also, as a noun it is a tag to identify a collection of artists, rather than to descibe a style of music, since as already noted, there is no single identifying style, just loose and all-encompassing descriptions of some of the compositional techniques and elements than can be found in various peices of Progressive Rock music. However, it isn’t Prog by numbers – you cannot manufacture a piece of Progressive Rock music just by applying the ‘rules’ – it has to reference the Progressive Rock that went before in some way or other.

    You could make a similar statement about Emo – are all Emo bands ’emotional’? – is all ’emotional’ music Emo? No, of course not.

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