Progressive rock has long been shunned by critics and ignored by radio. How is it, then, that the music continues to find new fans? “You can’t completely kill an art form,” Dave Weifel wrote in a 2012 Slate article, “Prog Spring: The Brief Rise and Inevitable Fall of the World’s Most Hated Pop Music,” “Even if a musical genre becomes despised, it endures.” In the case of prog-rock, it eventually found new and unpredictable devotees, including heavy metal musicians as well as those crate-diggers who love dropping needles on prog-rock albums. As Weifel put it, “Hip-hop artists, our cultural magpies, comb through prog’s greatest hits to sample its stranger riffs and lost organ bleats.”
In other words, prog-rock never died—you just have to open your ears to hear this music in all its various guises. These days, you might know it as neo-prog or progressive metal or experimental rock or art-rock or ambient pop (or any one of a dozen other categories), but the spirit of prog, which granted artists the creative license to drop all barriers, is everywhere. It’s driving the ambitious electronic rock and pop of Radiohead. It’s on late-night TV in the dada musings of the quirky art-rock band the Flaming Lips. It’s beamed out on a worldwide Grammy Award telecast of Janelle Monae’s sci-fi-themed hip-hop. It’s on the noise-pop explorations of Comets on Fire (and the droning psych-folk of COF guitarist Ben Chesney). It’s on the soundtracks to such role-playing computer games as the popular Final Fantasy series, which even used the cosmic cover art from Yes’ 1973 prog-rock masterwork Tales From Topographic Oceans as inspiration for its own digital landscapes.
Meanwhile, Pink Floyd’s remastered reissues are selling briskly; five albums of Frank Zappa rarities have appeared in recent months; and reissues of classic prog-rock albums by Yes, Jethro Tull, and other legacy prog-rock bands, remastered and remixed by Porcupine Tree multi-instrumentalist and producer Steven Wilson, routinely cause waves of excitement. Under the pastoral skies of European prog-rock summer festivals, showcases for the Swedish progressive-metal bands have given prog-rock a safe haven, and as Weifel pointed out, “Modern, prog-influenced acts like Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree can sell out midsized venues.” Also, new releases keep appearing that prove prog-rock is still evolving. Here are five modern prog-rock albums that reflect the diversity—and tenacity—of this influential, vibrant sub-genre.
Anathema: Distant Satellites. Kscope.
This Liverpool band is a microcosm of prog-rock over the past two decades. Anathema has evolved from the ominous doom-metal of its dark 1993 debut Serenades—built around the end-of-the-world guitars of siblings Vincent and Danny Cavanagh (brother and bassist Jamie has since joined the band), and gruff, death-metal-style vocals—to something akin to ambient, Goth metal to its current pop-inflected ambient rock/electronica configuration. That radical shift, which has cost the band some of its early hardcore-metal fans, crystallized on 2014’s Distant Satellites. The first six songs form a “Lost Song” suite; the remaining tracks chart a more stylistically diverse course. Overall the album, mixed by Steven Wilson, is a challenging blend of guitar-driven rock, Brit-pop, and synths that at times finds Anathema spinning beautiful melodies and exploring a classic Electronica sound (the ambient, keyboard- and beats-heavy title track is reminiscent of Radiohead’s Kid A).
The Dear Hunter: Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional. Rude.
This Rhode Island prog-rock band recently released this fifth installment in a sprawling six-part musical saga chronicling the life of a fictitious boy known as the Dear Hunter. Last fall, the album, part of a rock opera on steroids, hit No. 48 on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart. As I noted in my TAS 216 review of Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise, the Dear Hunter, a band led by composer Casey Crescenzo, has become increasingly ambitious as Crescenzo explores string music—he has written string quartets, an impressionistic nine-part symphonic work inspired by the color spectrum, and the symphony Amour & Attrition.
Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional, on the other hand, is a rich mix of ambient pop, rock, jazz, fusion, Broadway, and classical influences. The album, which has drawn comparisons to the work of Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire, is filled with stylistic surprises: “Mr. Usher (On His Way to Town)” is a horn-driven lounge ballad that starkly contrasts with the acoustic indie-folk of “Light.” Many of these songs are theatrical, cinematic even, as they advance the story of the rock-opera’s main protagonist, The Boy, and the antagonist, The Priest/Pimp. Crescenzo has ramped up his creative output of late, and it’s safe to assume that the much-anticipated final installment is not far behind.
Dungen: Haxan. Mexican Summer.
There’s a comforting Floyd-ish quality to this new release from the ever-imaginative Swedish prog-rock quartet Dungen. This 2017 album, the band’s first all-instrumental offering, kicks off with the seductively ambient guitar of “Peri Banu Vid Sjon” and soon collides with the strident “Wak Wak’s Portar,” which sounds like three songs being played at once. If there’s a cinematic quality to Haxan (The Witch), it’s because the album is the soundtrack to the newly restored 1926 silent film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (by German animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger), which also accounts for the music’s loose, abstract, collage-like feel. To further experience the band’s creative blending of metal, jazz, ambient rock, and other styles, listen to 2010’s 4, which is sort of like a heavier version of Steely Dan—a thinking man’s progressive-metal album.
Opeth: Sorceress. Nuclear Blast.
Don’t let the solo nylon-string guitar musings that open this album fool you—Opeth can rock, veering from jagged prog-rock guitar riffs to dark death-metal bombast in just a few beats of the heart. Hailing from Stockholm, Sweden, Opeth began in 1990 as a death-metal band and then added prog and acoustic instrumentation to its potent brew. The turning point for the band came with 2011’s Heritage, which incorporated Swedish folk-music and signaled the departure of the band’s keyboardist, Per Wiberg. Singer and frontman Mikael Akerfeldt wrote the songs for 2016’s Sorceress quickly, and the band recorded the prog-heavy album in just 12 days, contributing to the sense of urgency that permeates these songs. “The Wild Flowers” captures the eclectic nature of Opeth, blending bluesy organ, screeching guitars, drop-dead drumbeats, and inspired singing. Masterful.
OSI: Office of Strategic Influence. InsideOut.
Get ready for blistering guitar and keyboard-driven progressive metal laced with sub-sonic bass and programmed keyboards. On this 2003 debut album, OSI delivers intelligent songs that are part math-rock, (“The New Math: What He Said”), part-full-sale sonic assault (“Head”), part-Electronica—a mix that creates considerable creative tension. The band shows its psychedelic side on a cover of Pink Floyd’s classic space anthem “Set Your Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and a surprising rendition of Neil Young’s “New Mama” (both are missing from a 2012 reissue of this album but are available on iTunes). OSI, named after a short-lived Homeland Security propaganda agency, is anchored by former Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos. He has enlisted past and present members of Dream Theater, Opeth, Porcupine Tree, Cynic, Gordian Knot, and Pain of Salvation to play on the band’s albums.
Prog-Rock’s Pop Roots
The roots of prog-rock are steeped in both experimental pop, seminal psychedelic rock, and the fringes of the underground developed a half century ago.
One of the sub-genre’s progenitors was the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Released in October 1966 as a stand-alone single, but conceived during the landmark Pet Sounds sessions, this multilayered Brian Wilson masterpiece cost an unprecedented $500,000 to produce (in 2017 dollars). The band’s publicist Derek Taylor branded it “a pocket symphony.”
While that Beach Boys’ hit often is cited as an influence on the Beatles, the Fab Four already were well on their way to crafting innovative studio tracks. Revolver, released in August of 1966, introduced a number of studio innovations, including the tape loops heard on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the band used a string octet on “Eleanor Rigby.”
But it was the Mothers of Invention, led by musical savant Frank Zappa, that would have the greatest impact on the experimental rock movement. Freak Out!, the band’s double-LP debut, arrived in stores in June 1966 (two months before Revolver and four months before “Good Vibrations”). It featured stinging social satire, rock parodies, the Orwellian “Who Are the Brain Police?,” and the epic 12-minute opus “The Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet,” an ambitious avant-fusion of psych, jazz, and classical that satirized sci-fi B-movies and 50s American society.
Paul McCartney would say years later that Freak Out inspired the Beatles’ to stretch out creatively on their influential 1967 concept album Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band (which inspired the symphonic rock of the Moody Blues and others). But Zappa would question the Beatles’ sincerity with 1968’s We’re Only in It for the Money, his scathing spoof of Sgt. Pepper and the blossoming counterculture.