Progressive Rock: Issues and Concepts
Major Specialist Study – Dissertation
1. History and Context
1. Introduction p3.
2. History, Culture, Origins and Evolutions p6.
3. Power Metal and Other Evolutions of Progressive Rock p16.
2. Issues and Concepts
1. The Search for Authenticity and the Art Music Influence p20.
2. Lyrics, Themes and the Concept Album p25.
3. Issues of Virtuosity p29.
3. Analysis and Conclusions
1. X Japan – Art of Life p33.
2. George Bellas – Step Into the Future p36.
3. Conclusion p41.
1. Appendix p44.
2. Bibliography p46.
Progressive Rock: Issues and Concepts
To attempt to define progressive music, and everything it embodies (its various genres, extensions and contradictions) in any number of words, would be an impossible task. One instead must think of it as it was intended – a deviation from (or rebellion against) the repetitive, radio-friendly, ‘simple,’ blues-based pop and rock and roll music that dominated the airwaves throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Superficially, progressive music has a distinctive sound with emphasis on technical complexity or virtuosity (virtuosity over not just the chosen musical instruments, but also over composition, rhythm, meter, harmony, melody, tempo, music). It can be multi-layered, written in an extended or unorthodox form, conceptual, atmospheric, eccentric, absurd, acoustic or electric. Progressive music can have all of these characteristics or indeed none of them; the first great contradiction of progressive music.
Part of its ambiguity stems from the fact there are very few hard and fast rules to what makes a band or musician progressive. The opening paragraph, whilst true, is as misleading as any other definition of progressive rock as there are always exceptions. Many academics, critics, musicians and fans of progressive music have tried to define the sound of the music they love but none of these descriptions and definitions can be taken as gospel, again, there are always exceptions and contradictions. ‘Progressive rock is rather less than a genre and a lot more than one, too. It is less than most popular music genres because its defining feature is not a set of concrete sonic elements…instead, progressive rock is distinguished by
a conceptual trope: the appropriation of nonpopular musical forms.’1 This definition is a
reasonably well thought out one but still does not describe progressive rock, or any progressive music, in that great a detail. What of those progressive musicians that do not appropriate but actually perform non-popular music styles? What of Allan Holdsworth who does not appropriate the sound world of jazz and rock but actually performs it? The author makes a valid point about progressive rock being both bigger and smaller than a genre but fails to state water-tight, accurate reasons for this.
‘Progressive music… is concerned with abstraction and introspection, rather than with the commercially-driven trends and fashions that shape works created purely for entertainment. Progressive music always looks forward, striving to be new and different, dissenting vigorously from the current musical establishment.’2 Smith’s description is a
good one but assumes that progressive music is always about moving forwards into more complex and original territories. What of those bands that are somewhat retrospective and emulate the sound of the progressive rock of history as opposed to innovating and exploring uncharted sonic territory? Bands such as Porcupine Tree, although an excellent band, are not a particularly original band; they use the templates already made available to them by the originators of progressive rock and metal, but it would be tough to deny that they are anything other than a progressive rock band; they do not slot easily into any other genre or musical describer.
‘Unfortunately, the potential for any balanced critical appraisal of progressive rock has been tainted by faulty generalizations caused by a lack of familiarity with progressive rock
Kevin Holm-Hudson, Progressive Rock Reconsidered (New York & London: Routledge, 2002), p.91.
as a whole.’3 This statement from Holm-Hudson is one which best describes the problems
with genre-ising music as progressive rock. Because of the strict, and mostly false, stereotypes that have been imposed on progressive music, by those who are familiar only with a handful of progressive rock’s exemplifiers, the genre has become tainted as one that is too serious, too eccentric and perhaps sometimes even too ‘silly’ to be taken seriously as an important musical genre.
It is already obvious that progressive rock is a difficult and diverse genre that is surrounded by issues and ‘problems’ that make it hard to define. Will Romano, albeit a bit tongue-in-cheek, provides a decent analogy of the excesses of progressive rock: ‘Progressive rock is a bit like pornography – the lines and definitions can be blurred, but you know it when you see it.’4 Again this is only true of a certain style of progressive music, the 1970’s in
particular, as modern day progressive bands can be as unassuming as any other, they no longer have to dress as wizards and narrate stories that take place in enchanted, magical lands to be seen as authentic progressive rock musicians.
This essay aims to expose some of these false stereotypes and instead take a detailed look at the real issues that surround progressive rock and progressive music styles in general. I will start firstly by taking a brief look at the history of progressive rock, where it came from and how it evolved. Much has already been written on the progressive rock movement of the 1970’s and so instead I have decided to focus primarily on the early origins (the late 1960’s) and on what progressive rock, and progressive music in general, is doing now (2012) and also touch upon how it is continuing to evolve. I will, of course, give some very basic information surrounding the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s as it is important to state key
Kevin Holm-Hudson, Progressive Rock Reconsidered (New York & London: Routledge, 2002), p.3.
progressive trends that happened around these times in order to better understand where the progressive music of today has come from. I will then also briefly look at how the progressive rock music of the past five decades has shaped, or at least helped to shape, more modern and vastly different styles of music.
In the second part of this essay I will be identifying some of the issues and ‘problems’ that surround progressive music. I will be looking primarily at issues of authenticity and virtuosity, and how they are responded to by critics and listeners, but will also be looking into the themes that commonly occur within progressive music and where they come from, as well as trying to understand the idea behind the concept album.
In the third part of this essay I will look at two very different but very appropriate pieces of progressive music which I hope will identify and prove some of the points and issues I have raised in the preceding sections of the essay. They will be analysed according to the issues raised in the preceding section, with emphasis on finding evidence of those problems, and not necessarily on traditional / harmonic musical analysis. Finally I will come to a conclusion as to whether progressive rock has been unfairly treated by critics and academics in the past and whether or not the issues surrounding it mask the true progressive rock attitude.
History, Culture , Origins and Evolutions
The term progressive rock first appeared in the late 1960’s, ‘referring to numerous coexisting aspects of diversity and eclecticism within rock music.’5 Rock musicians,
seemingly no longer content with “simple,” pentatonic and blues based rock music, were
beginning to experiment with extended forms, richer instrumentation and sounds associated with non-western cultures and practices. They also began to take greater interest in mastering technique and becoming a virtuoso not just of one’s chosen instrument, but also of music and composition. Parallels with this progressive way of thinking can be drawn with the space race, between the USA and Russia, which ran throughout the 1960’s. Although it is more likely that the primary intentions of reaching and commanding the space around Earth was for national security purposes, and as symbolism of technological superiority, it is still interesting that even the political agenda at this time was to reach uncharted territory, to progress beyond Earth and to search for something that challenges our understanding. In fact, the whole Sixties attitude was somewhat progressive. To be progressive is to want to experiment, to want to bend and perhaps even break the rules and to search for an alternative. The youth culture were no longer happy to be bound by strict moral and legal practices, they wanted to be free to explore their sexuality, explore their own bodies and explore altered states of consciousness (whether by taking drugs or by embracing the values, traditions and practices of Eastern philosophy, culture and religion). This youth movement later led to the Hippie subculture, a cultural group who embraced the ideals of the Beat Generation that had happened before them, with emphasis on experimentation, freedom, rejection of materialism and expansion of one’s consciousness.
The Beatles, and in particular their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, were one of the most important, influential bands that went on to help shape, and indeed create, progressive rock. This is a sentiment that is backed by several important figureheads and founding-fathers of progressive rock:
‘The Beatles opened up the doors for everybody…dare I say the Beatles slip into [progressive rock] a little bit with Sgt. Pepper’s’6 -Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) ‘To me, the first progressive rock band was the Beatles’7 – Ian McDonald (King Crimson, Foreigner)
‘The Beatles led the way’8 – Justin Hayward (Moody Blues)
‘The Beatles made it more acceptable for music to expand into other areas’9 – Sonja Kristina (Curved Air)
Progressive music fans, analysts and educators often cite Sgt. Pepper’s as the first progressive rock album, the first concept album (the notion of Sgt. Pepper’s as the first concept album will be addressed later in this essay), the album that ‘fed the pseudoclassical
ambitions of many a progressive rock band to come’10 and the album that has ‘encouraged
many rock musicians to think that their music might indeed be “art”’11 as well as
kick-starting ‘an era of self-conscious experimentation with the instrumentation and stylistic features of classical music.’12 Sgt. Pepper’s tells the story of The Lonely Hearts Club Band in
what can be seen as a Musical / West-End format (that is, a story told through music) and everything about the album is considered a landmark. Sgt. Pepper’s was the first album to have printed lyrics (presumably to help narrate the story) and was also one of the first albums where the artist was allowed to take control of the recording process and have influence over the sound of the album. Much has been written about The Beatles and Sgt.
Pepper’s13 and it seems unnecessary to go into great detail here, but it is important to
Will Romano, Mountains Come Out of the Sky: The Illustrated History of Prog Rock (U.S.A: Backbeat Books, 2010), p.5.
7 Ibid., p.4. 8 Ibid., p.5. 9 Ibid., p.10 10
Kevin Holm-Hudson, Progressive Rock Reconsidered (New York & London: Routledge, 2002), p.7.
Robert Walser, ‘Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity, Popular Music, Vol. 11, No. 3 (October, 1992), p.266.
Examples of writing on The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper’s:
Olivier Julien, Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles (Ashgate Publishing, 2009)
understand the impact that Sgt. Pepper’s had on not just progressive rock, but on music in general.
Although some of these accolades can be contested, Sgt. Pepper’s does provide a useful starting point on the historical timeline for progressive rock as it is from here that rock music begins to more evidently evolve into more progressive forms of rock. Progressive
rock however is ‘equally dependant on the psychedelic movement’14 of the 1960’s
counter-culture, which was popularised by The Beatles, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane to name but a few key artists in this era. The early incarnations of progressive rock were almost an extension of the brand of psychedelic rock that had been pioneered by the “jam band”15 the Grateful Dead in that many of them seemingly sought to emulate the
experience of an acid “trip,” or other drug induced hallucinatory state, whether by the use of dream-like, exotic or otherworldly sounds or by using lights, smoke and other visual stimulants to help induce a state of mesmerisation, transcendence and to try and provide an out-of-body experience for the audience. Indeed this practice still lives on, perhaps most notably with Porcupine Tree’s Voyage 34: The Complete Trip (2000) in which the story of Brian, a man who embarks upon an LSD induced hallucinatory “voyage,” is narrated on top of a background of music which fuses progressive rock, psychedelic rock and trance that is at times very reminiscent of early Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead.
Probably the second most important album in the birthing stages of progressive rock, but one which is much less discussed, is Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, also released in 1967. The Piper, and Pink Floyd in general at this time, can be considered
Allan F. Moore, Rock: The Primary Text: Developing a Musicology of Rock [2nd edn.] (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2007),
Jam Band became a genre of its own pioneered by the Grateful Dead in the 1960’s and continued by Phish in the 1980’s. One of the defining characteristics of jam band music was extensive, improvised instrumental breaks that progressive music owes a large debt of gratitude.
Britain’s answer to the sound of the USA based the Grateful Dead; atmospheric, intoxicating, transcendent, psychedelic and bizarre. The instrumental track Interstellar
Overdrive is particularly progressive sounding and undoubtedly is a source of inspiration for
many of progressive rock’s greatest bands and also resembles what could have been very early post-rock, but of course this would not have been known at the time. (Some details of post-rock and how it involved from progressive and psychedelic rock will be discussed later in this essay.) The Piper is also quite important from a lyrical and thematic perspective as it is an early example of fantasy, space and fairy-tale topics being addressed in the lyrics which will later prove to be one of progressive rocks most distinguishing features.
In 1969, a little known quartet under the name ‘Igginbottom released ‘Igginbottom’s
Wrench, an album as bizarre as the name suggests. This progressive jazz / jazz-rock album
was the first sighting of one of the most forward thinking guitarists to have ever lived, Allan Holdsworth.16 The album was released through Deram Records (a subsidiary of Decca
Records in the UK) whose speciality was in progressive jazz and rock with artists such as David Bowie, Caravan, Procul Harum and Curved Air all on their roster at some point. Although ‘Igginbottom’s Wrench is considerably more jazz than it is rock there are certainly elements in there that suggest this could be the true predecessor to, or originator of, progressive rock. Although it is unlikely that many progressive musicians ever heard this album, it certainly shows that the concept of mixing jazz with rock was around before progressive music really started to develop.
Other important albums in the late 60’s include Procul Harum’s self titled album, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s self titled album, Caravan’s self titled album, Genesis’s From
Marco Rossi, ‘‘Igginbottom – ‘Igginbottom’s Wrench’, Record Collector, 2010, http://recordcollectormag.com/reviews/igginbottoms-wrench (accessed: 23/03/2012)
Genesis to Revelation, The Who’s Tommy and Yes’s self titled album. Each of these albums,
amongst many others, brought something unique to the rock and psychedelic world which eventually got blended and fused together to form the foundations of early progressive rock.
The 1970’s is considered by many to be Progressive Rock’s peak period and it was at this time that it ‘dominated FM radio and rock album charts,’17 something which it struggles to
achieve today. Much has been written on the progressive rock of the 1970’s and it seems unnecessary to duplicate such material here. (Will Romano’s Mountains Come Out of the
Sky and Kevin Holm-Hudson’s Progressive Rock Reconsidered have several sections
dedicated to the 1970’s.) The ‘Me decade,’ a term coined by novelist Tom Wolfe in the August 1976 issue of New York magazine, was all about leaving behind the social activism and the ‘preoccupation with self-awareness and the collective retreat from history, community, and human reciprocity,’18 particularly in America. Some of the ideologies of
Prog Rock, particularly relating to virtuosity and experimentation, certainly tie in with this idea of self-awareness, but taken to the point where it can be seen as self-indulgent. The Seventies saw the rise to power of many important and influential Progressive rock bands including Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Focus, Yes, Camel, Frank Zappa, Mike Oldfield, Caravan, Gentle Giant, Rush, Kansas, Genesis and many, many more. To discuss every key artist, without even touching upon those on the fringes of mainstream success, would be an impossible task. The 1970’s saw the development of the progressive style; from the new born naivety of Sgt. Pepper’s to
Kevin Holm-Hudson, Progressive Rock Reconsidered (New York & London: Routledge, 2002), p.2.
one of the biggest selling albums of all time, Pink Floyd’s 1979 The Wall (which is second only to their 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon in terms of popularity).
The 1980’s gave birth to two key new progressive rock genres: Neo-Prog and Pop-Prog. Neo-Prog was mainly influenced by the music of Yes and Genesis but seemed to do away with some of the excesses that these bands were both known for and be a little less theatrical. Bands such as Marillion, Quasar and Pendragon spear-headed the movement but there generally is not much interest in the Neo-Prog scene today, though of course it does still exist. The Pop-Prog sound was characterised by the incorporation of progressive music elements into popular song format. The displays of virtuosity and technique are still very apparent but they are combined with popular song forms as well as harmony reminiscent of Abba and the Beach Boys. It Bites’s back catalogue and Genesis’s Invisible
Touch album are perhaps the best exemplifier of this sound but bands such as Europe and
Magnum took this sound and pushed it even further into popular context by combining it with elements of Power Metal, Hair Metal and AOR to the point where the only signs of progressive rock existed in the themes and lyrics of the music.
The 1990’s enjoyed probably the most significant of the prog rock revivals (prog having been slightly revitalised in the 1980’s) courtesy mainly of Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, Spock’s Beard and the Flower Kings. This ‘resurgence of progressive rock…was the result of the coalescing of forces such as the Internet, the burgeoning festival circuit…and the musicians themselves, who had grown tired of not seeing and hearing the music they loved.’19 The movement stemmed mainly from Sweden with ‘bands such as the Flower
Kings…and Anekdoten…offering nonconformists everywhere an alternative to popular
music’20 but also existed in the UK through Steven Wilson’s various projects, particularly
Porcupine Tree. This new brand of progressive rock accumulated everything that had gone before it to create an ever more complex, ever more varied genre. Elements of 1960’s psychedelia, the Krautrock and excesses of the 1970’s and the radio-friendly pop-prog sound of the 1980’s all fused alongside a mix of trance, ambient, electronic and heavy metal styles. This was the New Prog and it is one which still exists today through Steven Wilson’s various projects as well as DeeExpus, Radiohead, Anathema, Frost* and many others.
Progressive music still continues to grow, particularly within the heavier metal genres. In 1987 Meshuggah (which is ‘Yiddish for “crazy” or “insane”21) was formed in Sweden; a band
who went on to create several genre-defining albums. Their first release in 1989, Psykisk
Testbild, was similar to the thrash metal of the period and sounded a lot like Metallica,
Testament and Megadeth but the progressive tendencies of guitarist Fredrik Thordendal was already starting to show in his playing, as well as in the band’s use of unorthodox time signatures. In 1990 they signed a deal with Nuclear Blast records and in 1991 released their first LP: Contradictions Collapse. Contradictions, again primarily in a thrash metal style, started to show signs of development within metal music and was laying the foundations for the Djent movement, which wouldn’t come until much later. Meshuggah went on to release several more albums, which further twisted and shaped progressive metal, with each album heavier and more experimental than the last. Their later works exemplify their signature sound: tight, complex polyrhythmic ideas. They popularised, at least in heavy metal, the concept of layered time signatures with the cymbals, hi-hat and snare drum
Will Romano, Mountains Come Out of the Sky: The Illustrated History of Prog Rock (U.S.A: Backbeat Books, 2010), p.226.
Jonathan Pieslak, ‘Re-Casting Metal: Rhtyhm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah, Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Fall, 2007), p.219.
holding a four-four beat whilst the guitars and kick drum counterpoint in mixed, changing,
odd-time meters (25/16, 7/8, 11/8 and 23/16 seem common).22
In around 2005 Misha Mansoor of Periphery used the term “djent” (which had been coined in the early 2000’s by Fredrik Thordendal)23 as a way of describing the sound of palm muted
power chords or riffs; an onomatopoeia for the sound of heavily gated and processed guitar
tones.24 Since then several bands, TesseracT, Animals as Leaders and of course Meshuggah
and Periphery, have established the genre as an offshoot of progressive metal and it continues to expand and grow in popularity. It is a reasonable assumption that the future of progressive metal will live on in, and take shape through, djent music and it is certain that djent will continue to develop and evolve beyond itself.
Alongside the djent movement, but in a complete league of its own, a powerful and unique fusion has been taking shape. This music, as of yet, does not have a firm classification attached to it and is cautiously bubbling away in the underground. Progressive Fusion is perhaps the best way to describe the work that Allan Holdsworth and George Bellas are doing. These musicians are polar opposites in some respects yet homogenous in others. Their sound world is vast, varying and fresh with emphasis on extreme virtuosity.
George Bellas (British born but currently residing in North America) is a heavily progressive musician who takes inspiration from all genres and styles of music, especially in his latest works. He started out with music in the popular Neo-Classical style but later developed into progressive and fusion territories. Bellas is a romantic at heart composing music with thick
Jonathan Pieslak, ‘Re-Casting Metal: Rhtyhm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah, Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Fall, 2007), p.219-245.
Jamie Thomson, ‘Djent, the metal geek’s microgenre’, The Guardian, March 3rd 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/mar/03/djent-metal-geeks (accessed: 23/03/2012)
textures, dense instrumentation, lyrical melodies, unorthodox harmonies, complex time signature and rhythmic ideas and bouts of extreme technical prowess. He is a unique breed of musician that looks back in time for influence and ideas, from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern periods, but also looks forward in time to the music that might be being composed in twenty years or so and composes music to help facilitate that change. He will often coalesce baroque era counterpoint with the polyrhythmic ideas of Meshuggah whilst a jazz or classical infused piano part underpins the harmony, all stabilised by a progressive rock bass line and drumbeat.
Allan Holdsworth (born in England but relocated to Scotland at an early age) on the other hand is very much part of the jazz school. He started out in 1969 in early jazz-rock band ‘Igginbottom and since then has gone on, much like Bellas, to transcend musical boundaries and to invent new genres of music. His style is somewhat similar to Bellas in the sense that he explores complex or advanced musical ideas, particularly those relating to rhythm, meter and harmony, yet at the same time is worlds apart. Most of Holdsworth’s influences can be found in early fusion, Bebop and Jazz musicians, especially saxophone players. His music can be diatonic (rarely), atonal or, more usually, metatonal (both with and without tonality; constantly moving into various harmonic areas).
Both Holdsworth and Bellas are composing and performing the same, unnamed style of music but Holdsworth’s is based on the jazz tradition and Bellas’s is based on the art music and rock traditions.
Power Metal and Other Evolutions of Progressive Rock
As with all genres, progressive rock has become distorted, altered and changed over the years to become something which is significantly different to that of the original progressive sound of the bands of the 1970’s. It has constantly evolved into new sonic territories, some of which are more complex and some of which are musically much simpler, and continues to do so; the influence of progressive rock on many modern musical genres can be quite easily traced.
Manowar (formed in 1980) took the heavy metal sound of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, among others, and merged it with progressive rock and, some elements of, punk to form power metal. Power metal takes all of the bombastic qualities and conceptuality of progressive rock and melds it with the raucousness and the power of heavy metal. There are two distinct brands of power metal: American and European. The American brand is exemplified by Manowar whose music is bombastic, loud and powerful with lyrics and themes centred primarily on mythology (particularly Norse) and barbaric, hyper-masculine imagery; muscle-clad warriors wielding swords. Although Manowar took influences from progressive rock it is fair to say that power metal is musically much simpler in terms of structure, instrumentation and musicality, favouring four-four time signatures, repetitive melodies and hooks, basic triadic harmony and chord progressions common to punk music.
The European brand (which later extended to South America and the Far East) is often more experimental (within its own boundaries), melodic and closer to the ideals of progressive rock. The European power metal scene arguably started with Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Accept. Whilst these three bands have distinct and original sounds they do also share certain characteristics. Judas Priest stand on their own as some of the
fathers of modern heavy metal, reminiscent of Black Sabbath but with more power, less doom25 and more overt masculinity. Iron Maiden were similar to Judas Priest in the early
days, but experimented with extended structures and forms as well as some of the concepts and thematic ideals of progressive rock. Accept were most similar to AC/DC but again incorporated elements of progressive rock, even if it was done so in jest, such as the use of quoting “classical” music in their songs.26 All three of these bands have at some point
been referred to as speed metal, or at least the originators of, and power metal can also be seen as an extension of speed metal, or having influence from.
In the music of Iron Maiden there is a lot of emphasis on harmonised guitar lines and riffs, such as the iconic intros to ‘The Trooper’ and ‘Aces High,’ and references to this can also be found in the music of Accept, perhaps most notably in the harmonised guitar solo of ‘Fast as a Shark.’ Iron Maiden also took to the progressive attitude of having longer songs with more complex structures, such as ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son,’ ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Fear of the Dark’ amongst many others.
As a further development, in the mid to late 1990’s, power metal became prefixed with varying descriptive terms including progressive, melodic, epic, symphonic and any combination of those words. Nightwish, a quintet from Finland formed in 1996, were one of the earliest to be classed as symphonic power metal. Quite what is meant by that phrase is open to personal interpretation (as there are very few elements that could be classified as relating to a symphony) but it seems that the term is given to any power metal band that uses orchestral arrangements within their music in search of the big, bold, Hollywood film
‘Doom’ is a genre of music characterised by sombre, downbeat atmospheres often incorporating droning and set at slow tempos using minor tonality to suggest impending dread. Black Sabbath are cited as being the first doom band, especially tracks such as ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Electric Funeral.’
music sound. Nightwish also take on a lot of progressive elements, particularly in relation to lyrics and themes, and are regularly classified as symphonic progressive power metal. The list of prefixes attached to the word metal in order to characterise and market music as being original is ever-expanding. It is all very complicated, as classification is, and power metal is perhaps as hard to define as progressive rock. Once more the words of Will Romano ring true: ‘[Power Metal] is a bit like pornography – the lines and definitions can be blurred, but you know it when you see it.’27
In the early 1990’s another movement, with its roots in progressive and psychedelic rock, was starting to take shape. Bands such as Slint and Tortoise were laying the foundations of post-rock, a genre of music that uses traditional rock instruments but in a way they were not necessarily intended for. The sound of post-rock is usually ambient, droning and ethereal (‘the antithesis of rock’s visceral power’28), invoking comfort, relaxation or wonder
(much like the psychedelic and early progressive rock bands intended) and fuses a rock sound with electronica, dub, space rock, progressive rock, krautrock or any other of a widespread range of influences. Post-rock musicians were not, and are not, concerned with overt displays of virtuosity, instead ‘all [of] the action is in its texture and its size: Grim, bottomless, even disorienting.’29 Post-rock is more concerned with ‘sound and texture than
melodic hooks or song structure’30 and was actually a rebellion against the
commercialisation of rock and the radio-friendly rock sound. Post-rock is psychedelic rock for the 1990’s.
Will Romano, Mountains Come Out of the Sky: The Illustrated History of Prog Rock (U.S.A: Backbeat Books, 2010), p.1.
Anon, Explore Music: Post-Rock http://www.allmusic.com/explore/style/d2682 (05/04/2012)
Nitsuh Abebe, The Lost Generation (http://www.pitchforkmedia.com), p.4.
Towards the end of the century post-rock was seen by critics and listeners as an exhausted genre and one that should be left behind at the turn of the century. However, there was a breed of new post-rock bands, most importantly Explosions In The Sky and Mogwai, who would ensure that the legend of post-rock lived on. Today post-rock can be very successful commercially and has a fanbase that extends around the world and transcends age, gender and race, which a lot of music can struggle to achieve.
The third child of progressive rock is one which exists in the Far East, having originated in Japan. Visual Kei, which translates as Visual Style, typically refers more to the image of a band, or a fashion style, than a particular genre of music. It arose in the early 1980’s, particularly with X Japan (1982), and was an appropriation of European power metal, mixed with subtle progressive gestures, but instead of having a powerful, traditional masculine image the musicians instead dressed androgynously often wearing makeup, women’s clothing, glitter and all manner of stereotypically feminine accessories. Quick comparisons can be drawn between Visual Kei and the Glam and Hair-Metal movements of the 1970’s and 80’s Western world, but taken to the point where the androgynous imagery can genuinely confuse and mask the biological sexuality of a person. In the mid 1990’s Visual Kei hit what was arguably its peak period with many new bands and artists adopting the style as well as getting plenty of commercial air time, mainly thanks to its more radio friendly cousins J-Pop and J-Rock. By the end of the 90’s Visual Kei was declining but around 2008 the style came back as X Japan and Luna Sea reformed as well as the birth of several new important bands: Dir En Grey, Versailles and Nightmare who went on to spread the music and fashion of Visual Kei around the world, most notably in Europe and North America.
All of these genres of music have been manipulated, twisted and fused with each other to form new, interesting and experimental sound worlds. Progressive metal, post-rock and black metal combined to create atmospheric black metal (Wodensthrone, Thus Defiled and Bornholm), power metal fused with progressive metal to form progressive (or Epic) power metal (Rhapsody of Fire, Fairyland and Sonata Arctica) and progressive metal fused with death metal and hardcore to create melodic death metal (In Flames, Children Of Bodom and Dark Tranquillity) to give but a few examples of how far the influence of progressive rock can be traced.
The Search for Authenticity and the Art Music Influence
Authenticity: that most vast and ambiguous of subjects and one which repeatedly causes simultaneous appraisal and criticism of an artist or musician; what is authentic to one is blasphemy to another. Authenticity is a highly problematic subject; ‘of all the value terms in music discourse, [authenticity is] perhaps the most loaded.’31 It is a word which means
vastly different things to different people and one which is often used, particularly in journalism, without much understanding. Authenticity is unequivocally about claim to truth; to be authentic is to be truthful. In order to be an authentic heavy metal musician one must understand where the music comes from, have studied its history and be able to compose within a prescribed template whilst at the same time not copying note-for-note those who have gone before them. However, it is controversial to claim to be authentic and those that do are suspect to a barrage of abuse and scrutiny. Authenticity is not inscribed
but ascribed;32 it is a ‘matter of interpretation which is made and fought for from within a
cultural and, thus, historicised position.’33
Issues of authenticity creep into all areas of music but are particularly powerful within composition and recording. Composition is touched upon in the previous paragraph; to be authentic one must compose within a prescribed form and must include certain musical / stylistic traits. To be authentically punk one must compose music which is raw, pure, aggressive and musically ‘simple’ or accessible. Authenticity in recording is perhaps one of the hottest debates of current times. As music technology advances, and musicians become more reliant on it, issues of authenticity start to appear. One of the more sensitive topics is that of pitch correction software being used, primarily on vocalists, to perfect intonation and tuning. This is seen as unauthentic on several levels. The first is that common belief is now that anyone can be made to sound professional and trained by using software, such as Antares Auto-Tune or Celemony Melodyne, to correct the pitch of their voice. Although this is not strictly true it is interesting that people are outraged by it, yet seem none too bothered by the fact that none of the instruments on the recording are real. Evidently it is acceptable that the music can be performed by, and sometimes written by, a computer, but when a computer is used to aid a vocalist this is deemed unauthentic. Many similar arguments occur daily on internet forums and in magazines where the purists attack new-school methods of recording, which is reliant primarily on computers, and the progressives state the purists as being outdated. Some of these discourses have been exploited by musicians as a way to market their music and encourage fans to ascribe authenticity to them. There is an interesting statement by George Bellas on his website regarding his 2010
Allan F. Moore, ‘Authenticity as Authentication’, Popular Music, Vol. 21, No. 2 (May, 2002), p.210.
album The Dawn of Time: ‘the production is dynamic, clean, and has an open sound to it allowing the music to breath naturally.’34 Dynamic, clean, open, natural, these are words
which are commonly used to advertise authenticity and encourage the ascription of it yet they usually have very little substance to them. Using pitch correction, compressors or limiters on instruments is unauthentic, but recording them digitally and adding artificial delay and reverb is acceptable.
It is no secret that progressive musicians thought of themselves, and some still do think of themselves, as being far more important, more advanced or more high-brow than musicians of less complex, or more mainstream, genres. Progressive musicians tend to write “compositions” and not songs, and they also seek, or claim to seek, influence from the great composers of, usually, the baroque and romantic eras in an effort to somehow make their music more “serious,” more academic and more purposeful, as opposed to the “fun,” throw-away songs of simple, low-brow pop and rock and roll musicians. However, like any musical ideology, opinion has varied as to whether this association with high-brow music actually makes progressive rock less authentic as a rock subgenre. ‘The preoccupation of some progressive rock artists with aspects of serious “art music” was condemned by many mainstream critics as abandonment of rock’s roots in the blues.’35
Although progressive rock music was not, and is not, overtly blues based there is still plenty of evidence to suggest that the blues was not completely disregarded as ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer frequently used twelve-bar-blues structures in their songs [and] King Crimson frequently incorporated passages derived from the twelve-bar-blues harmonic
http://www.georgebellas.com/MainSite/Pages/Album_TDOT.html (accessed: 30/04/2010)
progression.’36 On a much more foreground level the use of power-chords, as found in all
genres of rock and metal music, commonly occurred and the blues-rock background of many of the early progressive guitar players was very evident in their solos. Allan F. Moore also counters the idea that progressive rock was about removing any traces of the blues: ‘this music seems to me not to be about destroying the norms of beat/r&b, but to be about extending them.’37 The idea of improvisations, both short and long, can also be traced back,
through the psychedelic movement and before that jazz, to the blues, particularly when involving guitarists or vocalists. It is obvious that the argument that progressive rock is not authentically rock music does not hold up well when under scrutiny.
The search for authenticity makes for strange decisions. George Bellas often states that he writes his music using standard notation, as opposed to instrument specific tablature or other modern means of notating music, and often without an instrument in front of him, much like some of the great composers who often had little more than pen and paper, as if it provides some magical authenticity, seriousness, or brings him closer to the great composers. Because sheet music is typical only of orchestral, traditional jazz, or other high-brow music it is therefore raised on a pedestal by those who don’t understand it, it is seen as complex and clever, therefore anyone who uses it must be highly skilled, a member of the elite and more authentic as a musician and composer. Of course this is not to deny that Bellas is a highly skilled composer, it is simply to use him as an exemplifier of some of the common markers of what is seen as authenticity.
Kevin Holm-Hudson, Progressive Rock Reconsidered (New York & London: Routledge, 2002), p.9.
Allan F. Moore, Rock: The Primary Text: Developing a Musicology of Rock [2nd edn.] (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2007),
Like Bellas, there are many progressive rock and metal musicians that claim to draw on influences, whether directly or indirectly, from the art music canon. Although Walser is predominantly addressing these issues in relation to heavy metal, and not necessarily progressive music, his point is still a relevant one:
‘Heavy metal appropriations of classical music are in fact very specific and consistent: Bach not Mozart, Paganini rather than Liszt, Vivaldi and Albinoni instead of Telemann or Monteverdi. This selectivity is remarkable at a time when the historical and semiotic specificity of classical music, on its own turf, has all but vanished, when the classical canon is defined and marketed as a reliable set of equally great and ineffable collectables.’38
How can one be claiming to draw on the art music tradition and be incorporating “classical” music influences into their own music if they only ever reference a handful of baroque period composers? Even the most famous of all of the neo-classical guitar heroes, Yngwie Malmsteen, rarely ventures outside of the works of Bach, Paganini or Vivaldi. Perhaps this is because the music written in the baroque period is one which quite easily translates to guitar or perhaps because it is simpler, easier to understand and to compose, and therefore easier to appropriate, than the works of the late romantics and modern and post-modern composers? Regardless of the answer, Malmsteen is seen as an influential composer when in fact all he is doing is re-arranging and appropriating the works of, usually, J.S. Bach.
There are some progressive musicians however that actually draw influence from the art music tradition, and these musicians tend to be the least commercially successful. George Bellas, who was mentioned previously, really has studied, analysed and interpreted the music of many composers starting, like most, with the baroque period and working through to the late romantics and beyond. It is evident in his music, particularly his later work, that this is a man whom has absorbed influences from a wide range of musical styles, not just
Robert Walser, ‘Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity, Popular Music, Vol. 11, No. 3 (October, 1992), p.267.
classical but also jazz, fusion, blues and rock, and is not one who appropriates, but actually
performs his influences. Behold… The Arctopus (hereafter abbreviated as BTA) are another
fine example of performance of art music influence as opposed to appropriation of. BTA have been labelled as every genre under the sun: Death Metal, Tech Metal, Sport Metal, Jazz Fusion, Jazz-Metal, Mathcore, Experimental Metal, Progressive Metal and Avant-Garde Metal amongst others and have cited influences that include Schoenberg, Bartok and Penderecki. These are not names that one often cites as influences and so one must do so with care. What is important here is that you can hear some actual influence of the musical minds of, particularly, Schoenberg and Bartok especially when it comes to the use of Klangfarbenmelodie, which Schoenberg was particularly noted for, and composition based on number sequences, instead of traditional harmonic and melodic pitch patterns, as well as the late romantic and modern ideologies of texture, atmosphere and colour being equally, if not more so, important than memorable melodies or music that is easy to superficially connect with.
Lyrics, Themes and the Concept Album
Progressive music is very often based in the realms of the romantic with nature, love, fantasy, ethereality and science being the go to themes for source material. Lyrics found in progressive music are usually well written with writers seeking the most descriptive, most poetic language rather than the “catchiest” or most memorable words and phrases strung together, as can be found in a lot of popular music.
The use of fantasy literature and concepts commonly occur within progressive music and especially within its offshoot genre, power metal. As previously discussed, progressive
music has always been about transcending the boundaries of the ordinary, whether by using aural or visual stimulants, so it makes sense that progressive rock should exist in a world outside of our own, a fictitious, fantasy land where the rules can be different to that of Earth and everyday life. This is a concept that has been greatly explored and when doing so it is common for such explorations to be in the concept album format, which will be discussed later in this chapter. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when fantasy and ethereality really started to play an important part in the lyrics of progressive rock and equally as hard to say where it came from. One early example is David Bowie’s Space Oddity (1969) which, although not progressive rock, is certainly an early breed of progressive music that shows influences of fantasy, nature and science starting to appear. Bowie’s persona Ziggy Stardust (created in the early 1970’s) is an example of living the fantasy concept; Ziggy was an alien rockstar that had descended on Earth. Since then, more and more elaborate fantasies have been formed, some of which require a great deal of work to construct. Some musicians, such as Italian progressive power metal (or, to put it in their own terms, Film Score Metal39)
band Rhapsody of Fire, have taken to creating entire worlds with a series of characters and some albums have actually been written out as a short novel beforehand. The work of J.R.R Tolkien rings loud in the lyrics of RoF and on several of their songs legendary actor Christopher Lee (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings) narrates the story and sings several verses.
This use of fantasy and romanticism in the lyrics of progressive rock music is one of its most defining stylistic traits, especially in the early years, but it is also one which has been subject to criticism; ‘the rock critic establishment, for the most part, hated them.’40
Although the preceding citation is directed primarily at the lyrics written by Pink Floyd then
http://www.rhapsodyoffire.com/band (accessed: 05/04/2012)
front man Roger Waters, it is still relative of how a lot of critics thought at the time, and indeed many still do (and not just critics but listeners in general) think that the lyrics of progressive rock and power metal are somewhat ‘silly’ or too serious. Until progressive rock came around the lyrics in popular styles of music were primarily upbeat, positive or at least attached a human emotional element to them. Love, life, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were the most common themes in popular music, so when progressive rock lyrics started to voice political opinions and narrate tales of death, or otherwise serious topics, a negative reaction from critics was always going to be likely as humanity often reacts negatively to changes in tradition. The opening lines of Yes’s 1974 ‘The Revealing Science of God’ (from
Tales of Topographic Oceans) are a prime example of the poetry in lyrics concept:
Dawn of light lying between A silence and sold sources Chased amid fusions of wonder In moments hardly seen forgotten
Coloured in pastures of chance Dancing leaves cast spells of challenge
Amused but real in though We fled from the sea whole
These lyrics are in a style of writing usually associated with poetry, particularly romanticism. Strong metaphors and ambiguous ideas outline typically romantic sentiments of dawn, day-break, silence, wonder, open pastures, the sea and nature which are all seen, at least up until this point, as serious poetic concepts and topics best left to the poets and composers of opera music. In fact, progressive rock owes quite a lot to the operatic tradition in terms of concept; themes of love and tragedy juxtaposed against each other, and the overall theatrical-ness associated with both progressive rock and romantic era opera.
The concept album is another interesting development within the progressive rock world. A concept album, by definition, is an album which contains a cycle of songs expressing a particular theme or an album where each song is designed like a chapter in a book, narrating a long story. The idea of the concept album owes a lot to the opera and musical theatre traditions where stories are told through music. The earliest concept album is nearly always cited as being the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but, as mentioned earlier in this essay, there are albums which existed before Sgt. Pepper’s that deserve recognition of being perhaps true originators of the concept album format. In 1940 Woody Guthrie released Dust Bowl Ballads which is perhaps the earliest example of the concept album within mainstream music. Dust Bowl Ballads is a simple guitar and vocal album in a blues-folk style which chronicles the ‘exodus of Midwesterners headed for California and mirrors both Guthrie’s own life and John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of
Wrath. Along the way, characters are forced into theft, murder, and unbearable hardship
against a biblical backdrop of the American West.’41 This is an early example of the concept
album, each song is almost like a chapter in a novel, narrating the story of various characters in a world that Guthrie has created (or borrowed from real world experiences and Steinbeck’s novel).
In 1950 Frank Sinatra released In the Wee Small Hours which is considered another early example of the concept album. This time the album does not flow like a novel but instead the concept is that of love lost and loneliness; every song on the album is about the same topic. Sinatra then went on to create several more concept albums in the 1950’s. So although it is fair to say that Sgt. Pepper’s certainly is a concept album, and perhaps the
first concept album to exist within a rock setting, it certainly was not the first album to narrate a story or have a concept.
It is also important to mention, even in passing, the importance that the ‘package as a whole’ concept has on the concept album. This is an idea that arguably did start with Sgt.
Pepper’s in that the album artwork, booklet and packaging plays an important role in the
telling of the story. The front cover artwork often depicts some essence of the music, whether it is where the musical story takes place or the outline of the characters or plot, and it can sometimes also be seen as a fully-featured and descriptive graphic score of the album. Sgt’ Pepper’s album cover (App. 1) is a portrait of all of the characters involved in the
story and is arguably the album that was the first to do this. Since then the idea has been greatly explored, particularly in the 1970’s and in more recent times, and this idea will be revisited in the analyses which occur toward the end of this essay.
The concept album arguably hit its peak period in the 1970’s, coinciding with progressive rock’s peak period, where many important and influential concept albums were released including: Yes’s Tales of Topographic Oceans, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on
Broadway. However, it is still a widely used idea, and method of composition, today and
not only in the progressive rock world but in many genres and musical styles.
Issues of Virtuosity
One of the most debated elements of progressive music is of its reliance on virtuosity, technicality and complexity. There is no escaping the fact that progressive music styles are
very reliant on virtuosity, in one way or another, but it is how the virtuosity is displayed that is sometimes criticised. Virtuosity, much like authenticity, is an often used and highly ambiguous term. To be a virtuoso one must have mastered their chosen instrument, have technical superiority over it and be able to command it and exploit it entirely. But one can also be a virtuoso of music, and beyond that into individual genres and styles of music, which is where the term can become ambiguous. A virtuoso of blues guitar music and a virtuoso of electronic dance music are two entirely different people with entirely different skill sets, yet they are commonly compared and contrasted, mainly within discussion forums. There is no scale to measure virtuosity and this adds further ambiguousness to the term; who decides who is virtuoso and who is not? Bach for example was undoubtedly a virtuoso of music, a true master, but if he had existed today, and not in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, would he still be described as such? Are composers of baroque period music virtuosic by current standards? There is no right and wrong answer to who is virtuosic and who is not as, like authenticity, virtuoso is not an inscribed term but an ascribed one, ascribed by critics and fans as a way of raising their heroes up high on a pedestal looking down on the non-virtuosic musicians.
The idea of the virtuoso has become fetishised;42 we are obsessed with virtuosos not only
of music but in all areas of life. Footballers, athletes, painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, singers, and many more all have within them people who are heralded as virtuosos of their activity or occupation. The world is regularly ascribing the term virtuoso to people, and with that term often comes financial gain. Because of the possibility of financial gain the term virtuoso has, of course, also been exploited as a marketing and advertising term. With
J. N. Burk, ‘The Fetish of Virtuosity’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 2 (April, 1918), p.282-292. [Although Burk’s article is an ageing one, it is still quite relevant in modern times.]
the increase in popularity of the electric guitar came the evolution from memorabilia and merchandise (posters and tee-shirts) towards ‘signature’ gear and collectibles. It is now not at all uncommon, especially within the guitar world, for a musician to have several signature instruments and company affiliations. Joe Bonamassa, one of the current blues guitar heroes, is the perfect exemplifier of this idea. He currently has many signature products on the market that range from guitars and amplifiers (costing several thousand pounds each) to effects pedals, plectrums, cables, pickups and even cabinet baffles!43
People buy very easily into the idea that buying some of these products will instantly make you sound like your hero, as if some of the virtuosity is magically transferred from the instrument to your hands eliminating the need for actual practice.
‘The word virtuosity has always had…derogatory associations…for the term implies that technical excellence has become an end in itself. It is a mistake, however, to dismiss it at that, for it has undoubtedly played, and will play, an important part in the development of music, even though it has always been accompanied by a degenerate and retro-gressive element. The history of European music is punctuated with periods…during which the virtuoso has flourished, and which have resulted both in an advance of the art of music and in the production of much that was inferior.’ 44
This opening statement to Harman’s article is of vital importance. It explains that although virtuosity has derogatory connotations it is also absolutely necessary for the evolution of music. In order to advance and progress beyond the current it, whether an art form or a technological piece of equipment, must become capable of doing more than it already can and therefore, usually, must become more complex. If musicians had not become virtuosos and masters of tonal music, and wished to develop it further, then music would likely be stuck in the romantic era and experiments with atonality would never have happened. The problem with virtuosity, which is touched upon in Harman’s opening statement, is when it becomes the sole means to an end. When harmony, melody and rhythm are no longer
http://jbstore.jbonamassa.com/equipment/ (accessed: 01/05/2012)
important, and the music is instead purely based upon overt displays of technicality, then it is easy to understand how virtuosity can become tiring. The music of Francesco Fareri, an Italian electric guitar player, is a constant barrage of notes, there is very little in the way of melody and the harmonies and rhythms are generic and repetitive. Almost every track on each of his albums is in this style and whilst the speed is impressive it certainly can become boring very quickly and this style of music, commonly now known as guitar ‘shredding,’ comes under a lot of heavy criticism on new media websites and is often described as being sport as opposed to music.
The notion that listeners are becoming bored of virtuosity, and at times even describing it as sport, is a sign that the collective is becoming bored not of virtuosity itself, but of the clichés of virtuosity. Rimsky-Korsakov’s once brilliant and innovative Flight of the
Bumblebee has since had its reputation tarnished by those who seek to play it faster than
anyone else. The popular video sharing website YouTube is littered with videos of musicians playing Flight of the Bumblebee ever faster and on ever more unorthodox instruments. The most common are of course electric guitar, piano and violin but there are also videos of musicians hurtling through Flight of the Bumblebee on marimba, organ, accordion, harmonica and even steel drums.
The progressive rock realm has of course seen more than its fair share of so-called virtuosos. In the 1960’s, and of course still in the present day, The Beatles were seen as virtuosos of popular song composition and Jimi Hendrix was the ultimate guitar hero, the most technically advanced guitar player to have emerged thus far. Hendrix arguably kick-started the idea of the virtuoso guitar hero and influenced, and continues to influence, many, many players that have risen to fame since then. The 1970’s brought with it Eric
Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and it was this period that perhaps started to show that the electric guitar could be a much more advanced, much more versatile instrument than once thought. The 1980’s gave birth to many of the greatest and most virtuosic guitar players but none were, arguably, more influential than Yngwie Malmsteen. Malmsteen made popular the neo-classical sound, based on appropriations of baroque and classical period music, which had been pioneered by Ritchie Blackmore, Uli Jon Roth and Randy Rhoads, and probably influenced more young players around that time than anybody else. The nineties and the ‘noughties’ has seen continuous development of electric guitar technique with players getting ever faster, more technical and much more ‘mature’ and at a frighteningly young age. The virtuoso has always been an important part of our culture, and will continue to be so, and, in Harman’s words, ‘will [continue to] play… an important part in the development of music.’45
X Japan – Art of Life
In 1993, X Japan (until this point known simply as X) released the album Art of Life. This album consists of just one song, composed in a pseudo-symphony form, and is twenty-nine minutes in length. Art of Life was predominantly written by band founder, classically-trained pianist and drummer Yoshiki Hayashi. Yoshiki was interested in the music of Beethoven and Schubert from an early age and in the 1970’s was exposed to the rock and metal music that was popular at that time. Since that time he has created and participated in several bands and also composed music for film, including American horror film Saw IV,
and also has his own charity and fashion ranges. He is quite a popular figure in modern Japanese culture and is, according to his biography, ‘to Japan what Bono is to the UK.’46
Art of Life is very evidently a mixture of musical styles, predominantly progressive and
power metal, and contains elements of rock and metal as well as European classical music. Most of the music is typical of what is expected of progressive rock music and also exemplifies a lot of the problems and issues that were discussed in the preceding chapter. Firstly, the very thought that Yoshiki, the chief songwriter, is classically-trained immediately conjures an aura of authenticity; a degree of respect is immediately earned that perhaps makes the listener take more notice, take the music more seriously. Secondly is the theme of the lyrics. Although the lyrics, interestingly in English (most likely in order to appeal to the European and Western markets), are relatively simple they are still poetic and full of powerful, romantic and dark imagery. They tell the story of love, lust, human obsession, heartache, seclusion, loneliness, dreaming and pain, topics of which are all very common in the progressive domain. Thirdly, of course, is the art music influence that is very evident in the construction of the song and also in many of its themes and individual parts. The piece features not only an extended piano solo (of around ten minutes) but also a string section throughout which is common to progressive music as it attempts to fuse orchestral music with rock music. Finally is the obvious virtuosity of the piece; not only are all of the musicians clearly technically skilled but the size and scale of the composition is a display of virtuosity in itself.
Interestingly, and following on from the progressive rock tradition of the entire package (artwork / presentation as well as the music) being important, the front cover or album
artwork of Art of Life teases at what the story of the music is about.(App. 2) The artwork
depicts the two important themes in the music, life (on the left) and death (on the right.) The left half of the face appears to be that of a woman, though with the androgynous traditions and fashion styles of the Visuel Kei movement this could certainly be a man, with a determined, almost slightly psychotic gaze and appearance. The right hand side of the face is depicted as a skull which, more often than not, represents danger or death. The artwork already hints at what the theme of the album is likely to be: life, death and how the two bleed together.
Art of Life begins rather simply with a guitar, piano, strings and vocals in what could be
considered the ballad section of the track. This theme sets up the remainder of the music, much like an overture, and this theme is revisited and referenced several times. The majority of the music is actually reasonably simple in terms of harmony, melody and construction, following in a typical rock fashion with verses, choruses, interludes and guitar solos. Arguably the most important part of the music is the piano solo, set in a quasi-sonata form, in the middle of the song; the rest of the music seems to frame this section. It begins at around fifteen minutes with a simple, recurring theme in the right hand part. It starts very tonally, very musically and quite predictably but slowly but surely the harmony and melody start to become obscured. The piano moves through a romantic or experimental phase which is much more expressive and personal. At the height of the solo the harmony and melody is almost completely removed from the music and replaced with angry, textural, chromatic and tight cluster keyboard bashing that is either very cleverly constructed, or purely random. After this the piano reverts back through itself to the more tonal, melodic playing of the beginning of the solo. What Yoshiki seems to be doing here is
using very strong word-painting; the piano tells the same story as the lyrics; it is a man fighting with himself inside, fighting for and against life. Towards the latter parts of this section there are also some string parts in the background which are much more tonal, much simpler. It is my belief that the piano here could represent the turmoil and pain of life and the string parts represent the simplicity of death, the easy way out. Does one continue fighting with life, or take the easy way out? Ultimately, and sadly, the string part takes precedence in the music and the piano drops out. This is perhaps the most powerful few bars of the entire piece. However, the grand, powerful cadence is interrupted by the return of the verse as if, on the edge of death, one is brought back to life to give it one more fight. This kind of sonic imagery is very typical of progressive music and is a trait taken from classical symphonies. The song ends rather ambiguously, the lyrics (‘can’t let my heart kill myself, still I’m feeling for, a rose is breathing love, in my life’) ring somewhat positive but the music never actually fully cadences, suggesting there is more to say or that the narrator dies shortly before he can finish telling the story, again a simple but very powerful means of musical communication.
George Bellas – Step Into the future
Step Into the Future is perhaps one of the best exemplifiers of the issues and concepts
surrounding progressive rock. Released in early 2009, Step Into the Future is perhaps Bellas’s ‘boldest and most progressive body of work to date’47 and features just one,
entirely instrumental, piece which is around seventy-six minutes in length. Bellas’s intention with this album was to ‘reach beyond current boundaries and try new unexplored