What we call today “the rock compartment” represents a musical phenomena of extended dimensions, branching out in adjacent areas that make it impossible for an evaluation to be written in just a few words. In search for a definition, we must remember the fact that, in its current acceptation, the term “rock” does not constitute the name of a genre or of a particular style, rather it slowly morphs into a general appellative of the context in which modern and contemporary “light” music (as opposed to the more “heavy” music - opera, symphonic, etc) is distinguished from the traditional interpretations – both domains of reference sharing the same ground and exerting influence over a vast audience of different ages, preferences and preoccupations .
This is a loosely translated quote taken from a rock guide I found in the library, dated 1979. I’m sure that there’s a high possibility that many of you weren’t even born at that time (hell, I wasn’t even in a ‘project’ state), yet language speaks over the years and the way these words were put on paper by the authors made me take a break from whatever I was doing at the moment and ask myself the simplest and most elementary question a music follower and rock/metal adept is bound to ask himself over the course of his measly, uneventful life:
What is progression?
And no, I’m not talking about either Darwinism nor the creation and evolution of shaorma, chips, ketchup or any other foods of untrusted nature that may or may not be consumed by members of the Tzeeeac organization; what I will be talking about, minions, is music and the progression related to it.
What the before mentioned book attempts and accomplishes is a short biography of representative bands or individuals for that period, both international and national, and does so in the course of about 350 pages, give or take. The list starts with ABBA, goes through Alice Cooper, Boney M, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Doors, Gentle Giant, Mick Jagger, King Crimson, Santana, Van Morrison, Pynk Floyd, Elvis, Progresiv T.M. (see what I did here?), Queen, Vangelis, Uriah Heep and so on and so forth. In short, anyone that was someone at that specific point in time.
Music for the hearts, as you may notice, and all of it is music that falls in the aptly described ‘rock compartment’ stated above. And now that we established how loosely a term ‘rock’ is, is it ok to talk about progression in general? Or perhaps about how the term progressive is thrown around to every other band that adds a little pretentiousness to their style? You’ll be safe to assume the latter, but first I have to give you a little bit of ‘me’ history in order to understand my point of view.
As a kid, I listened to a lot of Queen. You could say it was the band I grew up with, courtesy of many cassette recordings that are still to be found in my house. Queen is, by my account, the first piece of music I remember listening to. So, is Queen hard to digest for the quarter of a man I was back then? I’d say yes. Is Queen pretentious by the standards we’re currently talking about? Definitely yes. Is Queen progressive by today’s definition? Well, here’s where we part ways with the world.
Surprisingly enough, aside from Queen, I haven’t really listened to a lot of ‘rock’ music until the internet days arrived to us the common folk (you know, shortly after fire was invented and the wheel took more of a round shape to better suit the land). Before that I’d usually borrow music from friends and enjoy whatever sounded good, scrapping the rest. Disco, rap, hip-hop, weird russian songs with the ability to give a boner way before the actual knowledge of what a boner is became un-privy, yadda yadda , etcetera etcetera, I listened to it all (but not manele, Chester, not manele; I am still pure at heart). Then, as I’ve said before, the Internets came a-knocking, and boy did I welcome them with milk and cookies and placed them on the pedestal where Santa and the Easter Bunny (that conspired to steal the money from my piggy-bank when I was 7) previously sat on.
And then there was Maiden. A gift sent to me from the Unicorn-God himself to wash away the sins accumulated from the aforementioned russian songs and give way to a whole new compartment inside my blackened heart, the ‘rock compartment’. Funny how it all spins around and then revolves to the same basic concept that we have covered before. So, was Iron Maiden pretentious for me at that time? Indeed it was. Is Iron Maiden progressive? Compared to Queen, yes, the music had progressed and went on to be encompassed in what we know labeled as new wave of british heavy metal, but compared to the rest, I’d say that it’s not.
Now we arrive to a turning point. Aside from Queen and Iron Maiden, my interest in music from before the 90’s became small, lest not say insignificant. Where there are great bands to listen to and a lifetime wouldn’t be sufficient to give them justice, I found myself in an awkward position where I seemed (and still do) to enjoy only the newer bands. That is not to say I haven’t listened to ‘old’ music, so to speak, it’s just that on a constant base, new stuff is what tends to pique my interest and keep it that way.
Now that we have that info, fast-backward a little bit in time and introduce bands such as Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull and such, currently labeled under the subgenre Progressive Rock. Wikipedia states: ‘Developing from psychedelic rock, progressive rock originated, similarly to art rock, as a "British attempt" to give greater artistic weight and credibility to rock music. Progressive rock intended to break the boundaries of traditional rock music by bringing in a greater and more eclectic range of influences, including free-form and experimental compositional methods, as well as new technological innovations.’
Looking at this definition I find that, while correct in subject, it is flawed at a conceptual level. Many of the great bands known to us don’t think about what they’re going to sing about, they just simply do it (I’ve added the ‘simply’ part so as Nike won’t come bashing at my door demanding copyright revenue from when this article will gain international acclaim). No, they are just ordinary people with extraordinary intellect, and while they draw on influences like any other of us do, they prefer to simply write music for themselves. Because this is what makes a real band, and I personally tend to believe that this excess categorization comes only from OCD nerds who need to constantly be sorting out their collection and require a crap-load of criteria in order to do so; as if the alphabet is not good enough anymore. But I digress…
Before I started writing for Tzeeeac, Marco told me something along the lines of “Here’s how we do stuff. Chester has his death metal grumblings, I handle indie/alternative, and since I noticed you like progressive stuff it’ll be nice to write about that.” And I was all “Oh boy, oh boy, I’ma write about that, and then about that, and then about that other one, etc”. The next day I had a reality check and I was like “Holy ice-skating Jesus, how in the world am I going to write about progressive?!?” And the result can be seen clearly: reviews of instrumental, nu-metal, alternative, doom/death, some experimental stuff, pretty much anything that doesn’t fit in that category described in such a few words on a Wikipedia page. And even if I did have the proper knowledge, I’m still missing some pillars in the form of lengthy auditions of the bands that created this subgenre. In short, I cannot truly write about such things.
To give an example, here’s a song that plays progressive in my book:
Massive song, composed of three ‘movements’ as I like to call them, the project initially started as a background for film. Did it turn out to be a big, bold, excellent piece of music? Yes. Is it progressive by common standards? No, as they play doom metal ffs!
In this particular case, I personally think true progression has been achieved, every part of the song being as masterfully executed as the next one, never dull, always shifting between emotions and states of the mind. In other cases, I may find these manifestations of genius only in some obscure, barely audible part of a tune, or maybe I’ll come upon a passage here and there that makes me want to put it on repeat and then bow down at the feet of whoever composed it (you know what I mean, you must have heard them at some point or another).
It is my personal belief that progressing refers to always searching for new ways to better ourselves as individuals and it is this particular search that reflects in all the things we do and in every artistic department, be it either music, literature, film, photography etcetera. Concluding, can we say that all bands found in that rock guide I quoted are progressive? Again, by wiki standards, no, but by human standards it’s a definite yes.
Because in this field there can be only one pure and intangible element that is truly capable of adequate progression; and it's not the music that's being played, but rather the fortunate human soul who plays it.