When people with strongly defined tastes and opinions in music hear the words prog rock, one of two things happen: either a look of childlike glee or a look of dismissive annoyance comes over them. Since its inception in the early 1970s – when it was popularized by bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer and King Crimson – prog rock has been an incredibly divisive genre and the bane of many music critics. To make the matter even more confusing, there is no sure-fire to distinguish a prog-rock song from a rock song; a typical prog rock song sounds like four or five rock songs glued together and cut up with weird time signatures. Some would say that Radiohead’s modern masterpiece OK Computer is a prog rock album, but when asked about prog, Thom Yorke told a reporter that the band hates the genre.
In its initial inception, prog musicians claimed the genre was universal and well, progressive, but the music was made by white men, consumed almost exclusively by white men and the lyrical content tended towards sci-fi and fantasy. In short, it was music for nerdy, white men. Therefore, in today’s cultural climate, musicians who are inspired by the prog heroes of yesteryear are obliged to apply a bit of misdirection in interviews to avoid the stigma of prog, which is a dirty word to some.
While there’s theoretically nothing wrong with a bunch of middle-aged white dudes freaking out at a Rush concert, there’s definitely nothing cool about it. The trick for musicians with prog-leaning tendencies is to repackage it as music with more depth and compositional ambition than your average three-chord rock band. One of the original charges against prog is that it ruined what was gutter pure about rock music. In 2018, surely there’s nothing wrong with composing ambitious, musically adventurous songs, but it may be wise to steer clear of Dungeons & Dragons type lyrics or digress into a Canterbury style flute breakdown.
Prog rock – like jazz-fusion – is synonymous with heightened musicianship, and thus, bands who are influenced by the genre are often classically trained or studying jazz in an academic setting. The prog aesthetic also implies a huge sound with layered synths, saxophones and guitars. Les Paul and Rickenbacker guitars have often been wielded by prog rock’s heroes, so if you’re trying to get away from the established aesthetics of the genre, you may want to seek out a music shop with a huge selection of guitars and see if you can find a similar tone on a different kind of axe (Fender Telecasters are a good choice). Many critics would say that the downfall of first-wave prog was that it claimed to be universal while catering to rich, college-educated white men. Making DIY prog that genuinely carries a universal message may be part of the path to redemption.
Contemporary bands like The Mars Volta, Phish, The Flaming Lips and Beach House all espouse elements of prog – some leaning into the typical clichés more than others. For young musicians, there will always be something appealing about transforming popular music into a more expansive art form, but making it accessible to a wider demographic is essential.