After its 1970s heyday, prog rock receded in on itself, but now a new wave of bands are embracing long, difficult songs and fantastical lyrics – and finding fans for it, too
By Alexis Petridis
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 22 July 2010 23.00 BST
Prog rock - the music that refused to die. Illustration by Jiro Bevis.
At the end of 2008, the journalist Jerry Ewing pitched an idea for a new magazine to a publishing company. His idea was a magazine dedicated entirely to progressive rock, long reviled in the critical mainstream as the apotheosis of the musical excess of the pre-punk 70s, a largely forgotten realm of concept albums, difficult time signatures and extraordinary instrumental virtuosity. Ewing says he wasn't surprised when his publishers agreed to the idea – "there was a tidal shift in favour of prog; the BBC had done that Prog Britannia documentary, which seemed a kind of acceptance" – but even he seems taken aback by the success of Classic Rock: Prog. It currently sells around 22,000 copies an issue, half the circulation of the NME: not bad, given that Ewing is surely the first editor in four decades to utter the sentence: "Our best-selling issue had Jethro Tull on the cover."
There seems little doubt Ewing is right about the tidal shift. Not every new band tarred with the prog brush seems overjoyed about the label – when I mention it to Mike Vennart, of Manchester's Oceansize, he responds with a groan about "musical masturbation" – but you can see prog rock's influence on mainstream rock in Coheed & Cambria's concept albums topping the US chart; in Muse and Pendulum, who collaborated with nu-prog stalwarts Porcupine Tree on their current album Immersion. This weekend, the High Voltage festival in east London will not only boast a headlining performance by Emerson Lake & Palmer – whose first British live show in 15 years seems to have been greeted with widespread delight, rather than the yell of horror it would once have provoked – but a dedicated prog stage, playing host to Marillion, Asia, Pendragon and Transatlantic. The latter, a latterday prog supergroup featuring members of Marillion, Spock's Beard and Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, are what you might call the full Roger Dean-designed triple gatefold sleeve; in contrast, Muse look like the Dead Kennedys. Transatlantic's current album, The Whirlwind, features just one song, which runs to 78 minutes. "The sound of Transatlantic is very purposefully stuck in the 70s," says Portnoy, proudly. "All of us in Transatlantic are huge fans of [the Yes double album] Tales from Topographic Oceans and all the excesses that prog was infamous for. That stuff appeals to us! We miss that! Tremendously long, challenging pieces of music! We have no problem embracing that!"
Elsewhere, the digital radio station Planet Rock – on which Rick Wakeman hosts a Saturday morning programme, and former Marillion frontman Fish once fronted a Sony Award -winning prog show – now boasts more listeners than BBC 6 Music. You can currently see a TV advert for a 33-track compilation album named after the Yes track Wondrous Stories – "Two CDs chock-full of prog! The cream of prog rock! The cream that never went sour!" bellows the voiceover, defiantly – and one for Nike sportswear improbably soundtracked with Hocus Pocus, Focus's cheeringly ridiculous 1973 collision of heavy riffing and yodelling. Meanwhile, Beyond the Lighted Stage, a documentary about the deathless Canadian prog trio Rush, deservedly won the audience award at this years' Tribeca film festival. If it can't make a non-believer like their music, it does a brilliant job of explaining why people do. Rather surprisingly, drummer Neal Peart emerges from the film as a kind of Morrissey for the Dungeons and Dragons set: aloof, mysterious, considered a poet by his fans and a rightwing crank by his detractors (he's famously a fan of the conservative's novelist of choice, Ayn Rand), he is given to writing songs about misfits getting a rough time from the cool kids in school.
One hesitates to say prog is back in fashion only because prog was never really in fashion in the first place. There was a brief period in the late 60s – between Jethro Tull upstaging everyone but the Who on the Rolling Stones' scrapped Rock and Roll Circus TV show and the release of King Crimson's debut album In the Court of the Crimson King – when it must have seemed like the coming thing, but its critical honeymoon period was probably drawn to a swift conclusion by Emerson Lake & Palmer's performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, famously decried by John Peel as "a waste of electricity". Ever since, prog has existed apart from fashion, perhaps even apart from the rest of rock music. "It grew out of rock music and that's why it was written about in the rock press, but it's a shame it ever became regarded as part of rock'n'roll, because it's not, the ethos is completely different," novelist and prog fan Jonathan Coe memorably told the Prog Britannia programme. "If you judge it by the criteria of rock'n'roll, then it fails."
Accordingly, there's a sense that prog has always been with us. The perceived wisdom is that it was utterly swept away by punk, but that doesn't account for the string of British prog bands signed by major labels in the early 80s – not just Marillion, but IQ, Pendragon and Pallas – nor for the continued chart success of Yes, Rush and Genesis, although whether those bands' 80s oeuvres could truly be considered prog is a matter of some debate: "They were all doing poppy, keyboard, kind of shorter-song music," sniffs Portnoy, with the unmistakable air of a man who thinks that sort of thing isn't really on. Nor does it account for the way prog hung over vast tranches of 80s pop. You can hear its influence in the long, serpentine songs found on David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees, Thomas Dolby's The Flat Earth and Talk Talk's The Colour of Spring, or in Ultravox's penchant for writing side-long tracks split into sections. Classic Rock: Prog runs a monthly feature called It's Prog Jim, But Not As We Know it, which picks out "albums that are very obviously prog by bands you would never have associated with the word". Its most recent candidate was Frankie Goes to Hollywood's debut, Welcome to the Pleasuredome, which, Jerry Ewing points out, not unreasonably, was a double concept album in a gatefold sleeve, featuring an 18-minute-long title track inspired by Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan, produced by an ex-member of Yes and featuring Steve Howe on guitar. Another feature in the magazine encourages unlikely musicians to reveal their love of prog: you apparently can't move for 80s pop stars desperate to fess up to a secret passion for the likes of Gnidrolog. "We've had Nik Kershaw, who was a massive Gentle Giant fan," says Ewing. "Morten Harket from a-ha, he was in there raving about Uriah Heep. Siobhan Fahey from Bananarama – huge Pink Floyd fan."
But if it didn't happen quite when the history books suggest, prog definitely had its doldrums. In the mid-90s, Mojo magazine published a prog special: alongside the feature on Yes and the reminiscences of someone who'd had the misfortune to start a prog band called Gypp in 1977, confident that "punk would blow over" ("Was I a prat? I fear so"), it ran a piece on new prog bands. The author was sympathetic, but there was no getting around the fact that the bands in question were having a thin time of it. None were able to make a living from their music. One had lost its drummer "because he couldn't bear living at subsistence level any longer". All were slogging around a tiny scene that had become dementedly insular: "We're influenced by everything from Genesis to Marillion," explained one musician, entirely without irony.
"In the early 80s, there was a new prog boom, but most of those bands managed one or maybe two albums on a major label before it was all over," says Ewing. "The late 80s, early 90s was a period when it battened down the hatches, became a cottage industry just pandering to itself."
Bryan Josh remembers that era only too well. He formed Mostly Autumn in 1995. With respect to the members of Gypp – clomping around the Marquee stage in their clogs on the nights said venue wasn't being headlined by the Jam or 999 – the height of Britpop may have been the worst point in musical history to launch a prog band with Celtic folk overtones and a fondness for releasing albums inspired by The Lord of the Rings. "People enjoyed what we were doing from the off," Josh says. "But we were just playing in pubs. For a while, there was a lot of dreadful progressive music out there. People ripping off the wrong bits of Genesis. The thing about Genesis, they wrote songs, they had spirit, but people watered it down, they missed the point, it got a bad name and it almost disappeared. They'd take the bit where Genesis maybe went off on a tangent which was relevant to the song itself, but forget the song. You'd get the tangent without having the spirit and the body of a song to work from. People were just emulating riffs, thinking they were clever because they were doing a 9/8 time change, noodling around on a load of classic Moogs or whatever. It bores a lot of people to tears. I heard a lot of that."
The question of what changed to revive prog's popularity is an intriguing one. Josh just thinks the music got better, and that his band slowly built a following to its current level – next year, they're headlining the 2,000-capacity Shepherd's Bush Empire in London – by the simple expedient of gigging hard. Ewing suggests the rise of the internet helped propagate and spread the prog scene and that attitudes softened as a result of the passing of time: "The journalists who naturally despised the whole genre because it completely went against the grain of punk, something they inherently believed in, had moved on out of that area into different forms of journalism and other media, or else they just didn't have that sort of attitude any more, so the hangover had gone."
And, a few months after the massed ranks of nu-proggers poured out their woes to Mojo, Radiohead released OK Computer. The kind of prog fan that prefers their bands influenced by everything from Genesis to Marillion may recoil a little at the very mention of its name; indeed, Mike Portnoy points out that "in those days, Radiohead would totally put down the term prog", and thinks its success had little impact on how Transatlantic were received "because we're doing something that's more pure, retro prog: we're trying to take those classic prog sounds and make new music with it, but not necessarily make a new sound". Even so, it's hard to see how its multi-platinum success can have done the prog scene anything but good by reawakening a public interest in long, episodic songs, retooling the gloomy mein of Dark Side of the Moon for a new decade. Around the same time, metal – traditionally progressive rock's best mate, with its emphasis on musicianship, partiality for excess and inability to resist a bit of lyrical sword and sorcery – began to rekindle its friendship with prog in the aftermath of grunge. Opeth, Coheed & Cambria, then later Mastodon and the Mars Volta emerged, recording – yes – concept albums packed full of – yes, again – difficult time signatures and extraordinary instrumental virtuosity. Their rise, Ewing claims, changed prog's traditionally male fanbase: "Loads of girls like heavy metal.".
Quite aside from the music, prog's enduring appeal may lie in its very awkwardness. At a time when indie music has become mainstream, prog still repels major labels, because it resists commodification and they don't know how to market it – Mike Portnoy points out that even when Dream Theater were selling half a million albums a year, they were constantly locked in battles with their label, which demanded shorter, radio-friendly songs. Nike's dalliance with Focus notwithstanding, you hardly ever hear it on adverts or film soundtracks: the songs are just too long, too uncommercial. Ewing doesn't see any punk-style backlash in the immediate future. "It's forever evolving. Progressive bands constantly change their sound." Furthermore, he asserts, "the current new prog bands have learnt from the excesses of the past". But one looks at Muse's preposterously overblown live shows, or Transatlantic's hour-long songs and thinks: no, they haven't. They haven't at all. People just don't seem bothered any more.