Monday, February 09, 2009

A Prog In My Throat

Okay, that is a horrible pun even by my standards. Whatever.

I have been listening to a lot of prog rock lately. Discovered a lot of new-to-me bands, gotten more familiar with even more. Biggest things for me: Camel and the Canterbury Scene, Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and online prog radio. Thoughts on each below.

Canterbury Prog
I had become aware of Camel as one of the favorite bands of Opeth's Mikael Ã…kerfelt, but had not given them a proper listen for some time. When I did, I discovered that they were but a part of a fairly big scene of prog musicians, most of whom are not actually from Canterbury (and most of whose influence can be heard in Opeth) with a lot of fantastic band names: Camel, Gong, Egg, Hatfield and the North (in a sense a forerunner to Sleater-Kinney - Click here to see how) to name a few. Aside from influencing a fantastic band a couple decades later, one of the biggest contributions of the scene to music as a whole was Allan Holdsworth, who played early in his career with bands like Gong and Soft Machine.

The Canterbury Scene is pretty loosely defined; but it seems to largely signify exceptionally jazz-fusion influenced prog rock, and there is an apparent continuum within the scene with ends of more-pop-influenced and more-experimental. Camel and Caravan are two examples of the more poppy side of Canterbury prog, with fairly standard song structures and hooky choruses, as well as often very sonorous and accessible lead vocalists like Richard Sinclair (who worked at times with both Camel and Caravan). On the opposite end are very avant-garde bands like National Health and Hatfield and the North. There was, however, a similar tonal sensibility throughout the scene.

Camel - Excerpts from The Snow Goose
Rather in the middle on the Canterbury Continuum

Discipline by King Crimson, where KC founder Robert Fripp was joined by Talking Heads and Zappa alum Adrian Belew, Yes batterer Bill Bruford, and now legendary Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, is one of the most fantastic albums of all time. That's basically all I have tos ay on the matter.

King Crimson - Elephant Talk
Gee, I wonder if Les Claypool ever had this record?

Gentle Giant
Gentle Giant are one of the best bands you've never heard of. Also one of the strangest. Also one of the strangest looking, but that's a story for another day. Featuring a cast of multi-instrumentalists and often dressing like they had just come from a Ren Faire, Gentle Giant played a music that was part jazz fusion, part avant-garde, part English folk, but all amazing. The band's sound is similar in many ways to the pop-rock side of jazz fusion (like, say Steely Dan), but rarely quite so accessible. They made a lot of interesting arrangement choices - having a seven-minute song that changed halfway through from being driven by falsetto vocals, fiddle, and recorder to a more poppy song with rock drums and vocals or breaking in the middle of a fairly short song for a three minute acoustic guitar dual with no backing both come to mind. One way in which Gentle Giant can be more comfortably grouped with other prog musicians is by keeping their keyboardist behind stacks and stacks of keyboards on the side of the stage.

Additionally, in this day of YouTube and Wikipedia and things, it's remarkable to me how accidental my discovery of this band was: I saw their cd in a store and, judging it by its cover, decided I had to know all about the band.

Gentle Giant - Funny Ways
Oooh, look at as, we play so many instruments!

Prog Radio Online
Been listening a bit to Morrow - The Prog Radio lately. They play a fairly good mix of old and new prog, but their playlist is not huge. I've enjoyed a lot of the songs on their, but for being ostensibly progressive regarding music the people there (on the forums that is) are somewhat musically closed-minded. There are certainly some contradictions to this, like that the station plays bands like The Mars Volta along with the standard fair like Dream Theater and Genesis. But, they also are fairly limited in what sort of musical progress they are interested in seeing. Mixing prog rock melodies with, say, death metal vocals, is not too cool to them. As such, while they will play song by Opeth, when the issue comes up they will sometimes edit out the portion of the song with the heavy vocals. Now, while I did not approve of this really (not really a terribly progressive move, etc.), I did not stick around arguing it too much as I certainly don't want to end up being the guy on the internet calling people fascists. So that said, it's mostly a good station, but I differ from them philosophically. Maybe it's just their Frenchness.