Progressive rock is a broad and convergent style of rock music and progressive music which arose in the late 1960s, reaching the peak of its popularity in the early 1970s, but continuing as a musical form to this day. Progressive rock is often closely identified with other styles of music such as experimental music, symphonic rock, art rock and progressive metal.
Progressive rock artists sought to move away from the limitations of the radio formated rock, mainly its cyclic structure, favoring a progressive one (hence the term "progressive"). Progressive rock is often wrongly percieved as complex and elaborate music, requiring a high level of musicianship from the artists, mainly because of the impression left by some of the most popular progressive bands.
Some elements often wrongly used to define progressive rock include:
- Long pieces, in some cases over 20 minutes in length. These are often described as epics. (An early example is Echoes by Pink Floyd). More recent extreme examples are the 60 minute Light of Day, Day of Darkness by Green Carnation, and Garden of Dreams by The Flower Kings, which is only 3 seconds shorter.
- Lyrics that are complex and sometimes impenetrable, but usually carefully crafted, covering such themes as science fiction, fantasy, religion, war, love, madness and history.
- Intricate and lengthy melodies and harmonies, often requiring repeated listening to grasp.
- Concept albums, where a theme or set of themes is explored throughout an entire album. Examples are the double concept albums, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes, From Planet Daelthesya To Planet Earth by Master Sound and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. A more recent example is the double (or limited edition triple) CD Snow by Spock's Beard.
- Unusual vocal styles and use of multi-part vocal harmonies. See Area, Magma, Robert Wyatt, Gentle Giant.
- Use of both classical and electronic instruments (particularly keyboards), in addition to the usual rock combination of electric guitar, bass and drums.
- Inclusion of elements from disparate other musical genres, particularly hard rock, classical music and jazz.
- Use of syncopation, unusual time signatures, scaless or tuningss. Some pieces use multiple time signatures and/or tempos, sometimes overlaid. King Crimson often combined several of these aspects in the same song. Dream Theater's fiendishly difficult to play "Dance of Eternity" features changes of time signature in a sequence 5/8-5/8-7/8, 5/8-7/8, 5/8-5/8-7/8.
- Solo passages of great speed, subtlety, complexity and/or difficulty, demonstrating the virtuosity of the player.
- Inclusion of classical pieces on albums. For example, Yes start their concerts with a taped extract of Stravinsky's Firebird suite, and Emerson Lake and Palmer have included pieces by Copland, Moussorgsky, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Marillion once started concerts with Rossini's La Gazza Ladra, and named their third live album the same. Symphony X has included parts by, or inspired by, Beethoven, Holst and Mozart. Emerson Lake and Palmer has even gone as far as interpreting classical pieces : Pictures at an Exhibition is the prime example, being a Mussorgsky composition to which lyrics were added..
None of the above can be used to define progressive rock because they are not specific to it. On the other hand, progressive rock very often borrows one of these forms (alone or in combination):
- The form of a piece that is subdivided into subpieces, in the manner of a classical symphony. An example is the four-part song "Close to the Edge" on the eponymous three-track album by Yes.
- The form of a piece that is composed of two or more pieces, in the manner of a patchwork. Good examples are the multi-part song "Supper's Ready" on Fox Trot by Genesis or the song "A Day In The Life" on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles.
- The form of a piece that allows the developement of musical ideas via progressions or variations, in the manner of a bolero or a canon. "King Kong" on Frank Zappa's Uncle Meat illustrates this well.
Having emerged as an entity of its own at around the end of the 1960s
, progressive rock's popularity peaked in the mid 1970s
, when progressive rock artists regularly topped readers' votes in mainstream popular music magazines. With the advent of punk rock
in the late 1970s
, and its earlier precursor pub rock
, popular and critical opinion moved toward a simpler and more aggressive style of rock, with the words "pretentious", "pompous", and "overblown" often being used to describe progressive rock. This attitude has remained in place to the present day, particularly among mainstream music writers.
The early 1980s saw something of a revival of the genre, led by groups such as Marillion. Groups that arose during this time are sometimes labelled neo-progressive. At the same time, some progressive rock stalwarts modified themselves to some extent, simplifying their music and including more obviously electronic elements. In 1983, Genesis achieved international success with the song Mama, with its heavy emphasis on a drum machine riff. In 1984, Yes had a surprise number one hit with the song Owner of a Lonely Heart, which contained modern (for the time) electronic effects and was accessible enough to be played at discos.
The genre received another minor surge of popularity in the 1990s with a wave of new bands, many of which played harder-edged music known as progressive metal. These later bands are usually happy to be unashamedly known as progressive, and produce very long pieces and concept albums that sometimes make the epics of the 1970s look like catchy little tunes aimed at commercial radio.
The work of contemporary artists such as Radiohead, Sigur Ros and Godspeed! You Black Emperor could be said to incorporate some of the more experimental elements of progresive rock, sometimes combined with the aesthetic sensibilities of punk rock, to produce music which many find at once challenging, innovative and imaginative. Tool has done the same thing with traces of heavy metal, with some commercial success.
Today, progressive rock continues to be created and admired by a solid core of enthusiasts, but seems to be paid little attention by the mainstream music press and receives virtually no radio airplay. The genre can no longer convincingly claim to be progressing rock music at the rate it once did, and those innovations that are being made are usually ignored or derided by the commercial world at large, and by progressive rock enthusiasts themselves.