Progressive rock is broadly thought to trace its origins back to the late Sixties and early Seventies. Without question Pink Floyd, led ultimately by Roger Waters and David Gilmour, became key standard bearers for the genre culminating in the recording of their seminal albums ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’.
The roots of ‘Prog’ as it became known can be traced as far back as the release of ‘Meddle’ in 1971 as well as the early work of King Crimson, Genesis and Yes. Meddle, a seminal work in the eyes of many, saw Pink Floyd break into new areas of expression contributing to what was to become, for a few heady years, the dominant musical form in rock.
The evolution of progressive rock saw a more challenging form of experimentation replace psychedelia as the vanguard of art in rock music led as it was by a procession of truly gifted often classically trained musicians. Thus ‘Prog” began to take shape and become what we fondly recall today. Heady and occasionally confused concepts, characters and increasingly long album releases accompanied by ever more extreme cover art characterized Prog’s output up to 1977. Having said this, for those that wanted to be challenged both intellectually and musically this upstart child of the rock revolution fitted the bill perfectly.
Much debate has ensued in recent years as to what progressive rock was or ultimately became. To the purist it is an oddly eccentric style that features complex and lush keyboards complimented by technically demanding and emotional guitar work gathered up in expositions of lofty, sometimes quasi philosophical and political lyrics or story telling. It is also worth noting that bass guitar invariably took a prominent position in the early masterworks exemplified by the work of great players such as Greg Lake, John Wetton, Chris Squire and Mike Rutherford. Each played a major part in redefining how the bass was used in rock music.
Strangely Roger Waters has invariably, even by his own admission, not been included in the ranks of the great bass players in progressive rock. This is a hard assertion to substantiate when his work from ‘Meddle’ onwards is listened to closely. It becomes self evident on closer analysis, notably when listening on state of the art audiophile equipment, just how his economic and beautifully placed bass playing is judged, often to perfection, in the music of Pink Floyd. There never seems to be a note out of place and the phrasing, though often understated, is wonderfully conceived. Was this style deliberate? On considering how Water’s has approached every other aspect of his musical output, it is hard to think that it was anything but deliberate.
The documentary about the making of ‘Dark side of The Moon’ inevitably paid a great deal of attention, understandably, to the sublime and eternally memorable guitar work of David Gilmour. But hold a while ! The bass playing stands out in its own right. It adds something very special to the final work. Recent remixes of DSOM and WYWH have shown that to be especially true. The bass playing stands out prominently in all its immense and enjoyable glory. It forms a carefully crafted foundation upon which the rest of the band wove its timeless songs that defined a generation.
Progressive rock established itself as a globally significant musical force as the seventies advanced though it lost its way with the advent of punk in the late seventies. Punk music questioned grandiose, technically accomplished music and sought to replace it with more direct musical expression that eschewed technical ability for pure raw passion and, it seemed, anger. For many years even the most devoted progressive music fan was hard pressed to find new bands willing to be standard bearers for the music they loved. Progressive rock was almost destroyed by the simple and direct assault of Punk ! Almost !!! A few seeds remained that began to germinate in the late 1990’s.
In the past five to ten years the situation has changed with a host of new bands emerging that loosely fall under the banner of Progressive Rock thus reviving the genre and spreading its influence throughout the world. What had been a strangely English phenomenon for much of its history was taking root notably in Scandinavia and the former Eastern European countries as well as the USA to a smaller degree.
From diverse corners of the world bands have lovingly labored to produce a diverse catalogue with, it seems, something for just about everyone. The term ‘Prog’ has become a catch all casting doubt on what it means in today’s world. Descriptors such as Progressive metal, Symphonic Prog, Folk Prog and the Canterbury Sound vie with obviously main stream progressive music that clearly owes its existence to the great originators King Crimson, Yes, Genesis with Peter Gabriel, ELP, Camel, Van Der Graaf Generator and of course Pink Floyd.
The Waters Legacy
Leaving this often fervently argued debate aside there is a clear trend among today’s in progressive scene that pays direct homage to the big three as many see them……King Crimson, Yes and Pink Floyd. The latter, notably referencing what Roger Waters and David Gilmour brought to music, have figured regularly in both tribute band activity and the content of progressive rock albums over the last 15 years. Gilmour’s guitar style is much copied, but the pioneering compositional innovations and story telling techniques of Roger Water’s are strongly represented in many key releases.
Some bands quite unashamedly draw from the style and pace of Pink Floyd at their greatest. Chief among these has been the early work of Porcupine Tree. Stephen Wilson, who has become a latter day Waters of sorts, wrote a series of albums that carried the Floyd tradition forward in a new and exiting way. Suddenly it was cool again to like this wonderfully dramatic and mentally challenging music. Indeed much of the modern Progressive movement owes a debt to Wilson and his tireless work ethic. There was never a hint of plagiarism as Porcupine Tree were always their own band. This has been proven by their later output which itself has seen many imitators of late.
Despite the growing European interest in progressive rock, England undoubtedly still plays a major role in establishing the new wave of ‘proggers’ as they have become known. Though not strictly linked to Floyd in style English bands like Konchordat, Haken, Also Eden, Big Big Train and Karnakata have come to the forefront in recent years.
A Liverpool band, Anathema, morphed from doom laden death metal protagonists into an intropsective and emotional outfit that clearly owed more to Pink Floyd and Roger Waters than Opeth or Paradise Lost. The dreamy, pathos laden soundscapes they create are assuringly original but clearly ‘Floydian’ in style. This change in musical direction dismayed their early fans, but new followers must have been heartily assured that such wonderfully moving music was still possible amid increasingly cynical, product driven times.
Mostly Autumn, who hail from York, are undeniably interesting though they ply a more traditional rock furrow these days. Set against often strong Celtic tones, their guitarist has produced some truly staggering solo guitar playing that would not be out of place in The Wall. Add to this the work of seminal band Arena led by Clive Nolan whose songs are carried along by the technically astounding guitar work of John Mitchell and there is enough angst ridden, dramatic playing with heart rending climaxes to keep a nation of Floyd fans happy until they draw their final breath. The clear influence of The Wall on the writing of these bands proved that Waters in particular had not been forgotten. Now, with renewed interest in and the astounding success of ‘The Wall’ all over the world, it seems absurd to think that forgetting him might even be possible. Both Arena and Mostly Autumn carried Prog through the fallow 1990’s along with such stalwarts as Pendragon, IQ and the previously mentioned Porcupine Tree.
As previously mentioned, Scandinavia has seen tremendously creative artists issue some truly memorable albums in recent years. Carptree, owing more to Peter Hamill and VDGG than Floyd make ingeniously crafted records with some of the most superlative playing heard in recent years. The style owes a great deal to Sondheim in places but there is a clear debt to the narrative style that Waters pioneered in the Wall. Tortured central characters are brought to life through the music in a way that Waters could readily identify with. Each of their albums takes years to make, but when they emerge their dedicated followers treasure each one. They deserve greater exposure.
Sweden is the home of The Flower Kings another group of technically brilliant and prolific musicians. They guest on hundreds of other albums and even have a side project called Karmakanic which is the equal of Carptree in terms of quality. Their style is closer to classic Yes but they cannot be excluded from any discussion of what is going on in progressive music. This said, their classic track ‘Two Blocks from the Edge’ opens in proud Pink Floyd style. It must also be noted that the musicianship and production is everything you might expect from thoughtful, talented and supremely talented Scandinavians. This, of course, is where Pink Floyd and Waters in particular always scored highly……the tradition is thus continued.
In Norway Airbag has been creating waves and are soon to issue their third album. The first two are absolute modern day evocations of ‘Wish You Were Here’ period Pink Floyd. They are both moody, emotional and inspiring classics. There is little doubt that if David Gilmour heard them he would assert that he did not remember recording the solo’s on the albums so close are they to his style. This is not a criticism as the band retains an originality that begs subsequent listenings in a way that many less talented Floyd ‘clones’ do not. This is a truly talented outfit. They have drawn on Waters and Floyd to make new music that keeps the flame alive.
Moving on to Australia where Pink Floyd tribute bands seem to proliferate as rapidly as Kangaroos, there is one group, admittedly based on a Floyd tribute band, that leaves many listeners breathless when first encountering their music. Anubis released an album called ‘The Tower of Silence’ a couple of years ago. Many are attracted in true progressive style by the album art work. This is soon augmented by the quality of the music. The scale and pace of the songwriting clearly evokes influences from classic era Floyd notably in the guitar and keyboard work, though the start of the opening track is very reminiscent of King Crimson too.
Rarely do modern bands pull off the trick of carrying the listener along and then raising them up to a climax as does this band. There is no doubt that a strong Australian influence can be heard in the song structures of Anubis which is to be admired, but the imprint of Roger Waters is clear for all to hear notably in track six, ‘ And I Wait For My World To End’. Their third album due out in 2014 is eagerly anticipated. Although the musical business has undeniably changed with respect to the fortunes of bands such as Anubis there seems little doubt that with the right exposure this band could be huge. They are set to headline a major Progressive festival in Germany in May 2015. It would be a crime to miss them.
One aspect of Roger Waters work that will always be an essential element of great Progressive Rock is that of the narrative based around a central character. Waters tribute to Syd Barrett and the use of Pink’s rise and decline in The Wall as a vehicle for his ideas is a method that has taken firm root in many current offerings. Sean Filkins after he left Big Big Train came out with an album that certainly utilized this approach strongly.
Greater still is the work of Cosmograf, led by the multi talented Robin Armstrong. His album ‘When Age Has Done It’s Duty’ has all the introspection and deeply provoking thought you might expect from Waters at his best. The album takes us on a journey accompanied by music of the highest quality. Waters always seem to put great emphasis on the strength of composition and that message has been well and truly applied here. The songs and bridging passages are consistently enjoyable and worthy of repeated listening. These bands do not achieve the popularity of years past, but Cosmograf are capable of producing modern day classics.
All the hallmarks of classic Water’s are in place in the work of Robin Armstrong. The drama, angst and singular cries of the lonely or isolated man set against the insanity and indifference of the world loom large. Solo voice accompanied by sympathetic acoustic guitar, echo vocals and repeated phrases all vie to remind us of Waters, yet
they are woven into a new musical fabric that makes the listener take notice and listen closely. We reminisce. We applaud the artist for recalling his musical origins. Never once is it apparent that this approach is lacking in originality or derivative. The talent on display is of such a level that it avoids such flippant accusations. There are many examples of less talented bands who mercilessly plagiarize Floyd, Roger Waters and to an even greater extent early Genesis : they deserve no mention here.
Poland is making serious waves in the world of progressive music. Though bands like Riverside have established a distinctive Polish style others such as the Black Noodle Project have unequivocally set themselves up as modern day Floyd influenced artists. The imprint of Roger Waters is very clear on even a cursory listening to their most recent work. ‘Meddle’ comes to mind in many of their tracks.
English band Freedom To Glide have on their recent album ‘Rain’ produced an anti war epic that will be readily compared to The Wall in terms of its message and use of radio, dialogue and sound effects that compliment the music. The composition is smooth and excellently recorded. The playing is accomplished though it lacks the rousing peaks and troughs of The Wall. It is an altogether more sombre work with a superb central metaphor likening the fall of soldiers in war to the fall of rain. I have no doubt that Roger Waters would respect this sentiment as being truly iterative of all he feels about the waste and pointlessness of war and the arms race. It will, of course, never rival The Wall but ‘Rain’ is one of the clearest examples to date of how music can be used to rail against the pointlessness of most wars redolent as it is with Waters style pithy observation and fearless critique !
There is little doubt that progressive music is alive and well. This brief review merely touches the surface of all that is currently being recorded and released. There has been for the past three to four years a specialist publication called – wait for it – ‘Prog’, that is devoted to progressive rock. The magazine plays a central role in enabling those with a thirst for the music to keep on finding succor for their obsession. I will aim to update this part of my blog as more bands recalling the greatness of Waters and Gilmour are discovered.
Unquestionably one of the most critical influences on the musical rebirth of progressive rock music, notably with the more thoughtful works produced, is the work of Roger Waters. Echoes of innovation live on.