It’s kind of funny that I have any affection at all for prog rock. Before high school I was all about thrash and heavy metal and high school introduced me to skateboards, The Ramones and The Misfits and seeing as how punk rock was a backlash against excessive, wanky rock and roll in the 70’s, as well as disco, you’d think that I’d make it my life’s mission to avoid the chief of the wanky rock and roll tribe, Progressive Rock, at all costs. I’ve backtracked on a lot of my early opinions of music in a big way and in this internet-age singularity of all music being available at all times for little or no cost depending on your ethical standards, I’ve managed to go back and explore certain genres and subgenres out of sheer boredom only to find that Mikey likes them. I’m hypocritical that way, baby! One of the most surprising discoveries to me was that my flirtations with prog, they being a long-held appreciation for the music of Rush, were only the tip of the iceberg and I actually really like a lot of this stuff. So with this article kicking off 2011, a year that I threatened to tear a new asshole, I’m kicking shit off with something unusual; something off-beat and a little weird. You’re going to have to stick with me because believe it or not. Progressive rock and horror have an awful lot in common.
What the fuck is Progressive Rock?
Glad you asked. Of all the music out there, it’s easily the most asexual of the bunch. Where Guns ‘n’ Roses, Ted Nugent or Led Zeppelin will most likely make you horny as hell. Yes, Genesis and King Crimson will most likely cure that urge to have sex better than a cold shower. The growing availability of analog synthesizers in the late 60’s and a greater proliferation of organs and keys in rock music opened a door in the genre to bring in all these mostly-British musicians who saw fit to incorporate greater complexities into their music. Classically trained pianists and jazz guitarists started hanging out in rock clubs and weaving the scales and time signatures of classical and jazz into distorted psychedelic rock and what came of it was a series of exceptionally pretentious but ambitious and previously unheard of experimentations in a genre of music that didn’t know what to do with itself in the wake of the Beatles breakup. In its most fundamental form, progressive rock is rock and roll music with heavy influences stemming from classical music, world music and jazz. Strange time signatures abound. Excessively long solos stretch already bloated playing times out to the breaking point. Most importantly, though, any prog band worth its salt is going to, at some point in their career, write a series of songs about mankind’s struggle to dethrone its robot overlords in the year 2000. Maybe the themes of a bunch of songs were inspired by sound effects from Godzilla movies. No matter what the band, though, every single one of them has written a concept album (exaggerating) about something genre-releated and that’s why this column fits this site.
Keith Emerson of the seminal prog group, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, had a flair for the theatrical in the early 70’s and at a performance in Rome around that time, legendary horror director, Dario Argento was on-hand to watch Emerson in the throes of a psychedelic jam session, stab his keyboards with knives he had tucked into his belt at the climax of the jam. This simple act inspired Argento to take an unorthodox route while scoring his film Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) not with the creepy string arrangements of Ennio Morricone but with the help of an Italian progressive rock band then known as The Cherry 5. In keeping with the subject matter, the band changed its name to Goblin and a seriously nerdy horror-fanboy obsession was launched. Claudio Simonetti and his band would set the pace for horror soundtracks in Italy in the 70’s until the band broke up amid a torrent of mutual acrimony, leaving Simonetti alone to score Tenebrae while tinkering with disco music conventions. The stage was set, though, and Argento’s catharsis at the sight of Emerson’s violent end to a probably very long jam session built a bridge between progressive rock and the genre that had actually been there all along.
So check this out. Here’s a sampling of prog rock and its many foolish, expertly executed songs and concept albums relevant to horror, science fiction and fantasy. There’s more of it than you might think.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Karn Evil 9
from Brain Salad Surgery
If you had to pick the album by ELP that really captures the band’s essence, it’s Brain Salad Surgery. The whole thing is a little silly but it features a track called Tocatta that uses synthesizer sounds intended to sound like Godzilla. This sort of explains it use by Boston’s WLVI in the 80’s in its bumper for their Saturday afternoon Creature Double Feature. The centerpiece of the entire album, however, is a 30 minute jam called Karn Evil 9, which has since been broken down into pieces and repackaged for rock radio. Come inside, the show’s about to start/Guaranteed to blow your head apart. You’ve probably heard this song if you spent any time at all on any given classic rock radio station. The lyrical themes explore a world in the future where mankind’s decadence of the past is gone from the Earth but put on display in a sort of freak show for everyone’s entertainment. You can see things like “a real blade of grass” and something to the effect of “7 virgins and a mule”. Toward the end of the movement mankind winds up doing battle against computers and robots and winds up triumphing as explained by some of the corniest lyrics ever but it’s great and one of the many reasons to love progressive rock. It’s complicated, super-melodic and hypnotic in parts and the climax of the whole thing is hilarious. It also has a sick die-cut cover by H.R. Giger.
Fans of movie music, particularly horror movie music, are familiar with Goblin. There is very little out there in the world that sounds like them and everyone has their favorite album. Their music for Argento was purely instrumental, though. If you want to hear what they sounded like before they were writing deeply phantasmagoric rock music, you can find a couple of their albums here and there under the name The Cherry 5. Deep Red propelled them into the Italian public consciousness in the 70’s and my personal favorite is easily Suspiria. Every track is rhythmic and spooky. There’s a hypnotic quality and a genuine tension to the music that perfectly communicates what was happening in the movie. Deep Red was an interesting experiment in what a movie score could sound like, Suspiria, to me, was the perfection of the craft. They never again reached this height even though they came close with many of the tracks from Dawn of the Dead. Every track, particularly the title track on Suspiria was gold.
Make no mistake. This is the one. 2112 by Rush, released in 1976, tells the story of mankind in a distant future where war has reduced the planet to ash and the survivors have managed to make it by submitting to an oppressive ruling body that has gone to great lengths to remove all the stuff from history and man’s memory that they felt led to near-total global destruction. This includes art and music. Everyone just sort of goes about their business and works. When one such survivor combs through the wreckage of our old civilization, he comes upon a guitar and the sounds that it makes are like nothing he ever heard before. He makes rudimentary music with it and it fills him with a joy he’s never felt. He’s compelled to show it to the Priests of the Temple of Syrinx, who pretty much run the show and they immediately reject the guitar and demand that it be destroyed as it’s a piece of the world that led to doomsday. The guy who found it, utterly depressed that this amazing instrument is to be trashed, kills himself and in the final moments of the overture, a voice announces to everyone in the solar federation that “we have assumed control”. It kicks ass. The rest of the album is about smoking pot and The Twilight Zone. The band’s drummer, percussion legend, Neil Peart, wrote a lot of Rush’s lyrics and most of the time he was writing about sci-fi. 2112 owes a debt to Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem and George Orwell’s 1984.
Killroy Was Here
On the other hand, there was the similarly themed Killroy Was Here by Styx. You could argue for days about the validity of Styx as a progressive rock band since they had more in common with typical examples of album oriented rock at the time but the experimental edge was there. So was Dennis DeYoung’s trademark romance for cheese and theatricality and a shitload of keyboards. It was also 1983 and most of the prog bands had run out of gas of mainstreamed in order to chart and sell records. Even Yes, by this point, was trying to hit the dance charts. The previous album, Paradise Theater, was also a concept album and the ensuing tour reflected themes from the music but Killroy Was Here was practically a movie unto itself. Set in a future where rock music is outlawed by a fascist government, Killroy (DeYoung) is an imprisoned rocker who stages a daring escape when he finds out that another rocker, Jonathan Chance (Tommy Shaw) is on a mission to rally the underground and bring rock back. It’s about as goofy as it sounds and DeYoung’s love for the subject matter, paired with his soaring vocal range and the legacy burn of Come Sail Away still stinging people’s brains, the end result wasn’t terribly good. The album spawned the hit Mr. Roboto (Domo) but the band had pretty much had it with DeYoung and wanted to get on with being a rock band. A couple of years later, Motley Crue would eat up the charts and cock rock drove what we now call classic rock to extinction. Styx and all.
The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
The band Yes was sort of the foundation of progressive rock. Plenty of psychedelic bands were already leaning in this direction in 1969 and psych, itself, began to evolve. Many members of Yes would go on to form other prog bands that were even more self-indulgent and excessive than Yes ever thought of being. Yes’ second keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, would come to embody that prog rock spirit and no album of his expressed his desire and sense of self-importance more than King Arthur. Even the fucking title is excessive! It’s a suitably epic retelling of the age-old legends of King Arthur and his knights as the title suggests. It’s silly and exceptionally produced and just when you think it couldn’t possibly be any more ridiculous, three sold-out performances at Wmbley Stadium were performed on ice. Oh yes. You read that shit right. Men and women on skates. Pageantry. Fake horses, shitty sword fights and synthesizers stacked to the fucking rafters. The performances were prohibitively expensive, though, and even though the shows were sold out, they canceled the tour after only the initial three shows. There’s speculation that all profits from the album were sunk into this endeavor and that it ran out of money but Wakeman disputes this claim, offering no alternative in its place. I can laugh all I like, though. This album was a huge success and the BBC still uses the theme Arthur, in its broadcasts. Performing in chainmail and a cape has its advantages, I guess.
The legacy persists, too. Progressive rock, like many corners of rock music forgotten in the United States or dismissed as niche genres grew like weeds in Europe and bands out of Italy and Scandinavia carried the torch. A Belgian art-rock movement evolved from prog called Rock In Opposition and out of that came Univers Zero, whose compelling compositions sounded more like the scores from horror movies where the killer stalks his prey. They even wrote a killer track, inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft called The Music of Erich Zann.
Even today, young musicians with a huge catalog of music play music inspired by the greats of the genre. Pittsburg, Pennsylvania duo, Zombi, tend to tailor each of their releases to sound like a particular artist. Sometimes sounding like Goblin, their latest album, Spirit Animal, actually sounds like the best music produced by Greek prog legend, Vangelis.