Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 3, No. 6, 2004

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Robert J. Lewis
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Emanuel Pordes
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Mady Bourdage
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Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein



Gu SaddyGuy Saddy’s writing has appeared in Equinox, Saturday Night, Elle (Canada), Jazziz, Flare, TV Guide, Chatelaine, among other publications. In the 1990s, he wrote a men's fashion column for the Vancouver Sun, was a Contributing Editor for TV Guide (Canada) and did a one-season stint as Producer on CTV’s Vicki Gabereau show. Currently, he writes regular columns for Elle (Canada), and Saturday Night.


In and around the lake
Mountains come out of the sky
And they stand there. . .
— from Roundabout (Fragile, 1972)

Er . . . yes. Or more accurately Yes, the band responsible for the above lyrical jewel, and for a oeuvre that can be charitably described as “over-the-top," less charitably as "self-indulgent crap." But back when purple microdot was a cultural touchstone, Yes and their Progressive Rock contemporaries -- Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, to name a few -- strode the earth like the dinosaurs to which they would inevitably be compared. Like those great beasts, their time was also cut short -- mercifully so if you, like most, soon grew tired of Mellotrons and Minimoogs, of caped keyboardists and their symphonic pretensions, of “concept albums” featuring obscure themes and 20-minute songs. Of excess masquerading as excellence.

By the end of the 1970s, “Prog" -- for simplicity's sake, let's call it the shotgun marriage of classical to rock -- seemed pretty much over, scrubbed from the charts by the rise of Punk and Disco, and by the Proggers themselves who, suicidally, continued to ratchet up their own bloat. In the end, Prog seemed fated to be remembered as a lesson in what can happen when musical expertise trumps artistic judgment. There would be no ironic renaissance. It was, music critics gleefully pronounced, a dead genre.

But wait. Yes has been touring again, filling auditoriums with fans drawn to the band's uniquely abstruse world view. Last December, Jethro Tull released a Christmas album and Rolling Stone magazine 'liked it.' In their January issue, Spin featured an essential Prog album list -- served straight-up, without the expected sneering, ironic chaser. Last season on Sex and the City, the highly fashionable Carrie Bradshaw was seen wearing a highly unfashionable Yes tee shirt! On a recent Saturday Night Live appearance, Jack Black did a prog sendup that was pure homage. In this strange, alternate universe, what was next? The redemption of Richard Nixon?

And yet was Prog really so bad? Much was, certainly, and its most egregious trespasses still provoke disbelief, if not cramps. (Frenetic flautists! Arthurian legends! Glockenspiels! Emerson, Lake & Palmer!) Some of it, however, was truly sublime. The ethereal beauty of Yes vocalist Jon Anderson's pipes at full throttle, an otherworldly timbre that inspires chills. Or the swirling, contrapuntal elegance that typified Genesis, before the departure of their brilliant front man, Peter Gabriel. Fans of the genre marveled at complex rhythms so tautly woven you hardly noticed the shifting beat, and at musical chops that, for the first time, put rock players on par with classical musicians and bebop jazzers. The lyrics? Well, Stravinsky wasn't Dylan, either.

Prog stretched the three chord boundaries of rock forever, and years after the genre flat lined, its echoes could still be heard in the works of anyone from Rush, Styx and Kansas, to Kate Bush, Tori Amos and, of course, Peter Gabriel. Lately, a new slate of bands have picked up the, um, Progressive lance. Today, contemporary Prog is championed by groups like Dream Theater, Sigur Rios, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Elbow, Spock's Beard, Mars Volta -- and, most conspicuously, Radiohead, whose recent Prog toe-dipping introduced a whole new Britpop demographic to the genre's pioneers. And to capes.

For some, these developments bode no joy. It's true the lesser entries in the Prog canon illustrate the fine line between “reaching” and “overreaching,” a line that, when crossed, rarely results in much good. But ultimately, the impulse that lies at Prog's polyrhythmic heart is what propels other impossibly ambitious endeavors: the soaring libretto, the Homeric journey, the erection of unthinkably tall buildings. By attempting epic works, we strive toreflect the epic nature of the human experience. And if Prog occasionally fell short, well, at times, so do we all.

A bit over-the-top, I suppose. But so was Prog. At its best, however, it had the power to inspire awe. Still does. Mountains come out of the sky. And they stand there.

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