Welcome kids, to the first installment of a series of blowhard music articles from a man who knows much more than you, but much less than, lets say, Jesus Christ. The following is in two parts and discusses a totally awesome genre of music oft overlooked. It'll blow your freakin' mind, man. “Progressive” music has always been something of a black sheep in the rock ‘n’ roll community. It has been a label plastered on most bands with a penchant for long, sweeping tracks and using non-traditional instrumentation (as far as our ubiquitous rock community is concerned). The truth is this title, this lazy label construed by lazy writers, is meaningless. The label, like any other is confining, and lends itself to a certain myopia; who in their right mind would lump together Pink Floyd and The Moody Blues in the same category?
The very nature of music demands change, evolution, and in the process many bands are swept away never to be heard again, or sidelined as obscure one-hit wonders (Procol Harum, anyone?), while others sire vastly rich and memorable songs that will in turn inspire a new breed of artist. What is an artist if they are not evolving, changing, experimenting? “Progressive” is unfair. At the very least, it is often misapplied if not outright wrong. Early “Progressive” rock bands, such as The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and Yes were certainly at the forefront of experimentation and creativity in rock, but they were no more progressive than most other bands at that time. The song structure of many of the songs in many of their albums maintained a uniquely rock/blues structure, albeit undertaken under different avenues.
Their albums were often created as a single piece of work, the songs flowing into one another to create a larger work; the albums were statements as a whole, and more than the sum of their parts.
However thematic they might have been, and they certainly were that (thank you, Robert Fripp, we’re all holding our breath for when you find that lost chord; fourteenth times a charm!), this was nothing new, much less unique. Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Clash, The Red Hot Chili Peppers all have to their credit at least one such album. To call any of these bands “progressive” would quickly induce conniptions in any and all music nerds within earshot. It cannot be denied however that these early “progressive” acts have a common thread that binds them. These bands were nothing if not intrepid, self-indulgent, creative groups, often the vehicle for the vision of a single madman (see Roger Waters), and there has certainly been no shortage of these groups in the proceeding years.
Enter the progenitors of our new punk. It has been said that the great revolutionaries are still yet to come. While we wait patiently for the coming of Christ, a new crop of experimentalists has emerged onto the music scene in recent years. What will follow will be a brief flight through the soundscapes, the hearts, the imaginations - and utter self-indulgence in some cases - of this new ilk. We have seen nothing of their like before; this ain’t your daddies rock ‘n’ roll. This is more. This is an amalgamation of statements from nameless bards of a nameless all-too-cynical generation. This is triumphant, evocative, frenetic, sweeping, elegant, and often sad music. This has no place or time, and it doesn’t even belong to the artists.
This is your rock ‘n’ roll.
Punk Kids And Their Music…
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Mars Volta, Explosions In the Sky. Chances are you’ve heard of one of these. Each of them has a style and sound indescribable. You have heard nothing of their like. They are thick and heady. They are fibrous and difficult to digest. These bands are neither for the impatient nor for the faint of heart. They are uncommonly unique yet bound by discernible traits. They defy the current tenets of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Make no mistake; these are rock bands. They smash the alter of rock leaving no sacrifice and are utterly unapologetic about their self-indulgence. And most certainly they are self-indulgent if not outright purists and egotists. Their very music is heresy nailed at the door of modern rock as we know it. It is what punk might have been had it been approached by more self-aware, pretentious, and articulate men.
What exactly about these bands, what about their music makes them so unique? This is a fair question and will become all the more poignant as time passes. These bands have a variety of things in common. To begin with, all these bands have an unflinching commitment to creativity, even (or especially, in some cases) at the expense of accessibility.
Let’s start off with one of the least accessible and most esoteric groups, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Their second album "F#A# Infinity," which includes three tracks spanning 15-30 minutes each, is by no means a singles record with some fluff and filler. Every note, section, rhythm, and instrument is played and placed deliberately. These are not mere songs. No, no no. This band is unique in its approach to rock ‘n’ roll in that they have created an amalgam of music which reconciles the fiery, untamed, boisterous heart of rock with the contained evocative grace and elegance of an orchestra or symphony. These are stories, entire pieces, worlds that are created that cannot be described by a few pulsing hooks, tribal drums and snarling voice and swagger that rock seems to exemplify. The structure of these songs is very much symphonic, employing a variety of instruments, spanning from electric guitars to glockenspiels. They are concerned with painting a mood, a soundscape, rather than expressing or endorsing some childish sense of fun, recklessness or loathing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.
The beauty of this band is their ability to reconcile order with chaos, a concept so profoundly abstract, only the gods could possibly be bored with it.
In their music you will hear bombs falling, glass bottles breaking at a punk concert, people shuffling through crowded terminals at train stations or airports, the sound of a man’s heart breaking all over again at the recollection of a painful memory. You will hear the monotony and redundancy of modern life. You will hear your heart beating at an unfamiliar pace. You won’t be able to hear yourself think.
The climax of the album is actually right in the middle of the album. Like so many of our lives, the climax is never near or at the end. It is a peak we see in retrospect as we turn back to gaze at the mountain that was our lives. It is such with this album. And this is only their second album. Their fourth release is perhaps the climax thus far in their careers. "Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven" spans four tracks, each ranging from 18-25 minutes. This is a remarkable album and illustrates perfectly the evolution of the band, and the direction of Instrumental Rock in general. That being said, this album is a very difficult listen. The entire album is an amalgam between beautiful arrangement and orchestration, and ambient noise, or sometimes just noise or sometimes no noise at all. The first time I heard this record I couldn’t even finish it. I lost patience with it after the first track. This can pretty much be said about a lot of Instrumental Rock. Immediately, a lot of it seems dull, repetitive and boring. A lot of it wallows, quite literally wallows, in masturbatory repetitive arrangement. This is what you might notice immediately about “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven”. What you fail to notice is that the ambiance, noise and silence are the vox in the tracks. The same criticisms were made of several proto punk groups such as The Stooges (who I am reluctant to call punk since they were punk before punk was even invented, before they themselves knew it), MC5, The Jam, etc. The difference between GY!BE and these bands is that GY!BE know what they’re doing with their instruments. They don’t suffer from a typical malady in rock ‘n’ roll in which large ambitious ideas are mutilated by being crushed into and spat out by a small misguided mind. The tracks are open ended, have no conscious message and are simply a beautifully-precise example of free association.
Ultimately, the strength of this band lies in its ability to meld bombastic, pretentious orchestration with unintelligible noise to create something much more than the sum of its parts.
There are other bands that are less deliberate than GY!BE. In the second installment of this article, I will discuss them and why they rock as well. Tune in next week kids!
*Note*: As an update to this article, you can read the second part by clicking here.