Thursday, January 17, 2013

Why I Believe 2011, not 1972, is "The Year of Prog"

The artists composing, recording, and performing in 1970, 1971, and 1972 were thinking outside the box, blazing trails into heretofore unexplored territories. Their album-oriented rock and roll--often called "art rock"--has been tagged by history as "progressive rock," it's artists and followers as "proggers." In actual fact, there were not very many of these progressive rock artists--though many bands and artists went through exploratory phases of creativity into experimental, 'boundary-testing' periods of what has been retroactively labelled as "progressive." Still, most of these bands kept morphing, kept evolving; most of these artists even left behind the 'progressive' scene. Some thought they had played themselves out creatively, others thought that the era itself had played itself out. Still others found other musical and creative pursuits to be more attractive--like the radio-friendly popular music scene in which they might do better at making money. (No one has ever accused progressive rock artists as being in it for the money.) Many went on to record pop hits while others chose to explore the soft "smooth" or "adult" jazz, "New Age," or soundtrack music mediums. Others went to the production or A&R side of the business. Very few persevered through what I call the "Dark Ages" of progressive rock (which I argue was never as 'dark' as people wish to believe it was), 1977-1989.

When I go back to lists of albums released in those three years that most music historians and prog lovers consider the peak of the "classic" era of progressive rock, to the few artists producing those albums, to the way that these albums 'stand up' over time, and even take into consideration how well their music was received (both critically and economically) back then, I laud them for their creativity, for their bravery, and for their contributions to music development and history. BUT it is my opinion that the genre(s) they created had only begun to be explored and developed. The oppositional "Punk" 'movement' seemed to have made its mark, done its damage, and left a void for the flood of electronic/technological experimentations that soothed the record executives' and producers' ears (and pocket books) in the 1980s (and, by default, the listeners, too). It is no accident that short, commercial/advertisement-like ditties won the day--especially where radio and the latest-greatest entertainment medium, tele-video play was concerned. (But, then, Why is it that the most popular MTV video of all-time is still, I believe, the 'mini-movie' "Thriller"--all 14 minutes of it?)  

I wonder what kind of music will be carried forward into posterity--say 200 years from now (should we be able to escape our seemingly imminent extinction). Will the enduring repertoire of music cherished by our descendants seven generations down the road be the pre-jazz/big band era compositions of the 'great "classical" composers? Or will it be the copious and endless stream of pop ditties from the 40s through the Naughties? Maybe it will be the traditional folk songs? Christmas carols? Religious song? Nursery rhymes?

For some reason, the artists who were trying to synthesize constructs and themes from both old and new jazz, classical, folk, and even pop traditions while experimenting with the rapidly developing/changing advances in electronic technologies (instrumentation, sound effects, recording techniques and possibilities) are looked at with some disdain and disregard from contemporary and current musicologists. Their medium is regarded more as experiments in performance art, in theatrics, than as advances in music.

As a listener who has invested a lot of time (and money) exploring all available music traditions, I must say that I have to disagree. Though I have this aching pang of remorse/regret/ with regards to the fact that as a long term sustainable music form progressive rock may be limited or even doomed (think "post-petroleum: a world without electricity"), I believe that the 'progressive rock' music genre has produced some of mankind's shining moments of art--and that it continues to do so as the torch seems to have been picked up again. As a matter of fact, it is my opinion that it is now shining brighter than ever.
     No, prog rock albums are not dominating record charts or sales as they once did in the 1970s, but interest is back and the number of new compositions and new groups are growing yearly. And the quality of music being produced in this renaissance is astounding and, very obviously, inspiring.

Below I offer a 'chart' in which I tally the 'high quality' (as defined by reviewers) albums released from the "classic" period of progressive rock in the early 1970s in comparison to those of the last few years (part of what I call the new "Golden Age" of prog). As sources I use ratings averages from ProgArchives, internationally the most comprehensive, actively-visited Internet site focused on progressive rock information in the world (thanks Max!), and my own.

1970, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 5 "masterpieces" and 7 four star albums; (4)
1971, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 9 "masterpieces" and 12 four star albums; (1)
1972, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 12 "masterpieces and 11 four star albums; (5)
1973, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 12 "masterpieces" and 13 four star albums; (4)
1974, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 11 "masterpieces" and 14 four star albums; (5)
1975, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 11 "masterpieces" and 15 four star albums; (2)
2008, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 9 "masterpieces" and 35 four star albums; (2)
2009, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 9 "masterpieces" and 28 four star albums; (1)
2010, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 1 "masterpiece" and 24 four star albums; (0)
2011, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 5 "masterpieces" and 36 four star albums; (1)
(2012, according to ProgArchives reviewers, yielded 7 "masterpieces" and 47 four star albums. (4))

1970, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 7 "masterpieces" and 9 four star albums; 
1971, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 2 "masterpieces" and 18 four star albums; 
1972, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 7 "masterpieces" and  19 four star albums; 
1973, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 4 "masterpieces" and 16 four star albums; 
1974, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 6 "masterpieces" and 14 four star albums; 
1975, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 8 "masterpieces" and 19 four star albums; 
2008, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 6 "masterpieces" and 14 four star albums; 
2009, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 2 "masterpieces" and 18 four star albums;
2010, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 5 "masterpieces" and 34 four star albums;
2011, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 10 "masterpieces" and 25 four star albums. 
(2012, according to Drew Fisher, yielded 9 "masterpieces" and 21 four star albums.)

Volume of quality.

    1972--the year many 'experts' call the Greatest Year of Prog--only sports 56 albums on the ProgArchives' list. Of those 56 only the top 35 would even achieve a ranking among the 2011 list of 100, and only 30 achieve the vaunted rating of 4 stars for "excellence." That's right:  The top 12 from 1972, each with hundreds of ratings behind them, rate high enough to settle into the all-time Top 250 while only 5 do so from 2011. But, again, I am commenting more on the volume of quality albums produced from each year, not on how innovative or how great is that album's following over time. If one were to compare the second tier of rated albums--those right around four stars (4.11 to 3.89), you'd get a better sample indicative of the top-to-bottom quality representative of each year.
     2007 and 2008 saw a big jump in high quality "prog" albums being produced with 10 great albums from each year. 2009 and 2010 both produced 15 excellent albums. But 2011 produced an amazing group of 15 innovative, near masterpieces of progressive music plus another 24 significant albums that I recommend listeners try for themselves. That's 40 very highly regarded, critically well-received albums! In one year! And this from an output of hundreds of albums. I guess, according to my personal perspective, a case could be made for 2010 to be labeled The Year of Prog (39 classics compared to 35 for 2011). But it's the ten "masterpieces" that cause me to give the nod to 2011. (Interestingly, the PA reviewers' picks for "masterpieces" only match up with my own choices for "masterpieces" 30% of the time.)

Plus, thanks to the World Wide Web, the music of all countries of the world being released in the 21st Century is so much more visible and accessible to everyone and anyone. As a matter of fact, were it not for the international  community tracking and reviewing progressive rock music, I would not know about 60% of the "Classics" from the 70s! I missed them when they were originally released despite the fact that this was my music of choice at that time!

Evenso, my point here is to drive home THE FACT:  Prog Is Alive and Well in the 21st Century!

The 21st Century: The New "Golden Age" of Prog?

History has pretty well concluded that the "Classic Era" of Progressive Rock music was the years 1967 through 1975 or 1976. The "Dark Ages" (though not-so-very dark, IMHO [see my blogpost from November 2012, "The 80s: The Prog Dark Ages?") which followed were from 1976 through about 1988. Many critics and listeners have begun to recognize that a veritable Prog "Renaissance" began in somewhere in the 1989-92 period. I will now argue that since the Renaissance forged a strong foundation for new progressive rock artists to thrive and succeed, a new "Golden Age" of progressive rock has ensued.
     Since about the year 2001, a new generation of progressive rock artists has arisen. From Scandanavia--one of the hotbeds of new prog--we have Taylor's Universe, Paatos, Kamelot, Nightwish, 5Briodges, Flamborough Head, Kayak, Mindgames, After Forever, Sun Caged,  Within Temptation, Pain of Salvation, Opeth, Beardfish, Enslaved, Moon Safari, Gazpacho, Gösta Bërlings Saga, Mind's Eye, Ritual, Leprous, Green Carnation, Seventh Wonder, Cult of Luna, Karmakanik, Motorpsycho, Pagan's Mind, Von Hetzen Brothers, Mew, Arcturus, A.C.T., Simon Says, Introitus, Airbag, My Brother the Wind, Ihsahn, Wobbler, Lalle Larsson, Grand Stand, Agents of Mercy, Beyond Twilight, Anekdoten, Hidria Spacefolk, Ulver, Sigur Rós, First Band from Outer Space, Black Bonzo, Diablo Swing Orchestra, White Willow, Therion, Samuel Jackson Five, Magic Pie, Thomas Bodin, Wolverine, Ageness.  From the Low Countries we have Ayreon and the other projects of Arjen Lucassen, Life Line Project, Hypnos 69, The Gathering, Sky Architect, Trion, Quantum Fantay, Odyssice, Exivious, Leap Day, Battlestations, Silhouette, Knight Area, Epica, Aranis,  From France we have Nemo, Minimum Vital, XII Alfonso, Fen, Jean Louis, One Shot, Nil, Gojira, Seven Rheizh, NeBeLeST, Taal, Adagio, Setna, Thork, Delusioin Squared, Death Spell Omega, Silver Lining, Lazuli, Syrinx, Skeem Zaar, Xing Sa, The Black Noodle Project, Progression by Failure, Alcest and Camembert. From Germany we have Sylvan, Frequency Drift, RPWL, Blind Guardian, Vanden Plas, Disillusion, T, Shamall, Panzerballet, Subsignal, Seiges Even, Long Distance Calling, Samsara Blues Experiment, Electric Orange, Martigan, Effloresce, The Ocean, Argos, 7 for 4, Lacrimosa, and Everon. From Poland we have Riverside, Lunatic Soul, Satellite, Mr. Gil, Believe, Quidam, Lebowski, Indukti, Pinkroom, Millenium, Votum, Osada Vida,  and Retrospective. From Eastern Europe, Russia and other former states of the Soviet Union we have Gourishankar, Vespero, From.UZ, Negura Bunget, iamthemorning, Rational Diet, Thy Catafalque, Little Tragedies, Sunchild and Karfagen and other projects by Antony Kalugen. From The Middle East, Africa and the Occident we have Orphaned Land, Distorted Harmony, Mytrath, Sanhedrin, Siddhartha, Soul Enima, Nemrud, Trespass, and Ephrat. From Latin America we have Nexus, Tempano, Aisles, Factor Burzaco, Cabezas de Cera, Anima Mundi, Calez, Pez, Cartoon, Agora, Seti, Mar de Robles, Mindflow, Cast, Seven-Sided Diamond, Violeta de Outono, Alas, Akinetón Retard, Jaime Rosas, Abrete Gandul, and, of course, Omar Rodriguez-Lopéz. From Canada and the United States we have Discipline, Toby Driver and his projects, maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot, The Mars Volta, Phideaux, Dan Britten projects like Cerebus Effect, Birds and Buildings, Deluge Grander, and All Over Everywhere, Devin Townsend, Tool and other Maynard James Keenan projects, Spock's Beard and Neal Morse, UneXpect, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Russian Circles, Shadow Gallery, Death, Neurosis, The Decemberists, Agolloch, Isis, Miriodor, Dredg, Dean Watson, Stephen Desbiens, Mastodon, MiRthKon, The Tea Club, Mystery, The Dear Hunter, Shadow Circus, Astra, Shaolin Death Squad, Cirrus Bay, Oblivion Sun, Symphony X, Ephemeral Sun, Grails, Greylevel, Planet X, District 97, The Box, 3rd Degree, OSI, Rishloo, I and Thou, and a whole bunch of Post Rock/Math Rock bands. From the United Kingdom we have Steven Wilson and his projects Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, and No-Man, Big Big Train, Arena, Haken, Anathema, Diagonal, DeeExpus, Magenta, Nine Stones Close, Riversea, Transatlantic, Galahad, Mostly Autumn, Iona, The Future Kings of England, Abel Ganz, Oceansize, Amplifier, To-Mera, Guapo, Manning, Credo, North Sea Radio Orchestra, Bark Psychosis, 65daysofstatic, IOEarth, Comedy of Errors, Headspace, Mogwai, Autumn Chorus, Crippled Black Phoenix, It Bites, Pineapple Thief, Thieves' Kitchen, Radiohead, Frost*, Touchstone, Sean Filkins, Cosmograf, The Lens, Willowglass, Tinyfish, and many many others.

This new wave of prog has inspired many of the older artists from the Classic Era to return to the format. Some have returned to or reformed old bands that they had left (Magma, PFM, New Trolls, Alphataurus, Van Der Graaf Generator, Nektar, Renaissance, The Enid, Rush, and Anglagard [sort of]) or in new combinations with other band mates of similar ages. (Levin/Torn/White, Brian Eno, King Crimson, Steve Hackett, Keith Emerson, etc.)

The lists of active prog bands provided here on this page are enough to give more convincing weight to the fact of a prog Renaissance, but the claim as to this being a new "Golden Age" can only be verified by the reception this new music is receiving--the reviews and ratings. Were one to do a statistical comparison, I think it would be shown that the Naughties provided far more critically acclaimed music (certainly in quantity) than the (early) Seventies did.

Hail! to the new Golden Age!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Internal Struggles: The Search for the "Album of the Year"

"Album of the Year."

I'm not sure if this is really a necessity. Perhaps for a chronic list-maker like me, it is.

"Album of the Year."

 I look at my past choices and can't help but question several of them.

2000 -- Open Sky -- Iona
2001 -- Leaving Your Body Map -- maudlin of the Well
2002 -- Timeloss -- Päatos
2003 -- Choirs of the Eye -- Kayo Dot
2004 -- Code Name: Dust Sucker -- Bark Psychosis
2005 -- Odyssey: The Greatest Tale
2006 -- Omphalos -- Kotebel
2007 -- Shadows of the Sun -- Ulver
2008 -- LightDark -- NoSound
2009 -- Part the Second -- maudlin of the Well
2010 -- A Rare Moment of Insight -- Brother Ape
2011 -- The Dream of the Magic Jongleur -- The Psychedelic Ensemble/Gentle Stream -- The Amazing

Am I rating the "best" or my favorite--which are often two very different things. The former is a more objective and, hopefully, more intellectual and educated choice while the latter is a matter of emotional attachment.

Last year, 2011, was the first in which my choice for 'best' and 'favorite' differed. I recognize The Dream of the Magic Jongleur as the most astounding accomplishment of musical production from the year but my heart very strongly lies with the magic of an album which I know to be flawed and perhaps less than a 'masterpiece,' The Amazing's Gentle Stream.

Part of me thinks I should just concentrate on raising consciousness about the great music being produced in the 21st Century, forget about rankings; part of me needs that clarity of hierarchical delineation.

This year there are a bunch of albums vying for the hallowed designation of "Album of the Year." As yet there is no clear runaway "best" or "favorite." Just 14 great albums each deserving of recognition and increased public awareness.

The Seer by Swans
Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble by Kotebel
Felicité Thosz by Magma
~ by iamthemorning
Dodecahedron by Daal
English Electric, Part 1 by Big Big Train
Viljans Ôga by Anglagard
The Death Defying Unicorn by Motorpsycho
Quickly, Quickly, Quickly by The Tea Club
Selenelion by Vaura
Talsete di Marsantino by L'Estate di San Martino
The Fall of Bliss by Methexis
Eye on the Sunrise by Nine Stones Close
In a Cold Embrace by Battlestations

I guess I've got to just keep listening to them, keep paring down my ratings and my gut reactions. And one mustn't forget the albums for 2012 that I haven't even heard yet--the few that always seem to make their way to public ear after the year has ended.