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!

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