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Prog From A(sia) to Z(evious)

by Michael Popke — If you frequent online progressive-rock communities, you’ve no doubt seen the question “What is prog?” posted countless times. ...

by Michael Popke

If you frequent online progressive-rock communities, you’ve no doubt seen the question “What is prog?” posted countless times. The responses typically range from the overly intellectual to the downright offensive. So it is with extreme humbleness that I suggest there really is no “right” or “wrong” answer. We like progressive music because it affects us in ways far deeper than practically any other genre (save, perhaps, classical). It can incite an abundance of emotions, including passion, fear, joy, sadness and violence – sometimes all in the same song. It forces us to move beyond the mainstream and actually think about what we’re hearing. At its core, “prog” means whatever we want it to mean.

When I was young, my dad would sit with me in my bedroom and listen to selections from my latest album purchases (usually by such artists as Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Loverboy). But among the last titles I remember us sharing together was Asia’s self-titled 1982 debut. I was 14 years old.

While Asia’s epic synthesizers, grandiose orchestration and Roger Dean artwork may seem hopelessly dated now, it remains a classic album that – despite that dragon on the cover – brought the pretentiousness of Seventies progressive rock to a mainstream audience with a combination of accessible melodies and often-lofty lyrics. Today, Asia isn’t even considered prog in some circles. But for me, it was my introduction to an expansive world of music, one in which long songs about the apocalypse were not only permitted but encouraged. So long, Loverboy.

Prog enthusiasts can argue the merits of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Marillion, Gentle Giant, Kansas and Camel for years – and they have. Throw some metal into the mix (Queensryche, Dream Theater, Rush and Iron Maiden), and you’ll incite some real heated debate. Queensryche’s lead vocalist Geoff Tate, during an interview with me several years ago, refused to acknowledge that his band played “progressive” music — even though renowned music journalist Paul Gargano wrote that Queensryche defined “the parameters of progressive rock for mainstream America” in the liner notes to the then-new Live Evolution album.

But if these bands and all of their descendants – Spock’s Beard, RPWL, Pain of Salvation, Opeth, Magic Pie, DeeExpus, Ayreon, Porcupine Tree, Riverside, Symphony X and even Phish and Umphrey’s McGee among them – introduce new ways for us to hear music and provide enjoyment long after we think we’ve heard it all, then we certainly can call them “progressive.” They are advancing our understanding and appreciation of their art.

One of my most recent prog discoveries is Zevious, an aggressive New York City-based instrumental trio that tears a huge hole in the logic of labeling genres. On the band’s 2009 CD, After the Air Raid, Zevious takes influences from contemporary jazz artists like Vijay Iyer, the polymetric metal of Meshuggah, the vintage fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the avant-garde attitude of Magma. Challenging and not always easy to listen to, After the Air Raid defines adventurous music.

I’ve been in relentless pursuit of the adventure since I dropped the needle on side one of that first Asia record almost 30 years ago.