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Prog-versation: To Prog or not to Prog?

A look at recent releases from D'Virgilio, Morse & Jennings, Coldplay, Tears For Fears, and Empire Springs, examining just how "prog" they actually are

By Howard Whitman

What is prog, anyway? There are certainly key elements characteristic of classic progressive rock—complex time signatures, fantasy/sci-fi-inspired lyrics, and instrumental virtuosity come to mind (along with those cool album covers painted by Roger Dean).

But prog as a genre is much more varied than such narrow definitions. Jethro Tull, with its folky tendencies and prominent flute, is considered prog, but so are the melodic, pristine sounds of prime Supertramp. The soft-rock of the Alan Parsons Project is labeled prog. So is the early work of Ambrosia, the guys who practically defined yacht rock with hits like “How Much I Feel.” King’s X, a trio known for its blend of guitar pyrotechnics, funky grooves and Beatlesque harmonies, was supposed to play the RoSfest prog-rock festival this year (until guitarist Ty Tabor broke his finger). Even Steven Wilson has stirred up controversy with his most recent solo work, which has veered into techno/pop territory and therefore been the source of plentiful online complaints about not being prog enough.

In short, there is a wide range of music that is considered progressive.

There are many recent releases that one could easily assume are progressive rock, sometimes due to the people involved, and in other cases due to hype. But are they truly prog? The following mini-reviews of some of these releases discuss why they could be considered prog, but then evaluate how they actually rate for progginess on the “prog-o-meter.” Let’s delve!

Troika

Troika, the debut from D’Virgilio, Morse & Jennings definitely falls into the category of “Geez, with those guys doing it, this must be proggy prog prog!” It’s easy to expect the debut album from a new trio that reunites former Spock’s Beard colleagues Neal Morse and Nick D’Virgilio, joined by Haken vocalist Ross Jennings, to follow the trajectories of Spock’s Beard’s Yes/Genesis-inspired melodic prog or Haken’s prog metal. But, nope. As the group name implies, this is their homage to the work of Crosby, Stills & Nash (with or without Neil Young). Harmonies are the focus, and the music is, for the most part, soft and gentle. Still, with the talent involved here, there is finesse to the playing and singing that you’d expect. All three members are highly skilled multi-instrumentalists, so the musicianship is pristine, if understandably restrained. The style of these songs calls for a lighter touch; acoustic guitars rule the day here, along with piano and organ (presumably by Morse) and even D’Virgilio’s normally thunderous drumming is pulled back in the mix. Still, it’s a lovely album, filled with beautiful harmony singing, and this trio certainly approaches the level of its inspiration on songs such as “Everything I Am,” “You Set My Soul On Fire” and “King For A Day.” Their proggier tendencies do pop up from time to time, such as the Gentle Giant-inspired a capella interweaving vocals on “Another Trip Around The Sun.” This rates **** out of five overall, but ** on the prog-o-meter.

Music of the Spheres

Has Coldplay gone prog? The release of closing track “Coloratura” prior to the arrival of Music of the Spheres from the British hit-makers indicates that perhaps they were taking a turn toward progressive rock. Clocking in at over 10 minutes, “Coloratura” was an homage to Pink Floyd, complete with spacey keyboards, dreamlike lyrics, swooping orchestra, and even a David Gilmour-like solo six-and-a-half minutes in. It was vibrant and vital and beautiful, but it was not indicative of the entire album, which lives in the pop space, probably thanks to the guiding hand of producer Max Martin. The album is fine—the pop tunes work well, and it’s all melodic, catchy ear-candy. But “Coloratura” is killer. Album rating: ***1/2; prog-o-meter: **** for “Coloratura”, * for the rest.

The Tipping Point

I’ve seen many reviews of The Tipping Point, Tears For Fears’ first new album in almost 18 years, referring to it as progressive. But is it really? While it’s not the British duo’s equivalent of Close To The Edge, the music is certainly symphonic, epic and at times, complex. “Long, Long, Long Time” even plays around with time signatures. Whatever you label it, The Tipping Point is simply amazing. At times recalling the band’s early hits on tracks such as “Break The Man,” the album also finds Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith breaking new sonic ground and evoking powerful emotions, such as on the stirring title track. This masterpiece scores a solid ***** overall, and I’d give it **** on the prog-o-meter—sure!

Empire Springs

You know that if you have to sit through about 4 minutes of instrumental virtuosity into an album before you hear a vocal, you’re in prog territory. So it is with The Luminescence, the 2022 release from Birmingham, Alabama-based prog-metal band Empire Springs. The four-piece band shows it’s very capable of combining complex time-signatures, mighty musicianship and emotive vocals in its well-constructed songs. The group’s latest single release, “Ascend,” which came out in February of this year, further pushes the vocals of bassist/singer Brett Bellomy to the forefront. It’s good stuff and worth a listen for prog-metal fans. This young band has lots of potential, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it evolves. I’d rate both the full album and the new single ***1/2, and **** on the prog-o-meter. Check out Empire Springs at empiresprings.bandcamp.com.