Thursday, 16 October 2014

Prog rock: the sound of history's future

At a recent gallery show of his artwork, Roger Dean -- best known for his lush and fantastical album covers for Yes in the 1970s -- was enjoying the crowd when a man approached him and held out his hand to shake. “Mr. Dean, your work has changed my life,” he said, “I have gleaned so many amazing, mystical secrets from looking at your album covers, can you tell me sort of what you meant by it.” Dean, ever polite, tried to let the man down easily. “I didn’t mean anything at all. It was just a good -- looking album cover.” His superfan, disillusioned, and possibly embarrassed, now turned nemesis, “Well, what do you know?” he angrily spat, “You’re just the artist!” Despite his protestations, Dean might have taken some responsibility for contributing to casting a wide mystical net over an entire subgenre of music, known sometimes derogatorily as progressive rock. You are unlikely to find a prog-rocker who refers to their own music in those terms, but the term serves as a way to describe a movement in rock, one steering a massive ship away from the siren call of blues-based rock that had so long dominated popular music, toward a more English tradition of what Greg Lake of the supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) described as “troubadour, medieval storytelling.” Rock would inherit this mantle proudly, looking toward the mythology of the past -- often heavily informed by occult images -- to construct the sound of the future.

Psychedelic rock bands set the course, but in the 1970s, a new wave of bands looked beyond the drugginess of psychedelia to classical music as the true guide. Coupled with the instruments of the future—particularly Moog synthesizers -- progressive rock crafted rock suites, with some songs clocking twenty minutes or more. Dean’s paintings were otherworldly landscapes of floating islands and boulders, or stone structures rising up like trees. Largely unpopulated, save for the occasional butterfly/dragon hybrid, there were no aliens, elves, or wizards. His worlds might be long-dead civilizations, like the lifeless plains of Mars haunted by the once-thriving Martian societies in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, or future lands where people have taken to hibernating in the inexplicable constructions of their cities, endlessly waiting. Dean had perfected the merging of science fiction with mysticism, invoking the imagination of prog-rock listeners who were convinced there was some story or greater truth behind his art, and spent hours listening and poring over the album covers, meant to coexist in an ideological way.


Prog-rock bands were particularly adept at presenting themselves as being purveyors of the strange and the paranormal. Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s eponymous first album includes “The Three Fates,” a suite comprised of “Clotho,” “Lachesis,” and “Atropos,” which sounds like contemporary classical music. The Three Fates, or the Moirai, are of course the three sisters of Greek mythology who wove the destiny of human beings. They would become the model for the three incanting sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches who toil over their cauldron, cooking up spells and schemes to upend the normal course of things. In every way it was an unconventional thing to find on a rock album, and smacked of intellectualism, the antipathy of rock. But Lake, who left King Crimson to join Keith Emerson and Greg Palmer to form ELP, thinks despite how big and complex progressive rock could and did become, it was still pop music. By all indications, though, it was pop music that presented itself as something much more arcane.

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