The idea of simple progress has long been debunked – in society and geopolitics by the reactionary times we’re living in, and in music since the integration of technology into people’s lives has complicated our ideas and experience of the future. Progressive politics, progressive music, now as ever, are chimeras, because the tensions of culture pull in all directions, with unexpected reactions to each action. The notion that we are gliding along on a path from a primitive past to a sophisticated future is at best a journalistic conceit, and at worst a dangerous article of faith.
Yet paradoxically it is a good time to revisit progressive music, precisely because the narratives that gained traction around the 1970s, 80s and 90s have been so profoundly disrupted. Progressive rock and prog are in the air: an in-depth book surveying the field is on the way from our own Mike Barnes; Mike Oldfield’s Incantations is namechecked by Jim O’Rourke in James Hadfield’s cover feature this issue, and his underrated second album Hergest Ridge was mentioned by Sam Davies last issue; underground polymaths Richard Youngs and Graham Lambkin fooled around with prog with their projects Ilk and Amateur Doubles respectively; and Daniel Spicer in the current issue lauds Norwegian veteran unit Supersilent’s 14th album (soberly titled 14), whose conclusion of “metallic growls and eerie whines feels like a fullblown prog epic”.
Progressive rock jars with several ideas that animate the world of The Wire. In the 70s, the ambition of that music made it achievable only by musicians with the necessary resources and contacts, which served to entrench the status, dreams and desires of primarily white, middle class men (until punk and post-punk tilted the balance back). The prog of King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant fetishised control and composition, blocking out the role of chance and relationships that was John Cage’s great gift to music around the same time.
Maybe there’s an element of historical revisionism to the love for progressive music. From the safe vantage point of the present, prog can seem like an explosion of freedom and colour, and an infinite resource for record heads to plunder for sounds and inspiration – even though the music was often limited by cumbersome historical convention and big label compromises.
But there has been a crucial change of context in the last decade or two. While the Anglo-American music scene spent decades manufacturing tribal oppositions between prog and punk, elsewhere – in particular in France, Italy and the Nordic countries – progressive music enjoyed closer associations with underground rock and the wider counter-culture in general, a picture that’s come into sharper focus through the work of reissue labels and sharity blogs. Connections between prog rock and what you might call the avant garde have also become increasingly undeniable over time, exemplified by the tireless collaborations of members of Henry Cow – in the case of Lindsay Cooper, all the way from Oldfield to Feminist Improvising Group. Even simple overlaps of personnel and studio craft are often overlooked, such as Phil Collins’s work on Brian Eno’s Another Green World, repaid by Eno with his electronic treatments on Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.
Needing a double album in my headphones to complete a pile of proofing work for the new issue, I reach for the latter. Peter Gabriel’s involvement in the album was interrupted by a failed project with film director William Friedkin, but the way his lyrics were then forcibly crammed into the music gives it a sense of constant pressure. There’s a tension in the room that’s absent from some music today, when band projects are less common and constitute more of a gamble than electronics. Like any band, there’s also a sense of physical contact that many profess to miss from modern life.
Progressive rock was seen as an indulgence, and rightly so. But modern pursuits like getting lost in a modular system or exploring a fantasy universe within a laptop can be even more insular compared to the complex negotiations needed to keep a band in the studio or on the road. The occult weirdness of Magma, the superhuman tightness of Yes and the dark fantasies of Genesis have something to offer for all. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 418 December 2018 £4.95 ISSN 0952-0686
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Words Jennifer Lucy Allan, Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Robert Barry, Tristan Bath, Clive Bell, Abi Bliss, Marcus Boon, Britt Brown, Nick Cain, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Lara C Cory, Julian Cowley, Alan Cummings, Erik Davis, Laina Dawes, Geeta Dayal, Katrina Dixon, Phil England, Kodwo Eshun, Josh Feola, Phil Freeman, Rory Gibb, Francis Gooding, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, James Hadfield, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Ken Hollings, Maya Kalev, David Keenan, Kek-W, Biba Kopf, Matt Krefting, Neil Kulkarni, Sam Lefebvre, Dave Mandl, Howard Mandel, Wayne Marshall, Marc Masters, Noel Meek, Bill Meyer, Aurora Mitchell, Keith Moliné, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Alex Neilson, Daniel Neofetou, Louis Pattison, Ian Penman, Emily Pothast, Edwin Pouncey, Nina Power, Chal Ravens, Tony Rettman, Simon Reynolds, Nick Richardson, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Claire Sawers, Dave Segal, Peter Shapiro, Stewart Smith, Nick Southgate, Daniel Spicer, Richard Stacey, David Stubbs, Greg Tate, Richard Thomas, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Rob Turner, Zakia Uddin, Val Wilmer, Matt Wuethrich
Images Ollie Adegboye, Guy Bolongaro, Rebekah Campbell, Mayumi Hosokura, Joseph Kadow, Jak Kilby, Mark Mahaney, Becky McNeel, Anthony Pezotti, Lua Ribeira, Savage Pencil, Michael Schmelling, Senne Van der Ven, Jake Walters