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To speak about Progressive Rock these days is to talk about passion, and the love of music [for it’s own sake]. The days of deep industry and commercial success during the 70s are long gone. The current progressive music movement is underground, honest, small and vibrant.  Rock Progresivo Peru – Giusseppe Risica Carella

BritanniaForty five years ago a friend loaned me an album and insisted that I listen to it.  The name of the album was The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson.  It ruined our friendship, because I played the record until I ground the grooves out.  The music on that album was a quantum leap over other music I was listening to at the time.  It was more complex and required stricter attention.  I sought out more music like it, and stumbled across Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Renaissance’s self-titled debut.  Another friend recommended Time And A Word by another English band called Yes, whose singer hit higher notes than I believed possible for a man.  A guitar playing friend introduced me to the man he called the guitarist’s guitarist, John McLaughlin.  There was also a group called Genesis that turned out music that was better than it should have been, since their lead singer wore a dress, and sometimes dressed like a flower.  Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull were everywhere on the newly significant FM band.  Finally, there was an outfit called Gentle Giant whose stuff I never liked on first listen but which grew on me as I listened.  Records by these artists and many others entered my collection and defined my musical tastes, at least in popular music.  The embryonic music press called it “symphonic rock” or “art rock”, but eventually settled on the appellation “progressive rock”.

Progressive rock morphed into big business by the late seventies.  Pink Floyd in particular became one of the largest draws in the music industry, and I was able to hear Yes at one of their concerts at about this time.  However, the more complex bands like King Crimson or McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra never achieved a similar level of popularity but enjoyed a high reputation among people “who knew a lot about music”.  Bands like Styx, Journey, and Kansas took the “progressive” formula, simplified it [Kansas less so, Journey more so, Styx in the middle] for mass consumption, and made bank, filling stadiums around the world.  Then suddenly, from about 1982 on, the whole scene just disappeared.  Punk rock happened, and popular music moved back to a simpler, earlier paradigm.  People wanted to dance, and nobody could really dance to the odd rhythms and jarring time signature changes that progressive rock offered.  One of my favorite bands, Genesis, became a pop/disco band after their vocalist and guitarist left to embark on solo careers.

I appreciated a lot of the new music.  “New Wave” it was called, and it was everywhere by the mid-eighties, thanks to a concurrent fashion movement and a very risky media gamble called MTV.  It wasn’t long before New Wave was replaced by a plethora of confusing genres, “post-punk”, “dreampop”, and of course “grunge”.  I married and started having children, and could no longer afford the time to keep up with an increasingly fractious music scene.  Nevertheless, I found that nothing could get me into a nostalgic early 70s groove than putting Selling England By The Pound and reading Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard Of Earthsea.  Don’t ask me why, but fantasy literature of the Tolkienesque variety and progressive rock seem to blend very well. Before the advent of Peter Jackson’s movies, progressive musicians had a reputation for creating Tolkien soundscapes, or for using names like “Gandalf” or “Silmaril” for their band names.

When it became possible to download music on the Internet in the late 1990s (first on Usenet, then on Napster), I decided to renew some old acquaintances,  I found out that a band I cared very much for in the height of the progressive era, Renaissance, whose female lead singer had an operatic range, put out one of their best albums long after I stopped listening.  I was able to sample music from obscurer bands like Finch, Wally, and Gryphon whose works I had missed back in the 70s.  I discovered that just at the time progressive rock went out of style in the UK and the USA, the Italians took it over and carried it to new heights.  I learned about Banco del Mutuo SoccorsoPremiata Forneria Marconi and Le Orme.  Most importantly, I found that new music was being made in this style and finding an audience.  I became acquainted with Marillion, Spock’s Beard, IQ, Echolyn, Citizen Cain, Clepsydra and many others.  It was at this time that I first heard of the best Christian music nobody was listening to.   I don’t know if that’s fair to Iona, who has always had a small and vocal fan base in the US, to say that nobody listened to them.   They should have been much more popular than they were.  They were a Celtic/progressive/folk-rock band with astounding musicianship and deep meditative lyrics.

If the CCM community’s failure to properly appreciate Iona was disturbing, that same community’s almost complete ignorance of Spock’s Beard frontman Neal Morse is almost criminal.   Spock’s Beard was probably the best, and certainly the most commercially successful, of the new breed of progressive rock bands that arose in the 1990s.  Neal converted to Evangelical Christianity somewhere around 2002  and started kicking out albums as quickly as Prince ever did.  Starting with Testimony, he issued a series of Christian based CDs that contained the most earnest Christian message since Keith Green.  OK, maybe since Rich Mullen.  I don’t know why he never cracked the Positive Hits barrier.  His music is light years ahead of the current Coldplay and Beyonce clones that populate the K-JOY playlist.  Maybe it’s because he’s not easily digestible like Mercy Me and he isn’t ironic and faux-edgy enough for the Fair Trade and Soul Patch brigade.  Come to think of it, I’ve never heard Iona, Over The Rhine, or Dirt Poor Robins on K-JOY either.  It’s been two decades since I’ve heard Keith Green, and I haven’t heard Rich Mullins lately, either.  Well, more’s their loss.

Just last year, though, I found out that progressive rock had hit a new high water mark.  While my attention was elsewhere, English progressive rock band Big Big Train released a series of CDs that equal anything Genesis, Yes, or King Crimson was making back in the 70s.  I sampled Big Big Train in the early 2000s, on their CD Gathering Speed, but I wasn’t impressed. On a whim, though, I purchased a download for the EP they issued in 2010,  Far Skies Deep Time.  It was 99 cents.  From the very first track, all the elements were there; the Peter Gabriel-like vocals, the soaring melodies, the elegiac lyrics, and above all the overarching and interpenetrating sense of Englishness.  By the time the EP finished 44 minutes later (of course a prog EP would be 44 minutes long with only 5 songs), I was in tears.  A quick review of some music-oriented websites confirmed my suspicions, progressive rock was roaring back.    Brand new bands with names like Sihouette, Life Line Project, and Fright Pig were making unconscionably great music, and neo-progressive veterans like the Flower Kings, Shamall, The Enid, RWPL, and Glass Hammer were making the best music they had ever made.   One enthusiastic  critic  called 2012 the best year in progressive rock ever.

Yet, the resurgence seems to be primarily artistic.  I never hear it on the radio, even on the college station I listen to most often.  They have a progressive rock program but it’s mostly obscure stuff from the 70s with a lot of Frank Zappa-inspired freeform jazz-fusion.   My children’s friends aren’t listening to modern prog rock.  My son  likes Japanese noise artists like Boris or Merzbow, and my daughter is addicted to Korean pop music, which is slightly disturbing considering that K-pop is subsidized by the South Korean government and is a significant export for the South Korean economy.   Maybe all this great music is like Colin Maloy and the Decemberists, who put out the best Jethro Tull album since Heavy Horses.  My son tells me all his friends’ dads like the Decemberists too.  It’s Dad-rock for nostalgic, disaffected dads.   Still, it could be worse.  It’s nice to have the musical universe indulge you one last time.

PS – If The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife is the best Jethro Tull album since Heavy Horses, then Big Big Train’s The Underfall Yard is the best Genesis album since Wind And Wuthering, and it just gets better and better  Just sayin’.

My favorite Christian artists are the ones who could care less about the label.   They are kind of yesterday’s news, but the Irish progressive rock band Iona has been making outstanding music for fifteen years that is unabashedly Christian and drop-dead beautiful.  Try to buy one of their CDs in a Family Bookstore ®,  though.  The clerk will give you a blank stare and ask you what kind of music they play.  If you describe Iona’s music you will probably be steered towards Caedmon’s Call or Rebecca St. James, both of whom are to Iona as a lightning bug is to a lightning bolt.

Ditto for Steven Bazan of Pedro the Lion, or Sufjan Stevens, or Danielson Famile, all of whom are wildly creative and deeply Christian. You get the feeling that their art isn’t a matter of “letting their light shine”, but of letting out a force that might do them irreparable damage if suppressed.

I’m trying to remember how the Christian ghetto got started. When I was a child and a young adolescent, we were all of us “Christians” and most of us Sunday School kids. Our churches were very nice places and had music by Bach, Mendelssohn, or Schubert as introits. The sermons were twenty minutes, timed, and usually contained references to racial integration, or neurosis, or existential anxiety. Those were the days of the hegemony of the Seven Sisters of the National Council of Churches, liberal Protestantism at flood-tide, the inheritors of Christendom, and, along with the Academy and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, guardians of the high culture of the West

We had friends who went to other churches, a little more thread-bare. The music wasn’t as elevated. Some of them couldn’t afford an organ and got by with a piano, or a guitar. The preaching (never a sermon, mind you) was embarrassingly direct and personal. There were bookstores in my town that catered to those churches, full of books that didn’t appeal to anybody who didn’t go to those churches. Most of the books were about the Bible; how to understand the Bible, or what the Bible said about this or that subject, about the errors of evolution or “the problems of youth” as seen in the light of the Bible.

Now, this was the status quo circa 1964.   The President had just been assasinated, and the Beatles had just appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.  The deceptively placid fifties were about to plunge headlong into the ferocious whitewater rapids of the mid to late sixties, and the whole brave liberal Christian experiment just evaporated like a morning fog.  Most of my Sunday School colleagues lost themselves in the drugs and sexual libertinism of the sixties and the seventies, and emerged as secular entities, with little or no connection or allegiance to Christ or Church.

Another subset of us were harvested by the so-called “Jesus Revolution” in the last gasp of the ‘sixties and the early ‘seventies.  This was an outbreak of revivalistic Evangelical Protestantism among young people that injected countercultural memes into the marginalized Evangelical Protestant culture of that era, and it was wildly successful as a marketing ploy, if not so much as a spiritual movement.  When I was a student at a Pentecostal Bible School in the mid ‘seventies, there was a sharp division between the “Church Kids” and the “Teen Challenge” ex-hippies, even though we composed about one third of the student body.

The music though, was always marketed to us “just like Led Zeppelin, or Jethro Tull, but its about Jesus, man!”  We lapped it up, rejoicing every time a mainstream musician like BJ Thomas or Bob Dylan “accepted Jesus” and came into our increasingly isolated little bubble, until their record sales improved and they left.

It never dawned on us that the reason to listen to Ian Anderson and John Fischer was the same; that they were competent artists with something to say. The shame is that once you disappeared into the ghetto, anyone outside of it wasn’t hearing you, unless, like Sixpence None The Richer or Evanescence, you managed a crossover success story that allowed you to escape the youth rally circuit and appeal to a wider audience. Usually, though, the tradeoff was that you’d forgo using that awful J-word.

Which brings me full circle to Iona, to Sufjan, to Daniel Wilson and his wonderful family. They are so talented, or so quirky, or so lovely, that they command attention by appealing to our common humanity, but they speak or sing openly and directly about Jesus as if He were the most natural thing in the world to talk or sing about.

Which, of course, He is.

And to Rebecca St. James’ credit, I heard that she spent a whole night at a CCM conference with her skirts lifted dancing on a table top to the tunes of Catholic merrymakers Ceili Rain . You go, girl.

I just learned that Larry Norman passed away yesterday. Even though I haven’t thought about him in years, I know the world will be the poorer for his absence.

In 1972, his record, Only Visiting This Planet, was light-years ahead of anything else in Christian music, both lyrically and musically, and ironically, it still is. I don’t listen to CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) much these days. My wife likes it, but she is of a generation that knoweth not Larry Norman, or Randy Matthews, or Keith Green.

Hell, you can’t even get these pussified “positive hits” Christian stations to play anything by Keith Green these days. The last time I called in to request “The Grace By Which We Stand”, about a decade and a half ago, I was told that Mr. Green was considered “too controversial”.

Just like his Master, I guess.

Norman lost the public ear after releasing his best record In Another Land in 1977. He did a lot of idiosyncratic music, including Bright Light Into Darkened Places, an anthology of “spiritual” rock songs written by “unregenerate heathens” like Jagger and Richards, or Randy Newman. but Christian music’s new darlings were Phil Keaggy, a virtuoso progressive-rock guitarist who put out increasingly blander and blander albums until he rocked like a neutered cat, or a squeaky-clean-gosh-ain’t-she-cute little minx named Amy Grant. Larry, in perfect character and to his credit, soldiered on in increasing obscurity and accumulating personal problem.

Thank you for the music, Larry. I’m certain you’re hearing some great stuff now.