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After spending the past couple of days listening to my recently acquired, and first Jethro Tull albums in my collection, I came to a problem. I would consider Jethro Tull progressive rock because of their unique sound, but I also consider Pink Floyd to be the same. These two groups, despite sharing a similar time frame for their popularity, are pretty far apart in their concepts, their sound and their songwriting, yet, I'd call them both progressive...
I've never been overly concerned with genre titles as they really are only a method of describing music to people who have not heard it by comparing it to other groups and using descriptive language, but I find myself asking...
What exactly makes progressive rock...progressive?
Somewhere within the psychedelic era, a new genre was formed that combined all sorts of genres with the new rock and roll to create something entirely new. Progressive rock was something that defied critics attempts to dismiss rock and roll as a less than artistic musical genre. Some of the greatest albums of all time came out of the mixture of rock and roll with other formats to produce something intelligent, thought provoking and deep, while still involving rock and roll...
I've apparently been listening to progressive rock long before I even realized it was anything different than normal music. Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and the Moody Blues, along with newer groups like Radiohead and Tool are some of my favorite artists because of their unique takes on rock and roll. I would define all of these groups, along with a number of others, as progressive in some way or another, although for different reasons because they each definitely have a distinct sound and style.
For me, progressive rock takes rock and roll beyond a simple musical genre and into the realm of art. How it is accomplished doesn't really matter. Pink Floyd took a blues space age feel and later the rock opera as well, as their formats to create complete artistic thoughts, while Radiohead has experimented with tape loops and the digital age to create compelling pieces with depth and complexity that may have more of a central feel than a direct theme. Some bands have added classical elements, symphonic elements, complex poetic lyrics, advanced musical theory, in depth story lines, intriguing recording techniques or simply knitted their songs together to form a bit of a rock opera. Each technique creates its own unique sound, but all have that little something that makes them stand out as something more than standard rock and blues. Lots of groups have created progressive songs that have either worked well or not while some bands take their progressive songs and make it their own style, and in turn... every song is progressive.
Progressive rock seems to have that certain feel when you listen to it. Maybe it makes you think deep thoughts or about complex concepts, but to truly define what makes progressive rock... well, progressive, I think we have to look at the concept behind the work. All artwork has an underlying idea or concept that inspired the piece. Those musical works that embrace a deeper concept along with just making great rock and roll and music, might be a start for a good definition of progressive rock.
Lots of groups though, have depth and concepts to their songs without being full fledged progressive rock and there in lies the difficulty. The depth of the concept along with the success of the work as a whole, may all be factors in whether or not the work feels progressive or not.
Good progressive rock is successful at getting this deeper concept across to the listener in a way that is subtle, compelling and set to get music. Not all progressive albums or even songs are successful in this way, as many are simply to vague to grasp without confusion, fall flat in their concept or are too blunt and leave the listener no room to form their own opinions.
I think the best progressive music is that music which is first compelling to listen to without any underlying deeply intellectual theme, philosophy or concept. Then if there is also an added level of subtle or even less than subtle artistic conceptualization, that is like the icing on the cake and not only is the music good to listen to, but it is thought provoking enough to earn lengthy listens to catch a glimpse at what underlying concepts might be present and how many ways we can interpret these works.
To define music, I tend to go purely based on instinct. If on first listen I find the work very artistic, deep, conceptual etc... then I might call it progressive. I will probably also use a wide variety of descriptors though, to better get across what the it actually sounds like as I rarely find one genre as enough for any artist.
In the end, trying to define progressive rock is probably as difficult and as unsuccessful as trying to define any musical genres. There will always be exceptions; groups that straddle the line and defy classification. This ends up just being another situation where I shy away from single classifications and and think we need to be careful how caught up we get in classifications of musical genres and fitting groups into specific genres perfectly.
The only real way to know what a group sounds like is to pick up their album and hear it for ourselves and the only way to decide what is and isn't progressive rock is to read what others have said and then to decide for ourselves.
If you're interested in seeing how some of the big names have defined progressive rock, check out the definition from Allmusic: http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=77:374
Or from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_rock