Sunday, February 14, 2016

Music is Music is Music

I like being contrary; that's no exaggeration, but sometimes I'll admit to making a twonk of myself and today I did just that. I saw a comment on social media from my mate Roger and misinterpreted it completely. It was to do with the widening gulf between our music tastes, which are usually good natured, but my comments seemed to do nothing but be inflammatory and then I realised why, I thought Roger was humouring someone who thought a particular album was possibly the best of the year so far and knowing the album I wasn't as impressed and then the penny dropped and I realised that Roger had written the review and I then tried to justify my not-being-terribly-impressed and realised that I was entering that controversial arena called 'personal taste' and decided to withdraw with as much dignity as I could.

However (and don't worry Roger), something came out of the discussion that made me think. The album in question was the latest offering by 'experimental rock co-operative' Ulver and I described it as 'post rock' and Roger didn't agree. Then someone else, much later, when the discussion had cooled asked a really interesting question - what exactly is post rock? Which was the perfect accompaniment to the question asked by Roger (indirectly and much earlier) of what is 'prog' and is 'prog' anything to do with 'progressive rock music' which was the label bands like Yes, ELP, Genesis and even Pink Floyd were labelled with in the 1970s.

If you were inclined you can go to the progressive rock website and be confounded by the quite unbelievable variants of prog music now. I could quite easily list them all here but it wouldn't really achieve anything but might make some of you glaze over and fall to sleep. The remarkable amount of prog sub-directories has an almost infinite number of bands, artists and former bands and artists who qualify for the 'prog' label by virtue of being labelled one of the labels. Post rock gets lumped in here as well despite the earliest origins of it being anything but prog, but when you realise how anal prog fans can be you'll understand a reluctance to concede that anything that doesn't conform to 'normal' music must be prog.

Are you confused? I think that's part of the idea.

I actually think there are categories of prog that aren't prog and categories of music that are more prog-like or have more in common with prog than pop, rock or soul and I think that might be part of the problem. In the 21st century, a time when the album is not as important as the song and downloads and streaming makes anything accessible and artists incorporate elements of their parents' and grandparents' music into their own, to try and put things under an umbrella almost becomes nonsensical.

I mean what is post rock? It had a definitive meaning in the 1990s when it was different, but by the 2010s it incorporates everything from the avant garde to experimental to ambient to drone; it can have metal elements, trip hop and soul; it's like a catch-all category for people who don't want to be labelled prog.

For me the definition of 'prog' is the definition of 'progressive music' and that doesn't mean something has to be in 9/8 time or have different parts or be considered outside of the mainstream, because we've had all kinds of freeform jazz that makes even the weirdest prog sound good and I'm sure there's someone out there who will argue that prog couldn't exist without jazz and I wouldn't argue with them.

Traditional prog has always felt like a fusion of folk, rock, orchestral, poetry and theatre; a kind of 20th century minstrel show that could be prosaic and typically British or contemporary and typically British; it had a hey-day that was preceded by its origins and like all kinds of music it has its copiers, imitators and homage and over the years many of these have either developed their own styles or have disappeared. Some have embraced the ethos of progressive music but are not necessarily prog.

The title of this blog comes from a Primal Scream song on Screamadelica - Come Together - which, I believe was a very progressive record; not in the conventional way, but was different even for the loved up days of the early 90s music scene. It goes hand in hand with a very famous prog song - I Know What I Like and that is what music should be in the 21st century. To label any music that is 'modern' is in many ways disrespectful to its history.

I back this up with a little anecdote of sorts. I recently asked arguably my current favourite musician what he was listening to at the moment. There was a slightly selfish reason for it because I wanted some inspiration; something new to find or listen to because I've allowed my music listening habits to stagnate. I was quite surprised by the 20 examples he gave me and as many as half of them I had either not heard of or couldn't understand why he liked them. Duh... stupid thought, but we all have them. I listen to this particular person's solo album and, for me, it is the best thing I have heard in at least 17 years; but I have only managed to persuade one of my friends to 'get into it' or anything else by him and his band. It makes no sense to me; but neither does the fact people by the millions buy RnB and rap music and think Kanye West is some genius - but even if it isn't a fact it's a proven brand/artist/seller. I'm old; it's like punk was to my grandparents.

I think one of the most progressive 'bands' out there is Swansea's Hybrid, who started as DJs, remixers and symphonic electronic 'dance' music; but from the first album they displayed a kind of energy and rock sensibility that made them totally different from the others and they ventured into prog territory and it was completely overlooked. They are a true fusion band now and the elements they use should make them feature of the progressive rock website.

North Atlantic Oscillation do feature and yet for all of their prog influences, I can also see the Beach Boys, Sugar, Scott Walker and drum and bass and as we all know the Beach Boys are one of the most famous prog bands of all time...

Ulver are fashioned as experimental, but listen to their back catalogue and you'll find they're probably doing what they want to do, which in many ways makes them a bit like the Flaming Lips, even if they sound different and are categorised in completely different genres. Ulver have gone through so many phases they rival David Bowie for creativity and diversity. To call them post rock is only accurate in that Genesis were only really a prog band between 1970 and 1978 and were considerably more successful as purveyors of crass MOR shite.

Talk Talk, who I will argue till the cows come home, were the one of the first true 'post rock' bands because what they ended up doing was anything but rock or pop, but was more like jazz than prog but was played on rock instruments. Equally, I believe This Mortal Coil were doing their own version of post rock with Filigree & Shadow and even before that many of the 'post-punk' bands were delving into areas that would be capitalised by shoegaze and space-rock-indie bands (such as Verve in the early 1990s).

I've even argued that British pop band Tears For Fears bordered on both prog and psychedelia at times, while others argue that the Beatles might have been the proto-prog band, especially the way they arranged a lot of their later stuff.

The problem with prog is there's a snobbery that really doesn't belong; prog should mean progressive and not rehashing the old or in many ways trying to reinvent it, which is worse. Prog devotees should accept the 21st century as a time when we know that music is music is music. It's time to get rid of labels and just appreciate what you know you like.

1 comment:

  1. Just one thing: Reinventing the past (specifically the Western mid-20th Century) has been what popular culture (in the very largest sense) has been about for nearly 40 years now. Why shouldn't we have our turn, too? Why apologize for, say, the Flower Kings in a world of 10,000 indie-rock bands with plaid shirts, Haircuts You Damn Hippie, and jangly guitars?

    ReplyDelete