ProgRock: Another Fandom?
by Ted White
Remember Progressive Rock? King Crimson, Yes, Genesis? Dinosaurs of the '70s, right? Wiped out by Punk and the New Wave and gone by the '80s, or so you might think if all you read is ROLLING STONE or any other mainstream rock publication. (We'll ignore the fact that King Crimson reformed in 1980, made three well-received albums, went dormant again, and has come roaring back in the mid-'90s with new albums and tours; that Genesis has never quit, albeit they moved away from progressive almost 20 years ago -- but, hey, Phil Collins just quit, and both Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett just rejoined, so maybe changes will occur!; and that Yes has been floundering, reforming and reforming again, for more than 20 years without getting anywhere . . . we'll ignore that, because along with Pink Floyd those three were the icons of early '70s progrock . . . . )
Progressive Rock never truly died. It went underground. Prog bands of the '80s made private recordings, issued in the low hundreds -- fanzine circulation! -- and prog fans exchanged obscure tapes. Then came the advent of the CD, and with the CD a gathering reissue program that has revitalized the catalogs of many kinds of music (such as jazz). The first prog reissues came from Japan in the late '80s. Japan had discovered prog just as it apparently ended, at the end of the seventies, issuing lps of various European groups (mostly Italian) in 1979 and 1980. By 1986 Japan was issuing CDs of the same albums in a "European Rock" series. Early reissues were the first four albums by PFM (an Italian group marketed in the UK and US by Manticore in the early '70s). And in Italy the Vinyl Magic label began reissuing Italian lps on CD, while in France the Musea label was doing the same thing for French lps.
The sudden reappearance, 15 and 20 years later, of these progressive groups and albums led to a new audience for progrock, and a rekindling of interest in the music. Today there are literally thousands of CDs available of progressive rock -- more, in fact, than there ever were lps, since most of those low-volume privately-released lps are now out on CD, along with reissues of virtually all the original commercially-released albums -- plus all the new albums being released on CD by reformed or new prog groups.
I have three or four thousand such CDs myself, collected since 1984. Various people, like Ken Golden at Laser's Edge and Greg Walker at Syn-phonic, have started labels devoted to reissuing obscure progressive lps on CD. Others, like Doug Larson, do a mail-order business in obscure progressive CDs from other parts of the world (I have done a lot of business with Doug).
Now a fandom has coalesced around progrock. Fanzines, cons, the works!
A few months ago I got a letter from Dave Bischoff. Dave is an old friend -- I've known him since the early '70s, and we were both in The Vicious Circle from the mid-'70s on, until he moved out of my area to eventually settle in Eugene, Oregon -- and he had recently discovered a strong interest in progressive rock. "All that stuff you used to play at writers' group meetings . . . ? I've recently gotten into it." He had questions. He wanted recommendations. And he turned me onto a progfanzine, PROGRESSION, which he was getting.
There are a number of rock fanzines, of course -- hundreds, probably -- and several devoted to progrock. I had been getting AUDION, a British fmz put out by the Ultima Thule (a record store and mail-order outfit) people. And, more recently, EXPOSÉ which is the offspring of the Exposure Radio people in California. There are others, published in France, Scandinavia, and Italy. PROGRESSION comes out of New England and is more fanzine-like than the other two (which is to say, less professional in appearance and content), and, like real fanzines, has a long letter column.
Dave also told me he was coming east to go to Progscape in late June. Was I going?
The fact was that I hadn't even heard of Progscape. I'd heard of Progfest, though. It was run by Greg Walker in Los Angeles. Musea had recently released a 2-CD set from Progfest '94, and I'd heard good things about the 1995 Progfest.
Truth to tell, I'm more attracted to Progfest '96 than I am the 1996 LACon, but I won't be able to attend either, *sigh* . . . . Progfest is like a convention and a concert combined. Four or five bands play each day, attracting 600 to 1,000 attendees. Bands and dealers set up tables and sell CDs, publications, t-shirts, etc. Some of the bands are from Europe, most of them making their first US appearances. (In 1994 Sebastion Hardie, a progressive Australian band -- with two albums -- from the '70s, reformed and played at Progfest.)
Progscape is an attempt to do the same thing here on the east coast. It was held in Towson, a college town north of Baltimore but still inside the Baltimore Beltway, on the campus of Towson State University, in Stephens Hall. Dave went to it Friday night and attended the full program Saturday and Sunday. I had other plans for Saturday, but drove up Sunday, arriving about 3:00 p.m.
Progscape was the brainchild of a guy named Larry who owns a Baltimore CD store called Of Sound Mind, which apparently sells a good variety of progressive CDs. He had put on a one-day Progscape in 1994, skipped 1995, and come back with this two-day version for 1996. (Friday evening had featured Mastermind as "a local warm-up show," and Saturday's planned bands were Fourth Estate (USA), Porcupine Tree (UK), Miriodor (Canada), and Iluvatar, which actually went on Sunday. Dave raved about Miriodor, but I don't recall him saying anything about Porcupine Tree, the British neo-Floydian band.) Unfortunately, Progscape 1996 drew only around 200 people, which I gather was financially disappointing, and, coming after the previous Progscape's losses, probably means this one was the last. They didn't seem to be trying to compile a mailing list for future events -- a bad omen.
Going up the steps (more than a flight) in front of Stephens Hall, I could hear the subliminal thump of drums and bass before I heard recognizable music. Inside the front door were "dealers' tables" much like in any huckster room, one of which turned out to be Progscape Registration. They sold me a one-day ticket but seemed uninterested in registering me in any way. I was told that one of the bands scheduled for Saturday -- Iluvatar -- would be playing today because the singer had problems with his voice earlier. And the French band Eclat had been substituted for Ronie Stolt's Flower Kings, the Scandinavian band advertised to headline the show. Right now Glass Hammer, a band from Tennessee, was playing.
The tables were in a lobby, beyond which was a good-sized auditorium. I had my hand stamped at the door, and plunged in. The auditorium was dark except for the stage, and for my unadjusted eyes it was impossible to see very much. So I stumbled down the left aisle until I was maybe 20 rows from the front, where I found an empty seat to the left of the aisle. The band was, as I subsequently found out, taking a rest, leaving the drummer center-stage with an acoustic guitar, playing with the keyboard-player and doing a quiet, effective piece. All too soon the band returned, to play louder and less interesting stuff. Glass Hammer have two CDs out, but probably played material from them before my arrival. Now, with a new singer, they were playing rockier stuff, concluding with Argent's "Hold Your Head Up," which I enjoyed more than I might have expected. (Later, in the lobby, I talked with the woman who played secondary keyboards and did wordless vocals. Her name, she told me, was Michele Young, and she sold me a copy of her solo CD -- on the same label as Glass Hammer -- which impressed me when I played it. She can sound a lot like Kate Bush.)
When the lights went up at the end of the set, I discovered as he stood up and looked around that Dave Bischoff had been sitting just ahead of me on the other side of the aisle. During the break between sets we went back to the lobby, where Dave introduced me to some of the people he'd already met. I browsed the CDs for sale, subscribed to PROGRESSION and EXPOSÉ, talked with various members of various bands who had their own CDs for sale (most of them $10 and under), and then ran into someone I knew: Steve Feigenbaum, who owns Cuneiform Records and Wayside Mail Order. I've known Steve since the seventies, and he was glad to see me and took me over to meet the people from Musea.
Iluvatar is a Baltimore band with several CDs out on the local Kinesis label. Theatrical chords hung heavily in the air when the curtain went up on their performance, and Dave Bischoff, whom I was now sitting next to, said excitedly, "Get ready for a Genesis experience!" But despite the resemblence of the opening to that of Genesis' "Watcher in the Sky," Iluvatar pretty much put me to sleep. Literally. Although it was only about 5 p.m., I found myself "resting my eyes" and drifting in and out of a semi-conscious state. As I observed later to Dave, "the trouble with most American bands that try to be progressive is that they can't shed their bar-band backgrounds. When in doubt, they always end up falling back on the standard cliches." I might have added that for the so-called "NeoProg" bands (Marillion, IQ, Pendragon, et al -- a group into which Iluvatar also fits), the "standard cliches" are recycled riffs which I characterize as "generic Genesis." Iluvatar managed to recycle cliches from both camps, to very little positive effect.
After that set Dave and I went out for dinner. Towson is something of a college town and we had no problem finding decent restaurants, settling on Korean food that evening.
The first band to play that evening was Braindance, a New York City group that comes out of what is now called "MetalProg," the heavier end of prog, or maybe more adventurous end of metal. Braindance is fronted by a male singer who is a bodybuilder and doesn't mind showing it off, but the real leader is the guitarist, who wrote most of the music, a woman named Vora Vor. She struck me as a female Robert Fripp in terms of her guitar playing and music.
But I found I enjoyed the music more live than I did on the Braindance CD I bought. The latter gets tedious in spots.
Each band was supposed to play for only an hour or so -- since an extra band had been sandwiched in that day -- but Braindance played for nearly two hours, pushing back the schedule to the annoyance of the Progscape organizers.
After Braindance came Boud Deun, a Northern Virginia band made up of violin, guitar, bass, and drums, who play a kind of '90s Mahavishnu Orchestra: very high energy, with odd angular twists. Their hour was intense, but enjoyable.
By now it was getting late, but finally Eclat came on, well after 11. The French band (whose CDs I have) tended at times toward the kind of French theatricality in their vocals that characterizes Ange (and which I dislike), but their music was solid, and a good end to the day, the show, and to Progscape. After a brief encore, they ended at about 12:30 a.m., leaving me with more than an hour's drive home. I used the time to listen to another CD I'd picked up, this one a reissue, on Musea, of a late-'70s French band, Arachnoid. It was better than any of the music I'd heard live that day.
For my first "progcon" it was an enjoyable experience, as much for the community I'd found with fellow prog fans as for the actual music I heard. I'd like to go to more, but I don't know if there will be more, in this area at least, if the financial failure of Progscape is any indication. But Progscape was badly promoted (it was hardly promoted at all!) and I think a much larger potential audience exists than was tapped into here.
It's a proud and lonely thing to be a Progressive Rock fan!
One thing I didn't go into in this piece, but which I'd like to emphasize somehow is this: Sturgeon's Law applies to ProgRock as it does to every area of artistic/creative/commercial expression. Just because I'm a ProgRock fan doesn't mean I am blindly enthusiastic about every ProgRock CD that comes out. Please don't slag me out of hand just because you heard a Marillion album one time and hated it. I did too. In fact, I find little to like in most of that subcategory known as NeoProg. And I recognize that not every group with progressive ambitions succeeds in achieving them. Progressive rock at its best is the most demanding form of rock, the most ambitious, and potentially the most rewarding. But a lot of ProgRock falls short of meeting those demands. Some is empty pomposity, some is vain posturing. Some bands/musicians have the vocabulary (the chops) but little or nothing to say with it.
Entirely too many have copied Genesis' 70s style but lack the wit and talent to use it as creatively as Genesis did. In the early 70s every ProgRock group had its own style and sound; now entirely too many belong to a "school" -- the Yes School, the Genesis School, the Gentle Giant School. Only the music of King Crimson has resisted this kind of generic copying -- but there are a number of bands in France, Spain and Japan which have profitted from trying Crimson's musical directions. In France, Shylock, Dr. Folamour, and Exclusive Raja come to mind. In Spain, Rivendel (despite the Tolkeinish name). In Japan Bi Kyo Ran has based its music directly on Red-period Crimson (and issued one CD of Crimson covers). And in Sweden there was Anglagard (now broken up, after two albums) and Anekdoten (very Crimsoid in the best sense). But I'm getting carried away here, and could keep going on and on.
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