Defining the Kind of Music Known as Prog

The term “progressive rock” or “prog” as a genre of music is very difficult to define indeed. From 1995 to 2000, I sang and played piano and keyboards in a band known as “Jacob’s Ladder” to UCCP Ellinwood-Malate Church insiders and “Blue Fusion” to very few people, some of which are now prominent figures in today’s  Filipino progressive rock scene (they probably have forgotten all about us by now). It was difficult for me to explain what prog is as most of what I would tell people would deem insufficient. Fast forward to today’s day and age, being way more knowledgeable now than when I was playing back then, I can try and attempt to define what prog really is.

Back in those days when I played with Jacob’s Ladder/Blue Fusion, I recall some people asking me, “Pare, ano ba ang tugtugan nyo?” (rough English translation: “Dude, what sort of music does your band play?”). I would typically answer three words: Gospel, Alternative and Progressive Rock. The followup question to that would be, “Pare, ano ba yung progressive rock?” (“Progressive rock? What’s that, dude?). I would then cough up some cliche answer like, “It’s the most unique kind of rock music there is,” “It’s like classical meets jazz meets rock”, blah, blah, blah. I would also give some examples like Dream Theater, Rush, Yes, Kansas, Genesis, etc., etc., all to the confusion of the person who I was talking to.

Sometimes there are people who would say something like, “Oh, and so it’s like Arkarna, Incubus…,” and that kind of crap. I would respectfully reply, “No. Arkarna is not prog. Think of something like Dream Theater and all the crapload of bands I talked to you about.” I then receive a blank stare afterwards until me and my bandmates  start playing whatever horrible prog composition we had just concocted.

Anyway, before you get sleepy from all my anecdotes, let us examine what people typically say about what prog is and then see if that is really a unique quality in progressive rock:

  1. It’s rock that is heavily influenced by classical music rather than blues – It’s true that progressive rock is heavily influenced by classical music with some examples being Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes. However, it would be difficult for me to find a prog fan who would classify Yngwie Malmsteen, ABBA and The Polyphonic Spree as progressive rock acts. Yngwie Malmsteen is obviously classically influenced with his Nicolo Paganini posturing and Baroque-inspired compositions. ABBA? Just listen to “Money, Money, Money” and you’ll hear the classical influence. The Polyphonic Spree have that symphonic flair. The point is that you can argue the classical influence but if you define progressive rock in that manner, you might as well classify all sorts of music as prog. After all, plenty of stuff that you hear from radio-friendly pop to obscure prog basically follow common practice period tonality.
  2. It’s rock that features heavy use of odd time signatures. Okay. Progressive rock does indeed use a lot of odd time signatures like my favorites 5/4 and 7/8 as well as 11/8, 7/4, 15/16, etc. Would you consider a band like Soundgarden to be prog just because “Spoonman” is in 7/4? Many prog rock fans won’t.
  3. Prog features virtuoso musicianship . Again, we see virtuosos even in radio-friendly genres. For example, certain J-Pop songs feature virtuosic musical passages within a radio-friendly format. A die-hard prog fan, despite his appreciation, wouldn’t call that prog at all.
  4. Prog incorporates influences from musical disciplines from all over the world. Isn’t that what people call “World” music nowadays?
  5. Prog music is typically lengthy and would not fit the radio format. So does classical music, jazz, and jam band music.
  6. Prog has lengthy instrumental passages. And so does “real” jazz and a lot of classical stuff.
  7. Prog is the kind of music that the masses don’t hear every day. Hmm, in today’s time, most of what we call “art” or “classical” music fits this description along with avant-garde jazz, “ethnic” music, etc.

I can go on and on about how people would typically define what prog is and any inquisitive music lover will offer up a counter-argument that would state that such a quality may also apply to other kinds of music as well. Have you heard of something called “Pronk” (prog combined with its former antithesis, namely punk)?

As you can see, can you really say that progressive rock is a definite genre? In some respects, yes, but the qualities that are said to make it distinct are not exclusive traits. No wonder why Robert Fripp and bands like The Mars Volta and Porcupine Tree have reservations about calling their music progressive rock.

In my personal opinion, if there would be a real definition of what progressive rock is, I would go back to why the term was coined in the first place. I would take into account the adjective “progressive”. I would say that progressive rock is a kind of music that features change and growth. It’s the kind of music that takes you on a conceptual journey. Its artists are not afraid to push boundaries and try out new things and approaches whether it be attempts in using unique/niche musical instruments, extended instrumental techniques and controlled physiological noises. It’s the kind of music that “progresses” that’s why it’s called progressive rock in the first place. It simply cannot be a genre that can be confined within a musicological discourse or a record executive’s marketing scheme.

As a parting word, any serious fan of progressive rock should think about this. If we define progressive rock according to parameters that have been historically established as being prog, aren’t we confining prog into a sort of a box and therefore causing it to stop being progressive at all? Maybe this is the kind of thinking Rush had when they decided to go for shorter songs after finishing “Hemispheres.

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