Progressive rock (often shortened to "progressive", "prog rock" or "prog", also called "art rock") is a form of rock music that evolved in the late-1960s and early 1970s as part of a "mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility."
Progressive rock bands pushed "rock's technical and compositional boundaries" by going beyond the standard rock or popular verse-chorus based song structures. Additionally, the arrangements often incorporate elements drawn from classical, jazz, and avant-garde music. Instrumental songs are more common, and songs with lyrics are sometimes conceptual, abstract, or based in fantasy. Progressive rock bands sometimes used "concept albums that made unified statements, usually telling an epic story or tackling a grand overarching theme".
Progressive rock developed from late-1960s psychedelic rock, as part of a wide-ranging tendency in rock music of this era to draw inspiration from ever more diverse influences. The term was applied to the music of bands such as King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, The Moody Blues, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and came into most widespread use around the mid-1970s. While progressive rock reached the peak of its popularity in the 1970s and early 1980s, neo-progressive bands have continued playing for faithful audiences in the subsequent decades.
Form: Progressive rock songs either avoid common popular music song structures of verse-chorus-bridge, or blur the formal distinctions by extending sections or inserting musical interludes, often with exaggerated dynamics to heighten contrast between sections. Classical forms are often inserted or substituted, sometimes yielding entire suites, building on the traditional medleys of earlier rock bands. Progressive rock songs also often have extended instrumental passages, marrying the classical solo tradition with the improvisational traditions of jazz and psychedelic rock. All of these tend to add length to progressive rock songs, which may last longer than twenty minutes. Songs can also have irregular chorus-verse structures, like David Bowie's song Quicksand, which has two choruses.
Timbre (instrumentation and tone color): Early progressive rock groups expanded the timbral palette of the then-traditional rock instrumentation of guitar, organ, bass, and drums by adding less typical instruments, such as flute, saxophone and violin, and exploring the capabilities of new electronic keyboards, synthesizers, and electronic effects. Modern progressive rock artists continue the tradition of experimenting with new and different sounds and instruments. Some instruments – most notably, the Moog synthesizer and the Mellotron – have become closely associated with the genre.
Rhythm: Drawing on their classical, jazz, and experimental influences, progressive rock artists explore a variety of time signatures, syncopation, polyrhythms, and tempo changes uncommon to mainstream rock. The lack of a single, steady beat marks progressive rock as a genre less concerned with danceability than with listening.
Melody and Harmony: Music critic Piero Scaruffi argues that progressive rock has less of a melodic focus than other types of rock; he states that "progressive-rock is rock music that is not mainly melodic" In prog rock, the blues inflections of mainstream rock are often supplanted by jazz and classical influences. Melodies are more likely to be modal than based on the pentatonic scale. Chords and chord progressions are also frequently modal, and augmented with 6ths, 7ths, 9ths, and compound intervals; and the I-IV-V progression is much less common. Allusions to, or even direct quotes from, well-known classical themes are common. Some bands have explored atonal or dissonant harmonies, and a few have even worked with rudimentary serialism.
Texture and imagery: Ambient soundscapes and theatrical elements are often used to describe scenes, events or other aspects of the concept. A Wagner-style leitmotif is used to represent the various characters in Genesis' "Harold the Barrel" and "Robbery, Assault and Battery." The sounds of clocks and cash registers are used to represent time and money in Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon.
Technology: To aid their timbral exploration, progressive rock bands are often early adopters of new electronic musical instruments and technologies. Emerson Lake and Palmer pioneered use of the Moog synthesizer and the mellotron was a signature sound of early progressive bands such as the Moody Blues, King Crimson, and Genesis. In the late 1970s, Robert Fripp, of King Crimson, and Brian Eno developed an analog tape loops effect (Frippertronics). In the 1980s, Frank Zappa used the Synclavier for composing and recording, and King Crimson utilized MIDI-enabled guitars, a Chapman Stick, and electronic percussion.
Concept albums: Though not unique to progressive rock, collections of songs unified by an elaborate, overarching theme or story are common to the genre. As progressive rock songs are, themselves, quite long, such collections have frequently exceeded the maximum length of recorded media, resulting in packages that require multiple vinyl discs, cassettes, or even compact discs to present a single album. Concepts have included the historical, fantastical, and metaphysical, and even, in the case of Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick, poking fun at concept albums.
Lyrical themes: Even outside of concept albums, progressive rock often has lyrical ambition similar to its musical ambition – avoiding typical rock/pop subjects such as love, dancing, etc. and focusing on the kinds of themes found in literature. Lyricists such as Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Peter Hammill (Van Der Graaf Generator), and Pete Sinfield (King Crimson and ELP) wrote elaborate lyrics combining introspection, social commentary, and poetic influences. Genesis often wrote surreal stories in their lyrics, while Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) combined social criticism with the personal struggles with greed, madness, and death. Literature, mythology, and folklore are also common themes and influences of progressive rock. Though fantasy and science-fiction themes are much less prevalent than some critics claim, they are part of the common stereotype of progressive rock.
Presentation: Album art and packaging is often an important part of the artistic concept. This trend began with The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and played a major part in the marketing of progressive rock. Some bands became as well-known for the art direction of their albums as for their sound, with the "look" integrated into the band's overall musical identity. This led to fame for particular artists and design studios, most notably Roger Dean for his work with Yes, and Storm Thorgerson and his studio Hipgnosis for their work with Pink Floyd and several other progressive rock groups.
Stage theatrics: Beginning in the early 1970s, some progressive rock bands began incorporating elaborate and sometimes flamboyant stage theatrics into their concerts. Genesis lead singer Peter Gabriel wore many different colourful and exotic costumes in one show, and the band used lasers and giant mirrors synchronized with the music. Yes incorporated futuristic stage sets designed by Roger Dean, including massive spaceship props and complex lighting. Yes also performed 'in-the-round', with the band on a round stage set up in the middle of the arena. Jethro Tull released rabbits onstage (see here). One of ELP's many stage antics include Emerson's "flying piano" at the California Jam concert, in which a Steinway grand piano would be spun from a hoist.
Pink Floyd used many stage effects, including crashing airplanes, a giant floating pig, massive projection screens, and, in 1980, an enormous mock brick wall for The Wall performances. Rush incorporated lasers and film backdrops into their stage show. Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention used a giant giraffe prop and did improvisational comedy skits. Marillion's former lead singer Fish wore a jester costume inspired by the band's first album, Script for a Jester's Tear.
All Music Guide and ProgressiveRock.com have both cited the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as a turning point or where progressive rock starts. Earlier albums such as Rubber Soul and Revolver had begun incorporating Eastern music and instruments not common in rock music. The Beatles popularized the mellotron in "Strawberry Fields Forever" which later became important in progressive rock. Phil Collins would later claim that the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" opened up the avenues for progressive rock.
Music critic Piero Scaruffi claims that "[t]echnically speaking ... progressive-rock began in 1967 with Cream and The Nice" which he describes as "groups that reacted to the simple, melodic, three-minute pop of the early Beatles. Though this contradicts that the Beatles using Eastern Instruments and Classical Music influenced future progressive rock acts like Yes and King Crimson." However, he notes that if "a more stringent definition, one that considers ambition" is used, this "would push the birth date [ahead] to the Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow (1968) and the Who's Tommy (1969)."
In 1966, the band 1-2-3, later renamed Clouds, began experimenting with song structures, improvisation, and multi-layered arrangements. In March of that year, The Byrds released "Eight Miles High", a pioneering psychedelic rock single with lead guitar heavily influenced by the jazz soloing style of John Coltrane. Later that year, The Who released "A Quick One While He's Away", the first example of the rock opera form and considered by some the first prog epic.
In 1967, Jeff Beck released the single "Beck's Bolero", inspired by Maurice Ravel's Bolero, and, later that year, Procol Harum released the Bach-influenced single "A Whiter Shade of Pale". Also in 1967, the Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed, combining classical-inspired orchestral music with traditional rock instrumentation and song structures. Pink Floyd's first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, contained the nearly ten-minute improvisational psychedelic instrumental "Interstellar Overdrive". In 1968, Big Brother and the Holding Company incorporated Bach's prelude from The Well Tempered Clavier into their cover of George Gershwin's "Summertime".
By the late 1960s many rock bands had begun incorporating instruments from classical and Eastern music, as well as experimenting with improvisation and lengthier compositions. Some, such as the UK's Soft Machine, began to experiment with blends of rock and jazz. By the end of the decade, other bands like Deep Purple and the Nice had also recorded classical-influenced albums with full orchestras: Concerto for Group and Orchestra and Five Bridges, respectively.
Music critic Piero Scaruffi argues that the "bands that nurtured prog-rock through its early stages were Traffic, Jeff Beck, Family, Jethro Tull and Genesis; while King Crimson, Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator represent the genre at its apex". Numerous key bands had formed by the end of the 1960s, including The Moody Blues (1964), Pink Floyd (1965), Soft Machine (1966), Gong (1967), Genesis (1967), Jethro Tull (1967), The Nice (1967), The United States of America (1967), Uriel (1967), Yes (1968), Caravan (1968), The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (1968), King Crimson (1969) and Gentle Giant (1969), although not all of these bands were then playing what might be considered progressive rock.
Although almost all of these bands were from the UK, the genre was growing popular elsewhere in continental Europe. Triumvirat led Germany's significant progressive rock movement, Flame Dream hailed from Switzerland, Focus formed in the Netherlands, France produced Ange, Gong and Magma, and Aphrodite's Child has its origin in Greece. Scandinavia was represented by Norwegian band Popol Vuh, Swedish band Kaipa and Finnish Wigwam. Italian progressive rock is sometimes considered a genre unto itself, highlighted by bands like Area, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Le Orme, Goblin, PFM, Museo Rosenbach, Il Balletto di Bronzo, and Locanda Delle Fate. Spain produced numerous groups including Canarios and Triana.
Prog also had a presence in Latin America, producing bands such as Brazil's Arion, and Os Mutantes, who combined elements of traditional Brazilian music with psychedelic rock, classical, jazz and experimental sounds, Argentina's La Máquina de hacer pájaros,and later Seru Giran (the early albums), both formed by Charly Garcia, who use to combined classical music arrengements with jazz, Chile's Los Jaivas and Congreso, who combined the rock sound of electric guitars and keyboards with Latin American rhythms (especially from the Andes) such as Wayno, Joropo, Cotahiqui, Diablada, among others and Perú's Frágil who played a very melodic form of progressive rock.
A strong element of avant-garde and counter-culture has long been associated with a great deal of progressive rock. In the 1970s, Chris Cutler of Henry Cow helped to form a loose collective of artists referred to as Rock in Opposition, or RIO, to make a statement against the music industry. The original members included Henry Cow, Samla Mammas Manna, Univers Zero, and later Art Zoyd, Art Bears, and Aqsak Maboul. The RIO movement was short-lived, but the artists included some of the originators of Avant-progressive rock, which used dark melodies, angular progressions, dissonance, free-form playing and a disregard for conventional structure.
Peak in popularity and decline
Music historians used a variety of terms to sub-categorize 1970s progressive rock. Though some Miles Davis-inspired artists like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and Return to Forever were considered jazz fusion, others who incorporated the same influence formed the jazz-rock oriented Canterbury scene sub-genre of progressive rock.
Yes brought in former Refugee keyboardist Patrick Moraz for their Relayer album, and his style and ARP synthesizers lent a much more jazz-inflected sound than Wakeman's Moog. Genesis drummer Phil Collins formed a group called Brand X, and former Yes/King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford started a solo band, Bruford; both bands had a strong jazz/fusion edge.
Progressive rock's popularity peaked in the mid-1970s, when prog artists regularly topped readers' votes in mainstream popular music magazines in England and America, and albums like Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells topped the charts. By this time, several North American progressive rock bands had been formed. Kansas, which had actually existed in one form or another since 1971, became one of the most commercially successful of all progressive rock bands.
Likewise, Electric Light Orchestra, who formed in 1970 as a progressive offshoot of "The Beatles sound," saw their greatest success during the mid-1970s. Pop star Todd Rundgren moved into prog with his new band, Utopia. Toronto's Rush became a major band, with a string of hit albums extending from the mid-1970s to the present. Also influential, but less commercially successful, were the Dixie Dregs, from Georgia, and Happy The Man, of Washington D.C.
Music critic Piero Scaruffi opines that Emerson Lake & Palmer "pushed progressive-rock towards technical excesses that, basically, obliterated whatever merit their jazz-classical fusion had." Scaruffi claims that ELP's music, which became "ever more pretentious and magniloquent, was founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of what "virtuoso" means." Bruce Eder claims that "[t]he rot" [in progressive rock "started to set in during 1976, the year ELP released their live album Welcome Back My Friends." Eder claims that this album was "[s]uffering from poor sound and uninspired playing" which "stretched the devotion of fans and critics even thinner." He claims that "[t]he end [of progressive rock] came quickly: by 1977, the new generation of listeners was even more interested in a good time than the audiences of the early 1970s, and they had no patience for 30 minute prog-rock suites or concept albums based on Tolkien-esque stories." He asserts that by the late 1970s and early 1980s, "ELP was barely functioning as a unit, and not producing music with any energy; Genesis was redefining themselves ... as a pop-rock band; and Yes was back to doing songs running four minutes ... and even releasing singles." 
In 1974, four of progressive rock's biggest bands – Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis and King Crimson – all went on indefinite hiatus or experienced personnel changes. Members of Yes and ELP left to pursue solo work, as did Genesis lead singer Peter Gabriel (though Genesis would continue with Phil Collins as lead vocalist), and Robert Fripp announced the end of King Crimson after the release of their Red album. When, in 1977, Yes and ELP reformed, they had some success, but were unable to capture the dominance they previously had.
With the advent of punk rock in the late 1970s, critical opinion in England moved toward a simpler and more aggressive style of rock, with progressive bands increasingly dismissed as pretentious and overblown, ending progressive rock's reign as one of the leading styles in rock. This development is often seen as part of wider commercial turn in popular music in the second half of the 1970s, during which many funk or soul bands switched to disco, and smooth jazz gained popularity over jazz fusion.
However, established progressive bands still had a strong fan base; Rush, Genesis, ELP, Yes, and Pink Floyd all regularly scored Top Ten albums with massive accompanying tours, the largest yet for some of them. After 1977 even early heavy metal/hard rock stalwarts Led Zeppelin would exhibit an increasingly prog-influenced sound on their Presence and In Through the Out Door albums.
By 1979, by which time punk had mutated into New Wave, Pink Floyd released their rock opera The Wall, one of the best selling albums in history. Many bands which emerged in the aftermath of punk, such as Siouxsie and The Banshees, Cabaret Voltaire, Ultravox, Simple Minds, and Wire, all showed the influence of prog, as well as their more usually recognised punk influences.
The early 1980s saw something of a revival of the genre, led by artists such as Marillion, IQ, Pendragon, Galahad, Mach One, Pallas, and Saga. The Groups that arose during this time are sometimes termed neo-progressive, neo-prog, or occasionally the New Wave of British Prog Rock. Bands of this style were influenced by 70s progressive rock groups like Genesis, Yes and Camel, but incorporated some elements that were reflective of the New Wave and other rock elements found in the 1980s. The digital synthesiser became a prominent instrument in the style. Neo-prog continued to remain viable into the '90s and beyond with bands like Arena, Jadis, Collage and Iluvatar. Their sound was generally similar in style and sound to neo-prog pioneers like Marillion and IQ, which differentiated them from the emerging Third Wave movement in the 1990s.
Some progressive rock stalwarts changed musical direction, simplifying their music and making it more commercially viable. In 1981, King Crimson made a surprise comeback with a different lineup (with only Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford as returning veterans from the previous incarnation), incorporating a more techno-rhythmic sound with a slight New Wave slant similar to Talking Heads, from which band new lead singer Adrian Belew came. 1981 also saw the release of Rush's Moving Pictures album, from which the song "Tom Sawyer" would become one of the band's most popular. In 1982, the much anticipated supergroup Asia, composed of Steve Howe (Yes), Carl Palmer (ELP), John Wetton (King Crimson), and Geoff Downes (Buggles/Yes), surprised progressive rock fans with their pop-oriented debut album. The Top 5 single "Heat of the Moment" rotated heavily on MTV for years, while the first Asia album established a sales record for 1982. This demonstrated a market for more commercialised British progressive rock – a style very similar to that played by North American Top 40 stalwarts such as Styx, Foreigner, Boston, and Journey. Kansas flirted with Christian rock under new lead singer John Elefante (with Kerry Livgren and Dave Hope eventually leaving to start a Christian rock band, AD), then with the addition of Deep Purple's Steve Morse and the return of lead singer Steve Walsh, went in this direction as well.
Other British bands followed Asia's lucrative example. In 1983, Genesis achieved some international success with Mama, a song with heavy emphasis on a drum machine riff, signaling the band's change to a more commercial direction during the 1980s. Also in 1983, Yes had a surprise comeback with 90125, featuring their only number one (US) single, "Owner of a Lonely Heart". Written by guitarist Trevor Rabin before joining the group, "Owner" was accessible enough to be played at discos (and more recently has been remixed into a trance single). Often sampled by hip-hop artists, "Owner" also incorporated contemporary electronic effects, courtesy of producer (and former member) Trevor Horn. Likewise, Pink Floyd's A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987 was a departure from their former concept albums, featuring much shorter songs and an altogether more electronic sound.
1990s and early 2000s
The progressive rock genre enjoyed another revival in the 1990s. A notable kickoff to this revival were a trio of Swedish bands: Änglagård, Anekdoten and Landberk, who hit the scene in 1992-1993. Later came the so-called "Third Wave", spearheaded by such bands as Sweden's The Flower Kings, the UK's Porcupine Tree, Italy's Finisterre, and from the United States, Dream Theater, Spock's Beard, Echolyn, Proto-Kaw (a reincarnation of an early lineup of Kansas) and Glass Hammer. Arjen Anthony Lucassen, with the backing of an array of talent from the progressive rock genre, produced a series of innovative concept albums (Ayreon) starting from 1995.
In recent years, one of the more commercially viable categories of prog has been progressive metal, which mixes some of the common elements associated with progressive rock (lengthy compositions, concept albums, odd time signatures, extended instrumentals, virtuosity, jazz fusion influences) with the power and attitude associated with metal. Prog metal often gives a prominent role to keyboard instruments, in addition to using shred-style electric guitar solos, such as fusion-influenced Planet X and Mr. Big.
Several of the leading bands in the prog-metal genre – Dream Theater (U.S.), Ayreon (Netherlands), Opeth (Sweden), Fates Warning (U.S.) and Queensrÿche (U.S.) – cite pioneer progressive hard-rockers Rush as a primary influence, although their music exhibits influences from more traditional metal bands such as Black Sabbath or Deep Purple as well. Tool have cited pioneers King Crimson as an influence on their work. King Crimson opened for Tool on their 2001 tour and expressed admiration for the group while continuing to deny the "prog" label.
Progressive rock has also served as a key inspiration for genres such as post-rock, avant-garde metal, neo-classical metal and symphonic metal. Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy has acknowledged that the prominent use of progressive elements and qualities in metal is not confined to bands conventionally classified as "progressive metal". Many underground metal styles (especially extreme metal styles, which are characterised by extremely fast or slow speed, high levels of distortion, a technical or atmospheric, epic orientation and often abrupt tempo changes, highly unusual melodies, scales, vocal styles, and song structures) and some seminal bands such as Watchtower, Celtic Frost (a highly innovative band having pioneered several styles) or The 3rd and the Mortal remain poorly known even to genre fans.
Former members of the pioneering post-hardcore band At the Drive-In, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez went on to form The Mars Volta, a successful progressive band that incorporates jazz, funk, punk rock, Latin music, and ambient noise into songs that range in length from a few minutes to more than thirty. They have achieved some crossover success, with their 2005 album Frances the Mute reaching #4 on the Billboard 200 chart after the single "The Widow" became a hit on modern rock radio.
The first decade of the 2000s were also the years when progressive rock gained more popularity in eastern Europe, especially in Russia, where the InProg festival gained popularity and bands like Little Tragedies, EXIT project, Kostarev Group and Disen Gage reached major success in the Russian rock scene and were noted outside Russia. Other north and eastern European bands worth mentioning are the Latvian band Olive Mess and the Polish band Riverside.
New England-based Dreadnaught USA represents a modern take on progressive rock self described as "Progabilly"; a blend of progressive rock and roots-based rock.
Renewed interest in progressive rock in the 1990s led to the development of festivals. ProgFest began in 1993, in UCLA's Royce Hall and featured Sweden's Änglagård, England's IQ, Quill and Citadel. ProgDay, held at Storybook Farm near Chapel Hill, North Carolina began in 1995 and was still being held as of 2007. A Southern California festival called CalProg held every year at Whittier in LA. (). NEARfest held its first event in 1999 in Bethlehem, PA and has held annual concerts ever since. An international festival called InProg has been held in Moscow, Russia, since 2001. Most of the performers at this festival are from Russia, but there are also bands from other countries.
Other festivals include the annual Rites of Spring Festival (RoSfest) in Glenside, PA, The Rogue Independent Music Festival (or Rogue Fest) in Atlanta, GA, Baja Prog in Mexicali, Mexico, CalProg in Whittier, CA, Prog In The Park in Rochester, NY, Gouveia Art Rock in Portugal, Prog Sud in Marseille (France), Tiana in Barcelona (Spain), Progfarm in Holland, Rio Art Rock Festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and ProgPower USA in Atlanta, Georgia.
Progressive Nation is being held in 2008 featuring progressive metal bands Dream Theater, Opeth, Between the Buried and Me, and Three.
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- Piero Scaruffi
- Brian Hogg, The History of Scottish Rock and Pop. (BBC/Guiness Publishing)
- '1-2-3 and the Birth of Prog,' Mojo, Nov. 1994
- The Who at progarchives.com
- The album had actually been released in 1974
- "The Early History of Art-Rock/Prog Rock" by Bruce Eder (All-Music Guide Essay). Available at: http://www.vanguardchurch.com/the_history_of_art_rock.htm
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- Eyes Wide Open
- Mike Portnoy Pledges Alliance to One Nation Under Prog
- An Overview of Metal Genres on GEPR
- Interview with Christofer Johnsson, leader of symphonic metal pioneers Therion
- http://www.progday.com/ ProgDay home page
- http://rosfest.com RoSfest home page