Duncan Henderson, Contributing Writer
The phrases “rock music” and “intellectually stimulating” are phrases you probably never imagined being in close proximity to one another. But indeed, there exists a subgenre of rock dating back to the ’60s and ’70s — progressive rock — that boasts a massive catalogue of awe-inspiring and yes, intelligent music. Progressive rock, often called “prog rock,” is simply rock that aspires to expand the boundaries and definitions of what rock is. It combines the catchiness and accessibility of rock music with the formal intellectual tradition of classical music, synthesizing the high and the low into a wonderful new whole. Musicians do not form a prog rock band to make money. They do so in an attempt to create an artistic statement. It’s rock for the thinking man.
For the prog artist, musical boundaries and the standard pop-song formula become positively staid; he seeks instead to create something new and exciting. Every part of the song becomes a new possibility. Songs become more like miniature symphonies, marching to five, 10, even 20 minutes in length. Musicians grab instruments from all over the world — depending on the band, you may hear synthesizers; saxophones; a Greek bouzouki; Celtic low whistles and uilleann pipes; or even a complete orchestra blending with the standard instruments of rock.
Love songs are a rarity indeed. Prog lyricists write songs of fantasy, mythology, spirituality and philosophy or simply create album-length stories that are told through the lyrics and the music, the rock version of program music. Frequently, prog bands find no need for words and simply let their instruments speak alone in instrumental passages and songs. Virtuosity is a must, and nearly every prog artist is guaranteed to be an expert on his instrument. The propensity of prog to surprise and delight is practically limitless.
Odds are, you have heard of some prog bands, but you never really thought of them in this light before. Some of us grew up hearing bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Rush, Genesis or Emerson, Lake & Palmer without realizing their connection to this ambitious movement. These are five of the finest classic prog rock bands, and their masterworks (“Close to the Edge, “Wish You Were Here,” “2112,” “Selling England By the Pound” and “Trilogy,” respectively) are excellent additions to any music lover’s library. Lesser-known bands like The Moody Blues, King Crimson, Camel, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull also crafted masterpieces worthy of investigation.
Prog has continued to evolve into the modern age. Artists like Steven Wilson, Haken, Spock’s Beard, Phideaux and Ayreon continue to carry on the musical legacy of these progressive forefathers. Other bands fuse prog with heavy metal. Bands like Opeth, Riverside, Symphony X, Amorphis and Dream Theater can be intense, serene, majestic or terrifying, but are always deeply rooted in the same thoughtful progressive philosophy.
Needless to say, I’m rather fond of this genre. It is a genre that I believe is uniquely University of Dallas. We actively seek out the Western literary tradition. We engage in dialogue with these books and each other to better understand our world and our place in it. We are not satisfied with a simple answer; we question our world, and we hunger to know why. These values form our UD identity. Should not our music express the same?