For fans of progressive rock — a genre most widely known for Yes, Jethro Tull, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Rush, Dream Theater, and Mars Volta — there exists a useful web community called ProgArchives. If you hear for the first time of the existence of a prog-rock band, there’s a good chance you can find several reviews of them by ProgArchives members. Any given review there has a solid 50/50 chance of being competent, and is usually written, even if negative/ disappointed, with the helpful enthusiasm of a fan rather than any kind of elitist snobbery. I’ve been vaguely aware of them for years. But this past summer — happy upon my discovery that folks there understand what a brilliant late-career revival Jethro Tull’s Roots to Branches was — I decided to use their easy database search to learn what new albums ProgArchives users rated most highly, and read those reviews to find exciting new things to try.
I’ll probably do that once or twice a year from now on. Still, if I don’t, the reason why not will be simple: the bulk of what I found didn’t impress me. Progressive rock is named for a hippie-era idea of progress: that all musics would blend into something new that everyone could enjoy together. Listen to ’70s Yes albums, for example, and you’re hearing a band making something new out of hymns, hard rock, classical, soul, folk, and various 3rd-world musics … and by Relayer and Going for the One they were either listening to the avant-garde, or simply being it. Listening to ProgArchives finds like the Flower Kings, Threshold, and Distorted Harmony, on the other hand, I felt I was hearing bands that grew up obsessed with progressive rock: bands engaged in ancestor worship. Which is admirable; their records are fine. I simply saw no reason to choose the apprentices over the masters; to choose bands saying “You taught us everything we know!” over bands that could say “But we didn’t teach you everything *we* know, silly”.
Then again: if it weren’t for ProgArchives’s 2012 list, I wouldn’t have Profusion‘s Rewotower. (Or two albums too recently purchased for a shot at my top fifty. Magma’s Felicite Thosz is a rock album that’s short and weird, but cheerful, pretty, and bursting with vocal harmonies. iamthemorning‘s ~ is full of lovely, austere, classical/romantic piano songs). Profusion come from Italy, a strange land where I gather it’s still normal for young people to listen to classical and folk musics. Their songs are expertly-played and well-structured — virtues normal to progressive rock — but they’re also full of catchy hooks of many sorts. Listening to Profusion, it is obvious that you’re supposed to have a good time; and they haven’t pre-decided who the “you” of that goal are.
A few tracks of note: Ghost House suggests Rush if they’d combined their pre-stardom time-signature games, their Tom Sawyer / Spirit of Radio synth-rock mass appeal, and Geddy Lee’s later, lower, de-shrieked melodious voice. So Close But Alone starts as an elegant mainstream piano ballad, then morphs gently into a Latino dance song; it also futzes with time signatures, but unless you’re dancing, you’re unlikely to notice. Tkeshi is a soft, gorgeous interlude of acoustic guitar and African drums and chanting. Chuta Chani starts as a mix of classy string quartet and ominous bass-with-tribal-drums; brings in heavy metal guitar, classical guitar, and hymnal ambience; then launches into a pop-song chorus with the sort of over-the-top gloriousness that — as I’ve heard of no triumphant Queen/ ABBA collaborations (or even any dire ones) — I associate only with Japanese chart-pop. (Then there’s a dazzling synthesizer solo.) The Tower – Part 1 is progressive metal, but the kind you write when you know classical and jazz music — and heck, possibly Richard Marx — as well as Rush and Dream Theater.
As for The Tower – Part 2, mostly an instrumental, it reminds me of those Joe Satriani guitar-god albums that critics scorn. But many people enjoy those, because the playing really is exceptional, and for these 5 minutes 30 seconds, I know I’m siding against the critics. Rewotower is an album made by people who spent thousands of hours developing the skills to put on a quality show, and tens of thousands of listening hours figuring out all the things a quality show might sound like.
– Brian Block