Styles & Forms | Prog Rock

‘To boldly go where no band has gone before ...’ could have been the motto of the progressive rock bands. Taking rock music to places it had never been in terms of harmony and structure. They tend to favour long songs with lengthy instrumentals, guitar and keyboards being the foremost instruments, with an emphasis on instrumental dexterity and virtuosity.

Many prog rock songs have different sections or parts, like a classical symphony. For example, Yes’s ‘Starship Trooper’ from The Yes Album (1971) has three different sections – Life Seeker, Disillusion and Würm. Essentially, prog rock is music of the mind rather than music of the body.

Inspired by the psychedelic scene of the late-1960s, bands such as The Nice, The Moody Blues and Procol Harum started writing a strain of music influenced by classical and symphonic sounds and musical structures, producing a form of symphonic rock which laid the foundation for progressive rock. This can be heard in Procol Harum’s debut single and best-known song, ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ (1967) in which the chord progression was influenced by J. S. Bach.

The late-1960s saw the beginnings of two of the longest lasting progressive rock bands, King Crimson and Yes, who took instrumental virtuosity and songwriting structures to new levels. King Crimson’s stunning debut In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969), which includes their trademark song ‘20th Century Schizoid Man’, not only has the instrumental prowess associated with prog rock, but also rocks harder than the other prog rockers. After distinctly psychedelic beginnings, Yes forged their unique identity on Close To The Edge (1972), with album side length ‘suites’ enabling all five band members to flex their musical muscles.

Some prog rockers put on theatrical stage shows, and Genesis’ then-lead singer Peter Gabriel would wear bizarre costumes as a visual extension of the music. Genesis made the transition to mainstream rock/pop band in the 1980s, but in the early 1970s they were a prog rock band, as can be heard on Foxtrot (1972). Three already established musicians, Emerson, Lake And Palmer formed the first prog rock ‘supergroup’ (a group formed by members who had already made a name for themselves in other groups) and their reworking of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition (1972) took the combination of classical and rock to its logical extreme with a band reworking a piece of classical music.

Pink Floyd started their career as a psychedelic band, then after songwriter Syd Barrett left they moved more towards progressive rock, although Barrett’s replacement David Gilmour brought a distinct blues influence, something rarely found in progressive bands. Pink Floyd managed to make prog rock more accessible with their best-selling album Dark Side Of The Moon (1973), curbing the excesses of the genre.

To their critics, the prog rockers were overblown and self-indulgent, as epitomized by Yes’s notorious triple concept album Tales Of Topographic Oceans (1974), or quite simply BOFs (‘boring old farts’); they were also perceived...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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