A Different Kind of Progressive
Prog rock preserves Western traditions.

Peter Gabriel fronts Genesis in the band’s early years.


Third, prog is rarely about attitude, unlike much rock music (think everyone from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to the Ramones), or about fame (think everyone from the early Beatles to Madonna to Lady Gaga), or about social change (think everyone from Buffalo Springfield to Janis Joplin to Bono to . . . are there any young pop artists concerned about real social change?), but about serious, penetrating, and pervasive art. As art, prog certainly can include attitude, fame, social change, and almost anything else imaginable, but none of these things serves as the prime motivator in progressive rock. Art does.

Fourth, as mentioned in the second point, progressive artists thoroughly enjoy creating an atmosphere, sometimes a self-contained world through which the entire package is birthed: the music, the lyrics, the album art, as well as the live presentation. 

As to live performances, no group or person took this further than Peter Gabriel did when he served as lead singer and flautist for Genesis in the first half of the 1970s. Gabriel would don a myriad of costumes and act out a variety of roles, often spontaneously and to the surprise of the other members of the group. The outrageous costumes hindered not only the projection of Gabriel’s voice, but, through his clumsiness, the integrity of the equipment necessary for live performance.

In regards to album art, one can almost always identify a Talk Talk album by its James Marsh cover, and a Big Big Train album by its Jim Trainer cover. But of the artists associated with prog acts, Roger Dean is probably the most famous and iconic. His art for the English group Yes — found on the front and back covers as well as in the inside sleeves and liner notes — in the early 1970s is not only gorgeous but inviting. The themes evolved gradually from album to album. Often, Dean’s art depicted lush worlds, held together in a mystical fashion, with technology serving people in a humane and organic way. While there was a hippie-ish element in the scenes, they were no more outrageous than what Romano Guardini promoted in the 1920s, Wilhelm Roepke and Russell Kirk in the 1950s, and Robert Heinlein in the 1960s. Indeed, I can’t help thinking the leader of the modern crunchy cons, Rod Dreher, might approve of such art as humane and natural at once.

Perhaps the most important aspect of progressive rock is found in this fourth point. Progressive rock does not aim to move the heart or the passions in the way most rock music does. Instead, it aims to harmonize soul and mind and connect the horizontal to the vertical, the sea to the sky. It invites the listener in as a participant, immersing him fully into the art rather than placing the art (if most pop music can be called art) next to or near the listener.

As such, progressive rock is to rock music what Imagism (e.g., T. E. Hulme and T. S. Eliot) is to poetry. It takes a modern form, and it fills and animates it with a well-ordered soul, an essence commensurate with its form.

But again, prog rock is not easily defined. A fifth and final point about its definition is this: Progressive-rock concepts rarely can be explained in the span of a two- or three-minute song. Genesis took 94 minutes to tell the story of Rael in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; Rush took 21 minutes to tell the story of failure to resist tyranny in “2112”; Jethro Tull needed 44 minutes for the story of Gerald Bostock in Thick as a Brick; Marillion took 71 minutes to reveal a suicide in Brave; and Big Big Train took 58 minutes for a man to die and examine his life in The Difference Machine.