A Different Kind of Progressive
Prog rock preserves Western traditions.

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


Unlike any other form of popular music, progressive rock always takes its time in developing, and it often plays with notions of time, not just in the time signatures, but in the lyrics and the concepts as well. While J. R. R. Tolkien probably never listened to progressive rock (though Arthur C. Clarke did), it’s hard to believe his elves in Rivendell or Lothlorien did not. Even jazz has only a few examples of concept albums, such as Miles Davis’s brilliant Sketches of Spain. In this, progressive rock has far more in common with ancient and medieval poetic epics, 18th-century symphonies, and 19th-century song cycles.

As my non-prog friend from the beginning of this piece noted after enjoying Big Big Train’s 23-minute masterpiece, “The Underfall Yard,” “I wish you’d told me how long it was going to be. When I started listening to it, I had no idea I’d miss dinner.”

I’ve never been shy about my love of progressive rock. I’ve been listening to it since the very early 1970s. Though I wasn’t born until the second half of 1967, I had much older brothers who introduced me to a lot of it, all good, at a very young age. As far back as I can remember, Yes, Kansas, and the Moody Blues were played in our house. Indeed, our local radio station, Wichita’s KICT-95FM, played album rock and progressive rock from as early as I was aware of such things. We also listened to much classical music, but regular pop music never really held any sway in the Birzer household.

Many of my own personal moments — the type of moments so vital to a person’s memory, personality, and makeup — come from awareness of certain albums. I stared for hours at the Roger Dean paintings inside Yessongs as a young boy; Genesis’s “And Then There Were Three” first played in my ears the night I saw Bill Buckley destroy a Russian ambassador in a debate on TV; I first heard Pink Floyd’s The Wall while visiting my oldest brother at the University of Notre Dame, and the next day we sat in Zahm Hall and watched the Americans beat the Soviets in hockey; Brad Liddy and Troy Swartz introduced me to Rush’s Moving Pictures as we shared an unjust detention at Liberty Junior High, spring 1981; an advance copy of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden shocked me to my very core in 1988 after I returned to Notre Dame, having just spent my sophomore year at the University of Innsbruck; Marillion’s Afraid of Sunlight sustained me during our Cecilia Rose’s death in a way comparable only to the security provided by T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” And, the list goes on.

Though these particulars are mine, I’m certainly not alone in having had such music influence so many aspects of who I am.

Serious listeners of prog rock in North America include classical guitarist and award-winning poet Kevin McCormick; economist Steven Horwitz; philosophers Chris Morrissey, Aeon Skoble, Lee Cole, John Hittinger, and Khalil Habib; sociologist Pete Blum; political theorist Will Ruger; cultural critic S. T. Karnick (who wrote about this very topic on this very website, nearly a decade ago); art professor Greg Scheckler; theologian and Ignatius Insight editor Carl Olson; University of Georgia archivist Craig Breaden; entrepreneur and social activist Mike D’Virgilio (who also happens to be the brother of Nick D’Virgilio, one of the best living rock drummers); and, as he admitted this past weekend, Reagan biographer Steven Hayward.

By no means a shabby list.