What is Progressive Music?

In each and everyday musical conversational exchanges, the mention of the term “progressive rock” or “progressive metal” will result in blank stares that generally lead to the question, “What is progressive music?”.  For clarity, I will use the commonly used shortcut term of “prog to represent the progressive rock and progressive metal genre here.  Newcomers to the genre seem to frequently ask this question in prog discussions.  More so, each person seems to either add more or less to the definition.  I’m not going to write a book here because there is a plethora of prog definitions out there on the internet.  I just want to emphasize the basic properties of prog music as my foundation for my hobby here on PRM.

 As Matthew Rink suggests, way too much emphasis is placed on the idea that the “progressive” adjective suggests, or even requires, that the genre’s music be some sort of ever-evolving entity.  “Progressive” is merely a descriptive term by which to classify music with certain qualities, not an instruction that obligates the music to a strict sense of development.  All genres of music can have progressive characteristics, but I focus primarily on rock/metal.

 Progressive Properties

 1)       Longer songs (or “epics”)

2)       Time changes  (e.g., odd time signatures)

3)       More complex, sophisticated instrumentation and compositions

4)       Superior vocals

5)       More complex conceptual ideas / Heightened, lyrical content

 NOTE:  I personally want to strongly emphasize number 4 (superior vocals) which I use to make my first assessment of a band (or song).  It’s not necessarily my number one criteria for a “passing grade” or “seal of approval”, but it sure helps!

 1)       Longer songs.  Prog bands have a tendency to create long songs (i.e., “epic”) characterized by a combination of greater lyrical content and some very lengthy instrumental passages.  These songs will break away from the traditional verse/chorus song structure and will be broken up into different parts or movements.  This creates something along the lines of an orchestral suite or an album within an album.

2)       Time Changes.  One element that can dub a band as “progressive” is the time change or odd-beat characteristic.  There is a noticeable difference between the structure of songs with really common beats (e.g., 4/4) and those that use diverse and complicated rhythms and/or switch between beats like 7/4, 11/8, 9/4, free-time, etc.  Some people may find certain prog bands hard to “get into”.  This usually stems from songs containing less than conventional song structures that require the listener to work a little to follow along.  Within a few listens, it usually clicks.

 3)       More complex instrumentation. The instrumentation is another element that will separate ordinary rock/metal from progressive rock/metal.  You will find some type of piano, keyboard, synthesizer, strings (violins, cellos, etc.), flute, tympani, and other more peculiar instruments mixed in with the guitar and drums in a prog band’s repertoire in order to setup the “progressive” sound.  Progressive music will tend to have a more classical influence than would be your typical, blues-based rock music.  There is a certain higher standard of talent set by many progressive artists.  Many prog musicians could be considered virtuosos at their respective positions, usually with both passion and technical ability.  I personally coined a descriptive term of “modern classical” to best describe my view of prog rock/metal (and NOT to be confused with “classic rock”)

 4)       Superior vocals.  Another emblematic aspect of prog music (and DEAR TO THIS BROADCASTER’S HEART) is the incredible range and singing ability of many of the genre’s vocalists.  Yes, there is a lot of emphasis on the music, but in most cases, you’ll see wonderful vocals in front of the music.  Emotional Broadway-style displays, multi-part counterpart vocal melodies, and other layered vocal arrangements and choirs not only deliver a message, but also enhance the music, and become a part of it.

 5)       More complex conceptual ideas / Heightened, lyrical content.  Prog artists sometimes undertake massive projects in developing ideas in their songs and albums.  As a rule, lyrics in progressive music tend to be of a more sophisticated and intellectual nature – sometimes fantasy-based, sometimes pure original fiction, and sometimes dealing with heartfelt human emotion.  Many albums tend to be “concept albums” which is a storyline or theme-based work in which the individual songs on an album all relate to one another to either directly recount a story or to immerse the listener into a more abstract experience.

 Several Common Sub-Genres of PROG:

 Ask 100 people what their definition of progressive music is and you’ll probably get 100 different definitions along with multiple sub-genres to confuse you even more!  I list the following as the most commonly known sub-genres recognized in prog rock and metal.

 1).  Progressive rock & progressive metal.  These are two major divisions of prog music from which many other categories can be sub-classified.  Basically, prog metal will combine elements of heavy metal (such as heavily distorted guitars and fast rhythms) with some or all of those prog traits outlined in the above section, while prog rock combines a less "edgy" (rock / hard rock) sound with those aforementioned characteristics.

 2).  Symphonic rock - A relatively easy one, symphonic rock lumps together those bands that seem to draw heavily from incorporating orchestral and classical influences into their music. This term is generally seen attached to 70s progressive bands, though it would not be out of the question to label some of today's bands as such. Still, many of the less progressive metal bands that incorporate symphonic elements will less arguably fall into the category of "power metal" (see below).

 3).  Neo-prog - Generally, neo-prog acts have a very identifiable, keyboard driven sound that seems to have originated with old Genesis.  Bands like IQ, Saga, and Arena are the biggest names in neo-prog currently.

 4).  Art-rock – “Art" is just used primarily as a substitute for "progressive" in most contexts. That said, this term also seems to carry a bit of a tone-downed connotation. That is, many times when a band is being described in this manner, the writer seems to have reservations about classifying the band as a full fledged prog band. This could be more related to the term:  "prog-lite".

 5).  Technical Metal - A term used to describe certain bands that play an especially complex and skilled style of heavy metal music. These bands usually write songs solely for the sake of showcasing the musicians' abilities and expressing creatively and experimentally with music. Often this goes so far as to mean completely abandoning the idea of memorable or emotional song-writing in pursuit of creating stunningly complex material.

 6).  Neo-classical & Power Metal - For the most part, these two go hand in hand. Neo-classical is actually a sub-genre under power metal, and, as its name suggests, describes bands whose sound is a modern-classical sound. Speedy guitar riffs and solos that may sound more like Mozart or Paganini set the stage, while violins, harpsichords, and choirs give a very convincingly classical edge to the music. Among the most "popular " bands of this nature are Symphony X and Stratovarius.  Power metal refers to the genre that speed metal evolved into as bands like Helloween introduced more of a melodic flair and greater variety into the genre. The sound is not necessarily more "powerful" or "louder" in any way, but power metal bands usually have catchier, more anthem-like songs with more fantasy-based subject matter and really strong choruses. Song structure is sometimes is a crescendo around these choruses thus creating a more theatrical, dramatic, and/or emotionally "powerful" sound. This can be quite distinct from progressive metal -- many power metal bands are not really progressive at all, though when they employ symphonic instrumentation or operatic choral effects -- even odd time signatures -- lines between power and progressive metal can become blurred. The bands Symphony X and Angra, for instance, are examples of this type.

 7).  Fusion, Experimental, Broadway metal & Opera metal, Houston-scene rock, Prog-pop, Doom, AOR, Gothic, Melodic, etc - The list goes on and on and on. As you can see, progressive music can be a very broad term.

 For PRM, it is my focus to concentrate on those artists I feel meet the criteria of my overall definition for progressive rock/metal and I will refer to this definition often when I decide whether I broadcast a band’s accomplishments.  Not all artists will have each property characterized in their music, but I believe you will see at least three of the above list that will make the music progressive.  I truly believe what I stream is suitable to all prog fans.  Once in a while, I may go outside the boundaries of the definitions either by accident or for some reason I found the music enlightening and artful.  I make the final decision on whether a band’s music is streamed over my station or not.  I will always assume my listeners enjoy what I stream – nothing more, nothing less, and I base this off the many positive comments/feedback I’ve received over the years.  Negative opinions are not solicited nor warranted.  If bands do not support my philosophy, feel I’m misrepresenting them, then please notify me and will gladly refrain from streaming your material. 

 BROADCASTER’S SIDE NOTE:  I personally do not acknowledge the death metal, growling singing, euphemistically termed as “cookie monster” singing as a part of the definition of “Superior vocals”.  I realize there is art in all music, I do not deny this.  I have listened to many exceptional bands that the instrumentation is a class act – but once the cookies are introduced, I am totally distracted and cannot concentrate on listening. To me, “cookie monster” singing sounds angry, hateful, and “noisy”.  In my opinion, noise is not music.  I’ve set this as my standard and will abide by it always.  On the other hand, I DO make exceptions and have added a small number to this station's library because I find the music is on the "edge" of my boundary.

 (The majority of the contents of this definition must be credited to Matthew A. Rink’s definition found on www.progpages.com)

 Great definition/samples of Prog Rock:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_rock

 Great definition/samples of Prog Metal:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_metal