Progressive rock seems to have staged a comeback of sorts recently. One need look no further than Rush, who loaned their 1975 song "Fly by Night" for a current car commercial or that Yes still draws a good crowd even with a substitute singer recruited from a cover band. Likewise, those who caught Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson at the Fillmore recently can attest to the fact that even an album that's 40 years old -- in this case, Thick As A Brick -- can still sound as sturdy as ever.
A product of the late '60s and early '70s, Prog came into favor with the rise of underground radio and its intrusion into the realms of the once-dominant Top 40. This was due in no small part to the changing tastes of the listening populace who embraced new sounds and indulged in new chemical substances. Call it nostalgia or merely a renewed appreciation for those more sophisticated sounds, but it seems there's a revival.
Suddenly we find Emerson Lake and Palmer getting renewed love via recent reissues (Tarkus), and even obscure English outfits like Van Der Graaf Generator offering up a new album (the all-instrumental Alt) and exhuming an old concert from the archives (Live in Concert at Metropolis Studios, London).
Mostly though, this represents the work of some old vets getting back to biz, either under their own auspices or in new configurations. Asia, for example, prog's first self-proclaimed super group, recently reconvened with its original line-up (ELP drummer Carl Palmer, Yes guitarist Steve Howe, Buggles keyboardist Geoff Downes, and bassist/vocalist for hire John Wetton) to claim its birthright after being usurped by a floating cast of characters who used their name. Thirty years after their bestselling debut, with their new album which is titled like a porno flick, Asia XXX, the foursome sounds as epic and assured as ever.
Not to be outdone, Palmer's former band mate -- the 'E' in ELP, Keith Emerson -- has his own project, a collection of modern classical compositions entitled Three Fates Project. With eleven tracks on the album -- including several symphonic-like interpretations from the ELP catalogue -- the three fates in question are likely Emerson and his two new collaborators, guitarist Marc Bonilla and German composer Terje Mikkelsen. It's not exactly ELP, but the high-minded ambition, pomp, and pretense bring it close enough for comparison.
Prog fans will likely find more to cheer about with the release of Life Within A Day, the debut album from one-time Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett and current Yes bassist Chris Squire. (Squire plus Hackett equals Squackett. Get it?) The pair do a fair approximation of Yes in their heyday, all odd time signatures, assertive sonic aptitude and trademark high harmonies. It's easy to imagine that in concert they could easily segue from any of these songs into a reliable take on "Roundabout." And if they don't now, they ought to seriously consider it.
Likewise, another new U.K. combo, Tin Spirits, play within the same parameters with their new disc, Wired To Earth, and while the membership is mostly made up of unknowns, the inclusion of XTC guitarist Dave Gregory gives them a marquee name they can bank on. Likewise, given the fact that nearly every track is more like a series of suites, the prog principle that dictates that the more complex the better is strictly adhered to. This ain't no "Do Wah Diddy."
Then there's Marillion, one of Britain's most reliable prog purveyors of the past 30 years. Once seen as successors to Genesis, circa the Peter Gabriel era, their artful approximation of that band's sound and stance has given way to a mix of agile arrangements, instrumental dexterity and heady aspirations. The title of their new disc, Sounds That Can't Be Made, seems a bit ironic, but in truth it's a decent description of the music contained within. The sounds they make are striking.
Those that eschew traditional melodies and more accessible song styles might want to opt for the angular avante garde construct of Battles, a band that pursues a more deconstructed path in terms of their oblique rhythms and obtuse elements. Indeed, the hum-resistant tracks included on their two recent twin albums Dross Glop and Gloss Drop are fairly intimidating and definitely defy description. Still, in this instance, it's not so much a matter of where they're coming from as it is trying to figure out exactly where they're going. Fans of bands like Faust and Can take note -- Battles are poised to become the new art rock idols.
You've been forewarned.