Progressive Rock

aka: Prog Rock
Primary Stylistic Influences:

Secondary Stylistic Influences:

A subset of rock and roll noteworthy for its intricate arrangements and experimental sound. Originating in the late 1960s, "Prog Rock" often combines stylistic elements from Classical, Jazz, Folk or sometimes electronic implementations, uses non-standard song structures (including complex rhythms and time signatures) and complex instrumental orchestrations, and frequently employ lyrics which are abstract or fantasy-based.

The original idea was to bring some of the sophistication of "legitimate" musical styles to rock, which was still regarded as worthless pop trash. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band featured songs that were (loosely) tied together by a common theme, making it an example of a "song cycle". At around the same time, The Moody Blues recorded their Days of Future Passed album in which a full symphony orchestra accompanied the band and played interludes that connected the songs. Imitators followed. Another major influence on the developing scene was the works of Frank Zappa (with and without the Mothers of Invention), especially 1967's Absolutely Free, which consisted of two side-long suites borrowing liberally from classical music (especially the works of Igor Stravinsky) and including a mini-Rock Opera, "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" (described as a "condensed two-hour musical"). Yet another important Trope Codifier was King Crimson, whose 1969 début album In the Court of the Crimson King proved to be both commercially successful and influential on the genre.

Classically-trained musicians such as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman started to be drawn to rock, and they brought their repertoire with them. This is where Prog gets its modern image of classically-influenced songs with many extended solos, but Art Rock could refer to any attempt to elevate rock from its lowbrow image. This could include pop music with experimental elements (10cc and Roxy Music), and bands that used orchestral instruments (The Electric Light Orchestra). Some bands fused with other styles: Jethro Tull were based on folk music, and the Canterbury bands leaned toward modern jazz. Prog was largely a British phenomenon, although Kansas and Rush were significant examples from America and Canada, respectively. The most commercially successful progressive rock band was Pink Floyd, whose 1973 album The Dark Side Of The Moon famously spent more than ten years on the charts and sold in the tens of millions of copies.

Critics usually dismissed these bands as being "pretentious" (Pink Floyd is the only progressive rock band many rock critics will admit to liking, although even they received their fair share of critical drubbings at the time). Some people just want to have a good time, and prog bands sometimes took themselves far too seriously. Perhaps the most notorious offender was Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans album: it was seen by many as a clear drop in quality from their previous efforts, and it taxed even prog fans' patience by stretching a total of four songs over 2 LPs.

Thanks to the rise of New Wave and Punk Rock, the genre was mostly exhausted by the early 1980's, with the genre's most popular bands like Yes, Genesis, and Rush shifting towards a more radio-friendly sound in The '80s, to great commercial success; and the 1982 debut album of the prog supergroup Asia had radio-ready singles that were huge hits and it was considered the final nail in the coffin for genre in the 80's. Pink Floyd was an exception as they continued to sell millions of records and sell out arenas/stadiums while keeping their sound intact, although even they weren't afraid to embrace MTV and all the new recording tech that developed throughout the decade. It didn't hurt that the band had already developed a distinctive visual identity through its Hipgnosis covers. There was a sub genre that came in the mid-80's called neo-prog, which was basically bands trying to emulate the 70's progressive rock sound with 80's production and a few power ballads here and there. Marillion, IQ, and Spock's Beard were a few examples of neo-prog.

Prog experienced a rebirth around the mid 90's with Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, and The Mars Volta being some of the new bands to emerge and the classic bands that "went pop" in the 80's started to returned to what made them famous initially. Yes reunited with the classic "Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman, and White" lineup, Genesis tried to go back a more complex sound on the Phil Collins-less Calling All Stations and failed miserably, and many more bands went back to the longer songs, Epic Rocking, and weird lyrics.

Prog Rock was one of the originators, and certainly one of the main motivators, of the Concept Album.

See also Progressive Metal for when prog gets heavy, and Technical Death Metal for when prog gets even heavier. Krautrock is a somewhat more Teutonic variant, which is sometimes considered a subgenre of progressive rock and sometimes its own (albeit related) genre.

Notable Progressive Rock acts include and are labeled with their respective sub-genre according to the ProgArchives:

Tropes frequently associated with progressive rock include:

  • Artifact Title: The genre originally got its name from the "progressive" FM radio stations it was played on in the U.S. These were so-called because the DJs would, between playing the bands' latest magna opera, spend almost as much time as the songs themselves took to play discussing politics from a progressive (i.e., very leftish) perspective. The name for the subgenre has remained even as the stations became increasingly all about the music and left the politics behind, and even as FM radio of the early 1970s evolved into today's classic-rock format
  • Concept Album: Developed somewhat in tandem with prog rock. The Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa's band, were responsible for many of rock's early concept albums.
  • Con Lang: Practically de rigeur in zeuhl. Examples include Magma, Ruins, and Koenjihyakkei.
  • Dead Horse Genre: Critics, who usually believe in Three Chords and the Truth, have tended to hate the genre. This is probably influenced by Lester Bangs' and Robert Christgau's disdain for prog. A prominent exception is Allmusic, which has given several famous prog albums the maximum rating of five stars, as is the Italian writer Piero Scaruffi, who ranks prog albums as two of his top three albums ever made (three of three if you count Beefheart as prog). Pitchfork has been known to give prog records good reviews on occasion as well, but on the whole it much more frequently lambastes them.
  • Epic Rocking: Naturally, given the song lengths. Often more focus on "epic" than rocking, obviously.
    • The Jethro Tull albums Thick As a Brick and A Passion Play contained one song each, broken up by an interlude that allowed the listener to flip the record.
      • Mike Oldfield has done this multiple times. Take, for example, Incantations, seventy-three minutes split over four sides, without interludes to let the listener to flip the record. As a result it works very well on CD.
  • Fandom Rivalry: With Punk Rock, dating back to The '70s. Though there are artists who combine elements of both (The Mars Volta are an excellent example). Johnny Rotten admitted to being a fan of prog, and it obviously influenced Public Image Ltd.. Kraut Rock, particularly Can and Neu!, was a big influence on Post-Punk. Many punk and new wave acts were also heavily influenced by Roxy Music.
  • Gateway Series: A lot of rock fans have gotten into classical and jazz via prog. Also goes the other way. Plenty of classical and jazz snobs have decided that that "jungle music" isn't so bad after all after discovering prog.
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: The genre is popular in Eastern Europe.
  • Genius Bonus/Viewers Are Geniuses: In addition to the fact that musicians are more likely to appreciate the musicianship there are often all sorts of bizarre subtexts to the lyrics that can't be easily picked up on.
    • Also, frequent quotes/covers from the Classical and traditional repertoire that might not be familiar to a casual listener.
      • Many references to obscure science fiction and fantasy works will go over the heads of most listeners.
  • Heavy Mithril: While progressive rock bands aren't necessarily heavy, the use of references to science fiction and fantasy works are not only common, but expected. There's a reason that many progressive rock bands have entries on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction .
  • Instrumentals: Since most songs either featured long instrumental interludes or solos, this was the next logical step. Depending on the listener this is either the best or worst part of prog-rock. Either it shows the musician's true talent as an artist, or it's needless showboating.
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: It's not uncommon for prog bands to incorporate multiple genres in one song, and in many cases, to incorporate them well.
    • Dixie Dregs in particular stand out for this.
  • Never Live It Down: The Godley & Creme album Consequences caused one. It was a triple-disc Concept Album released in 1977; despite being pretty much the only one of its kind during prog's heyday, the phrase "triple-disc concept album" comes up fairly frequently in criticisms of the genre.
    • In the popular imagination, prog rock is also 20-minute Mellotron solos.
  • One of Us: Many prog musicians are science fiction and fantasy fans. On a musical level, they tend to have classical and jazz backgrounds.
  • Purple Prose: Many bands such as Yes would write songs in a rather flowery fashion. But Tropes are Not Bad, not to mention that some bands were actually good at it.
  • Rock Opera: Often goes hand-in-hand with the concept album.
  • Song Style Shift: Very common, particularly with "chapter"-structured songs that many prog bands had. The main reason for these chapters was that they were perceived as separate songs for royalty purposes.
  • Spiritual Successor: Post-Rock and Math Rock. While both genres draw from Alternative Rock and Post-Punk, they keep the weirdness of progressive rock, including the odd time signatures and unusual instrumentation.
  • True Art: What prog musicians were aiming for, with varying degrees of success.
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: Why U.K. critics hated the genre so much.
  • Uncommon Time: It would probably take less space to list progressive rock bands that don't use this trope than to list progressive rock bands that do. It's pretty much a requisite of the genre.
  • Up to Eleven: Musicianship and complexity of songwriting for starters.

Alternative Title(s):

Prog Rock