Jan 242013

(In this opinion piece Andy Synn offers some thoughts about what it should really mean to be a “progressive” band — and about when the label is just a cover-up for a band’s failure to establish its own identity.)

Let me start off by saying something controversial…

Prog ≠ Progressive

These days the term ‘Prog’ is thrown around so much it’s lost almost all meaning. It’s become a go-to word for bands afraid to admit to their real genre. The worst offender these days is djent, where every other band now describes themselves as “Progressive Metal”, when what they really mean is “Axe-FX polyrhythms, spacey keyboards, and shreddy directionless guitars”, but it’s not the only one. We now have “Progressive Deathcore”, “Progressive Thrash”, and about a billion other genres carelessly welding the “progressive” tag onto themselves in the hope of wallpapering over the cracks in their identity.

I’d even go so far as to say that “Prog” itself is its own genre nowadays, and more than just a qualifier for other genres. My father is an avid reader of Prog Rock magazine, and I take the opportunity to read it whenever I visit the family home. It’s an interesting magazine, trying to keep up with the old-school originators of the “Prog” sound, as well as expose new bands to an interested audience. But I’d say that a lot of the bands featured in its pages aren’t really “Progressive”. There’s too much commonality, too many shared influences and sounds, for that. They’re “Prog” as defined by the boundaries of genre and style, just as “Death”, “Black” and “Hardcore” are defined.

 

photo by Steinar Sortland

Being “Progressive”, however, doesn’t mean just welding together as many sub-genres and styles as you can in an effort to cover all the bases. First and foremost you should be confident in the core genre you inhabit. Only then can you have the confidence, and the self-awareness, to try and PUSH your sound from within. Yes, you might very well end up progressing outside the bounds of where you began, but it will be a natural, organic progression, rather than a desperate attempt to shore up a sound you’re not in control of.

The worst of today’s offenders are those who try to be all things to all people, and then label themselves as “Progressive” as something of an afterthought, in an attempt to whitewash and conceal the fact that they don’t really have an identity of their own. ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ applies here just as strongly as it ever did. Touching on lots of different sounds is far away from making those sounds your own. You’re not progressing, you’re just spreading yourself thin. You’re giving people nothing to grab onto except the superficial trappings of diversity and progression.

Being “Progressive” should not mean you lack “focus”.

Let’s take a look at some famous examples: Opeth are/were progressive. Borknagar are progressive. Enslaved are progressive. Devin Townsend is progressive. These bands/individuals took a sound, made it their own, and then took it further. They moved, they changed, while remaining recognisably the same band. It’s a difficult balancing act. Maintaining an identity while steadily expanding your horizons.

And does it have to have clean vocals? Of course not. Gojira are a progressive band. Deathspell Omega are a progressive band. The Monolith Deathcult are a progressive band. Even Decapitated are a progressive band if you think of how they’ve taken their initial sound and progressed to the very unique and individual entity they are now! These are all bands who have taken very heavy core sounds and done something interesting and unique with it. You can SEE the path of their progression in hindsight.

I think that word, hindsight, is important to how we view “progressive” bands. Take a look at The Faceless as an example. They went from a more deathcore-friendly early sound, to a sci-fi obsessed tech death band, to a much more proggy, esoteric sound on their latest record. And like it or loathe it, it’s STILL the same band (in sound, if not membership anyway), united by a single vision which I think we can definitely call “Progressive”.

But we can’t all do this. We SHOULDN’T all be doing this. Somewhere along the line a lot of people have started to fetishize being “progressive” as the only way music could be considered any good.

 

But not everyone can be progressive.

And that’s ok!

Progression is overrated!

 

Even the best bands at some point or another find that they can’t or won’t progress any further – and it’s these bands who then concentrate on simply being better! Dream Theater were once the icon of Progressive Rock/Metal, but I think few would argue that they stopped actually progressing several albums ago and, for better or worse, concentrated on refining the sound they had established.

Perhaps more relevant to the NCS audience, I’d contend that Meshuggah stopped being a “progressive” band a while ago too. That doesn’t mean they stopped being awesome though. I’d simply say that they reached the apex of their sound and progression, a sound which let us not forget, was at one time (and arguably still is) unique despite the wealth of lesser-imitations it has spawned.

Meshuggah have found their sound. Their formula. Their foundation. And since it was constructed on their own, progressive, terms, it’s a sound with a lot of breadth and depth to it. They don’t NEED to be “progressive” anymore, because there’s still so much potential left in the sound they’ve so carefully established. Now they can concentrate solely on simply being BETTER.

And these are bands who are considered luminaries of the metal scene. Think of what a car crash it is when bands without even a smidgen of the talent or drive try and act all “progressive”… it’s awful, a mish-mash of half-baked sounds and ideas without any direction or clear intent. It’s a waste of time and effort.

The lesson to be learned is that being “progressive” is a rare thing. And the sort of genre-defining, genre re-defining, progression of an Opeth or an Emperor or a Meshuggah is the rarest thing of all. It’s down to chance, and circumstance. Quantum fluctuations in possibility that none of us can predict. So concentrate on just being better. Better than others. Better than you were before.  I’d say being good at what you do is a better way to make a connection, make an impact, than trying to achieve some ill-defined goal of being “new” and “progressive”.

 

And don’t forget the song-writing either.

 

Also I’d say that “growth” is also not the same as “progression”. Job For A Cowboy have grown from a scrappy bunch of deathcore teens into a (relatively) respected powerhouse of the current death metal scene. But I wouldn’t label them as “progressive”. They’ve just… grown. Filled out. Got hair where there was no hair before. I don’t doubt this added maturity has also brought along a number of different, even progressive, influences into the band as well, but at the heart of it they’ve aimed at being a death metal band, and are now trying to be the best death metal band they can be

Overall I’d say we’re all too quick to label a band as “Progressive” these days. We’ve become ashamed of genre tags to such an extent that we’ve chosen “Progressive” as simultaneously the most amorphous, and superior, adjective we can use to describe bands. Think on this example – a band comes out with an interesting debut album. Do we label it as “Progressive _____”? How can you tell? The sound might fit the general progressive mold, but it’s also possible they’ve just taken a heavy influence from bands who’ve already spent years progressing towards this sound – they sound “progressive” but without the “progression”. And maybe their next album will share a similar sound to their first and show no progression. Maybe it will be just as good. But it will be an imitation of a progressive sound, and not a progressive sound itself. You dig?

 

I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t force progress. You can’t force growth. You shouldn’t aim to be “progressive” – because what does that really mean, and how does it work? When you put your band notice up stating “musicians wanted to start progressive metal band” what exactly are you saying? You’ve not even started making music yet, how can it be a progression from anything at all?

 

Be yourself. Don’t try too hard to be progressive. Then maybe you might make some actual progress.

16 Responses to “FALSE PROGRESS”

  1. The Uncool Guy Down the Hall says:

    Dammit, just when I was hoping that Progressive Cascadian Black Metal would become a thing. :(

  2. Austin Weber says:

    This is a pet peeve of mine as well and I get tired of certain sites labeling damn near everything progressive (Worst offender IMO is Heavyblogisheavy) One thing I don’t think you touched on is that Progressive-anything also has to do with forward thinking, complex, or divergently composed songs that break from the normal verse chorus verse framework, something few if any of these new groups do. Lastly, I think one can claim to strive to write Progressive music, hell that’s what happened when the many originators such as Gentle Giant, Yes, The Moody Blue’s, etc started and led to a more sprawling dense compositional standard that broke away from radio singles and towards complex unorthodox songs.

  3. Little Master says:

    I’m really pleased that you posted this. As a relative noob to heavy music I have frequently found myself confused by the “progressive” tag, with bands from Mastodon to Omnium Gatherum to Ne Obliviscaris being labelled as “prog-” this/that/whatever in various places… It seems used so much that I felt it was simply a handle given to bands which write long songs! I was beginning to wonder if it meant something different to the dictionary definition when applied to music.

  4. So… Should we or shouldn’t we continue to apply the genre label Prog/Progressive {whatever} to debut albums by such bands? It’s true that the usefulness of that genre label has been lessened of late. But, what else could you call them?
    [Please don't make One redo the tags on One's whole music library. (T-T)]

  5. I really like your distinction between “prog” and “progressive,” but I strongly disagree with your main point here.

    In my own blog, whenever I term a band “progressive,” I make sure to specify what I mean by that. It can be one of two things. (1) Their music requires a lot of technical proficiency and is showy (lots of wankery), i.e., it is a synonym for “technical.” Or (2) the music has “forward thinking, complex, or divergently composed songs that break from the normal verse chorus verse framework” (to quote Austin Weber above). If I’m not mistaken, “prog rock”/”progressive rock” originally meant both 1 and 2 (see Rush), but the definition has changed over the years.

    I am more likely to use “prog” to describe the former and “progressive” to describe the latter, although I haven’t made any conscious choice about the words until now. I don’t think a band has to necessarily change to remain progressive, because it’s a genre term which describes the music that a band plays, not a judgment on the willingness of the band itself to push its own boundaries.

    In short, I have a two points. One, I disagree with your definition of “progressive.” Two, I think much of the confusion comes because we use the same word to describe more than one thing.

    • Arjan says:

      This is exactly how I see it as well. I’m not sure how the term ‘progressive’ was initially intended to be applied, but to me it’s a genre or a musical influence (since there are a lot of progressive black/death bands out there today) by itself and has nothing to do with the progression the band itself makes.

      And although defining genres and putting bands into one or two to identify their sound is fun and to some extent useful (when someone labels a band ‘power metal’ then it saves me the trouble of going through the torture of listening to it and reading the review), but by no means for all bands it works. Furthermore, defining what exactly a genre is and where the boundaries lay is in the eye of the beholder and is hardly objective.

      • Andy Synn says:

        To reply to both of you together (hopefully understanding both points) I would use the term “Prog” for those sorts of bands really (if, by some strange reason, I had any influence over how people term things) as that’s the central flaw with describing something as “progressive” when it’s just 1 or 2 is dictating different things by the same criteria. Which I think isn’t what being “progressive” is. “Progressive” is a mindset, and comes in all shapes and colours – and all different genres – whereas “Prog” is a genre-qualifier that I think applies more widely, but doesn’t necessarily MEAN being progressive at all!

        Breathe in…

        • Kazz says:

          I don’t think debating the semantics makes much difference. We’re probably all in agreement that there are some “progressive X” bands that are termed that because they use odd time signatures, eschew verse/chorus/verse structure, use non-traditional instruments for their genre, etc, but aren’t necessarily doing something that’s never been done before. Then there are bands that truly do something different, or “progress” their sound.

          To me, if a band falls into the latter category, calling them “progressive” isn’t sufficient to describe them anyway, and doing so would require a more in depth explanation. So there shouldn’t really be much confusion over which meaning of the word is implied. You might as well just say “death metal with samba influences” or whatever.

        • Arjan says:

          I re-read your post like 3 times for it to make sense :p But I see how you define it here, and it makes sense, I just never thought about progressive this way. I’m curious though where you draw the line then. I’m not sure, with these criteria, if I’d call Gojira or Omnium Gatherum progressive.

          • I will agree with Kazz that this is just a matter of semantics. I find genre terms quite useful, and I think “prog”/”progressive” are just that. I hardly think we need a shorthand term for what you’re describing here, and it would be confusing to give it the appearance of being a genre term when you’re not using it that way. It’s confusing.

            I think the whole thing could be solved by using “progressive” to mean my second definition of the word and “technical” to mean the other thing, with the heinous “djent” off to the latter side somewhere (as awful as it is, it’s a useful term). Then if you want to talk about your definition, just say something along the lines of “they constantly push the boundaries.”

  6. ElvisShotJFK says:

    While I could go at length about prog and progressive metal, sometimes even contradicting myself, I will say that prog has become a vague umbrella term that doesn’t really say a whole lot by itself. There are elements that can be associated with prog or progressive music, but the presence of them doesn’t necessarily mean a thing; for example, having a Hammon or Mellotron in your songs doesn’t make you a prog band. It’s what you do – or attempt to do – that helps dictate where you land on the musical genre spectrum.

    Not too familiar with Meshuggah, but I can agree with your point about Dream Theater; they reached a certain point and haven’t really gone beyond that. That’s not to say that they haven’t put out decent material, but they haven’t gone to new places either. It’s okay if you put out quality material but don’t reinvent yourself every time.

  7. Garksa says:

    Didn’t a writer on this website start calling “djent” “progressive groove metal” because of the negative stigma attached to djent? Although not strictly related, that’s pretty dumb, because djent has a negative stigma because we refuse to call Meshuggah and Periphery djent because they’re good, so all that’s left is the infinite clones labelled as djent, therefore the negative stigma.

    It seems to me according to this article that a band cannot be progressive with only one album, furthermore, making it impossible for Animals As Leaders or Periphery to be progressive (unless you believe either band “progressed” from debut to second — Periphery regressed and AAL remained stationary.)

    • I like your point, but I will quibble with one small thing: Almost everyone calls Periphery djent, because they are. They are not, however, good. Meshuggah isn’t called djent because it isn’t djent.

    • TheMadIsraeli says:

      That would be me.

      And no, that’s not what I did. Djent is pretty specifically and deliberately outlined anymore when it’s played. I started using the term progressive groove metal for the bands who had laid out the foundations for so called djent because those bands AREN’T djent. The basis of the style is only a fraction of what those bands do, but I use the term for bands who are groove oriented and tend to have progressive leanings.

  8. Andy Synn says:

    Hey guys, just thought I’d come back to this one now, after letting everyone have their say.

    I’d like to say that I’m not trying to tell anyone how to think, or dictate how they interact with their music, I simply had a little bit of inspiration strike me and wanted to raise a few points and get people thinking.

    As such it’s a bit more stream of consciousness than my usual writing, but I enjoyed putting it together (with a bit of minor editing/re-arranging) and getting a load of responses from people.

    You may have seen that it covers a lot of different facets of the “progressive” issue, so I might come back to some of them again in the future, and maybe deal with a few bits more specifically and with a bit more balance. For example, the difference between “circular” and “linear” prog…

  9. Vlad says:

    It’s just a simple and a very common mistake: “Technical” doesn’t mean “Progressive”.

    IMHO it’s kind of easy:

    Tech goes with higher skills in your instrument and composition: it’s a matter of execution, not style.

    Prog goes with push boundaries, blend styles fluidly, and don’t be afraid of breaking genre’s paradigms; it requires a lot of open minded taste for the listener

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