Arts & Culture

Prog is Not A Four Letter Word

When word that Brooklyn indie-rock stalwarts Oneida were planning to release a triple album as the second installment in a triptych of LPs, members of their devoted fan base rejoiced. But the announcement also excited interest in circles where the … Read More

By / August 3, 2009

When word that Brooklyn indie-rock stalwarts Oneida were planning to release a triple album as the second installment in a triptych of LPs, members of their devoted fan base rejoiced. But the announcement also excited interest in circles where the band’s peripatetic songs would otherwise have fallen on deaf ears. The scope of the band’s plan was enough to inspire closer scrutiny.

The sheer quantity of popular music available these days, in forms that break the spell of the traditional commodity, inspires a search for alternative pathways to enchantment. An outwardly simple idea, like Sufjan Stevens’ absurdly ambitious plant to make an album centered on each of the fifty states, or Radiohead’s decision to make its most recent album available for whatever price consumers wished to pay, can do the trick far better than a conventional marketing campaign. To be sure, Oneida’s deviation from standard practice was more modest. But by implicitly invoking an era when sprawling, high-concept projects were the norm – and when the music industry was at a commercial peak – they activated a nostalgia for excess poorly suited for shuffle-mode playlists.

Although I’m old enough to remember the era when 8-track tapes were all the rage, I have been living under the velvet-gloved tyranny of my iPod for years. A record that will compel me to listen to it as a whole, despite my impulse to sample and scroll, is a real treat. In this sense Rated O, which is finally available for purchase, really delivers the goods. It’s the sort of album that rewards those who are willing to listen to it in sequence, not once, but over and over. Indeed, the relationship between its three discs is so interesting to contemplate that I find myself overcome with waves of guilt if I listen to a few tracks in isolation.

What makes Rated O’s cohesiveness all the more impressive is that each of the discs has its own distinctive character. The first, beat-heavy disc, with its nods to reggae and electronica, turns the dance floor into a mental exercise room. The second swaps the intricate compositions for which Oneida is known best for shorter, more immediate bursts of heady passion that rock with a slack-armed discipline. And the spaced-out third disc meanders like a Phish record that has been turned inside out to reveal every loose thread of its stitching.

All three would be worthy offerings in their own right, though gravitating to markedly different pleasure receptors. Taken together, they constitute a powerful commentary on the mental prisons fashioned by the fragmentation of contemporary music. We are so eager to sort our unruly music collections that we have forgotten the appeal of bands that deliberately defy all categorization.  Oneida reminds us that thinking big can still free us from the tyranny of feeling small.

This helps to explain why Rated O keeps reminding me of the progressive rock popular in the early 1970s. The major bands of that movement, such as King CrimsonGenesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Yes, fell out of favor with most critics when punk came on the scene and have never quite managed, despite their impressive musicianship and symphonic approach to songwriting, to wriggle free of the stigma of preteniousness. In fact, it’s difficult for someone who wants to seem “with-it” to confess affection for their work, even though guilty pleasures like bubblegum pop and hair metal can be embraced without fear of being branded a person of bad taste.

What’s strange about the netherland in which “prog rock” has long been mired, though, is that its most able practitioners forcefully invited listeners to expand their musical horizons. In a sense, those bands are still being punished for wanting rock to make room for the kinds of music, such as folk, jazz and classical, that it had initially been pitted against. While that negative judgment might make sense for devotees of rockabilly or three-chord punk, who are invested in the notion that complexity is the enemy of passion, it is poorly suited to the world of artists like Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens, who are praised for transgressing the same boundaries that bands like Yes were crossing four decades ago.

Last month, one of my Facebook friends posted the news that she would soon be attending a concert featuring Asia and Yes. Because she is a part-time DJ on the local college radio station here in Tucson and noted for her discerning taste in new music, this revelation took me by surprise. Although I was sure the show would be too expensive to attend for purely ironic purposes, I wondered how sincere her appreciation for these bands was. And I also wondered how sincere mine could be.

When I expressed interest in the show, commenting back to her that my first rock concert, back in 1986, had been to see Rush, I got a chance to find out. She and her husband had an extra ticket and graciously invited me to use it.  Still, I wasn’t sure whether I should accept. Leaving aside the fact that the bands were performing in Phoenix, a 100-mile drive from my house, and in the Dodge Theater, purveyor of the corporate rock experience, I worried that seeing them now could do more harm than good.

Back in high school, when I first developed an interest in the history of rock, I frequently lamented the fact that I would never get to see bands like Yes live. By comparison, the synthesizer-drenched sugar highs of the mainstream 80s charts seemed absurdly shallow. I wanted popular music that stood for something more than instant – and therefore illusory – gratification. But then I discovered alternative rock, right as it was about to commence its commercial heyday, and suppressed my dreams of being magically transported back to some rustic greensward, bathed in a sweet haze of smoke.

Over time, I came to feel mildly ashamed of my affection for bands like Rush and Genesis, though I never went so far as to prune them from my collection. Sometimes, when one of the prog rock epics I liked came on the radio, I’d find myself turning up the volume, temporarily able to lose myself in the music as I had in my teens. For the most part, though, hearing those classics made me reflect on the ways in which my taste had changed, as if I were starting at the photo of a high-school sweetheart that now seemed like an obviously poor match for me.

In the past decade, however, as hipster-minded internet sites like Pitchfork have promoted artists who clearly have ambitions to transcend the confines of rock and pop orthodoxy, I have found myself startled to be experiencing the sort of musical pleasure I thought I’d outgrown. Listening to groups such as The Fiery Furnaces, who foreground the height of their concepts even when it means hiding the depths of their passion, I almost get more enjoyment out of their work’s audacity, the rules it insouciantly flouts, as I do from the music itself. The room these artists make for forms of listening inimical to rock convention can leave me with an empty feeling, but one which has the same appeal as a newly remodeled home. In other words, it’s the negative space their records delimit that holds me in thrall.

The idea that popular music doesn’t have to be reduced to a three-chord essence or function as the soundtrack to the booze-soaked pursuit of “satisfaction,” that it can be about something other than the sweaty rocking and rolling that gave the genre its name: this sense of possibilities gave me hope even when my body longed for baser forms of sonic stimulation. But when that idea is fleshed out with less cerebral forms of bliss, as is surely the case with Oneida’s Rated O, its force is powerfully magnified. Realizing that rocking out can free us from the bondage of matter is one thing; realizing that it can rock our minds back into harmony with our bodies is another.

In the end, I decided that I should take the risk of sullying my teenage fantasies and go see Asia and Yes. And I’m glad I did. Despite the Dodge Theater’s complete lack of the ambience I now seek in concert halls, with its video screens, ushers and twelve-dollar beers; despite the fact that my companions and I were surrounded by intoxicated Baby Boomers who were intent on securing the pleasure they sought, even if it came at their fellow concert-goers’ expense; despite the decrepitude of Asia and Yes’s members, who looked like they were giving their all just to stand in one place, I had a great time.

Yes, there were moments when my inner ironist took over. Seeing Asia’s ridiculously overblown videos from the early years of MTV made me laugh to think that anyone ever took them seriously. Even though the replacement for Yes’s co-founder and lead singer Jon Anderson camped his way through the set like the second coming of Liberace, the rest of the band plodded obliviously along, a model of earnestness. And when either band turned to the subject of heterosexual love, the pubescent sentiments of the lyrics clashed blatantly with the music’s sophistication.

But even though part of me struggled to avoid the vortex of unreflective bliss, I still ended up getting sucked in. At one point, I was standing in line at the men’s room, hearing the bleached-out throb of the show through the walls, when I detected the beginning of Yes’s  “Heart of the Sunrise.” Realizing I didn’t want to miss it, I ran out the door, mission not accomplished, and rushed back to stand in front of my seat. If I can forget, for a minute, the ideological function classic rock has been made to perform in our society, a song like that can still pluck strings deep in my soul. By turns propulsive and delicate, brash and shimmering, it provides a stern test for listeners intent on getting the volume just right.

And, when heard with an open mind, it sounds like the musical thrift store in which Oneida rummaged to find the not-so-raw materials for making Rated O. The problem with a song as famous as "Heart of the Sunrise" or with other classic Yes songs like “Roundabout” or “I’ve Seen All Good People,” is that people of my generation have heard them so often that access to their subtleties is closed off. Even if we admit affection for them, we have a hard time noticing anything new.

In the case of prog rock, though, the length of the average composition has helped to limit such excessive familiarity. Aside from Yes’s limited number of AOR hits, most of their songs are obscure enough these days to approach with fresh ears. In order to be fair to the band, I tracked down their 1974 album Relayer shortly after the concert, figuring that I owed them more careful attention. Because that LP originally consisted of only three songs – the CD re-release adds extra tracks – and marked the band’s shift towards a more synthesizer-driven approach to rock, inimical to the band’s more musically conservative aficionados, it is now one of the least familiar releases from the their peak years. But it is also one of their best, refracting everything from Chick Corea to Kraftwerk through their path-breaking musical prism.

The more I listened to Relayer, the more I found myself rethinking the distinction between prog rock and the work of artists like Oneida. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Yes were somehow able to come along today, releasing the same albums it put out in the early 1970s, they would be the darlings of Pitchfork. The stigma still affixed to prog rock does not derive, despite what its perpetuators may think, from any failing in the music itself, but from the fact that it achieved a degree of popularity that seems like sheer fantasy today.

One of the revelations I had seeing Asia and Yes in concert is that their loyal fan base encompasses both bookish white-collar types and a rougher-edged element that would be just as comfortable at a Black Sabbath reunion. For all of the disappointments that the early 1970s brought, they also witnessed a temporary destabilization of the relationship between taste and class. Working-class youth whose parents and grandparents had been given little exposure to high-cultural goods suddenly found themselves being encouraged to expand their horizons. Instead of spurring ressentiment for being a means of sorting the haves from the have-nots, symphonies became a source of inspiration: something anyone, regardless of wealth or training, could not only experience with pleasure but perhaps even produce for the pleasure of others.

While this change was more dramatic in Europe, where class was – and is – more likely to be consciously scrutinized, it affected the entire developed world. In the United States, too, musical forms that would usually have been dismissed as pretentious or elitist were embraced, for a time, as appropriate affair for the common people. That’s why a band like Yes, whose records were ill-suited for an industry in which radio was the primary means of disseminating information, could still develop enough of a following that staging another reunion tour at major venues like the Dodge Theater, over forty years after the band’s founding, made financial sense.

Needless to say, the likelihood of Oneida playing arenas of that size several decades from now is remote. Indeed, the likelihood of any contemporary band achieving that sort of sustained career is not great. Although the reasons for that state of affairs have more to do with advances in the electronic distribution of content than they do with any fundamental shift in musical taste, the end result is still the same: complex rock music of the sort popularized by Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Rush and other bearers of the “prog rock” standard has ceased to be truly popular, in a quantitative sense, except as a commodity for the nostalgia industry.

This surely isn’t Oneida’s fault. Given the band’s openness to musical exploration, incorporating a vast array of influences, I’m sure they would be delighted to attain even the diminished popularity that Yes enjoys today. But the fact that they cannot help but inhabit a narrow cultural niche, one in which the vast majority of consumers are from privileged backgrounds, is still depressing to contemplate. That’s why, as much fun as I had seeing Asia and Yes perform, my memories of the experience are suffused with melancholy. I kept thinking how great it was to see so many people so excited to relive songs that require long periods of sustained concentration. But I also realized that the sort of in-depth engagement to which the audience’s involvement attested has itself become an endangered species, much less in a context where class divisions temporarily melt away in a heady collective ecstasy.

Rated O is a great record, one that could do wonders for the capacity of music lovers to imagine a future that’s brighter and less boxed-in. Unfortunately, even the interest it has excited as a triple album in a planned triptych will do little to liberate it from the box to which socio-economic factors have consigned it.