Dealing with Neo-Prog – Perhaps once and for all - Part 2

Jerry Lucky Commentary March 2008

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2008 All Rights Reserved


Having laid the groundwork last month let’s get this ‘bumpy’ ride underway by looking more closely at what is typically labelled as Neo-Prog. Most important for

me is not simply to make the assertion that the use of the term Neo-Prog is flawed, but to present an argument that clearly and concisely dismantles previously held opinions

and assertions to the contrary. However, in order to do that we need to examine what is typically labelled Neo-Prog and why. I’ve visited a number of respected internet sites

looking for their definitions of Neo-Prog in the hopes of identifying the key descriptives used that hold some consistency across the board rather than just relying on idle opinion. What you find in reviewing these various attempts at defining Neo-Prog however, is that far from there being any consistency, each of these sites tends to introduce elements into the definition that are particular to the individual author. As such there remains much inconsistency when trying to pin down what it is that actually constitutes a Neo-Prog definition. That in-and-of-itself is perhaps reason enough to question the legitimacy of the term. I have chosen to use the term “misconception” for each of these identifiers not because of the controversial nature of the term, but rather to simply allow for a concise response to the purported claim. As I go through each of these misconceptions, let me be perfectly clear about one thing as I describe various bands and their musical output. I love all this music. What I may say about a band in comparing it to another is by no means meant to denigrate but simply to demonstrate. That being said here are 13 claims made that are purported to identify Neo-Prog followed by my response:


·       Misconception #1 – Neo-Prog is less complex than other Symphonic Prog

It is commonly held that Neo-Prog is less complex than other forms of Progressive Rock but specifically other Symphonic Prog artists. In fact, most would probably say that it is the least complex, perhaps sitting just a tiny notch above Art Rock. But is this really the case. If we use the most recent CDs from Pallas (Dreams of Men) and IQ (Dark Matter) as a current reference point, how do these two releases stack up against history? If we are to compare these two releases against the symphonic style of early King Crimson or Gentle Giant or even some of the more ambitious compositions of Yes and Genesis we would be safe in saying they are in fact somewhat less complex. How much less becomes highly subjective. On the other hand if we were to compare Pallas and IQ to say, Barclay James Harvest, Strawbs, Le Orme, Banco or even some Ange and Mona Lisa the argument of complexity begins to thin somewhat for many of the releases of these symphonic bands are in fact less complex that Dreams of Men or Dark Matter and are in many cases a collection of melodic songs. This is true of many of the classic early British, Italian and French bands. Truth is the Moody Blues on their first seven recordings created music that was far from what many today might consider complex yet few can deny its Symphonic Prog roots. The music’s simplicity is hardly a case for calling it Neo-Prog. So today clearly complexity is hardly an appropriate form of measurement for this particular musical style. The idea that complexity is a bastion of the old guard is a false notion. There are many contemporary bands such as Glass Hammer, Spock’s Beard, Flower Kings and many others whose musical output is not only far more complex in terms of composition, but also arrangement and musicianship. So if complexity is your frame of reference for determining what Neo-Prog is then by rights, many of the old guard would have to be labelled in such a way. If not, then complexity alone cannot be used to single out certain bands for the Neo-Prog identification. Complexity is very much alive and well in many modern prog artists.


·       Misconception #2 – Neo-Prog is a sub-genre that is distinct from Symphonic Prog

While scouring the net looking for bands that others label as Neo-Prog, it was amazing to see that in every case the bands held up to represent this supposed sub-genre were in fact symphonic in nature. These lists would include not only Pallas and IQ but also Marillion, Jadis, Twelfth Night, Pendragon, Arena and in some cases Spock’s Beard, Glass Hammer, The Flower Kings and so on. So when you peruse the list what do see? To my eyes there are only symphonic bands. I’m hard pressed to name a single band that might be labelled Neo-Prog and NOT be a Symphonic Prog band. Not one. I believe there is a reason for this, and that reason is that all these bands are in fact first and foremost Symphonic Prog bands creating music that is in the same tradition as the original progressive rock icons. Each of these new bands incorporates elements of the past but then has clearly created their symphonic sound. Really after a dozen albums, to still describe a band like IQ as sounding like Genesis seems to be a classic case of not listening to what’s actually on the disc. If we are to be fair and honest, IQ sounds like IQ. Bands like these are clearly second; third or perhaps even fourth generation Symphonic Prog bands. By way of comparison, no one labels the Rolling Stones Neo-Rock even though the blues and rock music of the late Fifties and early Sixties influenced them. So my contention is that Neo-Prog is not distinct from Symphonic but is in fact every bit symphonic in nature. It is not a sub-genre of Symphonic because the bands identified are clearly holding true to the symphonic hallmarks. They cannot be Neo-Prog since they are first and foremost Symphonic Progressive Rock bands.


·      Misconception 3 – Neo-Prog is essentially shorter songs

This is a descriptive that shows up in more than a few places but again seems to ignore the history of Progressive Rock. Prog bands have always written shorter songs from time to time. It’s not always about the epics. The big five, Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull have a rich musical history of shorter compositions going all the way back to their beginnings. Even much of Gentle Giant’s material hovered around the 4-minute mark. Add to this the slew of European prog bands from Ange to Le Orme that always had a fair share of 3 or 4-minute pieces on their recordings. From the very outset of the Progressive Rock revival of the early Eighties we can see that 4 of the 6 tracks off Marillion’s first recording were over 8-minutes, IQ’s first album had a side-long 24 minute track and Pallas included a couple over 10-minutes on their first album. So where this idea that Neo-Prog bands write essentially shorter songs is a puzzler to me. I’m not even sure how such a flawed form of measurement has even come to be included in the various Neo-Prog descriptions because you can pick any band you like from Mona Lisa to PFM and there will usually be a mixture of long and short compositions. Always has been and always will I reckon. So clearly, NO, Neo-Prog is NOT essentially shorter songs.


·       Misconception #4 – Neo-Prog is more radio friendly

We’ve already talked about the mixture of long and short compositions that has carried on from Progressive Rock’s early days, so the idea that Neo-Prog is more “radio friendly” seems to me to be again, a bit puzzling. What radio stations are playing Neo-Prog? The radio friendly descriptive seems to be a red herring since radio stations aren’t even playing this stuff. I guess when I read radio friendly I’m supposed to think it’s somewhat more accessible. We’ll deal with that misconception a little later, but as we’ve already seen what goes for Neo-Prog isn’t always as accessible as one might think. Granted it may not the most complex genre of prog but then neither were Barclay James Harvest or Le Orme. So what’s really being claimed by using this misconception? While it’s true Marillion found their way onto the radio in their early days, they were pretty much an exception and a short lived one at that for they quickly disappeared from the radio as programmers went in search of the next big thing. Truth is Neo-Prog is no more or less radio friendly than any other Symphonic Prog recordings. The opportunity to hear anything from band’s considered Neo-Prog is certainly no greater than ever hearing any of the shorter songs from the early recordings from bands such as Yes or Genesis. If anything, the use of this misconception seems to be more of a moral judgement rather than a musical one aimed at calling into question the band’s motivations, implying that these bands intentionally set about seeking radio exposure and that that in some ways cheapens their musical output. A thorough listening can easily put that misconception to rest. 


·       Misconception #5 – Neo-Prog is a musical movement that started in the mid-Eighties

Of all the descriptors, this perhaps comes closest to the mark in terms of being accurate in that the term itself came into the prog world sometime in the mid to late Eighties to initially describe the then current Progressive Rock revival going on in England. It was only years later where the term took on a negative connotation, based on many of the misconceptions outlined here, and is generally used as a pejorative or as an expression of disdain. But the truth is it is far from what might be considered a universal term. At the core however is whether now in 2008 we really need another term to describe bands that clearly fall into the more all-encompassing and descriptive Symphonic category. Let’s face it 1983 is a long time ago. The bands too often labelled as Neo-Prog are a logical extension of what came before. The fact that a few of the them came into existence in the Progressive Rock revival of the Eighties is no more reason to call them Neo-Prog than we should come up with yet additional descriptives to identify each generation of new bands. If the bands of the Eighties constitute the “Neo-Prog” group, then perhaps those of the Nineties should be “Really-Neo-prog” and then those of the new millennium could be the “Retro-Really-Neo-Prog” bands…where does it end if we go down that path. But then what about a bands like Greenslade or Gryphon who showed up around 1973, three or four years after King Crimson, Yes and Genesis, should we attach “Retro-Neo-Prog” to show they were of the era, but actually came into existence after the genre’s leaders! It’s ridiculous. Clearly, these are all Symphonic Prog bands to one degree or another.


So there you go...that's the first five misconceptions. I'd like to hear what you think so far. There's more to come and the defining term you use may be in the next group so I'll understand if you hold off until the end. In anycase your comments are welcome.

Jerry Lucky (3/5/08)