Recently, Hillsdale College's Bradley J. Birzer published an article at National Review Online called "A Different Kind of Progressive." His subject? Progressive rock-that amalgam of electrified classicism, jazz improvisation, and sci-fi musings popularized by Yes, Genesis, the Moody Blues, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Birzer argues that, the genre's coincidentally liberal-sounding label notwithstanding, progressive rock actually "preserves Western traditions." Its complexity, he says, makes it hospitable to serious philosophical reflection and resistant to being dumbed down.
What he underemphasizes is the quality that makes the best progressive rock worth discussing in the first place: It's entertaining. Even audiences for whom reflecting philosophically and not being dumbed down are low priorities can find plenty about it to like.
Progressive rock is a lot like The Avengers that way.
Marvel's latest cinematic blockbuster comes with two soundtracks, The Avengers: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Avengers Assemble: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture (Hollywood). The former features the Alan Silvestri-composed orchestral music heard in the film, the latter 14 hard-rock performances by bands such as Soundgarden, Bush, and Evanescence. Juxtaposed, the albums sound as if someone had put asunder the very musical ingredients that Birzer believes progressive rock joins together.
On the one hand, you have Silvestri's pulse-pounding score. Although the longest of its 18 pieces lasts only five minutes and 50 seconds (a veritable blink of an eye to progressive-rock fans), the selections play like one continuous, hour-long epic. Even people who haven't seen the film enough to tell "Stark Goes Green" from "Helicarrier" or "Red Ledger" from "Performance Issues" will feel the music's apocalyptic ominousness steeling their nerves for a cataclysmic showdown.
But by no standard is The Avengers "rock," progressive or otherwise.
On the other hand, rock is all that Avengers Assemble is, and not very imaginative rock at that. It may be inevitable that music "inspired by" a superhero film should sound as if those very heroes were playing the instruments and that each of those instruments should be electric. But when nearly every cut features what sounds like the Incredible Hulk on drums, the Mighty Thor on guitars, and the Tesseract itself handling lead vocals, one can't help suspecting he knows how Loki and his Chitauri army felt after being pummeled.
The one song that does go off formula, Kasabian's "Pistols at Dawn," sounds a lot like David Essex's 1973 hit "Rock On"-and therefore makes as compelling a case for "regressive rock" as Birzer does for the opposite kind.
More in keeping with the professor's progressive-rock ideal is Time (Warner Classics), the latest solo album by the Yes and Asia guitarist Steve Howe. Augmented only by a classical ensemble and the electronic keyboards of his son Virgil and Paul K. Joyce, Howe performs melodies both borrowed and original on the banjo, the steel dobro, and six kinds of guitars.
In one sense, the almost complete absence of percussion instruments makes Time even less of a rock album than The Avengers. But Howe is so sensitive to multiple styles and dynamics that his recording conveys greater breadth and depth. He suggests a veritable panorama, for example, by segueing via Bach's "Cantata No. 140 (Wachet Auf)" from the regal "King's Ransom" to the jaunty "Orange."
Most charming of all is "Steam Age." Equal parts whimsy and delight, it's a kinder, gentler version of what Mason Williams might have had in mind when he recorded and released "Classical Gas" in 1968-and in so doing gave those unimpressed with progressive rock an enduring epithet with which to disparage it.