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The Problem with Prog...Solved!

If you want to open up a can of musically opinionated worms, look no further than “prog” or “art” rock. So many people are so opinionated about this genre of music and so many people miss-use this label that I go to great lengths to avoid talking or writing about it. It’s sad that the admission that I’m a prog rock fan has to be preceded and/or followed by justification, explanation and an apology. First of all, I personally consider the prog genre to be defined by groups like King Crimson, Yes, Rush, early Genesis and Marillion, to name a few. The big problem comes in with most of the current prog bands. The majority of them are crap, to put it mildly.

Almost all prog bands these days suffer from one or more of the following:

  • Bad Vocals (off-key or metal style screamers)
  • Bad production (they can play fast, but their guitars sound like there inside a tin can)
  • Bad songwriting (Melody? Hook? What are these things?)
  • Bad lyrics (Satan and Medieval times are well covered)
  • They’re not really Prog. (They’re a Metal band that likes to play fast)
  • Too sterile and surgical (sounds like it’s manufactured rather than performed)
  • Horrible album covers and packaging.

I have finally been forced to write a column on prog because there are 2 new releases that don’t fall prey to any of these crimes against music, yet they can probably be classified as prog rock. The first is Picture, a truly amazing debut album by a group called Kino. The band consists of members from other well-known prog bands, Peter Trewavas from Marillion, John Mitchell from Arena, John Beck from It Bites and Alan Parsons Project, and Chris Maitland formerly with Porcupine Tree. Normally I would view this type of supergroup line-up as a negative. As I’ve said here before, the sum is almost never greater than the parts when it comes to supergroups. Kino is an exception. In fact, Kino’s debut is much better than the recent output of the members other bands. Kino avoids all the pitfalls and problems other prog groups have. I don’t know why, I guess they’re just that much better. The vocals are beautiful, powerful and brilliant. They remind me of the vocals you would hear on classic progressive pop from the 80’s, like the Alan Parson’s Project and Toto. The playing and the production is the best I’ve heard in a long time. This sounds like a record that wasn’t pieced together with pro-tools but recorded in a big studio with analog tape. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it sure sounds like it.

The opening track is also one of the best. It has moments where it’s harder edged, ala Dream Theater, but then it breaks into Sgt. Pepper’s style pop breaks. It’s all held together with a great sense of melody and actual hooks (other prog bands please take note). But the fun really begins with tracks 3 and 4, Leave a Light On and Swimming in Women. Both of these tracks have a progressive pop sound that sounds like the best of Alan Parsons, Toto and 90125 era Yes all rolled into one, but with a modern Porcupine Tree style vibe. Swimming in Women is my favorite and could easily be song of the year for me. It’s non-stop greatness from the lyrics to the hook. It opens with a great piano line that will stick in your head and has a very powerful chorus. Last but not least is the packaging. With Picture as the title they’ve went with images of a movie theater, a concept that fits well with this record. It’s a great album cover and the booklet is very well done. The packaging is very cool, which only adds to the over all experience.

Speaking of the overall experience of an album, there’s a new release from Mars Volta and there hasn’t been a concept record of this magnitude since the last Roger Waters album…and that’s been awhile. Mars Volta peaked my interest with their debut in 2003, De-Loused in the Comatorium, a dark and aggressive mix of styles, but not unlike a darker and harder version of Radiohead. They’re back with a broader sound and a much more artistic album, Frances the Mute. The title isn’t the only thing that’s weird about this record. From the packaging to the lyrics, this is some wild stuff. It’s a tough concept to get your head and ears around, but well worth it. Easily one of the more adventurous and artistic albums I’ve heard in a long, long time. It’s adventurous in the way that Roger Waters, Frank Zappa and King Crimson are adventurous. Speaking of Zappa, the Mars guitarist has apparently been listening to a lot of Frank lately. You would swear the guitar on the first track was lifted from one of Frank’s brilliant solos during his Shut Up and Play Your guitar periods. The sound and style are very similar, and I’ve never heard that pulled off this well before. In fact, if there’s any possible comparisons for Frances the Mute with anything that’s ever been done before, it would be Zappa and Crimson. You hear this pop up frequently, but it’s all tied together by a progressive sound and vocal style that is somewhat akin to the band Muse. Those are the good parts, but beyond that it gets experimental, and that’s where they lose me a bit. There are a few intros, endings and breaks in the record where they enter that dreaded noise and sounds for arts sake territory that’s pretty much ruined Radiohead for me. I can only take so many ambient sounds with keyboard samples and noises that are seemingly random. But unlike Radiohead, Mars Volta, for the most part, keep it to the intros and outros and the songs in-between are truly stunning. I absolutely love the packaging. It’s so weird that both of these releases have great covers and packaging. I’m extremely critical of album cover and packaging. If you want a review that goes in depth about the songs and truly covers the nuances of Frances the Mute, please check out this weeks column by Andre Salles on his site

Tuesday Morning 3 a.m. here:

The Kino and Mars Volta records are both very good, and both go along way to overcome the slew of mediocre to downright awful prog rock releases coming out these days. Kino is by far my personal favorite and will probably make my top 10 for the year. I want to thank Andre Salles for the recommendation and Dave Danglis for getting me the CD for my Birthday.