Progressive rock fans are conservatives


Dystopia and irony

Does a true musician have to suffer in order to produce his work, or can he compose cheerfully instead? Is humor in music really limited to the latter? Dealing with musical seriousness leads to controversial aesthetic evaluations.

Numerous examples demonstrate the possibility of demanding musical humor, for example with composers such as Joseph Haydn, Gioachino Rossini, Erwin Schulhoff or Erik Satie. European art music and progressive rock have in common that the performers and recipients are stuck with the cliché of humorless intellectuals of an elite musical genre - instead of diving into sonic ecstasy, they study the scores.

In fact, progressive rock music is currently experiencing an aesthetic and mercantile boom, such as the recent high chart placement [1] by Steven Wilsons Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015) proves. As a phenomenon of recent music history, progressive rock has hardly been scientifically investigated in German-speaking countries. After the 2011 conference "Progressive rock between art and commerce"[2] dedicated to the topic in Cologne, in 2013 Bernward Halbscheffel presented his own lexicon [3] and a monograph [4] on progressive rock (for short: prog rock) for the first time.

  1. Progressive rock terminology

Due to the diversity inherent in it, progressive rock music can in no way be described as a stylistically limiting genre such as metal and reggae [5]. Instead of a sufficient definition or the question of what Prog Rock ultimately means, it is proposed to regard it as a creative-experimental method . This allows the term to look at very different bands such as B. Rush, Sigur Rós and The Pineapple Thief.

If well-known Prog Rock & Metal interpreters are asked about the genre term [6], diverging positions come to light: For Steven Wilson progressive music means “something blurred and epic that takes the listener on a journey that draws his attention for longer Time required. ”Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) sees Prog Rock as“ the emphasis on playing technique, long songs, unconventional arrangements, sprawling instrumental passages and experimenting with different styles. ”In contrast,“ progressive ”for Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth) doesn't mean as much as possible to play a lot of notes, but rather to “bring things forward, a mixture of fresh styles and influences.” Adam Jones (Tool) would like to “continue to test one's own limits” Song structures and schemes.

Playing prog rock has long been considered an insult. While rock musicians were rebelling against their conservative parents' generation, the artificial approaches of the 1970s apparently contradicted their attitude. The term “progressive rock” actually describes various musical approaches retrospectively, which consistently not only includes the initially named Art Rock. Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine) ironically describes the development as follows: “Originally, Prog Rock was about creating new song structures. But at some point it drifted into a parallel world full of elves and keyboard solos. "[7]

The core aspect of musicians from Genesis, Yes and others Compared to the banality of rock, punk and puristic heavy metal, a complex sonic and compositional inspiration for decades. B. Igor Stravinsky and worldwide influences. The need of these rock musicians for artistic recognition leads to a new combination of different sound sources to create a new aesthetic. Currently, "progressive rock" denotes a variety of genres that are being played by bands such as Porcupine Tree, Gazpacho and others. have undergone an aesthetic change in recent years and have achieved a new topicality with specifically modern means.

As Halbscheffel shows, purely lexical access is not expedient here. Authors such as Jerry Lucky, John Covach, Kevin Holm-Hudson, Katherine Charlton and Lilian Roxon set up their own systematics. Just like these, internet portals such as or, but also scene magazines such as Eclipsed, find their way into ever more extensive classifications of the prog. Self-appointed experts discuss secondary styles such as “Zeuhl”, “Baroque n Roll” or the “Canterbury- Scene ”, set up double sub-categories that lead to absurd constructions such as“ Symphonic Avantgarde Prog ”,“ Prog Fusion Cabaret ”or“ Classical Post Ambient Nocturnal Atmospheric Neo Progressive Folk World Rock ”. In spite of this, bands often elude a clear assignment of this questionably growing style map. In approaching the question of how humor shows itself in progressive rock, it must be examined why this music is considered "serious" at all.

  1. Aspects of seriousness in prog rock

Many progressive rock bands have some seriousness-related aspects in common and can be identified in five areas:

a) Topics

Progressive rock musicians often seek inspiration in subjects that are far from amusement. Contrary to the popular disco music of the 1970s, the band processed Jethro Tull to about Heavy horses (1978) sociological and ecological issues. Steven Wilson, one of the most successful musicians and producers of Prog Rock at the moment, also seeks his inspiration in serious topics. He set to music with his project Porcupine Tree The incident (2009) Events such as traffic accidents and their influence on personal fate. On the album Fear of a blank planet (2007), however, he took up the concept of the novel Lunar park by Bret E. Ellis on. Topos here is a dystopian view of youthful urban culture between depression, media omnipresence and boredom. In the 1980s in particular, some “Neo Prog” bands shaped similar dark and melancholy tendencies, which are now also evident in Lunatic Soul from Poland and No Sound from Italy.

b) Concept albums vs. entertainment industry

Concept albums are an expression of multimedia synthesis of music with texts, artwork, booklets and the videos that complement the live performance. In the early days of prog, an album was often determined by a single composition that took up one side of the LPs that were common at the time. Especially prominent in England with Yes Close to the edge (1972) as a reflection on the story "Siddharta“By Hermann Hesse and Emerson, Lake & Palmer Tarkus (1971).

c) Virtuoso command of the instruments

Prog Rock musicians have often attended conservatories and openly display their skills. In addition to the establishment of keyboards and synthesizers, groups such as Jethro Tull and Gentle Giant expanded the common rock instruments from flute, saxophone and violin to recorder and xylophone. Prominent representatives of virtuoso soloists are also Dream Theater or the solo project Animals As Leaders by guitarist Tosin Abasi. In the border areas of Prog Rock, technical superiority also serves as a demarcation, for example with Blue Öyster Cult, which thereby differentiates itself from the "ritualistic humbug and tortured child-fright theater" [8] of other hard rock groups.

d) Rhythmic and tonal complexity

Progressive musicians are often interested in experimenting with rhythmic possibilities. While in "Metropolis, Pt. 1: The Miracle and The Sleeper " on the Dream Theater album Images and Words (1992) percussive accents are varied, the song consists "Schism" on the album Lateralus (2001) the American prog metal band Tool made up of numerous rhythm changes and crooked metrics. Their role models from King Crimson were already experimenting two decades earlier, e.g. B. in the song "Frame by Frame" on Discipline (1981) with polyphonic 6/8 and 7/8 shifts.

[MUSIC EXAMPLE "King Crimson - Frame By Frame-Extract.mp3"]

e) Diverse influences

In neoclassicism, composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud and Erik Satie created new connections between the musical language of the 18th century and elements of jazz and international folklore. In Prog Rock this thinking is carried on and not only processed at the borders of so-called "world music", fusion and jazz rock.

Halbscheffel also discusses these and other aspects in his book, which he gives the subtitle “The serious music of pop music” without explaining it in more detail. In some places he seems to reduce humor to ironic tendencies in Art Rock:

“Progressive rock is usually not ironic; it represents the 'serious music' of rock music. This is also expressed in the themes of the lyrics, which set themselves apart from the 'boy meets girl' themes of rock music, which were obligatory until then. Art rock as part of progressive rock, on the other hand, maintains an ironic distance, especially from rock music itself. "[9]

The conceptual inaccuracy remains open, because “serious music” does not actually mean the opposite of humorous, but rather of entertaining music. An outdated, but latently widespread prejudice among music critics sees here an alleged threat to cultural triviality: "'Popular music' is everything that is not 'real' music is determined by its opposite, 'serious' music." [10] It is the bourgeois musical aesthetic of the 19th century, which was based on the ancient philosopher Seneca: "Only a serious matter - that is, serious, solemn music [...] is a real joy." [11] New music composers like Pierre Boulez Unfortunately, [12] continue to dig this gap between serious and popular music.

Perhaps the subtitle of the book also shows the thought that Prog Rock, contrary to popular music, should be taken seriously? While progressive rock bands do indeed oppose catchy mass music, the claim that prog rock is only marginally inclined to irony is obviously not tenable. As can be shown, examples of humor exist in prog rock.

  1. Case studies

In more recent publications Michael Custodis examines the symphonic prog by The Nice and Steve Vai in detail, as well as the irony in the diverse oeuvre of Devin Townsend. In addition to the content-related, action-related level, its irony is also evident in the purely illustrative underlining of text passages. In addition, Custodis emphasizes that the concepts of prog rock of the 1970s have been pushed aside by disco and puristic heavy metal. This explains why Prog Rock has been alongside the mainstream for a long time.

In Prog Rock, humor works on many levels, e.g. B. exaggerated musically, scenically or ironically. The interpreters have to understand and master the inside knowledge, the conventions and ways of thinking as core elements in order to be able to exaggerate them humorously. As a result, humor can also function as a connection between the band and the audience. B. is satirized that at rock concerts mostly the songs "Freebird" (Lynyrd Skynyrd) and "Stairway to Heaven"(Led Zeppelin). Porcupine Tree counter this regressive clinging to outdated icons with an ironic announcement of a seventeen minute "Freebird"-Coversongs. Thick as a brick (1972) by Jethro Tull, on the other hand, is considered the central album of Prog Rock and speaks out as a parody of concept albums for humor. The following examples illustrate internal musical humor:

a) Opeth: "Hessian Peel "

The Swedish prog metal band Opeth released on their album in 2008 Watershed a humorous game with the harder style. The song "Hessian Peel"[14] contains a passage with backward singing, which is reversed as the line of text “Wandering in the courtyard. My sweet Satan I see you. ”Revealed.

In musical history it is a direct reference to Led Zeppelin and the debates about supposedly hidden messages in "Stairway to Heaven". At the time, the prosecutors said they heard the specific line of text “Oh my sweet Satan”, to which Opeth ironically refer, by specifically demonstrating that unfounded accusation themselves ad absurdum to lead. Other cases of playing with legal gray areas can often be shown, but it is particularly reminiscent of Frank Zappa and his humorous / ironic hearing on the right to free speech and the ban on pornographic text contributions on records planned in 1985.

The following compilation of "Hessian Peel" first presents the essential passage from the original including a stylistic outlook on the later growl singing. It is precisely because of this that the humor is reinforced: Initially, listeners see it only as a vocal stylistic device and are amused by outraged critics who see the growling as a reference to the "satanic" messages without the ironic refraction. The excerpt is then played backwards in order to reveal the "hidden" texts - a process that is no longer a problem for fans of the band thanks to free audio programs.

[Music example "Opeth_Hessian Peel-Excerpt_Being.mp3"]

b) Gazpacho: "The Wizard of Altai Mountains"

Many progressive rock bands not only work in a demanding manner on the sonic level, but also create texts and concepts with high quality intentions. Gazpacho from Norway sometimes fall back on novels [15] or use humor directly on the musical level. For example, the song "The Wizard of Altai Mountains" on Demon (2014) initially with melancholic synthesizer sounds and sedate vocals in the established mood. Unexpectedly, however, a dance-like klezmer part including accordion and violin sets in as a stylistic break. Can Prog Rock be entertaining and happy in a serious manner? The band plays here with just such expectations of a progressive rock album.

[youtube id = "2vfDGPhxJu0" autoplay = "no"]

Demon is inspired by a conversation that Thomas Andersen (keyboardist and producer of Gazpacho) had with his father a few years ago. He reported a mysterious darkness that he had to deal with during a business trip to Prague in the 1970s. [16] When asked whether her musical approach has to be a "serious matter" or whether it still leaves room for humorous or ironic elements, Andersen reacted calmly in the interview:

"It's a good question that you ask and one that we have discussed many times within the band as we do tend have a lot of fun together and share laughs. I would like to say that in prog in general I find lots of humor. There is no shortage of humor in the genre. As for when it is appropriate, that is a very different question. If you are making something you intend to be a serious work of art then humor can elevate the final result or break the mood. "[17]

Humor is aesthetically placed between two poles: On the one hand, it functions as a complementary creative medium. On the other hand, there is a risk of losing artistic credibility in breaking out of “seriousness”. Andersen bases his view on literature and theater:

"If you look at serious works of literature I would have no hesitation in claiming that there are many hysterically funny bits in Proust's 'In Search of Lost Time' or in the plays of Henrik Ibsen (some of the lines of Helmer spring to mind). The humor is used to great effect because it highlights a situation. When Helmer talks about his' little squirrel ‘it is funny because it is inappropriate and as such it shows us a lot about him and his relationship to Nora. The humor is a natural part of the story. In music, jokes are a different matter because music is seen as something elevated above regular life. "[18]

Therefore, everyday texts such as operating instructions or the like can also become humorous material for music. The klezmer part at the end of "Wizard of Altai" ultimately explains itself as a reference to the atmosphere in the Jewish part of Prague during the Second World War. The song was particularly inspired by the story of Petr Ginz and his examination of the horrific circumstances, so the music is intended to contrast with the seriousness and hopelessness of that time. Despite the serious concept, the Norwegian musicians don't take themselves too seriously: “Of course there is a heavy dose of irony as well but irony is humor too right? Humor gone bad. "[19]

c) King Crimson: "The King Crimson Barber Shop"

[youtube id = "cbuowTL1nSg" autoplay = "no"]

In the final example, we come full circle to King Crimson. Used again and again as a reference for the origin of Prog Rock, humor is an exciting topic in her oeuvre.Especially in the bonus track "The King Crimson Barber Shop" on the album remastered in 2001 Three of a perfect pair (1984), a humorous summary of the band's history is drawn with the help of a stylistic break. As with Gazpacho, the humor arises from the perfect implementation of the contrasting styles, i. H. here specifically the barber shop singing. If the style quotations were pure parody, their own claim, which is characteristic of Prog Rock, would be lost.

In the song, the guitar playing associated with the band is dispensed with and instead in the clear acapella-Text refers to other characteristic instruments (Chapman Stick) and the elite pages of founder Robert Fripp (no photos and encores). Her song is also ironic "21st Century Schizoid Man" on the language with which the band took a critical stance on the Vietnam War in 1969. Still written with Greg Lake (later with Emerson, Lake & Palmer), King Crimson never wanted to be reduced to this song.

"Oh, we're the King Crimson band / don't you know it? / We're the best in all the land, all the land./ We play bass and the drums and guitar for you. And if you really want we´ll throw the stick in too / [...] And tap your foot in twenty-one [...] The King Crimson band, we don´t do encores./ The King Crimson band, no photos please. / ´Cause we´re the King Crimson band./ We don´t do 21st Century Schizoid Man./ But we´re the King Crimson band. "

Outlook (instead of a conclusion)

  1. Prog Rock is a variety of rock music that is still developing and is therefore an expression of avant-garde tendencies in the 20th and 21st centuries. The terminological difficulties in dealing with the topic require a critical distance between scientific vocabulary and music journalistic considerations. It is important to examine where humor is aimed at insiders and where it reaches a broader target group. It must always be weighed up whether it is an aesthetically high-quality style synthesis or whether instead a humorous game with expectations should be evoked in the recipient.
  2. As a further outlook, the individual strategies with humor, irony and satire of the following Prog Rock interpreters should be mentioned as examples: Funny sounds and twists on hooks (e.g. in "Cockroach King"), the "silly tunes" at Yes (especially by their keyboardist Rick Wakeman), the Platypus project (members of Dream Theater and Kings X), Primus, Henry Cow, Dixie Dregs and the various experiments by Mike Patton. In addition, the irony reversed by virtuoso perfection in Panzerballet is worth considering.
  3. It is also worth taking a look at internationally growing prog scenes such as in China, where z. B. Cold Fairyland realize their own strategies in dealing with musical cultural history. [20] The post rock of Mogwai and characteristics of symphonic rock in particular shape bands like Rainbow Danger Club, Wang Wen and Hua Lun.



[1] RockHard, 03/10/2015, online: -deutschen-albumcharts.html (last accessed on May 5, 2015).

[2] "Progressive Rock Between Art and Commerce", 23.-24. 11. 2011, University of Cologne.

[3] Bernward Halbscheffel, Lexicon Progressive Rock, Leipzig 2013: Halbscheffel-Verlag.

[4] Ders., Progressive Rock, Die Ernste Musik der Popmusik, 3rd reprint, Leipzig 2014: Halbscheffel-Verlag.

[5] Even these two styles have been used for years by bands like P.O.D. and Skindred successfully led into aesthetic syntheses.

[6] Quoted from: Rock History, presented by Metal Hammer, Progressive rock, No. 2/2014, p. 130 and Michael Rensen:"The History of Progressive Metal & Rock", P. 69, in: Rock Hard, June 2010, pp. 67-81.

[7] Rensen:"The History of Progressive Metal & Rock", P. 69, in: Rock Hard, June 2010, pp. 67-81.

[8] Andreas Hinners, Progressive Rock. Music between Artistic Claims and Commerce, Marburg 2005: Tectum-Verlag, p. 249.

[9] Halbscheffel, Progressive Rock, Die Ernste Musik der Popmusik, Leipzig 2014, p. 615. Cf. also p. 586 f.

[10] Klemens Hippel:"The art of entertaining a prince.", P.16, in: Sabine Borris (ed.): The smile of Euterpe. Music is fun on earth, Berlin 2000: Parthas Verlag, pp. 16–21.

[11] Wilhelm Seidel, quoted from: Patrick Kast:"Res Servera - or - Verum Gaudium", P. 27, in: Borris (ed.): The smile of Euterpe, Berlin 2000: Parthas Verlag, p. 24-29.

[12] Most recently, Boulez drew a comparison to fast food: “Pop music is geared towards 'fast listening' and seeks the effect at the moment, its means are remarkably simple. Compare the tootling on the radio with Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps - then you will immediately see that pop lags far behind the knowledge of new music. ", In: Axel Brüggemann:"Pierre Boulez", P. 13, in: crescendo, vol. 18, 02/2015, ed. by Winfried Hanuschik, pp. 12–13.

[13] See: Michael Custodis:“Irony in metal. Devin Townsend's musical omniverse ", in: Second-hand music (series »Spectrum of Music«, Vol. 10), ed. by Albrecht Riethmüller and Frédéric Döhl, Laaber 2015: Laaber (in press).

[14] Singer Åkerfeldt explains the title of the piece: “Peel is like in orange peel but it can also mean like peeling skin. And Hessian is a heavy type of texture of cloth. It also comes from record collectors. The word is describing a very rough texture on album sleeves. “See: Interview on, April 2008 [online], [last accessed on June 7, 2015].

[15] Attila Kornel:"The sound-literary concept in Gazpacho's album 'Tick Tock‘ ", Radio report as part of the program Die Geschichte des Progressive-Rock, Radio Q, Münster, October 8, 2014.

[16] Demon, in: (last accessed on April 29, 2015).

[17] Thomas Andersen in a written interview with the author on March 2, 2015.

[18] Thomas Andersen in a written interview with the author on March 2, 2015.

[19] Thomas Andersen in a written interview with the author on March 2, 2015.

[20] See Kunal Sinha, China's Creative Imperative. How Creativity is Transforming Society and Business in China, Singapore 2008: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 69–72.


[Based on the lecture of the same name as part of the interdisciplinary symposium Music and humor on March 15, 2015 at the University of Music and Dance Leipzig]