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Style in contemporary English progressive rock


Aim – to act somewhat as a counterpart to my earlier essay. Here, the focus will be on the resurgence of progressive rock in the new century, albeit with English musicians now taking something of a back seat. The essay will focus on the output of two of the more radical examples of current English progressive rock, Big Big Train and Thieves’ Kitchen. It will ask to what extent the musical decisions of these various musicians resemble those of first generation musicians, from a base assumption that techniques of parody and pastiche do not seem to be aesthetic particulars of the English progressive mentality. It will begin by justifying this assumption.

Progressive rock, in its earliest years (1967-68) was characterised as something undeniably ‘new’ within popular music. Much was made, both at the time and subsequently, of the degree of training which many of the musicians had, and which was unusual within the field. As a result, it was not surprising that elements of the classical repertoire could be found occasionally, even though a more fundamental characteristic of the music, its more general stylistic eclectisism, was rather overlooked at the time. However, the musicians themselves seem to have been self-consciously ‘musicians’ rather than ‘entertainers’; in other words they felt (whether or not this can be substantiated objectively) they were working from a position of professional and personal integrity. From this particular perspective, it would seem logical to describe progressive rock as a modernist movement. It is from that description that it would seem incongruous to look for extensive parody and pastiche.

The current generation of progressive musicians are not, of course, working in a 1960s/1970s milieu. They are familiar with the ways the role of the ‘popular musician’ has developed in the intervening years. Some are adapt at working within this perspective (mention Steven Wilson & Porcupine Tree particularly, mention also Frost*), and in particular at working with the media and working with contemporary promotional & distribution methods. In this context, both Big Big Train and Thieves’ Kitchen stand out as different. [This will be developed.] It is for this reason I describe them as ‘radical’, in the sense that they are potentially returning to an (anachronistic) approach more redolent of those 1970s bands. Thus, following the assumption of integrity, one might expect them also to be putting together music which is equally anachronistic. The essay will purse this line of thought.

[Main body of essay, largely analytical in nature, on both large- and small-scale]

I expect the essay to conclude with the realisation that both bands look in two directions, as it were. Although much of what they produce is clearly stylistically dependent on 1970s progressive rock, it can also be seen that their work constitutes a development of that music, in a sense continuing the notion of ‘progress’. Thus, while there is integrity there, there is also, on a larger scale (probably reference John Gray here), anachronism.

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