Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reverse Prog

Music is about evolution, on all levels. At the micro level, one tone slides into the next, one idea tweaks to another, a direct syntax. Come up a level. Now we get to hear the development of a particular piece as it plays out, an arc of narrative. Then there's albums, love those. The songs go in order. Past that, we love to examine the development of an artist's career from early explosive naivete to late commercial missteps or flowering into greatness. Then there's the history of music, how individual artists relate to each other, absorb and provide influence, producing confluence and divergence. How that American imperialist stew bubbled out jazz and blues and rock and roll, or how the Baroques went to the Classicals and then the Romantics and the Moderns. And then, of course, prog. Don't forget prog's friend, prog metal! Meshuggah and Dream Theater! And prog's other friend, stoner drone metal. All of them have various bits of traditions but then you break them down and it's just people doing whatever they can and whatever they can is notes and noises and sweat and fingers.

Back about 97 or so, Tom and Colin were in a hundred bands and ruling the scene in Jamaica Plain. I first heard about Bull Roarer from this one guy whose name I forgot now, but he had dreads and was into crusty punk, and I was looking for a band for a show and the guy recommended Bull Roarer, saying they were sort of "bluegrass punk", which at the time wasn't a genre fusion that made me feel a little sick but rather was like "hey that sounds like a pretty crazy idea!" I booked Bull Roarer to play my basement, but someone couldn't make it or something and instead Blind Mitre showed up and made some godawful racket. They were, kind of droney folkish noise, as I recall. I made friends with them and started going to their shows and before you know it I had seen Bull Roarer one million times, and they never failed to hit that spot where the crunch meets the groove and the groin releases and it feels kinda religious, you know that spot? That was one great band.

Prog is progressive. The basic blues stew, the rock-a-billy with the couple of chords and the string bass and the country corn whiskey, this is a desperate cry of the soul, or a joyful shout, but what it's not is thought about too much. It's a yell and a thrust and get drunk and it's over. One progresses from there by adding more notes in, and playing them more accurately. Learning. It's stirring some Mahler into the pot. Progressing. The first progs were the King Crimsons and the Emerson Lake and Palmers, and man did those dudes have notes. Prog is really just too many notes! But they have like, chops or whatever too. They could get a groove going and then improvise over it. Not in a wanky Jefferson Airplane way, more like a wanky smart British guy way. But wanky.

A few years later, turn of the millennium, Bull Roarer was over, Tom and Colin were living in Charlottesville, VA, and I was there and Colin gleefully revealed to me the name of their new band. "It's like, the USA is a monster, but you pronounce it 'oosaeesamonster'. USAISAMONSTER!" Heh. Heh. That was in the "Pud House", and there was a pretty great donut place up the street. USAISAMONSTER put out a couple of records on my buddy Tim's label, and I played them a lot, and then in 2003 this monster showed up on Load.

USAISAMONSTER took the punk-hardcore stew that had been bubbling under lo these two decades and to it added a considerable amount of compositional intrigue, bending the the Black Flags through a prism. Like Rorschach but less hardcore metal. With a sharp element of universal examination. And no guitar solos. "Follow crumbled highways made of black stone." Neo-prog, a new progression without wank. Tasheyana Compost is the record where they sealed the deal, and made the music that was serious as fuck and there was no going back. For this, glory but no gold. And precious little glory. "Stare deep into the eyes of the devil."

I have a picture of Colin from 2005. He's wearing a tux and standing with my other groomsmen, looking like a million bux.

Classical music these days is progressing out from a core that it kind of shrank into about fifty or sixty years back, when for obscure but very good reasons it could only define itself as artistically valid in opposition to the massive force of Elvis Presley's private parts by being really hard to listen to, and so the Stockhausens and the Xenakises and the Berios. Elite. Gradually since the mid-Eighties it's been on the way back to the people by making an accessibility stew of itself, a kind of reverse prog, ever on its own terms, never a pander, always trying to communicate something real and direct into the world. The way forward, the current progression, appears to be to stir some things in, a little Balkan music here, some electronics there, and of course Radiohead. Always Radiohead. If you're one of the reverse-prog classicals, you gotta cite Radiohead, otherwise no one will believe your commitment. Serious.

"In this place of rust and fire, time has humbled our desire." Three years go by, and I've got a kid and I'm writing a symphony. 2008. I've got my own prog, personal and musical. It's just me doing all I can. Two years again, and the blog is born from the mind of the kid. 2010. Nine years now after Tasheyana Compost was recorded, 2012, and here's Colin and I talking about starting a record label together. (Shit, did I just say that out loud?) It's a reverse prog label, which is to say composed music that appeals to people. "In my path there lies a poison snake. Should I accept the venom or can I change my fate?"

But the blog, and the kid. I know why Frances picked the album: she was looking for one with a pink cover. She was in the U section, and rejected "Citizens of the Universe" and "Wohaw" precisely because they weren't pink. I was surprised that she didn't recognize the portrait of Mr. Rogers and Daniel Striped Tiger on the cover, given that she is really into that show at the moment. But the pink, that was key. I haven't played her the record, but I'm guessing she would not like it, cause one thing I've learned about Frances is that she can't stand prog! Wank-prog of the Yes variety, or neo-prog of the USAISAMONSTER school. Hopefully she likes reverse prog, and she'll buy the records on my label.

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