Category Archives: Editorials

Incomplete Rise of the Keyboards

The MiniMoog D

This week I watched a documentary titled Rock’N’Roll Inventions, Rise of Keyboards. I love keyboards so it sounded right up my alley. The first part of the documentary was pretty interesting. The producers gave a brief background of the history of the modular synthesizers, the mellotron and the Minimoog. Keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman appeared several times, providing insightful information.

The early 1970s went by very quickly, with brief references to Keith Emerson and Pink Floyd. This is where it was clear that this documentary was not really focused on keyboards and musicians. Totally ignored innovators like Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock. And, even though Rick Wakeman was featured, the focus was on his work with David Bowie and his solo projects rather than Wakeman’s remarkable work for Yes.

It was also clear that this documentary was very Anglo-centric. While it’s true that German band Kraftwerk was featured, essential German artists like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, were ignored. Also left out were the highly influential Greek artist Vangelis (who brought electronic music to the masses through Blade Runner and other popular movies), the highly successful French artist Jean-Michel Jarre and Japanese musician Kitaro, who became a worldwide sensation thanks to his soundtrack for the Silk Road TV series.

For some reason producers opted to include punk rock, which has nothing to do with keyboards. And then the documentary became about British pop rather than keyboards. Most of the guests were British pop critics and producers. Very few musicians were interviewed and not all were keyboardists.

The techno era portrayed was all about British pop, ignoring highly influential American acts like Devo.

There were references to a well-known (innovative at the time) keyboard called the Fairlight, but they didn’t bother to show it or explain what it was. Instead, the reference was negative, totally unnecessary. Samplers were scarcely mentioned.

On the other hand, drum machines got a short feature, which is somewhat puzzling because a drum machine is not a keyboard.

Brian Eno was featured in the context of Roxy Music, a darling of pop critics, but his groundbreaking ambient work was overlooked. I heard an interview with Brian Eno on the BBC not that long ago and he’s a fantastic guest. And there was barely any information about Electronic Dance Music, chill out and other keyboard-based electronic styles.

This was a wasted opportunity. We clearly need more documentaries that portray a more inclusive and accurate history of modern keyboards.

The Rise of Regressive Rock

Arena - Seventh Degree of Separation, a good example of a former progressive rock band shifting to heavy metal
Arena – Seventh Degree of Separation, a good example of a former progressive rock band shifting to heavy metal
It is now common to see the term progressive rock associated with all kinds of genres and artists that really belong in other musical categories. One of the most bizarre associations is the pairing of heavy metal with progressive rock. It’s like putting garlic on ice cream. Sure, you can eat it, but does it taste good?

Before going any further, let me state that I have nothing against heavy metal. I liked it as a teenager and it’s a totally respectable music genre. However, heavy metal has little in common with progressive rock. Head banging and skull crushing rudimentary guitar riffs are really distant from the progressive rock aesthetic. How did progressive metal, a heavy metal subgenre, loaded with repetitive riffs, mysteriously become a progressive rock subgenre? It’s very simple if you follow the history, and marketing has a lot to do with it. And if you repeat the same erroneous information numerous times, it will stick.

Since the 1990s, heavy metal and Adult Oriented Rock (AOR) bands that had no connection with progressive rock were aggressively marketed to the progressive rock community through advertisements and publicity. Leading progressive rock publications like Progression in the United States started publishing ads from labels such as Magna Carta, Laser’s Edge and Insideout. Despite the objections of many longtime fans, Progression and other publications started to review heavy metal recordings that were rebranded as progressive rock or progressive metal to make them more appealing to the progressive rock fan that normally stayed away from head banging music.

One certainly understands that the steadily flow of heavy metal album advertisements helped cash-starved progressive rock publication survive, but unfortunately the process also boosted the progressive metal intrusion into the progressive rock realm.

Progressive metal sounds like a category invented by record companies and publicists. Add fantasy artwork here, keyboard melodies there, and sometimes a concept album and, what do you know, heavy metal has been transformed into progressive rock. Now you can sell it to heavy metal fans and progressive rock fans alike. With a larger market pool; bigger profits.

From the very beginning, progressive rock has been a genre that looks forward, that seeks new frontiers and experiments with music and sound. Progressive rock is known for incorporating classical music, jazz, folk and electronic music and blending it in a highly creative way. Heavy metal, on the other hand, is pretty much the same old formula over and over again; the same skull crushing and blistering riffs.

Metal is a safe formula that is also used in other genres like smooth jazz, Nashville-style country music, romantic Latin pop and many other music categories. Genres that are predictable and easy to market.

The so-called progressive metal may use brief moments of progressive rock creativity with short-lived interesting keyboard work and semi-decent guitar shredding, but the best moments are frequently ruined and drowned by the heavy metal riffs that appear too often, used over and over again ad nauseam. There is no exploration and very little jazz, classical, folk or electronic music. It’s rudimentary and regressive, which is the opposite of the progressive rock spirit.

Progressive metal has spread like wildfire, even among some progressive rock musicians who had originally nothing to do with heavy metal. Bands that have crossed over into full blown heavy metal include British acts Galahad and Arena.

Opeth - Pale Communion
Opeth – Pale Communion
It’s disappointing to listen to potentially beautiful epic pieces ruined with the heavy metal guitars and steady pounding drums. Listening to all these recordings I’ve started to wonder if it would be worth proposing to artists and labels the release of two separate mixes for these albums: a progressive rock mix that leaves out the metal and a metal mix for those who want to hear skull crushing riffs.

On the bright side, we have groups like former doom metal band Anathema making splendid post rock with symphonic rock elements and Opeth who recently recorded a superb progressive rock album titled Pale Communion, that left out the heavy metal riffs.

AOR Miles Away From Progressive Rock

Cover of Asia’s debut album
In the last couple of weeks, a new tour by AOR band Asia has been generating articles that associate the band’s music with progressive rock. Naturally, AOR is not progressive rock, but rather a simpler form of rock music.

First, the background. What is AOR?

AOR is defined as either Album Oriented Rock or Adult Oriented Rock. It’s a musical genre that surfaced in the late 1970s and was popular as a radio format. Major record labels and FM radio stations loved the genre because songs were short, had pop hooks and conformed to commercial radio standards. While many classic rock bands had a blues base, the AOR bands incorporated keyboards, harmonies and even fantasy artwork, appealing to an adult rock audience. Some of the best known acts included Asia, Foreigner, Boston, Toto, Journey and Saga, as well as recent newcomer Circa.

Why does a commercial pop format form of rock get associated with progressive rock? The reason is very simple. Asia was formed by progressive rock musicians, who had played in legendary acts like Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes and King Crimson. However, the music they made under Asia had nothing to do with progressive rock. They wanted to play simpler music that would appeal to large audiences and had better chances of getting radio airplay than a fabulous 20-minute epic.

Another well-known AOR band, Foreigner, also included a former King Crimson member. This led to confusion among some critics and music fans, who kept using the term progressive rock whenever they commented on Foreigner, Asia and other AOR bands.

Fast forward to 2012. Fueled by nostalgia, many bands from the 1970s and 1980s are reforming. AOR is dead as a radio format. Commercial radio is a vast wasteland focused on formulaic hip hop, pop and country. Labels and publicists see an opportunity in the progressive rock niche market and re-file the AOR bands as progressive rock. So now, press releases go out and clueless local writers and gullible music fans accept this information and, voila, by art of magic, a simplistic form of pop has been transformed into progressive rock. Some lazy bloggers copy and publish the press release as is, therefore perpetuating the incorrect information.

We can only hope that music fans and music journalists do a little more research before accepting what is fed to them. Enjoy AOR if you wish, but please don’t call it progressive rock.