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Joiners in Believing 

Prog rock is back, and it’s coming for your hipster children

Thursday, Mar 18 2004
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Photo by Anne Leithauser

By my count, there are at least four new records by young bands that derive influence — direct or indirect — from that most bastard of genres, progressive rock, the early-to-mid-’70s music whose stock-in-trade was bloat, pretension and opaque references to the incomprehensible. And I think these bands are on to something.

There are good reasons progressive rock is the most reviled music of all time, one of which is that it also holds the title as the most self-involved music of all time. It’s musician’s music, artist’s art, as hard to grasp as stridently postmodern literature, as hard to pin down as abstract painting. But at least the pretensions of ab-ex painting and pomo lit were defensible. They began as a counterpoint to the dominant culture. James Joyce pushed sexual mores as well as form; Jackson Pollock pursued his bohemian vision in the ’50s as America was hunkering down into conservatism. The original postmodernists and ab-exers had lives that were alluringly urbane, impoverished, garlanded with cigarette butts.

This stands in stark contrast with the prog-rock milieu, whose leading lights — Yes, Genesis, King Crimson — came mostly from semirural England in the ’70s, and played to the masses. As they strode the Earth like gods — sometimes in capes — they seemed like little more than a harder-rocking, geekier analog to disco’s solipsism. No wonder punk came next.

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But in 2004, there’s a new wave of bands resolving the age-old battle between prog and punk. Why now? No doubt it’s because of the overheated marketing that has infected punk and garage rock in the last couple of years. The Hives! The Strokes! The White Stripes! Where raw rock & roll was once an impossibly cool genre — teenland’s default choice for rebellion — now it’s become cold to the touch.

What alternative was there for the next wave of hipsters but to start forging a new language?

THE SECRET MACHINES

The band you’ll probably hear the most about in coming months is the Secret Machines, a NYC-via-Austin group signed to the major label Reprise. The label has taken a curious promotional tack, making the new record, Now Here Is Nowhere, available digitally at iTunes and via the band’s slow-loading Web site an entire season before release to stores. The most “commercial” of the new prog-rock crop, the Secret Machines are, alas, slavishly devoted to their influences. Rhythmically they borrow the repetitive chug-chug of krautrock. The vocals are reminiscent of the ethereal but commanding voices that led Yes. (Contemporary listeners might be reminded of the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne.) Instrumentally the band wanders further afield, adopting the ferocious guitar clang explored by bands as diverse as My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized.

To the Secret Machines’ credit, these influences are all pretty tasteful, but they take them too literally, and transform them into something entirely lamer. You won’t hear much beyond influence. While originality isn’t the cardinal virtue in judging a band’s right to exist, it should be when evaluating a band trying to stride through the 21st century with 20th-century sounds.

90 DAY MEN

For something really new, you’ll have to leave behind major-label dollars and high-concept marketing, and turn to Chicago, where 90 Day Men have proved themselves the best of prog rock’s new practitioners. This quartet have a self-conscious dedication to the form — their first EP is titled 1975-1977-1998. Here was a contemporary band (1998) playing with the aggression and spite of a punk act (1977) yet dedicated to virtuosic playing not seen since the days of Yes and ELP (1975). Over two subsequent records, 90 Day Men spent time dodging genre pigeonholes — first post-hardcore (punky but complex), then math rock (chilly, metallic) and most recently post-rock. (Their last album included a track called “We Blame Chicago” aimed directly at the nu-fusion of hometown heroes Tortoise.)

90 Day Men were wrestling with problems inherent in playing a technician’s music: When you focus on idiom, it’s often to the detriment of soul. On their new record, Panda Park (Southern Records), they’ve added that soul. The core man is keyboard player Andy Lansangan, who joined the band in 2000. His playing is reminiscent of the electric piano of prime-era R&B records, the soundtrack to a video game, and a lapsed classical musician, all at once. In the six-minute span of “Even Time Ghost Can’t Stop Wagner,” he takes us from Aretha Franklin’s middle-period Atlantic sides to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions to the soundtrack of Nintendo’s Castlevania to an extremely accomplished rendition of “Chopsticks.”

Panda Park is a small masterpiece. 90 Day Men build sandcastles in the sky, but they aren’t afraid to tear them down. While Lansangan’s piano lines dance in the ether, his bandmates support him with the first thing to truly fulfill the term post-hardcore. Where prog trilled and soared and soared into its own navel, 90 Day Men lurch into their graceful pirouettes. They’re engaged in a full-on rhythmic workout, yet stick to a strict diet of midspeed tempos, without lazing into the tick-tock mantras that made post-rock so tedious.

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