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Joiners in Believing

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.

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.

 

TV ON THE RADIO

Brooklynites TV on the Radio came to prominence because of their ties to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They produced the YYY’s new album and helped make the video for their song “Pin.” Currently they’re signed to the YYY’s old label, Touch and Go.

Despite this connection to 2003’s great white hype, if you ask your hipster friends to describe TV on the Radio, they’ll inevitably describe how s-o-u-l-f-u-l they are, how “different.” They’ll speak admiringly of the barbershop-quartet cover of the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” from this past summer’s Young Liars EP. What they’ll studiously avoid saying is that the band are a near-freakish presence in American indie-rock, due to the presence of not one but two actual African-Americans, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. They front the band alongside in-house producer and multi-instrumentalist David Andrew Sitek. Well, I’m sorry to report that Adebimpe’s voice — often massed with Malone’s and Sitek’s — resembles no one else’s more than that of former Genesis front man Peter Gabriel.

TV on the Radio have just released Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, and as the dual lineage promises, they represent art rock (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and prog rock (Peter Gabriel) far more than soul. Adebimpe approaches every note with the fervor of a gospel singer, but finally it’s affection, not lung capacity, that carries him along. You can hear him straining for the notes. What does stick out is the imaginative production. A notably egalitarian mix gives each instrument equal prominence, and the record practically vibrates with odd melodies, as if egos were submerged and the songs popped up from a magnetic field of buzzing guitars, crisp drums and fuzzy voices. The best songs, “Staring at the Sun” and “The Wrong Way,” push this groupthink concept further with a host of guest stars (the YYY’s guitarist Nick Zinner, flautist/saxophonist Martin Perna), who add to the cacophony.

THE WALKMEN

More hungrily anticipated than all these records combined is the Walkmen’s Bows and Arrows. Three-fifths of this proudly Manhattanite group were living the life of garage-rock revivalists well before the Strokes or White Stripes played a note. Three members played in the much-hyped DreamWorks signing Jonathan FireEater, who were thought to be a next big thing until their major-label debut turned into the bargain-bin disaster of 1997.

With the addition of singer Hamilton Leithauser and bassist Peter Bauer, the group reconvened as a wispier beast. Their 2002 debut, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, rejected tightly structured compositions in favor of eerie, barely-there songs that sounded like a band jamming on ideas in a room, letting tones pile up in the air, then lazily capturing them to analog tape. Guitarist Paul Maroon and organist Walter Martin’s fog of noise was U2 by way of Erik Satie. It’s as if they set out to play anthems but settled on something more vague.

Including the Walkmen in a prog-rock roundup is a deliberately provocative choice. Most pundits think of the group as the forward guard of the new rock revival — the thinking man’s answer to the Strokes et al. — but I hear something else, something . . . more progressive. They aren’t that intent on proving their chops, or extending the definition of a rock song, but they certainly stretch those definitions to the breaking point within the framework of four-minute songs and a standard guitar/ bass/drums/keys lineup. Where the Walkmen’s first album dissolved completely on close inspection, Bows and Arrows captures the chaotic drive of the live band. Drummer Matt Barrick doesn’t add to the field of sound, he propels it. The album’s more vaporous numbers — “No Christmas While I’m Talking,” “138th Street,” “Hang on Siobhan” — no longer sound like songs recorded halfway to completion, but a group playing chicken with silence.

The only bad news is that the album loses something when held up next to the formidable presence of the record’s first single, “The Rat,” a four-and-a-half-minute roller coaster of rising guitars, drums that titter and slam, and cathartic vocal bravado. Leithauser defines his front-man persona here as his mood vacillates between come-on and contempt, and his lyrics portray an aging hipster, tired of the nightlife, yet unwilling to give it up. He seethes:

When I used to go out
I would know everyone that I saw
Now I go out alone
If I go out at all

 

It’s a brave — and progressive — pose, but it crumbles in the next verse, as he reveals his desperation:

Can’t you see me
I’m pounding on your door
Can’t you hear me
Calling out your name?

Anthemic, highly coherent, and summing up what’s happening N-O-W, it’s the kind of song that has the breakout potential of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and in a kinder world that might still happen.

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