In my latest piece for Zeek, posted yesterday, I try another experiment with form. Instead of writing a straight review of Oneida's wonderful new triple album Rated O, I use the record as the occasion for rethinking the history of so-called "progressive rock" and its undersung legacy in the world of contemporary independent music:
Back in high school, when I first developed an interest in the history of rock, I frequently lamented the fact that I would never get to see bands like Yes live. By comparison, the synthesizer-drenched sugar highs of the mainstream 80s charts seemed absurdly shallow. I wanted popular music that stood for something more than instant – and therefore illusory – gratification. But then I discovered alternative rock, right as it was about to commence its commercial heyday, and suppressed my dreams of being magically transported back to some rustic greensward, bathed in a sweet haze of smoke.
Over time, I came to feel mildly ashamed of my affection for bands like Rush and Genesis, though I never went so far as to prune them from my collection. Sometimes, when one of the prog rock epics I liked came on the radio, I’d find myself turning up the volume, temporarily able to lose myself in the music as I had in my teens. For the most part, though, hearing those classics made me reflect on the ways in which my taste had changed, as if I were starting at the photo of a high-school sweetheart that now seemed like an obviously poor match for me.
In the past decade, however, as hipster-minded internet sites like Pitchfork have promoted artists who clearly have ambitions to transcend the confines of rock and pop orthodoxy, I have found myself startled to be experiencing the sort of musical pleasure I thought I’d outgrown. Listening to groups such as The Fiery Furnaces, who foreground the height of their concepts even when it means hiding the depths of their passion, I almost get more enjoyment out of their work’s audacity, the rules it insouciantly flouts, as I do from the music itself. The room these artists make for forms of listening inimical to rock convention can leave me with an empty feeling, but one which has the same appeal as a newly remodeled home. In other words, it’s the negative space their records delimit that holds me in thrall.
The idea that popular music doesn’t have to be reduced to a three-chord essence or function as the soundtrack to the booze-soaked pursuit of “satisfaction,” that it can be about something other than the sweaty rocking and rolling that gave the genre its name: this sense of possibilities gave me hope even when my body longed for baser forms of sonic stimulation. But when that idea is fleshed out with less cerebral forms of bliss, as is surely the case with Oneida’s Rated O, its force is powerfully magnified. Realizing that rocking out can free us from the bondage of matter is one thing; realizing that it can rock our minds back into harmony with our bodies is another.
If you'd asked me six months ago whether I'd ever spend many hours pondering the deeper mysteries of Yes, I would have laughed. Now that I have, though, I've gleefully added my inner prog rocker to my list of Facebook friends. Could Peter, Paul and Mary be far behind?