Welcome to The 8-Track, a new column which tries to break down a movement, sub-genre or period in music history through an 8-track playlist, with a particular focus on underground scenes, insular movements, and styles that disappeared or slipped out of the mainstream consciousness. Today, we introduce the column with Neo-Prog, classic progressive rock’s prodigal child.
Neo-progressive rock, better known as “Neo-prog” is a sub-genre, though some consider it the “first-born child”, of the classic symphonic progressive rock we generally associate with bands like Genesis, Yes, ELP, Gentle Giant, and other acts that flourished in the 1970s. Many consider Genesis’ Wind and Wuthering, Steve Hackett‘s Spectral Mornings, and Camel‘s Breathless as the albums that mainly influenced and anticipated the rise of this style.
Like classic prog, Neo-prog originated in the United Kingdom, but it quickly spread to continental Europe and, shortly after, the United States. It originated in the early 80’s, when classic prog’s reputation was completely destroyed by the rise of punk and new wave a few years prior. Prog was uncool, dated and obsolete, as the punk revolution itself was a frontal opposition to the virtuosity, pompousness and over-production of prog. Its “rock and roll back to its primary colors” philosophy permeated the rock consciousness for the next two generations, and this attitude, along with new wave’s embrace of digital technology and the fixation with modernity, inspired early neo-prog artists to “reform” progressive rock.
Musically, the style’s main characteristics are a stronger emphasis on atmosphere rather than virtuosity, relying on songwriting ability rather than technique, accessibility rather than elitism, and the use of digital synths instead of the nerdy analog equipment of the early days. This is the reason why critics of neo-prog use the term “pop-prog” derisively, and while there is an undeniable pop aspect to it, fans of the sub-genre think this is a good thing, as they see this as a natural next step in prog’s evolution. There is also a certain overlap with progressive metal — both scenes, for example, equally consider Rush as a predecessor –, as some of neo-prog’s leading bands started using distorted riffs and double bass drum patters in their songs, and later became a huge influence on prog metal bands like Queensrÿche, Threshold, and Royal Hunt. Neo-prog keeps classic prog’s theatricality and epicness, as it also keeps the long, multi-section song format, but without the meaningless noodling of classic prog.
Nowadays, neo-prog has a loyal and dedicated fan base, and countless groups from all over the globe have pushed the style forward, incorporating elements of alternative rock, neo-psychedelia, electronica, metal, and post-rock, taking neo-prog to all sorts of exciting territories.
This is neo-prog, in 8 tracks:
1. Marillion – Script For a Jester’s Tear
(Script For A Jester’s Tear, Capitol, 1983)
There’s an emotional energy and a penchant for drama that strongly tie neo-prog originator Marillion to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, and original vocalist Fish was notorious for his over-the-top performance antics and his love for musical theater, but if there is another musical reference point to describe this band, that would be Peter Hamill‘s Van der Graaf Generator. Like VdGG, Marillion loves cinematic arrangements and echo-laden clean guitars, long, evocative passages, and especially, keyboard leads that expanded upon the main melodic ideas instead of the usual solo. There is also a digital sheen that connects Marillion to art-pop group Asia, a popular act at the time, but this band never eschewed complexity completely; there’s still some challenging riffing over here.
2. Twelfth Night – Creepshow
(Fact and Fiction, self-released, 1982)
An ever earlier neo-prog band than universally acclaimed pioneers Marillion was Reading, England’s Twelfth Night. Founded in 1978 by guitarist Andy Revell, the group was heavily influenced by Genesis, Steve Hillage, and early heavy-prog act Wishbone Ash, but it was the agressive voice and deep, political lyrics of vocalist Geoff Mann what gave Twelfth Night its unique identity. 1982’s Fact and Fiction was a triumph for lyricism in progressive rock. Mann’s critical lens on class, governments, the condition of the poor in Thatcher’s Britain, and the nonsense of war. “Creepshow” opens with an acoustic guitar, that slowly evolves into a hard-knocking, almost metal-esque — they were followers and constantly toured alongside NWOBHM bands at the time — epic, and Mann’s powerful words attacked societal ills at a grassroots level, always with a profound conviction and a love for Humanity. He left the band and became an Anglican priest, and took his philosophy of justice to action.
3. IQ – The Darkest Hour
(Ever, Giant Electric Pea, 1993)
A delightful marriage between the dynamic and accessible sound of modern prog and the intricacy and ambition of the classics, United Kingdom’s IQ is perhaps the most carefully constructed of the main neo-prog bands. Led by charismatic frontman Peter Nicholls, the band has the genre’s most consistent run of iconic records, spanning four decades and exploring a wide variety of styles and combinations. “The Darkest Hour” is the opener of 1993’s Ever, a contender, along with 1997’s Subterranea and 2004’s Dark Matter, for the title of the band’s masterpiece. It’s a perfect summation of their sound; an exuberant opening section, exploring different time signatures and difficult guitar and synth phrasings, which leads to a strong mid-tempo song, built around several key changes and progressions, with several moments of climax where we can hear some heavy riffing, and some of the fattest bass in the business.
4. Pendragon – Masters of Illusion
(The Masquerade Overture, Toff Records, 1996)
Pendragon‘s emergence in the prog scene announced a new chapter in the genre’s evolution; this time, neo-prog doubled down on pure melody, as every single arrangement by Clive Nolan (keyboards) and Nick Barrett (guitars), even the dynamic instrumental sections, served the higher purpose of keeping a melodic cohesion throughout entire albums. The Masquerade Overture is widely considered their absolute best work to date, and their adoption of modern production techniques (this was the height of the CD era, after all) created a trend that reigned through the next two decades. They still haven’t got the recognition they deserve, but their influence is massive.
1. Arena – The Butterfly Man
(Immortal?, Verglas Music, 2000)
Just to clear it out: Immortal? is not the finest Arena album — that would be either 1998’s The Visitor or the metal-flavored 2003 release Contagion –, but the 2000 work contains “The Butterfly Man”, undoubtedly the song that best defines the sound of Arena, and even the essence of neo-prog in general. Here, Clive Nolan (of Pendragon fame) constructs the song around a brooding keyboard line, and the evocative, low-pitched voice of Rob Sowden leads it right into one of the most brilliant choruses in neo-prog’s history. But it’s the gorgeous guitar playing of John Mitchell that gives the song its special character. The song’s climax is, of course, the final section, in which the hook goes from its original waltz cadence (3/4) to a slow 4/4 that feels majestic.
2. Satellite – A Street Between Sunrise and Sunset
(A Street Between Sunrise and Sunset, Metal Mind, 2003)
You can’t talk about Satellite without first mentioning Collage. Continental Europe picked up on neo-prog only a couple of years after the British scene exploded, but Polish band Collage were the first band to get universal recognition in the prog scene with their breakthrough album Moonshine (1994). However, it was Satellite, born from Collage’s ashes, the band that perfects the European neo-prog formula for the new millenium. 2003’s A Street Between Sunrise and Sunset contains a balanced mixture of Genesis-style songwriting, Pink Floydian instrumental sections, metal riffing, and symphonic, almost goth-tinged keyboards and orchestrations (elements of symphonic metal that can reveal the influence of label Metal Mind, a big metal record distribution company in Poland), paired with the dense, passionate vocal work of Robert Amirian, one of the most versatile rock singers in Europe, in any genre.
3. Airbag – All Rights Removed
(All Rights Removed, Karisma Records, 2011)
The sound of Norwegian band Airbag is quite fascinating, specifically because it is so hard to describe. Although there’s a clear influence of British giants Arena, and, to a lesser extent, fellow Norwegian band Gazpacho, there is much, much more to their music than that, which has prompted listeners to not consider them neo-prog, or even prog at all. They have succesfully incorporated touches of several different styles of music; darker art-prog like Porcupine Tree (especially their Stupid Dream-Lightbulb Sun era), alternative rock (late 80’s-early 90’s bands from both sides of the Atlantic), shoegaze and post-rock (Slowdive and Mogwai, respectively), to even some prog metal (Opeth, Dead Soul Tribe) and of course, a lot of Pink Floyd’s brand of proggish psychedelia. However, they have kept all of these seemingly disparate ingredients into a unified concept, thanks in no small part to their special focus on melancholy and nostalgia, and their sharp, steadfast songwriting.
4. Comedy of Errors – Fanfare for the Broken Hearted
(Fanfare & Fantasy, self-released, 2013)
If you didn’t figure out already with band names like Twelfth Night and Comedy of Errors, there’s a lot of Shakespeare in neo-prog — of course, their obsession with theatricality and the prominence of themes of the dark depths of the human spirit can easily be traced to the plays of the Bard. This band comes from Scotland (arguably the epicenter of neo-prog in the UK) and their history is quite interesting; they were formed in 1984, during the first wave of the genre, by singer Joe Cairney and keyboardist Jim Johnston, but never created any official work except for some demos and singles (now wonderfully compiled in a self-titled release) until their break-up in 1989. They were never particularly noteworthy in the prog scene at the time either, having only toured around their home country for some years. However, that story did not end there; the band miraculously reformed after more than two decades, and in 2011, they burst into the scene with Disobey, their debut album. But it was 2013’s Fanfare & Fantasy where they really hit it big in the prog community. Bringing a wonderful mixture of classic neo-prog with modern elements, some symphonic flair, atmospheric tendencies and even traces of medieval music, Comedy Of Errors quickly became a protagonist in the neo-prog narrative, 27 years into their existence. It’s a testament to their endurance, and the commitment to their creative vision.