Allan Holdsworth, ©2004 Linda Shulman
Allan Holdsworth, ©2004 Linda Shulman
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The Most Popular sub-Genre of Prog… Survey Says…
By Jerry Lucky
January 6, 2005

I don’t how many of you pay much attention to the poll on the site. I hope all of you participate in some if not all of them because they give us a handy little gauge by which to measure different aspects of our favourite genre of music. Oh-sure, I realize it’s not very scientific but anytime you can get close to 1000 responses to a question you are getting pretty close to statistical accuracy. In addition, as I said it provides an interesting avenue of feedback. Which brings me to my point.

I was somewhat surprised by the results of the last poll asking visitors to vote for their favourite sub-genre of progressive rock. What surprised me was that the Symphonic and so-called Neo-Prog categories did so well. And given that virtually all of what’s labelled Neo-Prog clearly falls in the Symphonic category anyway that shows a tremendous following for that sub-genre. The closest category, in second place was funnily enough Prog-Metal which for all it’s bombastic guitar-double kick-drum antics also tends to feature more than it’s own share of keyboard symphonics. So putting aside the quibbling, to some degree the Symphonic subgenre of prog can easily make room for all three, Symphonic, Neo-Prog (how I loath that term), and even Prog-Metal.

For the record, the numbers went this way: Symphonic – 32%, Prog Metal – 20%, Neo-Prog – 13%, tying with Fusion also at 13%. The remaining categories like RIO, Zeuhl, Canterbury and Space came in with 6% or less. So if we are to combine both Symphonic and Neo-Prog that’s an astounding 45% response. Anyone suggesting that the Symphonic category is a tired and worn-out subgenre may want to re-think their views.

What surprised me about this is that while the general public seems to enjoy listening to Symphonic prog more than any other sub-genre, the critics rarely place it at the top of their listening interests. And I’m not exactly sure why although I have a few ideas about that. One doesn’t have to be as harsh on critics as Frank Zappa to realize that to many of them seem to share a view that in some cases is not quite in synch with the rest of us listening lot. When Frank Zappa was asked his opinion of rock journalists, he described them as “People who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.” Ouch!

Now I include myself in the general listening lot even though I provide “reviews” of new releases here at ghostland. I would never call myself a critic, a reviewer yes but never a critic and I believe there is a distinction that should be made. My Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says a critic will express what’s good and bad about a creative effort while a reviewer will simply provide an overview of what was done. I prefer to review a piece, provide an overview of what the artist has done, and perhaps in some cases provide a comparison to any of their previous efforts.

This brings us back to the subgenre of Symphonic prog. It’s not unusual to find CD releases in this category written about in an almost apologetic fashion. Not all critics do this but in my opinion to many of them do. Some of them even find it necessary to refer to the Symphonic category as a “tired” genre, well-worn, overused, hard to find anything new, sounding too retro, or a category that no longer has anything new to say.

As to why some critics take shots at symphonic prog is anyone’s guess but I believe it has a lot to do with not only their personal tastes but also the demands placed on them to listen to in many cases an overwhelming volume of material. Sure, we’re all fans but even that has limits. And fans rarely like to see their favourite music unfairly trashed by critics.

Personal tastes are going to enter the picture because they form the grid through which everything else is going to be heard. This applies not only their listening habits but even to their personality. Someone who is by nature critical will invariably bring that attitude to their reviews. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t. The worst-case scenario is a critic who isn’t well informed. The reader may be left with a diatribe of opinion based more on subjectivity than any objective observation of the recorded work.

The other aspect peculiar to the critic’s world is simply that in most cases they listen to far more material than the average fan. What ’s more, they HAVE to listen to it. And they HAVE to listen to certain things they would normally not listen to. And therein lies the rub. Whether they admit it or not critics of all stripes suffer from a jaded-complex. That is they become jaded to the very things they write about simply because they’re over-exposed to it. You might say they become desensitised to the very music they’re asked to listen to. And it falls to reason they will need more of a jolt to receive the same high. This happens with food critics, movie critics and yes, music critics.

Now some would suggest that the contrary is actually truer. That these people because of the volume of exposure are actually better trained to write and criticise because of the perspective they bring. I suppose if the Olympics had a category for critics that would be true. Critics could work day in and day out writing feverously honing their craft to become the best they can be. Somehow, I don’t think it actually works that way.

I have a friend who has become quite meticulous about sorting through reviews to determine his purchases. He has a few web sites he visits regularly and trusts and then will assign a rating number to certain CDs he wants to buy based on the reviews he trusts. Most fans have their own system simply because it gets expensive to purchase everything you might want. Most fans don’t get promo copies. More than one friend has personally solved the “who do you trust” dilemma by finding critics or reviewers who they tend to share an affinity with in some fashion. And they will refer to the same person to help guide them through the world of new releases. So I’m going to suggest we take that even a step further.

Rock concert poster artist Derek Hess was quoted in the Art of Modern Rock saying, “But even in the beginning I never did art – even flyers – for any bands I didn’t like. If I don’t like the music, I’d be lying about it when I produce the image for flyers and posters. The art wouldn’t come off strong, and I think people immediately would be able to see I lacked conviction about my work.” And I’m of the opinion the same can be said of music critics. The public can tell when they lack conviction and are no longer being honest with them.

So here’s my suggestion. Why not have specific critics for specific sub-genres? What would be wrong with having someone who likes, enjoys and knows a lot about the Canterburian sub-genre write specifically about those releases. Why not have someone who loves symphonic and knows it’s history write about those releases and the same for RIO, Zeuhl whatever. I’ll bet you “dollars-to-doughnuts” the review would be better informed, provide a more complete perspective and have more lasting value to the potential fan/purchaser of said disc. Now I’m not suggesting that these genre specialists would or should simply sugar-coat their reviews but I do think their efforts would better reflect the music than simply the critic’s opinions. We could avoid the whole issue of reviewing what’s not there and stick to the material provided by the band. And what would be wrong with that.

Anyway, I think it’s something to consider. What do you think?

About the Author:
Jerry Lucky is the author of the book The Progressive Rock Files, now entering its 5th edition. Please feel free to send feedback to Jerry at