31st December 2006 - Where Have All The Prog-Fans Gone?
Wow! I know that when you reach "a certain age", a year passes like money through a teenager's hands but I can honestly say, I don't know where 2006 went. Really, it seems like last month, not last year, when I was looking forward to spring arriving and then summer's long balmy evenings. Of course as a prog fan, I expect the early part of any year to be a bit quiet on the live front and this year was no exception; I don't think I got out to a gig until the middle of the year. Aren't prog gigs like buses, you wait ages for one and then they all turn up at once as if they're a bit shy and like the company of similar creatures.
I don't think that 2006 will go down as an epic year in prog. While many were reasonable, there were few stand out albums released and many bands seemed to be treading water. New albums from established artists didn't exactly shake any foundations. The new Spock's Beard - SB9 received mixed reviews and appears not to be the band's hoped for break-out album. The Flower Kings - Paradox Hotel went down well with fans but is unlikely to increase their fan base by large amounts. Even the long awaited newie from Tool - 10,000 Days didn't gain the rapturous acceptance that the band's core followers usually give regardless. Magenta's Home, while accomplished, added nothing new to their sound and reminds me of the description a friend of mine gave to Prog Rock a while ago, "Stay The Same Rock".
It's telling that my favourite album of the year, The Feeling's 12 Stops And Home, although drawing on classic influences could by no stretch of the imagination be called Prog. This is a joyful album, full of beautifully crafted songs that is guaranteed to bring the impression of sunlight on a cloudy day. My second favourite, O.S.I.'s Free while inhabiting the genre, is way, way out from the standard yardsticks of it. This is yet another album that seemed to disappoint fans although I found it to be an improvement on the debut.
Looking towards the mainstream proved to be slightly more fruitful, there was hardly a popular music publication around that failed to address what they saw as the resurgence of Prog. Some even going so far as to agree that it is no bad thing. However, to a one, they concentrated on newer artists like Pure Reason Revolution, The Mars Volta and Coheed And Cambria. Many articles were scathing in the extreme about the old guard, showing that dated stereotypes are hard to shake off. Still, no publicity is bad publicity and to actually see the word "Prog" on a newstand is an event in itself.
Perhaps we did better with new bands. Pure Reason Revolution provided a debut album, The Dark Third, about which barely anyone had a bad word to say and they certainly point the way towards how Prog should be done for the younger generation. There were also promising debuts from Darwin's Radio, The Gift and Tinyfish. All three are new bands from accomplished musicians whose albums deserve a listen because of, not despite, their relatively short time on the scene.
If anything, I'd say 2006 was the year of the comeback. Taking the top honour in the "Gap Between Albums" category is Credo. I know Prog artists like to take their time with albums and certainly very few with the exception of The Flower Kings rush out recorded material but 12 years is a particularly long time between between debut and sophomore releases. Although Rhetoric was first seen towards the back end of 2005, it's presence really started to be felt this year with quite a number of live outings from the band in support of what turned out to be a very solid set of songs.
Then we come to the reunions. Old bands never die, they just hibernate until the wheel of time turns in their favour again. The much missed It Bites finally regrouped without the flaky Frank Dunnery and with the ubiquitous John Mitchell, a man who's had more bands than I've had Christmas dinners. While internet scuttlebutt was divided on the pairing of the band with Mitchell, the live shows demonstrated that this is a band that were due a second chance and still have it in them to rock like monsters. Taking the "When Hell Freezes Over" award were Asia. Now this was a reunion that many thought would never be seen but again, was welcomed and well received. Finally, the one that had prog fans in apoplexy, The Genesis Reunion - and I use those capital letters on purpose for verily it is a mighty beast, a reunion of reunions. Naturally it split the fan base with the disappointment of the lack of Gabriel and Hackett but they still managed to sell out the UK venues quicker than a pop fan can phone in a vote to X-Factor. On a personal note, I have tickets for this Event. (Likewise with the capital E, I certainly can't use the term gig for it.) so I will go more out of curiosity than slavish devotion, ask me about it next July.
I've saved the meatiest topic for last in my round of reflections.....Frost*.......Was there ever such a furore attached to a debut prog release. I can honestly say I've never witnessed such praise heaped on an album prior to its release. Joe Progfan, his wife and second cousin twice removed all seemed to have preview copies and were unstinting in their adulation. There appeared to have been an Act of Parliament slipped in under the radar that decreed that all must worship at the temple of Jem Godfrey or else pay the penalty. If I didn't know better and having seen an actual outbreak of mass hysteria once before in my life, I'd have said that we were all a bit carried away by this one. Woe betide the fence-sitter that dared to say they weren't that keen on it, the fanbase circled them and pounced like they were carriers of bird flu. Because of all this pre-publicity, I took my time with the album. I hate to leap aboard a bandwagon so I found that I was one of those who possibly had a few sniffles and should beware of close contact with other prog fans.
Unfortunately, Tall Poppy Syndrome came into play and when Jem found that he'd unleashed a beast beyond his control and wisely decided to reign it all in a bit. the idolaters turned on him for putting the band into hiatus. I honestly believe now that he made the correct decision for himself, dealing with the Frost* fall-out must have been like trying to juggle jelly. A man has to make a living and we all know that you won't do that with Prog. Regardless of how well received Milliontown was, it was but a spit in the wind compared to his mainstream work and presumably took up a disproportionate amount of time. I've seen the look on the man's face when he plays and know, in fact I'd be happy to wager my entire prog collection, that we will hear more from Frost* at some point. Oh and by the way, I do like the album too. I just had to come to it in my own time.
So finally I'd just like to address one other thing that is truly close to my heart: live gig attendances. I've been watching bands play for over 25 years and short of the obvious, there is nothing else that can excite the mind and the body than seeing the right band at the right time on the top of their game. We've all seen some rubbish too, I'm sure, but all of those experiences pale in comparison against the genuine, magical, hair on the back of the neck moments that anyone who can call themselves a music fan has undoubtedly witnessed over the years. Moments that stay with you forever and transport you simply to another place, another plane of existence. The beauty being, that everyone's moments are different and unique to them alone, although equally treasured.
It is simply beyond my understanding that over 150,000 people will fall over themselves to pay ludicrous amounts to see a few middle-aged men play in vast caverns - when seeing is about the last thing they will be able to do - while working prog bands playing a small local venue will struggle to pull in 50. I paid over £70 for my Genesis ticket and that amount would fund nearly a year's worth of entry into my nearest pub venue. Any member of the Classic Rock Society will tell you that the biggest plea from the Organisers is to go out and see the bands. That society and other promoters take themselves to financial breaking points to allow you to see the bands that you listen to at home and yet, so few music fans seem to bother.
Believe me, I know it isn't always easy, I'm a single full-time working Mum with precious little spare cash around and there are often nights when I have to make convoluted childcare arrangements and am so tired I wish I could sink into my duvet but mostly I drag myself out and when I have, I'm always glad I did, for it pays off a hundredfold. I see it in the expressions on the bands' faces when a piece receives applause, I hear it in the musical passages of exquisite richness and I appreciate it in the skill that enables me to be a witness to those nights.
Live gigs are the lifeblood of music, very few musicians say they form a band to make albums, they do it so that they can go out and play to live audiences. It isn't the Genesis' and Muses of the world that we should be supporting, they will always have an audience, it's the young, new bands who deserve a chance. The ones who you've barely heard of who are playing a Friday night at the Spit And Sawdust down the road. It might be their biggest gig yet and they might be your latest discovery but you won't know if you don't go. So please, make yourselves a New Year's resolution and try and get out next year to see a couple of bands you wouldn't otherwise have seen. Give them and yourselves a chance to experience something new. Without punters those venues that do support up and coming prog will eventually give it up and when you do have the urge there won't be anywhere to go and no new bands to see. You never know, one of them may provide you with one of those special moments that you'll keep with you forever and the bands will certainly be thankful.
I wish a very Happy New Year to you all.
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