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It’s Art (Rock), Man!

Looking at the Art/Prog Rock genre.

by Dr. Spin
July 26, 2004

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Dear Dr. Spin,
What is Prog Rock and how does it differ from Art Rock? Also, is Art Rock dead?

No Artist
Dear No Art,
As far as I know “Art” Rock and “Prog” (or progressive) Rock are pretty much the same. I believe Prog Rock tends to follow the “free flow” forms of jazz more, where Art Rock tends to follow “classical” structures. Art/Prog rock has its roots (as do most sub-categories of rock) in the experimental days of the late ‘60’s. Starting with Sgt. Pepper and the Moody Blues, bands began to play with non-traditional instruments, including string arrangements. At the same time keyboards were changing with the invention of new synthesizers, keyboards that could create fantastical and futuristic sounds.
It was these influences, plus classical training in guitar and piano that led such young bands as Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson to create the sound that would come to be known as “Art Rock,” or Rock that was a little more sophisticated than the basic guitar-laden, 4/4 beat driven music that comprises most rock songs. Art/Prog rock also delved into creating longer songs, songs that were more like a movement in a symphony (apologies to Drew McManus and other classical lovers). If there is a difference between Art Rock and Prog Rock, perhaps it is in the style of the bands associated with the two genres. Bands considered Art Rock are bands like (early) Genesis and Yes. Bands considered Prog Rock are like King Crimson, Soft Machine and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (or Powell). Art Rock is usually lighter and more airy than Prog, though bands can be considered both Art and Prog.
The Art/Prog movement hit its zenith in the early to mid ‘70’s with most of the above bands releasing their best work and receiving their largest followings. Art/Prog groups have always had a cult following; their appeal to mass audiences was/is somewhat limited. Remember, most Rock is simplistic in its design; Art/Prog rockers can and do seem overindulgent and pretentious to those that like “that old time Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Most of the big Art/Prog rock bands either faded from the limelight (Yes, King Crimson, ELP), or moved into a more pop-oriented format (Genesis). The influence of Art/Prog spilled into the “Arena Rock” of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s with bands like Styx, Boston, and Rush. But by the ‘90’s, Arena Rock was passé too, pushing Art/Rock further and further from mass audiences. Art/Prog bands continued to release music, but was seen by fans and critics alike as weaker and weaker material.
Art Rock is not dead, though it is probably much more obscure than it used to be, especially with corporate controlled music of today. I cannot think of any “new” or modern Art/Prog band, though I’m sure they’re out there; we just don’t hear them on the radio anymore.
Dr. Spin,
What’s the song of the moment?
Dear Speedy,
Oddly enough, after writing almost a whole article on Art/Prog Rock, the song of the moment (that is, as I’m writing this) is “Extra-Ordinary” by Better than Ezra. Go figure!

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