Tag Archives: Prog Rock

The Political Prog of Kalahari Surfers

Kalahari Surfers

“Weirdly, music was my political education,” says Warrick Sony, the man behind the anti-apartheid experimental ‘80s prog project Kalahari Surfers.

Born in apartheid South Africa, Sony’s white family was apolitical. “They came out of the post-war obey-your-leaders generation who didn’t like to rock a comfortable boat,” Sony says. But when he went to school in Durban, he found the Record King shop in Ajmeri Arcade, which imported LPs by everyone from Frank Zappa to Robert Wyatt to German minimalists like Faust. The band Can was especially important, Sony says, because they “played a European music which was as close to African music as one could get without being in any way obvious.”

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The New Face of Prog Rock

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In the late ‘60s, not long after the Summer of Love, psychedelic rock’s horizons expanded. As the architects of psych began to envision a sound that existed outside of the influence of blues and country, some unexpected and interesting things began to happen. British beat music outfit The Moody Blues recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1967 and incorporated spoken word poetry into their newly ambitious sound. The Electric Prunes abandoned garage rock under the direction of producer David Axelrod on Release of an Oath, which paired symphonic compositions with Biblical themes. And experimental Londoners Pink Floyd found inspiration in the vast expanses of space.

By the early 1970s, progressive rock had taken over the music industry, with a ‘60s-era economic boom contributing to longer, more expensive and sophisticated recordings. Progressive rock, or “prog” as it later came to be known, found rock music drifting away from a dance-oriented approach, its most prominent bands instead shifting to a more immersive headphone-listening experience. Bands such as King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer paired unconventional and experimental songwriting with narrative concepts, sometimes incorporating them into LP side-length suites. Other scenes emerged as prog evolved, such as the jazz-influenced Canterbury scene (Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Caravan), the more electronics-heavy krautrock scene in Germany (Can, Neu!, Harmonia), and the much less song-oriented experiments of avant-prog (Magma, Univers Zero, Henry Cow).

The reputation of prog waned toward the end of the ‘70s, its indulgence and largesse often credited for provoking a knee-jerk reaction in the birth of punk rock. As prog fell out of favor in the mainstream, though, it found a receptive audience in metal circles. In the late ‘80s, metal bands such as Iron Maiden and Queensrÿche adopted conceptual approaches on some of their most ambitious and celebrated albums. Deeper into the 1990s, the technical proficiency and sprawling song structures of prog found their way into European death metal, with bands like Opeth becoming standard-bearers for modern progressive rock along with American counterparts Tool, who brought the influence of King Crimson and Pink Floyd to an alternative rock audience.

Progressive rock today maintains the ornate instrumentation and ambition of its classic era, but as rock music itself evolved, so has prog. The recording budgets may not be what they once were, but contemporary prog bands still see beyond stylistic boundaries, embracing the instrumental skill and complex songwriting of the genre’s creators while finding new ways to evolve and change its shape. Some of them favor air-tight composition while others delve into improvisational spaces, but they all are redefining progressive rock in their own way.

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