Andrzej Mądro: Academy of Music in Kraków (Poland)
From Psychedelia to Djent – Progressive Genres as a Paradox of Pop Culture
ABSTRACT: Progressive rock has, as a popular music genre from the very beginning, separated itself from pop culture extensively. It wanted to be the elite, the modern, and the innovative in new forms of art. Ideas of “art rock” do not expire and with time gave rise to the new, transgressive trends: neo-progressive in the 80s, progressive metal and mathcore in the 90s, and, recently, djent. At the expense of greater commercial success, many bands still cut off from the rock-metal mainstream and operate independently, incessantly exceeding stylistic and aesthetical boundaries. Moreover, poetics of their music often reveals a tension between elitism and egalitarianism, intellect and corporeality, individuality and conventions. During the last few decades also classical music crossed the limits of the traditional, even modernistic aesthetics. So if nowadays we consider music that is minimal, electronic, neoromantic or other postmodern trends as “classical”, how should we regard progressive genres? Can they be seen as synthesis of two worlds: classical and rock, or are they being created a thick frontier between art and pop culture? Who is to say whether rock opera should be interpreted as a cluster of songs or as a musical drama?
In a brief contextual intro, Andrzej outlines his core questions and his plan to trace the development of prog and Djent. He notes the paradoxes of 1960s psychedelia, one of which is that its reliance on arguably life-damaging drugs may have held back its development and sustainability. We then hear Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, from its backwards-percussion intro onwards, which leads us into a discussion of Progressive Rock; Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma (1969) and Atom Heart Mother (1970) are described as genre-breaking and commercially risky for the time, followed by Dark Side of the Moon, the point at which (he argues) PF became the economic holder of the title ‘Biggest band since The Beatles’. He uses other examples, including Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which exemplify how norms for hits were challenged at this time.
We now leap forward to the 1990s, and Andrzej name-checks Black Sabbath, Judas Priest etc, before settling on Dream Theater as his case study. He notes the unexpectedness of their commercial success, especially considering that their song Pull Me Under has a 1970s-style duration of 8 minutes.
Andrzej asserts that the 1990s commercial resurgence of Prog challenged many people’s preconceptions about pop (i.e. that songs had to be short, musically simple, catchy and ‘conventional’). He argues that DT raised the range of complexity that was possible in the mainstream [and I think I agree] and also that they raised the ‘range of emotion’ that could be expressed [and I think I disagree, or at least would like to see a methodology that supports this assertion!]. Unsurprisingly, Dream Theater leads into Tool. We watch the video for Schism, which won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 2002.
This sets up the discussion of Djent, and Andrzej describes its musical characteristics (detuning, syncopation and polyrhythmics, guitar sound etc). Examples include Fredrik Thordendal and Meshuggah. Andrzej argues that if Prog Rock was British, and Prog Metal North American, then Djent is perhaps international, with artists from both of these countries, plus elsewhere in Europe.
A list of musical characteristics of Djent is listed (wiki), and we listen to Periphery’s Icarus Lives! (below).
Andrjez discusses the representations and cultural labelling of Prog and Djent – are they ‘popular music’ or ‘classical music’. There are, he says, arguments for defining these genres economically as ‘pop’ but musically as ‘classical’ given their harmonic sophistication and niche audience. This leads into a theoretical section where Djent and Prog are sited in a postmodern framework, partly enabled by Internet communities and perhaps culturally sited in a ‘neo-avant-garde’. We see a taxonomic map of ‘transgressive’, ‘progressive’ and ‘normative’ musics, a continuum onto which Andrjez pins the various genres he has discussed from Djent (at the ‘transgressive’ end) through to pop (at the ‘normative’ end).