The Big Black Hole In the Room

Thanks to Zinio I’m finally getting a chance to catch up on the issues of Prog magazine that I’ve missed during the pandemic. One of them, from June, has yet another of Prog’s famous lists (they love their lists over there), this one of the 50 most “influential” progressive rock albums of all time. As the intro makes clear, it was “not a list of the best prog albums of all time,” but rather a list of albums that are “pivotal in the ongoing development of progressive music.”

As with most lists, the best thing about it is that it can be a jumping off point for discussion. Nothing like this can ever be “definitive.” With that in mind, it makes sense that the list is skewed heavily toward the late 1960s and early 1970s when prog was emerging and at its commercial peak. I was pleased to see it didn’t end there, however, with releases all the way up to 2013 making the cut. There is, however, one pretty glaring hole in the list, which is pretty odd considering that the whole revitalization of the genre that made Prog possible happened then.

I’m talking about the 1990s.

The sole representative from the 90s is Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997), which is both an excellent album and an impressive reminder that expansive, odd, and small-p “progressive” rock could still find a commercial audience. But there was a lot of other important stuff going on in that decade that the list overlooks. Oddly, in some cases.

For example, Dream Theater’s 1989 debut album, When Dream and Day Unite, makes the cut. In a way that makes sense, as DT are the founding fathers of prog-metal and where better place to start than at the beginning? But the truth was not many people heard or cared about that album when it came out. What really broke DT, and announced the arrival of prog-metal, was their 1992 release, Images and Words. It’s practically the face that launched a thousand metal-tinged proggers (who kind of dominate things these days).

But that’s just one example. Here are some other important releases that are absent from the Prog list.

The Swedish Invasion

After the 1970s, prog wasn’t dead, but (to borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa) it did smell funny. While there was a slight resurgence with the neo-prog scene in the early 1980s, it didn’t get the kind of traction as the much had in the 70s. By the end of the decade, prog was very much on life support.

Two things happened in the 1990s that helped its resurgence, what some call the “third wave” of progressive rock. The first was that technology made the recording and releasing of music less expensive and put into the hands of musicians a better chance to get their music out there. The second, the real seismic shift, was the emergence of the Internet. Suddenly it didn’t matter that you were the only one in your town who knew Peter Gabriel was originally in Genesis – you could talk with other fans all over the world and be part of a real community.

A bit part of the enthusiasm that coursed through the Net in the early years was because of several bands from Sweden who helped kick off the third wave.

First up was Anglagard, whose debut album Hybris (1992) sounded like it was dropped out of 1973 via a time warp:

Hybris

It’s glorious, lush, mostly instrumental symphonic prog with lots of 70s hallmarks (Mellotron! Minimoog! Flutes!) and completely out of step with what was popular at the time. It also laid down a marker – people are still making this kind of music (and, to a certain extent, people are still buying it).

Anekdoten’s debut, Vemod (1993), falls into the same boat, although it takes its cues more from Wetton/Bruford era King Crimson than Anglagard does.

Beyond both of those, 1994 saw the release of The Flower King, a solo album by guitarist/vocalist Roine Stolt. Stolt himself wasn’t new – he was a teenage wunderkind in Kaipa during the 1970s – but this album was a return to a basic, very Yes-inspired, symphonic prog sound. Of course, it’s also essentially the debut album of The Flower Kings, who continue to crank through to this day. Stolt went on to lead that band while working with all sorts of other people in bands like Agents of Mercy, The Tangent, and Transatlantic. The Flower Kings itself brought the world the extraordinary bassist Jonas Reingold (and his band Karmakanic) and vocalist Hasse Brunnison’s band.

What all these bands have in common, and why they’re influential to the modern prog world, is they undeniably claimed the idea that “progressive rock” is as much a style – indebted to the original bands of the 1970s – as it is an idea or a rallying cry. There’s rock that progresses – continues to push the boundaries, wherever they may be – and there’s progressive rock as a label. These bands represent the real genesis (so to speak) of that modern, nostalgic prog path.

A Reinvigorated Old Guard

While prog itself might have struggled in the 1980s, that didn’t mean that all prog bands did. Some changed their sound up and had a hit (Yes), while others did the same and became one of the biggest pop bands in the universe (Genesis). That transition wasn’t so smooth for other bands, however, and they limped into the 90s like lost ships at sea.

After vocalist Pete Nichols left, IQ struggled on with a couple more albums that tried to tack into a slicker, more direct sound, with no real success (a couple of good tunes, though). In 1993, Nichols came back and the band jumped solidly back into the neo-prog territory they helped to chart with Ever.

Ever

It wasn’t the only example of a more establish act returning to their more progressive glory days.

Marillion had tried to go a little more pop on Holidays In Eden, but, again, it didn’t really work out (again, several good tunes, though!). As their relationship with their label deteriorated, then went and produced a sprawling concept album, Brave (1994). Not just a statement of intent to do whatever they wanted, it marked a shift in their sound where they started to emphasize atmosphere and mood more than juicy solos. You can hear that vibe everywhere from Gazpacho and Airbag to Pineapple Thief and Porcupine Tree (parts of it, anyway).

Not to be outdone, 1995 saw the roaring back of one of the classic 70s bands when King Crimson released THRAK. It, too, was somewhat backwards looking, melding the intricate dual guitar lines of the 1980s lineup with the thunderous power (two drummers! two bass-ish players!) of the 1970s. It arguably introduced Crimson to entire new audiences from the nu-metal and related scenes.

A New Brand of Odd

“What is prog?” is the evergreen debate on the Internet. If it means more than “stuff that sounds like the 1970s” – and it does – then you have to have some room in your array of influence for bands that might not fit the prog mold, but are just weird enough to embody the spirit of the genre.

Is Primus prog? Don’t know, don’t care, but there’s definitely some prog DNA in there. Their 1991 breakthrough Sailing the Seas of Cheese shows influences of Rush and King Crimson, some astounding musicianship, and just plain odd stuff that pushes it outside the mainstream. The same could be said for The Flaming Lips, who rang out the decade with The Soft Bulletin (1999), a skillfully layered collection of nouveau psychedelia. Arguably they’d go bigger (and proggier) later, but still.

Then there’s Talk Talk, who released their final album, Laughing Stock, in 1991. Much as I have tried this is an album I just can’t get into, but it’s been beloved by a generation of musicians that have come after it for its abstract, arty meanderings. I’ve read that, for some, it’s the origin of post-rock. If spawning a new genre isn’t influential, I don’t know what is.

Finally, in any discussion of the modern progressive scene you have to make room for jam bands. Not every one of those bands gets proggy points, but so many of them take such a diverse range of influences and throw them together with live improvisation that it’s hard to imagine something more progressive. While the scene dates back to the Grateful Dead, what really made it clear that a new generation would jump on that train was the success of Phish. While they’re most known for live shows (of course), their studio albums are worth note, too.

Rift

I’d put 1991’s Rift up there as their proggiest effort – it’s even a bloody concept album!

I’ll admit that I might be a bit sensitive when it comes to 1990s prog. This was the era, while I was in college and law school, that I rediscovered progressive rock – found out that it wasn’t dead and that the 1970s scene was broader and deeper than I’d ever imagined. Even putting that to one side, though, I think even the folks at Prog would admit that it wasn’t quite the nearly-barren wasteland it’s list portrays it to be. Not every album I talk about above should have made the cut, but at least a couple should have.

Is Sci-Fi More “Serious” Than Fantasy?

Fantasy has a reputation for taking itself pretty seriously. Outside of some outliers like Terry Pratchet’s Discworld books, the prevailing image of fantasy is that it’s about big deal themes of good against evil, fulfilling destinies, and such like that. The Lord of the Rings is not a “day in the life” story with no big stakes, after all. Indeed, in a lot of ways fantasy can seem – to use an epithet thrown at progressive rock all the time – “pretentious.” But for all that, when it comes to dealing with the big questions, the ones that probe the nature of reality and humanity, do people take science fiction more seriously than fantasy? Even to the point of letting that reflect how they categorize a story?

This occurred to me after I’d finished up The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North.

HarryAugust

The setup is this – the title character is one of a few select people in the world who live their lives over and over again. When they die, they basically go back to the beginning and are reborn, but with the collected memories of their prior lives still intact. Thus these are some seriously “ahead of their time” children roaming around, as you might guess. The story follows Harry as he lives a bunch of his lives and tries to stop another of his kind that is seeking a revelation will destroy the world. It’s pretty good, and has some really excellent bits. I recommend it.

When I finished the book I do what I usually do and seek out reviews to see what others thought about it. To my surprise, I saw a lot of people file The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August under “science fiction,” which made little sense to me. Sure, there’s some discussion of quantum mechanics and parallel worlds (at i09, Charlie Jane Anders lists all this as reasons why “it’s a real science fiction book,” so what do I know?), but what makes the story go is the completely fantastic bit where these people live their lives over and over again. It’s never explained, much less with some kind of semi-plausible scientific reason. For all we know a genie thousands of years ago granted somebody’s wish and it got out of hand.

The mechanics don’t matter much because North uses them to deal with issues of free will, destiny, and the price of the pursuit of ultimate knowledge. These are the kinds of big issues that science fiction sometimes tackles, but that doesn’t mean that every story that does that is science fiction. Could it just be that people expect sci-fi to be more thoughtful about this stuff than fantasy?

Regular readers know one of my pet peeves is when people who write “Literature,” rather than just tell stories, write something that’s unambiguously fantasy or sci-fi but refuse to label it as such because of genre snobbery. This feels kind of the same way. Sure, fantasy is fine for satisfying tales of good vanquishing evil or ass-kicking vampire slayers, but if you want to ponder the big questions, well, it’s not for that. But why not?

Any story can plumb the depths of the big questions that have plagued humanity since we started walking upright. Genre doesn’t limit the stories you can tell, only change the way that they’re told. Embrace the idea that deep thoughts can come from anywhere in the library.

Serious

Why Do I Love Bad (Fictional!) Lawyers?

Popular culture is full of lawyers. As both a lawyer and a writer, I apologize for that, but the legal profession is a pretty rich vein of drama (and even comedy) for writers. There’s crime and deceit, business dealings and family squabbles. The law touches every area of life (for good or for ill), so it’s a great way to examine life itself.

There are plenty of heroic lawyers in pop culture. Perry Mason’s having a kind of resurgence with the new, gritty, noir-flavored HBO series. Atticus Finch is a popular choice for crusader who launched a thousand earnest legal careers.* There are countless others, of course, lawyers who fight for the little guy (or gal) or justice or law in the abstract. They’re fine, of course, but when you always win, things can get kind of stale.

Which is why some of us – or maybe just speaking for myself here – have more of an affinity with the legal bad boys, the ones who work on the edges of professional ethics, for whatever reason. There’s a quite a rogue’s gallery and I pretty much love every one of them. They’re the patron saints of the legal profession, in my eyes.

Front of mind at this point can be none other than Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, of Breaking Bad and his own prequel spinoff, Better Call Saul (which is better than the original, I think):

Saul2

The “patron saint” thing is kind of a joke, but the fact that Saul is about a struggling criminal defense lawyer makes it instantly more relatable to me, even if I never find myself nearly dead in the desert hauling two duffle bags full of drug cartel money (let’s hope). He is a sleaze, no doubt, and it eventually gets him into serious trouble, but at least early on he’s willing to use that sleaze to help the underdog and generally fuck with “law and order.” While I can’t say I approve of Jimmy’s methods, I appreciate the attitude. It’s one that sustains long-time public defenders like me.

Of more long standing in the pantheon is the one, the only “law talking guy,” Lionel Hutz:

Hutz2

Voiced by the wonderful Phil Hartman on The Simpson, Hutz is just a master class in legal incompetence. He marvels at how useful law books can be. He changes the terms of his retainer by marking up his own business cards. He shudders at the otherwise happy thought of a world without lawyers. He requests “bad court thingies.” And, most notably, he’s always looking out for himself:

Deep in the heart of every lawyer lurks the certainty that, if nothing else, they’re better than Hutz.

He’s not the only cartoon lawyer with a hold on my heart. How can I not love Harvey Birdman?

Harvey

Harvey’s less an idol for his legal acumen that he is for his ability to keep a calm head on his . . . wings, while everything else falls apart around him. It’s an important skill for an attorney, especially a criminal defense lawyer. Besides, who wouldn’t want to have an eagle for an assistant?

But if we’re going old school, there’s one sleazy lawyer that was lodged in my brain long before I was anywhere near a law school – Steve Dallas:

SteveDallas

Looking back I’m a little appalled at my love for Bloom County’s legal scholar. He’s a loud mouthed, rude, misogynistic, frat boy – precisely the kind of person I’d loathe if I met him (or saw him online) today. I mean, he did have cool cars, so that counts for something. And he was, come to think of it, the only professional in Bloom County (among the regular cast, at least). He had credentials and never let anybody else forget it. Like Harvey, he also recognized the value of good help:

SteveOpus2SteveOpus1

When it comes to all these guys (and they are all guys – I’ve noticed) I’m reminded of that idea, from Tolstoy, that all happy families are the same, but dysfunctional ones are unique in their dysfunction. I think that’s true for fictional lawyers, too. Good-hearted crusaders are important and uplifting, but they’re not always much fun. Bring on the bad boys!

* Years ago I went to a legal writing seminar where, for the session on issue spotting, we used the facts of To Kill a Mockingbird. A mere 45 minutes later he was facing a lengthy ineffective assistance of counsel charge.

I Have Returned

Hi, folks! Did you miss me?

As promised, my hiatus was pleasantly productive. I finished up the third draft of Widows of the Empire while I was away. I’m just about to dive into draft four, which will be the final one before it goes off to beta readers and an editor. What that means for you, dear reader, is that I should be able to get Widows out into the world sometime in early 2021!

I’ve already got another great cover from Deranged Doctor Design. Here’s a taste:

Title Only

More to come, maybe before the year is out!

Progress