Friday, November 2, 2018


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By David Weigel
I was not entirely a progressive rock fan during the 70s, when the genre was at its peak and the music of the bands in this volume was at it's...busiest. I loathed the singers for the most part, thinking that while the front man had decent enough voices, suitably trained to negotiate the usually overheated song structures, I could stand them rarely a whit. Save for Peter Gabriel of Genesis (and later as a solo artist), the lot of them sounded over earnest, wide eyed with wonder, strangulated high notes offering the would-be wisdom of righteously and insanely stupid lyrics. I always had a wager with anyone who knew Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery well enough, or The Bard for that matter, would feel compelled to harm themselves to relieve the disgust that overwhelms them. 

On the other side of this genre, though, was generally good musician and an honest desire to extend rock's instrumental bearings toward more complexity. Yes, ELP, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Genesis all moved in this direction, at best being brilliant with the snap and zip of odd time signatures, odd keys and ensemble stretches consisting of many moving parts. It was delirious, and much of the stuff remains good, cranky fun. David Weigel, a politics writer by reputation, is also a huge fan of progressive rock, and here expands on a series of fascinating articles he did for Slate some years ago on the history of this odd and painfully dated brand of music making. 

He interviews many of the musicians, he investigates the places from which they rose, and comes to consider how it was that a good many British musicians, seemingly at the same time, came to employ classical music complexity in the service of a bigger and busier kind of rock and roll. His conclusion, though not explicitly stated, is that it seems a case of the young musicians "getting back to their musical roots", of rediscovering the European classical heritage and making it their own. The book is especially fun and fascinating for the music fan who's been wanting more to be published about this under considered music. Weigel , to his weigel, does not rate the bands--re realizes that he is a reporter, not a critic--and does his subject justice by sticking with the absorbing story laid out before him.

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