Like a winged serpent on a Yes album cover, prog rock is the thing that cannot be killed by mere mortals. Punk, new wave, grunge — each has risen up to pick a fight with the very idea of prog, home of instrumental virtuosity, long and knotty songs, and castrati-rock singers. Yet this subculture thrives still, from the annual Jethro Tull convention to a new generation that’s propping up prog’s tattered flag.
In the mood for guitar and woodwind solos that last longer than most concerts? Turn to the Dave Matthews Band. Longing for trumpeting synths? Try the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Study-the-lyrics thematic albums? Radiohead’s OK Computer and the Eels’ Electro-Shock Blues fit the bill. At its best, the new prog, like the old, can transport you to a fantastical, more Technicolor world. At worst, it’s still Lord of the Rings profundities wrapped in self-indulgent twaddle.
Given Ben Folds Five’s power piano pop, prog isn’t the first word that comes to mind to describe the North Carolina trio. What, then, is one to make of ”Narcolepsy,” the first cut on their fourth album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner? How can one describe the opening piano trilling, the orchestral fanfare, the drum paradiddles, the streets-of-Kashmir strings, and the winsome vocalizing of Ben Folds, all of it building to a full-on crescendo? Sir Ben, I dub thee prog!
Folds writes chirpy pop melodies much sparer than those of old-school art-rock bands, and the Five are less taken with electronic gizmos. But Reinhold Messner is prog by any other name. Much like Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery or Rush’s 2112, it (a) has a silly title that sounds important and (b) may be a concept album. The songs could be construed as circling around a character who recalls a life of sad grade-school memories, tattered loves, army duty, and tenure in a rock band. Even if the songs aren’t linked, the music is. Each cut is its own pop-and-circumstance, with tempos that accelerate and decelerate, guided by Folds’ adept piano playing and the string section.
And just like old-school prog, all the effort tends to weigh down the songs, which are fairly slight. It’s telling that the most poignant track, ”Mess,” is the simplest and most plaintive, with a cascading piano that sounds like a waterfall you’d love to dive into. ”Your Redneck Past,” perhaps the first song to mention both Billy Idol and Kool Moe Dee, has a playful, bouncing-ball hook. But much like that line in Yes’ ”Roundabout” — ”mountains come out of the sky and they stand there” — Reinhold Messner strains a bit too hard to be significant.
Another track, ”Your Most Valuable Possession,” features a rambling answering machine message left by Folds’ sleepy, dime-store-philosophical dad, set to lounge-lizard pop. Spoken-word segments, intentionally silly or not, are another prog trademark. No one knows that better than Rick Wakeman, the Yes keysman whose 1974 Journey to the Centre of the Earth was narrated by actor David Hemmings. Twenty-five years later, Wakeman has concocted a sequel, Return to the Centre of the Earth, which features another thespian (Patrick Stewart), cover art by prog legend Roger Dean, and many squiggly synthesizer solos.
Showing Folds a thing or two, Wakeman’s work has a story line, again inspired by Jules Verne: Explorers beneath the earth’s surface discover dinosaurs and more volcanic eruptions than in the Starr report. Poor Stewart must have strained to keep a straight face as he intoned lines like ”the crater of Sneffels Yokul” and ”the quetzalcoatlus returned to its refuge in the cliff face.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that as a naive teenager, I bought Journey to the Centre of the Earth (and enjoyed parts of it). Alas, it’s impossible to hear Stewart — not to mention a choir chanting ”Return…to the center of the earth!” — and not think of Spinal Tap. The songs between the narration, emoted by everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to ex-Wave Katrina Leskanich, are Broadway wannabes crying out for garish costumes and dry-ice fog. It’s drearier than all the craters of Sneffels Yokul, but it does hint at another possible growth area for prog: as the show tunes of the new millennium!
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner: B-
Return to the Centre of the Earth: D