Prog rock makes a huge comeback -- Bands like System of a Down and Mars Volta are reviving the once-dead genre

Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s hair is a perfect metaphor for his music. Angry curls balloon above the Mars Volta frontman’s head, forming a spectacularly au courant hipster Afro, while around his shoulders it settles into a frizzy dome that evokes a ’70s-era mullet. It spans decades, fuses styles, and is utterly original — just like the new brand of progressive rock he and a handful of other ambitious, exciting musicians are reintroducing to the mainstream.

The new prog doesn’t yet have an official name (neo-prog? post-prog? prog 2.0?), but it’s quickly gathering steam. Along with recent success stories like System of a Down and up-and-comers like the Dillinger Escape Plan, Lightning Bolt, and Coheed and Cambria, the Mars Volta create incredibly complex and inventive music that sounds like a heavier, more aggressive version of ’70s behemoths such as Led Zeppelin and King Crimson.

Suddenly, after nearly 30 years of scorn, prog is cool again. ”Younger musicians are discovering the magic of Pink Floyd, Yes, and early Genesis records,” says Lee Abrams, senior VP/chief creative officer of XM Satellite Radio. ”There’s a backlash to the one-hit-wonder thing.”

And to the amazement of just about everyone — not least the bands themselves — new prog is as commercial as it is grandiose. On May 17, System will release Mezmerize, the first half of a double CD (the second disc, Hypnotize, comes out later this year), an album that’s expected to be one of the summer’s biggest releases. (Their last CD, 2001’s Toxicity, went triple platinum.) Coheed and Cambria have built up a huge cult audience, selling 464,000 copies of their latest, which boasts the appropriately ludicrous title In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3. And the Mars Volta’s second CD, Frances the Mute, recently debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard albums chart, a remarkable feat for a band whose dense, difficult music combines everything from salsa and noise-rock to electronica and hip-hop. ”We never expected this,” says Mars Volta songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, whose band will open for System on a fall tour that could be dubbed Monsters of New Prog. ”When we signed to [Universal], we were like, ‘Okay, we’ll take this money and they’ll drop us and we’ll go back to making our records.’ We’re not really being influenced by outside forces. We’re influenced by what’s going on in our lives.”

When System of a Down released their self-titled first album in 1998, few people knew what to make of their smart, ultraloud music. ”Everyone told us not to scream [our vocals], but we kept on doing what we did,” says System frontman Serj Tankian. ”Major radio stations vowed never to play any of our songs because it was too heavy.”

But then Toxicity changed everything. In the late ’90s, Radiohead and Tool had proved that bands could sell millions by tapping into the epic spaciness of ’70s prog. But with Toxicity‘s towering singles ”Chop Suey!” and the title track, System blew the definition of mainstream rock wide open. After years of warmed-over nü-metal, now, finally, came some actual new metal, and its success opened the minds of listeners and radio programmers alike. Soon major labels followed suit, pushing a host of left-field hard-rock bands.