The Prog Life - January 27, 2003: A Universe Of Bad Music
by Clayton Walnum

Okay class, listen up. You in the front row. Yes, you. Come up to the front please. Now I'm going to bend over, and I want you to give me a good hard pinch on the butt. No, no, nothing kinky! (See me after class for that.) I just need to know whether I'm dreaming, because it seems to me that the mainstream music press is starting to pay attention to progressive music again.

First, a couple of months ago, Rolling Stone ran a favorable review of the latest Porcupine Tree album, In Absentia, referring to the group as "The best band you've never heard." (Pinch please. Thanks.) Then, barely did I get over that shock when, in the February 6th issue of Rolling Stone (the one with Shania Twain on the cover), I come across a nearly full page story on Yes! Granted, Rolling Stone gave the band their due only grudgingly, pulling compliments from their pens like teeth from an abscess. As usual, they couldn't avoid words like "pompous" and "pretentious," but there were plenty of back-handed compliments, such as "...the British band's often overbearing pretentiousness resulted in moments of rare grace and beauty..." and "...if Yes hadn't reached so high, we wouldn't still be paying attention now."

(No, really, pinch me again. Yeah, right there. Ouch!)

And I'm not done yet. I pick up the latest issue of New Music magazine, and what do I see but a short article about Steve Wilson's (Porcupine Tree) guitar setup. What the hell is going on here? Could it be that prog is actually making a full comeback? We can only hope.

* * *

Back to the subject at hand, which is that thing about good vs. bad music. I'm happy to report that I've been able to send home the armed agents who were watching over my house. The last rioters went home a few days ago after I promised never again to bring up the subject of No Bad Music. So, this time around, I figured I'd turn the tables and talk about bad music.

Huh? Didn't I say that there's no such thing as bad music? Yep, I did, and I meant it, but what I was talking about was styles of music. In other words, I was looking at music from a macro point of view, from way up there in the clouds where you can see the forest but not the trees. Dig? I was not referring to every vocal-yelp, string-pluck, or rim-shot ever recorded. When you get down to the level of specific pieces of music recorded by specific artists (what I'll call the micro level), there's enough bad music floating around to give Simon Cowell insult material for the next 1,000 years. (If you don't know who Simon Cowell is, you're probably better off that way.)

I can think of several ways you can end up with bad music at the micro level. Here's one:

CLAY'S FIRST ATTRIBUTE OF BAD MUSIC: Bad music is poorly written.

I'm sure you can see that we're going to run into trouble right away, because the interpretations of these so-called attributes are subjective to say the least. I mean, what is poorly written music? Can it even be defined? Well, to me, it's music with poorly developed melodies, hackneyed ideas or musical clich?s, to name a few personal sore spots. But even within my own mind -- what little there is of it -- I can't completely agree with my own definition. Much of today's progressive music is imitative. Bands like Spock's Beard and The Flower Kings make a living off recycling the 70s style of progressive rock. Yet, these two bands are among my favorites.

I guess some imitative groups can get away with their borrowing (although many critics would say they can't) because they put their own strong, stylistic stamp on the music. You can hear plenty of Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, and Beatles influence in the Beard's music, but it's Neal Morse's divine melodies that really define the band. (Now that Neal has left Spock's Beard, it'll be interesting to see where the band's sound will come from. My guess is that multi-talented Nick D'Virgilio will become the main composer.) Moving on....

CLAY'S SECOND ATTRIBUTE OF BAD MUSIC: Bad music is poorly performed.

Again, we find room for a dump-truck-load of disagreement. Here, we have to deal not only with the skill of a musician, but also his or her individual style. Examples that spring to mind are Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Great song writers? Sure! Great singers? Hmmmm. To my mind, you'd have to go a long way to find worse vocalists, yet many people idolize these artists and would happily remove your ears with a chainsaw rather than stand by and let you disparage these artists' vocal prowess. (Guess I'm going to have to rehire those armed agents.)

Still, there are some performances that everyone would agree are ... er ... lacking. If you've ever heard a fourteen-year-old put together his first garage band, you know what I mean. If you've ever been to a third-grade orchestra recital, you know what I mean. (Sure, they're damn cute, but bring your earplugs.) If you've ever heard Bob Dylan's snorkel-voice whining ... uh, never mind that one.

CLAY'S THIRD ATTRIBUTE OF BAD MUSIC: Bad music is poorly arranged.

It's funny how little attention we pay to musical arrangements. We tend to take them for granted. Even professional groups often leave the arranging to the session's producer, rather than waste their time with the picayune details. The truth is, though, that an arrangement can make or break a song.

This is where the pop folks have pretty much got it made. Verse, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus -- or what we musician types refer to as AABACB song structure. (Gee, now I bet you can figure out why Genesis named that song "ABACAB.") Sure, there are plenty of variations, but the point is that pop music rarely needs a letter beyond C. All they care about are verses, choruses, and a bridge -- and sometimes they go without the bridge. Early pop songs, such as the Beatles' classic "She Loves You," draw upon the simple AABAB song structure.

Progressive artists -- especially those who compose symphonic prog -- have to think hard about arrangements. Chances are that the band members don't sit back and write out the structure of a piece before they set out to write and record it, but they do, if they are the least bit competent, have an almost instinctual sense for knowing when one part must stop and another must start. When you're talking about a lengthy arrangement, things can get sticky, especially considering that, for the sake of cohesion, a group composing a long piece of music must return to previous themes, building upon them and often performing them in innovative ways. (This is a technique borrowed from classical symphonies, by the way.)

I want to spend extra time on arrangement, because it's so often overlooked. Let's take a couple of real-world examples. First, from the pop side of things, let's dissect the Beatles' catchy classic "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," which boasts a standard pop song structure. If you were to map out its structure, you'd get ABABCABCABD, which details out like this:

A = Verse
B =Chorus
A = Verse
B = Chorus
C = Bridge
A = Verse
B = Chorus
C = Bridge
A = Verse
B = Chorus
D = Outro

Now take a deep breath, because we're going to map out Yes's brilliant "Close To The Edge." That structural roadmap -- and this is not a joke -- looks something like this: ABCCDEFDGCCDFDGHIJGJJGJJGKGKBLCCFDG.

Whew! I don't claim that the members of Yes would agree with my structural map, but it's the best I can do. A detailed description follows. One caveat: I can hear four distinct movements in "Close To The Edge," which is fortunate, because that's how many parts Yes claims there are. (Dodged a bullet there.) I don't, however, know that I've chosen the same starting points for each movement that the members of Yes may have intended. Again, I've done my best. Another caveat: The times I've listed after each part type is where that part starts on the CD version of the album. However, you should treat these times as approximate, as I have no idea whether every Close To The Edge CD has the same timing. I'm sure there's been more than one mastering and pressing.

Movement I: The Solid Time of Change

A = Instrumental type 1 (00:00)
B = Instrumental type 2 (02:58)

Movement II: Total Mass Retain

C = Verse type 1 (03:54)
C = Verse type 1 (04:22)
D = Chorus type 1 (04:36)
E = Instrumental bridge type 1 (04:53)
F = Vocal bridge (05:08)
D = Chorus type 1 (05:39)
G = Chorus type 2 (05:53)
C = Verse type 1 (06:03)
C = Verse type 1 (06:33)
D = Chorus type 1 (06:50)
F = Vocal bridge (07:10)
D = Chorus type 1 (07:40)
G = Chorus type 2 (07:53)
H = Instrumental bridge type 2 (08:01)

Movement III: I Get Up I Get Down

I = Intro (08:28)
J = Verse type 2 (10:06)
G = Chorus type 2 (10:21)
J = Verse type 2 (10:35)
J = Verse type 2 (10:51)
G = Chorus type 2 (11:05)
J = Verse type 2 (11:19)
J = Verse type 2 (11:36)
G = Chorus type 2 (11:50)
K = Instrumental type 3 (12:10)
G = Chorus type 2 (12:47)
K = Instrumental type 3 (13:04)

Movement IV: Seasons of Man

B = Instrumental type 2 (14:12)
L = Instrumental type 4 (14:52)
C = Verse type 1 (15:52)
C = Verse type 1 (16:17)
F = Vocal bridge (16:32)
D = Chorus type 1 (16:48)
G = Chorus type 2 (17:15)

Now, keep in mind that I've overlooked a few details. Moreover, this structure map doesn't even consider the fact that, even though Yes repeats many parts of the piece in various places throughout, the group rarely performs those parts exactly the same. If you're inclined toward writing symphonic rock, stop right now, take out a copy of "Close To The Edge," and listen while following along with my structure map. Make notes on the many different ways Yes not only returns to previous themes, but also how they vary those themes, sometimes subtly, sometimes profoundly. For example, compare the B section performed in the first movement with the B section repeated in the fourth movement. The first is soloed on guitar, whereas the second features extraordinary keyboard soloing, although the melody stays mostly the same.

Are you done? Good. Now do it again. And again. Listen and compare, listen and compare, until you know this piece of music like the color of your eyes. You see, you're studying what just may be the best example of symphonic rock ever recorded. Everything you need to know about composing and arranging symphonic rock is hidden within this piece's glorious 18 minutes.

CLAY'S FOURTH ATTRIBUTE OF BAD MUSIC: Bad music is poorly recorded.

This is a no-brainer, which makes it perfect for me to write about. How many times have you listened to those Dream Theater bootlegs you've got tucked away on the shelf? You probably listened once out of curiosity's sake and then never touched them again. Poorly recorded music is mostly unlistenable. For me, part of the joy of music is the sound, which is probably why I can enjoy some pretty bizarre stuff (check out Frank Zappa's Jazz From Hell), as long as it's well recorded.

And so you see, I'm not insane after all. I freely admit that there's a universe of bad music out there -- just not bad music styles. Nope, not even rap.

If you have any comments on anything I've said in my columns, feel free to contact me at I may even use your comments in an upcoming column. Until next time, if you run into dear Bob D., please pass along my apologies. I feel so ashamed.

Rolling Stone
Porcupine Tree
Spock's Beard
The Flower Kings
Gentle Giant
The Beatles
Dream Theater
Frank Zappa

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Published on: 2003-01-27 (3369 reads)

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