The resident reactionary recalcitrant
Well it depends on what you mean by neo prog because I feel the same as you for the most part. I think Porcupine Tree's sweet spot is from around Lightbulb Sun to Fear of a Blank Planet, and then there's a small handful of Wilson solo projects that I enjoy.
As far as Marillion go, it's hard to beat the Fish era but they've certainly done a lot to validate everything they've done since. At this point, they've been with Hogarth so long that ignoring the post-Fish output would be akin to ignoring what Maiden did after Di'Anno (if you're really into that kind of prog rock).
But yea, overall I wouldn't say I'm that interested in neo prog. I find a lot of it to be pretty generic sounding and relying so heavily on cliches that it seems a bit anathema to what progressive rock is supposed to be. In general I'm not a huge fan of those types of "revival" genres. Might as well listen to the original, from my perspective. There are a couple groups I enjoy though. Spock's Beard gets lumped into the neo prog category frequently although I would argue that they blended their influences in a way that made their music sound more fresh. I also like The Flower Kings sometimes, I just think the melody writing is stronger in that band than a lot of other peers. Pineapple Thief, Riverside, and Big Big Train do nothing for me.
Edit: I wouldn't categorize Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree as neo prog btw. They're much more forward thinking and innovative. They should be categorized more with prog metal groups like Opeth that are doing something different.
Thank you for the answer.
First of all, I can see now that I muddled it by using the neo-prog tag in two different ways, that is:
- purely technical (and mostly chronological) name for bands that came later than the OG proggers (mostly from 80s on) and therefore updated their sound accordingly (more synths, "colder" production, the drum sound) ... and also kinda lyrically (I'll return to this later)
- a somewhat denigrative term for a significant portion of those bands, who exchanged the OG proggers' appeal to complexity for a post-rock influence, with static sounds, atmospheric synths, lot of droning and no memorable melody (or anything memorable, in fact) in sight. Kinda like this hybrid between prog rock and ambient.
However, I do not consider the term to be what you imply, or at least I don't see that as a condemnation. I'm not all that obsessed with the idea of "progressiveness" itself (there's only so many things you can try for it to be reasonable), I'm fine with the stale old "long songs, complex structures, extended harmonic register, inclusion of instruments not usually used in the rock paradigm, untrivial melodies (but existent ones), dynamics and flashy technical chops".
In fact, I dislike those bands I mentioned for not doing precisely that more (the songs are long, but static and often structurally simplistic or evolving really subtly, akin to actual ambient music and the rest is not much there).
Thing is, technically speaking, Fish-era Marillion are pretty much "neo-prog" as well and I'd argue that they might partially fill the second, denigrative category as well. And they actually fit even your implication as well.
So, yes. I've recently seen some posts and forum threads where people strenuously argued that there was no similarity between Farillion and old Genesis or Fish and Gabriel - or at any rate that they personally never heard it, insisting there's more similarity between Farillion and VDGG / Fish and Hammill. Now, I know we say a lot in music is subjective, but that's bollocks.
Farillion are precisely aimed at people who were missing old Genesis. Not only has Fish really similar timbre to Gabriel, so with the similar theatricality they sound so alike I could almost confuse one for another at times, but also Rothery was - back then, at least - doing his best to imitate Hackett at his prime and even Mark Kelly is definitely at least thinking about Tony Banks while playing his parts.
And that's not a bad thing. By then the original Genesis were nowhere to be found and Farillion scratched the itch many must have felt (and still feel to this day, because there just aren't any more Musical Boxes or Suppers that would be Ready or even Lambs that would Lie Down on Broadway).
Sure, there were updates - by the 80s the Genesis lyrics - abstract, often whimsical, inherently English, fairytalesque (or psychosurrealist, like in Lamb) and so on would be completely unacceptable, while Fish's brand of verbose, personal half-singersongwriting was the way to go. It was a more cynical, post-modern era, see?
But they were derivative, trying to ape their betters and I loved them for it.
As for the second definition of neo-prog there, well, yes, even the music of Farillion isn't as complex as that of Gabriel-era Genesis (or, well, even Hackett-era Genesis). The structures are simpler, there is a much bigger emphasis on synths and even Childhood, with its suite-like approach, is mostly either radio hits (Kayleigh, Lavender, Heart of Lothian, Childhoods End) or commentary on them/their accompaniment (Kimono, Bitter Suite, White Feather...). There are no Cinema Shows, no Close to the Edges and definitely no Passion Plays.
Yet despite that it is one of my favourite albums, because it knows what its doing, the cohesiveness makes it seem bigger than a sum of its parts and at its best it's both irresistibly catchy and cripplingly emotional (Heart of Lothian or the reprise of the Lavender theme by Rothery-Hackett in Bitter Suite are breathtakingly beautiful). It earns its "prog" reputation.
So, I've written all of the above just to say that I don't mind neo-prog as such and definitely not for it being a retread of something older, because I won't personaly complain about "more of the good thing". I actually miss bands that would try to play (and compose) like the Bruford-Wakeman era Yes, for example.
(oh, my, my graphomania attax again... and here I was making fun of Diesel)
So it's really about this
- a somewhat denigrative term for a significant portion of those bands, who exchanged the OG proggers' appeal to complexity for a post-rock influence, with static sounds, atmospheric synths, lot of droning and no memorable melody (or anything memorable, in fact) in sight. Kinda like this hybrid between prog rock and ambient
I'm fine with the stale old "long songs, complex structures, extended harmonic register, inclusion of instruments not usually used in the rock paradigm, untrivial melodies (but existent ones), dynamics and flashy technical chops".
That's where Porcupine Wilson comes in. Now, like I sad, he can be heavy and therefore he fulfills the "dynamics" criterium, the songs can be long and structurally complex, so he's a borderline case, but ever since his first album (which is absolutely ghastly, btw) up to the very recent ones and even including fan and critical favourites like Deadwing or In Absentia, there's a lot of that... ambience. Or just music for music's sake. Or I don't know, I always took pride in living and breathing music, having listened to thousands of albums and pieces and being able to feel the groove, to remember a lot (no flex, this is just as much a disability as an ability)
... but I utterly fail here. There's just so much of the unmemorable, like I said, "slipping through my fingers". Just strumming (or chugging in the heavier parts) for no reason at all.
Compare this with my recent rant in the DT thread about DT often being accused of musically irrelevant "wankery"
I'm not sure what exactly consists of "wankery" and I feel the term is overused and abused and mainly used for "instrumental parts that I don't like" (I'm not attacking you in particular, mind). Dance of Eternity is the ultimate wankery, which has absolutely no reason to be there, but it is very beloved. The original Metropolis is pure wankery, mainly because the song just tries to show off and stops caring about any semblance of structure - and yet again, it is beloved by many.
My point is that I like to try and find out if there is anything about that individual "wankery" that contrasts it against other examples of such and makes me enjoy it.
So, for example, both the "tickle sections" on ToT - the closing minute of This Dying Soul and the similar section in In the Name of God beginning at 8:37 - might just look like meaningless noodlings where Trucci and Rudess play as fast as they can without even any particularly strong melody...
...BUT... underneath this, each time, is absolutely the sweetest, the grooviest bass section DT EVER did.
You could just concentrate on the bass in the TDS ending and groove out in a really cool swagger dance. It absolutely holds the sound together and helps me get over the fact that Trucci and Rudess have just decided to show off and helps sell the fact that this particular track ends in similarly intense way as it begins, otherwise (I mean, as for the edgy teen "cool factor", both the way TDS begins and ends rule supreme)
Just as in the ITNOG section, Myung brings out this middle-Eastern harmony (if I'm hearing it right) that not only fits the theme of the track, but again, adds some more sense to the sound and makes that part rather enjoable for me, even if many dislike it.
So, back to Endless - this section (and I'm saying this solemnly, seriously, even if off the top of my head - I might be mistaken, therere might be others) might be the smoothest, most consistently fluent passage in the whole DT discography. There are a lot of examples where they don't care particularly much about this consistency. Many prog tracks, even by them, don't make a lot of "sense" (*cough A Change of Seasons *cough - the second part, the beginning is just as fluent as ES)
To this day, hundreds of listens later, I am still fascinated at how each and every section somehow results from the previous one, harmonically, rhythmically, call/answer (or thesis/antithesis, to not overuse already overused musical terms I'm not 100 % sure I use correctly).
It just feels so ridiculously natural, with the added bonus of raising the intensity throughout, until it culminates in the insanely thrilling ascending part at 8:26 and in that final vocal section, entering in with the strained, jolting, frustrated "Over the distance..." etc.
Like I said, it reminds me of a literal stream of consciousness, of a perfect encapsulation of a wandering and frustrated mind (like one being forced to do menial things while I would rather just be joking and laughing and having philosophical conversation with my beloved) and emotionally, it is one of the greatest things DT ever could create for me.
With that in mind, that overhated 6:28 part is just a joke, an alien, a single drop of otherness, a random brain fart of silliness that kinda breaks the linearity (that would be too much) and makes some circles on the water. In fact, even thematically, what you say
is ultimately fitting. Because I've been there. Not at a carnival, not in space, not high, but... you get what I mean, right?
You could also take it as indeed a "circus" moment, a commentary on the "circus" of a tour, fans, groupies, sycophants, neon signs and air conditionings, while you would give a million, a billion dollars to be home by the fire, reading a nice book and your wife drifting off next to you.
And the King Crimson quotation at about 5:55 is just as random, but seamlessly inserted, I just love jokes like that.
Now, I know I won't magically make you like it, it's just this insane feel of fluency, of development, of progression, which I would have expected you to appreciate deeply and was indeed perplexed that you didn't.
whereas my own perception is completely opposite. There is very often a rhyme and a reason to DT's extended instrumental wankeries (significantly less so after Portnoy left, though, the musical structure is pretty rough nowadays) and mainly and most of all - it is very often somehow memorable, catchy, awe-inspiring. It might be noodling, but it's not pointless. Not useless. Unfortunately, with Porcupine Steve it feels to me there's not only much less noodling, but no point or idea at all. Just a sad English boy whining. And if I wanted that, I'd go put on Elbow's Seldom Seen Kid, which is similarly "edgeless", but 100x more memorable.
I don't want to be harsh, I'm actually periodically trying to get into it, also because of my wife, who loves Porcupine Wilson (although she herself admits she often likes stuff that's kinda milksoppy (or milquetoast, for our US brothers) as a background music, so that doesn't help).
With Harillion it's been so far even worse - like I wrote, although I tend to remember and enjoy the second half of Brave, the first 30 minutes or so are just this... drone. I fail to see how could someone tell the tracks apart. Heck, how the band was able to play it. No offence meant, I'm really trying.
It's this that makes me neo-proggily frustrated. This ... I don't want to call it a lack of substance or blandness, but it feels that way.
P. S. - you mention Spock's Beard - at least in their Morse era (I haven't yet strayed further) they are - just like Morse himself -
1. listenable, memorable, vivacious and so on like no-one else
2. absolutely old-school in the way I described above.
I mean, Morse on ? and Sola Scriptura tries to copy pretty much everyone and therefore created one of the most enjoyable albums imaginable, at least for me. Yet, even if he's more "stale" than "progressive", he has his recognisable and unmistakable voice.
P. P. S - just now I remembered - to be completely fair, even classic-era Genesis had a lot of mindless strumming - about a half of Can-Utility and the Coastliners and about a quarter of Supper feels that way, but - these parts are always outweighed by the really memorable ones AND I guess it makes a difference when it's being done on, you know, actual instruments (sorry, synth fans). But to be fair, I should mention this.