Saturday, May 21, 2011

“Romantic Warriors: A Progressive Music Saga” (Zeitgeist Media)

Ah, yes, progressive rock - Yes, King Crimson, Genesis during the Peter Gabriel era, ELP. Great stuff back in the 1970’s. But then it petered out, disappearing for all time, never to be heard from again, right?

Not exactly. True, the perceptions most people seem to have of prog-rock is that it was either a moment of glory that was too good to last, or an aberration in the history of rock that went on much too long, depending on one’s personal tastes and open-mindedness. But, as this new documentary readily demonstrates, prog is not only still with us, with hundreds of bands still playing and furthering the music’s artistic capabilities, it is thriving every way except commercially. It is a refreshing examination of an underground music scene built around musicians who are perfectly aware that they’re not on an easy path to fame and fortune, but who continue to play and experiment with the types of music they love because it’s what THEY want to do, not what the suits who run the record industry want them to do.

I am reviewing this off a screener disc of an hour-long edit of the film, which has just begun to appear on Public Television stations across the country, with more stations to be added in the near future. There is also a 95-minute home-DVD version for sale on the producers’ website, I’m unable to tell you what the differences are between the commercial version and the PBS edition, but since this is very much a “good thing”, more of it can only be better. Anyone who loved the Golden Era of prog-rock in its ‘70’s heyday, and has pined for the ”old days” should find either version to be of great interest.

Fans of 70’s prog should likewise be pleased to learn that the creative, experimental spirit of the music is still a major feature of the current crop of bands. We are told early on that the main focus of the American prog scene is along the East Coast, and in fact much of the action was filmed in Baltimore, Bethlehem, PA (at the “Nearfest” festival), and Chapel Hill, NC (at “Prog Day”). But we also learn that Europe and Latin America have remained hotbeds of the music as well. Thus, we get to meet not only a number of American bands (not all from the Eastern US), but also bands from Italy, Sweden, and Mexico. Short performance clips are a highlight of the film. (I actually would have preferred them to be longer, and perhaps there are longer clips on the DVD version; one can only introduce so much unfamiliar music by unfamiliar bands in an hour-long overview.) Names such as D.F.A., Deluge Grandeur, and Cabezas De Cera may mean little to most people (I confess the latter two are new names to me as well), but they are very active gigging and recording bands just waiting their turn to be discovered. And this film is the very means by which fans of classic prog-rock can begin to discover the current crop of bands.

The beginning of the film also offers a brief history of prog dating back to the 1960’s and through the decades since, a section which could be expanded greatly. The long lists of bands from each era and geographical area goes by pretty quickly (get ready to hit the pause button!), and is printed in a size that’s awfully small for many of us aging music lovers. With any luck, this historical overview will be the subject of another film to come. The only participant from the classic-prog era to be directly involved in this film is Gentle Giant guitarist Gary Green, who expresses pride in the fact that there are many bands still carrying on the legacy of Gentle Giant and their 70’s cohorts. And indeed, .Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Soft Machine, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer strike me as the original-prog bands who hold the greatest sway over the current bands spotlighted here. One other observation - much of the current prog would seem to fit in very easily with the jazz-rock fusion scene, had the fusion scene stuck to its original guns - along the lines of, say, Return To Forever - instead of degenerating into commercial/pop and eventually smooth-jazz. I would suggest fans of classic late-60’s/early-70’s jazz-rock should tune in to the PBS showings of the film. They might well discover a few things of interest here. (It is worth noting that a few of the interviewees refer to prog in more general terms, as “progressive music” rather than “progressive rock”).

Along with the performance clips, there are quite a few interview clips with musicians discussing their art, entrepreneurs (record-label operators, club/concert/festival promoters), and media people, all of whom stress, if not always quite so blatantly, the crucially significant point that prog is not a musical genre which will make anyone rich in 2011. This is a scene for people who believe in what they are doing, whose goal is to push their art into ever-newer directions. It is, then, a scene for dreamers, albeit people whose musical dreams and aspirations do not include wealth and world-wide renown. In a world filled with Lady Gagas and Katy Perrys (the sort of pop stars whom Gary Green argues aren’t involved with music at all, but “fashion”), the modern-day prog artist is just that - an artist - and a highly creative one at that.

Be sure to catch this when it shows on your local PBS station. You may well be back for the complete DVD.

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