Progressive Rock May be Holding the Keys to Pop Music’s Evolution

Tim Henson of Polyphia

With poptimism at an all-time high, there’s never been a better time than now to sell out with integrity in the music industry. And while the notion of what a pop star is has changed considerably, the song more or less remains the same. With the goal of appealing to the largest common denominator, pop music is the path most traveled. It's straightforward and easy to follow for even the most casual music fan. But what if the inverse were true? What if complex music could appeal to the masses and in turn change their conception of what popular music was and how it could sound? In considering this prospect, progressive rock music may hold some valuable insights. While prog rock may seem like the furthest thing from pop music, it’s really not. Well, inherently I suppose it is. However, if you look at how progressive bands have pushed the core concepts of their music over the last decade, the lines between pop and prog have never been blurrier.

Progressive rock is built on the principle of complexity and pushes the boundaries of what can be achieved terms of arrangement and playability. That translates into polyrhythms, solos, and effects that test the limits of our ability to hear what exactly is going on within the music. It’s certainly not for everyone, and understandably so. A genre of music predicated on brain-bending composition won’t be the easiest for mainstream audiences to enjoy. There needs to be some sort of guiding element that will help the listener become accustomed to the sound and maybe even take liking to it. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room within prog for some critical points of accessibility. The most obvious example of this would be Rush, who largely pioneered the genre in the 70s and 80s and were able to achieve mainstream superstardom. Geddy Lee’s unmistakable falsetto soared over upbeat rhythms, while the band’s synth heavy sound they adopted in the 80s (also played by Lee) mirrored a larger trend in popular music at the time.

Lee‘s singing was like a beam of light that illuminated the music of Rush, an element of clarity that guided listeners on a journey. It’s worth noting that even with how far the genre has come today musically, prog rock continues to dip its hand into the most played out, saccharine sounds of Top 40. And somehow, it works. Post-hardcore vets Dance Gavin Dance have held close to chaotic rhythms, frenzied finger tapping, and explosive vocals. Their uniqueness however, is a result of fusing a diverse array of genres such as R&B, pop, jazz, and rap. This is all tied together by clean vocals that have been carried on by several singers over the band’s discography, most recently Tillian Pearson (who also has a solo pop career). DGD are certainly not the first to play in this style, as bands like The Mars Volta and The Fall of Troy can be seen as clear predecessors. Perhaps no other band has proved as versatile and well-polished in terms of accessibility as DGD have though.

A full-bodied, accessible vocal performance is universally recognizable. In prog rock music, it can serve as the entry point to a bigger picture musically. In most pop music the singer is the focal point of what’s being presented, often by design. Because the voice is the easiest instrument to pick up both in terms of performing and listening, it makes sense that a standard pop song will be centered on such an element. This is obviously not the case in more technical and instrumentally-based music. But while the vocalist may traditionally play a secondary role in a genre like prog rock or metal, it is just a convention rather than a rule. A strong, clean, vocal performance can be difference maker in so many ways. For a band like DGD, it’s arguably become the defining aspect of their music, and many of their songs are shaped around the vocals. Pearson’s soaring voice is like the perfect Instagram filter, lifting all the most defining colors from the picture and presenting a work of art that is only fully realized and appreciated with his grace. In terms of lyrics and intonation too, Pearson’s vocals often fall back on conventional pop themes like love and sex, while delivered in a manner that drags out syllables like slowly rolling waves. Their song “We Own the Night” for example, shows intermittent displays of his sensually sweet talent, almost in the vein of Justin Timberlake. It would take a lot more for a band like that to make a complete crossover into popular music, but having a such a dynamic singer like Pearson is a crucial first step.

The SoCal shredders of Chon have risen to the top of the scene by delivering frenetic tunes that shine brightly and happily with minimal distortion. Their fun-loving ethos is embodied by jovial jams and titles such as “Fluffy” and “Perfect Pillow.” On their most recent album, 2017’s Homey, the band explores production that is decidedly akin to what you might hear on your FM dial. “Berry Streets,” for example, is well equipped to score an H&M ad, with its light trap inspired beat, pitched up vocal sample blanketed in reverb, and of course luscious guitar playing. The album also features a number of contributions from the likes of R&B up-and comer Masego and bubbly electronic producer Giraffage, among others.

It’s through these new musical avenues that bands like Chon are redefining what guitar-based music can be. The driving instrumental technicality is still there, as it’s simply been re-contextualized to fit a more sonically accessible mold. Sometimes that can mean having to enlist more popular artists, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It does depend on the band though. A bright and fun trademark sound lends itself better to these kinds of collaborations than say, Chon’s heavier Sumerian label mates and contemporaries Animals as Leaders. Within the modern prog rock sphere there are different styles that exemplify this sort of divide. Much of it can be distilled down to the effects on and tunings of the guitars, which tend to lean towards a clearer math rock sound or djent, a chunky, down tuned subgenre of metal. From an artist’s perspective, it’s about finding what qualities of your music transfer over well to another genre. Covet are also beginning to crack the code, having recently collaborated with electronic producer San Holo on their track “shibuya” (Covet guitarist Yvette Young returned the favor on his track “always on my mind”). Yes, that’s the same San Holo who has played sets to thousands of fans at Lollapalooza, Ultra, EDC Las Vegas, and Hard Summer. Musically—and by this example quite literally—the degrees of separation between prog and pop are much less than people may think. All it takes is the right amount of influence to seep through the cracks of the underground and into the mainstream for a grand conceptual melding to occur.

Paying homage

A similar stylistic path has been followed by the electrifying Dallas-based quartet Polyphia, who routinely share the stage with Chon. A slew of singles and EP’s over the past year and a half showcase a production style so heavily influenced by hip-hop, trap, and pop that it seems to dictate the tempo and structure of the music itself. It’s in rather large contrast with their first effort, 2015’s Muse, on which the drums are all acoustic and the band’s playing is unmistakably more metallic and hard-hitting. Why exactly mainstream genres like hip-hop, R&B, and trap are so popular in this other corner of music is uncertain. It’s not as if people who make a certain kind of music can’t like another type of music, but the influence is so substantial that it’s beginning to change the genre of what’s being created altogether. That’s significant. The stylistic shift isn’t just exclusive to the music either. Polyphia’s merch, cover art, and song titles like “40 Oz,” “G.O.A.T.,” and “Loud” are clearly inspired by hip-hop’s hottest stars, its culture, and even its vernacular. This aesthetic projection is a decidedly different angle from which mainstream infiltration can occur. It’s all more proof though that this is a scene that wants to bridge the gap between niche and mainstream music and will continue to find new and innovative ways to do so. It also draws a parallel to how hip-hop adopted the styles of the high fashion world for decades until the latter culture finally returned the favor. For years, rappers obsessively donned luxury brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Versace without any acknowledgement from the high fashion industry. That’s all changed as of recent, as rappers such as A$AP Rocky and 2 Chainz are now involved directly with the brands themselves. Unlikely cultural associations may seem awkward of confusing at first, but often prove to be surprisingly successful in many ways.

I like to think of progressive rock as a musical Rube Goldberg machine. Most music shares the same goal of providing a memorable, head-nodding listening experience. However, the way in which prog rock seeks to achieve this is by being as complex as possible. While more moving parts can shroud that objective in obscurity, sometimes all it takes is one riff, beat, vocal, or synth lead to give the listener that a-ha moment of visceral connection. Pop music doesn’t have to be a one-dimensional concept. On the other hand, technical music doesn’t have to be imposing and inaccessible. There’s room for both to exist within the same parameters of intention and enjoyment.

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