Gentle Giant Podcast

This is my podcast on Gentle Giant, one of my favorite bands.  Often overlooked, they are a stellar example of Progressive Rock.  I also wanted to continue the discussion on Prog Rock I started with my post on King Crimson–so in this podcast I briefly demonstrate some examples of things that make progressive rock progressive.  If you like the sounds, go listen to the band!  I’d suggest Three Friends (1972) or Free Hand (1975) as good starting points.  A lot of Gentle Giant information can be found at their fan wiki: for example these interviews.
To hear how Gentle Giant has directly influenced a musician such as myself check out this track from my own prog band, Hot Cognition:

It features the cycling meter technique I mentioned pointed out in “Glass House”, as well as the polymeter technique I demonstrated with “Just the Same”

King Crimson: The Embodiment Progressive Rock

If I am asked what has influenced me as a musician more than anything…well the answer would be Chopin. But, truthfully, I only fell in love with Chopin after I started eating and breathing everything music. When I was a kid I heard great music, even learned to play much of it on piano, but never really recognized it. I didn’t understand music yet, and I think largely because I had never written music of my own. Sure, I had played keys, trumpet, and percussion in bands and orchestras throughout life; but compositional nuance and skill was still something I took completely for granted. When I went to college the first time I had a incisive paradigm shift. I discovered philosophy and psychology; the first academic topics I could actually enjoy reading about. I self-applied those topics with vigor. Art suddenly became important, very important—meaning of life important. And during this age of epiphany some of my bandmates turned me on to something that would lead me on a journey towards musical enlightenment that I am still undertaking. It was something that connected all the (classical) music theory I had ever learned into modern music, like plugging a lamp into an outlet. The hand that plugged it in was Progressive Rock.

I decided to focus on King Crimson for this piece because no other band quite encapsulates Progressive Rock like they do. Granted, they aren’t my favorite prog band but they represent the gestalt of 70s prog like no other. The prog rock movement has its origins with a band called Procol Harum (coincidently one this year’s nominees to the rock and roll hall of fame) and their song “Whiter shade of pale”. The early spirit of progressive rock is like taking the instrumentations and drugged out attitudes of the late sixties and sending it back in time to baroque days. The excellent BBC documentary Prog Rock Brittania describes the average prog rocker more of a classical music reject (or rebel rather). Songs begin to resemble concertos, with singular movements that could eat the length of two modern pop numbers whole. In all, you see a lot of bands interested in plugging rock and roll into classical theory: you hear music that merges the complicated, nuanced hand of a romantic composer with the attitude and instrumentation of rock. Some of my favorite bands from this period include: Yes, Gentle Giant, PFM, Gryphon, Il Balleto di Bronzo, Pink Floyd, Nektar, Birth Control, Yezda Urfa, Quella Vecchia Locanda, and Happy the Man (I tried to keep it to a small sampling). But as Prog Rock Brittania as well as my personal ears suggest, the most intimidating, scary, and eclectic of all prog bands was King Crimson.

King Crimson’s debut album In the Court of the Crimson King opens with one of Prog Rock’s greatest monsters: “21st Century Schizoid Man”. Within its duration this masterpiece swings the entire gamut between barely contained atonal chaos and synchronized, syncopated musical acrobatics and back. I only wish I could have seen the crowd reaction after King Crimson used this song to open for the Rolling Stones in July of 1969. From Pete Sinfield’s recounting, there was a moment of utter shock and silence before the crowd even knew to applaud. As Bill Bruford, drummer for Yes and King Crimson, put it “nobody knew that rock musicians could play like that”. It was my personal introduction to Prog Rock as a whole, and exactly where I think anyone should be introduced to the movement (even though I probably wasn’t hooked until I heard Gentle Giant’s Three Friends album).

One of King Crimson’s founding members Pete Sinfield reflected on the band’s ethos, “if it sounded anything at all popular, it was out, so it had to be complicated, it had to have more expensive chords…if it sounded too simple we made it more complicated, we’d play it in 7/8 5/8 just to show off…”. I think this summarizes the band’s, as well as Progressive Rock as a whole’s, greatest strength and weakness. I absolutely adore the musicianship and spirit of progressive rock, but many a prog band’s blatant disregard for accessibility to anyone other than the musical elite was surely a mark of hubris. King Crimson does an amazing feat of musically reinventing what isn’t broken album after album. Islands is jazzy, Red is a hard rock milestone, Beat incorporates synth-pop, and even their new albums (they’re still going) tread into industrial and electronic territories. How were people suppose to keep up with this amorphous musical machine? Evidently they weren’t.

Progressive rock was soundly defeated by the punk generation in its homeland of Great Britain. And not just defeated, but caricatured and ostracized. Excessive and self-indulgent are often terms that come up to describe prog rock, and they perhaps aren’t too far off the mark. Still punk rock (which I find equally excessive and self-indulgent in different ways) tried to bury progressive rock in the UK and the States: and did a pretty good job of doing it. That is until the internet age.

Progressive Rock has enjoyed a mild modern-day resurgence (IE Mars Volta, Porcupine Tree), but mostly in prog influenced genres. Prog Metal (Dream Theatre, Tool), Math Rock (Battles, Don Cab), Djent (Animals as Leaders), and even some Jazz Fusion Artists (Hiromi Uehara) commonly cite groups such as King Crimson as influences. Even artists in unrelated genres have been influenced by the music of King Crimson in particular. Kurt Cobain acknowledged the album Red as a big influence, and Kanye West sampled “21st Century Schizoid Man” in his song “Power”.

I also strongly identify King Crimson with Robert Fripp, who would be the constant member in the constantly evolving line-up of musicians. His trademark guitar soundscaping technique, lovingly coined Frippertronics, was actually invented by Brian Eno. Eno and Fripp’s collective journey into guitar-scaping can be seen as foundational elements of post-rock bands like Sigur Ros.

Progressive Rock gets written off in Music History all too frequently and I’m not sure why. It had a short run, but its influence extends just as far into modern day as any other breed of Rock and Roll. While bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and Jethro Tull managed to achieve mainstream success, many music historians handle them separately from the musical movement that bore them.  In my mind, King Crimson is the true poster boy of prog rock: alienating, intimidating, but undeniably genius. In all, I think by far the most damning insult to prog rock is that it easily construed as pretentious. And this is absolutely true, but you know what else is easily construed as pretentious? Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin.

Hot Cognition: Grow Your Peace

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ol’ prog band recently, so I decided to post another little tid-bit about one of our tracks.  This one is “Grow Your Peace” one of the tracks off of Merchants & Liars I wrote the music and lyrics to.  The very first, and the most central, thing I remember about writing this song is playing the piano in the practice basement at Hendrix College’s Trieschman Hall.  The piano line was based around this ‘hill’ shaped motif that changed ‘hands’ (or which part) played it.  You can hear it in the interchange between the piano and guitar: they alternate which one is playing it, and which one is playing a 3 note broken chord over it.  The next thing I added to the song was the bass line that comes in at the very end (originally throughout the whole song) which polymeters with the other instruments (you can hear it play 4 notes per measure against the feel of 6).

The lyrics actually just developed from that; They just came to me as I thought about the shape of the notes on staff paper.

The rest of it is my usual embellishments, contrary motion, counter-point, modal stuffs yada yada yada

Anyways, big kudos to Jack Bruno for singing that incredible vocal that none of us in the band stand a chance of hitting.  Random note: the strings on the last note are actually playing the first notes of the next track–Merchants & Liars

Merchants & Liars

Merchants & Liars by Hot Cognition
I thought this would be a fitting first post to my portfolio.  This is a composition from my progressive rock band Hot Cognition.  I remember wanting the string trio I wrote in the song so badly we delayed the entire album several months to find students to help us play it.  I really like the juxtaposition of the strings to the rest song.  I wrote the original “give back what you owe” motif in my first ever music theory course at Hendrix College.  I held on to it for over a year in my head before finally getting to re-arrange and use it here (it’s at 1:57 and 5:57).  My band-mate, Reed, is responsible writing for the 6/8, 8/8 alternating time signature riff around 2:47–very cool stuff.  The “big rock” sound (3:47) was also a ‘legacy’ motif from my younger days, I always joked it was my “invincible star” theme if I ever got to write for a video game.  Turns out later at Full Sail University I got to do a short for a student film club that was video game inspired, and I finally got to use it as my invincible power-up.

The poly-meter near the end (5:01) was originally a super-ambitious idea that we felt was just too inaccessible to do (yes more inaccessible than a poly-meter!).  If you are of keen ears, you may have noticed near the end that the piano and guitar are no longer doing the 6/8, 8/8 alterations that they used to the first time you heard the motif.  They now each introduce a third variation, neither 6/8 or 8/8, that displaces them rhythmically from the drums & bass.  Adding convolutions, piano’s displacement riff does not match the guitar’s displacement riff.  The original idea was to have the piano, guitar, and bass all have three different variations of different time signatures and to select which one to play at random on the fly.  The result would mean after about 5 loops, there is almost no chance of playing the song the same way ever again.  As a band, we really liked it this way, but if you didn’t know what was happening then it sounded too chaotic (the non-random poly-rhythm present in the song already looses most people the first time they hear it).

Anyways, like I said, a introductory post because it captures a lot of the elements that I desire when composing.  The string trio represents my love of counter-point and textured movement as studies in the form of beauty.  The chorus represents my love of rock and roll, the lyrics are a glimpse into my own personal philosophy, and the poly-rhythms represent my dedication to exploring and personalizing musical complexities that are all to often neglected.

Pleased to meet you, I’m Philip Spann.