Prog (Not Prog)

If you lived in Austin right now, you’d have every right to be angry. The reason: last weekend’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, which must be something like the opposite of South by Southwest, given its more mainstream lineup. (Howdy, John Mayer!) As a former Austin resident, I can testify it’s almost impossible to erase the wear and tear on a city after tens of thousands invade for a weekend and treat it like their own personal toilet. If you want proof, look at New York City.

And so while current Austinites are still scrubbing down Zilker Park, I can’t vouch for what, if any, ill effects the ACL Fest may have had—I wasn’t there. In fact, as far as I knew, Austin City Limits was only a show on cable-access TV. About 10 years ago I was majoring in audio production at the University of Texas and had an internship for the ACL studio tapings of international bands who were in town for South by Southwest. My duty was to watch over the main audio console, listen for any problems that might arise—somebody’s amp was getting too loud, a mic moved—and adjust the levels to compensate. During breaks the crew would hang out at a set of park benches outside the studio and pound tall-boys from the back of the producer’s truck. And then we’d all go back inside to tape the next band.

Based on Chris at Gorilla Vs. Bear’s enthusiasm for ACL Fest, I’m guessing things have changed dramatically. If his 20-track “Austin Mixtape” is any indication, ACL Fest was a great time, provided you were hanging out with him.

» Hear the Austin Mixtape at Gorilla Vs. Bear

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The audio production major track at UT was actually very easy to get into. Part of the Radio, Television, Film program at the University, it was the least desirable, and, in post-graduation terms, least lucrative track. That meant it was a snap to get into the actual audio classes; there was rarely a waiting list. The result was a group of students who were either really excited about being the next Butch Vig or who were more interested in the film or television tracks, but lacked the dedication and patience necessary to get into the required courses.

When you stop and consider that kind of sluggishness, from people who are in their late teens and early twenties, that’s when the fact that multi-instrumentalist (and 2006 Tournament of Books judge) Nell James is 17, and is writing and recording her own prog rock—that you realize determination is everything. That’s right: prog rock. Sixteenth notes, time signatures, dragons, the works.

» Hear Nell James’s new album, Tempus

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Prog rock is a difficult beast to understand, much less tame. What’s great is that it’s never really gone away—there are still musicians who look at everything that’s cool and hip and that has righteous hair and they say, no thanks, we’re going to unleash the prog. While the genre has progressed (sorry) way beyond Yes, there are often comforting reminders of Chris Squire and co., as sandwiched between two slices of metal in Chrome Hoof’s “Tonyte.”

» Hear “Tonyte” at 20 Jazz Funk Greats

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Prog rock experienced a number of incarnations throughout the ‘70s, beginning with the more “art” rock of student types like Yes and King Crimson, through the more technically challenging (and taste-challenged, some might say) works of Rush, and even into some of the emotional bombast that epitomized Journey, or the devotion to complicated guitar licks, as from any of a number of metal acts into the early ‘80s. At the same time, there was a band that was going in a completely different direction*, R.E.M., whose new retrospective of their I.R.S. albums has a lot of people remembering—or, in some cases, admitting—how much they love the band. You’re already freaking out about hearing “Harbourcoat” again, aren’t you?

» Hear R.E.M. on Rockpalast, October 2, 1985 at rbally

*No, the Aerosmith cover doesn’t count.

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There’s talk that Klaxons are the new KLF. And though that might be true (they’re quite good), I wonder: Could they just be the KLF in disguise? I mean, without mobile phones the size of your head, but still, there is a precedent for this sort of thing.

» Hear Klaxons at Disco-Not-Disco


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack

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