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Classic prog rocker Peter Gabriel performs with Genesis. Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez Lopez of the Mars Volta
POP MUSIC

The elaborate soundscapes of prog rock are on the rebound

Say this for prog rock -- its musicians certainly know how to play.

After all, an artist can't dive into a 20-minute solo liberally seasoned with dollops of jazz, salsa, and classical music without possessing an overwhelming command of his instrument. It was those adventurous musical journeys that distinguished such 1970s rock stalwarts as Genesis (during Peter Gabriel's tenure), Rush, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Of course, what some fans most loved about progressive rock -- its willful indifference to a single style, its elaborate, even rococo musicality -- is exactly what drove others to distraction. As the music grew more excessive, many began to dismiss it as little more than a rambling series of obscure noodlings, interminable solos, and self-important ''song suites."

Whereas prog rock once meant expansive musicianship, it soon became synonymous with creative bloat, pretentiousness, bizarre lyrics favoring medieval references, and regrettable sartorial choices such as Gabriel's flower-petal headgear. David Kamp and Steven Daly's ''The Rock Snob*s Dictionary" calls prog rock ''the single most deplored postwar pop music."

Yet this once-maligned genre has been experiencing a comeback. With new acclaimed albums by such bands as the Mars Volta, scheduled to play Worcester's Palladium tomorrow and Avalon on Tuesday, Queens of the Stone Age, . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and Porcupine Tree, prog rock is again being hailed for restoring art to modern rock, allowing innovative musicianship to be revered instead of reviled.

''This is also some of the best entertainment anyone will ever see, and what we're seeing is a throwback to the great bands of the 1970s," says George Roldan, copromoter of the Rites of Spring Festival, which had its second annual gathering last weekend, outside of Philadelphia. The three-day event featured 11 prog-rock bands including Cryptic Vision, Magenta, and Arena.

Explaining the draw of prog rock, Roldan adds, ''It's the talent, the musicianship, the performance level, and it's all original music. There's nothing else like it, and that's what a whole new generation is being drawn to."

Formed in 2001 by guitarist Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler Zavala, after the sudden demise of their band At the Drive-In, the Mars Volta is touring in support of its aggressive, hypnotic sophomore album, ''Frances the Mute." A song cycle featuring five distinct suites based on a diary found by Jeremy Michael Ward, a band member who died two years ago, it's ambitious and nervy, and a perfect follow-up to their stunning 2003 debut, ''De-loused in the Comatorium." That album was a critical success and sold more than a million copies worldwide. ''Frances the Mute" debuted in March at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

''The fact that Mars Volta is on the charts and getting played stuns me," says Shawn Gordon, president of ProgRock Records, which he founded in 2002. The label is home to such bands as Jack Yello, Man on Fire, and Frameshift.

''They're what I consider avant-garde," Gordon says, ''and God bless 'em for being able to pull it off."

Also garnering much attention this spring is Queens of the Stone Age's ''Lullabies to Paralyze," and not just because it's singer-guitarist Josh Homme's first QOTSA album without the band's cofounder and bassist Nick Oliveri. Loud and swampy, it's a collection of songs built on dynamic, propulsive soundscapes, not just tried-and-trite radio-friendly hooks.

Earning less attention but no less deserving is Porcupine Tree's textured ''Deadwing," released last month. Led by guitarist-keyboardist Steven Wilson, the band has been putting out albums since 1991 but received some of the best reviews of their career with 2002's ''In Absentia."

Certainly, it doesn't hurt that prog rock (sometimes called art rock) bands deliver pummeling music that's as cathartic as it is challenging. It's great music for the head and for head-banging. At a recent sold-out Boston appearance, . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead singer, guitarist, and drummer Jason Reece said of his Austin, Texas-based band, ''We may be pretentious art [expletives], but we like to rock."

Prog rock can trace its beginnings to the 1960s and such classic albums as the Beatles' ''Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and even the Beach Boys' ''Pet Sounds," both of which elevated pop music from mere entertainment into grand art.

''There's a lot of things you can fit into the genre of progressive -- you could call the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Led Zeppelin progressive depending on what tunes you're listening to," Gordon says. ''Most often it's typified by more complex songwriting, integrating world music elements, odd time signatures, and virtuosity."

By the late 1960s, when most rock songs still clocked in at around three minutes, bands such as England's King Crimson, led by Robert Fripp, began experimenting with longer compositions unbound by traditional formats and structures. In 1969, his band released ''In the Court of the Crimson King," which became a Top 40 hit in America.

By the 1970s, such bands as Pink Floyd, Yes, and Genesis were filling arenas, as well as the headphones of fans eager to discern every musical twist and clandestine lyric. Inevitably, prog performances became more preposterous, avant-garde, and occasionally downright silly, such as Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson prancing about performing flute solos.

Soon, John Lydon, the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten, was famously sporting a homemade ''I Hate Pink Floyd" T-shirt on the streets of London, and punk's bracing two-minute, three-chord efficiency became an antidote to the prog-rock blahs.

In the excellent documentary ''End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones," there's a clip, epitomizing prog's excesses, of Keith Emerson, keyboardist of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, waist-deep in an intricate Moog synthesizer solo that's both remarkable and insufferable.

''I saw where musicianship was going at that point in time. It was the drug era coming into rock 'n' roll, so everyone was getting into the overindulgence of playing," the late Johnny Ramone says in the film. ''Those long solos -- you felt, 'No way can I ever be able to play like this.' Even if you have the talent you'd have to sit there for 15 years practicing."

Still, it's that same epic musicianship, some believe, that has revived prog-rock.

''I've been predicting this for a while, and I think it's a backlash against all the manufactured, pop-tart type of music that's not good for anything but dancing to," says Gordon, who also runs progRadio.net, an online prog-rock radio network, as well as the prog-rock music service Mindawn.

''It's not interesting to listen to, and there's nothing to the lyrics," he said of slick pop confections. ''Christina Aguilera puts an album out and it's called 'groundbreaking' because of how nasty she is. In what way is that groundbreaking?"

Prog-rock festival organizer Roldan, who also runs Prog4you.com, said new prog-rock fans may have become familiar with the music by delving into their parents' collections -- today's 40-year-olds were the ones tripping out on Pink Floyd's ''Dark Side of the Moon" and Emerson, Lake & Palmer's ''Brain Salad Surgery." The Internet, he added, has also revived interest in the once-overlooked genre.

''There are more than 50 Internet stations right now devoted to progressive rock," he says. ''It has propelled prog rock back to a level where it's accessible to the masses."

With prog rock splintered into numerous subgenres -- from Kraut rock to psychedelic/space rock -- the genre seems more vital and potent than ever. Not that prog rock ever truly went way; bands like Kansas and Pink Floyd have never stopped touring and filling venues worldwide. Yet it has been reinvigorated by dedicated fans and musicians, again demanding more artistic substance than most radio-ready rock filler can supply.

''Progressive rock used to be described as music for intelligent people. It still is, but it also has great hooks and melodies," Roldan says. ''These are musicians playing music the way they want to play it, and kids are digging it."


What makes it prog?

Two new discs and two old albums share on trait: grandiosity.
The Mars Volta
The Mars Volta, "Frances the Mute" (2005): Three of its five "songs" are actually 12-minute-plus suites based on a diary found be a band member who died two years ago.
And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
... And You Will Know Us by the trail of Dead, "World Apart" (2005): The vaguely disturbing cover art is either a medieval apocalypse or the "running of the brides" gown sale at Filene's Basement.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Emerson, Lake & Palmer, "Tarkus" (1971): Side one is a 20-minute suit made up of seven parts: foud instrumental sections and three songs. Plus the album is named after a hybrid of an armadilla and a tank.
Genesis
Genesis, "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" (1974): A totally bizarre double-album rock drama in which singer Peter Gabriel plays street hustler Rael, an "imperial aerosol god" who moves through the subways with his spray gun.
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