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How to listen to a prog rock album

September 4, 2011

Prog season is upon us again. And this time it’s particularly exciting and daunting. With so many albums scheduled to drop in such a small span of time, it is important to go about digesting them scientifically.

Listening to a prog album is a skill. In the seventies and eighties, limited by the capacity of vinyl, prog albums were rarely longer than forty minutes. The approach to listening to them is quite simple- tackle the big 15-20 minute song first. Assimilate it. Once that is done, you have half the album under your belt and can then move on to the shorter songs. In other words, listen to 2112 first, then move on to A Passage to Bangkok. Listen to Close to the Edge then move on to And You And I.

The expanded capacity of the CD meant that over the years, albums grew to fill up more space. So even though Dream Theater has released only eleven studio albums compared to Rush’s eighteen, Dream Theater has released more music. So how do you tackle an almost movie-length album?

Modern prog albums fall broadly into two categories. The first consists of bands which have carried on the structure of the albums of the seventies, at most doubling the number of songs. The Flower Kings, Dream Theater and The Tangent fall into this group. Adam and Eve by the Flower Kings is structured like a double album- Two songs of nearly twenty minutes on opposite ends of the album with shorter songs in between. Dream Theater’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings too has this structure, as do most Tangent albums.

In the other set are the prog albums by bands which make a conscious effort to move away from this structure- There is no Pain of Salvation song over thirteen minutes long; Opeth moved away from the twenty minute song over fifteen years ago and Porcupine Tree songs are rarely over seven minutes long.

Whether dealing with an album from the first or second category, there are a few things an astute listener can do.

– Lose all objectivity– Or at least go in assuming the songs that don’t engage you immediately will take a few more listens to sink in. If after half a dozen spins, a song still does not do anything for you as a listener, then consider moving on. But do not give up on a song because it does nothing on the first listen. Especially the longer ones- the instrumental sections can be trying, but are very often rewarding. Do not be quick to dismiss a song as filler.

A typical five stage thought process with a long prog song-

Stage- 1.  Ah another long fiddly /ambient/ heavy instrumental section. This is going to be good.

Stage 2- (Three to Six minutes later) That section was a little short/long. Not particularly impressive.

Stage 3- (On second, third and fourth listens)- Wow, look at how clever they’ve been rhythmically. This is pretty good.

Stage 4- (Twelfth listen)- Wow! The progression under that section was the same as the chord progression from the chorus of another song on the album- but backwards! That’s so clever! I love this song. This is the greatest song of all time!

Stage 5- Repeat with next song

Listen to any promotional snippets, and early singles-These usually come out weeks or months before an album and provide points of stability once the entire album is out. Suddenly tackling an 80 minute album isn’t so difficult, because 10-15 minutes are already familiar.

Listen to the album in its entirety only the first time you listen to it- After that, imbibe 15 minutes at a time. The first listen is usually a reconnaissance listen. The only time in the first week that an album should be listened to completely. This is to help gauge which songs are immediate and which will require a few more spins. The second and third listen can concentrate on sections that stood out the first time. Usually these will be songs with catchy hooks, incredible bits of technique or snippets that have been released earlier.

Do not listen to the album in bed before going to sleep– Especially if the album is particularly dynamic- A sudden growl or heavy riff can make you jump out of your skin if you’re not prepared for it. You may also wake up with a riff or melody that, in isolation, could turn you into Schumann and drive you insane. Believe me, this does happen.

Needless to say, in an album with long songs on it, delve into them first– The long song is usually the focal point of the album. Think of any album with a 20 minuter on it- Octavarium by Dream Theater, The Great Nothing of V by Spock’s Beard, Supper’s Ready off Foxtrot by Genesis, Hemispheres by Rush.  Embrace the epics and the rest of the album will follow.

Alternatively, you could just sit back and listen to the music like a normal person. But where’s the fun in that?

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