Picture this: we are heading towards the end of the 70s, in which the golden age of the progressive rock movement is in a state of turmoil. King Crimson are currently inactive, the members of Yes are in disagreement over musical direction and are soon to lose Anderson and Wakeman, whilst Genesis, already without enigmatic frontman Peter Gabriel, have lost guitarist Steve Hackett and are about to leave their progressive sound in the past. If this wasn’t distressing enough for a prog fan, the changing social climate has become the perfect breeding ground for a new genre of music spearheaded by the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, a genre that cuts out the waffle and gets straight to the point of everything that is wrong in Britain – the punk and new wave movements are the final nail in the coffin for the much loved progressive rock movement. Brutal and heartbreaking isn’t it? For prog fans at the end of the 70’s, it was believed that prog had done its time and had been laid to rest indefinitely. However, an unexpected resurrection was to take place in the 80s, a decade dominated by new wave bands showcasing a catchier, danceable style of music, undoubtedly an unpopular time for prog rock. But this wasn’t to stop the likes of Pendragon, IQ and most notably Marillion, who are all synonymous with what was termed as ‘Neo-Progressive Rock’. But what is it and how does it differ from the original progressive rock movement I hear you ask?
It is not so easy to explain. Progressive rock in itself is loose in terms of a definition, a bone of contention that has probably fuelled many arguments among prog fans in the pub, and something you are likely all familiar with. Therefore, it is also tricky to try and give a definitive explanation of what neo-prog is as there is no concrete answer. The easiest way of looking at it is through the word ‘neo’, a prefix indicating that something is new, recent and fresh. In this context, neo-prog simply means the new wave of prog rock, but nothing is ever that simple – prog fans should know that by now! Surely it has some unique features that make it a distinctive movement, otherwise we would be calling all prog rock between 1980-2020 neo-prog. Well there are some key features that bind these neo-prog bands together and distinguishes this movement from the original prog greats in the 70s; in true 80s fashion, there is a greater emphasis on synthesisers which are purposefully used more often than the hammond organ or the mighty mellotron (not to say that these are still not used to great effect). These soundscapes are coupled together with clean, melodic guitar solos that aim for emotion rather than virtuosic complexity, emotion that is also echoed in the lyrical content. Arguably, it is seen as more accessible over classic prog, which is a fair judgement considering the fame Marillion, in-particular, received on the radio and in the charts. However, the neo-prog movement never aimed to greatly distance itself from the roots of classic, symphonic prog; for the die-hard prog fans, the music still delivered what it promised on the tin and it is no surprise that today these neo-prog bands have developed a strong and loyal fanbase.
The problem lies with where to begin. Genesis play a huge role in shaping this movement, being a strong influence (perhaps too strong in some cases) on many of the leading neo-prog bands. It is possible to even make a definition for the movement out of Genesis entirely. It is no coincidence then, that the first neo-prog albums are arguably said to have been conceived by Genesis in the late 70s; albums such as ‘A Trick of the Tail’ and ‘Wind and Wuthering’ could be deemed as a template for what future neo-prog bands would accomplish (or dare I say copy?) later on in the 80s. It seems controversial to call these albums neo-progressive, however, considering Genesis were a central part of this initial movement and they were crafted in the late 70s when symphonic prog still had some breath left in it – in an effort to keep everyone happy, it is best to probably see these albums as blueprints rather than actual neo-prog offerings. Instead, I present to you a slightly less controversial answer to this question – but will no doubt cause controversy! In 1982, Twelfth Night released what some may call the first neo-prog album: ‘Fact and Fiction’. Strangely enough, unlike most other neo-prog bands, Twelfth Night produced a very original sound that straddled the border between prog rock and the punk/new wave material. Genesis is nowhere to be seen on ‘Fact and Fiction’ which is why it is praised for its originality; vocalist Geoff Mann sounded more like Peter Hammill rather than Peter Gabriel. Nevertheless, the inclusion of punk/new wave elements left other fans labelling it as ‘punk-prog’ (a bit oxymoronic) and so it seems problematic to call this the first neo-prog album when it isn’t ‘fully’ progressive.
There is only one other candidate in the running for first neo-prog album and it came from the most successful band of them all: Marillion’s ‘Script for a Jester’s Tear’ released in 1983, only 4 months after ‘Fact or Fiction’. The Genesis influence was much stronger here – perhaps abundantly so! Lead singer Fish was labelled a Gabriel copycat due to his similar enigmatic performance style, use of costumes and his fearless lashings of face paint – not to mention the uncanny vocal resemblance! The 17 minute B-side track ‘Grendel’ was considered to be the bands version of ‘Suppers Ready’, albeit not as polished as the Genesis masterpiece. Nevertheless, it was Marillion that were to reap the most success from the neo-prog movement, releasing four albums throughout this period before lead singer Fish made his departure and the band developed a new sound with current singer Steve Hogarth. The pinnacle of their career with Fish came with 1985’s ’Misplaced Childhood’; a concept album revolving around the childhood of Fish. Compared to their debut album, ‘Misplaced Childhood’ was musically more accessible, so much so that singles ‘Kayleigh’ and ‘Lavender’ received much radio play and appearances on Top of the Pops – yes you heard right! But it was the friction between Fish and the rest of the band during the making of their fourth album, ’Clutching at Straws’, that caused Fish to split from the band to focus on a solo career. However, as we all know, that wasn’t the end for Marillion.
Other neo-prog bands would challenge Marillion for the limelight during this time. Pendragon and IQ were often the support acts for headliners Marillion at the much loved Marquee Club in London – a hang out, or secret base if you like, for many neo-proggers. Pendragon were not as prominent in the 80s as they were in the 90s when they released a string of popular albums including ‘The Masquerade Overture’ in 1996, which was considered their most acclaimed work. The mastermind behind Pendragon’s work is vocalist and guitarist Nick Barrett, best known for his extended guitar solos, packed full of emotion and soul – it has become part of the Pendragon sound. Their latest 2020 release, ‘Love Over Fear’, is no exception to this and has been highly rated among fans to the point where many are calling it their finest work. IQ were probably the second biggest neo-prog band after Marillion, beginning their career with ‘Tales From the Lush Attic’ in 1983. Along with their 1985 release ‘The Wake’, these albums were widely praised, propelling them to fame in the prog world. They may have been classed as neo-prog but they are an example of a neo-prog band that relied on the mellotron, taking advantage of the full scope of its many sounds successfully as well as applying the fresh synthesiser sounds on offer in the 80s. Like Pendragon, IQ continued to release albums throughout the 90s and 00s, notably ‘Ever’ in 1993 and then a string of masterpieces beginning with ‘The Seventh House’ in 2000 right through to their latest 2019 release ‘Resistance’.
And there you have it – neo-prog in a nutshell! Characterised by the synth-focused sounds produced out of prog bands in the 80s, many prog bands have formed in more recent times that have been labelled as sounding ‘neo-progressive’. Arena began their career in the 90s, being most famous for their album ‘The Visitor’ in 1998 and are classed as neo-prog. A more recent example of neo-prog comes from Frost•, who released their first album ‘Milliontown’ in 2006 – roughly 20 years after the initial neo-prog movement. Nevertheless, ‘Milliontown’ has become an essential neo-prog album, praised for its original use of electronic sounds in a progressive context but also for the spine-tingling guitar solos provided by Arena guitarist John Mitchell – ‘Black Light Machine’ is a perfect example of this, you can thank me later! While it was unexpected, the neo-prog movement is a vital part of prog rock history but often overshadowed by the golden era of prog in the 70s. Hopefully, if you were not already aware of the gems that came out of this movement, you will now indulge in some glorious neo-proggy goodness!
Written by Dominic Sanderson.