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Is Prog Rock the New Folk?

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The folk revival. It began with the artistic resurrection of Nick Drake, took in the folktronica of Four Tet and electronic folk pop of Kate Nash, and culminated in the Now compilation popularity of Mumford and Sons and Ed Sheeran.

But it didn't just stop at music. Folk was one of the key drivers of a broad cultural shift that saw us re-embrace our pastoral past. The culture of folk music brought with it fringe festivals, knitting, beards, vegetable gardens and Innocent smoothies. In fact it was one of the biggest cultural influencers of recent times. But there are signs that it's starting to wane.

Popular culture comes in waves. Before folk we wallowed in the laddish post-modernism of Britpop. Before that was grunge. Before that rave. All had a massive impact across music, media, design, fashion, leisure and social attitudes. Predicting the next one is big business - but tricky. New cultural tropes typically fly in the face of mainstream culture: mainly because they're a reaction to that culture. After all, if someone had told you in the Britpop boom of the mid-1990s that folk music would be the next big thing, you'd have laughed in their face. And with good reason. Could there have been anything less cool than finger-in-the-ear folkies back then?

So, prepare to guffaw now when I suggest what the next wave of music and culture looks set to be. Are you ready? I believe it's prog rock ... (Okay, perhaps the headline spoilt the surprise). Yes, progressive rock. The kipper tie or puffball skirt of music. The genre that brought us Genesis and Jethro Tull. A genre so embarrassing to talk about that, in a recent documentary, Prog veteran and regular Grumpy Old Man Rick Wakeman likened it to pornography: *lowers his voice* "here mate, you got any, erm, prog rock?"

For those too young to remember, Prog was rock made by musicians who - heroically or foolishly, depending on your attitude - saw rock as an art form. More interested in European classical music than the US R&B and blues loved by their peers, they pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable 'pop' music into side-long suites, multiple chord and tempo changes, concept albums and lyrics inspired more by JG Ballard than Rogers and Hammerstein. In all, the movement lasted about ten years - from The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper in 1967 to the arrival of punk in 1976 - reaching its zenith in the five years from 1970 to 1974. It encompassed the pop symphonies of Yes, the dark pomp of Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake and Palmer, the abrasive art rock of King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator, the jazzy improvisation of Soft Machine and the mystic riffing of Hawkwind and Steve Hillage. At its worst it was tediously self-indulgent. But at its best it was artistically revolutionary.

So, why might we be about to resurrect this genre that taste forgot? After all, mainly thanks to punk, prog is held up as the epitome of 'uncool', with its sci-fi and fantasy lyrics, drum and bass solos (not 'drum and bass' solos, young friend, but *shudder* 'drum solos' and 'bass solos'), long greasy hair and double denim.

Well, interestingly, a new young generation is coming up that actually embraces many of the things that punks despised. Fantasy is no longer a dirty word. This lot grew up on the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Game of Thrones? It's like a Yes album sleeve come to life. Meanwhile, technical skills are being lauded. In an Emeli Sande-loving, talent show-filled, post-Strokes world, "they can actually play/dance/skate/dive" is a compliment not an insult. And what could be more fashionable right now than long greasy hair and double denim?

Like folk, any prog revival will likely begin with some musical re-evaluation and genre-dropping among a hipster handful. Then a few magazines will run features, and a club or two will spring up. With time, it will grow its appeal but lose its edge: as folk morphed into singer songwriters, so the prog revival will drive the mainstreaming of musical skill. Imagine a top ten full, not of stylish singer songwriters but of stylish instrumental virtuosi. A singles chart full of teenage Richard Claydermans and Nigel Kennedys (ask your parents...).

There are some signs already. New young bands are starting to drop the P word into interviews. prog rock magazine (yes, it exists) now sells 20% more copies per issue than the NME. Even my coolest friends are hyperventilating about the surprise concert announcement from old prog-er Kate Bush. And, is it me, or does the new Paloma Faith sleeve, with its Pierrot's masks and medieval gowns, look like a Marillion album?

Okay so it's early days. And like any genuine trend it will begin, not in the pages of The Observer or even this fine publication, but with an attitude among the young that grows slowly from the ground up. But mark my words, for better or worse, denim or drum solos, Prog - rock's original four letter word - is heading our way. Prog On.

next-big-thing.net // #ProgRevival

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