Finding the Progressive in the Regressive: That’s Folkin’ Metal
Everyone has different notions as to what “progressive” music is. While I personally find the term difficult to define, I believe that any form of music can be progressive so long as the listener is challenged in their conceptions of what music can be.
In order for music to progress it must hold new sounds for the listener. We often tack genre-tails onto the “progressive” epithet (such as “progressive-metal” or “progressive-rock”) to orient ourselves, to provide a frame of reference by which we can begin to grasp the new sounds that we’re experiencing, but the actual progression is that the music transcends genre. For example, a band can be playing loud, aggressive music with all the traditional facets of a heavy metal band, utilizing styles common to heavy metal, but can be producing a sound entirely foreign to the genre. We then align ourselves with aspects of the music we understand (which could be the distortion or simply the arrangements), and from that familiar ground stems the beginning of comprehension.
Certain kinds of music will challenge us more than others, which is where our individual musical backgrounds come into play. For example, people who have studied music will be able to adapt and understand “out” music much quicker than people who haven’t. They’re able to pull from their own training and resources to dissect sounds that the untrained ear would take much longer to comprehend (this isn’t to say that people who aren’t formally trained in music can’t teach themselves the same thing; the training then just comes in a different form). To play Meshuggah for a doctor of music (assuming she/he had never heard them before) would elicit a much different reaction than if you were to play it for your typical Theory of a Deadman fan (if we assume the same ignorance), but both would be challenged by the music. There are indeed artists who are overtly progressive, obviously (some might say exaggeratingly) pushing the boundaries of what their respective genre-tails have to offer, and are admirable in that respect. But music can be subtly (or more accurately, subjectively) progressive, and here I reiterate my initial claim: progressive music is more dependent on the listener than the performer.
Let me explain. Music is a personal experience. Artists that once challenged us will eventually bore us, and we move to more and more “out” forms of music until we’ve rejected tonality (or some other aspect of conventional music) completely. Our personal reaction to challenging music will fade over time until the music can no longer be defined as such; however, this only occurs on a personal level. That feeling can be (and often is) shared with other people, but only with people who have reached a similar place musically. This is key.
Musical experience differs from person to person. Music once progressive to a person (that is, they were progressed by it) but has lost that edge can still be mind-blowing for a different person who has never heard such sounds. This suggests that the progressive experience is subjective, and is why I believe progressive music can never become a genre. There is no such thing as “Progressive rock” or “Progressive metal,” there is only music with certain characteristics which we have labeled in order to help orient ourselves (such as metal and rock). Progressive music can utilize or even be firmly grounded in those genres, but the progression itself is free of genre, for in order to be progressing it must be new. It must be breaking ground.
When music falls into the so-called “Progressive” genre, it ceases to experiment. Where once it embraced its genre roots and evolved, it now uses the result to create a stagnant, clichéd version of what was an “out” music (Dream Theater is a perfect example to me, both as a band who became their own genre and as one who spawned all kinds of imitators who classified themselves as “progressive” whilst lazily regurgitating what had been cutting edge a decade before), effectively nullifying any aspect of the music that would challenge the listener. However, this phenomenon is applicable and true only to: listeners who have either followed the artist for long enough to recognize this stagnation or were already advanced beyond the level of said artist, or to the artist themselves. New or inexperienced listeners will still be challenged, and for them the music remains progressive — for a time.
So if progressive music is subject to the listener, with their experiences, understanding, and conceptions, then any form of music can be progressive so long as it brings new awareness to its audience. But there is some music where experimentation shines in that it unfolds itself to the listener as their musical intellect expands. This is music that I view as being truly progressive — it grows with the listener and continually reveals layers of complexity not initially available or necessary for enjoyment, but understood and appreciated with a mature ear. Sometimes this music is written by highly educated musical geniuses, but sometimes this music comes disguised to us in forms that deceptively appear regressive.
Folk music, true folk music, is the music of the people groups of a specific geographical and/or cultural region — hence the vastly different types of folk music around the world. Certain types of folk music are very normal to our Western ears, and certain types are more difficult to understand (Middle Eastern quarter tone music, Mongolian throat singing, Bulgarian polyphony, Corsican chants, et cetera); such forms of folk music are all quite normal and natural to peoples who have not steeped their entire lives in the standardized Western 12-tone scale, or Western tonal music in general. Folk music is often characterized by vocals and singing (our esteemed ex-prez-in-res W. wrote an excellent piece about vocals in music, and I think his arguments there help explain why vocals are so important in folk music) which tell stories in patterns that have little regard for conventional time signatures. Couple that with a lack of standardized musical education and folk music can take some of the most interesting, complicated turns whilst retaining easy listenability, accessibility, and (possibly most important) danceability.
This is progressive music that deceptively appears regressive. Folk music can be (and in no small way due to hipster culture) dismissed as simple, uneducated music, when in reality it can be the exact kind of music that pushes conventional boundaries in an appealing and enjoyable way. There are immesurable examples of this, but one of my favourites is the folk group Värttinä.
Värttinä, a folk group from the imaginary country known as Finland, is firmly rooted in Finno-Urgic polyphonic tradition. Naturalization of conventionally odd-time signatures is prominent in their music, but their usage shies away from abrasion. For example, listen to “Riena” from their 2006 release, Miero:
It would take a very careful listener to discern that the time signature of the verse is 11/16, a meter challenging even to many trained Western musicians. The performance is so natural and the delivery so fluid that only over time is one able to unravel the subtle complexity that is a constant in Värttinä’s compositions. They are university educated musicians, but are trained in folk music and understand the natural, untrained push-pull relationship of the words to rhythm, which makes them a perfect example of what I call deceptive progression.
Värttinä is exactly what I desire from progressive music. It is accessible to people from all musical backgrounds or levels of training, but it continually evolves and challenges me as my own musical understanding grows. They are a perfect example of progressive music that evolves in complexity with the listener, and will take a significant period of time and education to become passé for the listener. Even then, I doubt Värttinä, much like other bands with the same gift for composition, will ever become dull or truly uninteresting. They have captured the subtlety of progression and expressed it in an accessible art form, in a way that few artists are able to do — and this all on grandpa’s guitars.