Prog Is Alive in Milwaukee!!


The Music That Never Died

Reviled by critics, progressive rock is in the midst of a revival. "Its strength is that it's secret. It's like esoteric knowledge. It makes it that much more precious." Progressive rock is the musical gnosticism of which Bill Kopecky speaks. Bill and his two brothers--who comprise the Racine band Kopecky--are proponents of a genre that reached its commercial apex over two decades ago and has since been universally derided by rock critics. In Milwaukee, however, progressive rock has maintained a cult following, a fan base that's loyal and perhaps growing. "It's not McMusic for the McMasses," insists Mark Krueger, host of "Planet Prog," which airs Sundays on WMSE from 9-10:30 p.m. "You could go to McDonald's and have a hamburger or you could have a 10-course meal. Which would you rather have?" he continues, comparing mainstream popular music to the bands he spins from Britain, Europe, South America and points across the globe. Krueger (who also works as an account executive for this publication) has hosted his radio show since 1977--the tail- end of progressive rock's golden age. His show debuted on the "underground" rock station WZMF, migrated to WQFM and landed finally on college radio --WMSE. Its consistent presence on Milwaukee radio helps account for some of this music's popularity in Milwaukee, has added to sales in the prog-rock section of Bayview's Rush-Mor Records and has helped promote the growing number of progressive rock bands who have swung through town. Shank Hall has recently featured Britain's Porcupine Tree and Spock's Beard from Los Angeles. Ozric Tentacles are on their way to the Milwaukee club.
Named for an imaginary breakfast cereal consumed only in the twisted imagination of bandleader Ed Wynne, Ozric Tentacles are one of the leading lights in Britain's small but expanding prog-rock scene. Begun in the early `80s, the group hears links between their music and the sound of the techno/rave subculture in what its bassist Zia calls the "transportive quality" of Tenticular music. The baggy jeans set may not be dancing to Ozric Tentacles at rave parties, yet. But the band's swirling, trancy keyboards, hypnotic dub reggae infusions and overall mix of grandiosity and ascendance lends itself to experiences of psychic bliss not unlike what some ravers seek on the dancefloor.

Classical Gas
Although critics tend to pigeon-hole progressive rock by its tendency toward verbose instrumental virtuosity, the music confounds easy definition. Rooted in the era of Sgt. Pepper, when rock strove to transcend its black and rural roots and become art, the equal of Europe's classical composers, progressive rock at its worst served up warmed-over classics with a rock beat. Some of its practitioners tried to fuse the structure of concertos and fugues with the heart of rock, often to ill effect. But progressive rock also meant making successful common cause between rock and Stockhausen, rock and Coltrane. It meant experimenting with the properties of synthesizers, still a futuristic instrument in the `60s and `70s. Prog-rock could mean the sharp, intelligent pop songs of Roxy Music or the dubious classical permutations of Rick Wakeman. Prog bands have drawn inspiration from Anglo-Celtic folk music, from jazz and even heavy metal. To paraphrase one judge's remarks about pornography, you may not be able to define prog-rock, but you can know it when you hear it. Increasingly, many fans are hearing and buying the music in cyberspace. Chatrooms dedicated to prog-rock spur listeners onto websites from bands outside commercial radio's narrow loop. Event, a group on the Styx/Asia poppy side of prog, sold out the initial pressing of its debut disc thanks to the Internet. Likewise, the second release by Liquid Tension Experiment, a band comprised of members from the artful metallurgists Dream Theater and the grand old men of prog, King Crimson, registered nowhere on Billboard's pop album chart the week it made a Top-10 debut in the trade magazine's Internet sales chart. "There is more interest now in the States in what we do," Ozric's Zia says. "I can sense that there's some kind of thirst here for this kind of music."

Global Scene
Now, as in the early years of progressive rock, most of the bands come from outside the States. "More musicians elsewhere are classically trained," Krueger explains. "They incorporate their training with rock and often incorporate their own ethnicity. You can often tell by listening to their records if a band is from Greece or Italy, without knowing anything about them." And then there are bands from Wisconsin like Kopecky and Lunar Chateau, both of whom released CDs during the past few years. Progressive rock's roots are deep but not widespread in Milwaukee--in the `70s prog-rock sprouted here in the form of such bands as Suds and Arousing Polaris (who went on to greater fame in the `80s as psychedelic rockers Plasticland) and the early career of that Milwaukee institution, Sigmund Snopek. In those years Snopek released musically ambitious concept albums that drew from 20th-century classical music, electronic experimentation, jazz and rock. Several of these hard-to-find LPs have been reissued on CD during the `90s on a German prog label called Music is Intelligence. The niche record company finds its customers--and its recording artists--largely on line. Not unlike Snopek, Kopecky's album has been picked up overseas, by Italy's Mello Records. Progressive rock has been cited as an inspiration, however unintended, of the new age music that gained popularity in the `80s. Little wonder then that Kopecky--which incorporates touches of India and the Near East into its sound--received a WAMI (Wisconsin Area Music Industry) Award for best new age act. In Britain, prog-rockers are beginning to rack up more than trophies. Earlier this decade Ozric Tentacles' persistent touring and strong word-of-mouth resulted in a fluke Top-10 pop album as their Jurassic Shift sailed to the top of the UK charts without the benefit of a hit single. "We really don't like that po-faced seriousness," Zia remarks, contrasting Ozric with such `70s prog-rock stars as Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. "We're a completely feel-based band." Adding to the ensemble's lightness of spirit is their trippy light show, which complements their often mesmerizing music. The growing popularity of progressive rock festivals, including the new Art Rock Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Mexico's Baja Prog and the four-year-old Prog Fest, which shifted recently from Los Angeles to San Francisco, is giving musicians and fans the opportunity to network in real time, real-life settings. "I've seen young and old at the festivals, 18-year-olds and 60 year-olds," Krueger says. "They come for great music that can't be found on commercial radio. Prog is for people who listen to music, as opposed to only hearing music."