The Role of Sound in Progressive Rock

From the lyrics, which, as experience shows, are the least noticed component in Progressive Rock, we are now coming to the part of the music, which receives the vast majority of the public's attention.

Through the overall sound of the music, i.e. the sound achieved by the combination of musical instrument sounds and technical recording and mixing equipment, the first hearing impression is generally conveyed. This is the motivation of millions of rock musicians to invest their last pennies in the latest instrument and equipment technology and the enormous turnover of the musical equipment industry.

Naturally, the influence of the overall sound is greatest in mainstream music, which is primarily acquired by its listeners through the factor of sound. Surprisingly, this is also very pronounced in the Prog area. It will be appreciated that of two records equivalent in other quality criteria, preference is given to the one having the better overall sound. To optimize this is the subconscious perception for the listener is surely an aspired undertaking.

On the other hand, some musical masterpieces were not properly recognized, only due to the fact that their production technology was not entirely up to date at the time. The further the sound is away from the ideal expected by the listener, the greater wills are demanded by him to look behind the imperfect sound and appreciate the quality of the music.

This is one of the few criterions which can be judged quite objectively, as long as it relates mainly to technical terms (nowadays not a big issue anymore).  More important for the reception is the subjective feeling of the listener regarding individual types of instruments and the associated arrangement techniques. In this point, two listeners can feel diametrically opposed.

This divergence of the listener tastes is most clearly illustrated by the human voice. Here the tastes differ more than with any other instrument. This is mainly due to the fact that the voice represents the most direct interpersonal possibility of articulation and thus also the most direct way of reception by the listener.

When the singers voice causes only a slight discomfort with the listener, he immediately has problems to consume the music unconditionally. If the sound of such an important instrument is disproved, almost all other qualities of the music are so far shifted to the background that composition and arrangement, which are so important in Prog, have no chance of being properly observed. As a result the music as a whole is refused.

Behind such a general rejection of a singer only on the basis of the timbres of his voice, any objectivity in the assessment falls into the background. For in contrast to the often expressed opinion that certain singers cannot sing at all, the intonation or singing technique is mostly not really as bad as it is claimed.

This becomes clear when one considers different listeners' assessments of the same singer. One often finds, for example, a strong rejection of the "falsetto" by Jon Anderson of Yes because people totally dislike such high voices. And this, though Jon Anderson undoubtedly has a recognized excellent voice and intonation. For Yes fans, his voice represents the revelation par excellence.

Just as unfounded is the opinion, certain pop girlies could not even sing at all. A completely false intonated singing is really unbearable and cannot be corrected with the best studio technology to sound great. In any case, a somewhat thin voice can be "made richer" with compressors, equalizers, exciters and other effects devices, the intonation can be corrected to a certain degree, but the basic character of the voice cannot (yet) be improved significantly.

Another example is Robert Smith of the band Cure, who "wobbles" quite consciously about the correct intonation, but this is obviously so original that Cure could gain considerable popularity. On the other hand, it is far from being said that a singer with perfect vocal technique will please all listeners. In this case, classically trained singers with their operatic intonation would have to be preferred by most listeners. Many listeners find the classical vocal style but very tiring, since the emphasis is mainly on the vowels and the text is hardly understandable. The transitions are certainly fluid.

A criterion which is to be assessed objectively and which is very important for the Prog area with regard to singing and very rarely addressed in critiques, is the vocal phrasing.

By phrasing, I understand the distribution of the textual points, consonants, and vowels, to the musically or rhythmically available units. Here, beginners usually use a very uniform emphasis on the main beats, which in the long run is tiring. But in a positive sense the meaning of words can be immensely enhanced by special dedicated phrasing.

In this regard, excellent singers are Peter Gabriel during his time in the early Genesis and Fish on the first Marillion albums. To my knowledge, Peter Gabriel was one of the first rock singers who consistently used the possibilities of hyperrealistic, exaggerated articulation as stylistic means. He has probably taken over and cultivated this unconsciously from comedy artists for his roll games in "Get ém out by Friday" and "Return of the Giant Hogweed".

Although he serves as a guide for many prog singers of the second generation, only a few of them achieve his variability and emotional penetration. For my perception, this way of singing and phrasing is one of the most interesting possibilities for vocal interpretation of lyrics, and I would be very pleased if classical operas were sung in this way. They would be much more accessible to me and many other rock musicians.

In the Prog area, some particular instruments are particularly popular, e.g. the Mellotron, which may have a similarly strong emotional effect on the prog listener as the human voice. Regarding the Mellotron, the explanation for this effect is probably the peculiar combination of expressively played natural sounds, coupled with slight overdrive from the valve amplifiers, always gently detuned by the somewhat primitive mellotron tape technology, the abrupt stop and the special kind of playing technique required for the Mellotron.

In the Mellotron, real orchestral sounds had been recorded on individual tapes, which are played back when a key is pressed. After about 8 seconds, however, the tape ends, the sound breaks off and you have to switch to another key while playing so the tape in the other slot can be rewound. Through this limitation, a special playing technique was developed to get long-lasting sound layers: chords were played with two hands and the player switched to other notes of the same chord before the tape of an individual note ended. This forced an additional complexity in the playing style. All these factors together make the appeal of the Mellotron.

Nevertheless, this sound, like all others, is of course a matter of taste. A good basic sound, coupled with an expressive playing technique in good sound interaction with other sounds, is certainly the best prerequisite for a positive reception by the listener, regardless of which musical direction is considered.