Progressive Rock was developed in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s and had its golden age in the first half of the 1970s. Early progressive rock mixed rock, classical, folk, and psychedelic music elements. Progressive rock musicians incorporated other art forms such as literature, theater and innovative graphic design. Lyrics made references to poetry, fantasy fiction (specially the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien) and science fiction.
Some of the early pioneers include the Moody Blues, Barclay James Harvest, The Nice, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (which included former members of The Nice), Procol Harum, King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull and Soft Machine.
Leading acts in the 1970s included British groups Genesis, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, Renaissance, Camel, Caravan, Jethro Tull, Curved Air, Gong and Greenslade.
A few British record companies played an important role in the development of progressive rock. These were primarily Charisma Records, Manticore Records and Virgin Records. Charisma Records released albums by Genesis, The Nice, Van der Graaf Generator and Rare Bird. Virgin Records was at that time a cutting-edge indie label with a deeply adventurous spirit, releasing albums by Mike Oldfield and a large number of experimental, electronic and progressive rock artists, including Gong, Faust, Henry Cow, Hatfield And The North, Tangerine Dream, Kevin Coyne, Slapp Happy, Edgar Froese, Robert Wyatt, Comus, David Bedford, Clearlight, Steve Hillage, Wigwam, Pekka Pohjola, and Can. Meanwhile, Manticore Records released albums by Emerson Lake and Palmer, Peter Sinfield and Italian bands Premiata Forneria Marconi and Banco.
Progressive rock spread rapidly outside the Anglo-Saxon world during the early 1970s. In Italy, various top of the line bands rivaled the British acts in creativity and quality. The best were Premiata Forneria Marconi, Banco, Celeste, Il Balletto Di Bronzo, and Le Orme.
A French band called Magma shocked the progressive music world with its powerful mix of rock, jazz and contemporary classical music with vocals in a new language called Kobaian which was constructed by its founder, Christian Vander. Magma became a popular underground act and generated a new sub-genre called zeuhl within progressive rock, with acts created by former members and new bands inspired by the legendary French band.
Clearlight, led by keyboardist Cyrille Verdeaux was another seminal band, experimenting with rock, classical music and electronics. Clearlight's debut album Clearlight Symphony featured members of Anglo-French band Gong, including Steve Hillage, Tim Blake, and Didier Malherbe. Forever Blowing Bubbles, released in 1975, included David Cross of King Crimson and several vocalists from Hatfield & the North.
Dutch progressive band Focus had a radio hit with its song “Hocus Pocus.” Focus incorporated classical music and jazz elements. Operatic-style vocals were mixed with keyboards, flute and electric guitar.
Spain had one of the most unique progressive rock scenes with groups that combined flamenco and other forms of Spanish folk music. Leading acts included Canarios, Granada, Atila, Iman Califato Independiente, Cai, Azahar, Bloque, Crack.
The innovative sounds of progressive rock could be found in many other countries: Canada, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Greece, Japan, etc.
The cover artwork of many LPs of the era reflected an interest in fantasy and outer space. Roger Dean's designs fascinated fans with colorful dreamlike album covers for artists such as Yes, Gentle Giant and Greenslade, and even African group Osibissa. Another great illustrator who worked with album cover art was Patrick Woodroffe. He made the sleeve art for Greenslade's Time and Tide
The arrival of new technical gear and electronic musical instruments played an essential role in the development of progressive rock. Early synthesizers were originally enormous modular devices that were practically impossible to carry on tours. Companies like Moog and ARP miniaturized synthesizers and made them portable and affordable. Progressive rock bands, who could normally not afford a real orchestra, were able to add orchestral effects with the aid of string synthesizers and especially the mellotron. The mellotron is probably the most cherished instrument for many progressive rock enthusiasts and musicians. Its synthetic orchestral and choral sounds played and still plays a key role in authentic progressive rock music. Musicians who used mellotrons, moog synthesizers and other keyboards include Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Tony Banks, David Sinclair, Thijs van Leer, Rick Van Der Linden, Vittorio Nocenzi, Vangelis and Patrick Moraz.
New electric guitars and effect pedals and other devices added a wide spectrum of new sounds and possibilities for guitarists and bass players.
Several factors contributed to the decadence of progressive rock in the late 1970s. Some of the leading groups suffered musical transformations and notorious desertions. When Genesis lost vocalist Peter Gabriel and guitarist Steve Hackett, it became a chart topping pop band. Another leading act, Yes, flirted with radio friendly Adult Oriented Rock (AOR). After making legendary albums, Emerson, Lake and Palmer drifted towards melodic rock and AOR. Similar cases happened in other countries. One of the most bizarre changes happened to Italian band New Trolls. It switched from high quality classically-influenced progressive rock to Bee Gees-style disco and pop in the late 1970s, disconcerting its fans.
The pressure from record companies had a major influence in the decline of progressive rock. Record companies wanted pop hits and insisted on making the music more commercial. Radio stations also played a key role. The restrictive formats of commercial FM radio did not contemplate extensive twenty or thirty minute tracks. Spanish progressive rock band Crash mentioned at the time how one of their most ambitious pieces was sliced into four or five different tracks by the record company.
Pop music critics sometimes launched vicious attacks against progressive rock, calling it pompous, self indulgent and bombastic. Many of these critics confused progressive rock with the highly commercial AOR (Adult Oriented Rock) format. Radio friendly groups such as Asia, Saga, Toto and Journey were categorized as progressive rock when they clearly were not, even if the line-ups included former progressive rock musicians. For example, Asia had fantasy-style covers and featured prominent musicians from some of the finest progressive rock groups, such as Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer and hard rock band Uriah Heep. However, all their pieces were short pop songs intended for commercial radio. Unfortunately many pop critics regarded as progressive rock any band that used a large number of keyboards.
While it seemed like progressive rock was on its way out in the late 1970s, many fans across the globe were not ready to give up. This became the period of collectors and mail order companies. The word got around that there were progressive rock recordings worldwide and music fans found ways to acquire LPs through travel, friends and pen pals. Registered postal packages circulated worldwide, bringing cherished treasures to collectors. As an example, the album by Cuban progressive rock band Sintesis 'En Busca De Una Nueva Flor' was very hard to get directly from Cuba, but a licensing deal in Mexico made it available to international audiences.
Japanese collectors were specially good at discovering progressive rock from all corners of the world. Sometimes they introduced rare albums by European bands to Europeans themselves.
Despite the difficulties, there were still musicians who braved the odds and continued to perform progressive rock. One of the finest British progressive rock bands of the 1970s, UK (band), was formed during that period. The group included singer and bassist John Wetton; drummer Bill Bruford; keyboardist and violinist Eddie Jobson; and guitarist Allan Holdsworth.
In the 1980s, progressive rock experienced a comeback. Some critics call it the Neoprog era. Music fans turned their interest in progressive rock into a profession. Specialized magazines sprouted in various parts of the world. Naohiro Yamazaki's Marquee (Japan) was one of the most visible, with beautiful color covers and extensive information about the current and past progressive rock scene. Marquee also became an importer of international progressive rock, including rare recordings from all parts of the world. In the United States, Archie Patterson's Eurock magazine was a must read. The English-language publication specialized in progressive rock and other “progressive” styles like electronica and avant-garde music. Eurock also had an impressive mail order service that carried some of the best releases from numerous countries. Other American catalogs with an admirable collection included ZNR and Wayside Music.
In Europe, French progressive rock collectors, Bernard Gueffier and Francis Grosse, set on a mission to hunt down and reissue many of the international progressive rock gems that were out of print, while at the same time, they started to release recordings by new acts as well as new recordings by veterans. The name of their company was called Musea and it has grown to be the largest progressive rock label in the world.
The Exposure progressive rock series gave opportunities to new bands through a collection of progressive rock samplers that included Exposure (No Man's Land, 1986), Double Exposure (No Man's Land, 1987, double CD) and Exposure 88 (Andraea crt, 1988). The people behind this project were British musician Steven Wilson (who later formed Porcupine Tree) and Spanish music journalist and record producer Angel Romero. For the third project of the series, Exposure 88, Dutchman Peter Lindenbergh joined Steven and Angel.
The progressive rock renaissance took place in many nations during the 1980s, although, once more, it was UK bands that popularized the genre. The most influential was Marillion, a group inspired by early Genesis. Other popular groups included IQ, Pendragon, Pallas, the Enid and Twelfth Night. Other British progressive rock bands of the era include Arena, Enchant, Haze, Final Conflict/FC, Fish, Galahad, Jadis, Janysium, Landmarq, Mach One, Mindgames, Clive Nolan, Quasar, Shadowland and Sylvan.
Although some of the second generation prog bands from the 1980s continued into the 1990s, the new decade was characterized by a whole new wave of progressive rock bands. In the UK, the influential Ozric Tentacles released its first album. They are an unconventional act, a sort of progressive rock jam band that has had numerous changes in its line-up, with psychedelic tendencies as well as electronic and world music elements. Ozric Tentacles was the nursery for numerous projects that included other space rock bands and electronica acts.
Other essential bands of the era include Swedish progressive rock group The Flower Kings, led by multi-instrumentalist Roine Stolt; Porcupine Tree (UK), led by Steven Wilson; White Willow (Norway); Spock's Beard (United States); Echolyn (United States); Glass Hammer (United States); Eclat (France), 3rdegree (United States); Sithonia (Italy); Quasar Lux Symphoniae (Italy); XII Alfonso (France); Galahad (UK).
During the first decade of the 2000s, several bands consolidated their positions as leading progressive rock acts, including supergroup Transatlantic (Europe-USA), and Spock's Beard (USA), Glass Hammer (USA). Other groups changed direction. Porcupine Tree (UK) moved away from psychedelic progressive rock and embraced hard rock and even blistering metal riffs.
Another supergroup called Tangent was formed during this decade. Tangent's first album was titled The Music That Died Alone. The initial lineup featured Andy Tillison & Sam Baine (Parallel and 90 Degrees), Roine Stolt, Jonas Reingold & Zoltan Czsorz (The Flower Kings), David Jackson (Van der Graaf Generator), and Guy Manning (Manning).
Progressive rock legends from the 1970s returned. Yes reformed without a keyboardist and stylistically chose to pursue highly creative progressive rock with the release of Magnification, which featured a symphony orchestra instead of keyboards.
Van der Graaf Generator, another cherished band from 1970s, reunited and returned with a double album titled Present.
Kostarev Group, from Russia, proved to be one of the most exciting new acts, combining classic progressive rock with fusion and electronics.
Some music critics and record labels have cast a really wide net to include numerous artists and genres in the progressive rock category. This is the case of quite a few heavy metal bands who were labeled 'progressive.' In some circles the term 'progressive metal' is used, although the majority of these acts lack the classical, folk, jazz, electronic, poetic and exploratory elements that are found in progressive rock. Heavy metal bands that some have reclassified as progressive rock include Dream Theater, Queensrÿche and Fates Warning.
A popular band that is frequently miscategorized is Rush. Although they occasionally ventured into long pieces, they were and are essentially a hard rock band. Rush was reclassified by some critics as progressive rock. This has created confusion with some music fans who believe that any hard rock band influenced by Rush is automatically performing progressive rock.
Another frequent problem are bands that change musical genre. Porcupine Tree originally made psychedelic progressive rock, but years later it became a hard rock band.
Other acts that frequently get mistakenly categorized as progressive rock include Asia (AOR), Supertramp (pop-rock), Circa (AOR), and Saga (AOR).