Prog's New Face
In high school a few short years ago Mitch Mignano worked the counter at a Blockbuster record store in a mall in Baytown. One day, says Mignano, "some guy came in wanting to special-order a Moody Blues solo album, Justin Hayward or whatever." Ever diligent, Mignano picked up the phone, dialed the appropriate number and was put on hold for untold minutes. He began to make small talk with the customer across the register. Mignano, a keyboard player, told the man how much he loved the Mellotron, the electronic instrument of choice among progressive rock bands such as the Moody Blues. Amused, the customer said he actually owned one of the coveted instruments but hadn't used it in years. Mignano, poker-faced, asked if he could take a look at it. The man said sure.
A few days later Mignano was climbing to the third floor of the guy's house to check out the instrument, one of only 2,500 reportedly ever made. The contraption barely worked, but Mignano paid the man $500 (half of what the owner had originally forked over). The instrument, as it was, was probably worth about $2,000, says Mignano. In any case, he got a deal.
Though he didn't know it at the time, Mignano -- by purchasing this oversize musical instrument -- had taken the first step toward becoming an integral part of a national underground cultural movement.
Just in the last couple of years there has been a resurgence of interest in progressive rock, a genre signified by the sound of the Mellotron, shifty time signatures, science-fictiony lyrics about the apocalypse, virtuosic playing and performers in wizard outfits. Mignano, now in his early twenties, eventually restored his instrument and put it to use in his band, Deadwood Forest, which was created while he was still in high school. The result: one of this region's most significant contributors to the renaissance in prog.
Progressive, or prog, rock emerged in the early 1970s when Pink Floyd, Yes and dozens of other bands made up of former art students in England pioneered the sound, which didn't yet have a name. These musicians incorporated classical and often overblown (read: pretentious) elements into their music. Think long-ass keyboard solos. Think album-side-long songs. Think rock for math majors. The sound soon spread to America and, later, the rest of the world.
But after success throughout the '70s, when bands such as Genesis, Rush and King Crimson filled hockey arenas regularly, prog became déclassé, which it remained -- until now.
Interest in prog is not so easy to quantify. But for one thing, it exists on the Internet -- big-time. Literally thousands of bands, either prog-present or prog-past, have fanatic followings on the Web. There are fan-created home pages, and raging discussion groups, where collectors haggle over rare vinyl or even MP3 recordings of songs by the most obscure prog rock acts. Also, over the past few years a number of festivals, in the United States and abroad, have sprouted up. Some attract large numbers of fans from all over the world. Prog Day, held every year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, began in 1995 and is now an institution. And in San Francisco, ProgFest has become an annual destination. And like most prog bands, the performers who play these festivals and those overseas have remained impossible to mainstream. Radio is set up for the "two-minute market," or so says Rich Patz, president of Shroom Records. "You can't get as many advertisements in if all your songs are 12 minutes."
Patz and partner Greg Putman have built their nationally distributed mini-empire based in Houston by reissuing older, "undiscovered" Texas psychedelic or prog bands. But they're betting on Deadwood Forest and the band's soon-to-be-released debut, Mellodramatic, to attract attention to the label.
While Deadwood Forest, by virtue of its sound, classifies as a prog act, it is certainly no retro band. Its music echoes the angular rhythms of King Crimson, boasts the epic, haunting vocal and lyrical qualities of Pink Floyd and mimics the instrumental flights of Genesis. The band's complicated and melodic songs usually last six minutes or longer. Production quality is high. Lyrics are somewhat oblique and, unlike those of their musical heroes, are as likely to be personal as mystical. And instrumentation typically includes atmospheric guitar, prominent bass, abstract drums and, of course, the Mellotron.
The members of Deadwood Forest appear to be basic indie-rock lads, clean-cut and earnest. The band is made up of native Baytown residents Ryan Guidry on guitar and vocals, Kurt Coburn on bass, Andy McWilliams on drums and Mignano on keyboards. Currently everyone lives in Austin except Guidry, who lives with his parents in Baytown. Mignano and Coburn recently quit school so they could focus on the band. Everyone but Coburn has had formal musical training of some sort, whether it was jazz guitar in high school or classical piano in college. Each member insists he is not a typical nerd or fanatic "prog life" type, even though Mignano admits a penchant for sci-fi and that he's an "old" Star Trek fan. And the members do attend a lot of record conventions, collecting everything from "progressive" artists in the Chicago indie scene, such as Tortoise and Trans Am, to the Moody Blues, Bjork and Bill Frisell.
Guidry founded the band in 1992 and writes most of the lyrics, while Mignano arranges most of the material. Going against the prog stereotype, Guidry does not write songs based on characters in Lord of the Rings, which he has never read. Rather, he pens literate, emotionally heavy tunes. For example, "O.C.D.," off Mellodramatic, is a description of his struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
On the other hand, "The Pioneer," the opening track, is a full-on Mellotron rocker, featuring "the most gratuitous thing we could do," Mignano says: flowery strings that swell, then drop off into Guidry's somber vocals as he strums an acoustic guitar. It's an instant hook. Although much of the album is distractedly reminiscent of Pink Floyd (circa The Wall, thanks in large part to Guidry's voice, which is a dead ringer for David Gilmour's), there are plenty of innovative perks of the 21st-century variety to be found: drum 'n' bass beats that break out in the middle of flute solos, Hammond organ tones that float alongside Robert Frippian noodlings and crazy percussive effects throughout that give the entire record some... hipness.
In 230 hours of recording with producer and underground neo-prog legend Mattias Olsson, whose former band Änglagård, from Sweden, is widely regarded as one of the superstars of '90s prog, Deadwood Forest tried to avoid as many clichés as possible. "We listened to a lot of Kraftwerk while recording," Olsson says, referring to the very non-progressive krautrock band. "Though you won't hear it." While still employing enough telltale prog devices -- or "booby traps," Mignano says -- to hook purists, the band avoided both irony and sincerity. "Sincerity is death," says Mignano.
Deadwood Forest plans to start playing local gigs by the end of March. It has, according to Mignano, invested a lot of money in equipment, all in preparation for a tour that will also feature an obligatory light show. "Hopefully the [music] will be shocking or interesting enough for people to notice," Mignano says.
A large part of "prog life," as the band puts it, is buying stuff. Every portion of the band, from its stage show to its sound to its album cover art, matters. This fact is not lost on the members of Deadwood Forest. "Go to San Francisco and see the people who are stuck in the past," Mignano says, referring to ProgFest's typical crowd. No one he talked to had heard of Tortoise, yet these same people would buy "the third album by the brother of [ELP's] Keith Emerson's dog ... which sounded like crap."
Olsson says he doesn't think there is any prog movement afoot but admits there is "a grassroots network of people discovering similar passions for a type of music that falls into the 'prog' category." He believes there might be a new audience for prog because alternative rock is now mainstream, and fans are looking to connect with something less marketable and sound-bite-able.
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