Prog Rock and Mental Health.
It is no particular secret amongst those who know me that I have been pretty much a lifetime fan of Prog Rock. For various reasons, probably because prog rock bands tend to be made up of highly skilled musicians, quite often classically trained. In addition their vocalist is usually a highly skilled poet, so the quality of the lyrics matches the quality of the music.
But there is one more addition to what makes prog rock bands so interesting. They are prepared to take a gamble creatively and trust to the quality of their work to see them through.
So way back in their early years, Yes produced a double vinyl album called ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, which was simply 4 tracks, each one the entire length of one side of vinyl.
They also quite often have very beautiful and artistic album covers. Real works of art that kids could pin on their bedroom wall.
Or I could cite King Crimson, on their album ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, they devote a whole track to free form music, no apparent melody or rhythm, it’s a seemingly random accumulation of noise, but it grows on the listener.
My guess is that it stimulates the brain, forces us out of what we expect to hear and makes us actively listen.
So where does mental health fit in?
A band called Deexpus recently produced an album called ‘The King of Number 33’. It’s a high quality rocky album devoted entirely to one man’s struggle with autism, a struggle which he finally succumbs to.
Now that’s what I call taking a chance.
Is it dreary? No. the music is amazing even if the lyrics are emotive. That’s what prog rock does, it gets you tapping your feet and thinking all at the same time.
What should be a sad subject becomes an inspiring one. And by inspiring it catches our interest, it creates empathy, it expands our minds to see the reality of others.
Here is just one lyric, it is about the time that the man decides to run away from his tormentors and his life:
“There was nothing direct that would tell of a threat
No sound on the ground and no scent on the wind
The warning was deeper
Straight from his inner sphere
Knowing what others had found
The call of the wild was an inherent longing
That spoke like the whisper of an unknown voice
Beguiled and beckoned, freeing the passion
Breathing deeply, eyes unblinking he steeled
Himself for the chase”
And then there is Marillion. Quite a few years ago they produced an album called ‘Brave’. After all these years it is still a firm favourite with the fans. And it’s about a young woman’s experience of sex abuse as a child, her descent into drugs and eventual attempted suicide on the Severn Bridge.
This is a lyric describing the girl’s descent into disillusionment:
“Alone in the city at seventeen
With the hollow and the lonely
The drowning and the drowned
I was made to feel worthless
The wretched and the mean
Beat me up like a weapon I can’t run away from or find a way round
Holdin’ on, holdin’ on
The greed and the missiles
Exploding somewhere every day
Hideous dark secrets under the sea and in holes in the ground
The cold war’s gone
But those bastards’ll find us another one
They’re here to protect you, don’t you know?
So get used to it
Get used to it!
The clash of religions
And the loaded prayers
The face of starvation and the state of the nation
The sense that it’s useless
And the fear to try
Not believing the leaders, the media that feed us
Living with the big lie”
This was a huge risk, it’s a tough subject, but somehow the band make it a powerful listening experience. And the album ends on a hugely positive note as the young lady sets off on a new life, not necessarily a life free of pain, but a new chance if nothing else.
This is how it ends for her:
“Like a bright new morning
Like a bright new day
I woke up from a deep sleep
I woke up from a bad dream
To a brand new morning
To a brand new day
Like the whole world has been made again”
There are many more examples of prog rock exploring tough themes.
Music can entertain, make us dance, make us cry and make us think.