A portion of my love—my bare-hearted and achingly sincere love, like a child has for their pets or a pet has for their owners—of progressive rock comes from the inalienable if inexplicable sense that it is mine. If I had to guess, it stems to yet another symptom of life on the autism spectrum, a fact that only seems to answer more and more certain subtleties of my life as I move through my 30s and that which once was mysterious suddenly becomes understandable, pushed gently into the light.
Art has a slight difficulty for me, despite having committed my life to it, pursuing it in college, writing my entire life and now splitting time between fiction and criticism. I tend to hear the voices of others in my head; not in a literal schizotypal sense, an aspect that thankfully has been relegated only to the periods of my deepest psychosis, but instead the figurative, with ghosts of shared opinions and bon mots and pieces of criticism and public thought drifting like a cloud through my head unbidden. It’s hard through this cloud to feel that necessary intimacy with art; instead, I feel the pressure of eyes and words, judgment and perception. There is adored art and maligned art; there are canonical works and castigated works. Worst, these methodologies are shared by the monoculture and underground both. While those of the underground may sneer at the dominance of certain classic rock types or, enemy of enemies, The Beatles, they form their own cultish devotion to other idols, replicating the language and sense of permanent importance. This is less obnoxious in certain ways in the monocultural supersystem, which makes no pretense to anything but furthering itself in perpetuity. But to those mired in underground art, it can make one suddenly feel adrift and without a home when only moments prior you felt welcomed in warmth.
I was alive in the grunge era, my first real memories formed there, with babysitters who adored the high-gloss maximalist pop of the 1980s, including pop metal. Some of my earliest memories were of the rock ‘n’ roll cultural war, a pitched battle between excess and serene simplicity, 1977 relitigated for a new generation. At times, I even bought into it; I would talk shit on hair metal all day while secretly loving Motley Crue, listen to older cousins’ Ratt records in Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins t-shirts oversized against my frail child body. As I got older and more affirmed of my rockist sensibilities, forgetting that I grew up in the ’90s heyday of hip-hop and even fucking owned the “California Love” single on CD, the cultural war I felt myself embroiled in was that of the waning years of rock against the rising tide of rap and always that most hated of enemies, radio pop. This segued into my nu-metal years, the moment where I would pitch myself into extreme music headlong following a seemingly spontaneous disillusion with that genre, but not before finding myself tuning into TLR day-in, day-out to relish in the days when Deftones and Korn would dominate over other music I considered less-than.
The lesson I failed to learn as a child but has become increasingly obvious to the point of obnoxiousness as an adult is that these cultural wars are, by and large, complete bullshit. There’s little to no sense in imagining that loving In Utero, the greatest Nirvana studio document, precludes you from thinking Cinderella’s deeply bluesy and gritty approach to glam metal is undeserving of attention. Soundgarden would likely never claim any animosity toward Madonna or Whitney Houston. It’s rightly become beyond uncouth to act as though rap can’t produce stone-cold classics that sit comfortably with the likes of Motown, the Beatles, the Satanic depths of heavy metal and the rarefied heights of jazz and orchestral works. Even the cultural reevaluation of nu-metal, of which I have conflicted but overall positive feelings, is predicated on it joining the mass of music rather than standing opposed to it.
So, it was a shock to me to discover just how deep the vein of punkish opposition to the grandiloquent heights of rock had dug itself into me, even as I in great contradiction treasured things like my dad’s vinyl copies of Iron Butterfly and Quicksilver Messenger Service records, not to mention falling head-over-heels in love with Mr. Bungle, Opeth and Tool. The rediscovery of Yes for me, the moment the needle lifted following “Close to the Edge” fading away, was like the Big Bang for me. This was a band I had written off as mere ’80s pop shlock, before I had reconsidered my view on even that category. This period of the band’s music wasn’t just misunderstood by me; it was completely invisible. Punk had seemingly completely buried this period. It wasn’t just me, either. I grew up as a reader in a house of readers that also loved music and there were a fair number of biographies and histories in the house, and almost none of them even mentioned prog or, if they did, it was as a gesture, a flaw “corrected” by that first major wave of punk crashing into the body of rock music in one heavy, fatal blow. I loved Ramones and the Misfits and Blondie and plenty of others; who doesn’t? I’d lived through the ’90s and bought my fair share of Bad Religion records and other skate punk, been dragged to a fair number of ska and pop punk shows from local groups, and had a desperate love for hardcore and the voice it gave to me in the midst of the darkness of youth. But where was this other tale?
The closer I looked, the more the depth of this hidden history of rock became shockingly apparent to me. Yes had rented entire billboards to promote records, records which would go on to dominate the charts. They were in the top 5 touring bands by gross multiple years in the early ’70s. I learned Elton John had nearly joined both King Crimson and Gentle Giant. “Stairway to Heaven” suddenly made structural sense to me, no longer an inexplicable sign of genius but instead a well-conceived and brilliantly-executed toughened up take of prog structural conceits already in the air. This was the mid-2000s. The word “prog” was still a dirty word, both in critical and underground circles. You were, for lack of a better way to put it, supposed to like punk. All the buzzed-about underground rock bands were hardcore, skramz, pop-punk, you name it; the prog dalliances of At the Drive-In were tolerated, waved away in early Mars Volta and, by the time the group fully committed to it on Frances the Mute, coldly dismissed as over-indulgent even when from the vantage point of the current year it’s rightly regarded as a masterwork rock record. Mastodon, the band that would break the whole thing wide open for everybody, were still just a kind of neat underground metal band, albeit one more closely associated with grindcore and noise rock, the genres its members were best known for prior to the group, than out-and-out prog.
What this meant, for me, was that prog—this beast that not only I discovered I loved but that I had loved my entire life—the true home of groups large and small like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Kansas and Egg, was mine. No one else was talking about this music. I could search and find buried on the web, in forums and in listservs and the like, discussions of bands and mandatory records and the movement of members through groups. Wikipedia was in its infancy and more or less a total wash in terms of reliability, sometimes spitting out a lead to a great group out of the wild blue and other times failing to have articles on even major groups of the genre. But, like any fan of progressive music in that era, I inexorably found Dream Theater.
I won’t dive too deep into Dream Theater right now; they deserve a proper chapter devoted to them and I’d rather save my more complete thoughts there. The relevant ones here, however, the story of The Whirlwind and what it means to me, are those related to their drummer Mike Portnoy. I’d been born into a family of modest musical talents; my father appeared, once, on the Soupy Sales show before doing scattered studio work, while my brother is a talented guitarist, my aunts all play piano and sing, and almost every cousin can at least strum or hum something out. I wasn’t too far off; I started messing around with keyboards and synthesizers and pianos as a small boy, playing along to demos of Stevie Wonder and jazz tunes, completely unaware of scales and the like, playing my little diadic harmonies. It seemed fated, then, that one day I would pick up the guitar. My contentious family life, however, being the youngest of a family riddled with alcoholism with two workaholic parents and a brother as temporarily fucked up as I was, meant that I bore an overwhelming amount of angst and sublimated rage toward my family, an engine of malice and trauma that, like all childhoods, would take years to disentangle. So when the music bug came scratching, I shunted off the notion of guitar and instead shot the furthest away that I could possibly think of: drums.
At the time, both my brother and I were devout Christians, attending church on Sundays and youth group on Wednesday evenings at the instigation of one of my brother’s childhood best friends. Our faith was childlike and sincere, reinforced by a lax Catholic mother who would take us to Mass on request, Methodist aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and a bounty of Baptist neighbors and friends and babysitters. We were both interrogative sorts, the kind to have study Bibles and guides to the study Bibles and guides to the guides, unending tunnels of questions about the word and spirit of the text and faith. The draw of our friend’s Pentecostal church, before we knew of their pernicious cult-like mentality seeking to sever us from our family (whom they considered spiritually dangerous to us) as well as our friends, was the promise of music. That friend was a drummer, the one who I’d watched my brother jam with off and on for years as they cycled through bassist friends. It was from him that I learned my first licks, the crude and years-long practice of making my body keep time when as a small nerd boy my coordination was anything but up to the task. Years would pass, faith would decay and die in dramatic fashion like the collapse of a star, the end of my universe, and music would remain.
The discovery of Dream Theater felt to me like the sudden revelation of a new threshold. There tends to be a joy and genreless passion for the instrument among drummers that seems rare in other musicians; it’s not uncommon to find drummers passing notes about pop, jazz, rock, funk, heavy metal, Afro Caribbean music and more. After all, rhythm is rhythm. Time is the palette and, given the limited note range, experiments in timbre, meter and feel are the delicacies of the instrument. As a result, Dream Theater in specific and prog in general represented to me not music that was complex for complexity’s sake in some vain ego-satisfying way (as satisfying as it was and is); it was fun. That’s the biggest thing I try to communicate to people when I talk to them about my rabid and abiding love of this stuff. I can’t listen as a listener anymore; I am, even years later, first and foremost a drummer, and when I get these long programmatic sweeps with their shifting time signatures and intensities, the flurry of hits to catch and cross-rhythms to process, it feels like the first time I saw a Godzilla movie or shot a basketball or went down a waterslide. I would aggravate the shit out of my classmates, friends and family tapping away on the desk to “Metropolis Pt. 1” and “Overture 1928”.
As with all great music for those of our persuasion, what began first as a childlike adoration of the acrobatics at play became an appreciation of players. The other guys were great and, as a lifelong music nerd to boot, I committed their names and side projects to memory. But the one who mattered, the guy, was Mike Portnoy. I needed, like so many drummers before and after me, to get inside of his head the same way any drummer under the sun can give you their best Motown shuffle or James Brown funk beat or Bonham sledgehammer groove on command. I pawed through the obvious ones first; Liquid Tension Experiment featured two fellow Dream Theater bandmates and their second record wasn’t that old, so songs were easy to find. (“Acid Rain” would become the song on which I learned double bass drums, how to play them steadily, with stamina and at great speed.) Those songs were beyond acrobatic, leaning far more into the rabid manic spurts of notes that Dream Theater often gets accused of, an accusation that doesn’t quite match up to that which actually shows up on the records. For Liquid Tension Experiment, however, that sense of wild abandon is not incidental. It’s the entire point. Learning not only to catch the stomach-churning shifting odd time signatures and the syncopated band hits and unison lines pushed me to my limits; learning how to execute them with a sense of groove and pocket and smoothness made me feel like a superhero.
The value of this latter point can’t be overstated. Childhood and youth, despite the presence of friends, was an isolating and harrowing time, as it is for everyone. I was processing the long tail of physical abuse, my body too small and weak to defend myself, my undiagnosed autism and poorly treated bipolar disorder erecting sudden impassable barriers between me and others seemingly at random and with great violence. There are worlds where my path to inner power was much darker; I’m not vain enough, vain though I am, to read about the wickedness of others and the violences of the world and imagine myself entirely above them. It is as much luck and grace as it was work that led me sideways into the hands of music and art, and even then I didn’t always use these fruits wisely, delighting in edgy humor that was a perfect way to exorcise my caustic venom that felt like it was rotting me from the inside out but which only seemed to hurt and anger others without providing me any real healing in turn. Drums, meanwhile, mastering those tricky turns, felt piece by piece to be the annihilation of shame and doubt. I could be brave; I could have value, be valued, and know that I possessed this value. I could be for myself and the world. It was the same bravery that friends of mine in punk bands described, the lion’s heart, where you self-justify yourself against a world that at the very least feels like it seeks to strike you out. Addiction and physical violence in the home are hard but harder to bear is the psychic corrosion of emotional absence, like everyone can see your suffering as a child and no one cares. I felt the exact same thing, the exact thing, in prog as I felt in hip-hop, in heavy metal, in punk, and in the church. They were one unified force. But what matters inevitably in the mastery of force is not forcefulness itself but dynamics, to be lord not only of lightning and tidal waves but of all things great and small, to have every gesture and color as evenly under your fingers as every other.
Flitting through Mike Portnoy’s other projects, purchasing the albums one by one and listening to them in the great boxes of six to ten records at a time that were arriving at the door, I inevitably discovered Transatlantic. They’re a supergroup, though I only recognized one name among them. The bassist, Pete Trewavas, was from some group called Marillion, which appeared well past expiration date; the guitarist, Roine Stolt, from The Flower Kings, a band that from what I could find was some kind of Yes pastiche; the keyboardist, Neal Morse, had left his prog band Spock’s Beard, a name I was faintly familiar with, due to his growing Christianity, which in my growing youthful atheism left me somewhat sick. But, I reminded myself, what mattered to me was Portnoy. This project began in the same era as Liquid Tension Experiment and the various tribute bands Portnoy headed devoted to groups like The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Rush. One was prog metal, those others classic rock, but this was supposed to be his bare-hearted tribute to classic style progressive rock in the vein of Genesis or Yes. My confusion as to the makeup of the band could be put aside. It was worth at least, I thought, a click.
The first song I heard was “My New World,” which due to the limits of YouTube at the time had to be split into two tracks. Like so many other records and songs of that time in my life, I listened to it in the room of converted trauma, the space that had once been my alcoholic workaholic father’s upstairs office which then was turned into my brother’s second bedroom after moving out of our shared childhood room (his first having been taken as my bedroom), both being loci of physical torment behind locked doors and an otherwise empty home. I had placed a couch and my computer in the room, my massive music collection in a wall-filling CD shelf that also carried my growing collection of novels. I was determined to make the places that had once been the capitals of my pain map into something else; whether the longtime immersion of myself in those spaces, soaking in the psychic mire of those memories, was ultimately a good or bad thing is anyone’s guess.
The opening peak-era Genesis build, symphonic and grand, dissolved like mist, crashing against a gentle Jellyfish baroque pop tuneful twister in a 21 beat cycle, the same kind of approach to odd times the Beatles had where it slips you by if you don’t sit and count it out yourself. The bass was striking and strong, that Rickenbacker bounce against the beds of pianos and organs, guitar more like the coloring of horns and a string quartet than a rockist blur. And the vocal harmonies, dripping with gold, visions of the sacred like the softly glowing wings of angels fluttering against the broad blue sky. The cover of the record, the background of the video, was a truly awful CGI zeppelin set against a sunset with maybe God’s least loved font for the band and album title. I was absolutely in love.
The beauty of prog at its peak is not unlike punk, a comparison I’ve found fans of both camps tend to hate. But the core of it is there; there is little self-consciousness in DIY imagism nor any self-restraint in expression. Punk isn’t great because it’s simple, it’s great because it’s common people playing at their absolute limit, not letting technical ability constrain their passion or furious desire. Prog is functionally the exact same thing, except the limits which are transcended are those of what we are told songs are supposed to be. Some people scoff when I talk about 30-minute prog epics or, hell, the most recent Transatlantic record, a 60, 80 or 90 minute behemoth single song depending on which version you get. But on some level what is a 60 minute song but an album where you don’t skip tracks? If we can listen to a playlist for two hours, can we listen to a song for 15 minutes? There are records where they rip and thrash for their full runtime, sure, but not nearly every record, and I don’t know many who prefer music that rips at your throat 24/7 without any variation of dynamics.
“My New World” gave me an image of Transatlantic I hadn’t expected given the shaky reception of its constituent players, at least as far as I’d been told ahead of time. It was a tuneful song, reminding me in turns of ’60s psych rock and psych pop, early Yes, and the knottiest of forward-thinking art rock of the ’70s. I’m an emotionalist. Before I have a mind, I have a heart, and it is not hard for art to get me weepy, so I wasn’t entirely shocked when I was crying lightly into my hands at the close of the song. Still, being moved meant there was something to move me. This sounded, like Yes before it, like the joyful song of my heart. There I was, a teenager in suburban darkness, lost in the mesh of love and hate in the atomic family, as alienated as any of my peers. But here from the darkness blew like a wind some voice to those inward things, the childlike sense of wonder and joy. In time I would come to investigate the bands of the other members only to find that the perceptions of others once again didn’t match my own, that the Flower Kings and Spock’s Beard but especially Marillion and Neal Morse’s solo work had much to offer. But what I discovered was that their records were either out of print or out of stock. The tracklists of those records, replete with 30-minute epics and even a song co-written with Prince (yes, that Prince) pranced like satyrs on my screen, out of reach. Frowning, I noticed that they were rumored to be in the studio. I would get their newest record, their third, whenever it happened to appear.
In a surprise announcement only a year or two later, it was sprung to the attention of the prog-adoring faithful that Transatlantic would be releasing their third studio record in short order. What’s more, the announcement was that this was to be no common Transatlantic record. While previous albums were no stranger to half-hour epics and recursive segments appearing in modulated form over the course of the entire record, this new album was to be a single song clocking in at just under 80 minutes (a fact made possible by editing a brief passage known as “Boba Fett,” which would have nudged it just north of a CD’s storage capacity). Perhaps to the non-prog loving faithful this might seem odious, 80 continuous minutes of a single long-form progressive rock composition in all its cheese and glory. As an ardent fan, however, very little could have delighted me more. My stance (and the common stance among prog fans) is that turning our noses up at these spans is somewhat silly. After all, it’s not uncommon for certain album-oriented listeners to view records not as a constituent set of songs but as a macro-form composition, viewing them as being composed of openers and closers and varying energy levels and crescendos across tracks instead of mere minutes. A set of music listeners beyond that often find themselves listening to records for hours at a time, not just having music on when driving in the car or waiting in line but as a constancy of life at play, work and rest. From this vantage point, if you were to listen to music for 4 straight hours anyway, how big of an ask is it really to have an hour and a half or so of that be a single song when, for the album-oriented sort, it’s already feasible to listen to that much of a single band?
I was young still, having just turned 20. The thrill at that time for me, a thrill that has yet to wain, a thrill that has compelled me into the realms of jazz and electronic music and the avant-garde and the orchestral and more, was that of structuralism. This awakening comes to those that love, analyze, make or critique music at one point or another, but for me it was largely prog that sparked the insight that music was more than just melodies and chords and lyrics. The first notions beyond this come quick: performance, with its energy and timbre and inflections, then production and mixing, which engages with, complicates or enhances the composition in question. But at some point, subtler things begin to emerge, questions like why a riff is repeated as often as it is instead of more or less, why are certain sections truncated in one pass and extended in another, and how we conceive of those large architectures made up of the small that are not necessarily the songs themselves but are the skeleton upon which they are laid. This stuck out to me as a drummer; being relatively constrained in what I could offer musically on a melodic or harmonic level, that which remained was rhythm, one of the smallest and most discrete structures of music, and structure, the largest. In improvisational spaces, a reprisal of an established rhythm for a bar or two can punch up an otherwise lengthy instrumental span, keeping certain musical ideas fresh in the minds of the audience and players both, and the interweaving of segments can make an otherwise extended improvisational performance feel as composed as an orchestral score rather than the frontiersmanship of jazz at its most robust. Progressive rock to my young ears was the space between these two mindsets, wielded with rock intensity and unabashed pop melodicism. The question of how Transatlantic might wield this great a span exhilarated me.
The dominating sense of thrill came in part from my increasing awareness of the ouvres of the other players of the group beyond Mike Portnoy. Dream Theater had produced a number of lengthy epics I had come to adore with all of my heart, from “A Change of Seasons” (perhaps the greatest prog metal epic) to the more recent “Octavarium” and “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”. (That latter piece contained a portion that was particularly affecting to me, seemingly describing the whole of the shape of my life in miniature; I would learn later it was deliberately written about life on the autism spectrum.) The Flower Kings had been my next band of fascination of the four, with “A Garden of Dreams” at 60 minutes thrilling me and their then-recent record The Sum of No Evil being a constant play in my car. Marillion were my next but perhaps deepest love, one that persists with great fire to this day. Neal Morse was trickier; Spock’s Beard, despite their reputation, left me cold at the time, the transition to their post-Neal era being a bit rockier than my tastes demanded. But I found an unexpected level of profundity to, of all things, his extremely Christian progressive rock solo work.
I had in the wake of the intensity of my spiritual faith felt first a wild unwinding as my soul pinballed between differing faiths, from Judaism to Islam to Hinduism to Buddhism and more. I was in desperate search for something to staunch the bleeding of my heart and quell the profound terror of death that had gripped me since I was a young boy confronted with the reality of my step-grandfather’s passing. The notion of angels and eternity succored me not and while I feared for hell, I was terrified more and more of a god that could not forgive, a being of utter power beyond all comprehension that still could not rein in his most unruly child Satan. I prayed sincerely for the forgiveness of the devil as a boy; the notion of even the most wicked being reformed and brought back to light would have consoled me more than almost anything. As I was driven crack by crack from my Pentecostal church, I came eventually to be driven from Christianity as a whole and then inevitably even faith itself. I found mysticism, Aleister Crowley, Nietzsche. I found the early glimmerings of my socialism. I became over time cold and hardened against religion and even spirituality, adopting the then-in vogue ideas of New Atheism which felt particularly keen to me in how they pinpointed some of the most vicious elements of spiritual torment the death and damnation obsessed apocalypsis of my Pentacostal faith had tortured me with. My days became filled with watching the very same evangelical young Earth videos I had in childhood except now annotated by atheists, fixated on punching holes in the firmament and fruits of faith. There is a terror to forever, a spiritual vertigo, one which is a mirror to the boundlessness of death. I felt sincerely I would never forgive those things that filled me with so much immutable fear, a death consciousness so deep it is still often the primary cause for my need for anti-depressants, for therapy, the paradoxical reason I cannot keep a gun in the house for fear that I might want to escape that corrosive caustic self-abnegating awareness by any means.
Yet Morse possessed a gentility masking a firmness in his elaboration of spiritual matters in his music. I never lost a love of gospel music; you’d be hard-pressed to find any drummer, let alone a general fan of good and moving and richly sincere music, that rejects gospel. I had even over time warmed myself to the spiritual folk music of Islam and Judaism, finding klezmer rich with an otherworldly darkness informed by millennia of oppression and Middle Eastern/North African folk music having a winding, serpentine quality that nonetheless billowed with the dense and beautiful mathematical movements of currents of air. But I never, never thought I would forgive Christianity, forgive God, enough to be able to listen to outright Christian music with an open heart ever again. It felt in ways like listening to the joy and fulfillment of an abuser. The notion nauseated me. So when the movements “Outside Looking In” from Question Mark or the weeping ecstasy and yearning for grace in Sola Scruptura in turn moved me, ever the emotionalist, to tears, I was forced to confront certain then-unnameable lingering questions dancing in my heart.
The Whirlwind structurally, despite its length, is not far afield from shorter songs. There is a core chorus, albeit one that’s fairly lengthy, and a set of lyrical and melodic components from that chorus that are broken down for parts and sprinkled judiciously over the 80-minute span. From there, the album also has its opening overture, a who’s-who spanning six full minutes of the key themes, leitmotifs and melodies that act as secondary choruses. They are subjugated to that more central chorus, written in a way that the primary chorus’ melodies and lyrical refrains stand alone but likewise can be treated as answer to the open-ended experiential question of the secondary chorus components. From here, the remaining material, the fullnesses of the various sections between these key melodies and lyrics, are structurally treated as verses to the overall meta-song. The way the group manages to push this to 80 minutes without feeling ungainly or ill-composed is viewing this structure as a meta-structure, a structure into which other structures can be slotted. A verse of the meta-structure can be zoomed into and seen as a full three- to six-minute song in its own right, with its own choruses and verses and bridges related either by key or conceit to the overall image symbol set and emotional directionality of the larger album-length song.
They become “verse” songs rather than “chorus” songs by nature of being largely one-off or, viewed from another light, not being established by the opening overture, given that most of them see a melodic recapitulation at one point or another later in the track after their initial appearance. This draws out a secondary constructionism of the piece, that of dominant melodies being hinted at first before their full reveal later in the song where secondary melodies and lyrics are revealed in full initially and then recalled in glimpses later, jamais vu for the former vs. deja vu for the later. This is used to key us for those bigger chorus moments; we recall the melody but perhaps not where, a snatch played here and a teasing elaboration there but the full reveal reserved for a later more punctuating moment of the song. The inverse is true for the “verse” songs and their structures, which are more noticeable in their recall, clearly invoked to provide a structural or emotional complication to the experiential wash of the record.
This in turn teaches us something about the structure of songs in general, not just longer ones. Music by and large comprises cycles of tensions and release, with minor but necessary color coming from sonic experimentalism and the far more abstract experiential end of the holistic image of things. In the terms of the former, that of tension and release, we can view not just the micro-components of melodic lines themselves or the larger component of chord progressions but also the structural components of choruses, verses, bridges, instrumental spans, etc. Some of these components are release, the base upon which the song is built and the base to which they return or sometimes strikingly achingly do not return. Other components, then, act as means of building tension, either via the verse’s contrast to the chorus, the bridge’s typical inversion or progress back toward the tonal center of the chorus, or the musical detour of instrumental spans that seek to draw our eye away before a crashing final revelation. There are a million and more ways to balance these components, of course, but the important insight of larger-scale compositions like The Whirlwind is that they can be applied across an album span as well. This is why, in part, it’s so tedious to see some say things like album intros and interludes are wastes of time where songs could have been, why listeners and even sometimes critics who demand a record be stacked with chart dominating singles can feel a bit loathsome at times. Music, stripped of the argumentative structures applied to it, forms an arc naturally over time, and the master composer is the one who makes not necessary each step in the abstract immediately legible but the one who controls the full span they take to achieve that which they seek.
One of the lessons this level of study on structure imposes is not so much the purely analytical, though that is often the most visible, be it in discussions of music theory, songwriting or criticism. The most important lesson is humility, submission, patience, trust. It isn’t just longer songs that teach this, though they were for me an important step on that longer journey. We become more sensitive to the powers, depth and capacities of art and through that the human spirit and the human heart when we endure in witnessing, true witnessing, sitting without judgment as we seek to simply pay attention to that which is around us. Structuralism and these other critical components are fun, their most important trait, and sometimes insightful as well, a secondary benefit, but the greater purpose it serves is ironically a means in which to shut the over-analyzing and over-chewing mind off, for me a way to quell the autistic squirming that defines my brain, and allow the pure emotionalism of the experiential to wash over me. Art isn’t made of mathematics and geometry, though it often involves those. The math, the structural, the geometric, the theoretical, are like a magical language, incantations and runic carvings and measured placements of charged key items. The art is what they summon, the ghost that imbues the bones. An 80-minute song isn’t so frightening when you know this. It is not a burden. It is an opportunity.
The first time I heard The Whirlwind, I was unimpressed. It was good I thought, certainly packed with lots of melodies and satisfying grooves. But it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi I sought from prog, those often densely knotted odd-time grooves with shifting meters and melodies that seemed to squirt just past the bar line. What arrived on disc from Transatlantic was hyper-melodic, feeling more often like a Mellotron-soaked Beatles record punched up with mid-period Genesis in all its gorgeous placidity. It’s sonic similarities to The Tangent, a prog supergroup of sorts that Roine Stolt had also been a part of in its earliest days, was openly apparent. I was by no means opposed to placid and aching music, having quietly nursed a love of things like indie rock and pop that seemed outwardly antithetical to my avowed love of extreme metal and the most head-scratching of prog and jazz and electronic music. But to pretend that it was what I had hoped to find would have been false. A few movements struck me as satisfying, from the overture to “Out of the Night” and “Set Us Free.” But one segment in particular did happen to catch me.
“Rose-Colored Glasses” is a movement that punctuates the midway point of the album-length song, the first of two side-ending ballads. The musical slow-down at first is jarring, given the upper mid-tempo groove the record bips and bops along to otherwise across its duration. The music takes a striking gospel inflection backed by Mellotron, a signal that the proceedings are about to get mightily Christian indeed. What comes are, to the half-listening hear, a bunch of lines more or less about heaven and God or something, a far more explicit turn than the previously sublimated christian subtext of the record, whirlwinds being a recurring image for the trials and tribulations of life in the world where only those strong of faith can rest upon the stone and survive. But there is an earnestness straining in Morse’s voice as he takes over vocal duties for this section, the kind of ache that signifies intense sincerity. A glance through the lyrics book made it clear the movement was about not the generalities of faith but the keenness of grief and the perhaps vain hope of seeing loved ones again after death, their peace assured after illness and pain. A little research revealed the origins: Morse’s father had died either shortly before or during production of the record and this was his earnest ode to his departed father. This wasn’t an experience I could relate to and, not being Christian, viewed it more or less as something necessary for him to expunge but not necessarily for me to listen to.
Still, I listened to it on repeat in my car, wanting to get the grooves and changes under my fingers, committing the words to memory and singing along during the long car rides that punctuated that period of my life, going from Virginia to Pennsylvania to visit a girlfriend before spending a few hours heading south to see my parents or brother and back again. I was spiritually opposed to iPods for reasons which in retrospect seem daft but at the time certainly were sincere. This meant that while I had a massive CD library of which I knew every note of every record (being on the autism spectrum and hyperfixated on music has its advantages), the records that came to mean the most to me in my daily life were those elevated to living in my car, endlessly repeating in the caravan life I was set upon having family and loved ones spread all over the East coast. The record slowly became a comfort via its great melodic gifts, eminently hummable. It also turns out that if you sing along to something for long enough, you start to feel it. First you situate yourself within the song vocally, finding where your voice specifically fits best against the music and the vocal melody, locating the right timbre so you feel it. Then it drips inside of you like paint on a canvas or blood covering a sheet, until you can feel what the words feel, what’s in front of and behind them.
My life fell apart a year later. Within a matter of months, my dog who had been my companion through the intense violence and darkness of my childhood died. Shortly after my death consciousness roared back in full, leaving me shaking and weeping in my college bed. Thoughts of the eternity before and after life tormented me; the size and scope of the universe’s space drowned me. I felt terrified in a pure and primal sense, the exact same feeling as being pitched out of an airplane, shot in the head, burned alive and decapitated. I could not for one second think of anything but death, erasure, extinction. How long would people remember me after I died? After I was forgotten, how long would I be forgotten for? Forever? Witnessing all of the world and everyone and everything I loved around me not just as finite but destined to die, hurling headlong toward nothing but the grave such that all hope was swallowed perfectly. I thought about what it might feel like to die, to be dead; worse, the nothingness, non-being.
It was all the death terror of my years of faith but with no salvation in the darkness. My lack of faith in God was by then absolute and unshakeable. Even now, it is only a faint glimmer, more an understanding of how that faith is sparked in others than any real mirror in myself. Death was the ultimate darkness and there was no escaping it. I broke down completely. Autistic and bipolar hyperfixation can turn the corner on you in a vicious and evil way. In the wake of this total mental dissolution, my girlfriend left me, a choice that was wise on her part given I had gradually become a worse and worse boyfriend. (We are, for the record, still friends over a decade later, indicating how wise calling it quits when she did actually was.) I turned 21 and, breaking the one unshakeable vow of my life as the son of an alcoholic and brother of a drug user, committed myself to drinking. I failed my classes one by one, drove away my friends and lashed out at my family. I was entering, as a later journal would testify, my plague years. Within only a few months, I would attempt suicide with a gun at my family’s kitchen table, in my mind a final punishment for everything that had left me so fucked up; my family, witness to my pain and bearers of love even in days of confusion, had moved the gun only one day prior. Not finding the weapon, I broke down again.
In this darkness, I drove and drove, from home to campus, from campus to friends and family, here to there. The passing of time in that span is a blur. What I do recall is one day driving back to campus, shaking and crying as I gripped the wheel. My car was my home, something that was mine, spiritually and emotionally, a place I could be solely and singularly myself. I could be strong and weak. The Whirlwind was in my stereo. The final movement of the song began, the second side-closing ballad titled “Dancing With Eternal Glory,” spanning 12 minutes of lush and growing cries of yearning for the Lord. I wept and wept. I wanted nothing more than some light in darkness, whether real or not. I was willing to delusion. Anything that might grant peace, be it suicide or love. Morse, again the lead vocalist of that movement, sang out with earnestness. I was no Christian, but the sureness with which he sang of the utter defeat of pain and the image of a peace unending left even my atheist heart trembling, dissolved into tears.
One year to the day after my suicide attempt, my father died. He was in the hospital getting his stomach cavity drained, alcoholism and painkiller abuse having caused cirrhosis of the liver and in turn a weeping of fluid into his abdomen, causing a swelling like pregnancy. It was at first a nightmarish and in time a routine procedure for us. One becomes inured over time to the realities of illness. He had been regaining sensation in his legs and feet, cirrhosis having robbed him of mobility and granting him the wicked gift of neuropathy of feet, a nerve-deadening I would one day mirror in my own Bell’s palsy, my face drooped and unusable from the years of abuse I put my body through in those days of darkness. At some point, a blood clot which had formed in his leg shook loose in his increasing health—health which ironically killed him when the clot reached his heart and stopped bloodflow entirely. I had just begun what felt like a climb from darkness. I had found I didn’t need antidepressants anymore, had applied for jobs, had plans to get my life back on track. They still proceeded after his passing, but sprouted evil branches. The year between my attempt and his passing was like a black hole, a line which still bifurcates my life into two separate and very different lives.
It was in this state of immense grief that I put The Whirlwind on again. I closed my eyes and lowered my head against the kitchen table where I sat, next to the seat where my father would down screwdrivers and read the paper, committing myself if not to suicide than to writing, pouring out thousands of words a sitting in some unending attempt to drain the cyst ever-filling. The volume was maxed out.
Progressive rock is not just magical to me. It is the sound of coming alive. Finding Yes years prior felt not like opening some door hidden in myself but instead learning the name of something that had been with me since birth. I could look backward and see suddenly the things that I loved about Soundgarden, about Radiohead, about Tool, about Led Zeppelin and Smashing Pumpkins and Deep Purple and Pink Floyd suddenly come into alignment. Punk perhaps was the music of the rage I felt toward the wickedness of the world and the abuse I had suffered. Heavy metal was the music of triumph and the active, the transformation of the threshold of imagination into the flesh of the real. But prog was the music of my internal world, the place within me that had formed a guardian wall of roses and scars. There was scorched earth and darkness, things I came in time to learn everyone bore, the sadness of life being that that which binds us often is the experience of great pain from which few if any are spared. But there was a garden within, peaceful and beautiful, blinding light and brilliant color without shame. The occasional cheese of the genre didn’t bother me. Hell, it was the point; to paint the pureness of joy, my joy, the childlike and ever-growing creative joy of someone autistic, bipolar, half-mad and cackling with joy. This unabashedness and shamelessness was what I valued as well in punk, in metal, in goth music, in hip-hop, on and on; an unflinching expressionistic impulse.
The Whirlwind in that time sounded precisely like that garden. The goldenrod yellow of the cover was perfect to me. Quietly, yellow was my favorite color, the color of the sun, a symbol in tarot and Christianity both which is a wreath of gold, a blazing throne, dominion and creation in infinitude. “Rose-Colored Glasses” played inevitably, the true and desperate yearning of Morse for his recently passed father to have peace after pain and to see him again someday. It is perhaps cheesy to those outside that grief, but the dreams of the dead are real, and the vision of my father in muteness again and again every night wore on me, unsure if I was haunted, if souls were real, if he was proud of me, if he knew I loved him. I wept. The album rolled forward, inevitably finding its end in “Dancing With Eternal Glory,” a song of faith in deep sincerity. I was no believer, truly, but I could in that darkness now begin to understand the heart of faith again. The scales of my anger and the scars of my spiritual torment in the Pentecostal faith began to fall away. Christ to Morse was not a symbol of infinite blood, the suffering and wounded lamb. It was not a cudgel or wedge used to drive terror into the heart. Christ was peace and freedom from pain. In loneliness and alienation, God was something that would always be by your side in love and support; in failure and the terror of being cast aside, God was something that would always believe you could become better and would strive with you to make it so. I could understand the beauty of that sentiment, even if the vehicle of it did not strike me as real. I had lingering remnants of Buddhism swimming within me and still do, elements that play nice with Nietzsche and Marxism and the other systems of thought I have since found myself enmeshed within. What mattered wasn’t the fundamental reality of God. What mattered to me in that moment was the beauty of the thing. I was a pure witness to this joy and this peace and within it I wept.
I would in time release my boundless rage toward religion, though coming no closer to belief myself. I would too get better and crawl eventually from my darkness. I am not always sure when I hear people talk about prog that they are cognizant that its music can mean so many different things in the span of one record. I see the human and heart-felt stories of how hip-hop and punk and folk changed peoples lives and I want to affirm and testify to that which changed me as well.
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.