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The beat goes on

Bill Bruford

The idea of the Progblog is to challenge readers with my opinions so I don’t really have to warn you when I’m about to stray into forbidden territory. However, as a sometime bassist and therefore an honorary member of ‘the rhythm section’, I feel I have something valid to say about prog drummers, though it goes without saying that any drummer has the right to discount my opinions.

Actually, prog drummers tend to be more percussionists. Reading a band’s instrumentation on a set of album liner notes can be a bit of a giveaway, for example we are told that on Hamburger Concerto Colin Allen played drums, conga drum, tambourine, castanets, cabasa, woodblock, Chinese gong, timpani, handclaps, flexatone and cuica; on Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever, Lenny White played drums, timpani, congas, timbales, hand bells, snare drum, suspended cymbals and alarm clock. The incorporation of novel sounds in a rhythmical context (Andy Ward playing ‘Body Mist’) was an obvious attempt at pushing musical boundaries, something that was unlikely to happen in a straightforward rock idiom, a cultural nod to musique concrète.

Colin Allen's instrumentation on Hamburger Concerto

Lenny White's instrumentation on Romantic Warrior

The incorporation of influences from 20th Century composers on the genre was another way of expressing a desire to show that progressive rock was a serious medium, distinct from rock ‘n’ roll, though this allowed critics to label the movement ‘pretentious’. These influences were demonstrated by the use of odd rhythmical meters and elements of dissonance but it is unusual time signatures that are an integral part of the make-up of prog.

Italian band Prophexy, one of the acts I saw at 2014’s Riviera Prog Festival in Genoa, has a slogan that says ‘no 4/4’ though I’d like to maintain that variation from a straightforward four beat is quite acceptable because rhythmical contrast is often sufficient to make a piece of music interesting. Shifting between time signatures is made to appear effortless by Guy Evans who would add extra beats to a phrase so that it fitted Peter Hammill’s lyrics; until I took up bass guitar I had no idea that The Fish (Schindleria praematurus), Chris Squire’s solo track on Fragile, was in 7/4 but I couldn’t help counting the beats on Pink Floyd’s Money because it stands out as being in 7/4 – not that it seems forced – it’s probably a combination of the contrast with Gilmour’s guitar solo which is in 4/4 and the straightforward rhythmic interpretation by Nick Mason with back beats on 2, 4 and 6.

Prophexy button

Prog encouraged drummers to take their art seriously. Both Bill Bruford and Carl Palmer were exceptionally studious; Palmer was trained by classical percussionist James Blades at the Royal Academy and Bruford has been acknowledged as one of the greatest rock drummers who was at the forefront of drum innovation. Bruford had always wanted to improve his technique and, following his transfer from Yes to the ’72 incarnation of King Crimson, a band designed to be balanced with a drummer and percussionist Jamie Muir, he was forced into taking over the role of percussionist when Muir decamped to a monastery. This idea of having a full-time percussionist in addition to a drummer wasn’t necessarily limited to prog; session musician Ray Cooper may have appeared with Rick Wakeman but he also featured alongside mainstream rock and pop-rock acts such as Eric Clapton, Elton John and Billy Joel. Cooper was schooled in rock drumming while Maurice Pert, percussionist with Brand X, took a Bachelor of Music degree at Edinburgh and then went to study at the Royal Academy with James Blades. Pert may have had to share percussive duties with, at various times, Phil Collins, Kenwood Dennard and Chuck Burgi but his training as a classical composer and his technical ability as a soloist allowed him the space within this (jazz rock) band setting to make a distinct qualitative difference to the music of Brand X.

I know it’s simplistic to suggest that rock bands follow a repetitive kick drum-snare drum beat but the purpose of most rock ‘n’ roll music is to follow or induce base instincts; the sex and drugs and rock and roll Dionysian lifestyle. There are obviously sections in prog that require a steady beat but these tend to be punctuated to a greater degree by adding colour to the music on the top kit or by using dedicated percussion to allow contrasts of amplitude; in any case, percussive effects are being utilised to expand the sonic capability of the group.

I now have to profess a great dislike for drum solos, other than they provide an opportunity to go to the bar or take a comfort break. They are so rock ‘n’ roll, a musical euphemism for ‘look at the size of my genitals, I can perform harder, faster and longer than you’. Percussion solos are subtly different. Carl Palmer’s percussion movement on ELP’s adaptation of Ginastera’s Toccata featured timpani, tubular bells and probably the first use of a percussion synthesizer to appear on record, designed by Nick Rose specifically for the track. I say ‘probably’ because Ian Wallace’s drums were played through a VCS3 synthesizer on the live version of Groon that appears on Earthbound, however this is percussion played through a synthesizer rather than a percussion synthesizer. All five members of Gentle Giant used to perform a percussion solo during live performances of So Sincere, culminating in a three-way xylophone movement performed by drummer John Weathers, guitarist Gary Green and keyboard player Kerry Minnear. This medieval sounding piece may have influenced French band Lazuli, where the entire band play marimba at the same time. The percussion movement on Nous Sommes du Soleil is another band affair, harkening back to Stravinsky challenging Paris opera-goers in the early 20th Century as Yes pushed progressive rock capabilities to the very limit.

My preference is for inventive drummers and somehow they all seem to draw from jazz. Bill Bruford exudes confidence and makes seemingly effortless movements; Andy Ward has a crispness; Carl Palmer adds so much to ELP’s sonic pictures; Michael Giles and Guy Evans play things that no other drummer would, helping to define the sound of early Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator respectively. Pip Pyle was equally brilliant.

Carl Palmer

In a nutshell, a good drummer is an indispensable member of the band, not some faceless journeyman, someone who adds something to the whole.

This blog originally appeared on 27th June 2014 before I’d heard drummers like Gavin Harrison or listened to any prog-metal. Readers may also wonder why I’ve omitted Neil Peart, who I have heard on record and who is well-regarded by drummer friends. He may have been a good musician but I remain unimpressed by the political views he expressed in the mid 70s

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