Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: 'Yes Is the Answer and Other Prog Tales'

It is long-winded. It is humorless. It is unashamedly grand and robotically impersonal. It is prog, and until hair metal farted onto the scene in the mid-eighties, it was Rock & Roll’s biggest running joke. But time ameliorates shame, and 35 years after punk ostensibly cleared the pomp out of pop, the prog acolytes are finally crawling out of the carpet to reclaim their favorite genre. In a year when Rush has finally been inducted into the cluelessly snobbish Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, anything is possible, including a collection of essays that not only pay tribute to this long-chided form of music but do so in ways that completely contradict its stuffy rep. Long-winded? Humorless? Grand? Impersonal? These are not words anyone would use to describe Yes Is the Answer and Other Prog Tales. Editors Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell have gathered twenty writers who discuss how those mathematical soundtracks for D&D all-nighters impacted their lives with humbleness and wit.

In his introduction, Marc Weingarten maps out the modus operandi of the writers to follow: their defensiveness (“Who cares if the lyrics were terrible?”), awe (“…it’s like you’ve come face to face with some earthly God”), and team spirit (“Jazz fusion fans were douchebags”). The essays that follow are not the kind of analytical wanking one might expect from discussions of prog. These are the real stories of real fans, and there’s a lovely sense of time and place in many of these tales. You can sniff the pot-infused denim, see the wood paneled basements, and feel the suburban angst in these stories of garage bands, unrequited love, unsuccessful sex, and vinyl obsession. Matthew Spektor’s “Yes Is No Disgrace” pours forth in an overexcited, parentheses-peppered fit of fan-struck apology and ardor. Jim Greer’s “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging” explains how the grandiose Genesis influenced Robert Pollard, the brilliant leader of Greer’s lo-fi former band Guided by Voices. Rodrigo Fresan draws parallels between prog and A Clockwork Orange in “A Clockwork Wall.” Tom Junod’s “Out, Angels Out,” flies in an unexpected and pretty scary direction, and Andrew Mellen offers an untapped perspective in the self-explanatory “Do Gay Guys Listen to Yes?” (his subheading: “At least one does”). Jeff Gordinier balances all the prog-love by explaining how he gave up on it while suffering through a Styx show in “Set an Open Course for the Virgin Sea.”

Only a couple of writers don’t quite enter into the spirit of the book. Jim DeRogatis’s “Ode to the Giant Hogweeds” is a pretty straight and impersonal bio and analysis of Genesis’ peak years. Prog only makes a cameo in the druggy “Satori Underground” by Christian Death’s John Albert and Charles Brock’s “In the Court of TheCrimsonKing02,” which is mostly about goofy posts on a hair metal message board in the early days of the Internet. A bit off topic, even these essays are still entertaining reading, and I was as pleased by the consistent quality of the writing throughout Yes Is the Answer as I was by the warmth and earthliness of its prog rock tales. 

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