Unclear on the Concept

Prog rock lives on--like a zombie

Nothing like an Armageddon-like onslaught of frozen precipitation and arctic temperatures—and here we thought the apocalypse was supposed to be fire and brimstone, not sleet and black ice—to shut down hopes of weekend musical endeavors. For me, the cabin fever-inducing shut-in weather, combined with a searingly raw throat that evoked a steady diet of razor blades sliding down my esophagus, multiplied by the ingestion of large amounts of Chuck Klosterman and NyQuil, made for a weekend of feverish thoughts and sweaty ruminations, which finally settled on the subject of... Styx.

Not the mythical river, but the band, one that normally would not enter my thoughts much, save for the fact that they are playing this week at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth. But here's the deal about Styx: Yes, their music sucks, but this is an important band in terms of American culture. For better or for worse, Styx was instrumental—along with Yes, Rush, King Crimson and others—in injecting prog rock into the American consciousness. Now, most people would say, "Yes, this is true, but the golden age of prog rock is one we'd all like to forget. The bloated songs, the incessant keyboard noodling, the really long beards—it was all a collective trauma. Please, for the love of God, can't we leave it behind us?"

I wish it were that easy. But the fact of the matter is that the period of prog rock popularity remains a mysterious, unappreciated and underinvestigated era, one that begs the question What the hell happened? How did rock, heretofore a genre of music whose hallmarks were brevity (three-minute songs), punchy backwoods succinctness ("I'm all shook up"), three-chord hooks and simple themes of sex, anger and love suddenly evolve into a genre that celebrated 20-minute songs that ebbed and flowed, pushed by the energy of 15 Moog synthesizers—each with their own solo—and the band's ego? A genre wherein the celebrated themes became obscure concepts about robots and outer space and, for some reason, an awful lot of sailing imagery?

I suppose I could recount the evolution of prog rock and its rise to the top in the search for an answer, but that would be as boring as listening to "Come Sail Away." The point is, among other varieties of music—disco, punk, new wave, metal—that have slammed through our culture, prog rock is the least explicable. It was complicated and pretentious, somewhat hook-less and much further from the traditions of pop and rock than any other genre. But...it existed, people dug it, and it left behind a legacy that continues to this day (Radiohead, Mars Volta, M83, etc.). What makes Styx so interesting is that, of all the bands who indulged in prog rock during its heyday, they were arguably the least clever and the most muddled, yet they were among the most beloved. A good deal of prog rock centered on the "concept album," of course, and Styx's concepts were among the silliest and least focused. The most famous was Kilroy Was Here, a 1983 album set in a future where music is illegal, featuring a fictional imprisoned rock star. Various Styx band members admitted at the time that they themselves didn't quite understand the concept, even as they donned costumes and personas on stage to act out some of the songs' stories. Kilroy went platinum.

If you are a casual music fan, you probably don't care about all this—Styx is just one in a long list of lame classic rock bands or, at the most, a punch line or trivia answer. But if you consider yourself interested in popular culture, Styx is an emblem of a bizarre anomaly, a hiccup in the musical continuum, and the show at Billy Bob's is a rare opportunity to study it firsthand. That's why I plan on hitting the highway and being there. Or maybe I just have too much time on my hands.

 
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