Heavy mettle

John Freeman was here yesterday, picking up Blue Oyster Cult CDs; today, he browses Borders' bargain bins and fingers a couple of Hawkwind discs, cut to half price. This is how Freeman likes to spend his time, skipping through the dustbins of history--surely there's something in here he can use.

Walking through a record store with him--even a Borders in Lewisville, where alternative means Shania Twain instead of Trisha Yearwood--is like strolling through a supermarket with your grandmother as she picks up fruit, smells it, squeezes it, then sets it back down with her nose scrunched up in disgust. Only Freeman looks for produce that's been in the bins for decades; nothing is too ripe, or too rotten, for this rock-and-roll hero.

The first record Freeman bought, as far as he can remember, was Styx's 1978 album Pieces of Eight. He recalls the purchase with affection, like someone talking about a first love; even now, 20 years later, Freeman won't bad-mouth the almost unlistenable disc, which features among its collection of bombastic tracks "Renegade" and "Lords of the Rings." Then again, Freeman's not the kind of guy who passes judgment on such records; one culture's trash is another man's treasure, and Freeman is capable of extracting genius out of the most reviled pop-culture detritus.

Indeed, during his mid-'80s days at Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts, Freeman discovered the prog-rock of the 1970s, and never once did he find it within himself to make fun of groups long since written off as pretentious, grandiose, ridiculous. To him, their music was brand-new, exquisite, bigger than life, capable of encompassing everything "rock and roll" had to offer.

"By the time I started listening to progressive rock," he says, "I was too much into it to make fun of it. Maybe if I had heard it when I was younger, I might have made fun of it. I'm just lucky I didn't go to a regular high school, because I think it probably would have been uncool to listen to Yes."

A decade after graduating from high school, Freeman now fronts his own brilliant prog-rock band, Dooms U.K.--and yes, at its core, the Dooms are very, well, progressive. Any band that opens its second record, the brand-new Art-Rock Explosion! (art-rock, prog-rock--it's all semantics, anyway), with an eight-minute song titled "Japanimation Nation" that leaps from bombastic Rock Guitar riffing to swelling vocals to keyboard roars to turntable scratches to Spanish vocals is indeed progressive. It's downright fanatical.

But to call the Dooms "prog" is to summon the worst sort of fatuous, grotesque rock and roll--at least as far as its detractors are concerned. Prog-rock has long been the genre's whipping-boy, a description summoned forth to dismiss ambitious, large-scale rock and roll. Where pop was once the derisive term of choice, suddenly prog has become the pejorative. Even its biggest fans can't avoid defending the music before celebrating it: In his 1996 history of the genre, The Music's All That Matters, British author Paul Stump admits that prog "seethes with ordure, groans with junk" before insisting that it "contains some of rock and pop's most glittering inspirations."

If nothing else, the Dooms U.K. prove that prog is alive and relevant after all these years. They rescue the genre from the history books and the dung heaps, proving unflinching ambition tempered with sincere passion results in music that lasts beyond any nostalgic smile they might elicit when they render Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" into a ska tune (on 1995's debut Greasy Listening) or bury the title track from Grease (featured on the new disc) beneath so much inspired distortion and avant-skronk.

Since the early '90s, when Freeman began performing on local stages under myriad names (solo as the Dutch Treats, on and off as Duck Duck Annihilation! and the Meat Helmets, and with the rotating amalgam that has become the current lineup of Dooms U.K.), he has embraced the notion that progressive rock simply means rock and roll that is all-inclusive. It's the heaviest of metal and the lightest of pop, sincerity hiding behind an indulgent smile, rock and roll masquerading as performance art. Freeman and his band of merry men live in a world where Krokus, Steely Dan, Styx, Journey, Rush, early Genesis, and Blue Oyster Cult get played on the radio. They're grown men not so much stuck in the past but ignoring the fact that there's a calendar at all--every tomorrow is a yesterday, every yesterday is a today. And everything is fair game.

"The whole reason we started the band in the first place is anything we wanted to do, we could just do it," he says. "We wouldn't say, 'No, we can't do that 'cause we're a country band, and we can't do that 'cause we're a free-jazz band. We'd say, 'We can do country and free-jazz, because we're an art-rock band, and that encompasses everything.'"

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky