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Despite prog rock’s critics, Yes, Asia keep genre going strong

Thirty-seven years ago, “Video Killed the Radio Star” and assorted stereotypes at once, all at the hands of a man gleaming like a freshly minted nickel.

The year was 1981, and there Geoff Downes was on this new thing called MTV, rocking silver shades and a matching shiny sport coat, a space-age get-up for a space-age idea: the video music channel.

The keyboardist was performing as one-half of British New Wave duo the Buggles, whose clip for the aforementioned hit was the first one aired on what became a cable TV staple.

A year later, Downes would be all over MTV again, this time as a member of the supergroup Asia, whose smash single “Heat of the Moment” both launched a quartet of British prog vets to mainstream stardom and provided Eric Cartman with the platform for his most touching vocal performance in a Season 5 episode of “South Park.”

Asia was not a prog band, per se, but it included a who’s who of prog favorites: there was Downes, straight off a stint in Yes; guitarist Steve Howe, also fresh from Yes; King Crimson singer-bassist John Wetton, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer drummer Carl Palmer.

“It was really most unlikely that musicians who derived from ’70s bands would come out and be the pinup boys on MTV and People magazine and all that kind of stuff,” Downes says.

Prog as punching bag

For sure, these were not the types of dudes anyone would have envisioned playing it cool on something as instantly cool at MTV.

Because, really, what could be less cool than prog?

What genre gets goofed on and dismissed by nonpartisans half as much as this one?

Yeah, we get it: the more-than-a-mouthful song titles, many of which reference wizards; solos that span leap years; an aversion to concision on par with a recidivist’s ducking of his parole officer; the occasional, ill-advised donning of robes on stage.

It’s all made prog an easy punch line.

Seriously, Google “Why prog rock sucks” and you get a mere 53,700,000 results.

On a Yahoo Answers page devoted to the topic, various commentators go after prog like the slow-footed, bespectacled kid in gym-class dodgeball.

“Tell me why it’s the only rock genre in which flute solos mean anything?” one froths. “Tell me why it is (or isn’t) just a thrashing of traditional song structure, complex rhythms, odd time signatures and reaks (sic) with the sense of inherent superiority over other rock genres?”

“What Is ‘Progressive Rock’? (Other Than Unpopular),” a headline from Cracked.com reads.

And in a 2017 pasting of the genre in The Atlantic, author James Parker penned one of prog’s most definitive takedowns.

Title: “The Whitest Music Ever”

Subhead: “Prog rock was audacious, innovative — and awful.”

“Is it not a form of aesthetic dissipation to praise something for its ambition and its bold idiosyncrasy when that something is, objectively speaking, crap?” Parker wonders. “I think it might be.”

Parker directs some particularly pointed invective at Downes’ crew.

“Yes’s ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ is an experience to me unintelligible and close to unbearable, like being read aloud a lengthy passage of prose with no verbs in it.”


A four-course meal

Downes has heard it all before.

For 39 years in fact, ever since he first joined Yes for “Drama,” the group’s 10th studio album.

That he’s still hearing it could be seen as a positive, though: It testifies to the music’s staying power, to its ability to continually resonate with successive generations of rock fans.

And so does the prog-a-palooza lineup that Yes is headlining, where Downes will perform double duty with Asia as well.

Also earning overtime pay is Carl Palmer. A member of Asia, he will play with opening act Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, too.

Finally, there’s still another British prog mainstay in John Lodge of the Moody Blues.

The outing affords Downes a chance to flex all of his musical muscles, sun’s-out-guns out style: With Asia, now fronted by former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, he’ll play radio-friendly signatures such as “Video” and “Heat.”

With Yes, he gets to go deep with decidedly non-radio-friendly, 20-minute epics such as “The Gates of Delirium.” “It took awhile to get my head around,” Downes acknowledges of said number.

That both bands will be sharing the stage unites their dedicated yet occasionally disparate fan bases.

“There was a difference between the Yes and Asia audiences to some degree, because Asia was such a big thing across America to all age groups,” Downes says. “Yes’ following is really quite eclectic — it’s a big following of course, but with Asia, teenage girls would be into it and stuff like that. It’s an interesting combination for me, because having been with both bands and still at it, it’s nice to get that whole cross section of people following the music.”

It’ll all make for a long night of long songs.

“It’s a heck of a feast of music,” Downes says.

And that is an apt encapsulation of prog’s pleasures — or lack thereof, for some: It’s the musical equivalent of a four-course meal, and as such, not for all appetites.

Better loosen your belt either way.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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