Plumbing the Sacramental Depths of Prog Rock | Bradley J. Birzer | May 11, 2011 | Ignatius InsightPlumbing the Sacramental Depths of Prog Rock | Bradley J. Birzer | May 11, 2011 | Ignatius Insight
Let us speak/speak of love,
Of home and hope loving and leaving
Of laughter and forgetting and letting go. . . .

So let us speak of love/love and generosity.
And if we only have love/it's more than enough.
— Big Big Train, "Wide Open Sea," (2010).
I generally judge music by how it moves me. By "moves," I'm not suggesting dance moves or being moved in the manner in which Elvis Presley brought condemnation upon the entire genre of rock over a half century ago.

Frankly, you wouldn't want to see me move in such a fashion. Pacing the room as I lecture is probably about as much movement as my students can stand.

By moved, I mean being moved at the deepest levels of my soul and my mind. I want full immersion, no sprinkling. I want my art to reflect all that comes before and all that might be, a moment speaking to timeless truths, Platonic and Divine.

Yes, I realize this sounds (or reads, actually) somewhat pretentious. But, it is true none the less, pretense of pretense or even in the absence of pretense.

Simple pop music—be it the ranting of some London or New York toughs or some sugary and bubblegum airheads—does nothing for me, and it never has. Like most things in my life, I consider music appreciation a serious business, and I've never had time or money to waste on the likes of the Commodores from the 1970s or Madonna (the fake one from Detroit; not Our Lady) from the 1980s or Lady Gaga of our present age.

Music, to be sure, serves as an escape for me, and it has been such since I was a small boy growing up next to a wheat field in central Kansas. Whether I was starting to listen to Yes in the 1970s (grade school), Rush in the early 1980s (junior high), Talk Talk in the mid 1980s (college), Kate Bush in the early 1990s (graduate school), or Radiohead in the late 1990s, I have always wanted my music to have depth and breadth and width. The lyrics have mattered as much to me as has the music. I can certainly handle politics or theology with which I disagree, but I want the lyrics to make me think or behold or treasure.

But, importantly, I don't merely want to escape from a thing when I listen to music; I want to escape into a thing. I want full immersion into an artistic realm. I'm either very snobbish or very particular (or most likely, both, as my friends will recognize).

The Moment
At the moment, we seem to be witnessing nothing less than a profound revival in what is generally known (though, admittedly, labeling is always dangerous and simplistic) as "progressive rock." I've never been totally fond of the term "progressive" as it conjures up American figures such Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and a whole lot of bigoted, anti-immigrant do-gooders who caused far more harm than good, imposing their visions of what they believed to be right on the rest of us.

Still, Progressive Rock is a term that a tradition two generations long seems to have ratified, and I can certainly live with it. It should be noted that many of those widely regarded as "progressive rock" musicians reject the label, while its sympathetic critics more often than not embrace the term, parsing it into many somewhat endless variations: art rock; proto-prog; symphonic prog; Canterbury; heavy prog; psychedelic; prog folk; nu prog; and so forth.

Regardless of what term one employs, "progressive rock" is always complex, full of shifting time signatures, and usually lyrically far more artistic than the general blues-based rock song. As a friend of mine frequently says, rock is all about attitude. Progressive rock, while often expressing attitude, does so only artfully. The art, it should be noted, precedes the attitude. Perhaps most importantly, though, progressive rock gives an almost unlimited space in which the musicians can explore themes, musically as well as lyrically.

From my perspective, the last three albums of Mark Hollis's Talk Talk (1986-1991), Yes's Close to the Edge (1971), Genesis's Selling England by the Pound (1973), Kevin McCormick's With the Coming of Evening (1993) and Squall (1999), Rush's Moving Pictures (1981) and Grace Under Pressure (1984), Radiohead's Kid A (2000), and the Cure's Disintegration (1989) represent the best non-mainstream rock music prior to 2000. Other more (in a relative sense) mainstream bands and performers—such as U2, XTC, Thomas Dolby, Marillion, Tears for Fears, and Bryan Ferry—have produced beautiful music as well, each incorporating the norms of progressive rock in a more accessible fashion than progressive rock often does.

But, in the last decade, what prog rock aficionados label "prog rock" has exploded. In only a partial list, one can count a number of outstanding progressive albums: The Cure's Bloodflowers (2000); The Flower King's Space Revolver (2000); Marillion's Marbles (2004); Riverside's Out of Myself (2004), Second Life Syndrome (2005), Rapid Eye Movement (2007), and ADHD (2009); Ayreon's Human Equation (2004); Guilt Machine's On This Perfect Day (2009); Frost*'s Milliontown (2006) and Experiments in Mass Appeal (2008); Lunatic Soul I (2008) and II (2010); Oceansize's Effloresce (2003); Peter Gabriel's Up (2002); Rush's Vapor Trails (2002) and Snakes and Arrows (2007); Nosound's A Sense of Loss (2009); Muse's Origin of Symmetry (2001) and Absolution (2003); Pure Reason Revolution's The Dark Third (2006); and Spock's Beard's X (2010). Phew. It's been since the first half of the 1970s since anyone has seen and encountered a concentration of prog at this level.

The internet has been a great equalizer, a grand de-centralizing agent, allowing musicians and listeners to bypass the major corporate distributors and shapers of culture. As with many other things, the internet allows me to sit in my home office in southern Michigan, downloading music from all parts of the world, enjoying, pondering, and describing.

With the internet, not only can artists and musicians publicize and sell their work more widely, but social communities can (and have) sprung up across the internet, trading news, information, and reviews of progressive releases, from the most mainstream (again, relatively speaking) to the most experimental.

Over the last few years, I've especially enjoyed three groups, all of which one could fairly label as "progressive": Steven Wilson and his primary band, Porcupine Tree; Big Big Train; and Gazpacho. The first two hail from England, the third from Norway. I discovered each of these bands from my students as well as from internet reviews and discussion groups.

Each of these three bands listed above, though, hits me in different ways. When I listen to Steve Wilson and Porcupine Tree, I want to protest some injustice. When I listen to Gazpacho, I long to write stunning prose and poetry. When I listen to Big Big Train, I'd like to walk out into the early spring and begin gardening.

Or, to put it another way, in terms that fellow Tolkien lovers will understand: the Rohirrim listen to Porcupine Tree before going into battle against marauding orcs; Tom and Goldberry play Gazpacho for Saturday evening inspiration before a little passion; and the Brandybucks at Buckland dance to Big Big Train after a long day of tilling and a well-deserved evening of beer and pipeweed.

Or, still another way, for my fellow Catholics: Porcupine Tree is to St. Aquinas what Gazpacho is to St. Bonaventure and what Big Big Train is St. Francis.

Well, hopefully, you get the point.

Big Big Train
Our pro-gardening, beer drinking, pipeweed smoking St. Francis of a band, Big Big Train, has produced some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard, in or out of popular culture. Greg Spawton and Andy Poole formed the band in 1990. Since then, they've released seven albums. Last year's The Underfall Yard, followed up by the shorter Far Skies Deep Time, incorporates a significant variety of instruments: not only the traditional guitar, bass, and drums of rock, but also piano, organ, keyboards, cello, brass, woodwinds, accordion, mandolin, banjo, and even a glockenspiel.

The lineup of the band also includes an array of highly skilled musicians. XTC's former guitarist, Dave Gregory, plays throughout the album, and Frost*'s Jem Godfrey, offers an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer-style keyboard solo on the final track. Most importantly, from my perspective, though is L.A. drummer, Nick d'Virgilio. Everything this guy touches—from his own band, Spock's Beard, to Frost* and Big Big Band—seems to turn to pure magic. At a younger moment in my life, I would have proclaimed it heresy to ever equate the talent, drive, or skill of any drummer to Neil Peart of Rush. From my middle-aged and untrained ear, though, I think d'Virgilio is in every way Peart's equal. In terms of skill, simply put, he might be our greatest living drummer.

Though Godfrey has temporarily left the music scene for health reasons, it looks as though Gregory (who also plays with the Tin Spirits) and d'Virgilio will perform with Big Big Train on their forthcoming album, English Electric.

On these last two albums, The Underfall Yard and Far Skies Deep Time, Big Big Train has adopted, as their lead singer, the bardic and Richard Thompson-esque, David Longdon. Armed with a folk singer's voice, but without the working-class tilt, Longdon brings just the right emotion to the songs, whether the songs deal with the death of an English soccer player in the 1930s or with the decay and destruction of Victorian-era technology. Indeed, though Longdon can bring an element of mischievous joy to his songs, his voice, more often than not, holds a twilight, autumnal quality of longing and melancholy. Regardless of how I might describe it here for Ignatius Insight Scoop, Longdon's voice calls to the most essential parts of me.

But, as with almost all art, the ingredients and materials comprise, at most, only half of the final product. The skill—whether in baking, writing, painting, or composing—comes in the ability to see connections of one thing to another and to follow through on those connections, making them beautiful to he who listens or sees or experiences the art in some way. Big Big Train, led by Spawton and Poole, does this masterfully. Not a note, not an instrument, and not a voice are out of place. None of this is to suggest that the music is predictable; it's far from it. But, the end result of pulling together so many ideas, instruments, and voices is not chaos, but harmony, unity, and brilliant centricity.

And, yet, in some joyous and mysterious way, the music remains gleefully eccentric as well.

Progressive rock fans possess a fond obsession for music genealogy: this person played in this band for this many years, left, and came back; this band is drawing from this 1971 album; the guitarist in this band received his degree in classical guitar from this school of music, etc. Far more conscious about this than other forms of art, progressive rockers hold an Eliot-esque sense of this. As the Great Bard of the twentieth century himself wrote in 1919: "And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living."

Following this convention, I can write that the last two Big Big Train albums sound to me as though the members of the post-punk, New Wave XTC (yes, Dave Gregory was in XTC and is now in Big Big Train) showed up at Yes's Going for the One recording sessions in Switzerland, 1976. What Big Big Train has released recently contains the genius of both bands and the style each represented in the 1970s.

But, Spawton, Poole, Longdon, Gregory, and d'Virgilio, while building upon the progressive rock of the past, have either equaled or gone well beyond anything done before them in terms of quality, intensity, and beauty. After listening to either of these most recent Big Big Train albums, I can only sit back in awe, my mouth agape, and my soul receptive for some divine inspiration, blessed as I am by Spawton and co.'s immersing me in an idyllic English landscape and Victorian and Edwardian cultures.

Though the instrumentation, form, and production technology of the CDs is the latest, the music and the lyrics of Big Big Train transport me back to the English and Irish childhoods of J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, E.I. Watkin, and C.S. Lewis. This is the England in which T. S. Eliot arrived from America and in which T.E. Hulme introduced Imagist poetry to the world. This was a confident England, sure of her duty to herself and to western civilization.
Twelve stones from the water
continents apart
the clouds are gathering again,
filling up the sky,
it rains on England.

Roofless engine houses
distant hills like bookends
frame electrical storms
moving out to sea
away from England.

Those days have gone, those days...
Those days have gone,
their names are lost
the stories left untold.
Under an ordinary star
we are just moments of time,
it is the end of the line
this place is worked out.

Those days have gone.
their names are lost
the stories left untold.
--Big Big Train, "The Underfall Yard," (2009).
And, so, I come to my final argument, attempting to live up to the claims of my title. By claiming that progressive rock is sacramental, I do not mean to suggest that we might readily call the many, varied progressive rock participants—artists or otherwise—Catholic, high church, or even religious in any traditional, western sense. Some probably are while most probably are not. Others, such as Yes's Jon Anderson and The Cure's Robert Smith were raised Roman Catholic, but neither seems to demonstrate a traditional faith in their most recent music.

As to the members of Big Big Train, I have no idea if any of them embrace any particular religious creed.

Regardless, what is sacramental—from the Latin, to hallow—is rooted in creation, deeper and older than the Church on earth herself. Sacramental, at its most fundamental definition, is an eternal good, manifested in temporal form. While in the Church, the seven sacraments define the most tangible, holy, and highest expressions of such eternal things, sacramentality can come in the form of many, many things: a good conversation and meal shared with a friend; the holding of a hand of a five-year old son; the stroking of the hair of a seven-year old daughter; the writing of poetry, touching upon the divine; or in the writing of music.

In the Catholic mass, the most blatant statement of sacramentality comes, not surprisingly, at the very beginning of the Eucharistic prayers. "Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life." Profoundly, the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist does not destroy the bread, rather it changes its very essence, its soul, making a thing temporal, shaped by human will, into something—Someone!—soulful and eternal. The bread is not destroyed in communion; it is fulfilled. The same is true of Christ within the Human Person when saved and sanctified. The same is true of the Church and its relationship to the World. Or to put it another way, when St. John wrote his Gospel, he became more John rather than less John.

From the earliest titles in what has become an extensive progressive rock catalogue, dating back to the very late 1960s, progressive rockers have attempted to embrace things of the highest order, things beyond the mere temporal.

Sometimes, such as with Yes's "Close to the Edge" or Talk Talk's "New Grass" or Kevin McCormick's "Heritage," the obvious Catholicism overwhelms as well as enhances the art itself. In other progressive music, the lyrics remain equally deep but more opaque and subtle.

Most importantly, progressive rock, perhaps second only to some forms of jazz, reaches for the heights of art rather than for the mere making of the dollar through commercial success and corporate mechanization. In this, it follows St. Paul's command to the Philippians to pursue the highest of things. "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."

While all of Big Big Train's music—in form and lyric—pursues excellence, one song in particular embraces a somewhat more obvious sacramentality than others, connecting time and eternity, past and present. Entitled "Winchester Diver" the song tells the true story—in best bardic fashion—of an Englishman, an engineer, who thought little of himself or his abilities. "Just doing my job" as my fellow Kansans might have said in the 1980s. This man, however, spent 1906-1911 diving deep into the waters that had flooded the underground chambers and areas below Winchester Cathedral. Masses continued as always, above, as the diver worked between holiness and the "lower parts of hell, just beneath you." The song evokes a terrible beauty, the struggle between chaos and order as well as the dedication of an individual, necessary to upholding the good.

Progressive rock does its best to touch things eternal, to let the horizon and the sky meet, and to find the human person in the very art form. In this, it's the closest thing we have to sacramental music in our modern culture.

Believe me, you'll gain far more appreciation of Catholic music and poetry from listening to any Progressive Rock album, especially those by Big Big Train, than almost anything found in my parish's hymnal, "Gather Us In."

At least this is real art.

[For those who really like to delve deeply into whatever it is they follow (in this case, progressive rock), Greg Spawton has posted an extensive commentary on BBT's music, its meaning and its influences. At the band's official website, one can download songs, information, and podcasts. The band offers its best song, "The Underfall Yard," for free, all 23 minutes worth. You can't lose anything by downloading it and listening to it. If you like it, consider supporting this independent band by purchasing their cds. Even if you're not a "rock person," you might be surprised by the intimate and chamber music-like quality of Big Big Train.]

Related Ignatius Insight Excerpts and Interviews:

Incarnation and Mystery: On T.S. Eliot, St. Paul, and True Humanism | | Bradley J. Birzer
A New Christian Republic of Letters | Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
An Augustinian Wasteland: A Canticle for Leibowitz Fifty Years Later | Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
Charles Carroll, the Catholic Founder | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
My Grammys: The 1st Annual Carl the Snarl Music Awards | Carl E. Olson

Bradley J. Birzer is Chairman of the Board of Academic Advisors, Center for the American Idea, Houston, and the author of American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll (ISI, 2010); Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (2007); and J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth (2003).

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