BOOK REVIEW: “Essential Modern Progressive Rock Albums: Images and Words Behind Prog’s Most Celebrated Albums 1990-2016”
Writing books on music is a tricky business. And one that if the shelves of most book stores are any indication can also be quite profitable. The main problem that arises is that by and large writing about music is highly subjective, and no matter what the author says, there are sure to be legions of people waiting to disagree with them. Bios of a band or single musician are easier than larger scoped works generally speaking because they are based on facts, quotes, or band members memories. Broad reaching books, which cover a full genre, are more difficult. And that is where we find the recently released ‘Essential Modern Progressive Rock Albums: Images and Words Behind Prog’s Most Celebrated Albums 1990-2016’ put out by The Prog Report blog and written by Roie Avin.
The focus of the book as stated in the well-worded intro is to bring attention not to the classics of the past, but to modern bands that have carried on the prog torch through the decades and into the modern era, which is here defined as 1990 through the present. It touches on both prog rock, and prog metal, and gives a bit of Avin’s personal music history. The albums are presented in chronological order, and some years have more albums mentioned than others. The albums are presented with large well reproduced images of their albums covers, a brief intro along with the year released, and then a page or two of information about the album, along with more photos. All albums are accompanied by quotes from interviews by band members responsible for their creation. There is a lengthy thank you section in the back thanking many artists. The book is written in a casual, fast paced manner, similar to a blog, or album review, so it is a very quick and easy read.
As far as the albums included, it by and large hits all the right notes, everyone you would expect to be in there is. Dream Theater, Spock’s Beard, Neal Morse, Opeth, The Flower Kings, Steven Wilson; all the big names, and their many bands are all included. It is a collection that would be very close to what I would have chosen, and I imagine most other fans of modern prog would have chosen as well. Avin’s taste is very much in line with the typical prog fan, and you soon learn his tastes quite well. Which of course is where the “personal tastes” issue mentioned previously comes in.
As I said earlier, the big names are all there, and they’re all there again, and again, and again. Albums that Mike Portnoy plays on make up 11 separate albums (and I lost count how many times he was mentioned on other albums), including the last three Transatlantic albums. Neal Morse who I certainly love, has 8, and Steven Wilson had two solo albums, and three Porcupine Tree albums, along with being talked about constantly on two of the four Opeth albums. Eventually the list begins to read like dozens of “my favorites” lists on the typical prog forum on social media, with the same few people being mentioned every five seconds and raised to levels of Godhood. Each album mentioned seems to nearly be a genre defining masterpiece; and you won’t find a single bit of music criticism in the entire book. Granted it’s meant to be a book of essential albums, but not all essentials are flawless. I just found it to get stale after a while. Perhaps though the problem was my own; I read through the whole thing in just a few hours, so reading only a few at a time might well less the effect.
The writing however is very concise and fervent throughout, and it is abundantly obvious that Mr. Avin is profoundly qualified to write such a book; his knowledge and passion are commendable and impressive. One major qualm I did have however goes along with the excessive repetition mentioned earlier, and that is the exclusion in the main section, of a few very important bands that is rather baffling. Now these bands are in the book; but all are found in the “More Essential Albums” section at the very end. Now there is no explanation for the extra section, or why the albums in it are in there, and not the main part of the book. Each are further relegated to a paragraph at best, and so come across more as honorable mention, rather than being worthy of a full write up. Their exclusion, while some bands are mentioned ad nauseam lessened my respect for the book as a whole.
The biggest omission was the band Meshuggah (who granted many will say are not prog) are mentioned several times in passing as being very important, even asking if “djent” is a sub genre of prog (a question never mentioned again), while the band Periphery – at best a poor knockoff of them– have an album included. This is quite baffling as one would be hard pressed to find a more important, and influential band in the past two decades than Meshuggah. The other strange omissions were The Mars Volta, easily one of THE most progressive bands in years, and Tool, who granted I find extremely overrated, but their importance is immense, and being left off of a list of such length is a truly glaring error. Clearly this is all a matter of taste, and the book needed to be kept at a manageable length, but how it was handled is puzzling nonetheless.
Ultimately, I found ‘Essential Modern Progressive Rock Albums: Images and Words Behind Prog’s Most Celebrated Albums 1990-2016’ to be an enjoyable, beautifully crafted and illustrated, easy-to-read book, that became too repetitive for its own good. Roie Avin is a fine, and very knowledgeable writer, and has crafted a list of excellent albums that will find most prog fans in agreement. While seasoned prog fans who already listen to modern prog will find little new here, or that they don’t already know, the book would serve as an excellent introduction to new prog fans, or fans of classic prog who want to find some more recent material to go along with the classics. It will remain for me a nice-looking coffee table book, to occasionally peruse, but not a book I would consider essential to prog fans.