Planetarium’s Progressive Art Rock Conjures Up Mid-Seventies Genesis



For better and for worse, The Beatles brought high art sensibilities to Rock music by way of their experimental, orchestral songs like “A Day In The Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis picked up the ball and ran with it in the early Seventies, and for a few shining years, meandering and cerebral Progressive Art music held as legitimate a place in Rock as any blues-based, county-based or pop-based styles did.

It was a Golden Age that didn’t last long. The Punk Revolution of the late Seventies arose in part as a repudiation of the pretentious pomposities of Progressive Art Rock, and the accusations pretty much stuck, essentially chasing high-themed orchestral music out of Rock for more than 20 years. In four short years Genesis went from making “One For the Vine” to “Misunderstanding”, and they might as well have been a completely different band. The gig was up, and everyone knew it.

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Thankfully, in the anything-goes-world of 21st Century Rock, there’s a niche for every strain of Rock that ever existed, as well as for any new varieties that germinate over time. And in recent months alone we’ve seen a revival of Progressive Art Rock in artists like Bon Iver and Alt-J, and a lot of it is pretty groovy.

Well here’s a new entry for the niche, and it sounds more like mid-Seventies Genesis than any of the others so far. It’s called Planetarium and it’s the work of a brooding underground supergroup of sorts featuring the introspective but musically adventurous Sufjan Stevens, as well as guitarist Bryce Dessner from The National, modern classical composer Nico Muhly, and drummer James McAlister.

Check out their recent live performance on Colbert above, it really knocked me out. An achingly beautiful melody devolves into an orchestral section, and seriously the whole thing sounds like it could have come from 1976’s A Trick Of The Tail. In 2017 Progressive Art Rock also includes elements of New Age music, avant-garde Philip Glass-style droning, and electronica chill beats, and all of it comes together beautifully on the track “Venus”.

But like many prog acts from the past, Planetarium is built around a theme, and just like the old days, this thematic weight sometimes tends to drag the whole enterprise down into the very pretentious pomposities that ended up effectively killing this music 40 years ago. The solar system is the focus of this one, and instead of Pink Floyd sophistication we sometimes end up with the spacey banalities of Klaatu, like on the track “Saturn”.

In the end, I am left as ambivalent about this album as I was about the first incarnation of Progressive Art Rock – moments of sublime beauty followed by moments of overblown, ridiculous wankery. After listening to it you may be tempted to put some Thrash Punk on in order to cleanse your musical palate.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49Jwh5CC_J4

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