A few years ago, I attended Confluence, a sci-fi convention in downtown Pittsburgh. I attended a few panels about science topics, and even ran a mini-writing workshop with two of my Alpha graduate colleagues.
But one of the most interesting things I encountered while at Confluence was the filk community. For those who don’t know, filk is a culture, genre, and community based around music and speculative fiction. Filking is a wild experience. The music, which is heavily inspired by Tolkein-esque ballads and high-concept sci fi worlds, is accompanied by elaborate costumes and role playing, almost like LARPing.
After leaving Confluence, I started to consider how music and science fiction were tied together, and began noticing certain similarities between speculative fiction poetry and progressive rock, a genre I’d been listening to for a while before attending Confluence.
In this article, I want to lay out some thoughts about how prog rock takes spec fic themes and runs with them.
What is Progressive Rock?
You have probably heard prog rock before and not even known it! The movement began in the 1960s with the growing popularity of concept albums, introduced by The Beatles and other pop bands of the time.
A few of the core tenets of prog rock include:
Instrumental Experimentation– adding instruments and methods not widely used, like bringing in orchestral instruments and synthesizers. While the latter has become more mainstream as technology has improved, prog is still one of the pioneering genres seeking to use weird, unique sounds and instruments.
Pairing Literature and Lyricism – the idea of the concept album brought about philosophical ideas to mainstream music, as well as literature into lyrics. Prog rock artists often incorporate literary references when crafting their vast—frequently science fiction—masterpieces.
Advanced Musical Theory – Prog rock excels in breaking the bounds of musical theory. Most prog rock bands will tinker with time signatures, harmonies, and length to produce unique, compelling pieces of music.
How Do Prog Rock and Speculative Fiction Overlap?
It’s very easy to compare prog rock and speculative fiction because the two share a lot of the same fundamental values. Speculative fiction, be it sci fi, fantasy, horror, slipstream, or any of the hundreds of sci fi subgenres out there, all work to break the bounds of conventional thought. This could be through a complex story structure that mirrors how we think, or by incorporating fantastical ideas about unexplained phenomena in our world.
Prog rock follows a similar style, albeit more abstract. It pairs unique sounds with complicated, sometimes cryptic, verses all written in a poetic style. I’ve listened to some prog rock albums more than a dozen times, and they always take on a new life and meaning when reading the lyrics.
To show just how closely the two entities are connected, I’ve picked out an example:
Chromaparagon by Moon Tooth
I doubt a lot of people of heard this one, but it stands as one of the most interesting examples of prog rock that I could find.
Moon Tooth is a four-person band originating from Long Island, New York. Chromaparagon is their first full-length album, and is succeeded by Crux, and another album that’s upcoming sometime this year.
What I found particularly compelling about Chromaparagon, and super-relevant to our conversation of science fiction and prog rock, is their focus on the arcane, the weird, and the bizarre.
Take, for example, the first song on the album, Queen Wolf.
If you read the lyrics, you’ll recognize the linear motion of the story, which follows a mysterious, seemingly exiled character only referenced as “I” as they discover and confront the Queen Wolf.
My interpretation of the story is that the “I” character comes to realize the cruel nature of solitude and ostracization, and throws aside their old beliefs (evident by the line “I gathered up my holy books, O, my holy ink and paper and I burned them all). Afterwards, they set out to find the Queen Wolf, who has also been ostracized, and when the character finds her, “there was no denying that we belonged to each other.”
It’s a story of breaking from solitude and old beliefs to be with someone who is equally as shunned for their beliefs, even if they are perceived as a monster.
Keeping with the literary theme of prog rock, the song features a section from C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian book, “I am hunger, I am thirst. Where I bite, I hold till I die. I could fast a hundred years, I could lie a hundred nights on the ice and not freeze, I could drink a river of blood and not burst. Now tell me, who comes to disturb me?”
That monologue from Prince Caspian is spoken by a werewolf who had once been a servant of the White Witch and was brought out of exile by Nikabrik, a grumpy dwarf. Pretty fitting, right?
Throughout the rest of the album, the themes portrayed in the first song are built upon. In “Little Witch” the mysterious “I” talks about creating a personal Hell, but not a Biblical Hell. More like a Paradise Lost Hell, a hell of one’s own making.
Vesuvius I and II take us away from the previous themes, replacing them instead with iconography of Aries and the mountain of fire, instilling in listeners a sense of urgency as the ash darkens the sky.
Eventually, we reach “White Stag”, where we finally get a bit of hope. “Clouds dance and weave in infinite potential…He wills in your name on forever in beautiful ways.”
The Poetry of Prog
While this is only one example of how the genre-bending nature of prog rock music ties in with spec fiction, it’s a perfect case study for the abstract and the experimental.
A lot of people don’t listen to prog rock because it is weird and experimental, but us sci fi fans are quite familiar with those things. The music market is a highly competitive place, but progressive rock bands have made it their mission to break the barriers of genre, just like modern sci fi writers.
Moon Tooth, while our primary example, was a band I only discovered in the past two years. Before them, I was introduced to the genre by Caligula’s Horse, whose Bloom album stands as another intersection of spec fic poetry and rock music.
At the end of the day, the writers and musicians who make waves with their work are the ones who will be remembered. And Chromaparagon certainly stands as an album worth remembering.