Skip to main content

What Exactly Is Prog-Rock? We Break Down the Music Genre

Even if you haven’t heard the classifying term prog-rock, you’ve likely heard the music. It’s the inventive style popularized by the likes of Yes, Rush, King Crimson, and more, and challenges the way we think about rock ‘n’ roll.

King Crimson Performing
King Crimson MAURO PIMENTEL/Getty Images

As the progressive name indicates, there’s a theme of evolution at play. Prog-rock is captivating because it’s always changing. The molten music genre is constantly picking fights with popular sounds and the status quo. That can translate to everything from fusing two unlikely musical styles or playing in an obscure time signature to incorporating weird instruments or stretching a track out to well over twenty minutes in length.

If rock music were high school, you’d likely find the prog-rock kids sketching on their binders in calculus. It’s a math-y, nerdy, complex, deceptively rhythmic kind of music that requires an astute understanding of composition. Listening to a classic prog-rock jam, like Yes’s Roundabout, is like witnessing a genius solve a problem. You can practically hear the inner-workings of a brain too big for the usual pop music mold. And those sounds come in unexpected ways, making you reassess your interpretation of rock.

It’s a math-y, nerdy, complex, deceptively rhythmic kind of music that requires an astute understanding of composition.

Prog-rock’s arc is not entirely unlike that of modern food. Industrialization did to grub what the pop powers-that-be did to music. That is, it became streamlined to the point of losing its identity. Soon, food and music would become so formulaic that it was tough to tell individual ingredients or bands apart from each other. It all came out of the same factory, somewhere.

Then, a movement to make things taste and sound better. Food looked back at old techniques and freshness and regionality to maximize flavor. Similarly, rock looked back at classical music and jazz and other structurally involved genres for inspiration. The idea was to make rock an art form once more, something we could spin countless times and decipher something new each time.

Mars Volta performing
Mars Volta Frank Hoensch/Getty Images

There’s a new generation taking prog-rock to loftier galaxies, led by the likes of experimental bands like Suuns and heady groups like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and Kikagaku Moyo. A few preceding bands, however, helped set the style in stone and offer brainy lessons on the elaborate nature of the category.

Here are a few albums to help you understand and appreciate the multi-headed and magnificent beast that is prog-rock music:

De-Loused in the Comatorium by Mars Volta

Prog-rock was well established by 2003 when this record dropped by the Texas band that left its massive fingerprint on the style. Like many prog productions, this album is of the concept variety, telling the tale of a coma experience induced by a cocktail of morphine and rat poison. The guitar work is scorching and there are noticeable and pacy nods to American jazz and traditional Latin music. Like Rush and Tool, the Mars Volta reveal the many added layers a great drummer can bring to the genre. And yes, the album cover is awesome, arguably an honorable mention to the best-ever conversation.

Yesterdays by Yes

Just about every record by Yes demonstrates some key facet of prog-rock. The beauty of Yesterdays is its ability to show some of the band’s most innovative work, which wasn’t harvested for an album until years later after everybody realized its absurd brilliance. It also opens with an incredible cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s America, giving the familiar track the full progressive shake-down.

In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson

This 1969 release helped define the emerging prog-rock scene. Stitching together blues, symphonic music, and the darker, brooding side of psych-rock. The record seems to go in two distinct directions, down an organic path led by woodwinds and classically inspired structures as well as straight to the core of the psyche via savvy electric guitar work, the mellotron, and some surrealism. Many of rock’s greatest reference this album as an influential standout.

The Wall by Pink Floyd

While Dark Side of the Moon is its own masterpiece, the blatant anti-conformity of The Wall and its concept album approach make it prog-rock gold. It was almost too much to handle in 1979 as many initially criticized the record for being self-absorbed. But the album proved to be a wise and relatable tale about the pitfalls of fame, in the out-there incarnation of a two-disc set in the key of rock opera. It revealed yet another side of Pink Floyd, a band that could seemingly do it all.

2112 by Rush

Most of us know what the late and talented percussionist Neil Peart was capable of. This 1976 record speaks to this and more, showing off the Canadian band’s instrumental mastery and appreciation of sci-fi. Inspired by writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, the album tracks a futuristic ultra-authoritarian world wherein the state controls everything. It’s a chilling story brought to life through extremely sophisticated and spacey rock sounds and fantastic treks led by time changes and scintillating solo work.

AEnima by Tool

The greatest thing about Tool’s finest album is that it spotlights prog-rock’s more aggressive side. The Los Angeles quartet is typically lumped in the metal section with a band name that became synonymous in the ’90s with backpack patches and counterculture. Yet, Tool was always taking the more complicated road less traveled. This record is like a giant classical composition, plugged into towering stacks of amps and launched into the ether with incredible force.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
The Best Music Festivals for Food and Drink
best music festivals for food and drink huichica gundlach bundschu hmf at gunbun 3

Our love affair with craft means that music festivals can always do more. We’ve grown used to pours and bites from a couple of major sponsors at typical sonic gatherings, but thanks to the food cart, some creative minds, and a general heightened interest in quality, we’re witnessing a new era of the outdoors rock ‘n’ roll weekend.
It’s a tightrope walk for certain, balancing the right lineup of tunes with vendors while still keeping the overall atmosphere approachable and maintaining the carefree spirit of the festival. Short-lived fests like Googamooga, Sweet Life, and Travelers’ Rest suggest that it’s not always the easiest code to crack. However, the below options take things to volume eleven, treating attendees to elevated food and drinks programs in addition to quality music. 

Founded a decade ago by pioneering California winery Gundlach Bundschu, Huichica has since expanded to two other wine-centric locations. The mellow, kid-friendly gathering attracts fantastic talent like Yo La Tengo, Destroyer, and Fruit Bats. Even more, it keeps a healthy stream of local beer and grub flowing. And, being a brainchild of a sixth-generation winery and set in one of three remarkable appellations, there’s always plenty of good fermented juice on hand.

Read more
7 of the Best Drink References in Music
best drink references in music woman drinking cocktails at a club bar unsplash

Booze is woven into the lexicon of American music, most notably in country form. It’s beautifully referenced, used as a symbol, lionized, loathed, and everything in between. And it’s done so to the tune of more than just steely twang, from the shy and melodic introspection of indie to the plugged-in bluesy leanings of boogie rock. 
The stereotypical rock star is a drink-toting, tight-pants-wearing stack of leather, tattoos, and hair. They leave a trail of empty bottles, cart Dixie cups on stage, and buy rounds on record label tabs. But certain musicians go a step further, inviting the many highs and lows associated with alcohol into their songs through riveting lyrics. 

Morphine - Cure for pain (Album Version)
One of the best and most unique acts of the 90s was equally gloomy. Adding to the band’s already emotive sound were Morphine’s major pillars, the saxophone and extreme baritone vocals. The late Mark Sandman and Co. turned out some of the moodiest college radio sounds of the late 20th century.
Sandman had an eloquent way of tackling drugs in general (“someday, there’ll be a cure for pain/that’s the day, I throw my drugs away”). Listening to Morphine, you can’t help but pour yourself a glass of wine and feel all of the noir feelings. 

Read more
The New Fender Vintera Series Harkens Back to the Beginnings of Rock and Roll
Fender Vintera 60s Jazzmaster

When you’re playing some air guitar alone in your house, what’s the picture in your head? Are you a rockabilly idol with a ducktail and blue suede shoes, picking out a stomping chord progression from the early days of rock and roll? Are you a shaggy-haired peacenik spreading love around the planet via endless psychedelic jams? Are you a glammed-up golden god shredding an epic solo that becomes the stuff of rock legend?

For every decade, there’s a guitar whose sound and shape epitomizes that era’s soul. Last month, Fender released a new line of vintage-correct electric guitar and bass models that pay homage to the three decades that set the bar for rock and roll excellence. Known as the Vintera Series, these guitars are more than just period-perfect replicas from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. They have the authentic feel of instruments that wailed out rock anthems from Sun Records to Fame Studios to that house in Scotland where Jimmy Page traded his soul to the devil. Outfitted with all the unique feature sets that defined those historic guitars, the Vintera Series offers music lovers the chance to re-create those unmistakable decade-specific tones.

Read more