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Thread: What is it with Prog and vocals?

  1. #1

    What is it with Prog and vocals?

    I love the music, but the vocals I can't stand

    The music is great, if I could only get past the vocals

    If I had a dime for every time that someone writes something along these lines in PE I'd be rich.

    Is it the musicians' fault? Doesn't Prog produce great voices like other genres? Doesn't Prog care about the vocals, as much as it cares about the music? Or is it our fault as listeners, seeing vocals as a sad necessity until the next brilliant instrumental section, full of mellotrons and breathtaking guitar solos? Don't we in our hearts expect from the music to be something closer to instrumental classical or jazz music than contemporary pop/rock music?

    I know this issue has been discussed randomly in other threads, but maybe we could see if there is a pattern here that defines the music we love or our own musical preferences as listeners.

    So if you care, comment on this.

  2. #2
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    I for one have no idea what you"re talking about, which vocalists dont you like?

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  3. #3
    Member Zeuhlmate's Avatar
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    This subject calls for a list or two.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Zappathustra View Post
    Doesn't Prog produce great voices like other genres? Doesn't Prog care about the vocals, as much as it cares about the music?
    It certainly produces some fabulous singers and lyrics, and it's often an emphasized component. BUT! It's the one 'instrument' by which errors are easiest exposed to the listener, basically because we've all got voices of our own (or most of us anyway) and did at some point try to use it for song - willingly, stubbornly or reluctantly. The human voice is a highly personal, intimate asset of general human expression, partly because you can not hide neither its strengths nor its weaknesses. Eyes are magic windows to the soul, but the voice is reality.
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

  5. #5
    Member moecurlythanu's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zeuhlmate View Post
    This subject calls for a list or two.
    Wellw, I thay you may have a point.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Steve983 View Post
    I for one have no idea what you"re talking about, which vocalists dont you like?

    Sent from my GT-I8200N using Tapatalk
    I am not referring to my own personal preferences, but the very frequent objections that members raise regarding the vocals of a great album. I was browsing an old Tasavallan Presidentti thread just now, and there it was again: "the music is excellent, but the vocals...meh". The same with Italian band's Jumbo L.P.

    There are usual suspects here, mainly voices that have a peculiar color: Peter Hammill, Roger Chapman, Geddy Lee, you name it. Bring on some lists with voices you love or loathe.

    But mostly I am interested in discovering if there is a specific, characteristic way that the progressive-rock listener relates to the vocal parts of the music. My guts tell me that there is, although I am not so sure of how to define it with clarity. That's why I am asking for your opinions on this.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zappathustra View Post
    I love the music, but the vocals I can't stand

    The music is great, if I could only get past the vocals

    If I had a dime for every time that someone writes something along these lines in PE I'd be rich.

    Is it the musicians' fault? Doesn't Prog produce great voices like other genres? Doesn't Prog care about the vocals, as much as it cares about the music? Or is it our fault as listeners, seeing vocals as a sad necessity until the next brilliant instrumental section, full of mellotrons and breathtaking guitar solos? Don't we in our hearts expect from the music to be something closer to instrumental classical or jazz music than contemporary pop/rock music?

    I know this issue has been discussed randomly in other threads, but maybe we could see if there is a pattern here that defines the music we love or our own musical preferences as listeners.

    So if you care, comment on this.
    I agree 100%. Most prog groups have horrible vocals. Or if not horrible then boring or irritating.

  8. #8
    Reactions towards so-called 'peculiar' voices often correspond with reactions towards 'peculiarities' in music as such. It's essentially the dynamic of the "comfort zone" habitus syndrome, seeing as music is perceived in accordance with subjective listening identity. This is also one of the rather obvious reasons why many listeners won't allow for themselves to discover new expressions of music which would perhaps put established tropes of subjective preference at "jeopardy".
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

  9. #9
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    I like the vocals of the following:
    Genesis - I like Peter; I like Phil; I like harmonies
    Yes - I like Jon A.; I like Trevor; I like Benoit; I like Jon D; I like when Steve and Chris added vocals
    ELP - I like Greg; single or doubled
    Pink Floyd - I like Roger; I like David
    Jethro Tull - I like Ian

    Who's left??

    The Nice - I tolerated Lee
    "Normal is just the average of extremes" - Gary Lessor

  10. #10
    That's Mr. to you, Sir!! Trane's Avatar
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    I generally prefer instrumental music, though I would say that a sizeable %-age of my preferred albums feature vocals (though not in jazz, that's certain).

    But yerah, a lot of prog bands wirth superior instrument players have a difficult time finding a singer of equal talent and gift.
    The fact that the genre also feature many bands not singing in their native language can be a flaw to many.
    I suppose that whenever a good singer is really good, he'll leave his commercially-limited band & go for more commercial forms of music to hit paydirt.


    As far as lyrics are concerned, I usually find prog bands in general well above average than most pop music.
    Of course, it's difficult for me to say if Scandinavian lyrics are interesting or not (unless provided a translation), but I have sufficient knowledge of most central-western european languages (incl Spanish, Italian, German & Dutch) to know whether the lyrics are worth paying attention to, though this is easier if written lyrics are provided.
    my music collection increased tenfolds when I switched from drug-addicts to complete nutcases.

  11. #11
    Member wiz_d_kidd's Avatar
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    There could be several reasons why the vocals in prog often suck:

    1) One or more band members, or perhaps agents for the band, feel "obligated" to do vocals, so anyone who can sing Happy Birthday steps into the vocalist spot and wows us with their lack of talent. As Scrotum Scissor said, just because we all have the instrument doesn't mean we know how to use it effectively. (On Cruise to the Edge a few years ago, someone was interviewing the band Electric Asturias, and said... "I see that you've chosen not to have vocals. How is that working out for you?" ...as if he felt that vocals are somehow obligated).

    2) No one in the band or in the audience was bold enough to tell them their vocals suck, and they should just shut up. If the vocalist was the one who formed the band in the first place, getting them to shut up would be difficult. (Incidentally, the lead guitarist for the French band Shylock related a story at ProgDay, wherein an audience member once stepped up to him, told him he loved his guitar playing, but would he please stop singing! They haven't sung since! We need more of that!)

    3) The band has insufficient musical talent to compose completely instrumental pieces. It's much easier to strum chords and vamp while someone whines into the microphone.

    4) The vocalist arrogantly thinks that they can sing anything they want, regardless of what the band is playing. Doing runs all over the place with complete disregard to the underlying musical structure does not demonstrate talent - it demonstrates exactly the opposite. Jon Anderson in the early years of Yes was a wonderful vocalist because he used his instrument in complete harmony and accord with the band, and the band did not back away from their musical adventures when he started singing. My rule of thumb is that if you play the vocal melody (including runs) on a keyboard or other instrument, and it doesn't sound like it fits with the rest of the music, you should just shut up.

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by bigbassdrum View Post
    I like the vocals of the following:
    Genesis - I like Peter; I like Phil; I like harmonies
    Yes - I like Jon A.; I like Trevor; I like Benoit; I like Jon D; I like when Steve and Chris added vocals
    ELP - I like Greg; single or doubled
    Pink Floyd - I like Roger; I like David
    Jethro Tull - I like Ian

    Who's left??

    The Nice - I tolerated Lee
    I have to say that I am not a huge fan of none of the above. Meaning that I cannot really put their vocal abilities on par with the other members musical abilities. For example Chris Squire is a truly astounding player. I cannot say that Jon Anderson is a truly astounding singer (although he is good and I wouldn't want anybody else in his place).

    So maybe I am making myself a bit clearer here. When I think of great rock singers, my mind does not go on these guys but to names like Ian Gillan, or Robert Plant or Grace Slick or whomever else. When I thing of great guitar players or drummers my mind goes to prog rock instantly and naturally. Is it just me?

  13. #13
    Member bill g's Avatar
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    Hmm, I like Ian Gillan, Robert Plant as male singers, but have always liked Greg Lake, Peter Gabriel and David Longdon more. Grace Slick has a great voice, but I would say I enjoy Amy Darby and our own Tai Shan just as much. YMMV.

    Still, my favorite moments in prog tend to be instrumental...

  14. #14
    Moderator Poisoned Youth's Avatar
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    I have generally attributed this phenomenon to the following criteria:

    * Musicians that are "instrument first" but still want to sing and never bothered getting a vocalist
    * Vocalists who try to sing in languages other than their native one
    * The average listener's tolerance for vocals that go outside convention

    FWIW, I think "objectively" bad vocals was more of a thing back in the 70s and neo-prog days than in the last 20 years.
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  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by wiz_d_kidd View Post
    someone was interviewing the band Electric Asturias, and said... "I see that you've chosen not to have vocals. How is that working out for you?" ...as if he felt that vocals are somehow obligated
    This is yet another point, as the interviewer here obviously isn't even aware - or doesn't quite acknowledge - that a significant percentage of progressive artists throughout the years have expressed themselves without vocals. In other words; either he doesn't know or he doesn't care - which is about equally sad.
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

  16. #16
    I have always LOVED the extremely individual sound of many singers who would be hated on TV talent shows - artists like Ian Hunter, Leon Russell, Alice Cooper, Joe Walsh (Hey! Those 4 predate prog) the lead singer on the first two USA PFM albums, Neal Morse - for me, it's about great composition delivered with complete conviction. I get goosebumps hearing Ian Hunter's voice crack on "I Can Feel" from Mad Shadows.
    Last edited by Poisoned Youth; 11-25-2019 at 05:11 AM.

  17. #17
    Member Top Cat's Avatar
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    First, I think fans of the Prog genre are extremely critical and have no problem voicing their opinion/s.
    Secondly, unlike pop or rap where a lot of the content of a song are focused on the vocalist, progressive rock from it's earliest days had a strong foundation around the strength of the music and players of that music. ELP could've done nothing but instrumentals and the prog community would've love them regardless, however they crossed into classic rock territory with the addition of Greg Lake's vocals and lyrics. King Crimson's Court of...TCK, it's the music that grabs the listener, and the vocals with the effect used really was in the context of the music another instrument you heard(thank god for printed lyrics on the album. lol
    So vocals for a classic progressive rock group really were secondary unless they had an exceptional singer/frontman like Peter Gabriel, or Jon A, etc.

    Third, I think we're overthinking it. The voice is just another instrument added to the ensemble. It's just a matter of personal preference to some whether we appreciate how that instrument blends with the ensemble or not. I've heard prog bands that were fantastic with their musicianship and songwriting, but they choose to have a vocalist who in my opinion doesn't seem to fit in with the overall sound of the band. That doesn't make them bad, it's just not what I want to hear when I listen to this music.

    And then of course there are the progressive rock bands where their music is highly influenced by a Tier One band, and the musicians may have the music down, but they choose a vocalist who has to fit into the mold of a singer and style we all know and love. They fall short due to expectations by us or they simply don't have a good enough voice.

    I've loved/love some bands where the vocalist isn't that great, but if the music is strong enough and the passion from the singer is there, I find I can enjoy it nonetheless.

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  18. #18
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    I have to agree that we are overthinking it (a popular pass time at PE and I am guilty) and that it does come down to personal preference. IMO in general, it is more difficult to sing over a "progressive" band than a pop band both because of the relative complexity of the instrumentation and the more dynamic nature sometimes required to cut through the instrumentation, modulations etc. unless it's the odd ballad.

    For my 2 cents there are many great vocalists associated with progressive acts over the years. Even in cases where the vocalists are not particularly outstanding (and although I'm a mega-fan, I would put the great Derek Shulman in this category) it does not necessarily detract from the overall result except in those rare cases such as David Surkamp of Pavlov's Dog which comes to mind - it just detracts for me and I know that's subjective. I would prefer Rush with someone other than Geddy Lee doing the vocals as well, whereas if anyone else on the planet took over as vocalist for VDGG it would only diminish the result - and I know others will adamantly disagree which shows me that this is truly subjective.

    Having said that, there may be less room for shit vocalists in a pop setting and no room in a jazz or classical setting.

  19. #19
    I dislike vocals on a jazz/fusion cd. Wasn't crazy about the vocals on the latest Virgil Donati cd. When Frank Gambale said he was having vocals on his recent release I almost threw up in my mouth.
    NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF STUPID PEOPLE IN LARGE GROUPS!

  20. #20
    Evidence for the defense, your honor, and not from last century:
    IZZ
    Glass Hammer
    Thieve's Kitchen
    Magenta
    Moon Safari

    I mean, seriously? I guess proggers can overlook less-proficient vocals given that the focus is usually on the music more so than perhaps, vocal-based Pop music... but there's no shortage of great vocals in Prog. Maybe even more than other genres.

  21. #21
    Man of repute progmatist's Avatar
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    On the flip side of the coin: Exceptional vocalists like, say, Taylor Swift are marginal at best playing an instrument. It's rare for someone to master both their voice and (an) instrument(s).
    "Well my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn't it?"--Dalai Lama

  22. #22
    Member Emeritus (A.M.P.) rcarlberg's Avatar
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    Many virtuoso bands are hampered by non-virtuoso vocals, IMO.

    Plus, vocals have three disadvantages over instrumental music. 1. You can't read while listening to vocal music, because 2. Vocals require you to pay attention to the narrative in the lyrics, which 3. Limits the appeal of the lyrics to a time and place and language that the listener understands and appreciates.

  23. #23
    Proud Member since 2/2002 UnderAGlassMoon's Avatar
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    One of my favorite vocalists ever is prog.

    Steve Walsh of Kansas
    Eric: "What the hell Hutch, it's all Rush, what if we wanted a little variety?"

    Hutch: "Rush is variety, Bitch! Rule number one: in my van, its Rush! All Rush, all the time...no exceptions."

    From "Fanboys" 2009.

  24. #24
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    I think there are two main problems with prog vocals:

    1. The majority of prog bands are bad at coming up with good tunes, so the vocals are kind of secondary to everything else that's going on

    2. Even some bands that can write good tunes often have vocalists that are either just plain bad or lack emotion in their delivery. Examples that spring to mind are Camel, Caravan, King Crimson, ELP...

    It is absolutely no coincidence that the "big" prog bands are the ones with good tunes and proper vocalists who can hit all the notes but also crucially know how to deliver a performance, viz. Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Marillion, Rush, Jethro Tull

  25. #25
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    Quote Originally Posted by UnderAGlassMoon View Post
    One of my favorite vocalists ever is prog.

    Steve Walsh of Kansas
    He's a superb vocalists and there are plenty of good "prog" vocalists.

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