Bill Martin

Listening to the Future

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As with his previous work on Yes, Bill Martin engages in a critical meditation upon progressive rock music, this time focusing on its artistic and commercial peak between 1968 and 1978. This is not the place to go for concert lore or studio anecdotes. Martin is seeking an understanding of what created and what then killed progressive rock, as well as why it retains a ghostly afterlife today in our musical culture. Like any good scholar, Martin spends a fair amount of time addressing other scholarship -- namely, his recent predecessors Paul Stump (The Music's All That Matters) and Edward Macan (Rocking the Classics). That doesn't always make for gripping reading for those unfamiliar with these works, but for prog rock fanatics who do own the other volumes (and you know who you are), it is a thought-provoking way to hear an ongoing critical conversation. As cultural history it has rather less breadth and ambition than Macan, but it does have more depth on the subjects that it chooses to focus on.

No doubt some readers will be turned away by Martin's use of postmodernist and Marxist theory, particularly in the States, where Marxism has gone from a hated bogeyman to just another ironic bit of historical kitsch. But this is the very cynicism and unthinking negativism that Martin so often decries in his work, and that he feels progressive rock is also opposed to when it is at its best. Martin is serious and thoughtful in his appraisal of the economic and social forces involved in the creation of a musical culture, even when the musicians themselves might justifiably claim that they'd intended no such meanings.

Much of the second half of Martin's volume is devoted to a guided discography which has more of the informal but knowledgeable tone of a dedicated fan than of an academic music scholar; that is, it's the kind of writing people typically associate with rock music critics. As such, it's perhaps less of a unique contribution than the scholarship of the first half of the book, but more accessible as an opinionated tour of the best releases in each year of progressive rock history.