"Progressive Rock," or "Prog Rock." This often-misused term conjures up images of Roger Dean album covers, 20-minute songs & obtuse concepts. In the heyday of Prog Rock, the term was genuine in that the music was indeed breaking the mold of the 3-minute AM radio pop ditty. In England especially, bands like Yes, Jethro Tull & Genesis took Sgt. Pepper's a step further, making odd arrangements & layered instrumentation the standard.
Due to the proliferation of album-oriented FM radio, more bands adopted the genre, diluting it to the point of banality. Suddenly, "progressive" was no longer such. Even the above mentioned innovators were labeled "stale" & "old" before they simplified their sound, eschewing the embellishments that made them famous.
So, what is "Prog Rock" now? Some say it's bands like Dream Theater, or Symphony X, but I disagree. These bands owe more to the past sounds of Yngwie Malmsteen, Iron Maiden & Kansas then they do to unexplored territory. Sure, DT especially has obstinately barraged their own indelible fault in the alt/pop music landscape & they deserve all the credit for remaining self-true, but "progressive," they are not (and they'd be the first to agree).
On an entirely different (and decidedly less spirited) level is the "prog" of European projects (they're not bands as many of them don't even gig). That lot is content to scientifically gas up ancient ELP arrangements featuring schooled, correct-loving technicians serving up sterile, contrived, bombastic drivel; this is regressive, not progressive.
Now, take New Jersey-based 3RDegree, who have just released Narrow-Caster after a 12-yr hiatus. Following their locally successful 1996 album Human Interest Story, which synthesized elements of pop/rock with offbeat sonic elements & time signatures, 3RDegree found it tough to forge a fan base in an area rife with cover bands, and by the following year, they had split.
However, 3RDegree reunited in late 2005, began recording in 2006 and played a few gigs in Spring 2007 to see if they could still "cut it" (they could). Narrow-Caster firmly pronounces them "back."
Still consisting of Robert James Pashman (bass/keys/vocals), Pat Kliesch (guitars/vocals), Rob Durham (drums), and George Dobbs (vocals/keys), 3RDegree is first and foremost a band that writes songs, not instrumentalists who record songs as space to solo in. This is important since the band has become popular and continues to market in "prog" circles, which include those who define "prog" in different terms than I do.
With one foot rooted in self-parody ("narrowcast" being the opposite of "broadcast," which, let's face it, independent artists such as 3RDegree are forced to embrace), Narrow-Caster is being marketed as "power prog pop." Based firmly in the old model of 10 songs of approximately 4-5 minutes each, the album, while not so much pop, could be one of the more progressive I've heard in a while.
Primary writer Pashman (the only composer credited on all but one song) is adept at penning tight sounding songs that are outside of the standard "Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus" structure. Because he employs atypical chords and cadences in addition to some complex melody, the listener never really misses this structure. Pashman's compositional skills have progressed since 1996, so the progressive nature of 3RDegree 2008 is more organic, born in the songwriting as opposed to the meter (further developed since Human Interest Story).
Not that odd meter isn't present on Narrow-Caster. The driving 12/8 of "Apophenia" is cool; the alternating 7/8 & 4/4 feel of "It Works" is sly. Drummer Durham is proficient at weaving in and out of these to the point where they are unnoticeable, which I've always thought was immanently cooler than stringing 4 of them together and never approaching a groove. Importantly, Durham can hold down that groove when needed, as in the atmospheric "Scenery".
Guitarist Kliesch punctuates more than he flat-out riffs, ala Mike Rutherford or Andy Summers (though on "The Proverbial Banana Peel" & the Soundgarden-esque "Free For All", he lets the monster out). A technical but tasteful player, his guitar lines jab then duck out of sight, only to re-assault from another angle, as in the stabbing "and" beats of the coda on "It Works", and the Belew-esque solo on the title track.
Pashmans bass & the keyboards of he & Dobbs form the basis from which most 3RDegree songs are built on Narrow-Caster. Pashmans bass harmonics kick off the album with "Apophenia", featuring a groove that both rocks & swings. Again, he locks in with Durham in a free flowing 6 feel for "Cautionary Tale". His bass playing is intricate, melodic & solid.
The keys on Narrow-Caster are a combination of vintage sounds & fresh ones, with Dobbs' cool clavinet & Steinway grooving through "It Works", & his Hammond pumping on "Live With This Forever". Pashmans loops on "The Proverbial Banana Peel" are very current, while his swirling synth bass during the verses on the title track is suitably bizarre (just one example of the many subtle, colorful nuances on this album).
The eclectic Dobbs is in fine form as the voice of 3RDegree. A gruff sounding tenor with a nasty R&B growl at times, Dobbs takes 3RDegree over the top. So many semi-pro bands are killed by sub-par, amateur-sounding vocalists—especially some "prog" bands who opt for wailing, Geoff Tate/James LaBrie imitators who do justice to neither. None such here.
Tonally and in phrasing, Dobbs has a Joseph Williams-era Toto vibe (which I always thought was Michael Jackson-influenced). Check out the chorus line in "Apophenia": "Predisposed as you are to delusions of conspiracy." Dobbs dives & dips through some complex yet accessible melodies with acumen, and his razor edge is a nice counterbalance to the smoothly arranged harmonies his lead lines both meet & split off from. I hear Williams & The Gloved One, rocking as he did on "Smooth Criminal". Pretty cool company.
Lyrically, Narrow-Caster is predominantly a commentary on the state-of-things: it questions, it criticizes, it stings, it pokes fun, and it forces thought. Sometimes, it turns to the ugliness of actual headlines; from "Free For All": "...police that act like they're above the law/body bags for trigger happy hands for hire"; from "Cautionary Tale": "Burning crosses/falling towers/brought to you by those who were so certain that they'd go to heaven".
The themes on Narrow-Caster are clear: paranoia on "Apophenia" ("Play connect-the-dots with events that are blowing your mind,"); admonition on "It Works" ("I want to say that things are gonna change/don't think it won't go away/to something even worse,"); consequences on "Live With This Forever" ("This ain't something you can shower off, or confess to a god to feel better about"); voyeuristic pleasures on "The Proverbial Banana Peel" ("The low road that we choose/we sure do get a thrill when someone's joy is killed,"); technological payback on the title track ("I'm skipping your commercials, and I don't care what you're saying...I have so little time").
Amidst all of the stinging commentary of the modern world are some introspective pieces—particularly Pashman's largely personal "Young Once": "You already picked your path...but you forgot to do the things you said were the things you loved to do way back when." Any musician or artist who has chosen the security of a paying job over the risk of braving powdered mac & cheese dinners for the sake of their craft can sadly relate.
All praise aside, take the title literally: Narrow-Caster is not for everyone. There's no "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" here that will lift this collection much beyond its core fan base. There aren't a lot of the catchy, sing-able hooks inherent in pop music, rendering the "pop" in the marketing moniker somewhat dubious (the press release does indicate that this is the more progressive collection of tunes, to be possibly followed up by a more "pop"-oriented album). It's heady stuff that gets dark at times, and many of the musical structures may be lost on the average listener. Like many deeper dives, it takes time to settle in.
That said, 3RDegree knows when to come up for air, and Narrow-Caster never bogs down or takes itself too seriously, either. It's timely, progressive, literate, and has a lot of integrity. The more I listen, the more I like it. Most importantly, while listening to Narrow-Caster, I had to constantly remind myself that these guys actually do have day jobs.
- It Works
- Live With This Forever
- Cautionary Tale
- The Proverbial Banana Peel
- Young Once
- Free For All
- The Last Gasp