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Progressive Politics

11 January 2018 | 3:44 pm | Rod Whitfield

"It shouldn't be a case of 'we just stuck this band on the bill because they have a woman in the band'. To me, that's just tokenism."

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Progressive rock. Progressive metal. Or, to wrap it all up in one nice, convenient box, the sub-genre known affectionately by its aficionados as 'prog'. On the eve of Australia's premier — in fact, only true progressive heavy music festival Progfest — it's a great time to talk about this fairly divisive, and what some consider to be a somewhat esoteric genre of music.

Having had its true genesis (pun intended) and peak during the '70s, the genre has had a renaissance of sorts over the last 10 years or so, both here in Australia and around the world. With prog in a place of good health, The Music chats in-depth with members of three of the key acts making appearances on the 2018 Progfest lineup — Einar Solberg from the festival's first ever major international headliner, Norwegian group Leprous; Simone Dow from Perth legends Voyager; and Tibor Gede from Melbourne avant-garde rockers Alithia — to discuss the origins and relative health of the scene, its future, how well regarded Australia's scene is and the dearth of women playing in progressive bands.

People within the Australian progressive music scene, the bands themselves, the industry folk and the fans, know exactly what a fabulous scene it is and how much talent there is on offer. While it is world class in quality, the same is not said of its profile. Outside the echo chamber we call 'the Aussie progressive scene', it remains largely unknown in this country, let alone the rest of the world.

A good litmus test of this is to ask someone from a long way away what they know of the Aussie scene, and Solberg, Leprous' charismatic singer, fits the bill nicely. He hails from about as far away from Australia as you can get and has only ever visited Aussie shores once. His knowledge of Australian progressive rock and metal is, unsurprisingly and completely understandably, limited to the absolute pointy end of the scene and the acts that his own band has toured with.

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"I know a few," he states somewhat hesitantly, speaking from his home in Oslo. "The biggest ones would be Karnivool, then of course you have Caligula's Horse, and Voyager who we toured with last time, Alithia who we just toured Europe with. And that pretty much sums up my knowledge. Unless you call AC/DC progressive rock!," he laughs.

There are many reasons behind this which Solberg is very aware of and is quick to point them out. "It must be difficult being from Australia and making it into the music industry," he muses. "Every time you want to go somewhere else in Australia it costs a fortune. Especially the bands from Perth, they've got their own city and then the closest thing might be Indonesia, and that's not a great touring market.

"And then there's the rest of the world, you are so isolated, you have to reach a certain level to ensure that the travel doesn't have that much of an impact on your budget."

Gede is in an excellent position to be able to comment on this topic. The Melbourne band has toured and recorded extensively in international markets, as well as Australia, and Gede has a unique take on what the term 'prog' means to him.

"For me, I think it symbolises two very important things in what's happening in music today," Gede explains. "Prog for me is kind of the new punk rock. I talk to a lot of people about it, and a lot of them say that all the new punk, rock and hardcore bands, it's all very polished now. Punk rock was always about doing something unique, doing something very authentic, something real and without being concerned about the material side of it, whether you have any commercial success.

"Punk rock was always about 'fuck it, we're going to do what we believe in and what we love and that's who we are'. Whereas now, and I don't want to criticise an entire scene or genre, but I'd say prog very much represents that more. It's one of the most honest scenes you can get now."

He feels that it's the progressive bands now that completely eschew all attempts to appeal to a broad audience in a commercial sense and simply follow their hearts and creative muses. "There is just no commercial inclusivity for this style of music," he adds. "Nobody cares, people just do whatever the fuck they want to do, and for me that's punk rock in its very spirit."

As one of a very small percentage of women in progressive music on the festival lineup — as well as the Australian scene and the genre across the planet - Voyager's co-lead guitar slinger Simone Dow can definitely see an issue when it comes to the amount of females in prog. However, she would prefer more proactive responses to this issue than the reactive ones we seem to have now.

"What I've been seeing recently is stuff like, there was a festival where people were getting a bit up in arms because there wasn't enough of a female representation on the lineup," Dow explains. "For me, as a woman looking at what goes on I see a lot of people trying to treat the symptom and not the cause. This whole thing of 'we need x amount of women on festivals' and stuff like that, it's just not the right way of going about it. There just isn't a 50/50 representation, especially in rock, let's be realistic. It shouldn't be a case of 'we just stuck this band on the bill because they have a woman in the band'. To me, that's just tokenism."

Gede has more of a broad overview as to why there is a far lower representation of women in the progressive music movement than that of their male counterparts. While we've come a long way since those dark times when women were considered men's property, and weren't even allowed to vote, he feels there is still a long way to go before women have true equality in broader society.

"I think the gender imbalance is more across the board in general," Gede opines. "I think just generally as a community there is still so much work to do to nurture and support and empower women to be involved, there's still a lot of old school attitudes around. It's definitely in the prog world but I don't think it's a prog-specific thing."