pilgrim’s prog-ress; or: give the drummer some whatfor

When I was in my early teens, I was a prog-rock fan. Not too unusual, since it was the mid-seventies – and I never got much beyond the obvious names, with the most left-field I got being Gentle Giant on one hand and Hatfield & the North on the other – but then punk rock happened, and although it took me a few years, in the late seventies I saw the light.

And like many newly converted, I proceeded to become obnoxiously intolerant of my former vices. This went on for several years, until I started noticing suspiciously prog-friendly moments in the oeuvres of some of my favorite current bands (let’s say it’s the late eighties or early nineties: some odd chords, some odd rhythms, the occasional burst of hotshit playing or synth soloing). It was then I realized how to stop worrying and love the prog – or at least, some of it. A lot of my old favorites returned to my playlist (one exception, whose music I still dislike strongly: ELP).

That didn’t mean, however, that certain prog habits didn’t still irk. Here’s one: I think I will blame Chad Wackerman for this, as Zappa’s longest-tenured drummer, since it’s something that shows up in a lot of his seventies and eighties work: while Zappa isn’t wholly prog, he certainly incorporated – or anticipated – many of the genre’s key traits. Ladies (if any are still reading: prog is only marginally less female-friendly than metal) and gentlemen, I present to you: the impossibly complex but utterly grooveless drum fill.

My theory as to how these come about runs something like this: drummer’s thinking, okay, the song’s in 7/8 here. Let’s see…I’ve got a four-bar solo here…four bars of 7/8 is 56 sixteenth notes…let’s subdivide that into three groups of 18 and one group of two, then subdivide the 18 into 7, 6, and 5, and then I’ll play counter-rhythms to each of those subdivisions, playing 8 notes across the 7-note span, 10 notes across the 6, and 4 across the 5…and then, the second group of 18 I’ll play that in reverse, and then the third time I’ll play the whole thing twice only twice as fast – oh wait, there are 2 sixteenth-notes at the end – uh, I’ll hit all 48 pieces of my kit as fast as I can! The drummer practices and practices and practices until he can play this ridiculous complexity perfectly, even at the 320 eighth-notes-per-minute tempo of the track; the recording comes out, and a bunch of other drummers’ jaws fall to the floor; they spend hours and hours trying to figure out what the drummer did, and when they finally figure it out, they practice and practice and practice until they can play it, so they can impress other drummers (and, in an astonishing example of wishful thinking, girls – they hope).

Trouble is, the end result sounds like a 48-piece drum kit falling down a flight of stairs, sped up thirty-two times.

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