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Triple Take: Deerhoof’s “The Runners Four”

Progressive rock has always been a hypocritical genre. The idea is right there in the title; rock ‘n’ roll that is progressive, as in pushing the boundaries of rock music without the confines of time signatures and instrumentation traditional rock n roll had existed within. While Yes, Genesis, and the other first wave of prog rockers certainly accomplished this goal by introducing synth keyboards and classical composition to the template of rock music, the genre has been stalled since the late 70’s. Ironically, prog rock has become a rigidly defined genre, where bands are expected to essentially follow in the exact footprints of their classic rock fore bearers, leading to a post millennial prog rock scene that is mostly just a retread of 40 year old ideas.

While prog rock may be locked into a holding pattern, there are many bands who took the spirit of progressive rock and applied it to push boundaries in the new millennium, and perhaps the best of them all is Deerhoof. Formed in San Francisco in the mid 90’s, Deerhoof have spent their career redefining progressive rock by upending two of it’s core tenants, or cliches, depending on your opinion of the genre. While most prog rock songs are around 10 minutes long, the average Deerhoof track rarely cracks the 3 minute mark. And while most prog bands are concerned with creating the biggest, most overstuffed instrumentation possible (take one peak at Neal Pert’s standard drum kit to see what I mean), Deerhoof have always tried to do as much as they can with just a very basic guitar, bass and skeletal drum kit. For some examples of just how effective Deerhoof are at their brand of progressive rock, let’s take a look at the fourth, fifth, and sixth song on their outstanding 2005 album The Runners Four.

First up is “Vivid Cheek Love Song.” “baby baby high five” coo’s singer and multi instrumentalist Satomi Matsuzaki as the song starts over a clean guitar strum. The track then explodes into a propulsive rock song, with build ups and break downs any fan of prog has come to know well. Lyrically, Matsuzaki has always eschewed the denser content associated with most prog rock, instead focusing on broader, more universal ideas like discovery and nature. Next is “O’Maley Former Underdog,” perhaps the most overtly proggy song on the record. Starting with an ascending synth line that blows out into a glorious organ riff, the song is a complete kaleidoscope, a classic prog track that somehow hits every possible high and low in just over 2 minutes. All the while it’s Greg Saunier’s trademark drumming that drives the song. Known for always using an absolutely minimal kit, Saunier proves here why he is one of the most highly regarded drummers working today, and why a bombastic drum kit is no match for raw skill.

The final track in the 3 song sequence is “Odyssey,” an outlier from the bands sound. Stripped down to a lightly distorted guitar and a spacey synth, Saunier sings from the prospective of a crewman on a vessel that has been lost at sea for a long time. He talks about using his companions resolve to focus him, and questioning the ability of his captain to see them through their current bind. The story song is a long tradition of progressive rock, but by keeping things short and minimal, Deerhoof once again prove they are not going to play by the old rules of the genre.

Progressive rock is one of the cornerstone of modern music. A peak into the discography of everyone from Frank Ocean to Sufjan Stevens to Kanye West reveals the indelible stamp prog has had on pop music as a whole. While Deerhoof may not fit the rigid mold progressive rock fans have applied to the genre, they are progressive rockers none the less. These three songs prove that defying traditional expectations is as much a key component of progressive rock as album side length songs and bombastic instrumentation.

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