Attuned to progressive music scene

Bands: An Elkridge musician finds that stardom is elusive when no one can define the music you play.

April 26, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Being a progressive - "prog" - rock band is a lonely pursuit.

Members can't admit they're prog, for fear of being pigeonholed. People can't easily dance to their music (and radio stations rarely play it), so it doesn't sell well. And even prog fans turn on them, mercilessly dismissing all but their favorite categories of the sound, which can be broken into about all sorts sub-genres.

"There's a lot of prog snobbery," says Mike Potter, owner of Baltimore-based Orion Sound Studios, which carves its niche in the prog market. "Newer bands would itch if you labeled them a prog band - they think of Genesis and Yes and '70s progressive. But in Baltimore, there are some really good bands - like Fast Eddie - that are definitely progressive, but you know they wouldn't wear that label."

Land of Chocolate, which calls its music "avant rock," wants to be one of them.

The band just picked up its second Maryland member - guitarist Lance Zechinato of Elkridge - making its mix officially one Virginian (bassist John Jens of Leesburg), one Pennsylvanian (keyboardist/singer John Buzby of Conshohocken) and two Marylanders (drummer Sam Richardson lives in Elkton).

Baltimore is the coveted market because it's about midway for everybody, and the prog scene here is as smokin' as it gets.

"It's considered a hotbed of that kind of music," Potter says, but he is also the source of the hotbed.

Six years ago, he and Adam Levin of Severn, a prog rocker and keeper of the Progressive Rock Web site (www.progrock. net), started putting together progressive rock shows at Orion.

Today, their "Baltimore Progressive Rock Showcase Series" draws fans and bands from throughout the world. Last month alone featured Doug Wimbish (formerly of the band Living Colour - think "Cult of Personality") and David Sancious (who has played with Peter Gabriel and was a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band). The next show, with two hard-edged prog bands, is scheduled for May 18.

But there does seem to be a growing number of prog fans or at least prog interest all over, even though the major labels pretty much ignore it.

Last year, Billboard magazine announced that prog was "in the midst of a new revolution," and attendance at prog festivals such as the northeast traveling NEARfest and ProgDay in Chapel Hill, N.C., has been climbing. The 1,851 seats for the fourth NEARfest in Trenton, N.J., scheduled for June, sold in 45 minutes.

10 people, 10 answers

That is not bad for a music genre that does not quite know how to define itself. It is characterized by being uncharacteristic, not catering to the "three-minute, three-chord" rule of rock songs, Levin says.

"If you ask 10 different people, you'll get 10 different definitions," he says, "but generally the music steps outside the boundaries and plays around with atypical rhythms and instrumentation."

Influences from other types of music are big. Some prog bands have a classical edge, others are ethnic- or folk-influenced. Land of Chocolate, which rehearses at Orion, blends its music with jazz.

"We're best described as nondescript," says Zechinato, 37. "But we fuse jazz and rock and draw on contemporary stuff, too: modern and straight-out pop."

Land of Chocolate (www.land ofchocolate.net) played its second Baltimore show Saturday at Cafe Tattoo on Belair Road, a dark little bar where the soap is chained to the bathroom sink.

The crowd had a tough time figuring them out, too.

"It's '70s angst metal, white noise," said Francis Czawlytko, a Baltimore postal clerk. But to be fair, he went to the bar for the beer and not the band. In fact, most patrons were there for the booze or the band that appeared after Land of Chocolate.

"It takes more than one listen to get what we're doing," says band founder Buzby, who is 28, the same age as Jens and Richardson. "When we play, half the crowd gets a dazed look in their eyes and walks away, but the other half is hooked."

At the Cafe Tattoo show, there were definitely some glazed looks, but the band had everyone's attention. There was one lone dancer - and he was chair-bopping - but the rest stared at the tiny stage, straight-faced.

Not easy to market

That might be a reason prog is a four-letter word to record companies: It doesn't inspire intense reaction. It's not catchy, the instrumental sections are longer, and the lyrics are fairly heavy, says Chris Lamka, who runs an Internet prog record business out of his home in Bel Air (www.osmind.com).

"The music business has not gotten behind it in part because they see it as overly pompous," he says, "It doesn't fit within the pop genre. There's not a hairstyle that goes with it, there's not a clothing style that goes with it. I just don't think they anticipate that they can sell [prog] in a quantity they would need to."

And Land of Chocolate, (which is named after a Simpsons episode in which Homer dreams he's in the Land of Chocolate) doesn't anticipate striking it rich anytime soon, although members keep hoping.

"The good thing is, we all have full-time jobs," says Zechinato, who is a software engineer by day. "So we have one foot in the real world. But at the same time, we're all dreamers."

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