Every word of Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness is burned into my brain. So too are the album’s subtle motifs and, no less, its more obvious ones. This is largely because, for a spell in the mid-2000s, progressive rock concept albums—with their overwrought titles, literary pretensions and echoing structures that keep folding in on themselves—were the pinnacle of achievement for a certain kind of scene nerd, an archetype with which I am intimately familiar. Bands like Coheed & Cambria explored a contemporary version of the prog classics that they had grown up with, like Rush’s 2112, while bands like Gatsbys American Dream and Forgive Durden took the prog mantle into a new direction by incorporating overtly pop elements into their twisting sonic narratives while also aspiring to literary ambitions that went well beyond the confines of prog’s standard genre, high fantasy.
Even if this recommendation may fall on deaf ears for all who weren’t there at the time, there are many elements to recommend this period of prog, perhaps chief among them the astounding depth of many of these albums and the way that they tell stories with their music, their lyrics and the interplay between the two. A decade and a half later and Between the Heart and the Synapse and Volcano will still turn up new discoveries on each close listening. There’s so much thought poured into these records, a sense that the artists understood the value of their listeners’ time and didn’t want to waste a moment of it, no matter how frequently their albums were spun.
What these albums rarely did well, a shortcoming that most understood enough to avoid it entirely, was to tell a coherent story with their lyrics. (Which is not to say that lyrics from this era were bad. Quite the contrary. Many of these albums avoided “pure narrative” lyrics and had great success along the way. I’m not much for tattoos but if I ever break and go full sleeve, rest assured that a number of lines from Gatsbys Amerian Dream and the Receiving End of Sirens will make the cut.) I may know every word of that Coheed record, just as I do with each of The Dear Hunter’s various Acts albums, and yet I have absolutely no idea what is occurring in the purported narratives that those albums claim to communicate, largely because those narratives are not wholly communicated in the source material, instead requiring outside inputs and explanations to be understood. This struggle has long been my chief disagreement with musicals: It’s nearly impossible to tell a compelling story while draping that story across independently engaging musical numbers. In the balancing act of song and story, it is almost always true that one must be sacrificed to the needs of the other.
The release of the Hamilton film on Disney+ has brought Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece back into the zeitgeist and while much of that discussion has focused on the complications inherent in the show’s plot revolving around fictionalized versions of the Founding Fathers, a group of people who, despite their words, did not believe that all men (or, more accurately, people) were created equal, it has also exposed a vast number of people to Miranda’s astonishing musical achievement. Because Hamilton is that rarest of creatures, in which song and story stand side by side and, rather than each aspect devouring the other, they further enrich one another, each making the other greater through partnership than either would be in isolation.
In keeping with a Broadway tradition that prog has very much adopted, each main character has a theme that appears in various mutations throughout the show, often in ways that won’t be uncovered until the listener is a dozen spins deep. The show’s narrative, robust yet trim, covers vast amounts of plot action and yet never flags or becomes burdensome, its literal and metaphorical depth as endless as that of the music with which it is intrinsically intertwined. There’s simply so much to dig into in Hamilton, an endless supply of auditory allusions and lyrical references that never get in their own way, leaving a clean and clear narrative that is both easily understood and profoundly moving.
Perhaps the most underrated of Miranda’s achievements is how he was able to weave generations of song stylings into one cohesive piece of music. Hamilton has been hailed as Broadway’s hip-hop breakthrough but that is only one of many genres given a turn throughout the show. Experimenting with genre is a prog staple—look no further than The Dear Hunter’s “King of Swords (Reversed),” a bonafide disco track, and a fitting comparison considering that Hamilton’s “The Room Where It Happens” feels like it could have been nestled on the Violet EP of The Dear Hunter’s The Color Spectrum. Hamilton honors that exploratory lineage in the grandest possible sense, exploring genre not for just for the sake of exploration (which is a worthy reason all the same) but because diverse sonic elements are necessary to communicate the diverse emotional freight of the show’s narrative.
Prog is a genre bound only by imagination, its roots reaching through rock and jazz to baroque classical with nearly any genre since open to incorporation, and so the inclusion of show tunes and hip-hop only excludes Hamilton from the genre to those that are both ignorant of the show’s content and the genre’s origins. What Miranda has achieved is remarkable, the type of achievement that can be appreciated by anyone but should be especially beloved by theater nerds and, if there is any justice in the world, prog scene kids like me.