Distributed by Zeitgeist Media, 301 Potter Lane, Rockville, MD 20850; 240-505-8696
Produced by Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder
Directed by Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder
DVD, color, 95 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Music, Rock Music, Progressive Rock, Art Rock, Popular Music
Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland
Date Entered: 3/10/2011
The world of rock music yields genres and sub-genres at an exponential rate. This presents a challenge for music scholars, especially those who need to approach the topic from a general standpoint when providing instruction on the history of rock. In the past ten years many insightful documentaries were produced on the artists, genres, and communities under the widening umbrella that is rock music. The documentary Romantic Warriors is one of the first to approach “progressive music,” a style of music that evolved in Britain in the late 1960s and flourished internationally during the 1970s, before subsiding with the advent of punk and New Wave later in that same decade. The genre, more regularly referred to as “progressive rock” (as it is called throughout the film), is known for instrumental virtuosity, longer song forms, and complex musical gestures constructed of odd meters and rigorously syncopated rhythms; lyrics steeped in mysticism and mythology are common. The artists featured in Romantic Warriors adhere to the practices typical of progressive rock. This film effectively explores the American community supporting newer artists; however, the genre as a whole is given limited attention resulting in a fairly incomplete context for the larger topic.
In the documentary’s description, the filmmakers state “young bands of today have transformed progressive music into something new,” and their film seeks to highlight newer artists and demonstrate how they subsist decades after progressive rock’s heyday, while paying tribute to their influences. The DVD consists of the documentary, which is divided into five chapters: 1. RoSfest & Prog World Map; 2. Orion Sound Studio; 3. Gentle Giant; 4. ProgDay; and 5. NEARfest. Three of the five chapters examine American progressive rock festivals (two of which are in Pennsylvania, the other in North Carolina), and Orion Sound Studios (located in Baltimore) frequently hosts progressive band performances. Throughout those chapters, several newer progressive rock bands are interviewed or shown during performance. The Gentle Giant chapter focuses on the 1970s English progressive rock band.
Aside from the quick geographic overview provided in the first chapter with the “Prog World Map,” Romantic Warriors looks out at the present world of progressive rock from a Mid-Atlantic United States perspective. The artists featured in this film are predominantly based on the American east coast and release their recordings with independent labels (excluding Gentle Giant). In the promotional materials for this documentary, the filmmakers explain, “While the music’s international, cross-cultural appeal receives due coverage, the Eastern United States and the Baltimore-Philadelphia region, specifically, are acknowledged as the cradle of progressive rock’s post-1970s artistic renaissance.” There is some discussion on why this genre of music remains active in that particular region of the United States, but not to any great depth.
The Mexican band Cabezas de Cera receives a significant amount of coverage and stands out from the other contemporary artists as the most compelling and engaging. Indeed, the filmmakers may have produced a better documentary that focused solely on Cabezas de Cera, especially considering the quality of their music and their fairly unique status as a burgeoning progressive rock band from Mexico City. The band members speak passionately about their music, the role it has in each of their lives, and what it means for them to perform the songs for listeners. The other newer artists featured in this documentary are significantly less appealing than Cabezas de Cera, personally and musically. Consequently, the film can be dull and uninspiring at times due to a curious lack of dynamic personalities and/or profound insights for the other artists interviewed.
It is not immediately clear why Gentle Giant is singled out for examination in this film. They are certainly a model of the consummate progressive rock band, as they incorporated the techniques of classical music, jazz, and experimental music to a greater degree than others, while each member was also responsible for a wider array of instrument types (strings, winds, keyboards, percussion, vocals) than their peers. Furthermore, Gentle Giant is frequently cited as influential to recent artists interested in expanding the boundaries of rock music. However, the legacy of Gentle Giant has not proven as revered as their contemporaries (King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Rush, etc.). Not surprisingly, the interviews with Gary Green of Gentle Giant come across as slightly bitter and defensive, and the band’s inclusion actually detracts from the focus on the younger bands.
The music heard in Romantic Warriors is clearly influenced by the earlier proponents of progressive rock. The newer bands all feature various keyboards (analog and digital), acoustic and electric guitars, some winds, and ethnic percussion instruments. Moreover, some of the music featured here is more reminiscent of eclectic world music or fusion, genres that certainly informed progressive rock for decades (see Peter Gabriel and later Rush). That said, the virtuosic excess common to progressive rock is evident during an overly-dramatic Karmakanic keyboard solo (111:00 into the film), exemplifying what caused many listeners to abandon progressive rock in the late 1970s for simpler forms.
The audio quality is inconsistent throughout the film. Rehearsal footage is quite unreliable as a source for appreciating the music. The concert performances are notably better, but are also somewhat unbalanced. These sonic issues become more glaring when studio recordings are interspersed throughout the soundtrack.
For the most part, this is not a movie about progressive rock as it is known to most avid rock listeners. The genre’s monumental artists are referenced and cited as sources of inspiration, but their contributions to the genre and role in actually shaping it – and later departing from it – are barely explored. Thus, as a source for understanding the larger progressive rock genre, this documentary is lacking. What students and scholars can learn from Romantic Warriors is more readily available from articles in popular music encyclopedias on the topic, or from Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements (2009), a BBC documentary.
These criticisms aside, Romantic Warriors is an excellent study of the independent and self-sustaining American progressive rock communities. The film’s greatest value is demonstrating how this community, much like those for indie rock or techno (and many others), can endure outside of the mainstream, yet still have an international scope. This capacity for sustained existence, of course, is now due in large part to social media technology, including those dating back to the early-1990s (i.e. listservs and chat groups). An additional strength for the film is the extensive footage devoted to the creative process via home-music making. Viewers can easily see up-close the unconventional instruments in use, how they are modified, and even which software applications are employed for effects and composition. The role of technology in performance and songwriting is also addressed. Romantic Warriors best serves existing progressive rock enthusiasts who have already acquired historical knowledge of the genre, but also effectively reveals the socio-communal customs of the practitioners in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, which may prove of interest to musicologists.