Birth of Progressive Rock
Progressive Rock can be defined as a mixture of traditional rock instrumentation with an augmented sound palette ranging from orchestras, synthesizers, world instruments and choirs as well as elaborate stereophonic staging and production. Strongly influenced by the classical music heroes of the past, the genre carries large scale harmonic structures. Compositions avoid catchy tunes and melodies are more complex while keeping the harmony with the epic, literally rich lyrics that touch upon sci-fi, cosmic or mystic grounds in a poetic form. The music was for concentrated listening and not for dancing.
Progressive, or in other terms ‘prog rock’, was born as a result of certain artistic, sociological and economic series of events. Many would claim that the birthplace of progressive rock is England, where the genre also reached its maturity. Bands like The Beatles, especially with their ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album, Moody Blues and Procol Harum were the pioneers of the genre. In the middle of the psychedelic rock era and a social revolution, musicians who were influenced by the 60s jazz, fusion and contemporary trends were in the search for new sounds and styles to express their feelings on the counter culture. Many of these musicians had classical music backgrounds and were quite open to new technologies and experimenting on sound. These early-stage musicians had a significant influence on the big names of the genre, such as Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, Soft Machine and many more.
In addition to England, the genre was also popular in North America, where bands like Kansas and Rush emerged. On the contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t only the US or England which had a tremendous impact on the evolution of Progressive Rock. Many prog bands also emerged from countries like Germany and Italy. There is no doubt that the commercial support behind this music and the bands was much larger in scale in North America and England compared to other parts of the world. The record companies played an important role during the release and distribution of the albums worldwide. In Europe, the commercial situation wasn’t like that, instead, there was an artistic and system opposing approach that was blended with their local culture, which created the subculture movements like Krautrock, Zeuhl and RIO (Rock In Opposition). The stories of Krautrock or Italian progressive rock are a totally different article topic to be discussed separately. Hence the situation was similar in Turkey, but with the addition of Anatolian Folk culture blended into the music. The difference in Progressive Rock compared to other rock genres was mainly the instruments and compositions of the songs. Synthesizers such as the Hammond Organ and Mellotron played a significant role. On the other hand, due to the reformist aspect of the genre, musicians did not hesitate to adapt local instruments into their music.
1970s : Best Years and Fathers of Turkish Progressive Rock
The early and late 1970s were the peak period for progressive rock music globally. Turkey wasn’t too far away from this movement. Anatolian Pop was quite popular from the mid-1960s which was mostly influenced by psychedelic rock in Europe and the US. Although they didn’t have wide capabilities in terms of technical facilities, studios and instruments like their European peers, they were quite successful and had the urge to make music and find a local path to follow which was later called the Anatolian Rock. The Eastern influence aspect of progressive rock was a perfect fit for musicians of Anatolia as they were born into this culture. The genre became more popular towards the mid and late 1970s and certain musicians adapted to the style a bit more than the others, or preferred to specifically produce prog albums such as Bunalım, Barış Manço with Kurtalan Ekspres, Cem Karaca with Dervişan and later Edirdahan, Moğollar in a few of their albums, Erkin Koray with Elektronik Türküler album and Fikret Kızılok with his band Tehlikeli Madde.
Barış Manço, had the opportunity to follow the latest news and fashion in Europe, as he studied at university in Belgium and he kept visiting in the following years. Towards the end of the 1970s, he decided to move the clavier, such as the Hammond organ, to the forefront of his sound. ‘Yeni Bir Gün’ (A New Day) album that represented this sound became one of the major works of the Manço & Kurtalan Ekspres cooperation. It was maybe one of the most sophisticated prog rock albums of the decade and the entirety Anatolian Rock history.
Erkin Koray was a fan of Arabesque music and he frequently adapted tunes from the Middle East by adding Turkish lyrics, in addition to his own compositions. But in 1974, his tendency to prog rock showed itself in the ‘Elektronik Türküler’ album, where he composed all eight songs in the album himself. The songs ‘Cemalim’, ‘Türkü’ and ‘Karlı Dağlar’ were the best examples of the prog folk genre and the album became one of the best hits of all time.
Meanwhile, as Turkey rapidly drifted towards the political poles, Cem Karaca was marching in the forefront of the left-wing who opposed exploitation and corruption, and the most striking example of this stance was ‘Tamirci Çırağı’ in 1975. Cem Karaca and Dervişan released the album ‘Yoksulluk Kader Olamaz’ in the spring of 1975 (Poverty Can Not Be Destiny) which is considered one of the milestones of progressive rock in Turkish rock history. The record, which was also the singer’s first studio album, became widely popular despite its harsh sound and reached the top of the charts. Taner Öngür took part in a progressive rock project called T.A.N.K. with Aydın Cakuş, Nur Yenal and Kılıç Danışman in 1974. The band recorded a single with two songs, but when Discotur record company failed to publish it, thinking the record would not be sold, Öngür destroyed the recordings.
Barış Manço, Cem Karaca, Erkin Koray and Moğollar were big names in the 1970s and in the following decades. Mogollar disbanded until 1993, Karaca went to Germany, Manço changed his musical direction towards popular sounds and Koray adapted a style closer to Arabesque as he always loved the genre. The global trend in the 80s was punk and disco but a few bands insisted on remaining in the prog arena in Turkey during those years.
Icons of Turkish Progressive Rock
Besides the big names of the 70s who ignited the Anatolian Rock spirit, certain bands produced albums that are regarded as the best memorable examples of Turkish progressive rock music. Following their symphonic and progressive rock passion around the mid 70s, a group of high school students from the Izmir College formed 21. Peron, but could not manage to release any singles or albums. They were able to release only a few demo recordings. The band performed in Izmir as the opening act for Embryo during their 1978 Asia tour. In 1979, the band participated in an audition to attend the Eurovision Song Contest with Maria Rita Epik and was selected to represent Turkey, but the government did not allow the band to go to Israel due to political reasons.
21.Peron disbanded in 1980. Years later in 2003, their recordings in 1975 & 77 were released in CD and LP formats by Arkaplan, which contributed to the Turkish Prog archive with this rare example. 21. Peron is still performing and producing albums. Their latest album ‘Sanki Hep Buradaydik’ was released in 2018, which is quite different from their 70s sound.
While studying in the Medical Faculty in Ankara, Murat Kemaloğlu produced his own album ‘Kaplumbağaların Uykusuna Dek’ (Until the Turtles Fell Asleep) in the early 1980s. It was different from everything done before. It had psychedelic and prog elements at the same time. He constructed an atmosphere shaped by the dark environment with very subtle words. Although Kemaloğlu made no effort to promote the album, this dark mood attracted a specific group of fans and the album climbed to the top rows of the Hey Magazine music charts. With this album, he created a unique and timeless work which remained fresh to this day.
Towards the end of the 70s and early 80s, a Franco-Turkish combo progressive rock band Asia Minor released two albums back to back; Crossing The Line (1979) and Between Flesh and Divine (1980), which was following the footsteps of Camel and Jethro Tull from a sound perspective.
Hardal, released the album ‘Nasıl? Ne Zaman?’ (How? When?) in 1980 when arabesque was starting to take over the entire Turkish music market. It was labelled as ‘Turkish Rock In Western Norms’ and featured a broken Medusa head on the cover.
The album did not sell initially although the band’s work was good quality, but sold out shortly afterwards and found buyers of illegally recorded tapes for years. Finally, in 2020, the album was released in LP format again. Today, this album is listed as one of the best Turkish Prog Rock albums of all time.
Late 1990s & beyond : Prog Gets Metalized
The 1980s and early 90s were the years of global decline for progressive rock. In the 1980s heavy metal and glam rock, and in the next decade grunge and alternative rock became quite popular. On the other hand, during the days under the shadow in Turkey, there were small movements in the metal & rock scene. Bands like Pentagram (Mezarkabul) released hard rock and metal albums with prog elements, Kronik and Dr Skull were active in the metal scene and Bulutsuzluk Özlemi, Kesmeşeker and Mavisakal took the forefront of the softer side of Turkish rock scene in Turkey.
Towards the late 90s progressive rock started to emerge once again. Replikas and Nekropsi (from Istanbul) were the best examples of the genre in those years. The album ‘Köledoyuran’ by Replikas was a rare example of that period when no other band had the courage to create such an experimental album. It had a touch of Anatolian Rock, but at the same time, involved modern prog elements. With the success of the first album, they managed to play as the opening act for Alanis Morissette’s Istanbul concert.
Replikas also composed music for films as well, which was later compiled in an album called ‘Film Müzikleri’ (Film Scores). Replikas also took part in Fatih Akın’s documentary “Crossing the Bridge”; pieces from their albums have been used in various short and feature-length movies. The band recorded their fifth album Zerre in a complex that they transformed into a studio environment, formerly a prison located on Gökçeada Island. The sixth album ‘Biz Burada Yok İken’ (When We Were Not Here) consists of covers from the 1965-75 Anatolian Pop period which they performed with their unique style and became one of the best albums of their entire discography.
Nekropsi’s first album ‘Mi Kubbesi’ (The Dome of Mi* E note), which was ahead of its time, was released in 1996. Although they were playing thrash and speed metal earlier, certain changes in the band moved them towards a more local sound and they tried testing their limits with instrumental compositions. Their music was a blend of jazz fusion with Anatolian Pop melodies, fueled up with good musicianship, with fast rhythmic drums, heavy bass lines and dual guitar. The album sales were quite good without any promotion. With three more albums in the new millennium, Nekropsi, 1998 and Aylık Monthly, they consolidated their position in the Turkish prog scene. It can be said that every song represented a different culture in Mi Kubbesi. Hindu, Sufi, Anatolia, Istanbul, jazz and fusion, rock and metal, syncopated rhythms and many more were boiling in the same pot. Nekropsi used experimentalism in their music.
Siddhartha released a single album in 1998 with both prog and psych elements. Widely known among prog and space rock lovers, they were mostly doing live shows during the 90s. Although the band did not follow the 1970s sound and created their own 90s version, it is possible to sense the Pink Floyd and Krautrock influence in their music. The band’s only album was released by Ada Music who also supported many alternative bands and genres in the country. Listening to this album is like ‘A Trip to Innerself’ just like the opening track whispers to us. It’s a trippy and spacey album, with intense and gentle musicianship.
Nemrud is one of the best symphonic and atmospheric progressive rock bands in Turkey. The band made three albums since 2010, all of which received great feedback and the band created a celestial space rock with classic, jazz and avant-garde components using synths and strings heavily. Nemrud band was named after the religious sanctuary established on Mount Nemrut which was part of King Antiochus’ political program to revive the Persian traditions of Commagene. The huge statues built on the Nemrut mountain top dates back to 62 BC.
The band’s first album in 2010, Journey of the Shaman is a concept album comprising three parts, telling a Turkish mythological story about ‘The Epic of Creation of Altai’ where good and evil clash. The good and evil are interpreted as Ulgen, the good one and Erlik, the evil one. The second album, Ritual in 2013 was a step up for Nemrud which probably became their best work. Finally, they released the ‘Nemrud’ album in 2016. The commonality in all three albums is the dark ambience, sophisticated and well-thought lyrics and flow of melodies through the long-lasting songs but keeping the interest tied. It is possible to find a bit of Eloy and Camel influence in Nemrud’s music.
Kök released their only album, Bilmece (Riddle) in 2013 and a few singles in recent years. Formed by the members of Nekropsi, and adding the Siddhartha drummer to the band, Kök became a trio. The rather distorted but melodic guitar sound catches a great harmony with the roaring bass and the eccentric rhythms. There are no mediocre songs in the album, each has its own vibe and makes you listen to the album over and over. They slowed down a little bit in their recent singles, which means their music became more mature. The songs are still good quality and Kök is worth listening to. Also, the cover work for the single ‘Sanki’ is quite special, illustrated by talented hands.
Music of Kök is swaying between prog and post-rock, their compositions are experimental and original. They keep releasing singles which eventually will be gathered in their next album.
Kamlama album by Kes is an experimental work that the musicians composed and played for themselves; their aim was not to suit the market demands. It was an oasis in the desert for prog lovers who already admired the music of Nekropsi, Replikas et al, and not surprisingly the producer of the Kamlama album is a Nekropsi member. Kamlama means Shaman Ritual, which is also emphasized on the cover.
The trio plays in great harmony, their sound is dark, heavy and melodic. Song names represent the objects, rituals or concepts that exist within Shamanism, where many prog bands of Anatolia refer. Modern artists frequently look back and go through the mysticism and symbols of Shamanism where they find a cultural convergence. It could be possible to admit that the tendency within the society towards alternative beliefs and cultural systems increased in recent years as a result of radical religious voices becoming disturbingly louder.
The Shamanic aspect in Turkish prog music cannot be undeniable. Guiding spirits of archaic cultures inspire many artists. Just like the Shamans were assigned the tasks to become the bridge between worlds and present the thoughts to the community in an artistic and spiritual way, the modern artist feels this responsibility to transfer the knowledge in the form of art, and the prog musician is one of those who strongly feel this responsibility more than the others and shares via complicated tunes or profound lyrics.
Another interesting band to mention is Gevende. In some of their albums, the band invented a special language and wrote lyrics with no meaning at all which were still in unison with the music. About one of their best albums ‘Kırınardı’ released in 2017, the band implies in their own words: ‘Kırınardı reflects a state of mind searching for a way out of the dilemma between leaving, and staying in our own space focusing on struggling by creating.’
The band travelled a lot to discover new sounds and played in many international festivals; this might be the reason why a different taste of music from all around the world can be found in Gevende’s music. The concert in Mezzo Voce, France was a great performance which was also released as an album in 2014.
We can also list a few other good albums which are slightly hidden and are worth mentioning and adding to the list. You may also find a Spotify playlist below with songs from these albums;
Scales album by Mauna Kea is referred to as one of the best alternative music releases of 2012. Mauna Kea’s sound is a hybrid between progressive post-rock and electronic music. Its cover design is also intriguing.
The album Obi was released by prog/stoner rock band Kafabidunya in 2012. Songs are mostly instrumental and the mood changes from quiet passages to high noise levels are worth mentioning.
Kirkbinsinek released two albums, first one ‘Sis Pus Sus’ in 2015 and then ‘Toprak Ana’ (Mother Earth) in 2019. Both were successful albums, with deep and meaningful Turkish lyrics. The albums have psychedelic influence as well, which is a typical comment ascribed to Turkish bands with Anatolian or local tunes blended into their songs. But in my opinion, both albums have a strong prog influence as well.
Dreamcatcher album was released in 2020 by keyboard and synth player Mert Topel, formerly known from the band Fenomen. His band’s style may fall into jazz/rock/fusion. Although not completely prog rock, I would like to add Korhan Futacı to this list, as he is one of the most productive jazz-rock, fusion, psychedelic and avant-garde musicians of Turkey. Both as a singer and a saxophone player he contributed to many different projects such as Tamburada in 2005, DANdadaDAN in 2006 with the same crew, Kara Orkestra in 2011 and released ‘Pavurya’ in 2012, and also have been playing with the improvisational jazz ensemble Konstrukt.
From a global perspective, the recent few decades were quite productive for progressive rock especially after merging with heavy metal in the 90s. New genres such as progressive metal and neo-progressive were born. The music required the craftsmanship of instrumental virtuosity, the quality and hence the expectation of the audience was quite high. Many concept albums are still being released with intense lyrics telling a story. Seeing the interest in the genre, bands from the 70s are creating new albums and still touring for concerts around the world. Prog-like genres such as stoner and post-rock also became quite popular and many great albums are being released.
In Turkey, there were rare examples of progressive rock bands in the past and the scene was kept alive by a handful of musicians. However, recent times are much more promising and albums contain a bit more electronic touch while the musical quality stands at high levels. Local culture is widely integrated into their modern sounds and thanks to the accessible technology that allows high-quality recording with fewer costs, and to the internet where sharing became much easier, many good albums and bands come to the surface as such can be heard in the above examples. Besides well-known streaming platforms, I strongly suggest music lovers to follow Bandcamp which is a great platform to discover new music.
* Some of the youtube videos are from Anatolian Rock Revival Project which contributes to the scene by promoting the songs with remarkable illustrations.