Sasha and John Digweed, circa 2000

            PROGRESSIVE HOUSE: WHERE ARE WE IN 2020?

Having been recently inspired by online lockdown DJ sets in recent weeks by the genre’s defining long-term stalwart DJs (Anthony Pappa, Nick Warren, John Digweed – just three names among the tidal wave of others) then realising that thousands are not with you on the club or festival dancefloor – but with you on the cyber-dancefloors at home. It begs the question if we’re all collectively losing our minds with a beer, wine or other in our lounges, all over the , in front of a live stream – there must be a future in good old prog, mustn’t there? It’s more than just doof-doof for the dad generation, isn’t it? Progressive House is a sub-genre of House Music which has not often been documented in recent years. So, after a little digging: here are current talking points surrounding it and perspectives to consider. I’ll also be in touch with pivotal figures in Australia regarding the importance of prog.

Like a musical switch gradually flicking teased brain into big-eyed happiness; the sensory penny drops, something dawns on you, having kept your attention for a while – and it sinks in and keeps occurring. Longer than a piece of popular electronic music, it would often be a build-up of many sound elements. Maybe a piano twinkle in the background, some astronomical bleeping sounds; a slow, subtle warbling bassline contrasted by a swift series of whooshing sounds. Reaching a peak, stopping the drums for a while; possibly changing pace or pitch for thirty seconds – then reverting back in a crescendo of all these elements. This could be a summation of a progressive house track’s characteristics.

Often viewed by its highly partisan following – as would a vintage wine to a vintner, known particularly for its year of production; body and exquisite taste – in a positive sense you could compare a 2012 Barossa Shiraz with a 2001 Bedrock release. Alternatively, you could be brutally honest and compare another track with the opposite end of the wine market as a $5 bargain from a bottle shop. Cheap plonk, twinned with what we now recognise as a confused version of prog house by the vast majority of DJs and producers which appear when you Google “Progressive House’. All a bit twee. Still, as wine in general is now mass-produced – so is this, our beloved brand of dance music, a sign of our times.

We can also remind ourselves that the urban legend of producers being five years ahead of the mainstream curve, people such as Giorgio Moroder (happy 80th birthday to him today, April 26th) in the 1970s became progressive electronic producers that top pop artists such as David Bowie, Blondie and Janet Jackson as well as Hollywood movie companies wanted to employ his talents for their musical gain – so in the nineties did Sasha and Paul Oakenfold become hot property producers and write huge, bombastic scores for Madonna, for video games and raising the profile of progressive house and trance in the more commercial arenas.

A screenshot of a social media post

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The point of the matter is – Progressive House in the evolving digital age has done what people tend to be doing – adapting by the guiding hands of time, circumstance and the truly dedicated producers and DJs, changing their identities and styles as they grow with technology, then returning to how it all began by simply – growing up. There are always growing – such as knowing your identity, when musical categories are morphing into others. While prog purists were surely clucking when their off-the-rails teenage offspring genre was dragged through the streets of the charts by having itself claimed by growing teenage upstarts, playing…nothing like progressive house. How very dare they?! Still, at least we have satire to ensure we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Right?

As Hammarica’s quite (hopefully) believable topic from December 2013 suggested – Sasha was to sue Beatport and Hardwell for the hijacking of the genre’s identity (https://www.hammarica.com/sasha-to-sue-beatport-hardwell-for-hijack-of-prog-house/).

Ironically if you Google ‘Progressive House’, get ready for violent face-palming at the list of DJs. You have to get past the first hurdle of artists who have never to any Global Underground CD on the first page.

If we look at the demographics of this genre and without paraphrasing past articles – as Dom Phillips, the ex-editor of Mixmag during the booming times of dance music; the nineties – said in 1992:

            “It’s possible to go out and hear mad but melodic music that makes you want to dance. Progressive House we’ll call it. It’s simple, it’s funky, it’s driving, and it could be British.”

While Disco and House at first came exclusively from the USA; New York and Chicago specifically, British labels such as Guerilla Records (notably different from today’s Guerrilla Records based in Spain), Stress and Hooj Choons began releasing slightly longer tracks with these recognisable breakdowns and extended, heightening build-ups by artists such as Spooky, dividing the tracks into rolling sound arrangements. What followed upon the rocketing rise of House Music at a time of far fewer categories and the prevalent rebellion of post-rave, hedonistic Britain leading ravers from the fields into the clubs – was the remarkable effect those DJs and producers had upon where we are today, musically.

Flag posts of new eras to come were pitched the world from these labels and the DJs who played their releases at iconic clubs and club nights. The USA already had their established clubs and superstar DJs who brought the industry across the Atlantic pond via the early years of House and post-disco. It was time for a new generation of DJs, with new sounds, new vigour and their own followers. Added to the fact these sounds had reached Australia (as well as the rest of the western world in different quantities), a global musical was bubbling. When Sasha and Digweed first met and began a DJ partnership in 1993, playing renowned gigs at in Mansfield, it brought the first tidal wave of attention and recognition to the sound of this type of music, supported by DJs such as Nigel Dawson, Dave Seaman, Ian Ossia and Parks and Wilson.

The social effect of Ibiza – where Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, Trevor Fung, Ian Saint Paul, Nicky Holloway and Johnnie Walker went in 1987 – then returned to London to spread the gospel of House Music and Music, which became THE holiday destination for clubbing in Europe – now in 2020, we see more of today’s Progressive House DJs as having as big – if not a bigger and more regular, amicable touring affinity throughouurt each year with South America. Places such as Cordoba in Argentina and Warung Beach in Brazil now appear to have grasped the hearts along with new generations of fans for today’s superstar prog DJs. Along with the influence Hernan Cattaneo has had on that particular continent since the turn of the century, it could be argued it has snatched the mantle from the White Island for the hotbed and heart of progressive house.

As for the music; the tracks which led the way from the early days in the nineties; you’d span hugely influential productions which also crossed genre borders – such as Leftfield’s ‘Not Forgotten’, Spooky’s Little Bullet; Andronicus’ ‘Make You Whole’, to Bedrock’s ‘For What You Dream Of’, to Cass & Slide’s ‘Perception’ at the end of that decade. Or anything to come from either John Graham’s or Barry Jamieson’s studios, for that matter. The list would be enormous and equally glorious, as well as sparking widespread debate among veteran fans for the pecking order of big “choons”. There’s certainly something to be said about either melancholy or ecstatic chords, long contemplative breakdowns and definitively uplifting strings, or vocals; or vocal samples thrown together into elongated musical recordings – these are hardy elements which have defined progressive house since it was first recognised around thirty years ago.

So, what do we know in 2020 Australia? We know that many of the same DJs are still leading the way and keeping many of the same followers as were ecstatically dancing to their music twenty years ago. Yet, just to bolster our faith in prog – we have a new generation of DJs and producers who are everywhere to be seen at festivals, whose tracks are being played by ones we would call “legends. In Melbourne alone, we have more recent heavyweight names such as Eric Lune, GMJ, Matter, Uone, as well as stalwart veterans Jamie Stevens and Anthony Pappa. Arguably, Global Underground’s DJ mix CD domination for the nineties and noughties has now been caught by the Balance series, run by Melbourne’s Tom Pandzic. Store DJ is visited by the biggest DJs from all over the world, for advice by technological mastermind, DJ, producer and Pioneer developer Phil K. While the preferred sub-genres for the younger dancefloors would more likely be tech-house and vocal house – progressive house is not for the dads’ generation. Progress has been made.

This week’s important insight is from James Thewlis, based in Brisbane – who administers Facebook’s popular 21C Progressive House group along with Robert Clark, who is based in Dundee, Scotland. Neither has actually met one another. Social media allowed them to discuss their love of progressive house, share sounds and connect. This is testament to how music brings people together – and for Facebook actually being good for something. At an (sorry for the next gratuitously-used word) unprecedented time – where social distancing has made online forums the new coffee shops or bars – familiarising your own interests with a passionate community who in turn – shares each of their own, including industry who are happy to share their own mixes and experiences, has to be beneficial. As Danny Tenaglia, one of the world’s most recognisable superstar DJs known for playing progressive house rightly said, “Music Is The Answer.”

With your 21C Progressive House Facebook group having just turned one this month (congratulations!), where exactly did your first ideas of starting such a group – actually begin – and how did you (based in Brisbane) and Robert (based in Scotland) pull your ideas together?

Starting with the easy questions I see. Thanks for the congratulations, but really that goes to the 21CPH members, who contribute quality content to the group every day.

The story about the group is relatively simple, but I suppose on reflection was years and years in the making.

I’ve always been into house music ever since I was a kid.  For years and years it was mainly all I listened to but by the mid-2000s I was very focused on my job, I then emigrated to Brissy (love it here!) and started a family which all meant that I didn’t really keep up with the scene for number of years.

Anyway, in March last year I just couldn’t find a quality group that catered for new/recent progressive house mixes and track releases.  The FB scene was very siloed, with DJ’s in competition with each other to grab listeners attention.  I also found it annoying that there was very little room for very talented, developing and emerging DJs who work hard just to be heard.

Anyway, as luck would have it, I up put a post in the Progressive House Classic FB group asking for any recent mixes and Rob sent me a link to a mix he had recorded for the 2nd anniversary of his club night, Music Is The Answer in Dundee, Scotland.  The mix blew me away.  It was amazing.

So Easter 2019, I set up the Facebook group then contacted Rob to tell him I though his mix was great and I was setting up a group focused on the latest progressive house music.  Rob got straight on board and flooded it with about 150 of his friends in the first night…lift off!

Although Rob and I have never met or spoken in person, we get on well and we’re very aligned which has helped the 21CPH grow to over 2000 members now which is pretty amazing in one year.

How long have you been involved in progressive house and do you feel people fully recognise it as a musical style in 2020? How has the group helped you understand this?

I’ve been into house music since 1990 and I’ve had a strong affinity with it ever since.

I come from a town called Leamington Spa (coincidence, Rob used to DJ in Leam and I would often go home for the weekend, so I’m sure our paths crossed years earlier).  Anyway, Leamington is next to Coventry so as a kid I grew up on Top Buzz, Fabio, Groover Rider and Carl Cox bootleg tapes recorded at the Eclipse.

I really identified with progressive house as a genre when I bought my first set of decks in 2002.  Having to search the online databases such as Hard To Find Records, Plastic Fantastic or Sister Ray to listen to a 10 second, poor quality audio file was all the encouragement required to work out the genres you liked and for me it was progressive and tech house.

I definitely believe that there is a strong recognition of progressive house and its been enduring for decades now.  Look around any progressive group and you’ll find common traits, especially age (mid 40s, cough, cough).  These people have been listening to progressive house music for nearly 30 years now.  I also find progressive isn’t as fickle as other styles and generally the people who engage and connect with it, I tend to get on with really easily.  Certainty that been my experience from engaging with a good majority of the 21CPH group.  The members are fantastic, supportive, engaged, positive and make the group what it is.

Most importantly though, and this was always one of my big aims for 21CPH, but it’s the DJ’s in the group who work really hard, have their techniques locked down precisely, program their mixes, get on top of loops and ques, FX and EQs, choose the best tracks they can; some of those mixes absolutely floor me.  Mixes that would stand up against any other mix today, so I understand the skills of DJ’s much more than I did.

In terms of the music, I’ve always felt I understood it fairly intuitively. If I had to pick something about the music, I’d say that progressive can be guilty of sticking to tried and trusted recipes, but every now and then a producer will step away from that and the results are absolutely scintillating.  Tracks that produce strong, positive emotional reaction.  I love it when one of those comes along.

How do you feel the group has evolved in the last year, regarding its members and its original goal of linking DJs, producers and fans together?

It’s always an experiment to some extent I suppose.  Rob and I are passionate about creating a platform for the DJs, producers, artists and labels to connect with new audiences.  We try to achieve this in three ways.  First, get out of the way and let the members provide the content.  Secondly, not being the or tone of the group, and thirdly; don’t fuss too much about rules and constraints but focus on the culture of the group.  As I said most members are very friendly and supportive and self-regulate very well, plus most people who listen to progressive house are usually pretty chilled.  We do draw a line though when it comes to music that’s not right for the group and I’m upfront, but polite about that.

Rob and I put a lot of effort into attracting the right members.  We are a public group and welcome anyone who has a passion to play, create or listen, but we recognised that we needed quality in the group as well.  Not outrageous levels, but we wanted a broad representation of DJ’s from bedroom to emerging and legit internationally renowned DJs.  I can’t mention specific names but last year I got a note from a guy who DJ’s at home. I shared one of his mixes on the same post as a genuine tier 1 DJ who plays around the world.  He was extremely grateful, which was nice, but not why I do it.  I want to make sure everyone who submits a mix gets as many plays, followers, comments, reactions as possible.

Another example is our Mix Of The Month competition which will lead to a Mix Of The Year competition in December.  I won’t get into the detail here, but Rob and I realised we had a platform for a different type of engagement which would hopefully enable DJs in the group raise their own profiles.  More recently, approached the producers in the group to share any tracks for inclusion in the MOTM mixes.  That way everyone benefits.

Where do you see the future heading for progressive house and how important a role do you think 21C Progressive House has as a group in this future?

Global events appear to be having had a huge impact.  Not too recently, no one would touch a Watch Party, now the biggest names on the scene are doing live streams from their homes and Twitch which is a gamers app has become almost the defacto platform by DJ’s who can’t play out.  Even Mixcloud is looking at a similar product, which should deal with the licensing and copyright issues which spoil the FB streaming experience.

I’m also predicting that we will see the emergence and adoption of more technology in the participation of music.  I’ve seen that Renaissance is doing a gig which will be VR enabled.  That’s an interesting step and we’ll have to see how that plays out.

I can see that once social distancing restrictions are removed the club scene will explode. There are few things better than enjoying music with a few hundred similarly minded people and that’s something technology can’t compete against. I’m tempted to do something myself under the 21CPH banner, but I need to put more thought into it.  If I do get something up, I’ll let you know but we have enough Australian talent in the group to support doing a regular club night.

In terms of the group itself, Rob and I want 21CPH to be extremely relevant in the progressive house scene – we have strong support in UK/Europe, Australia, South America and the US so we have great bases to work from.  Whether this is another matter entirely, but based on what’s happened in just one year, and the quality of the talent and music in the 21CPH group I’m very interested to see where this goes.

Thanks James.

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