Featured Music: Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Progward Bound

Underground Railroad is at the forefront of a musical resurgence.


Progressive rock, the genre that dare not speak its name, has been undergoing a kind of rehabilitation of late. Since punk happened (in ’77, not ’91, for you new kids), prog has been considered the epitome of uncool, and, indeed, the genre’s most bombastic excesses (remember Emerson, Lake, and Palmer?) practically beg for parody. But in this age of ever-plummeting lowest common denominators, it’s hard not to be nostalgic for what was great about prog: the unbridled theatricality of Genesis (particularly when Peter Gabriel was still on board), the polyphonic perversity and stunning stagecraft of Gentle Giant, the improvisational rigor of King Crimson, the blinding virtuosity of UK (a supergroup whose original lineup included once and future Crimson drummer Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth, the guitarist who originated the best bits of Eddie Van Halen’s shtick). It’s now gotten to where musicians will even admit to liking the stuff.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when bassist Matt Hembree handed me a copy of the Underground Railroad’s three-year-old debut c.d. Through and Through. Hembree, currently with Goodwin, left the Railroad after the album sessions but recently rejoined the band to play on its sophomore c.d., The Origin of Consciousness. “It’s the hardest music I’ve ever played,” he said. A spin of the disc confirmed his statement. Through and Through is filled with complex chord progressions, tricky time signatures, lengthy compositions (the title track clocks in at more than 20 minutes), challenging three-part vocal harmonies, symphonic keyboard textures, and loads of burbling, Holdsworthian guitar.

Bill Pohl and Kurt Rongey, guitarist and keyboardist-singer for the Railroad, never gave up their prog faith. For more than a decade, they’ve carried the torch in bands like the Bill Pohl Group, Anne Hand, Xen, and Dog Bite Hand. Their recordings — before Through and Through, there were Rongey’s solo albums Book in Hand (1991) and the political-themed That Was Propaganda (1998) and Pohl’s Solid Earth (1992) — have garnered raves from around the world. It’s been harder to hear these two in person, as their performances have been few and far between: a March Y2K Ridglea show, an appearance at Philadelphia’s NEARfest ’01, a headlining slot at Dallas’ CattleProg festival last December, and a handful of smaller local gigs. (Pohl also blew a few minds as guest guitarist with Dallas avant-gardist Dennis Gonzalez’ band Yells at Eels at a Wreck Room show last fall.)

In the months to come, though, Pohl and Rongey plan to make their band and prog in general more visible than ever around the Metromess — even though the second CattleProg event, which had been planned for mid-November at Richardson’s Eiseman Center Theater, was cancelled due to lack of funds. After meeting with Pohl in early September, the Ridglea Theater’s Wesley Hathaway agreed to inaugurate a series of Sunday night prog shows in the Ridglea’s lounge. On October 5, the Underground Railroad and Pohl’s fusion side project, Mad Jack McMaddd, will play the first show of the series. To accommodate fans in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who are out of the habit of frequenting rock clubs and staying out late on work nights, the Ridglea’s prog nights will run early — from 6 to 10 p.m. The events, which will occur twice in October and weekly starting in November, will also offer fans a chance to trade tapes, records, and c.d.’s. “Most of the fans are also collectors,” said Pohl.

While they’re glad to have a venue that’s willing to present their music on a regular basis, Pohl and Rongey agree that playing in rock clubs forces them to suboptimize on sound. They feel the Eiseman Center would have been an ideal venue for prog. “It’s a beautiful, state-of-the-art hall that seats around 300 people,” said Rongey, a conservatory-trained muso who serves as program director for Dallas classical station WRR/101.1-FM. The two carry their own 24-channel mixing board wherever they play, having found that the soundmen in most cinderblock dungeons tend to obliterate the subtleties of the music. Keyboards, the musicians say, get particularly short shrift in rock club mixes.

State-of-the-art sonics were less of a concern when the guys first met in 1989 at the Axis, where an early Pohl trio was gigging. Rongey remembers the club — where Pohl once found a severed human hand in the parking lot — as “a tiny room at Magnolia and Main with no air conditioning and one bathroom.” The two shared a passion for prog that was fueled by Craig Shropshire’s late-night radio show on KERA/90.1-FM. Pohl and Rongey soon joined forces in a band called Crunchy Frog with bassist Robyn Taylor, and stayed in touch after Rongey left Fort Worth in 1990, first to attend the Royal College of Music in London, then to work in Tulsa. They released their solo albums in time-honored DIY fashion, with Rongey using his classical connections to secure worldwide distribution before the dawn of the internet.

By 1994, Rongey was back in Fort Worth, and he and Pohl formed the improvisational group Anne Hand with bassist Dave Haley and drummer Nathan Brown (yes, that Nathan Brown). Anne Hand disintegrated without recording after only three shows, but Pohl remembers that period as one of “really explosive, focused, intense creativity.” Unfortunately, that high level of commitment proved hard to sustain. Pohl knew the end was near “when we started going to Taco Bell before we practiced.” (Some reworked Anne Hand material later surfaced on Through and Through.) After forming Underground Railroad in 1996, Pohl played in another improvisational outfit, Dog Bite Hand, with clarinetist Chris Forrest (Ohm) and drummer Eddie Dunlap (Master Cylinder).

The new Railroad album will differ from its predecessor in several ways, its creators say. For one, Rongey had regular access to a piano, allowing him to “rediscover the fun of writing really rich chord progressions and dressing them up in lush harmonies.” Also, Pohl said, the music was developed with a full band, including drummer John Livingston and bassist Michael Richardson (who’s since left the Railroad) rather than “two guys hunched over a really intricate tapestry, being introverted and hyper-deliberate.” Finally, it will be more of a rock album than its predecessor, with what Rongey calls “surprising amounts of raw brutality — even some heavy riffing.”

Pohl and Rongey see their work as a rebellion against current trends in popular music. “Virtuosity has become a cardinal sin,” said Rongey. “The slacker mentality rejects anything that displays some effort. The ethic of achievement that prog represents has been vilified.” But these Railroad men are betting the time is ripe for a prog resurgence here in the Fort.

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