While many younger EDM fans of today know progressive house as the hands-in-the-air, rave-centric festival music that was pioneered by the likes of Swedish House Mafia, Hardwell, Nicky Romero and many more, it wasn’t always just that. Progressive house’s roots are in fact, tied deep within the underground and at the very beginnings of electronic music as we know it today. Despite its deep roots, its true form, or sound, is often disputed, whereby the lines and characteristics that define “progressive house” have since become blurred. Regardless of this, progressive house’s history, and rise to its current form, is undeniably engrossing.
Early days & influences
Progressive house’s inception is widely believed to have occurred in the early 1990s. At this point in time, it’s worth noting that both house and techno have risen to prominence after the death (or rather, the resurrection) of disco. Genres like Eurodance and trance also began to rise to popularity, which in turn, would spawn further raves and sub-cultures under the electronic music umbrella.
While techno was, and largely still is, dark and mechanic, house and disco sat on the other side of the spectrum, with their soul-oriented origins. However, with the emergence of trance, more melodic elements were becoming more commonplace, especially in the British new-age music scene at the time, which in turn, placed progressive house somewhere in between the aforementioned genres. Its creation arguably signified the bridge, or crossover, rather, of trance and house music. As time went on, the separation from its North-American origins and the growing prominence of its European influences would become evident.
Some also argue that progressive house’s origins stem from Eurodance. Many music enthusiasts believe progressive house was a commercial, stripped back version of Eurodance, which ultimately led to the backlash it received. As a result of its vast and eclectic origins, some forms of progressive house can often be mistaken for techno, tech-house or even deep house.
Having been influenced by the sounds of house & techno, both of which were founded in the United States, progressive house emerged in the UK underground scene in the early 90s. While the UK had its own boisterous rave scene in the 80s & 90s with hardcore, garage and jungle, progressive house’s emergence essentially established itself as a UK-created sound. It served as an alternative rave scene to that of the harder styles of electronic music that emerged prior.
Early tracks such as Leftfield’s ‘Not Forgotten’, Gat Decor’s ‘Passion’ and React 2 Rhythm’s ‘Whatever You Dream’ exemplify the early influences of progressive house. Incorporating a house music feel & tempo, with trance & techno soundsets aptly brought the best of both worlds together.
Sasha & John Digweed
The gradual emergence of progressive house would soon be amplified by the likes of two bona fide icons of the genre – Sasha & John Digweed. Having struck up a strong friendship together in the early 90s via their then-label, Renaissance, the two would perform regularly at the label’s venue in Mansfield, England. As they honed their craft and grew closer, Renaissance quickly began to enjoy the stylings of the budding duo and subsequently requested they create a compilation CD.
Whilst not knowing what they’d created at the time, the release of ‘Renaissance: The Mix Collection’ would have a profound effect on the growth of progressive house. Having also consisted of some trance elements, the album sky-rocketed to 9th spot on the UK Compilation Chart. As a result, it was met with great praise thereafter, with the likes of the now-defunct Q Magazine and DJ Mag, both ranking ‘Renaissance: The Mix Collection’ in their top 10 & top 5 DJ mixes/albums of all time.
Despite their success with Renaissance, Sasha & Digweed’s icon status wasn’t quite official yet, however, this would change with the release of their succeeding compilation album, in 1996 – 2 years later. When talking specifically about the UK, there’s one album that changed the club scene – ‘Northern Exposure’. The compilation album that put the UK’s newest duo’s names on the map, went on to be what was arguably the apex of their collective efforts. Peaking at #7 on the UK Compilation Chart, it also earned silver certification, with more than 60,000 units sold. It was met with praise for its seamless mixes and eclectic sound.
It was this album that earned progressive house its stripes. Many fans will argue that it set the benchmark – a classic to many music fans. However, as a result of ‘Northern Exposure’s success, the flood gates soon opened, and inundation of mix CDs like ‘Ministry Annual’ and ‘Trance Anthem’, soon hit the market. Whilst some may say they merely copied the concept Sasha & Digweed implemented, it can be argued, the ensuing compilation albums are in fact, a partial reflection of the large legacy the duo created.
The darker, minimalist, techno-infused sounds that dominated the UK underground in the mid-90s was aptly a reflection of much underground electronic music at that time. However, the rise of trance and electro in the mid-late 2000s saw the dynamic of progressive house shift once again. Furthermore, the gradual pop influence on underground music was growing exponentially, with vocals and synths becoming more commonplace.
The word “progressive”, is defined as; “happening or developing gradually or in stages”. This definition would soon become exemplified with the new wave of progressive house, as the likes of Steve Angello and Axwell emerged with their own unique stylings. A greater emphasis on the break > build-up > drop song structure was becoming more evident, straying away from the genre’s earlier tracks, whereby the energy of the track was consistent throughout the song’s duration. This song structure followed the euphoric formula that is manifested in trance music, by which the elongated break and build-up portions of the track, intensify the impact of the drop. Axwell tracks such as ‘Feel The Vibe’ and ‘Watch The Sun Rise’ displayed the early use of the aforementioned formula, which would become especially popular at festivals.
Soon, the likes of Avicii, Eric Prydz, Swedish House Mafia and Hardwell would rise to commercial EDM royalty with their synth-oriented, vocal-infused commercial progressive house anthems, that rocked the mainstages of Ultra Miami and Tomorrowland. While iconic songs like ‘Levels’ and ‘Spaceman’ represented the modern progressive house sound, songs like Eric Prydz’s ‘Opus’ and ‘Loving You’ (Pryda) incorporated elements from the genre’s past. Their length and gradual ascension in the breaks epitomized the “progressive” definition. The slow build and graduated adding of additional layers aptly represents the modern evolution of the genre, while the tracks’ sheer length and enticing build-up pay homage to the trance-influence that began in the early 2000s.
“These days, true progressive house as I know it is to be found masquerading as Techno, Tech House or even Deep House! The lines between genres now are so blurred they rarely make much sense anymore!” – Dave Seaman.
Former Mixmag editor and world-renowned record producer Dave Seaman accurately summarized the current state of progressive house with this quote. In the mid-late 2010s, artists such as Guy J, Yotto and Henry Saiz began to create the divide between commercial, and underground styles of progressive house. The sounds of labels such as Anjunabeats and Bedrock helped progressive house fans see the genre return to its birthplace in the underground.
Looking at the top-selling progressive house artists on Beatport within the last 12 months, artists such as Boris Brejcha, Stan Kolev, Christoph and Jem Cooke all comprise part of the top 10. When looking back at Seaman’s earlier quote, it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from. Boris Brejcha, for example, describes his music as “High-Tech Minimal”, yet, many of his songs fall under the progressive house banner. Tracks that may actually be melodic-techno, could be classified as progressive house, on Beatport or Traxsource. This is by no means a criticism of these websites, more so, it’s an example of how blurred the lines have become between the aforementioned genres, due to electronic music’s rapid growth.
Despite this, progressive house’s current form is arguably, for the most part, the closest it’s ever been to that of its original state. Analyzing Stan Kolev’s recent single ‘Gaia Nouveau’, the genre’s evolution is evident. The genre’s techno origins can be heard quite clearly, with its dark, brooding nature, while, the minute-long break & build-up in the latter half of the song, show signs of the structural formula that made trance so polarizing. Furthermore, the apposite use of the reverb-soaked synths scattered throughout the track pays subtle homage to the use of synths that made the commercial brand of progressive house, such a success.
As is evident, progressive house has changed with the times. From its trance influences of the 90s & 2000s to the techno-infused brand fans know and love today, the genre has undoubtedly been altered and varied throughout time. Regardless of what form it comes in, fans will always love and appreciate it for its eclectic origins and infectious sounds. However, it also begs the question – does progressive house have a true form? Is it just a chameleon that blends with the times, or has it returned to its original form?