Art rock, eclectic branch of rock music that emerged in the late 1960s and flourished in the early to mid-1970s. The term is sometimes used synonymously with progressive rock, but the latter is best used to describe “intellectual” album-oriented rock by such British bands as Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Yes. The term art rock is best used to describe either classically influenced rock by such British groups as the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP), Gentle Giant, the Moody Blues, and Procol Harum or the fusion of progressive rock and English folk music created by such groups as Jethro Tull and the Strawbs. In common, all these bands regularly employ complicated and conceptual approaches to their music. Moreover, there has been a relatively fluid movement of musicians between bands that fall under the most general definition of art rock. Among the musicians who contributed to numerous bands are Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson, and U.K.), Steve Howe (Yes and Asia), Greg Lake (King Crimson and ELP), and John Wetton (King Crimson, U.K., and Asia). Some of the experimental rock by such American and British artists as Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Brian Eno, the Velvet Underground, and Frank Zappa is also often categorized as art rock.
In 1965 the Beatles began to explore the compositional use in rock music of multitrack recording, classical-type orchestrations, and avant-garde or experimental influences. The debut album by American experimental rock composer Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention followed in 1966, and in the next two years Caravan, Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues, the Nice, Pink Floyd, the Pretty Things, Procol Harum, and Soft Machine released art-rock-type albums. Much of this music combined roots in British Invasion manifestations of rhythm and blues or eclectic pop with psychedelic, avant-garde, or classical tendencies. From 1972 to 1974 Genesis, King Crimson, ELP, and Yes (all of whom debuted in 1969–70) turned out ambitious suites that filled album sides. In addition to the standard rock-band lineup (guitar, bass guitar, drums, and vocals), these groups often featured the Mellotron (a tape-loop-based keyboard instrument often used for orchestral sounds), organ, piano, and early synthesizers. Because of the prior experience of many art rock musicians in classical music and the availability of high-tech electronic supplements to traditional instruments, keyboardists such as Keith Emerson (ELP) and Rick Wakeman (Yes) moved from having supporting roles to making featured contributions.
Art rock often featured complicated and frequent rhythm changes, imaginative lyrics (including sociopolitical or science-fiction themes), and unified, extended compositions (often in the form of “concept albums”). Classical instrumentation (including symphony orchestras) and pseudo-orchestral ensemble playing by rock bands (including reworkings of classical compositions) were also prevalent. Art rock had widespread appeal in its virtuosity and in the complexity of its music and lyrics, and it was intended primarily for listening and contemplation rather than for dancing. The stage shows and album art that went along with this music—especially Roger Dean’s elaborate designs for Yes—also appealed to artistically inclined teenagers and young adults. Early 1970s shows by Genesis were especially visually oriented, with lead singer Peter Gabriel dressed in a bewildering array of fanciful costumes and arriving on stage from above, courtesy of opera-style stage machinery.
Notwithstanding the appearance of the influential British art rock bands U.K. and Marillion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, respectively, and the continued presence of Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd, and ELP in various incarnations, for the most part art rock tendencies were continued beyond the mid-1970s by British and American pop rock and hard rock groups such as Asia, Boston, Foreigner, Journey, Kansas, the Alan Parsons Project, Queen, Steely Dan, Styx, and Supertramp and the Canadian band Rush. “Arty” 1970s and ’80s British pop rock artists such as Roxy Music, Peter Gabriel, and Kate Bush and the 1980s and ’90s American heavy metal bands Metallica and Dream Theater also explored a number of stylistic features earlier associated with art rock.