Progressive rock didn't completely die off at the end of the '70s, but just as disco fell out of favor and had to sneak back via technopop and house, so prog has had its artier elements stripped away and repurposed in various strains of post-punk and metal. These days, aside from straight-up neo-proggers like Dream Theater, the spirit of the genre lives on most vitally in experimental rock acts like Broken Social Scene, whose You Forgot It In People is fast becoming one of those under-the-radar seminal albums, like Slint's Spiderland or the first Sunny Day Real Estate record. Ontario's The Most Serene Republic is Broken Social Scene's closest non-blood relation; the groups share a Canadian province and a record label, though The Most Serene Republic's poppier sound and charismatic lead vocalist, Adrian Jewett, are partly at odds with Broken Social Scene's faceless art-rock collective. The Most Serene Republic is making prog with personality.
After an instrumental prologue, The Most Serene Republic's debut album, Underwater Cinematographer, steps into the busy, buzzing "Content Was Always My Favorite Colour," a catchy synth-pop song that shifts gears after an unexpected acoustic guitar solo, becoming booming indie-rock. It's like a trip from the suburbs to the city, and that spirit of constant change infects the songs that come later, like the desperately careening "(Oh) God" and the gleefully distracted "The Protagonist Suddenly Realizes What He Must Do In The Middle Of Downtown Traffic." At times, The Most Serene Republic's lack of a formula becomes paradoxically formulaic, as nearly every song cycles through half a dozen styles and two dozen instruments over an average of four weird, wonderful minutes. But Underwater Cinematographer never really gets tiresome. Jewett and company have such a gift for melody and such an enthusiasm for joyful noise-making that they make fringe music sound endearingly natural.
The contrary new wave of prog revivalism arrives by way of bands like The Secret Machines and Innaway, who go back to the primary sources, trying to be Pink Floyd instead of Flaming Lips. Innaway's self-titled debut opens with a blast of bluesy harmonica that gradually resolves into the attenuated, atmospheric anti-anthem "Threat Hawk," and throughout Innaway, the band regularly goes for mood and mystery over power—though the power is there when needed. The approach works beautifully on songs like "Strings Of North Egg" and "Rise," where the gentle tunefulness and mild psychedelia drift into thick, heavy, stormy guitar solos. Innaway uses those bursts of noise to give the quieter moments roots and meaning. When the guitar squalls whip up on Innaway's dreamy "Stolen Days," it's a reminder that pleasure has a price.