A week before the Christmas holiday, a handful of employees are tying up the loose ends of 2006 in a small office suite, hidden away along Banksville Road. But unlike many other Pittsburgh businesses entering holiday hibernation, here the walls echo with high-speed guitar runs and pyrotechnic flourishes blasting from a stereo. Gold records adorn the walls, and leaning in a corner is what appears to be a small sword.
For the past eight years, this small office has been sending a cacophony of musical voices into the world. Its aisles of shelves are stuffed with promotional copies of some of those voices: venerable bands like Saga and The Flower Kings and newcomers like Pain of Salvation and Symphony X. Together, the bands offer high, operatic notes and subsonic growls ... harsh machine-gun riffs and delicate string sections, odd time signatures and trip-hop grooves ... lengthy symphonic works and concise anthems. Swords and sorcery, as well as contemporary political dissent.
At the heart of it all, clad in tight black jeans and gleaming Converse All-Stars, is Jim Pitulski. The president of InsideOut Music America is rooting through his office for DVDs containing the raw material for an ongoing project -- a documentary about the history of progressive rock.
InsideOut's motto is "Music in Progress," and Pitulski might seem the picture of innovation, playing clips from his documentary on a shiny new Mac. But a nearby shelf cradles artifacts from a different era of do-it-yourself filmmaking: old Super-8 cameras and primitive editing rigs. And on the walls, old framed photos and documents.
"I'm just getting into my family lineage here," Pitulski says of the documents. "Those are the actual naturalization documents of my family when they first came to the United States from Lithuania."
Like the juxtaposition of old and new in his office, Pitulski is something of a conundrum. He's documenting the past of a musical form fixed on the future. He's a Pittsburgh native who's kept close to home ... even as he promotes a form of music that transcends borders and geography itself. And his label, meanwhile, is torn between the pursuit of the old new thing ... and the new new thing.
II. An Eye Within
Like more than a few artists on his label, Jim Pitulski sports flecks of gray at the temples -- a testament to a long, fruitful career in the progressive-rock business, and, perhaps, mementos of babysitting the world's fastest guitarists on Japanese tours. But a note of excitement still creeps into his voice as he retells some old war stories.
Pitulski grew up in Beechview, but in the late 1980s left Pittsburgh and his job as a manager and buyer for Eide's record store. Moving to New York, he landed a string of marketing and promotional jobs at labels like Caroline, Columbia and Polygram. But it was at his first real job, an MCA subsidiary called Mechanic Records, that he crossed paths with the future of progressive metal ... and his own future career.
"I was reviewing demos, and I got a demo from a band called Majesty," Pitulski recalls. Pitulski had always been a fan of progressive rock -- the long compositions and album-length concept suites composed by bands like Yes, early Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And when he heard Majesty, "I was like, 'Holy shit, I can't believe somebody's doing this again!' A young band that takes those old prog sensibilities I loved ... and they're updating it, and combining it with Rush. It blew my doors off, and we ended up signing them."
But Majesty got off to a rocky start. Another band had already laid claim to the name Majesty; a lawsuit prompted the band to switch its name to Dream Theater. And in 1992, on the eve of the release of its second album, Images and Words, Dream Theater lost its management. So the band called its old friend Jim Pitulski, who agreed to manage the group instead.
"We put out the single 'Pull Me Under,' and the floodgates opened," he says.
"Pull Me Under" became a hit, and Images and Words went gold in the U.S. ... and platinum in Japan.
With Images and Words selling 15,000-20,000 copies a week, the former Eide's manager now found himself caught in a tidal wave. "It became very lucrative," he says.
"Pull Me Under" was Dream Theater's only hit. But through it, the group earned a loyal following that appreciated its progressive focus, and went on to become one of the most recognizable -- and successful -- names in progressive metal throughout the 1990s. Dream Theater influenced a genre now represented by groups like Tool, A Perfect Circle and The Dillinger Escape Plan, and still inspires nearly every kid with an Ibanez guitar.
Roundtable Management, Pitulski's company, expanded to include other progressive acts, but he had lost some of his taste for artist management by the late '90s -- just in time for a fresh start.
Europeans devoured progressive rock to an even greater extent than did Americans. And during Pitulski's travels with Dream Theater, he met the proprietors of InsideOut, a German label that had seized a large share of the burgeoning progressive-rock market. The company was looking for someone to head up an American subsidiary, and Pitulski was looking for a change.
So in 1999, when Pitulski moved back to Pittsburgh to be near family, he launched InsideOut Music America from his Green Tree apartment. And there, he grappled with a knotty problem.
III: The Grip of Bygone Ages
The problem, in a word, is Prog.
"Progressive rock" isn't so much a sound or style as a mindset: a forward-thinking approach that for the past few decades has worn various musical guises. Progressive rock is generally radio-unfriendly, and it often eschews pop's formulaic structures in favor of long, artful compositions. Progressive rockers often favor displays of instrumental prowess, large ensembles and unconventional arrangements, along with dense, philosophical lyrics ... when there are any lyrics at all.
Art rock, math rock, post rock, experimental, improvisational, orchestral rock -- all these and many more flow from a common source. Pittsburgh's Don Caballero and Zombi could be called progressive rock, as could popular acts like Radiohead, Muse and The Mars Volta.
But for most people, that ethos becomes confused with what Pitulski calls "Prog Rock -- capital P, capital R."
"Progressive rock" is hard to define, but "prog" describes a very specific 1970s genre: Rush, King Crimson, The Moody Blues, Yes. The genre contains some dizzyingly intellectual themes and compositions, and it continues to attract listeners. In fact, it's hard to imagine a day when there won't be an audience -- particularly young males obsessed with shredding and double-bass pedal techniques -- keeping prog classics in print
"I see kids with their parents at these prog concerts all the time, young kids wearing Genesis T-shirts," Pitulski says.
But prog is also easily criticized for its grandiose concept albums, as well as its penchant for self-indulgent displays of virtuosity and corny, pretentious lyrics. Plus, attempts to envision the future -- musically or otherwise -- don't age well. Viewed from 2007, few things look as comical as 1957's vision of what things will be like in 50 years. With the rise of punk rock, Prog Rock became a musical Tommorrowland, confined to the pimply, uncool backwaters of record stores and radio dials.
So there's a price to be paid for the continued popularity of prog's hoary progenitors. More contemporary progressive artists and labels can have a hard time shedding the prog's stigma.
The problem is especially pressing for InsideOut, which has clearly defined itself as a progressive-rock label, squaring off against competitors like Cuneiform, Unicorn Records, and Magna Carta. But in doing so, InsideOut has created one of its biggest challenges: escaping its own success. The whole idea of progressive rock is to break down musical barriers. But for some artists, being on a progressive-rock label is a barrier in itself.
"A lot of the bands that we have pay homage to bands of yesteryear; they sound like Yes, Genesis and those," says Pitulski. "And there's other bands that are really really cutting-edge -- sounds and variations you've never heard before -- and that's the really exciting stuff."
The problem, he says, was getting the latter type of band out from under the shadow of the former. Take, for example, InsideOut's group Paatos. The Swedish band's gauzy, trip-hop atmospheres and the bell-like vocals of siren Petronella Nettermalm have little in common with Rush's overblown epic 2112. Yet the prog-rock stigma is partly Paatos to bear, due to its affiliation with InsideOut.
"[W]e were trying to reach out beyond our network of prog Web sites, magazines, radio stations and stuff, [but] the mainstream press didn't really accept it, because of who we are," says Pitulski. "We've got that Prog Rock label stuck on us, and they don't take it that seriously. ... And we thought, 'Man, how do we defeat this?'
"We're proud of our success, and the fact that we've branded the company successfully," says Pitulski. "But it's becoming a hindrance for some of these bands."
It's not music that necessarily endears you to the neighbors, either.
IV: Beyond the Portals of the Past
True to its work-from-home origins, InsideOut's presence in Pittsburgh has remained modest. Still, the staff of five that handles A&R (scouting and developing talent), marketing and promotion out of the Banksville Road office has its fingers in numerous pies. Eric Corbin, who handles much of InsideOut's marketing, has run his own Da'Core Records for years, recently releasing discs from local bands Built Upon Frustration and the venerable Cheats. Jennifer Johnson, the dreadlocked digital-media guru, runs her own media-and-design company, J Frog Media. Dave Gehlke finds time to write for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and play in a local chops-heavy metal band, Crown the Lost.
"Everybody here at the label is a musician or an artist," Pitulski says with pride. "Everyone's got their own little thing, too -- like I'm starting a little film company now. All these sort of complimentary extensions to what we're already doing. ... I would love to be able to start some kind of little scene, this little network of people who would help each other out in all these related areas."
Yet InsideOut itself has remained a relatively unknown, and untapped, resource in Pittsburgh.
"We keep a low profile on the local scene," Pitulski admits. "Not on purpose, but it just seemed like it didn't really seem to interest anybody that we were trying to run a national company out of Pittsburgh."
Part of the reason is that much of what you might think of as a label's business -- like manufacturing and shipping CDs -- is actually carried out by InsideOut's parent companies: InsideOut's German offices and SPV North America, an umbrella for several smaller labels, based in New York and Vancouver. Large corporations like Ryko Distribution are responsible for filling orders from retailers.
Pitulski is reluctant to slag the Pittsburgh music scene, citing good working relationships with local retailers. But he notes the lack of cooperation he's received from area radio, press and show promoters. Despite the region's hunger for prog acts like Rush and Kansas, InsideOut often has to promote area shows itself. It's just been hard to interest promoters in groups like Spock's Beard, The Flower Kings and Proto-Kaw.
In fact, the label's future in Pittsburgh hasn't always been assured. The German branch had been pushing for InsideOut to move to New York, Pitulski says. "But I can safely say now that it's been determined we are staying in Pittsburgh," he adds. "And now that I feel like I can really stick my roots in the ground, I would really love to be more involved with other people in the scene."
In fact, as Jennifer Johnson answers a ringing phone on the last day of work in 2006, those local connections suddenly become tangible.
"It's Kirk," she calls across the office to Pitulski. "Mandrake Kirk."
V: The Dreamer Awakens
Kirk Salopek downs a PBR, nervously fidgets with an array of effects pedals, and takes one last look around the sprawling musical ensemble on stage. He hunches over his Les Paul and begins picking out the opening motif of "Walking Music (w/ postscript I)." At first, the percolating, delay-drenched notes spill out of the guitar unaccompanied, before Mandrake Project's two drummers kick in with a powerful, complex groove.
The band is hot, but the room -- in the South Side's Brewhouse -- is frigid. Partly that's the fault of the plummeting December temperatures, which the furnace is no match for. Partly, though, it's the sparse crowd. Huddling in parkas, the audience sits in isolated theater seats as the band's lengthy, ornate instrumentals soar over their heads ... literally and, perhaps, figuratively.
Not that you can blame them, really.
Mandrake Project is sort of an anti-rock-band, and even its organizational structure is hard to follow. Its six core members frequently swap instruments on stage. In addition to Salopek, the de facto leader, there's Rick Nelson on strings, Benjamin Zerbe on drums and Anthony Percora on bass, plus current Boogie Hustlers David Chapman Jamison (drums) and Ryan Meals (guitar, saxophone).
And that's not counting the musicians who just stop in for a practice or a one-off gig.
"Everyone's free to come and go," says Salopek, although the sprawling lineup can sometimes make playing a small stage "like trying to stuff 25 pounds of shit into a 5-pound bag," as he puts it. Mandrake Project's CD A Favor to the Muse features 20 musicians ... and a 40-voice choir.
But the resulting heady stew of post-rock, jazz and fusion sparked Pitulski's interest in mid-2006. A couple of weeks prior to the Brewhouse show, Mandrake Project played to a packed house at Brillobox, wowing the InsideOut staff, who had arrived ready to record the show in audio and video. The label has been courting the group with a record deal -- with mixed results.
"Jim had asked us flat-out, 'Do you guys think you want to be on InsideOut Records?' And my answer is 'No,'" says Salopek. "And he said, 'Well, I'm glad, because I kinda agree with you -- I prefer to not sign you to InsideOut.'"
This may seem like a bizarre way of wooing a band to your label. But both Salopek and Pitulski sensed the danger of affixing the "prog rock" label to a band with such potential for a contemporary, avant-garde audience.
"We'd be limiting ourselves to a certain kind of sound that I don't want to be a part of," says Salopek. "It's nothing against that sound. I just don't think we're a progressive band in the genre term, a 'prog' band. Mandrake is a progressive band, if you take that word for what it is. But we're not like Dream Theater or Emerson, Lake & Palmer."
The solution for both Mandrake Project and InsideOut is the launching of a new imprint label whose name has yet to be determined: It will be called either "Sonic Anomaly" or "Negative Space Music." The new imprint's goal is to allow contemporary bands like Mandrake Project to benefit from InsideOut's distribution network, without tying them in to the cursed "prog rock" label. It's basically a move to give progressive rock "a new image, market it differently -- just something to defeat that stigma," says Pitulski.
He's already sent Mandrake's CD off to Germany for consideration for the new imprint. "I've already put my two cents in," he says. "I said, 'Look, I want these guys at least for the United States.' ... I feel confident about it. And just having a band here in Pittsburgh to work with, and help to usher them in and introduce them to the rest of the world, that would be very cool."
Pitulski says he may simply re-release A Favor to the Muse nationally, and pursue film licensing and soundtrack work for the band. "They're interested in film," Pitulski says. "And maybe we can help them in that area. And they in turn can help us reach out into that area too." Mandrake Project would give him another hip act to lend definition -- though not too much, of course -- to the imprint, which has already acquired the U.K.'s Oceansize, and to which Sweden's Paatos and other hard-to-classify groups will soon be moved.
Mandrake, meanwhile, gets the distribution and recognition any new act hungers for -- and a chance to find a larger audience. Salopek expresses a modest optimism. "If it's properly promoted, and it has a little bit of gloss and glimmer to it, I think people could catch on a little more."
VI: A World Within Wires (A Meditation)
While signing Mandrake Project to the new imprint may boost the band's profile and help shore up InsideOut's appeal to fans of more avant-garde music, it's unlikely the deal will enhance Pittsburgh's stature in the progressive-rock world.
"Other than the fact that this is basically where everybody lives, I don't think that Pittsburgh is probably the best live-music environment for Mandrake," Salopek says bluntly. "I'm not saying that in a negative way, because I do like Pittsburgh quite a bit." But for now, at least, Pittsburgh "is not interested particularly in what Mandrake is doing."
Nor is Mandrake Project necessarily bound to what Pittsburgh is doing: One of its core members lives a time zone away.
Local fans of the band may have never seen Rick Nelson, the multi-instrumentalist who arranged and performed the strings on A Favor to the Muse. When he's not touring with bands like indie-orchestral darlings The Polyphonic Spree, or jetting to London to produce ex-Pittsburgher Adam Evil's new album, Nelson works in his home studio in New Orleans.
Being a full-time member of a Pittsburgh band -- without actually being in Pittsburgh -- doesn't seem to faze him.
"With my career, it doesn't really matter what city I'm located in," says Nelson. "As long as they got the airport open, I can fly out to wherever I want to do my gigs. Or gig here in town, if it comes about. But I've been flying out more than I have been playing around town."
He first crossed paths with Salopek in the summer of 2005, when Nelson was in town recording Adam Evil's album at Mr. Small's studios. Salopek was then playing guitar in Evil's band, and he introduced Nelson to the Mandrake material. Soon Nelson was contributing string tracks via e-mail.
Initially, Nelson flew in only to play the higher-profile Mandrake shows, but he expects to increase his involvement as the band's stature rises. "It's just a matter of time before I'm doing every single show."
But don't expect to see Nelson hanging out at Dee's Café, or even sharing a studio with his bandmates very often. "We've already started working on the second Mandrake CD" via e-mail, he says. "I think we're pretty much going to be able to have the entire album done, between two different cities, and maybe never meet in the same studio at the same time."
Mandrake Project simply could not have existed without the communication and music technology available today. Its tech-savvy, decentralized approach makes the idea of four dudes sharing a house -- or even a city -- seem hopelessly archaic, in much the same way that the best progressive rock makes formulaic pop hits seem woefully unimaginative.
In fact, the same global economy that many Pittsburghers blame for the steel industry's collapse makes it possible for InsideOut and Mandrake to be here in the first place.
The next Mandrake Project CD will likely be recorded in three separate states, pressed somewhere else, and sent to Germany and Canada ... all before it ever comes home to Pittsburgh. In fact, Nelson speculates that getting Mandrake involved with InsideOut's new imprint would likely push the band's focus overseas ... even before the band makes a name for itself in the U.S. or locally.
"I think it could open a lot of doors for this band, especially internationally, not just nationally," says Nelson. In fact, he says, the band is more likely to start touring in Europe. "That's kind of the experience that I've had, with most of the bands that I tour with: We seem to break first in Europe, then in the States. We're not doing a four-piece pop-rock band that's immediately MTV-worthy ... We're not a reality-television band."
Unlike Salopek, Nelson doesn't seem to mind the "progressive" label. "This 'new prog' thing, it's so new, it doesn't even have a huge backing behind it yet. But ... I think it's going to be a more orchestral, more cohesive, more talented music. Not necessarily Prog Rock, as we've had it in the past with really flashy players, but just more paying attention to the music and not doing the same basic things that have been done before. Exploring new territory that's never been done before."
VII: Postscript: Centerless City
Back on Banksville Road, Pitulski's talking about how one of InsideOut's newer acts, Pain of Salvation ("from Sweden, of course") recently racked up 18,000 unique listens on its MySpace page for a song called "America," a progressive-metal scorcher containing what could be considered un-American statements. Had Pitulski been shelving it at Eide's, such a release could have attracted patriotic outrage. But that doesn't worry a band that expects to sell mostly to un-Americans anyway.
In a city where things that stay, and stay the same, offer comfort, anything free of the region's parochial deathgrip is viewed with suspicion. Perhaps InsideOut and Mandrake Project haven't connected with Pittsburgh partly because they could just as easily be anywhere else.
"Now, you can do anything from anywhere," Pitulski says. "We've got computers, Internet, fax machines, cell phones and a travel agent. That's all you need." He's thrilled about how his industry is being reshaped by Internet marketing, iTunes and MySpace.
"We're gonna start doing video blogs, podcasting, and all that kind of stuff," he says. The brave new world of Web-based media allows small labels like Pitulski's to reach their audience with previously unheard-of degrees of saturation and precision. In contrast, major labels are being "dragged kicking and screaming into the technology," he notes, citing industry lawsuits against file-sharing Web sites and the like. "If they can't own it, it seems like they don't want to deal with it."
Partly though advances in communications, and partly through decentralized musical collaborations like Mandrake Project, the band and the label have replaced traditional communities bound by physical space with something more dynamic.
"It's almost like the old jazz community, where everyone would play on everybody else's records," Pitulski says. "The prog scene's like that, so there's all these little side projects [and] solo records."
This sense of constant flux, and of transcending borders, feels like the future, while ringing with a note of some forgotten utopian dream. And if that's not the subject of an epic, 18-minute progressive-rock masterpiece ... well, maybe it should be.