hero image

Progressive House Has Never Been All That Progressive, But It Is Oddly Rewarding

Second Floor

Second Floor

By Shawn Reynaldo


Shawn Reynaldo is a Barcelona-based writer and editor who specializes in electronic music. His First Floor newsletter often zeroes in on developments in the genre’s corresponding industry and culture, but the Second Floor column is designed to spotlight the music itself, examining trends, recommending releases, and keeping tabs on what’s happening both on and off the dancefloor.

Electronic music has come up with plenty of silly genre names over the years. IDM (aka intelligent dance music) and braindance are probably the dumbest of the lot, and neurofunk and future garage are pretty terrible, too. But progressive house, a melody-driven, loosely psychedelic variant of rave music that arose in the early 90s, might be the one that’s most blatantly misleading. Back in 2014, UK journalist Joe Muggs penned a retrospective of the genre’s early days in which he reflected on the weirdly paradoxical nature of the term:

“The sound isn’t progressive, it never has been progressive, it never will be progressive. It’s the most conservative kind of groove you can imagine, the keystone of a dance music establishment that has little-to-no interest in doing anything new or letting anyone doing truly new things into the fold. It’s clunky, it’s boxed-off and four-square in its rhythms, it represents a massive denial of house music’s Black and Latino history, and, perhaps worst of all, it’s unutterably boring.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but Muggs’ ire made sense. Despite its name, progressive house has never been an especially boundary-pushing genre. I’ve half-jokingly referred to it over the years as “the good trance,” simply because it’s a socially acceptable way for artists (and fans) to indulge in a bit of the same formulaic euphoria that often gets their trance counterparts laughed at. As much as I’ve historically liked some of this music over the years, and have welcomed its recent resurgence (more on that later), there’s no denying that the genre has frequently been guilty of masquerading as something it is not.

Part of the problem is the term “progressive” itself. Well before the advent of house, the word became a commonplace appendage on all sorts of genres (rock, jazz, soul), usually to denote that the artists involved were moving away from formalism and commercialism. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, it also gained a particular currency in Detroit, where the term was often used to describe a party scene where the sounds of new wave, Italo, and synth-pop mingled with the freakier bits of disco and funk. It’s no wonder that the city birthed techno shortly thereafter.

Progressive house, however, is a style that originated in the UK. Though the late journalist Dom Phillips was the first to mention it in print, in a 1992 article for Mixmag called “Trance Mission,” the style had been bubbling up ever since acid house hit British shores a few years earlier, sparking the country’s love affair with rave culture. Contrasting progressive house with the skull-rattling sonics and goofball antics of UK hardcore, Phillips characterized the sound as “a new breed of hard but tuneful, banging but thoughtful, uplifting and trancey British house that, while most at home with the trendier Balearic crowd, is just as capable of entrancing up a rave crowd.”

Emphasizing that this music was “uniquely British”—as opposed to American garage, which he dismissively described as something that “plods along on a bass drum, a handclap, and another soulful singer”—Phillips cited UK duo Leftfield, and specifically their 1990 track, “Not Forgotten,” as a blueprint for the genre. The much-missed Andrew Weatherall was another early champion of the progressive house sound, and other standouts from the genre’s first wave included artists like Spooky, Gat Decor, React 2 Rhythm, and William Orbit. The latter was the co-founder of the Guerilla imprint, which was one of the first major progressive house hubs, alongside labels like Deconstruction, Hooj Choons and Soma.

In the minds of progressive house purists—including the aforementioned Joe Muggs, whose fiery words were lovingly accompanied by a list of 35 tracks from the first half of the 90s that he nonetheless thought were “endearingly, clunkily, brilliant”—those early years were the only time when the genre had much merit. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the latter half of the decade that the music truly caught fire commercially, with UK duo Sasha & John Digweed leading the way. Part of the first wave of international superstar DJs, they spread the progressive gospel around the globe, most prominently via mix CDs such as Renaissance, their multi-part Northern Exposure series, and their individual contributions to the wildly popular Global Underground series.

At the beginning of Sasha & Digweed’s run, progressive house still overlapped pretty heavily with trance. It’s not a coincidence, for example, that to this day, fans of the latter continue to lay claim to the duo and other members of their 90s cohort, including standout acts like Underworld, BT, and Way Out West. The tracks were long, with runtimes frequently passing the 10-minute mark; the grooves were trippy; and while melodies unquestionably took center stage, most producers made a point to keep them in check, prioritizing mood over jaw-dropping theatrics. (That mood, more often than not, was something in the neighborhood of “Ibiza at sunrise.”)

But as the decade wore on, progressive house and trance began to noticeably diverge. Fueled by the rise of superclubs, mainstream radio airplay (at least in the UK and Europe), and a new generation of bombast-loving producers like Tiësto, Ferry Corsten, Armin van Buuren, and ATB, trance increasingly embraced pop cheese and stadium-ready sonics. Progressive house had experienced its own surge in popularity, so it, too, wasn’t exactly underground anymore. But it did at least feel like a more artistically acceptable (and noticeably mellower) alternative to the growing ridiculousness of trance.

It was during those years, roughly coinciding with the Y2K era, that progressive house began to feel more like its own distinct ecosystem, as opposed to merely being an offshoot of other, larger dance genres; accordingly, more people began referring to it as simply “progressive” or just “prog,” amplifying a shorthand that had already been in circulation for some time. That period also produced some of the most enduring progressive anthems, including “Xpander” by Sasha and “Heaven Scent” by Bedrock, a collaboration between Digweed and Nick Muir. (Bedrock is also the name of Digweed’s label, which was one of the essential progressive outposts during the early 2000s and is still active today.) 

New talents such as James Holden, James Zabiela, and Jimmy Van M emerged, and as the music started getting deeper, darker, and more percussive, its creators began falling into the same orbit as artists like Deep Dish, Satoshi Tomiie, and Danny Tenaglia, all of whom came from more proper house backgrounds. The UK was still technically the center of the progressive universe, but New York City—where Sasha & Digweed held a residency at famed West Chelsea nightspot Twilo—loomed large in these years, opening a path for artists like John Creamer & Stephane K to briefly become the genre’s most in-demand remixers.

There was just one problem: the darker, headier path that progressive was traveling down produced a whole lot of pretty snoozy music. Too heady for the trance crowd, too mellow for techno heads, and too lacking in funk for traditional house aficionados, the tunes increasingly found themselves without much of an audience. Looking back at that time in a 2014 interview, Dave Seaman—a veteran UK artist, former Mixmag editor, and early progressive enthusiast—opined that the genre “had gone the same way as progressive rock before it. Pompous, po-faced and full of its own self-importance.” 

As the 2000s continued, emergent sounds like minimal and electroclash swallowed up the folks who were interested in following the latest hype, and progressive slowly stagnated. By the mid 2010s, the time period when Joe Muggs was writing about the genre, things had hit a new low. With mainstream dance audiences growing tired of brostep filth, the Eurodance and EDM world had been in desperate need of something less overtly abrasive, and had somehow landed on progressive house—or, more accurately, the term “progressive house.”

Suddenly, artists like Deadmau5, Eric Prydz, and Swedish House Mafia were marketing their braindead tunes under the “progressive” banner. It was nauseating to witness, especially for those who’d lived through prior, better generations of progressive house. Viewed through a certain lens, though, this hijacking of a decades-old genre by a cadre of blatantly commercial artists did make sense. In fact, you could say that it was simply the latest iteration of what progressive house had always been: a (supposedly) respectable alternative to more populist trends in dance music. 

In purely economic terms, the genre is still dominated by some of the biggest names in dance music, with hit tracks by Kaskade, Deadmau5, and Eric Prydz all currently sitting on Beatport’s progressive house Top 10 chart. Numbers, however, don’t tell the full story. During the late 2010s, an alternate, more eccentric strain of progressive house began to emerge, one that directly referenced the genre’s 90s heyday.

The UK has certainly played a role in this resurgence, but the most influential progressive hubs now reside elsewhere: Canada and Australia. That may seem odd, as neither locale is widely known as a hotbed of dance music innovation, but these places do have something very important in common: lots and lots of open space. For decades, Canadian and Australian ravers have been partying in the woods—the Aussies charmingly call these events “bush doofs”—and progressive house, with all its trippy accouterments and long-winded wanderings, is perhaps the perfect soundtrack for a druggy night of dancing under the moon.

One of the artists leading the charge is Roza Terenzi, a Perth native whose prog roots run deep: her percussionist father has been part of an electronic dub project called Beatworld since the late 90s. Her own music isn’t quite so overtly hippieish, but it does have a psychedelic flavor, with her melody-rich, often breakbeat-driven productions landing somewhere between trance, techno, and electro. Terenzi’s frequent partner in crime, the Canadian D. Tiffany, is another champion of the sound, both via her own work and through her Planet Euphorique label.

Those two are just the tip of the progressive iceberg. Other Canucks include Priori and Adam Feingold, who together run the essential naff recordings label, and Maara, who infuses the genre with bits of shoegaze and trip-hop. There’s also Nathan Micay, who’s best known these days for his genre-bending albums on LuckyMe and soundtracking television shows like HBO’s Industry, but also runs Eternal Schvitz, an imprint dedicated to reissuing obscure prog, trance, and rave cuts from the 90s. Down in Australia, Melbourne duo Sleep D and their Butter Sessions label have spent years carving out a space for the freakier ends of house and techno, while Fantastic Man—who, like Terenzi, currently lives in Berlin—has been reliably making and playing weirdo grooves for more than a decade. 

There are plenty of (relative) newcomers from Australia too, including Reflex Blue, Glen S, Aldonna, Guy Contact, Solar Suite, and Jennifer Loveless. The latter, appropriately enough, was born in Canada but made her name in Melbourne before setting up shop in Europe. And speaking of Europe, no survey of the current scene would be complete without mentioning Kalahari Oyster Cult, a prolific Amsterdam label that has offered up a fountain of both new music and proggy reissues over the past seven years. 

Would all of these artists and labels openly embrace the progressive banner? Probably not, and descriptions of their work will often reference adjacent genres like tech house, deep house, trance, psychedelic trance, techno, dub techno, breakbeat, and rave. (There’s even some overlap with minimal, which is currently poised for a revival of its own.) Still, the aesthetic parameters of progressive house have always been pretty fuzzy. It’s a genre with no clear borders, a spaced-out sound that floats above the dancefloor—flirting with cheese, but almost never allowing itself to be completely consumed by silliness. 

That self-seriousness has long rubbed some people the wrong way, especially since progressive house has indulged in its fair share of narcissistic wankery and cringeworthy tropes over the years. But in 2024, when the post-pandemic dance landscape is still being dominated by hard techno, manic gabber, and hyperactive pop edits, not to mention a seemingly endless revival of anthemic, Tiësto-style trance, it makes sense that some artists would instinctively head in the opposite direction.

That direction, at least for now, is very much worth exploring. To help readers get started, I’ve put together a sampling of my favorite progressive tunes from the past few years.

Cousin & Priori - “1”


Priori might be the hardest-working artist in Montreal. Aside from running naff with Adam Feingold, he also operates a recording studio with Patrick Holland—his partner in the Jump Source project—and spends a good chunk of time mixing other people’s records. Somewhere in there, he also manages to make a whole lot of music. And while anticipation is currently running high for his upcoming album, This But More, his Numina EP, a collaboration with fellow Canadian and fast-rising talent Cousin that quietly slipped out last year, is a proggy gem. Deep, dubby, and driving, opening track “1” sets the record’s hypnotic tone, its metronomic pulse buffeted by swirling clouds of melodic haze and satisfyingly pitched vocal fragments.

Adam Pits - “Capitulation”

[On Rotation]

Over the past six years, Adam Pits’ music has shown up on labels like X-Kalay, Haŵs, Holding Hands, and Craigie Knowes, all of which regularly work with many of today’s most promising progressive (and progressive-adjacent) producers. On Rotation, a young imprint the UK producer heads up alongside friends Chris I’Anson and Lisene, has rapidly become another key hub. Its ascent began in 2021, with Pits’ debut album, A Recurring Nature. It’s an effort that shows off his classical chops—aside from making dance music, he’s also a skilled cellist—as well as his penchant for the tantalizing slow burn. LP highlight “Capitulation” is a perfect example: a tweaky acid cut that percolates for more than four minutes before Pits brings a kick drum into the mix. Even then, it’s not exactly a stomper, as the song’s hallucinogenic groove is perhaps better suited to a head trip than a trip across the dancefloor.

Paramida - “Dream Ritual”

[Love on the Rocks]

Paramida made her name as a quintessential DJ’s DJ, but unlike many of her peers in the selector circuit, the Love on the Rocks founder and Panorama Bar regular isn’t afraid of the dreaded T-word. (Trance.) In a 2022 interview, she described the genre’s latest revival as a byproduct of “the current generation [digging] up the old OG stuff,” and her passion for that era (i.e. the years when trance and progressive were relatively indistinguishable) certainly comes to the fore on her 2021 debut EP, Dream Ritual. At the time of its release, many listeners were understandably drawn to Eris Drew & Octo Octa’s bumping rework of the record’s title track. But Paramida’s original offers a subtler slice of bliss: though it’s built atop a chunky house beat, it’s ultimately more akin to a relaxing massage than a room-rocking earthquake, and its darting pastel melodies are enchanting enough to send anyone into a euphoric state.

Maara - “Awaken, Pum Pum”

[Step Ball Chain]

Founded by Roza Terenzi, the Step Ball Chain label is, not surprisingly, the best place to find the Berlin-based Australian’s many different projects, both solo and collaborative. But she has also made a point to platform promising new queer and femme talent, including Maara, whose 2023 album, The Ancient Truth, wound up being one of last year’s most celebrated electronic full-lengths. Populated with bits of ambient, trip-hop, drum & bass, and generally unclassifiable beat construction, it can’t accurately be described as a progressive house record. But LP standout “Awaken Pum Pum” is one of several detours into the genre. Deeply chilled and bordering on weightlessness, its beats don’t so much pound as tumble, bopping along as the track’s warm glow and wide-eyed sense of wonder envelope anyone who happens to be in earshot.

Guy Contact - “90 Mile Straight (Nullarbor Mix)”

[Butter Sessions]

Australia is absolutely having a moment right now, its biggest (at least in terms of electronic music) since the heyday of the Modular label and bands like Cut Copy and The Presets. What’s happening now is (thankfully) miles away from nu-rave, but you could probably describe it as “nu-progressive,” and artists like Guy Contact are leading the way. 

Though the Perth producer is just one of the many, many talents currently emerging from Down Under, the stream of records he’s released during the past few years has cemented his reputation as one of the country’s most reliable producers. Best among them is his 2021 debut LP, Drinking from the Mirage, which (coincidentally?) features a track called “Voices from the Bedrock.” That may or may not be a nod to Digweed, but it’s album opener “90 Mile Straight (Nullarbor Mix)” that truly channels the classic progressive house sound, butting right up against trance territory with its wiggly bassline, elegant chords, and floaty sensibility.

Sohrab - “Silk Road”

[Kalahari Oyster Cult]

Keeping up with Kalahari Oyster Cult is a near-impossible task. But I would advise anyone looking for an introduction to the label (and a somewhat comprehensive snapshot of the contemporary progressive circuit) to start with last year’s The Chants of The Holy Oyster, a sprawling compilation that celebrated the Dutch imprint’s sixth birthday with music from 19 different artists, including many who’ve already been mentioned in this piece. Sohrab, a Trieste native who also makes music as DJ Lo-Tek, may not be the most recognizable name on the tracklist, but his “Silk Road” is its most rewarding offering. It’s a loopy, borderline giddy tune that could be categorized as melodic techno, but has just enough psychotropic X-Files energy to get filed in the prog bin at the local record shop.

Nina is an independent music ecosystem.

Join over 5000 artists, labels, and listeners using Nina to share their music, build their context and directly support artists.


Now Playing