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Regarded as a prog metal classic, Dream Theater's Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory is now 20 years old

ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Nov 16 2014 01:32PM

I remember rushing out to buy a just-released album when I was a teenager, the heavily anticipated Wish You Were Here for example, bringing it home and listening to it two or three or four times in quick succession, sleeve in hands, poring over the images, credits and lyrics, assimilating the music. These initial listening sessions may have been using headphones to reduce the inconvenience of abstract sound on my parents or, if they were out in Kendal or Lancaster, inviting friends around to listen to it on our ‘best’ stereo.

I’ve just done this again, for the first time in many years, for an album that has been hyped as ‘the most anticipated album for 20 years.’ I had thought of pre-ordering a mid-range CD and Blu-Ray set of The Endless River from Burning Shed but a release date that coincided with Christmas-present buying and a couple of reviews, one in Prog magazine and one in The Guardian, dampened my initial enthusiasm for the project, despite an encouraging article in the same edition of Prog so I thought I’d add the album to my wish list and wait. It turns out I couldn’t wait and as I type this, I’m on my second listen, headphones on to avoid the inconvenience of abstract sound on my wife. My Sennheiser Anniversary HD414’s don’t appear to be able to cope with some of the frequencies present, creating an intermittent light buzz in the right channel – but they are over 20 years old; I’m using some Bose QC 15s for this second listen.

I’ve not acquired the album on vinyl, because the buying options available in Croydon’s recently reopened HMV were more limited than those available online. However, it is pleasing to go into a shop and pick up a physical product. I’ve pored over the information in the hardback digibook, which is a rather nice presentation for a CD. So what about the music? We’d been pre-warned that this was material from the Division Bell sessions and that it had passed through the hands of a number of producers in order to shape it into something coherent. I had been concerned about the critics’ insistence on pointing out the (short) length of the tracks but I believe you should ignore the individual tracks and seemingly arbitrary divisions into sides 1, 2, 3 and 4 and just take the music as one piece. Some people have called it ‘ambient’ but ‘instrumental’ would be a more apt description, with the exception of the final track Louder than Words; the tracks are seamlessly joined together using segments of early-Floyd sounding space-rock effects including a piece of metal sliding down the guitar strings, something I appreciate because it’s something I’ve borrowed from the Floyd for my own music (I use a tremolo arm) and, despite the self-depreciating track title On Noodle Street, it never comes across as pointless or self-indulgent. Early Floyd is in the ascendant during the first five tracks. After the opener, Things Left Unsaid, featuring the voices of the three members of the last incarnation of Pink Floyd that could have been taken from studio conversations for Live at Pompeii with Adrian Maben, beginning with Rick Wright saying “There’s certainly an unspoken understanding” followed by Gilmour, “There’s a lot of things unsaid”, comes what can only be described as a section inspired by Shine On You Crazy Diamond called It’s What We Do; over the keyboard wash you get the trumpet synthesizer sound and Gilmour adds languid guitar that transports you back to 1975, removing the black shrink wrap from your new purchase, trying not to rip the George Hardie ‘handshake’ graphic. Skins references Nick Mason’s contribution to the studio album of Ummagumma, The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party. Though there’s no Mellotron on Skins, the keyboard part hints at the experimentation of 1969. There aren’t just references to earlier material; a tape of Rick Wright playing the organ at the Royal Albert Hall during a sound check for a performance in 1969 (after which they were banned for using a smoke bomb, a professional hazard for rock acts at the RAH) forms the basis of Autumn ’68 and serves as a very fitting tribute to the keyboard player who died in September 2008. The title of the new track refers to Summer ’68, the Wright-penned track from side two of Atom Heart Mother.

The obvious unused material for The Division Bell, as opposed to warm-up jam sessions, includes the Stephen Hawking computer-voiced Hawkin’ Talkin’ but there is material that hints at Wall-era Floyd, what some fans regard as their best period and some may not have listened to anything before that. I think that these moments work well because they are reminiscent of the best instrumental sections of The Wall, untainted by Waters-penned lyrics. It’s quite neat that the only track with vocals, Louder Than Words, comes right at the end; it forms a conceptual bookend with Things Left Unsaid and Polly Samson’s words neatly summarise the tensions between the personalities in the Floyd but also remind us of some of their classic material, from Dark Side of the Moon to The Division Bell. This track, the longest on the album (if we’re going to count) could easily have been released in 1994.

Overall, the album fits neatly into the style of Pink Floyd from 1968 – 1977 with its long-form, multipart suite format that was integral to side long tracks Atom Heart Mother and Echoes and the 27 minute Shine On You Crazy Diamond, but also includes works such as the title track from A Saucerful of Secrets; the sound is both modern (and the Floyd have always utilised the most up-to-date studio equipment at their disposal, their production values much admired) and old school, with Farfisa and Hammond organs and Fender Rhodes electric piano. Gilmour’s guitar playing is mature but dips into his past innovative use of the instrument to produce sound effects for the transition between tracks; Mason’s drumming is the best he’s performed and there are no supplementary percussionists.

It’s What We Do, the second longest track on the album at 6’17” is probably my favourite subsection because of the overt 1975 musical quotation. The album, taken as a whole (as Dave Gilmour himself has suggested you do) is like a historical journey, not necessarily linear, of the entire Floyd output with a bias towards the earlier material and with the album title providing a nice link to The Division Bell (a lyric on High Hopes.)


This is Pink Floyd. This is classic Pink Floyd. This is probably the last of Pink Floyd.


By ProgBlog, Oct 26 2014 09:39PM

The ProgBlog didn’t appear last week due to a combination of circumstances. Firstly, the weekend was taken up with the TUC Britain Needs a Pay Rise march in central London followed immediately by Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea at Selhurst Park, with domestic duties transferred to the Sunday and secondly, because I had writers block.

The ProgBlog is intended to form the basis of a book, A personal Guide to Progressive Rock, should any publisher be willing to take up the idea. After all, Prog magazine has been going for over 5 years and there is a growing library of progressive rock-related literature. I’ve amassed around 60000 words in blog posts and a further 15000 in gig reviews, aiming to write about 1100 words each week. I’ve stuck to this formula pretty well, taking breaks for holidays when necessary and using the holiday experience to form the basis for a post.


The Genesis documentary continues to provoke umbrage amongst prog aficionados. A conversation with brother Richard, who is coming down from Cumbria to London to see Steve Hackett next Saturday, was dismissive of Genesis: Together and Apart because of the lack of input from Hackett and included nothing at all about the guitarist’s extensive solo output. Speaking to Jim Knipe on our way to see West Bromwich Albion vs. Crystal Palace yesterday (Jim is a Baggies fan and when Palace and West Brom manage to be in the same league, we both do the home and away fixtures) he also referred to the TV programme and reiterated his comment posted to the blog that he thought it was outrageous that the band continued to call themselves Genesis when their output in the 80s and beyond was such rubbish. Richard had suggested the next blog should be about when prog bands stopped playing prog; Jim had derided rump Genesis for not being prog...

The golden age of prog ended in 1978 for reasons covered in a number of my posts. Many of the less successful acts simply disbanded but of the major prog bands that continued, Yes changed musical direction following the perfectly acceptable Drama with a modern-sounding rock; an established three-piece Genesis continued to strip their music of complexity and churned out soft-rock; Pink Floyd succumbed to control by Roger Waters and, despite the brilliance of their studio trickery dropped any pretence of symphonic prog and became a run-of-the-mill rock band with lyrics that seemed to attempt to out-snarl the punks, who had themselves largely disappeared; ELP broke up following Love Beach (1978) and made two brief almost reunions as Emerson Lake and Powell in 1985 and 3 (Emerson, Palmer and Robert Berry) in 1988 that didn’t really approach prog territory. The album Emerson Lake and Powell has two tracks running at over 7 minutes and also includes an adaptation of Holst’s Mars, something that Lake had performed when he was in King Crimson, running in at just less than 8 minutes; To the Power of 3 has one 7 minute plus song; following a prog-folk trilogy that ended with Stormwatch in 1979, Jethro Tull also modernised their sound and, in contrast to the stable line-up of the band since 1976’s Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die adopted a policy of changing musicians for subsequent albums. Though originally intended to be an Ian Anderson solo album, A was released under the Tull moniker and with short, contemporary songs (4WD [Low Ratio], Fylingdale Flyer, Protect and Survive) it really wasn’t prog. The Pine Marten’s Jig forms a sonic link to the three preceding albums but the other tracks are stylistically closer to material that appeared on Anderson’s 1983 solo album, Walk into Light. Tull’s 1982 offering, The Broadsword and the Beast featured Walk into Light collaborator Peter-John Vettese on keyboards, strikes me as being closer to Stormwatch that to A because the subject matter is less ‘modern’ and the concept of Beastie is suggestive of folklore. I thought Under Wraps was uninspired and simply disappointing.

The other major act, last seen in 1974 following the famous announcement that King Crimson “had ceased to exist” made a surprise return in 1981. Quite different from previous incarnations and more aligned with art-rock thanks to the inclusion of former Talking Head Adrian Belew, this Crimson, originally testing the water as Discipline, were most definitely prog; different, but certainly prog. It’s deeply ironic that it was King Crimson who returned as standard-bearers for the genre (from the perspective of someone who listens to and buys progressive rock music) as the other main proponents changed to conform with a bland music industry but, as the neo-prog movement briefly burned bright and faded, Crimson also broke up in 1984 after three albums of remarkable originality. A ten year hiatus, during which time prog was re-evaluated and subsequently deemed less toxic than it had been at any time since the mid 70s saw not just the reappearance of King Crimson but also of former acts and an amazing roll call of new bands from all over the world.

The issue of retaining a band’s name has resulted in more than one legal battle. Jim suggests that it’s shameful that Banks, Collins and Rutherford should have continued to call themselves Genesis. Though I agree with this sentiment, bearing in mind that Banks and Rutherford brought in vocalist Ray Wilson for the 1997 Genesis album Calling All Stations that also included drumming provided by US prog royalty, Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard, Banks and Rutherford were two of the founding members of the band. The Yes saga was resolved with the union of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe and the Squire-Rabin LA based Yes but, rather like Jim and his issues with the post-Hackett Genesis, I have a problem with the 90125 band taking on the name of Yes. Originally a project that went under the name of Cinema (hence the track Cinema on the album) they only became Yes after the late inclusion of Jon Anderson. The temporary disagreement between Tony Kaye and producer Trevor Horn and subsequent hiring of Eddie Jobson might have put the adoption of the name Yes in (legal) jeopardy but Kaye was brought back into the fold and Jobson, not wanting to share keyboard duties, stood down. I think there’s a qualitative difference between the music pre- and post 90125; Drama, though lacking Anderson and Wakeman, is stylistically similar to the preceding albums and is undoubtedly symphonic prog. 90125, on the other hand, is a very different sonic beast that also demonstrates a shift away from the spiritual and ecological themes that characterised Yes musical territory up to Drama. Jim’s point is that the post-Hackett Genesis is stylistically and thematically divergent from the pastoral symphonic long-form pieces based on mythology that required input from all band members, not least Steve Hackett who had to treat the guitar quite differently from that used in normal rock bands, to make it stand out from the keyboard melodies. Though The Lamb appeared quite different at the time, you can detect motifs originally aired in Selling England and, perhaps more importantly, this was the classic prog Genesis line-up.

The Gilmour-led Pink Floyd ended up in a legal battle with Roger Waters but again, despite the inclusion of founding members Rick Wright and Nick Mason in the Momentary Lapse line-up, Gilmour’s resurrection of the Floyd name should be allowed on the grounds that A Momentary Lapse of Reason is a return to the symphonic prog last expressed on Wish You Were Here. The post-Barrett Floyd were a very different kettle of fish from the whimsy psychedelia that dominates Piper. Wright and Gilmour were together responsible for the more progressive leanings that emerged from the fledgling space rock of Saucerful; Waters seemed to be hooked on simplistic acoustic guitar riffs that are detectable on his solo portion of Ummagumma, through the short tracks on Atom Heart and Meddle and that re-emerge on the tracks Wish You Were Here and Pigs on the Wing, then dominate The Wall, The Final Cut and his first solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. Despite its success, I don’t really regard The Wall as a genuine Pink Floyd album in a musical sense because of the domination of the ideas of Waters and how the concept was delivered to the rest of the band. The live performance was a wonderful piece of theatrics but it wasn’t prog. I don’t imagine there are too many other people who think like that...


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