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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, Jan 29 2017 08:18PM

One of my Christmas presents was Yes is the Answer and other Prog Rock Tales edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell. I’d added it to my wish list within the previous month, seduced by the very fitting looking cover (a watercolour illustration by Nathan Popp in the style of Roger Dean’s crash-landed and colonised mountains from Yessongs) together with some four and five star reviews on Amazon.com, there being no reviews, at that time, posted on the UK site. Though there wasn’t a great deal to be gleaned from the reviewer comments, the publicity quotation sounded promising: Progressive rock is maligned and misunderstood. Critics hate it. Hipsters scoff at it. Yes is the Answer is a pointed rebuke to the prog-haters, the first literary collection devoted to the sub-genre. Featuring acclaimed novelists Rick Moody, Wesley Stace, Seth Greenland, Charles Bock, and Joe Meno, as well as musicians Nathan Larson, and Peter Case, Yes is the Answer is a book that dares to reclaim prog-rock as a subject worthy of serious consideration.


Yes is the Answer
Yes is the Answer

The book is a collection of short essays by respected journalists, writers and musicians, each relating a personal progressive rock story in an almost ProgBlog-like manner, only I’m rather ignorant of US writers. It‘s a slim volume which fits the hand nicely and the quality of the paper used for the dust jacket is very pleasing. However, the standard of writing plummets immediately after a rather brilliant opening disclaimer: Some of the essays in this book are prolix and self-indulgent. These are essays about Prog Rock. This is as it should be.


It’s not that I think it has limited literary merit; I instantly disagreed with the opinion of Weingarten in his introduction that the progressive rock fan fraternity frowned upon the exponents of jazz fusion because of their propensity for ‘noodling’ and that fusion adherents were sad for their obsessive appreciation of the instruments used to make the music. On the contrary, Brand X were a successful jazz fusion act who were fully appreciated by the prog rock crowd and, speaking as someone who came into progressive rock fairly early on, long before peak-prog or the rise of punk, part of the attraction for me was the ability to obsess over the instrumentation, because without the technological advancements the music would never have been created. I'm responsible for reproducing the console of a mini-Moog on my desk at school when I was 13 and later, when I first started work after university, spent a lunchtime in a local music shop playing a Mellotron 400D. I'm sure many would agree with me that the best album sleeves are those which list the make and model of all the equipment used to make the record.

I know that there have been factual inaccuracies in my blogs pointed out by readers, but my pieces are mostly opinions, streams of consciousness posted without any proof-reading. When I come across an unchecked fact in a publication (Jerry Lucky repeatedly calling David Gilmour ‘David Gilmore’ in his 20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock, new copies of which are selling for £68 on Amazon in the UK, or Dave Ling writing in Prog magazine that the opening chords of Watcher of the Skies were played on organ, for example) it offends my sensibility.


20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky
20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky

Imagine my indignation when the first article, Here Comes the Knife by Seth Greenland states that Rondo (by The Nice) is on Ars Longa Vita Brevis. No, it’s on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. Why hasn’t anyone picked this up before it went to the printers? This lack of attention to detail is un-prog but it soon becomes clear that many of the contributors discovered this music at the tail-end of the golden period or later, that the majority of them have not remained fully committed to the genre and that their views have more often than not been forged under the influence of mostly soft but occasionally hard drugs. There’s no doubt that marijuana was the recreational substance of choice for some of the artists but many eschewed drugs either through ascetic lifestyle choice or because of the technical difficulties of playing a piece made ingestion unwise. The book highlights the American experience which is very different from the UK where progressive rock developed; traditionally, rock ‘n’ roll has been romanticised in a very Hollywood way as a rite of passage, a time of teenage rebellion. Progressive rock didn’t really fit into this scheme, because the exponents were attempting to legitimise their form of rock music, with Keith Emerson building bridges between the worlds of classical and rock and all of them were looking at other idioms to expand their musical vocabulary. This is what they exported and a small number of them did well in the US, the music and underlying philosophy chiming with a nascent ecological movement and a general feeling of hope. There were only a few proper progressive rock acts from North America during the golden era (Happy the Man and Fireballet spring to mind, those being bands with albums in my collection, but I think what I’ve heard of Starcastle who received air play on Alan Freeman’s radio show in the UK might also include them in that small club) and it wasn't until the resurgence of prog in the mid-90s that there was any significant American input. Even then, this latest phase had its roots in metal and was sort of retro-fitted to the original. The short biography after each essay reveals a dearth of specialist music magazine contributors; if you like short, personal stories about coming-of-age presented in a sex and drugs and rock and roll context, you may like this book and the high-scoring reviews from Amazon US make perfect sense. However, there's nothing analytical or even enlightening about progressive rock within the pages; it's not actually about the music but about the individual contributors who at some stage in their emotional development have come across prog.

One of the articles is by British author Nick Coleman who was an NME journalist and has written a well regarded autobiography The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss after suffering sudden neurosensory hearing loss – totally devastating when your livelihood revolves around music. Though progressive rock evidently played a major part in his youth, his essay Hung Up on these Silver Strings (a line from the song Axe Victim) concerns Be Bop Deluxe. Be Bop Deluxe isn’t prog but fit in to the closely-associated Art-rock sub-genre. A vehicle for the talents of Bill Nelson, the band was favoured by prog fans and dutifully, though I don’t own any of their studio releases, I bought a copy of Live! In the Air Age in lieu of a ‘best of’ album.


Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe
Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe

Part of the attraction for me was that Nelson was a northerner, forgiven for being from the wrong side of the Pennines, from Wakefield. The follow-up band Red Noise created an interest within my circle, possibly because they played Leeds University where my brother Tony and another of my associates were studying medicine but I wasn’t too impressed by Furniture Music, not really liking the shorter songs or the electronics. However, I did go to see Bill Nelson performing The Invisibility Exhibition at the Dominion Theatre in March 1973, an enjoyable gig where Nelson played guitar, synthesizer and percussion to backing video from 1950s art films. Shortly after that I purchased a copy of his solo album Quit Dreaming and get on the Beam, written as a second Red Noise album but held back by EMI because they didn’t like it. This is an album of clever electro pop but I had been under the impression that it came with a free LP called Sounding the Ritual Echo (Atmospheres for Dreaming), a basic, home recording straying into ambient electronic territory, and that’s what I was really interested in.


Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition
Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition

Nelson may have been the recipient of Prog magazine's Visionary award in 2015 but I still regard him as an exponent of Art-rock. Another Art-rocker, who has had a much heavier involvement with prog, is Brian Eno; these are the only two representatives of this form in my collection. From his Roxy Music beginnings, Eno branched out into progressive pop territory and collaborated with a wide range of prog luminaries on his accessible solo albums. This directly led to involvement with Genesis on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and he also assisted on the Mainstream album Quiet Sun with former band-mate Phil Manzanera. His experimentation with tape loops and twin Revox tape recorders in collaboration with Robert Fripp for the ground-breaking (No Pussyfooting) began before the release of Here Come the Warm Jets and though dismissed at the time, it is now rightly regarded as a seminal piece of music. What makes Eno stand out is his way of thinking; from the bed-stricken origins of Discreet Music to the entire ambient genre where his modus operandi, subscribing to systems that once set into motion require little or no further input from Eno himself and divulged in the sleeve notes of Discreet Music, still hold true to his output today, neatly exemplified by his Bloom iPhone app. Musical collaborations and pathfinding aside, Eno was appointed the youth affairs adviser for the Liberal Democrats in 2007, at the age of 59. He’s also interviewed Yanis Varoufakis for The Guardian and caused something of a stir last week when a Guardian interview with him ran under the headline “We’ve been in decline for 40 years – Trump is a chance to rethink”; he was obliged to clarify that he thinks Donald Trump is a complete disaster.


Prog and Art-rock obviously have a degree of crossover but the latter has always been more respected by mainstream media. Part of this is inherent re-invention along the lines of fashion, whereas prog is deemed to have ossified, like a lumbering dinosaur without an original thought in its head, being wiped out by the brash, brightly burning punks. Prog resurfaced and, since the mid 1990s has been going pretty strong. That books like Yes is the Answer are being published is testament to its longevity.

By ProgBlog, Jul 17 2016 04:39PM

Last weekend was spent based in Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic and included a day trip to Bratislava in Slovakia, less than 90 minutes away by train. I’ve been to the Czech Republic before, for a presentation at the second East-West Immunogenetics conference in Prague in 2007 and on my brief time off I managed to get to a couple of record stores, one on a late evening trip around Wenceslas Square where the rock music selection was rather poor and the other, squeezed in just before my flight home, a shop called Bontonland in the Centrum Chodov mall at the end of subway line C. Though this large, rambling store was staffed entirely by non-English speakers (my problem, not theirs) I made my request for Czech prog using an elementary phrase book and citing English examples of the genre. Despite these communication difficulties, the staff managed to produce a handful of Czech CDs and provided me with a remote to ply through the selection. I sat for about an hour listening to parts of this collection but it was predominantly blues based material that I didn’t really like or want.

I had done some research before my 2007 trip and the band Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) were foremost on my list. This group formed in the aftermath of the crushing of Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring in 1968, named after the track Plastic People on the 1967 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention album Absolutely Free. PPU were targeted by the communist authorities with punishment ranging from imprisonment to having a house burned down. Unable to perform in public, an entire underground cultural movement formed around the band during the 1970s and the sympathizers of the movement were often called máničky, indicating youths with long hair. I was unable to find any PPU releases on that particular visit but that might have been in part due to the classification of the band. Inspired by Zappa and the Velvet Underground, PPU occupy an area akin to chamber-prog, but with more riff-based music than, for example, Henry Cow.


I was aware that rock bands, including some with progressive leanings, were around in communist countries in the late 70s and early 80s. I wanted to visit the USSR in 1983, with Leningrad a short train journey from Helsinki which I visited with friend Nick Hodgetts during an Inter Rail holiday over the summer, but organising a visa while already en route was an insurmountable problem. I did get to visit East Berlin before the fall of the Wall and got shouted at by a border guard in a watch tower when I stepped over a low barrier to take a photo of the Wall from the West; I even spent my honeymoon on a two-centre holiday to the relatively ‘loose’ communist state of Yugoslavia, officially the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where I witnessed the lack of choice available to the citizens and benefitted from a currency in freefall, cashing low value travellers cheques on a daily basis. I bought a piece of original artwork and, though I looked at some CDs, these were mostly folk music so I didn’t acquire any. Having come away from honeymoon without any local music, my first Eastern European CD purchase was a second-hand copy of U Vreci Za Spavanje by Yugoslavian band Tako, bought from Beanos in Croydon, in 2005, not from behind the Iron Curtain. I’d seen this and not bought it, but returned to the shop the following week after checking my Jerry Lucky books. My CD is a Brazilian reissue of the original 1980 LP plus a couple of bonus tracks and though the recording quality is a bit poor, it’s a very enjoyable album. The opening title track begins like something from Wish You Were Here and while there are plenty of keyboards throughout the album, there’s also a good quantity of flute, making it a great piece of symphonic prog which references Camel and Steve Hackett along with early 70s Floyd.

Beanos was the source of my next Eastern Europe music purchases in April 2008, picking up two CDs by Polish band Albion, Wabiąc Cienie (2005) and Broken Hopes (2007). The former is their second release, entirely in Polish (the title translates as Luring the Shadows, and the cover picture, which is very proggy, conveys this quite nicely) and the latter, their third album is a more mature and coherent effort but sung in English. Wabiąc Cienie demonstrates good musicianship, influenced by Pink Floyd and 80s Marillion, though it comes across as being a bit too controlled, as if studio time was the most important process and, for the most part it’s unchallenging 4/4, albeit with pleasant alternating passages of guitar and multi-layered keyboards. Vocalist Katarzyna Sobkowicz-Malec has a great voice, at times hinting at frailty but always controlled and in tune. The best track is the 11 minute plus instrumental Bieg po Tęczy (Run the Rainbow) which hints at the continued direction on subsequent album Broken Hopes, incorporating the sounds of a young baby and the flapping of birds’ wings; it contains lengthy passages in 7/8 time, too. Broken Hopes strikes me as Albion’s Misplaced Childhood with a narrative that questions politics, war and religion, all suitable epic themes for a concept album which has more variation than its predecessor but still sounds far more complete and satisfying.


A work friend told me about Solaris because one of his colleagues had introduced him to this Hungarian symphonic prog outfit. I eventually found a copy of Marsbéli Krónikák in Black Widow Records in Genoa last year, my only non-Italian purchase of the trip at just €17; the current UK price is almost £50. Solaris took their name from the science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem and their album titles from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, though Lem’s first novel was called The Man from Mars. I know that Marsbéli Krónikák is generally raved about, similar to the way that Ys by Il Balletto di Bronzo is hyped as being the best progressive rock album, ever, and though it’s undeniably well-played symphonic prog with lots and lots of keyboard and flute, it doesn’t press all the right buttons for me, possibly because it’s a little bit driven by some simple riffs and I’m not at all keen on one of the bonus tracks that appears on my 1995 re-issue CD – I think the quality of the material tails off towards the end of the original album. However, I’d still rate it as pretty good. Marsbéli Krónikák II is much cheaper to get in the UK because it was released in 2014, after years of the band attempting to get back together and I was given a copy for Christmas last year. This follow-up effort is stylistically similar despite thirty tears between the original and the sequel, which again tails off in quality towards the end of the album but is, overall, a really good release.


Whereas Solaris appeared in 1980, their fellow countrymen Omega had been active in the late 60s and appeared on the prog radar with the 1975 album The Hall of Floaters in the Sky. I think this may have had an airing on Alan Freeman’s radio show but I do remember looking at the interesting sleeve art in Blackshaw’s in Barrow when it was released, thinking it was a pretty odd title, not realising that it might be a literal translation from the Hungarian. I finally bought a copy from a stall in Dalston Old Market earlier this year but, despite Omega being the most successful Hungarian band and this particular album allegedly one of their best; a mixture of symphonic prog and post-Barrett Pink Floyd space rock, I was disappointed. I’m not a fan of the lyrics or the English vocals and it’s too close to heavy rock for my taste.


And so to last weekend. I really liked Brno with its flashes of Functionalist architectural style, the Villa Stiassni and Villa Tugendhat, and the day trip to Slovakia was good, taking in a number of varied sites like St Michael’s Tower and the UFO Tower over the Danube. On our first evening in Brno we’d noticed a shop selling CDs, Indies, next to the impressive Alfa Palace, a Functionalist masterpiece, and on our last morning we made time to shop. I bought two CDs by PPU, Hovězí Porážka (Beef Slaughtering) (1984) and Obešel já polí pět (I Walked Around Five Fields) (2009), the recording of a 2003 concert with the Agon Orchestra in honour of Czech philosopher Ladislaw Klima. I also bought two CDs by prog-folk band Zrni (which I haven’t had time to listen to yet.) Then I saw Vinyl Records... I have never travelled anywhere in the world with the intention of buying vinyl, not even recent excursions to Italy, but this shop, selling both new and second hand vinyl, was the obvious place to start. The incredibly helpful staff chose a selection of Czech prog for me and then let me listen to entire sides. I picked up original copies of Sluneční hodiny (Sundial) (1981), Křídlení (1983), both by Synkopy; 33 (1981) by M.Efekt; and a non-Czech LP, Brandung by Novalis (1977). Considering how small the Czech Republic and Slovakia are, there were some incredibly talented prog bands around in the 70s and 80s. I’m grateful to both Vinyl Records and the former owners of the LPs for keeping them in such great condition and, though recording studios used by rock bands in former communist countries may have been less advanced than Western Europe or American studios, I’m impressed with the dynamic range of the recordings.

If you’re ever in the Czech Republic, spend some time in Brno. The architecture is stunning and the friendly record shops contain some absolute gems.









By ProgBlog, Feb 21 2016 08:11PM

For the past fifteen or so years, my wife has spent February half-term in New York which is fine by me. I can listen to lots of music at home without resorting to headphones and, if I’m lucky, she might find a bit of original US prog to bring back home. I’ve been to NYC three times, most recently in 2003; I ski in Europe later on in the season in lieu of a transatlantic shopping trip. Up until my first visit in 1998, my expectations had been modulated by film, TV and bits and pieces of music. I was quite taken by the steam vents that I’d heard described by Peter Gabriel around the time of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), a system of heating, cooling, cleaning and powering businesses in Manhattan. About half of the steam is cogenerated and using this as an energy source dramatically increases the efficiency of fuels.

The first time I visited the country was for the 16th American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Century City, Los Angeles, in 1990. My original contract with Guy’s Hospital allowed me one international conference per year and I chose this one for its potential to provide an insight into the cutting edge of transplantation science. I may have been swayed by the fact that the Hipgnosis cover for Yes’ Going for the One (1977) features Century City. This was not a good time for progressive rock bands, or prog in general and it pre-dated my seeking out local record stores to explore music by local artists, so I didn’t buy anything by US groups on that trip.


Century City
Century City

In fact, all my trips to the States to cities other than New York have been for symposia or workshops. I was in Dallas in 1995 for another ASHI conference and as prog was beginning to resurface, when the band playing at the gala dinner suggested they’d take requests, I asked them to play some King Crimson but they played some Talking Heads instead. Both LA and Dallas are huge conurbations and some of the things I had bookmarked to see in LA were impossible. I stayed in a Holiday Inn on Wilshire Boulevard and it took about an hour to walk to the conference venue but there were decent views across to the Hollywood Hills; My hotel reservation in Dallas, the venue for the ASHI meeting itself, was thrown into chaos by a mid-flight engine failure on my aircraft, resulting in an unscheduled overnight stop over at the Hilton in Boston. Perhaps I shouldn’t have wished too loudly for an end to the improvised fleadh on the plane as passengers, off to a traditional music festival somewhere, took out fiddles and pipes and began to play. TWA kindly flew me first class from Boston to St Louis early the next morning for a flight on to Dallas. Unfortunately my room had been given away and I had to stay in a different but possibly more glamorous hotel around the corner for one night. The walk between the two buildings would have taken less than two minutes as the crow flies but, being on a busy freeway intersection with no footpath, it took a little longer and I had to cope with drivers abusing me for daring to walk. Apparently it was dangerous, so when I attended the evening entertainment I stuck to the transport provided.


Grassy knoll, Dallas
Grassy knoll, Dallas

Seattle was a different prospect. Verdant, compact and interesting, I was there for the 2002 International Histocompatibility Workshop Conference. The meeting was held in the Washington State Convention Center [sic] and my accommodation was a brief walk away at the Kings Inn motel, where I felt pretty insecure because the room opened out from the ill-fitting steel door, my first experience of this kind of hotel. I didn’t manage to buy any music but I did spend time at the rather good Experience Music Project, a Frank Gehry-designed museum that had opened a couple of years earlier. Seattle has some high profile musician links such as Jimi Hendrix, Queensryche and Kurt Cobain but I was more interested in the Yes drummer Alan White connection; one of his kits was on display.


I’d picked up CDs in New York but these were by UK artists and were either far cheaper than I could have found at home or relatively obscure, for example Exiles (1997) by David Cross. The first US prog that I bought was Day for Night (1999) by Spock’s Beard when I was in Miami in 2003. I was in Miami twice that year, for a training course in April and presenting at the ASHI conference in October. The April trip was memorable because I left a laptop and some CDs in the boot of the taxi that dropped me off at my hotel in Coconut Grove, one of these being my signed copy of King Crimson’s The Nightwatch (1997) that I’d bought at the playback at the Intercontinental Hotel in London. On my return to the UK I emailed ET, the Crimson related forum and asked American contributors to look out for it. No one was sympathetic, some pointing out how stupid it was to carry original CDs around. Correct, but hardly helpful. Day for Night was bought on the autumn trip along with a copy of a cheap limited edition European version of The Ladder (1999) by Yes, in a slip case plus poster. I can’t remember the store but you could scan the barcode and listen to extracts of the music. I quite liked the analogue sounds of that particular Spock’s Beard album, which is why I bought it, rather than any other. I may have also been seduced by the Yes-like structure of the title track with its trebly bass and the Gentle Giant homage Gibberish. Though there’s a range of styles on display I get the feeling that the band has taken 80s Yes as a template with a deliberate attempt at being radio friendly.
I’d picked up CDs in New York but these were by UK artists and were either far cheaper than I could have found at home or relatively obscure, for example Exiles (1997) by David Cross. The first US prog that I bought was Day for Night (1999) by Spock’s Beard when I was in Miami in 2003. I was in Miami twice that year, for a training course in April and presenting at the ASHI conference in October. The April trip was memorable because I left a laptop and some CDs in the boot of the taxi that dropped me off at my hotel in Coconut Grove, one of these being my signed copy of King Crimson’s The Nightwatch (1997) that I’d bought at the playback at the Intercontinental Hotel in London. On my return to the UK I emailed ET, the Crimson related forum and asked American contributors to look out for it. No one was sympathetic, some pointing out how stupid it was to carry original CDs around. Correct, but hardly helpful. Day for Night was bought on the autumn trip along with a copy of a cheap limited edition European version of The Ladder (1999) by Yes, in a slip case plus poster. I can’t remember the store but you could scan the barcode and listen to extracts of the music. I quite liked the analogue sounds of that particular Spock’s Beard album, which is why I bought it, rather than any other. I may have also been seduced by the Yes-like structure of the title track with its trebly bass and the Gentle Giant homage Gibberish. Though there’s a range of styles on display I get the feeling that the band has taken 80s Yes as a template with a deliberate attempt at being radio friendly.

My first tastes of American rock music would have been on Alan Freeman’s radio show and one of Tony’s friends was quite heavily into the Doors. Tony had Mass in F Minor (1967), a concise psychedelic masterpiece by The Electric Prunes and we liked the early prog-era instrumental Zappa; I may have bought Hot Rats (1969) in New York. I was tuned into the United States of America by a chapter in Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001, ed. Kevin Holm-Hudson), The “American Metaphysical Circus.” Influenced by avant garde rather than 19th Century European composers, their 1968 eponymous debut has a distinct West Coast sound but there are plenty of melody lines that could almost be pop, were it not for the underlying electronics and manipulations and hints of radical politics. Susan got me a copy from New York in 2009.

I read a review of The Weirding (2009) by Astra before buying it. Progressive rock had become truly respectable again and bands were happy to reference Pink Floyd and King Crimson. This offering is slightly spacey and there’s a lack of polish in the playing which gives it a kind of authenticity, aided by a decent production. It’s ok, but it doesn’t really challenge.

Last year I requested some recent releases by Glass Hammer, should Susan happen to be passing any suitable record shops. I’d got Journey of the Dunadan (1993) for Christmas 2013 even though I’d read that it wasn’t anywhere close to their best album, which contains some very nice keyboard work but displays a sort of naivety; attempting to cover The Lord of the Rings on a single, debut album was simply over-ambitious. I’m still waiting for more Glass Hammer! A year later I was given Finneus Gauge’s One Inch of the Fall (1999) which is on the progressive side of jazz rock, like an American UK. Laura Martin’s vocals are clear and distinctive and the musicianship can’t be faulted, with uniform high quality writing. I think I can detect some Canterbury influences but it doesn’t really sound like anyone else. There’s more guitar than keyboards, some of which is reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth.

Last year, in anticipation of a new deck, I bought Fireballet’s Night on Bald Mountain (1975) when I came across it by chance at a vinyl fair in Spittalfields Market. The stall holder had bought it new from East Side Music & Video in Toronto but didn’t know much about it. I’d just read about the album in Prog Rock FAQ by Will Romano and thought it looked an interesting proposition and, considering the efforts of other US bands during the golden era of prog, it proved to be way ahead of any of them. It may be derivative but the calibre of musicianship is high and it gets really good treatment from producer (ex-King Crimson) Ian McDonald; second track Centurion could be Trespass-era Genesis but album opener Les Cathèdrales utilises the uncredited Theme One by George Martin. This is the closest an American band would get to original prog.

Postscript: I had the first two Happy the Man CDs on my NY wish list. Didn’t get either!






By ProgBlog, May 5 2015 09:36PM

The bass playing and vocals of John Wetton were an integral part of the sound of the incarnation of King Crimson that convened in 1972. I first became aware of Wetton in 1974 listening to The Great Deceiver which was played by Alan Freeman when Starless and Bible Black was released and this was reinforced a few months later when Guy Wimble, one of the Infield Park Gang (IPG), bought the outstanding Red (1974) and brother Tony bought the ground-breaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973). I managed to find a copy of the powerful but elusive USA (1975) when I moved down to London as a student from the local record store near my hall of residence, Elpees in Bexley.

His move to Uriah Heep after the break-up of Crimson didn’t make us rush out and buy Return to Fantasy (1975) or High and Mighty (1976) even though Wimble owned copies of The Magician’s Birthday and Demons and Wizards but his later move to Wishbone Ash for Number the Brave (1981) did rouse some interest, enough to look at the record sleeve in the shops, anyway. I’d have thought that Wetton’s bass style was suited to the early Wishbone Ash style; I’d class Martin Turner alongside Wetton in terms of sound and technique but when I first went to see Wishbone Ash in 1979 at Keele University, they were plying mindless boogie, despite having produced No Smoke Without Fire the previous year, an album many considered to be a return to form because of its leaning towards prog with the two-part Way of the World, a track that strongly reminds me of The Pilgrim from 1971’s Pilgrimage. Never truly prog, the Ash did have a rather annoying habit of following good albums with poor efforts. I was never really interested in post-Siren Roxy Music.

I didn’t manage to get to see the original quartet version of UK but I did manage to see the pared-down Danger Money incarnation of the band for their only UK appearance before shooting off on tour to support Jethro Tull. My enthusiasm for this gig was tempered by the feeling that the band was under-rehearsed. A mix-up with dates meant that I didn’t get to see the last ever UK gig on UK soil but I did see them at the same venue, Under the Bridge, in May 2012. The eponymous debut album was brilliant, arriving just in time to show that progressive rock had a future but the departure of Bruford and Holdsworth changed the balance of the band and though the trio were eminently able to cope with complexity, they chose to head in a radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse-chorus direction. Despite this, there are some classic prog moments on Danger Money, especially the Jobson organ work which seems to have inspired Adam Holzman; the evocative Rendezvous 6:02, though understated, is one of my favourite Wetton tracks and his vocals would be the best they’d get on this album.

When you think of Wetton’s contribution to Jack-Knife’s I Wish You Would (1979) it’s possible to imagine him playing that kind of material because of his remarkable versatility but it was hardly challenging for the players or listeners and that was the reason I gave it away to a charity shop after buying a copy I came upon by chance in a small, obscure record shop in Tooting in the early 80s. I didn’t really know what to expect before I bought it, with cover versions of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and Eyesight to the Blind and a self-penned song called Mustang Momma yet somehow I was seduced by the inclusion of Richard Palmer-James in the line-up when the dreadful cover artwork should have been enough of a clue. Perhaps I was just being completist because I’d acquired the Jack-Knife album after finding Wetton’s first solo album, Caught in the Crossfire (1980) in a sale in WH Smith in Streatham. Despite a guest appearance by Martin Barre, Crossfire was quite removed from progressive rock; the track When Will You Realize? which is included here was apparently cited by Eddie Jobson as the song most responsible for the demise of UK. It’s slightly surprising that I never got rid of that, too.

I was originally looking forward to the first Asia album; Wetton was back with prog luminaries and the result could only be positive. I wasn’t aware that he was deliberately choosing to depart from the band members’ pasts and eschew long instrumentals in favour of short songs, an approach that I wasn’t going to enjoy. I dutifully bought the first three albums when they came out, Asia (1982), Alpha (1983) and Astra (1985), divesting the latter when I came across the part-compilation on CD Then and Now in 1990, disgruntled that Steve Howe appeared to have been ejected from the band after Alpha. Though I could have gone to see the reformed Asia at the High Voltage festival in 2010, I decided against it, preferring to spend my cash going to witness a reformed ELP who were headlining the next day.

Towards the end of the 90s I went to see John Wetton with his band on three occasions. The first was at the Astoria that used to stand in Charing Cross Road, in November 1996, where I didn’t really know what to expect. The material was a mixture of Crimson, UK, Asia and solo songs and I was impressed enough to buy Akustika – Live in Amerika (1996) from the merchandise stand. The support band turned out to be David Cross who was promoting his about-to-be-released Exiles (1997) which turned out to be uncompromising prog. Five months later I saw Wetton at Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre and in September 1997 I saw him along with other members of the 72-74 King Crimson for the Night Watch playback at London’s Hotel Intercontinental where he performed a solo acoustic version of Book of Saturday. In November 1998 I saw him play in a room at the Pavilion, Bromley. His band evolved over these performances and I used Starless as a measure of their competence; guitarist Billy Liesgang wasn’t too impressive though drummer Tom Lang was good and these two were eventually replaced by Dave Kilminster and Steve Christey (ex-Jadis) respectively. Martin Orford was a constant and consistent presence on keyboards.

In 1998 I began subscribing to ARkANGEL, the official John Wetton ‘infomagazine’, a labour of love put together with a cheap word processing package by Gary Carter who doubled-up as merchandise stallholder; I submitted a review or an op-ed but it didn’t get printed even though it seemed like Carter was forever haranguing the readership for material. This still exists in email format and a link can be found on the official website http://johnwetton.com

It was through ARkANGEL that I discovered a host of Wetton solo material and added Battle Lines (1994), Chasing the Deer (1998), Arkangel (1998), Hazy Monet (1998), Live at the Sun Plaza Tokyo 1999 (2000) and Sinister (2001). The vast majority of this is well-produced AOR but there are some stand-out tracks like The Circle of St Giles and E-Scape and I enjoy all of Chasing the Deer. To complete my collection I invested in a copy of the authorised Wetton biography, My Own Time by Kim Dancha, which concludes in 1997.

Qango were a short-lived band that attempted to recreate the highs of prog. Alongside Wetton on bass and vocals were Carl Palmer on drums, John Young on keyboards and Dave Kilminster on guitar. I saw them play at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon, using material from Asia and ELP, plus Wetton favourite All Along the Watchtower. They released a live album (Live in the Hood, 2000) but sadly, plans for a studio album were abandoned


By ProgBlog, Feb 15 2015 10:58PM

1975 might seem like the middle of the golden age of progressive rock but there weren’t too many releases by the major players. Music inspired by the Snow Goose was about to put Camel firmly on the prog map but they had come fairly late to the party. Wish You Were Here was a key release marking a high point in the Floyd canon, coming after what seemed like a prolonged hiatus and the last overtly progressive album they would do for a very long time. Though brilliant, Hatfield and the North’s The Rotters’ Club was an album that fell outside of mainstream prog but that for me was the best of the Canterbury offerings. Steve Hillage released the good but not essential Fish Rising, helped by fellow Gong members and Hatfield’s Dave Stewart, a friend and former early band mate and Caravan released what could really be described as the last decent album of their golden years, Cunning Stunts.

Gentle Giant switched record label to Chrysalis and put out the accessible and rocky Free Hand. I heard the title track on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show around the time of its release and it remains one of my favourite Gentle Giant tracks; a reformed Van der Graaf Generator emerged with the excellent Godbluff and covered familiar foreboding VdGG territory in a more measured, controlled way; Jethro Tull regaled us with the under-rated Minstrel in the Gallery; Rick Wakeman followed up the massive success of Journey to the Centre of the Earth with The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; and Steve Hackett filled the vacuum in Genesis output following the departure of Peter Gabriel by embarking on his first solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, which covered much of the ground that had been inhabited by Genesis.

1975 was the year of the Yes sabbatical with band members concentrating on solo album material. Steve Howe’s Beginnings and Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water were released within a couple of weeks of each other in the autumn and Olias of Sunhillow, Story of I and Ramshackled followed in 1976. The extended break between group albums mimicked the lay-off between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here; WYWH and Animals; and Brain Salad Surgery and Works Volume 1 and could be regarded as a period to recharge creative batteries. The closest the solo material came to resemble Yes music, certainly from a structural point of view, was probably Fish out of Water though Anderson’s Olias was possibly more spiritually in tune with Yes music and my personal favourite of the bunch. I wasn’t sure about the recreation of Roger Dean’s Fragile spaceship by Dave Roe despite recognising his artwork from Anne McCaffrey Dragonflight books which were essential reading for a 15 year-old but, in general the gatefold album sleeve worked and felt very satisfactory as a book with Anderson’s planetary eco-disaster storytelling. Many Yes fans were disappointed with the mixed bag from Alan White because it wasn’t prog and I regard Beginnings as an album for purists because, although it is thoroughly Steve Howe, it’s again too much of a varied stylistic blend.

Patrick Moraz’s Story of I was written during 1975 then recorded (at Jean Ristori’s Aquarius studio in Geneva) and released in 1976. Ristori was a former band mate of Moraz in Mainhorse, who played a largely blues-inflected proto prog and released one self-titled album in 1971. Mainhorse features a hefty dose of psychedelia and it's relatively heavy, with a lot of Hendrix- or Cream-like guitar. The songs are well-crafted but uncomplicated and the lyrics relatively throwaway and meaningless, though Peter Lockett sings quite well. The instrumental breaks remind me of Pete Banks-era Yes and there are some sections that remind me of Dutch band Supersister. There are jazzy breaks, Lockett plays some violin and Jean Ristori plays some cello but it's the organ work of Moraz that pushes the album in a prog direction, peppered with baroque references. There's even a great swinging electric piano extemporisation around a Bach theme on More Tea Vicar. Moraz’s writing style had matured by the time of Refugee and though their only studio album Refugee (1974) is primarily a vehicle for Moraz, the playing of Lee Jackson and Brian Davison brilliantly complements Moraz’s compositions which are top-notch symphonic prog, miles away from Mainhorse. Story of I references Refugee and Relayer; the pitch-bended fast moog runs are classic Moraz and the dense, complex sound has been taken from his time with Yes but I don’t know how much I like the album. I never owned the album on vinyl and didn’t get a copy until February 2012. Alan Freeman played Like a Child in Disguise when the record first came out and I was bitterly disappointed. I’d not heard of Mainhorse at that time and didn’t realise that Moraz had been asked to join Lee Jackson’s pre-Refugee band Jackson Heights, I’d only heard Refugee and Relayer and Freeman’s featured track was nowhere near as good as either of those. The lyrics (by John McBurnie, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter from Jackson Heights) seemed a bit trite and though I’d been versed in the concept of the album, it was difficult to trace the story through either the music or the lyrics. The concept was rather adventurous bearing in mind that science fiction was only just becoming mainstream in 1976; the jungle setting and the architecture of the ‘hotel’ call to mind JG Ballard and there’s even a dystopian aspect to the setting because the trials of the guests are prime-time TV viewing for the rest of the world. This voyeurism may have been inspired by the 1975 film Death Race 2000 and, like Death Race, there’s a positive ending. The ascent/escape of the two main protagonists (Symphony in the Space) is the only part of the story that fits in with the music and it appears to have been influenced by Moraz’s time with Yes. Much of the music could actually be classed as ‘world music’, such is the strength and feel of the Latin rhythms; perhaps that’s what makes me unsure about the album. The playing is exceptional and the range of styles, from classical to jazz to rock to Latin, is part of the make-up of progressive music but, in fitting with the concept, the Brazilian rhythms are overwhelming. Without other creative input or just someone suggesting that some of the ideas don’t quite work, Story of I comes across as a single-minded tour de force and coupled with the rather humdrum nature of the lyrics (when Moraz worked so well with Lee Jackson), this isn’t exactly my cup of tea; it’s not strictly prog.



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