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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, Sep 27 2015 09:00PM

I hate cardboard. I dislike cardboard with such a burning intensity it’s taking over my life. Let me put that in context: I hate cardboard packaging as much as I love order; record collections should be organised alphabetically by band and sub-divided by year. It’s pointless trying to organise a collection by genre when progressive rock encompasses such a broad spectrum of types from proto-prog and rock with progressive leanings through psychedelia and symphonic prog to jazz rock and RIO; my classical albums are also included within this single alphabet.

The cardboard in question is packaging for bits of flat pack furniture (which I detest with a greater passion because it means I’ve got to assemble it) and a couple of pieces of solid wood furniture that weigh around 40kg each (imagine the size of the boxes!) Add to that the box that the new TV came in, the Blu Ray player box and even the box for the aerial... The inner glow that I normally get from recycling has been extinguished by repeated treks to the local recycling facility. It’s not far to walk but they were all awkward to carry. If I were to visit a metaphorical psychiatrist’s couch, I think I’d find the built-up resentment directed at a lack of prog. The past five weeks have been chaotic in the Page household with a new front door, new double glazing, the living room and dining room being decorated throughout including a new carpet and a new fireplace; my LPs and CDs have been put into temporary storage in the back bedroom leaving a handful of accessible CDs, The Elements 2015 Tour Box that I picked up from the King Crimson gig on September 7th and birthday presents from the beginning of September – Merlin Atmos (2015) by Van der Graaf Generator; Petali di Fuoco (2010) by La Maschera di Cera; PFM's Chocolate Kings (re-issued, 2010 with a bonus CD); Earth and Fire’s debut album (1970); and Hatfield and the North Access All Areas (2015) but it’s not just the media that has been boxed up, my hi-fi is in bits waiting for some shelves to be fitted in the dining room and my record deck has been sent to a good home, leaving me waiting to visit Billy Vee Sound Systems in Lee to replace it with its bigger brother, a Rega Planar 3. I had been computer-less too, for a couple of weeks during the decorating and though it’s been set up again, I haven’t connected any peripherals. What I have done is connect my Technics VC4 hi-fi amplifier to the line out on the PC so I can sit in my Barcelona chair and listen to CDs or digital files on my headphones; plugging headphones directly into the PC won’t work because part of a 3.5 mm to 6.35 mm jack converter is stuck in the headphones socket. I think that’s an entirely reasonable explanation for my cardboard-phobia.

There is some cardboard that I like. I bought the new Blu Ray player from Richer Sounds and took the opportunity to try out some potential replacement speakers for my KEF C10s; I took along my copy of Fragile and played Roundabout on a Project Debut Carbon Esprit SB turntable fitted with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, trough a Cambridge amp and Monitor Audio Bronze BX6 speakers, then through Monitor Audio MR4 speakers. The BX6s produced a slightly clinical sound; there was good separation in the treble range but Chris Squire’s bass, though clear, lacked warmth. The MR4s were the opposite with less distinct treble and a rounded, more natural bass. It was good to open out the gatefold sleeve and not worry about cranking up the sound in the demonstration room, though the volume control on the Cambridge was a little flabby, with much turning and only gradual increase in volume. I had wondered which album to take with me to demo. It had to be something that was familiar and something that contained a wide dynamic range. I chose Fragile over Close to the Edge because CttE is more full-on than its predecessor; there aren’t many gaps in the music. I also took along Larks’ Tongues in Aspic but I’d parked on a meter and ran out of time to try out any more systems.

Returning to central Croydon and a trip to HMV, ostensibly to look at 3D Blu Ray discs, I noticed a display of Pink Floyd CDs alongside David Gilmour’s new release Rattle That Lock. I used to think HMV’s pricing of Floyd albums was prohibitively high – this was when I was looking to replace my vinyl with CDs, before their financial problems – but the full range of early Floyd CDs, in cardboard mini sleeves, was available for less than £8 each. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have a nicely packaged 20th anniversary Dark Side of the Moon box and the 1994 series of remastered and repackaged Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, Wish You Were Here and Animals I may have been more temped to buy them. I’d seen this range before, on holiday in Italy where they sell for the Euro equivalent of the Sterling price in HMV, a genuine bargain; if I couldn’t be tempted to indulge myself at that price, I wasn’t going to give in and buy them over here, however attractive their retro-look packaging. Nevertheless, if there’s a choice of jewel case or mini-album CD on a piece of music I don’t have in my collection, I’d go for the mini-album every time. My first gatefold CD sleeve was a copy of In the Court of the Crimson King and I attempted to acquire as much remastered Crimson as possible in cardboard. Italian label BTF have reissued a wide range of progressivo Italiano in cardboard sleeves and my only Japanese imports, Robert John Godfrey’s Fall of Hyperion (1973) and Things to Come (1974) by Seventh Wave are in single cardboard sleeves; I noticed a bargain range of jazz and fusion CDs in single cardboard sleeves on the counter at Red Eye Records in Sydney when I was visiting my son Daryl in 2012, and added Mysterious Traveller (1974) by Weather Report to my purchases. When he returned to the UK he brought me some Australian prog, A Tower of Silence (2012) by Anubis, in a cardboard sleeve.

Another reason I wasn’t tempted by this feast of Floyd in HMV was a 180g vinyl special edition Dark Side, crowning the display; if I’m going for cardboard sleeves, I’m going to wait until I get my new turntable and go for full size LP sleeves, reinvesting in vinyl copies. Some cardboard isn’t bad...



By ProgBlog, Jun 15 2014 07:13PM

As a Crystal Palace supporter I feel that I’ve got a connection to other teams involved in the current football contest that’s invading global TV screens. Eagles captain Mile Jedinak is also the captain of Australia so on Friday night I watched the Socceroos push World Cup dark horses Chile in a thrilling, end-to-end contest that ultimately led to a 1-3 defeat, though the score line did flatter the South Americans. That got me thinking about Australian prog and I’m not talking about Tame Impala.

I’ve visited Oz a couple of times, for a scientific workshop based in Melbourne in 2005 and to visit my son Daryl who got a job in Sydney after finishing his Masters degree, in 2012. By 2005 I was actively seeking indigenous prog wherever I travelled and I spent some time in Metropolis Music in Swanston Street going through a pile of CDs recommended by the staff that they thought might fit my musical taste. Though I bought a couple of CDs neither was by an Australian band – I thought the selection they’d suggested was very blues-based, more proto-prog than fully-formed prog.

Sydney, 7 years later, was a very different prospect. Daryl had discovered Red Eye Records next to the QVB and had already made a couple of purchases there which he’d shipped back to the UK as presents. He’d sent me the first Sebastian Hardie album, Four Moments and bought the second Sebastian Hardie release, Windchase, for his uncle Richard. Red Eye was the second stop for us on arrival in Sydney – the first stop was dropping off our bags at our hotel. This basement shop had an extensive ‘Australia’ section in addition to the normal genre divisions. The prog section, though smaller than some I’ve browsed, contained some interesting and unusual items; the staff, led by owner Chris Pepperell, were helpful and knowledgeable. I completed my personal Sebastian Hardie collection, picking up Windchase, the SH related release Symphinity (keyboard player Toivo Pilt and guitarist Mario Millo formed a band called Windchase), and buying the new release from the recently reformed Sebastian Hardie, Blueprint. I was also introduced to Pirana, Bakery and Tymepiece but I think all three bands fall into the proto-prog category as they moved from blues-based psychedelia to music that incorporated more adventurous elements. Of these three bands, I prefer Pirana but the Bakery sound approaches that of a Peter Banks and Tony Kaye Yes.

Sebastian Hardie has been described as “cheesy” in a Prog Archives review but I think this is unfair. They used to be a band that performed cover versions before coalescing around the line-up of Pilt, Millo and the Plavsic brothers, Peter (bass) and Alex (drums.) Still, their original music showed some very strong influences and the melodic lead guitar with organ or mellotron harmonic chord backing is very much like Focus. Their first album, Four Moments, also borrows from Yes. The sparse vocals are peppered with Jon Anderson imagery and stream of consciousness style that abounds on Tales from Topographic Oceans, which is no terrible thing. One criticism is that they take a melody and play it to death before moving on to the next melodic line. There’s a fine line between reinforcing a motif and repeating it too often and I think they just manage to stay within the boundary of taste and sense, helped by the fact that I find the music uplifting. There are moments that sound Camel-like but this may be just coincidental because Camel were only just hitting their creative heights with Snow Goose when Four Moments was released.

The second album, Windchase (1976), is a natural successor to Four Moments. The formula is the same with one side-long piece though it shows signs of developing complexity and, the rather more worrying development of a regression towards pop in Life, Love and Music.

The Plavsic brothers quit following Windchase but Pilt and Millo continued, changing the name of the band to Windchase and releasing Symphinity in 1977.

Symphinity has much more of a keyboard influence than the two preceding Sebastian Hardie albums and it has more of a jazz rock sensibility, sometimes approaching Santana territory, perhaps reflecting the tastes of Toivo Pilt. The vocals on Horsemen to Symphinity are reminiscent of the simple, meaningless but vaguely cosmic singing on the first two albums and the music is a natural progression from the symphonic prog of Sebastian Hardie. It’s the bland pop of Glad to be Alive that really detracts from the overall quality of the other material on the album. The strings are pure saccharine and the vocal harmonies could be the Osmonds. It’s surprising that the track was included because it’s so different from the other songs although the last track, Flight Call suffers from some of the same symptoms. The instrumental Gypsy, also written by Millo, is melodic prog; the anti-capitalist No Scruples was almost certainly influenced by Relayer-era Yes; the extended jam of Lamb’s Fry is a melodic jazz rock workout; the short acoustic Non Siamo Perfetti reprises a melody from Four Moments. The cover is something my wife would describe as a depiction of prog. It’s a painting by Peter Ledger of anachronistic technologies, alien artefacts and figures dressed like Romans on horseback. It calls to mind the Don Lawrence artwork for the Trigan Empire comic strip that appeared in the children’s science magazine Look and Learn. There’s also a nod to Roger Dean, with the horsemen and a coiled snake and a Mayan/alien temple.

Blueprint starts off where Sebastian Hardie left off, a melodic song sharing guitar and keyboard parts but this time with vocals reflecting on missed opportunities of the past. This is grown-up music, not necessarily always prog, similar in feel to Pink Floyd’s Division Bell, and it forms a sort of theme throughout the album. The voices have matured and the production is really clear, the instrumentation is very much in keeping with the 70s incarnation of the band but though the singing is better than thirty-plus years ago, the instrumental Vuja de is by far the best track on the album followed by the last track, Shame, which has hints of Focus.

On his return from Australia, Daryl managed to get me a copy of Clockwork Revenge by Airlord (1977) which is highly regarded by Australians, even though the band was from Wellington, New Zealand. They had to decamp to Oz to make the album and make a living and the result is akin to the relationship between England and Genesis. I also bought into Anubis, the Oz version of Porcupine Tree, seduced by the fantastic cover artwork of A Tower of Silence and the strange time signature used on the track The Passing Bell, completing a time line from the birth of Australian symphonic prog to the present day.


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