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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, May 13 2019 10:31PM

I have a soft spot for the Barrett-era Floyd, where the psychedelic whimsy found on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is tinged with a darker edge, and for those of us who weren’t able to see this version of the band play live, there are recorded hints of Pink Floyd as sonic pioneers in Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive – the vanguard of space rock. Having bought Relics around the same time as acquiring Dark Side of the Moon, my next Floyd purchase, within a week of its release, was A Nice Pair. I may have heard bootlegs of Atom Heart, Meddle and Dark Side but at that time I was more familiar with their earlier oeuvre and as much entranced by the gatefold sleeve of A Nice Pair and Nick Mason’s architectural sketch for the cover of Relics as I was of Dark Side’s prisms.


A Nice Pair
A Nice Pair

By the time I first got to see the Floyd play live they’d dropped almost all intimation of their progressive rock sound even though the scope and realisation of The Wall shows was totally incredible. The 1988 Momentary Lapse of Reason show I saw at Wembley Stadium concentrated on Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, The Wall and their current release and while 1994’s Division Bell tour included dates where they played One of These Days or Astronomy Domine, it was only the former that featured on the leg of the tour when I got to see them on October 14th, the earliest piece of music that I’d seen them play.


I went to see early-Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa who played at Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre in May 2004 because, being a proponent of music in local venues, I thought it would have been churlish to miss it. Ultimately, I came away disappointed and vowed never to watch a tribute band ever again. This was a bit unfair on the group, who weren’t bad musicians and rather than play the material note-perfect, which is possibly what I was expecting having never attended a gig like that before, they improvised around the song themes which was entirely in keeping with live early Pink Floyd; I wasn’t too sure about the vocals which didn’t sound like any of the original members but it may have been the inclusion of songs like If and San Tropez in the set that most concerned me, straying from my personal viewpoint as to what conformed to ‘early’ Floyd, despite playing undisputed classics like Astronomy Domine, Careful with that Axe Eugene, A Saucerful of Secrets, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, One of These Days, Echoes and finishing with Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. They even had an appropriate ‘liquid light show’ to provide an accurate reminder of the period.



(Early) Pink Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa, Croydon May 2004
(Early) Pink Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa, Croydon May 2004

I stupidly turned down the opportunity to see Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets on their opening tour, unwilling to join the on-line ticket queue and pay what I thought was rather a lot of money to stand and watch a band that included an ex-member of Spandau Ballet. I reconsidered for the current leg of the tour, reasoning that £50 for a seat at the Roundhouse wasn’t too bad and the chance to see one original band member performing this material was actually too good to miss. I must have become aware of the Chalk Farm Roundhouse from browsing music weeklies in the mid 70s but it’s unlikely I made the connection to the Pink Floyd story until sometime later, including its significance to the beginnings of UK counterculture; the first cultural use of the Roundhouse was as the venue for the launch party of the International Times (IT) in October 1966, a multi-media all-night rave and happening billed as a ‘pop-op-costume-masque-drag ball’, featuring performances from Pink Floyd and Soft Machine plus screenings of films and poetry readings; the Roundhouse and early Floyd are intrinsically connected.


poster for International Times launch party
poster for International Times launch party

Built between 1846-7 for the London and North Western Railway by Branson & Gwyther as a building for turning round railway engines, the Roundhouse has been recognised as a notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture and was listed in 1954, amended to Grade II* in January 1999, then declared a National Heritage Site in 2010. 24 cast-iron Doric columns arranged around the original locomotive spaces support a conical slate roof and the columns are braced with a framework of curved ribs, imbuing the internal space with a distinctive industrial Victoriana. The recent refurbishment respects the structure while making it fit for purpose as an events venue – it was my ‘venue of the year’ in the 2018 Prog magazine readers’ poll.


The Roundhouse, May 2019
The Roundhouse, May 2019

I have mixed feelings about the gig. On the one hand I was pleased to be there to see Nick Mason’s ensemble in that particular setting because of its historical rock and sociological relevance; on the other I was seated in a better position than for the Portico Quartet performance last year but I thought the sound was not nearly as good, and it didn’t appear to have been too good on the main floor either, demonstrated by loud crowd murmurings when Mason was making an inaudible announcement between songs; at times it was difficult to hear Dom Beken’s keyboards, an essential part of the early Floyd sound. I also thought they weren’t very tight as a unit even though Mason’s drumming sounded as good as I’d ever heard it. I was possibly expecting a tone of naivety in the vocals, but neither guitarist Gary Kemp or Lee Harris, nor bassist Guy Pratt did wonderment and this detracted from the earliest songs. That’s not to say I disapproved of the treatment of See Emily Play or Lucifer Sam and I fully appreciated their version of Vegetable Man, written by Barrett in 1967 and originally scheduled as a B side to putative single Scream Thy Last Scream which was never released; it was finally officially put out on The Early Years (1965-1972) in 2016. It may actually have been the brevity of the majority of pieces they played that I found too strange to handle, along with the interpretation of ‘early’ Pink Floyd. My favourites from the evening tended to be longer material; opener Interstellar Overdrive, Astronomy Domine, One of These Days, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, A Saucerful of Secrets, the excerpt from Atom Heart Mother; what I wasn’t too keen on, and I have to stress this is personal opinion, was the inclusion of If from Atom Heart Mother which bookended the title track, Fearless from Meddle and the Obscured by Clouds songs, all of which are low down in my listening priority and, as the writing partnership between Gilmour and Wright evolved and Waters was developing a distinct style, don’t conform to what I would describe as early-sounding.


Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19
Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19

Ticket for Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19
Ticket for Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19

Apart from providing Floyd enthusiasts with material that’s unlikely to be played by any current or former member of Pink Floyd ever again, Mason is currently presenting a nine-part series for BBC radio: A History of Music and Technology, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w27vq4h7 Produced in association with the Open University, it’s something on which his role in Pink Floyd has bestowed the appropriate qualifications. He also has an excellent voice for radio and the programme, which charts a history of the innovations which have shaped popular music, should be compulsory listening for anyone into prog. Episode 1: The Story of Sound Recording related the attempts to capture sound, from an oral tradition to Edison’s phonograph and it’s replacement by the gramophone, from vinyl to magnetic tape and eventually the CD, driven by cost and convenience rather than the quality of the technology. Episode 2: Electronic Music Pioneers may have covered some of the material from Robert Berry’s The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2016), a quest to find today’s musical futurists, but I found it totally fascinating; Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium from 1896 which is not only believed to be the first electromechanical musical instrument but it could also be considered to be the precursor of streaming, sending a signal through wires which were translated into music through large paper cones acting as a form of primitive loudspeaker. There was some good coverage of the Theremin, an instrument that may have defined science fiction soundtracks but still features in the current prog scene. The ondes Martenot (1928) came about when Maurice Martenot exploited the overlap in tones generated by military oscillators, producing a cello-like sound. The instrument he devised was touted around European conservatoires and features in over 100 classical music compositions; George Jenny’s ondioline was a cheaper version of the ondes Martenot which began production in Paris around 1940 and became destined for a more commercial market thanks to the talents of former medical student Jean Jacques Perrey who released the seminal Prelude au Sommeil in 1958, allegedly as a form of sonic tranquilizer for patients in mental hospitals; the hymnal music incorporated minimalist motifs that were later developed by Philip Glass and Terry Riley and could be considered the first ambient music.




Touching on musique concrète and tape manipulation, on Raymond Scott’s automatic music machines which played sequences of differently arranged patterns, the programme reminded us that though we might think electronic music is relatively recent, it’s now well over 100 years since the first electronic instruments appeared. The next episodes cover the electric guitar and the Hammond organ. Well worth a listen.








By ProgBlog, Apr 2 2018 05:14PM

Mythical beast in deepest Surrey – Gryphon at the Claygate Festival, 15 March 2018



Having originally bought Gryphon’s Raindance in 1979, four years after its release, it wasn’t until the CD age that I next added to my medieval-prog collection with the compilation CD The Collection (1991). Their appearance on all four of the BBC Radio channels in the same week following the release of their debut, Gryphon (1973), is oft-quoted, as are the sensationalist Melody Maker headlines from August 1973 about the ‘13th Century Slade’, written by Gryphon champion Chris Welch. I first became interested in the band when they toured with Yes in 1975 and my brother returned from their April performance in Liverpool with the concert programme which included a concise history of the group up to that time (up to Red Queen to Gryphon Three, 1974). I subsequently added a combined CD release of Gryphon plus Midnight Mushrumps (1974), and Red Queen to Gryphon Three and Treason (1977) were birthday and Christmas presents; I began to buy the original albums on second-hand vinyl last year.


Much was made of the idea that Gryphon music was, like the mythical beast itself, hybrid in form, taking in folk, medieval and Renaissance music and by the time of Midnight Mushrumps, acquiring an increasingly progressive rock sensibility; the rationale behind Welch’s Slade comparison was that like Slade, they were simply playing dance music, only dance music that was popular in medieval times and it was undeniable that the ensemble caught the nations collective imagination, offering something to everyone: the infectious jigs for anyone who liked to dance; the early instruments and Royal College of Music credentials for classical music buffs; the interpretation of traditional English songs for folk-lovers; and the way the amplified virtuoso sound struck a chord with prog rock aficionados. Their 70’s high points were appearing with Yes at Madison Square Garden and the Houston Astrodome, and being asked to provide the music for Sir Peter Hall’s National Theatre production of The Tempest at the Old Vic but their brief period in the limelight ended in 1977 after Treason, an album without original guitarist Graeme Taylor and which most corresponds to progressive rock at a time when prog itself was falling out of favour with the general public. I find Treason a little disappointing, possibly because it’s more song-oriented even though the playing remains as good as ever. Following that album, founder, keyboard and recorder player Richard Harvey pursued a career in film and TV soundtracks and Gryphon, for the time, ceased to be. They got back together in 2009 for what was planned as a one-off concert, then returned to sporadic action in 2014, most notably appearing at Cropredy in 2016 and Islington’s Union Chapel later that year, plus a couple of gigs in 2017, though Harvey left the band to concentrate on his other commitments prior to Cropredy.



The current line-up, which I managed to get to see at the Holy Trinity Church in Claygate, making an appearance as part of an ambitious annual festival for a small Surrey village, consists of co-founder Brian Gulland (bassoon, crumhorn), and original members Graeme Taylor (guitar) and Dave Oberlé (percussion, vocals) plus Graham Preskett (keyboards, mandolin, fiddle), Andy Findon (woodwind) and Rory McFarlane (bass guitar.) The set list comprised of favourites from the 70s, possibly biased more towards their eponymous debut plus a couple of tunes (one of which was Rhubarb Crumhorn) very much in the expected fashion, from a new album due out later this year. Their humour, exemplified by the song titles and between song banter easily endears them to a crowd; the encore of Le Cambrioleur est dans le Mouchoir (from Raindance) coupled with Gershwin’s Promenade and Tiger Rag by Original Dixieland Jazz Band was dedicated to Stephen Hawking and Jim Bowen plus, at the suggestion of a member of the audience, Ken Dodd. I was a bit disappointed with the size of the audience: the venue, an unusual Victorian neo-gothic church with twin spires and beautiful beams and nice acoustics, suited the band perfectly but for all the good work of the Claygate Festival organisers, this rather small Surrey village is not best equipped to attract large crowds however highly their acts are regarded, doubly so on a weekday night.



My favourite piece was probably The Unquiet Grave, an English folk song thought to date from the early 15th Century, collected by Francis James Child in 1868 and most famously arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912. (Obsessive fact: Vaughan Williams spent his childhood at Leith Hill Place, about 20 miles from Claygate). The song has a befittingly haunting melody that makes the hairs on your arms stand up but the Gryphon arrangement has an equally haunting middle section, what I like to think of as the experimental proggy bit, in the same vein as the improvised The Illusion section from King Crimson’s Moonchild. The Astrologer (featuring Gulland’s special hat) provided another example of how well Gryphon handle folk music but the more complex and long-form pieces such as the extract from Midnight Mushrumps and selections from Red Queen to Gryphon Three are brilliant, carefully crafted and superbly executed tracks equal to the best in the prog genre.



This incarnation of the band, a bunch of supremely talented multi-instrumentalists with a keen ear for a good melody and a knack of putting together stunning arrangements (Oberlé’s singing isn’t too bad, either) continue to mix cutting-edge with tradition: the use of iPads in place of sheet music!

I’m going to grab a copy of the new album as soon as it becomes available and go to see them again ASAP. I’d strongly recommend anyone to do the same.










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