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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, Jul 3 2016 09:20PM

I’ve just taken receipt of the Anderson/Stolt LP Invention of Knowledge and, sitting in my Barcelona chair with the gatefold sleeve open in my hands, I’m transported back to the mid 70s.


TV plays a balanced part in my life although the ability to call up 24 hour news or watch catch-up programmes on mobile devices means that breaking news or doing something else the same night that Brian Pern is scheduled means I never miss anything I want to see. In reality, programmes I’m missing in real time are conveniently recorded on a TiVo box and I get pretty sick of 24 hour news streaming where the anchors frequently have to ad-lib as some sort of live action reaches an impasse and the scrolling red ribbon runs on an ever quicker cycle, complete with uncorrected spelling errors. I think there are too many channels, most of which peddle meaningless nonsense, cheap programming and repeats. I may have watched a little too much TV in the 70s but at least broadcasting was restricted to three terrestrial channels where, despite the airing of tired, formulaic situation comedies and crass game shows, it appeared that on the BBC at least there was some thought about what was shown.

I was at the BFI on London’s Southbank on Thursday, attending a very enjoyable presentation called Transport as Architecture: Ballard to Banham that featured three short films: Crash! directed by Harley Cokeliss from 1970 that featured JG Ballard himself along with Gabrielle Drake (who I remember as Lieutenant Gay Ellis from Gerry Anderson’s UFO which ran from 1970-1973); The Thing Is... Motorways, part of a 1992 Channel 4 ‘talk show’ series by Paul Morley which also included short contributions from JG Ballard; and Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles from 1972, in which the writer, critic and Professor of Architectural History drove around LA in search of interesting features to show to tourists. Both Cokeliss and Morley were present to introduce their pieces and, despite his writing for the NME from the mid 70s to the mid 80s, I hold a sneaking admiration for Morley, not because he’s a northerner (he was born in Farnham, Surrey), but because he has some interesting things to say and his taste in music is pretty eclectic; I thought that some of the music that accompanied his documentary, a short piece of electronica, was like a Mancunian take on Kraftwerk’s Autobahn only inspired by the Preston by-pass section of the M6. Before the films I flicked through a somewhat small collection of soundtracks on re-released vinyl in the BFI gift shop and, alongside Mike Oldfield’s soundtrack to the harrowing The Killing Fields, was an LP from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.


The Radiophonic Workshop was a revolutionary sound effects unit created in 1958, originally to provide sound effects for radio programmes which became most famous for recording Ron Grainer’s Dr Who theme in 1963. The creators and contributors included trained musicians with an appreciation of musique concrète and tape manipulation and their rooms at Maida Vale are reported to have looked more like an electronics laboratory than a routine recording studio. The pioneering work was carried out by some memorable names including Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. A synthesizer designed by Oram, where sounds and compositions were produced by drawings, featured in BBC Technology news last week and forms the centrepiece of an exhibition Oram to Electronica at the Science Museum in London. A mini-Oramics machine, based on original plans but never completed during her lifetime, has just been completed by a PhD student from Goldsmiths College and though there are now apps that mimic the principle it predated sequencing software and, if the machine had been available in 1973, it could have changed the way music was taught and performed.

Strange electronic noises are very suited to science fiction and the inception of the Radiophonic Workshop coincided with the rise in popularity of SF, from radio serials Quatermass and the Pit to Douglas Adams’ immensely popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which later translated to television, as well as shows like Dr Who.

One area where the BBC excelled was in its children’s programming. I distinctly remember a drama series, based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson and first broadcast in 1975 called The Changes. This near-apocalyptic vision was notable for its pro-integration message, being one of the first programmes to feature Sikhs, making it genuinely progressive. The excellent theme music was by Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which I seem to recall was available as a 45rpm single, but which wasn’t stocked by any of the record stores in Barrow. The long-running Blue Peter which at one time featured Barrovian Peter Purves (I used to deliver papers for his parent’s newsagents on the corner of Oxford Street and Furness Park Road) included an updated theme tune performed by Mike Oldfield that was available as a single, reaching no. 19 in the charts in 1979 and raising money for the Blue Peter Cambodia appeal. Another BBC children’s programme was Horses Galore, presented by Susan King which had a relatively short run, from 1977 to 1979. I’ve got no idea why I would watch a programme about horses, not being interested in equestrian pursuits and having once been bitten on the shoulder by Nicola Richardson’s horse, but the theme music was Pulstar by Vangelis from Albedo 0.39 (1976).

There was a lot of instrumental progressive rock around at the time and I thought that some of this should be used for items on BBC TV’s regional news and current affairs programme Nationwide that was shown immediately after the early evening so I wrote to them in December 1976, prompted to put pen to paper because I’d detected a snatch of Echoes on Jacob Bronowski’s seminal series The Ascent of Man, providing them with a list of suggestions. I don’t believe they took any notice but I did get a standard postcard in reply.


I was reminded of this when I read Rick Wakeman’s programme notes for his recent appearance at the Stone Free Festival; the Arthur theme was used by the BBC for Election Night specials on a number of occasions, a very fitting use of the music.

Yorkshire TV, one of the Independent Television company franchise holders ran a science-based show called Don’t Ask Me from 1974 to 1978 which used House of the King by Focus as a theme tune and exposed panellists David Bellamy (botany), Miriam Stoppard (medicine) and Magnus Pyke (natural sciences) to a wide audience. Pyke came across as the archetypal mad scientist and it was his unforgettable manner that was largely responsible for the success of the series, such that a large proportion of my generation will think of Don’t Ask Me rather than Focus when they hear the song.

Holiday was a long-running BBC programme that began in 1969, featuring reports from holiday destinations around the world. I think it was broadcast on a Sunday in the early evening and it was therefore something that could be watched while eating an informal Sunday tea. I’d bought Gordon Giltrap’s Visionary shortly after it was released in 1976 and bought the subsequent album, Perilous Journey when that came out in 1977. It was a bit of a surprise to hear Heartsong used as the theme tune for Holiday ’78 and it continued to be used until replaced by an unpopular piece by Simon May in 1985. Interestingly, the ITV holiday reviews show Wish You Were Here? (essentially a rip-off of Holiday) used Giltrap’s The Carnival as a theme tune.

One of the best original theme tunes was by Greenslade for the gritty BBC crime drama Gangsters (appearing on Time and Tide, 1975.) I think I saw the programme before hearing the album, immediately recognising the twin keyboard work of Daves Greenslade and Lawson. Set around Birmingham and originally a one-off Play for Today in 1975, this was the most lifelike screen violence I’d seen and was genuinely gripping.

Like The Changes, it’s a lost gem with excellent title music.







By ProgBlog, Jan 11 2016 12:02AM

I’ve had an innate aversion to all things that instruct “Keep Calm and Carry On...”, including the almost acceptable Keep Calm and Mellotron T shirt that I spotted during 2014’s Resonance Festival in Balham, since these things began appearing in 2008 or 2009. I don’t like the juxtaposition of the font and the crown but it’s hard to pin down why it offends me so much. Fortunately, author and journalist Owen Hatherley has just done a piece for The Guardian in which he succinctly explains and justifies my hatred: probably resurrected as a joke this war-time phrase, seemingly innocent nostalgia, quickly took on a dark meaning as governments imposed austerity in response to the global financial crisis. From signifying that we should invoke the ‘blitz spirit’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ as the poor, ill and disabled had their benefits cut and many had to rely on food banks, Hatherley coins the phrase ‘austerity nostalgia’ and suggests that the message is a return of the nostalgia of repression, when there was public spirit in the face of adversity; the real world is of course currently geared towards greed and selfishness.


Keep Calm and Carry On in all its countless forms encourages us to carry on consuming as though capitalism hadn’t just taken a massive shock and I find it somewhat ironic that Past Times, a UK retailer based on the purveyance of nostalgia (and therefore just the sort of place you’d see Keep Calm and Carry On merchandise) went into administration in 2012. Austerity nostalgia transports us back to a time between roughly 1930 and 1970, encompassing a period before the decline of the Empire and the post-war revival and social revolution where health and housing were provided by the state and the call from Harold Wilson for ‘a New Britain to be forged in the white heat of technology.’ Though the Beatles, the swinging sixties and the birth of progressive rock are covered by this time frame, we don’t appear to have been too successful in creating a better Britain through technology – government spending on R&D slumped below 0.5% in 2012. The privatisation of iconic council housing is a major contributory factor to the national housing shortage. My son came close to sharing a flat in Keeling House, a former Tower Hamlets council tower block designed by Denys Lasdun (completed in 1957.) Hatherley name checks this modernist masterpiece, an early example of a public asset being hived off to a private developer, as an illustration of how the romantic notion of design classics form part of this austerity nostalgia. The clean lines of the building (and an array of other iconic modernist edifices) have now been turned into limited edition prints and crockery to adorn the flats of hipsters, sold off by the local council and redeveloped by private equity barons. The reality is that Keeling House was emptied of council tenants in 1993 because of safety fears and was threatened with demolition; it was granted listed status that year but there was no council money to affect repairs and return it to the public housing pool.

Is the resurgence of vinyl part of this wave of nostalgia? It just about fits into the time frame and many diehard prog fans are now able to live their audiophile dreams, including me. I may have not been without a turntable since 1978 but I chose to play CDs when there was sufficient material available on that format, eschewing LPs because of the convenience of their digital cousins. However, the miniaturisation of the artwork and sleeve notes was always a problem, most evident on dual format releases like the eponymous Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album (1989); I bought the CD and struggled with the insert.

My short-lived semi-retirement allowed me to indulge in an upgraded hi-fi to fit in our upgraded dining room but the problem of the through lounge/diner, the inability for different family members to indulge in separate, different leisure pursuits (TV, and for me, music) meant that I needed a new pair of headphones...

I last owned a pair of closed back headphones between (about) 1976 and 1983. I don't remember the make but the sound quality was far better than that from the speakers that came with our Philips stereo deck. Like much of that record player, the speakers were housed in plastic and the slide volume and tone controls matched the slide volume controls on my cans! I can’t remember why I referred to headphones as cans, other than it was an adoption of a term used by professionals. I also assume that Rick Wakeman’s adaptation of Brahms 4th symphony is called Cans and Brahms (from Fragile, 1971) because of the headphone association with recording. My headphones may have originally been used for their designated purpose but in addition I used to take them to student discos to obscure the music and later used them in lieu of a microphone when making primitive recordings with friends. A few years after their demise I requested a pair of headphones for Christmas and my wife very kindly bought me a Sennheiser HD414 Anniversary Edition which are on their third set of foam pads but still going.


Towards the end of last year I noticed that the high frequency response of the 414s was causing a bit of distortion which is why I acquired a pair of wireless Sennheiser RS165s so I could listen to music while other members of my family watched TV; wireless because unlike in my youth where the comfy armchair was in easy reach of the headphone socket on the stereo, my new listening position, a gorgeous Barcelona chair, is on the opposite side of the room to my amplifier. I exercised some brand loyalty in my choice; I also have Sennheiser ear buds for my mp3 player and I'm happy with the quality of them, so the opportunity to buy the RS165s for £159 seemed like a good move. It was. The sound quality is exactly what you'd expect. Within the myriad forms of progressive rock are an amazing range of amplitude, frequencies and tones, all of which are handled with effortless clarity. Another reason for getting a good set of cans was so that I could follow the instructions inside Edgar Froese’s Aqua (1974) which features Gunther Brunschen’s artificial head system to produce binaural recordings, allowing the listener to perceive the direction of the sound source. The experience of listening to Aqua through closed ear cans was reminiscent of listening to Tangerine Dream through headphones in the dark when I was a teenager.




Headphones were helpful to discern song words when the speakers were located in shoulder high alcoves in a Victorian dining room which made putting your ear to the cone on the uncomfortable side of awkward, taking into account having to go back to the deck to lift and replace the tone arm to replay a section of track. Working out the words in the absence of a lyric sheet was something of a hobby, one that I don’t look back on with a warm and fuzzy feeling.







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...



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