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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 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 7 2016 11:30PM

Television is not my primary leisure medium. The broadening of choice in a post-analogue world has resulted in an overall decline in televisual standards. I am old enough to remember the early days of three terrestrial channels, when BBC Two was the first channel in Europe to regularly broadcast in colour; it appeared on air in April 1964 and colour transmissions began in July 1967. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s front room on a Saturday afternoon watching Trade Test Transmissions on her black and white rental TV, changing channels using a knob on the wall, intrigued by these short infomercials and being awestruck by the optimistic and futuristic pieces of programming, especially the film of the Evoluon science museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, with its soundtrack of electronica and jazz which somehow fitted with the images of this beautiful UFO-like piece of modernist architecture; I’m pretty sure this introduced me to Take Five by Dave Brubeck but I may be mistaken.

I first became aware of the commercialisation of sporting events when Kerry Packer founded World Series Cricket in 1977, in a move to secure broadcasting rights for Australian cricket. Ripples from this move have since spread far and wide. With parallels to prog, cricket is a long-form sport. As a youth my summer breaks were punctuated by periods in front of the TV to watch Test Matches, played over 5 days and unadulterated by wall-to-wall sponsorship (the 65-over-a-side Gillette Cup which became the Nat West Trophy in 1981 came across as being unsullied by corporate interference; this had changed by the time it had become the C&G Trophy in 2001.) It was the tactical approach to the game with its changing conditions that kept me enthralled. I was watching a lot of cricket at the same time that I was getting into progressive rock and reading Tolkien, Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin; another piece of the cultural landscape that helped form what I’ve become. The Infield Park Gang would play cricket, too, on a local playing field attached to a convent school and, despite being pretty bad at the sport I was drafted in to play 11th man for two Goldsmiths’ College first XI matches which were held in the grounds of Loring Hall, my hall of residence at university.

It seems crazy to me that betting firms should be allowed to sponsor sports and I fully agree with Andy Murray’s recent outburst against sponsorship of tennis by betting companies, just when allegations of match fixing were flying around. I find it outrageous that the deregulation of the gambling industry has created a huge increase in the number of betting shops in poor and deprived areas of the country and that commercial TV is permitted to bombard us with adverts for online gaming. I blame deregulation for both the downturn in quality of programming and the knock on effects of commercialisation of sport; competition in the service industries always ends up as a race to the bottom. The walk out by Liverpool fans at their game against Sunderland yesterday, angry at the £70 price tag on away tickets, was meant to highlight the separation of the beautiful game from the true fans but sadly it’s not going to influence football’s governing body, as corruption appears to run through the veins of world football (and world athletics.) I don’t blame the players for their often ridiculously excessive pay, the responsibility lies with the broadcasters. With ever greater choice of channels it’s become more and more difficult to find anything of quality to watch. If I do sit in front of the TV it’s more likely to be for a film on DVD/Blu-ray or a music DVD than a piece of scheduled programming, mostly because what is aired seems to involve some form of voyeurism or schadenfreude: wannabe celebrity non-entities after their five minutes of fame; former celebrities clinging on to their five minutes of fame; police dogs in helicopters with cameras filming surgery that’s gone wrong... what occupation hasn’t been covered?

My first music videos were Yessongs (from the 1975 film) and Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii (the 1974 version), both on VHS format. Yessongs was disappointing because the sound quality wasn’t very good and the synching of music and video was poor. I’d not managed to see the film when it played in UK cinemas so it’s hard to know if the cinematic experience was any better. I was given the Blu-ray version as a present a couple of Christmases ago but the curse of Yessongs struck again: the disc could not be recognised in my Blu-ray player and was returned to the shop, sans the Roger Dean postcards that featured in the revised packaging. Live at Pompeii, on the other hand, remains a firm favourite. I’d been to see the film when it toured the UK and I’ve also visited Pompeii on a couple of occasions where the silhouette of Vesuvius continues to dominate the atmosphere of the site. I always thought it a shame that Echoes was used to bookend the film but it doesn’t detract from the performance, in effect a swan song to the space rock material (which I really like), issuing in the prog of the Dark Side era. The Directors Cut version that I now own on DVD isn’t really any improvement, the space graphics have not aged as well as the music!


I think I first saw the film version of Emerson Lake and Palmer performing Pictures at an Exhibition on TV, a performance from the Lyceum in London in 1970 released in the cinema in 1973. I wasn’t aware that the soundtrack was different from the album (recorded at Newcastle City Hall) until I bought a double-sided CD/DVD in 2003 as it had been so long since I’d watched the film, but I think it remains an important documentary of early prog, attempting a reworking of a classical piece in a rock context.

White Rock, the film documentary of the Innsbruck 1976 Winter Olympics, was another cinema release, opening in 1977 and touring as a double bill with concert footage of Genesis playing live. I don’t remember too much about the Genesis portion of the programme, partly because I’ve never owned a copy of Seconds Out (1977), being far more interested in Rick Wakeman’s return to form with the soundtrack for White Rock. I bought the album shortly after its release, from Boots in Barrow, impressed by the interpretation of speed and grace over snow and ice. I’ve got a couple of other Wakeman videos: Out There (2004), described as a ‘concept DVD’ and a performance of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2009) at Hampton Court Palace on Blu-ray. Six Wives includes the original album plus three new tracks and, as it’s my favourite Wakeman solo album, I rate it quite highly. I was tempted to get a ticket for the gig but ended up at The Lumiere for Mellofest 2009 instead. The music on Out There isn’t bad and no doubt at the time the graphics were cutting edge, but when viewed ten years after it was released, some of them haven’t really stood the test of time. I saw Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble promote the album live in Croydon in April 2003, where a major technical hitch with the keyboards forced an early intermission.


Not surprisingly I have quite a range of Yes DVDs, from The Gates of QPR (1993, recorded 1975) to Songs from Tsongas (2005, recorded 2004) via Keys to Ascension (2000, recorded 1996), House of Yes (2000), Symphonic Live (2002, recorded 2001), Yesspeak (2003) and Live at Montreux (2008, recorded 2003). My other Floyd DVDs consist of documentaries about the making of Atom Heart Mother (2007), Dark Side of the Moon (2003) and Wish You Were Here (2005), plus The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story (2006), Roger Waters’ post-fall of the Berlin Wall The Wall Live in Berlin (2004, recorded 1990) and the 1982 Alan Parker film of The Wall, despite me not classifying it as prog; I was fortunate enough to see a preview of the film, filling in a questionnaire on the way out. I look upon critical reviews as being worthwhile. BBC4 produces some excellent music programmes but I was pleased to get hold of Inside King Crimson 1972 – 1975 (2005) to go with my Deja Vrooom (2009) and Neal and Jack and Me (2004).
Not surprisingly I have quite a range of Yes DVDs, from The Gates of QPR (1993, recorded 1975) to Songs from Tsongas (2005, recorded 2004) via Keys to Ascension (2000, recorded 1996), House of Yes (2000), Symphonic Live (2002, recorded 2001), Yesspeak (2003) and Live at Montreux (2008, recorded 2003). My other Floyd DVDs consist of documentaries about the making of Atom Heart Mother (2007), Dark Side of the Moon (2003) and Wish You Were Here (2005), plus The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story (2006), Roger Waters’ post-fall of the Berlin Wall The Wall Live in Berlin (2004, recorded 1990) and the 1982 Alan Parker film of The Wall, despite me not classifying it as prog; I was fortunate enough to see a preview of the film, filling in a questionnaire on the way out. I look upon critical reviews as being worthwhile. BBC4 produces some excellent music programmes but I was pleased to get hold of Inside King Crimson 1972 – 1975 (2005) to go with my Deja Vrooom (2009) and Neal and Jack and Me (2004).

We were made aware that the Camel concert at the Barbican in 2013 was being recorded for DVD release, In from the Cold (2014) which is a superb reminder of a brilliant gig; I also have the two live set collection Moondances (2007.) I have more melodic symphonic prog on DVD in the form of Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith (2013) a 3CD+2DVD package of one of the musical highlights of 2013. The second DVD contains behind the scenes footage and interviews with collaborators, a theme that continues on another recent acquisition, the documentary-like Steve Hackett The Man, The Music (2015.)





Another gig that I should have gone to but didn’t, but which I had to buy on DVD is the Classic Rock Legends Van der Graaf Generator live at Metropolis Studios (2011, recorded 2010) which sits alongside Inside Van der Graaf Generator (2005) and Godbluff Live 1975 (2003.) Earlier this weekend I indulged in some PFM (Live in Japan 2002) featuring four members of the classic line-up.

One good thing about television in the 70s were series like Rock Goes to College and Sight and Sound in Concert. The Bruford gig from Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) which I remember watching at the time, has become part of my DVD collection and though the camera direction is poor, it’s great to be able to see this footage again. There’s better camerawork on GG at the GG, (2006, filmed 1978, 1976 and 1974) which captures Gentle Giant at the tail end of their career. The earlier material is fantastic but Missing Piece tracks Two Weeks in Spain and Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It are relatively poor fare. There was a more recent programme which showed Sylvian and Fripp live in Japan in 1993, during the Road to Graceland tour – it would be terrific if that was released on DVD...







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