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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Nov 6 2016 09:12PM

I’ve just visited the You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 - 1970 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and come away very pleased that I made the excursion. Having arrived in London (the suburb of Bexley) in 1978 from what was then the parochial, cultural cul-de-sac of south Cumbria, I proceeded to take in as much art, music, theatre and as many museums as possible, but this was the first time that I’d been to the V&A. It had been a conscious choice to avoid walking through those particular doors but a decision taken because of my bias towards the sciences and ignorance in equal measure. South Kensington boasted the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum and what I understood to comprise the V&A collection or their special exhibits never appealed. It seemed to me that it was all about fashion, past and present, and it would be hard to imagine anyone more unfashionable than me, then or now, as I clung on to progressive rock music and the associated early 70s dress sense. I even branded it as imperialistic... Dressing like a dunce in a trench coat didn’t stop me attempting to broaden my horizons, seeking out things like minimalist sculpture Equivalent VIII, better known as the pile of bricks by Carl Andre at the Tate Gallery, or going to see Warren Mitchell in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre, though my more regular jaunts tended to be student concession seats at the Aldwych Theatre for Royal Shakespeare Company productions or the National Gallery where I could indulge in more mainstream culture without charge, but it was the galleries at the Nat His Mus and Science Museum which most interested me, where I was delighted to discover links to my home town: a large plug of haematite in the former and a Bessemer Converter in the latter.

How times change, because The V&A turned out to be a bit of a revelation. As far as I’m concerned the attractiveness of the venue increased under the directorship of Martin Roth so it’s a shame that he felt he had to return to his native Germany after reflecting on the decision by a tiny majority of the British voting public to leave the European Union. The building itself is quite stunning and whereas I’m not interested in all the decorative arts (things like the jewellery collection, for example) there are rooms devoted to architecture which are jaw-dropping. It would be impossible not to be impressed by the (closed off but still visible) gallery containing the enormous plaster cast of Trajan’s column.





You Say You Want a Revolution? was a sociological snapshot of 1826 days described through music, performance, fashion, film, design and political activism, a truly revolutionary five years representing a seismic shift in attitudes. Some of these revolutions remain unfulfilled but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that this short epoch had profound effects on our present and will affect the way in which we approach our future. It was the music and the politics which most interested me: the advent of psychedelia, forerunner to progressive rock; countercultural values including the birth of ecology and anti-war causes; and the sometimes forceful rise of equality movements; all issues which continue to define my thinking. What the exhibition also highlighted was that the rise of consumerism was responsible for the unfulfilled promises of the times, neatly summed up by the deeply ironic (though not meant so at the time) quotation by Milton Friedman “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.”


A small proportion of the album covers spread around the exhibition reflect releases which make up the proto-prog of my own collection: Days of Future Passed; Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; A Saucerful of Secrets; Ummagumma; Abraxas; Procol Harum; Shine on Brightly; John Barleycorn Must Die; The United States of America; Music in a Doll’s House; Stand Up; Hot Rats; Tommy; Trout Mask Replica; The Madcap Laughs; and Bitches Brew but the only true progressive rock album included in the display was In the Court of the Crimson King. Not having been terribly aware what was going on at the time, it was these items, accrued in the intervening years, which allowed me to relate to the experience. One unexpected article on display was a sales manual for a Mellotron 400-D!

Although it was the Pink Floyd connection which first drew my attention to the exhibition there wasn’t that much Floyd-related material on display – there’s much more in the exhibition book. However, I also went to see the Dr Strange film this weekend and that also has a Pink Floyd association. There’s a depiction of a ‘freak’ in one of the panels on the back cover of the late-1973 budget-price repackaging of the first two Floyd albums A Nice Pair, a man attired in hippy clothing holding a giant spliff and, whereas most of the outer sleeve is a series of visual puns (a different kettle of fish, a fork in the road, laughing all the way to the bank) I have never been able to grasp the significance of this photo, other than to challenge the stereotypical image of someone who listens to early Floyd. Anyway, scattered on the floor is a pile of comics and one, quite clear, is a Dr Strange magazine.




A number of my school friends were into fantasy books and some of the more esoteric comics and I asked one to source a Dr Strange for me. When I was much younger I used to buy DC comics on a Saturday morning from a newsagent on Salthouse Road, near my grandmother’s house, but they were all staid compared to the Dr Strange universe; a neurosurgeon who had lost the use of his hands and had become the master of mystic arts. The imagery of alternative dimensions fitted in with my adolescent world of Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner and Arthur C Clarke, and I was pleased that rather than a simply possessing a super power, Strange’s ‘magic’ seemed to be derived from a more rational source, channelling the natural forces of the different universes. I was also developing an interest in mysticism, partly fuelled by the release of Tales from Topographic Oceans at around the same time as A Nice Pair. The character acquired counterculture acceptance, setting him apart from almost all other Marvel stable mates, as he wasn’t portrayed as patriotic in any way; one of the early gigs by Grateful Dead forerunners The Warlocks was at an event called Tribute to Dr Strange.




I enjoyed the film which contained just about the right level of humour, though the representation of a successful surgeon as arrogant is a rather tired trope; I’ve worked closely with surgeons and yes, some may be a little conceited or disdainful, but it wasn’t surgeons who caused the global financial crash in 2008. There are plenty of politicians, healthcare managers and even some bloggers who demonstrate self-importance... What was good was the deference to the comic book artwork in the depiction of alternate dimensions and in the poses of Dr Strange. There were scenes reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey placing it firmly in the psychedelic genre and best of all, director Scott Derrickson included a section of Interstellar Overdrive to accompany the clip leading up to Strange’s life-changing accident.




Two things worth going to see: Dr Strange is on general release; You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 26 February 2017






By ProgBlog, Apr 26 2016 08:52PM

The desire amongst modern prog bands for the authentic sounds of the 70s has led to a mini revolution in digital samples. The unreliability of a Mellotron for live performance, a recent example of which was the lengthy delay that preceded Änglagård performing at the Resonance Festival in 2014, meant that anyone who favours the sound of the Beast is now better off utilising Mellotron patches on digital keyboards which have the bonus of considerably less mass to move around. I don’t know if it was just Rick Wakeman’s choice of programming but when he switched from minimoogs to polymoogs when he rejoined Yes for Going for the One (1977), I thought the sounds he utilised lacked substance and the same goes for the Emerson sound with the Yamaha GX-1 when ELP reconvened for Works Volume 1. Minimoogs disappeared in the 80s but it’s pleasing to hear the original Moog sound, apparently the result of an incorrect calculation that led to the filters being overdriven by around 15dB, has been recreated in the Moog Voyager series, seemingly the synthesizer of choice of bands playing progressive rock today.


Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014
Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014

Wakeman, Emerson, Patrick Moraz and Rick Wright all used grand pianos in a live setting but by the end of the golden era of progressive rock the sheer bulk of the instrument and the advent of polyphonic synthesizers meant that traditional piano parts were played on instruments like the Yamaha CP-70 electric grand, a half-way house between an acoustic instrument and a digital piano but far less unwieldy than the acoustic grand. There is a lot of rock music that features piano but exponents of progressive rock used the instrument as a shade or tone in a broader palette, like the calm interlude on South Side of the Sky (from Fragile, 1971) providing stark contrast with the angular electric mayhem the precedes and follows; there aren’t many prog albums where the only keyboard is piano even though it can be used for both delicacy and thunder.

The less bulky cousin of the grand is the electric piano which features in a wide variety of progressive rock and fusion. When I bought a Korg MIDI keyboard four years ago I was a little surprised to see a voucher for genuine Fender Rhodes patches but since then, on albums like Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) plus the very recent Höstsonaten release Symphony No. 1 Cupid and Psyche (2016), I’ve noticed the classic electric piano sound returning to the genre.

Whereas Wakeman used the RMI (Rocky Mount Instruments) electric piano and harpsichord and Peter Hammill, David Cross and Robert Fripp played Hohner electric pianos (Cross’ in white to match his Mellotron and Fripp’s in black, to match his), it’s the distinct sound of the Rhodes / Fender Rhodes that best exemplify the instrument, an almost bell-like resonance that retains its identity even when overdriven. Moraz may have owned a Fender Rhodes but that particular keyboard tends to be associated with jazz rock, rather than symphonic prog, so it’s not surprising to see a Rhodes listed in the instrumentation for bands like Greenslade, where their roots are in the British take on jazz and blues.


The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.
The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.

The tone of the Rhodes comes from the unique wire tines, tuning fork-like components of varying lengths that are struck by the hammers; the tines connect to tonebars and the amplification is by electromagnetic pickups. The characteristic bell sound is produced when the tine and the pickup are in close proximity and though there is a degree of similarity between the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer, the former has better sustain while the latter produces a range of harmonics when the keys are hit hard, providing more bite. The story behind the Rhodes is quite inspiring because inventor Harold Rhodes became a full-time piano teacher after dropping out of university to support his family through the Great Depression, utilising a technique that combined classical and jazz, then began developing instruments to help the rehabilitation of soldiers during the Second World War, utilising surplus army parts as he was required to stick to a very tight budget. The involvement of Fender came in 1959 with the marketing of the Piano Bass, the bottom 32 keys of the full 88 key design, and the later inclusion of a built-in power amplifier and a combined tremolo and auto-pan feature that bounces the output signal from the piano in stereo across two speakers, a feature mistakenly called ‘vibrato’ on some models which is consistent with the labelling on Fender amps. The first Fender Rhodes was released in 1965 following the acquisition of Fender by CBS; this model had 73 keys and included the built-in amplifier.

It’s mainly Miles Davis’ alumni that popularised the instrument though Ray Manzarek used a Piano Bass with The Doors, providing the bass lines for the bass guitarist-less band. From the In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970) period Miles, keyboard players Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock spread the word and the sound through their respective bands while guitarist John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring Jan Hammer on minimoog and Fender Rhodes and the keyboard was subsequently taken up by British jazz-rock bands influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, including Brand X and Isotope.


Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron
Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron

Return to Forever sailed closest to progressive rock of all the fusion bands with Romantic Warrior (1976) which became their best selling album despite critical drubbing from Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics. I fully believe the success of the album is its appeal to fans of symphonic prog; the majority of prog fans also like jazz rock but Romantic Warrior pushes all the right prog buttons: fantastic musicianship; extended instrumental pieces; a broad palette including an entirely acoustic track; and a loose concept. It comes across like a fusion version of Refugee by Refugee (1974).

The popularity of the Rhodes piano dipped at the end of the 70s as electronic keyboards began to proliferate but also because the quality of the instrument itself suffered as a consequence of cost-cutting and an attempt at mass production. Rhodes was sold to Roland by the company president William Schultz in 1987 and Roland produced digital pianos under the Rhodes name until Harold Rhodes, who hadn’t authorised the use of his name, bought back the rights to the instrument in 1997. It’s good to hear the Rhodes sound on contemporary prog.








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