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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Jan 8 2017 06:52PM

The Christmas and New Year bank holidays fell on days which allowed extended weekends and, in order to address some of the inevitable excess that occurred despite the reduced volumes of food and drink that were brought into the house, both weekends featured a cultural excursion into central London.

One of these was a trip to the new Design Museum, housed in the former Commonwealth Institute just off High Street Kensington, an edifice described by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London after the Royal Festival Hall, which underwent an impressive refit to house the new exhibition spaces. I’d visited the building before, during the period of its former function, to receive a Wedgewood plate from the National Blood (Transfusion) Service for donating 100 units of blood, plasma and platelets and even in 1985, before I displayed any interest in architecture, I thought it was a remarkable building. The free, permanent display at the museum deserves more space and only scratches the surface of ‘design’. However, it still managed to mention album artwork and house a display of turntables. Perhaps they’re thinking of a temporary special exhibition of album artwork...


Interior of The Design Museum
Interior of The Design Museum

The other trip was to the Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy of Arts (a far less attractive building, despite the Palladian influence on its design). The phrase ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was coined by critic Robert Coates in 1946 to describe a new phenomenon in American art associated with a generation of artists all working in the US but with diverse backgrounds: New York; the heartlands of the US; the West; European émigrés. I was interested in attending because I quite like the work of Jackson Pollock, one of the featured artists, having seen his work in the Guggenheim in Venice. It could be argued that without Peggy Guggenheim’s patronage there wouldn’t have been a Abstract Expressionist movement. Another reason I like Pollock is because I associate his artwork with progressive rock; though the art and prog movements took place in different decades, the room I most associate with listening to early progressive rock had a piece of my father’s artwork on the wall, a drip painting in white, yellow and red after Pollock and I seem to recall him with a board (in lieu of canvas) in the back garden of our first house wheeling his bicycle over a similar composition and this process of construction, as well as the complexity of finished piece, held a deep fascination.


The Royal Academy of Arts - Abstract Expressionism
The Royal Academy of Arts - Abstract Expressionism

The extended break still ended too early, even with a reduced working week but it was nevertheless good to consign 2016 to the dustbin of history. Domestic and global politics took a downturn just when we were thinking it couldn’t get worse, amplifying divisions and, for the first time in a long, long time, bigotry and hate speech seemed to have become legitimised. Apart from the power-play where more than one multi-millionaire labelled all journalists as elitist, 2016 did have what appeared to be more than the average number of deaths of famous musicians and this had a quite extraordinary impact on the feelings of those who had grown up with this music. I don’t particularly like David Bowie’s music but I understand that millions and millions of people all around the world did have some form of connection with Bowie, and Prince, Leonard Cohen and George Michael. I was personally more affected by the deaths of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, two of the first rock musicians I’d ever heard but apart from reporting on their contribution to progressive rock in celebration of their careers, I remained relatively unmoved. I don’t mean any of this in a disrespectful way and if anyone, from any background, is able to positively influence someone in some way; give them some kind of meaning or put into words what they’ve not been able to express themselves, that’s not to be scoffed at. I’m approaching this from a rationalist standpoint; both Bowie and Lake had cancer and, at 69 years of age, had lived a full life which had reached a natural limit within statistical ranges. I reject the government argument that pensionable age should be raised because we’re all dying older because plainly that is not true. It might be the case that age at death has increased for some but, especially in areas of greater deprivation and reduced life-chances, longevity lags behind. A 2015 study from the King’s Fund Inequalities and life expectancy Changes over time and implications for policy by David Buck and David Maguire may have shown the relationship between income deprivation and life expectancy got weaker over the period between 1999 and 2010 but other factors, including employment, housing deprivation and some lifestyle factors go some way to explain differences in life expectancy between areas during the latter part of the study period, and that low employment, housing deprivation and smoking are among the factors that distinguish areas with persistently low life expectancy over time. The argument to raise the age of the state pension and to make changes to public sector pensions in 2011 which caused widespread public anger was part of a plan to make public sector jobs open to private business. It might be more economically sound to allow workers to retire to create decent, full-time jobs for school leavers and graduates who had been hard-wired to believe in home ownership but we’re going to find many of the workers in caring professions, who generally are not well paid, being ground down until they are incapable of working or dying before they can take their pensions.


NHS strike action
NHS strike action

I stood on picket lines and argued that even in the long-term, the NHS pension pot easily paid for itself as long as staff continued to be recruited into the scheme. I pointed out that the proposed legislation was because the cost of similar pension benefits was prohibitive to private healthcare providers, with plenty of friends in government, wanting to move into the UK; that pension reform and privatisation were inextricably linked and austerity was being used as a rationale to deliver cost-cutting and the decimation of the Health Service. Over the next year I witnessed the sale of NHS departments to private firms; soft targets going to DHL, Serco and Sainsbury, removing staff from hospital payroll and immediately cutting upfront costs. The damage to the NHS, alarmingly labelled a ‘humanitarian crisis’ by the Red Cross last week, includes no money for training, de-skilling, understaffing, endemic low-morale and stress-related sickness absence; throw in stories of European workers being told to prepare to leave the UK and it’s evident that there’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. Perhaps someone is waiting for the private sector to gallop in on a white charger...

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing particularly pertinent to current times, where not only access to music and film has been made easier, our ability to comment on and interact with others who feel the same, or the polar opposite, is part of the everyday landscape. I used to abuse the letters page of Barrow’s North Western Evening Mail with made-up opinions and made-up names in an attempt to lampoon parochial concerns (read: dog mess) but this ruse took a good deal of time and effort; I had to write the letter by hand, post the letter using Royal Mail and wait to see if the terribly elite editorial board would publish. If only Twitter and Facebook messages took two days, an editorial review and the equivalent of postage before they could be displayed. I’m not only guilty of mistreating the entire Evening Mail readership with letters and my poetry, I’m also in the business of spouting opinion on social media. That my ProgBlog somehow got mixed up with a Canadian political site of the same name may be of concern, but it earned a spot as the 24th most liberal blog detected by the Feedspot blog.

Meanwhile, at the back end of 2016, I was given a copy of the Greg Lake Live DVD for Christmas, a concert recorded in Stevenage in November 2005, less than a week before I went to see his performance in Croydon and dutifully watched it at the earliest opportunity. I recall enjoying the concert apart from a blues number which I refused to applaud because it was dire. This was Love You Too Much and I believe is evidence that Lake’s genuine creative period was over. I’m not fond of the later ELP material that’s included, either, beginning with the simplistic Paper Blood but also Farewell to Arms and Footprints in the Snow but the concert is well filmed and the band, including a young Florian Opahle on lead guitar, is really tight. Though it’s an accurate record of that tour, the bonus DVD material includes rehearsal time at Shepperton and some short interviews. One of these is with the promoter who predicts a great future for the ensemble and following the UK dates the band did play in Europe but his planned 2006 tour was cancelled.


Greg Lake Live DVD
Greg Lake Live DVD

Whereas Bowie and Prince maintained a sense of mystique and were able to reinvent themselves to remain relevant, I don’t believe that same can be said for the members of ELP, or even Yes who continue to tour, though they were giants that did at one stage rule the world of music. The relevance of the original progressive rock bands lies in their legacy, their experimentation and challenging norms. There are probably two generations who have been inspired by music that refuses to be packaged as industry standard and this innovation is what Lake and Emerson, and Chris Squire in 2015 should be remembered for.





By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2014 03:33PM

It's mid December and I'm in Bah! Humbug mode. The endless incitement to consume that began gearing up in October is now reaching fever pitch and I’m feeling bad that I feel bad about the whole season. It's not that I don't like giving but I prefer not to be bullied into becoming a slave to this celebration of the unnecessary and shallow. 40 years ago, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock, there was a tug between those promoting commercialisation of Christmas and traditionalists pushing their views on religious significance. In a socio-political context, this was the height of the cold war and the ideological battle was being fought over consumer goods as much as the race to over-stock with nuclear arms; the West was fighting dirty, their propaganda directed at housewives, seducing them with a wide range of appliances and products on supermarket shelves that they were obviously unable to live without. The East failed to deliver promised social equality as money was poured into the military-industrial complex rather than into basics. Despite, or rather because of planned obsolescence, the West won the day; power to the consumer! Power to consume!

I'm not religious but I accept that some people ascribe meaning to this time of year although their belief is being trampled by the out-of-control machine dedicated to profit. My seasonal preference predates the Christian hijacking of Saturnalia, back to the pagan solstice; one where we simply recognise the end of a solar cycle without resorting to over-indulgence in food and alcohol. What do I wish for at this time of year? Peace on earth (yes, really!) and much stronger regulation of the food, drink and advertising industries.

Much of progressive rock owes a debt to church music. In In My Own Time, Kim Dancha’s authorised biography, John Wetton spoke of his use of chordal structures based on the harmony and counterpoint found in church music, citing the influence of his elder brother Robert who became a church organist of some accomplishment; Steve Hackett has acknowledged the influence of church music on Genesis material; and Jan Akkermann has referred to Eruption (from Moving Waves) as “patched-up church-y ideas, sacral stuff” describing that he made “blues out of those neoclassical church-like harmonies.” Chris Squire was a choir boy at St Andrew’s, Kingsbury and has spoken of the influence of church and choral music on his writing; though largely hidden within his co-written Yes-epics, the song-form on Squire’s solo album Fish out of Water is steeped in ecclesiastical influences, where he’s helped out by former school friend and band mate Andrew Pryce Jackman on keyboards and enlists the help of Barry Rose, the sub-organist from St Paul’s cathedral who plays pipe organ.

The cultural significance of the church within progressive rock has been thoroughly covered by academic authors such as Bill Martin and Edward Macan. The genre is peppered with references to liturgy, from the straightforward Credo by Refugee to the psychedelic retelling of Revelations by both Aphrodite’s Child (666) and Genesis (Supper’s Ready.) Perhaps the most overt church music albums are Mass in F minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes and the first album by Italy’s Latte e Miele, Passio Secundum Mattheum (1972). Mass in F minor was not really a full Electric Prunes album and it’s not really prog. The music was written by David Axelrod and he felt he had to draft in other musicians from Canadian group The Collectors to complete the project, a mix of acid rock guitar and Gregorian chants, sung in Latin and Greek. It’s a strange mix but somehow it works really well. Some critics have labelled Latte e Miele as an ELP clone, partly because of their keyboards/guitar/percussionist line up and partly because they include a Bach quotation that appears almost note-for-note and with the same feeling on The Three Fates (Clotho) from ELP’s first album. Such criticism is grossly unfair because 16-year old drummer Alfio Vitanza also adds flute, contributing to a pastoral feel that conjures up suggestions of early Genesis; I’d argue that the inclusion of Mellotron and string synth are the antithesis of ELP. It should be seen as a brave move for a first album and is rightly regarded as being something of a minor RPI classic.

That a band formed in a British public school should display influences from the church is hardly surprising. What is slightly more unexpected is that young musicians, absorbing blues, jazz and rock influences from the US, music born of repression and rebellion, should also exhibit a debt to music that, on reflection, reflects a deeply authoritarian way of life. I suppose it’s only symphonic prog, where the prevalent form is European art music, which truly fits this picture. These musicians grew up in a post-war society where religion played an important role in providing spiritual solace in the years following the massive loss of life and wanton destruction. This thinking was challenged by the pointless wars that occurred in faraway countries throughout the 60s and 70s and by the ideals of the counterculture when prog followed the trail of The Beatles and looked eastwards. These outside influences and experiences were revelatory; this wasn’t a clash of cultures because individuals were actively seeking alternatives to Western consumerism, leading to the dawn of the understanding that other belief systems were equally valid. The end result was that the prevailing church music, largely based on catholic and protestant doctrines, lost its religious baggage and became spiritual. On Aqualung, Jethro Tull play out a rejection of organised religion and on The Only Way from Tarkus (which describes itself as a hymn), ELP appear to take a humanist stance: “People are stirred, moved by the word/Kneel at the shrine, deceived by the wine/How was the earth conceived? Infinite space/Is there such a place? You must believe in the human race” and “Don’t be afraid, man is man made”.

During the 70s the church organ became an instrument of the prog keyboard player. Rick Wakeman played the organ at St Giles’, Cripplegate, part of London’s Barbican complex on The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the organ at St Martin’s, Vevey, Switzerland that was used on Going for the One and the solo album Criminal Record, an album that was something of a return to form; Keith Emerson uses St Mark’s church organ on Tarkus; Rick van der Linden plays the organ in the church of Maasluis (near Rotterdam) on the eponymous first Trace album and the organ of St Bavo’s church in Haarlem on the second album, Birds; on Hamburger Concerto Thijs van Leer plays the organ of St Mary the Virgin, Barnes (the album was recorded at Olympic Sound studios in Barnes.) Hamburger Concerto includes the track La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and when I was presented with the opportunity to visit Strasbourg for a scientific meeting, I took time out to visit the cathedral which is suitably impressive; a gothic masterpiece rising from the cobbles of a fairly densely hemmed-in square.

I like church architecture and the space they contain from a mathematical point of view. I like church music but I disassociate it from worship. Aldo Tagliapietra of Le Orme described how, during La Serenissima, there use to be two choirs in the basilica di San Marco, one on either side of the congregation, singing in stereo. Prog has absorbed bits and pieces of the form and few overt references to a specific god remain. The search for enlightenment, which runs throughout many prog compositions, doesn’t come across as religious; it’s head music which requires conscious engagement without the requirement for religious baggage. That’s something to think about if you receive any progressive rock as a present this Christmas.

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