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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Aug 23 2015 09:38PM

August in the south eastern corner of the UK has been quite poor in terms of weather this year, with unseasonal downpours following a series of Atlantic depressions that have tracked across the country. This weekend we experienced a ‘Spanish plume’, a condition that arises from a large southwards dip in the high altitude jet stream that developed to the west of Europe that in turn encouraged a deep southerly wind flow that pushed hot and humid air from Portugal and Spain north and north-east into northern Europe, including to us the UK. Temperatures at Selhurst Park for Crystal Palace vs. Aston Villa peaked at over 30oC prompting the first water breaks in a Premier League fixture. With a cold front from the Atlantic over the north of the UK and unstable, hot air pushing up from the south or south west, there was the potential for heavy thunderstorms where the two weather systems met; strong winds associated with the jet stream help organise thunderstorms and play a part in their severity. This latest forecast came with a degree of uncertainty, something that’s become increasingly prevalent in our televised weather bulletins where over the last couple of weeks the prediction for the next day has inevitably proved to be inaccurate.

It seems that the British like talking about the weather. It serves as a common topic when individuals are thrust into a situation where it’s uncomfortable not to talk. It helps that UK weather so changeable and unpredictable, part of the beauty of living in a temperate marine climate; it also gives us the right to moan. As a youth in the North West I became used to rain. The relief rainfall that was a major feature of the western Lake District didn’t really affect Barrow very much but moisture-laden air from the Atlantic had a habit of dampening our plans one way or another. I was very much at home when I stayed in Seattle for a week in 2002 where there were a number of dedicated, accurate weather channels on the TV.

Weather may seem a bit prosaic as a topic for prog but weather and the British go together like tea and crumpets. After a childhood in Barrow I feel as though I’ve got fifty words for rain... In fact, the water cycle and our understanding of the principles of weather processes, such as drought, flood or monsoon, is very much the stuff of prog. Furthermore, the ability of humankind to distort weather patterns through extracting and burning hydrocarbons and the detrimental effect of pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is something that the adherents of the counterculture warned us about; the origins of the progressive rock movement had strong links to environmental groups. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that there’s no definitive album about the physical geography of weather or its myriad facets, just a straightforward interpretation.

Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch (1979) may come closest to revisiting the old hippie theme of global environmental disaster and a form of gloom pervades the entire album. Largely referred to as the third and final part of the Tull folk-rock phase, when I listened to the album recently I didn’t think there was much folk to detect; there’s a reference to pre-Christian themes (on Dun Ringill) which might fit the tag but it’s more an association of convenience, marking the last of the stable Tull line-ups. Stormwatch uses the concept of a storm as both metaphor and as literal description, picking up from a theme in the title track of Heavy Horses (1978) where Ian Anderson predicts that the magnificent beasts will be required once more when the oil has run out; North Sea Oil recognises the commodity as a quick fix for the economy and one that wasn’t going to last. Dark Ages and Something’s on the Move hint at energy shortages and long, cold winters and subsequent rioting while Flying Dutchman bemoans our inability as a nation to accept immigrants. In a recent Prog magazine interview, Anderson admitted to being politically left of centre; Stormwatch was released in September 1979 at the tail end of the first era of progressive rock; the political and social landscape was changing with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister four months earlier as she commenced the dismantlement of the state and used burgeoning oil revenues to fuel her rewards for the selfish (North Sea oil had come on stream in 1975.) The dark mood of the album was no doubt partly down to the illness of bassist John Glascock who died two months after its release, having only played on three of the tracks. Though the (David Palmer) penned track Elegy was written for Palmer’s father, at the time the only section remaining of the Anderson/Palmer/Barre ballet The Water’s Edge, I felt it also served as a tribute to Glascock.

Camel’s Rain Dances (1977) isn’t weather-related. The short, melodic instrumental title track that closes the album doesn’t call to mind rain but merely reprises the beautiful, melodic opener, First Light and could be called anything because the album doesn’t have any cohesive concept; at least the title track from Gryphon’s Raindance (1975) which begins and ends with the sounds of rain and thunder has a keyboard backing under the main melody line that is reminiscent of flowing water and the album’s cover depicts the effects of playing the record.

The strong Red Rain from Peter Gabriel’s So (1986) is supposed to have been inspired by a terrifying dream. Some ascribe the imagery to acid rainfall (Gabriel is well known for his environmental concerns, appearing at the People's Climate March in London last September) but it seems to me to be about the nightmare of genocide; a number of African nations were in the throes of civil war in the early – mid 80s including Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Rain is represented on this track by hi-hat, played by ex-Curved Air drummer Stewart Copeland. More up-to-date, Anathema’s prog metal-lite Weather Systems (2012) is full of nice melodic touches and contains some interesting sonic experimentation and passages that remind me of Porcupine Tree but despite its title, the album only uses weather as a metaphor for events during a life.

I think some band should attempt a concept album based on the science of meteorology, whether it’s a series of interpretations of particular examples (think Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII.) Fabio Zuffanti’s Hostsonaten project covers some of this ground on the excellent symphonic prog Winterthrough (2008) with tracks called Snowstorm and Rainsuite but I still believe classic British prog bands missed out on an easy topic with a captive audience.



By ProgBlog, Jul 26 2015 10:57PM

There were a number of factors that combined to allow the development of progressive rock, not least of all sociological factors. Psychedelia emerged as the music of the counterculture and this, in turn, allowed the evolution of prog which, at its inception, retained some of the anti-mainstream ideals. The concept of ‘free love’ was closely associated with the hippie movement, being a rejection of established sexual mores. Greater sexual freedom (leading to the term ‘swinging sixties’) was catalysed by the availability of the contraceptive pill, described as one of the most significant medical advance of the 20th century because of the major role it has played in the women's liberation movement and emancipation, for the first time allowing women to plan and control their own reproductive capacity. The pill, a combination of hormones oestrogen and progestin which were synthetically produced to mimic the body's natural hormones, works by suppressing ovulation. It was developed by biologist Dr Gregory Pincus in the US during the 1950s and was approved for release in 1960, having been tested on Puerto Rican and Haitian women. Take-up was rapid: within two years of its launch it was being used by 1.2 million American women and the current number of users is of the order of 11 million. It was made available in the UK on the NHS in 1961 for married women only, a state that lasted until 1967, the height of the psychedelic movement; between 1962 and 1969 the number of users rose from approximately 50,000 to one million and it is now taken by 3.5 million women in Britain between the ages of 16 and 49. Worldwide, around 100 million women take the pill. While there are concerns over the safety of the pill in certain groups of women (heavy smokers over the age of 35, the obese, those with a risk of thrombosis, those with heart disease, those with a history of certain disease such as breast cancer) the pill has been shown to protect against cancer of the ovaries and the womb lining, and protect against pelvic inflammatory disease, a major cause of infertility in women. Sadly, even today there’s still a reactionary bloc that is unable to accept women’s sexual rights, including patriarchal organisations such as the Catholic Church and some of the more right-wing media empires. Self-styled moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, famous in the progressive rock world for incurring the ire of Roger Waters (Pigs [Three Different Ones] from Animals, 1977) formed the (short-lived) Christian grassroots movement Nationwide Festival of Light along with, amongst others, journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge in response to concerns over the development of the permissive society in the UK during the late 60s; Muggeridge frequently denounced this new sexual freedom on radio and television and particularly railed against "pills and pot", birth control and cannabis. Within the counterculture he became something of a figure of ridicule, such that early bootlegged versions of Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky (to appear on Dark Side of the Moon, 1973) included snippets of his speeches, titled The Collected Ramblings of Malcolm Muggeridge.

It’s rather disappointing that the first wave of prog didn’t produce many bands with female musicians, building on the legacy of US psychedelic bands Jefferson Airship, later Jefferson Spaceship (Grace Slick) and Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin), both of these groups having formed in San Francisco, the epicentre of the counterculture. The rock music business was another male-dominated industry and counter-intuitively it wasn’t until the rise of punk that women got to feature in more bands, though there have always been other genres that did have female stars. For prog, which tended to address issues other than ‘boy-meets-girl’, in the UK only Sonja Kristina and Annie Haslam, with Curved Air and Renaissance respectively, got to front groups; I’m not going to include Kate Bush, a solo artist whose oeuvre includes some prog-inflected material, other than to mention her strike for equality by demonstrating that she was in complete creative control of her work; Jerney Kaagman was singer for successful Netherlands prog band Earth and Fire.

Normally the preserve of glam metal acts, there a small number of examples of prog which I think come close to hinting at the exploitation of women, the clearest of which is probably King Crimson’s Ladies of the Road (from Islands, 1971.) It has been suggested that the lyrics to the song were an accurate representation of the early period of Boz Burrell's life as a young man on tour where groupies were readily available for casual sex, a phenomenon that burgeoned during the heyday of the counterculture. Caravan’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink schoolboy humour runs throughout much of their early work but in my opinion it’s not necessarily exploitative; Richard Sinclair comes across as quite sympathetic to the lead character on the title track from Waterloo Lily (1972.)

My acquisition of An Electric Storm (1969) by White Noise from a record and CD fair in Brighton a couple of weeks ago is the third example in my collection of a record featuring simulated sex noises. I accept it’s pushing the definition of prog to include this album but it’s an important release in terms of sonic possibilities; a very early example of tape effects and electronica. More au fait with Vorhaus’ White Noise II (1975) on which he used a synthesizer with a ribbon controller (I dubbed it an electric drainpipe) the original White Noise featured BBC Radiophonic Workshop employees Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. The track My Game of Love was written with synthesized noises of an orgy but, according to the liner notes for the CD release, Vorhaus must have been dissatisfied with the results and mixed his electronic creation with a recording of a real orgy.

The first example that I heard of sex noises on a prog album was, appropriately enough, ∞ (Infinity) from 666 (1972) by Aphrodite’s Child – Aphrodite being the Greek goddess of love, beauty and procreation. The record company, Mercury, objected to the double-album length and the musical experimentation, as well as the track ∞, because of the simulated female orgasm lasting over 5 minutes provided by Greek actress Irene Papas, who repeats the words "I was, I am, I am to come" over a sparse percussion track. This track in particular makes Je t’aime... moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin sound rather tame.

The second is a CD I came across in Metropolis Music in Melbourne when I was in Australia in 2005 – Masq (1971) by Catharsis. There was no Australian prog available and I felt I had to buy something from the store because the staff were incredibly helpful. I chose Masq because it was described as ‘the first album from a great French underground group, lots of weirdness with some folky touches, unique!’ It comes across as something like a psychedelic folk band though it does feature some dreamy organ and some free-form sections that could have been inspired by early Pink Floyd. The final two minutes of the second track, 4 art 6 features simulated sex sounds, the female parts provided by singer Charlotte.

These three examples are from early in the prog canon and, to a greater extent, reflect the period in which they were written, a time of sexual freedom and exploration. They come across as consensual and sharing, fitting in with the original philosophy of progressive rock as an inclusive, outward looking and anti-authoritarian movement. It’s strange that this non-threatening music was performed almost exclusively by males to an audience of almost exclusively males but happily, the third wave of prog features a number of excellent women musicians and the presence of females in the audiences is becoming more noticeable. Long live equality!



By ProgBlog, Apr 26 2015 09:27PM

There’s a fair amount of literature that refers to the second album by a group as the ‘sophomore’ effort. This is largely a result of American journalistic influence, the term coming from the American education system and, while any increase in the quantity of material relating to or simply discussing progressive rock is to be welcomed, I have a problem with sophomore and I’d like to register my disapproval of the term; I believe the word is an interloper.

There are many bands, especially those from the 70s progressivo Italiano scene, that only managed to release a single album but there can be a problem with a second release, in terms of critical appraisal by fans and professional music journalists, if the first album garners acclaim but the subsequent release doesn’t meet expectations. Though it’s good to diversify, in true progressive spirit, a conscious decision to avoid criticism of producing a ‘son of…’ it’s certainly not inappropriate to develop a style.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the problem occurs for both groups that developed during the late 60s and those that arrived on the scene with pre-formed expectations, like ELP. For most groups that evolved from acts that were in existence during the pre-progressive days of psychedelia and blues, Pink Floyd, The Nice, Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, 'progressive' describes the process of becoming prog itself and this journey was informed by cultural, demographic and technological changes. In this way The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, though certainly not prog rock, caused something of a stir and managed to reach no.6 in the UK album charts; the next album, A Saucerful of Secrets might have made it to no.9 but the ousting of Syd Barrett disappointed fans, critics and the group’s management. It’s no surprise that Piper and Saucerful are stylistically disparate; the overriding impression of Piper is the Barrett-penned whimsy and not the instrumentals that formed the core of their live set. Saucerful simply moved the band in the direction of space-rock and I get a sense of music organised as architecture, something that I think was a defining idiom of their far better, progressive material in later years.

I prefer Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Time and a Word to The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack and Yes respectively where there’s evidence of maturity of song writing but I have a preference for Air Conditioning over Curved Air’s Second Album because Second Album merely rehashes the same formula as on their first release. It’s my opinion that the first, fully formed prog album is In the Court of the Crimson King and, because it was a genre-defining release, anything that followed was liable to disappoint. In the Wake of Poseidon is very much in the style of In the Court but that’s no great revelation because much of the material that would go on to comprise Poseidon had already been written and road-tested by the original band members; the structure of the tracks Pictures of a City and In the Wake of Poseidon closely resemble 21st Century Schizoid Man and In the Court of the Crimson King respectively. The example of Crimson reveals another factor that needs to be taken into account: the impact of personnel changes on the direction of a group. Whereas Yes replaced members one at a time (until the joint departure of Anderson and Wakeman between Tormato and Drama) which gave the impression of a group positively seeking direction in a controlled manner, the shifting personnel involved in the very early years of King Crimson appeared as seismic changes; that In the Court and Poseidon sound closely-related is also due to the retention of key players Greg Lake and Michael Giles as guest musicians. I would class Genesis as a band who developed their style in a manner similar to Yes, and despite replacing a guitarist and a drummer at the same time, their stylistic refinement followed a smooth path, reaching maturity with Foxtrot, their fourth release; Yes reached their pinnacle with their fifth album, Close to the Edge.

ELP arrived on the scene in 1970 as individuals from known, successful groups and produced a distinct and coherent first album that still rates as one of my favourite albums of all time. Tarkus, their second album contains more developed ideas, culminating in the side long suite that gives the record its name, but it lacks the overall balance of Emerson, Lake & Palmer with two decidedly non-prog compositions, Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddy? The first supergroup, ELP had to hit the ground running or face the ignominy of artistic failure. I think their output, taken album by album up to and including Brain Salad Surgery is consistent but, within each of these records there is always some material that is below-par and unnecessary.

Mike Oldfield may have spent a number of years as a jobbing musician before stunning the world with Tubular Bells but his first solo effort was a game-changer, affecting him personally and also inadvertently helping to establish the fledgling Virgin empire. That he would release a second album was beyond doubt. Whether it could possibly be as original as Bells was a far more difficult question to answer. After selling my original vinyl copy of Tubular Bells (but later regretting it) and keeping my original Hergest Ridge LP, I’ve grown to believe that his second album is a much more satisfying effort. Of course there are similarities between the two compositions but Oldfield seems to have learned and remedied the deficiencies in Bells. Embracing the talents of his erstwhile band-mate David Bedford and expanding the instrumentation to provide a symphonic scope, Hergest Ridge conjures a sense of place, of open countryside and wilderness, something that a piece titled Tubular Bells could never do. I’ve come to this conclusion after 40 years, so perhaps it’s best not to dismiss any band’s second album as ‘more of the same’ or a ‘dramatic departure’. Both approaches, seeking a definitive style and radical departure can be equally valid as long as the goal is to further the music through increased proficiency or taking on new ideas.

On reflection, most second albums by exponents of progressive rock are of a similar standard to their first albums. There aren’t that many groups who stun the world with a brilliant debut and then go on to produce a stinker but there are plenty who follow the same formula with good results; Greenslade and Bedside Manners are Extra, Trace and Birds, Fruupp’s Future Legends and Seven Secrets. The downside to this approach became evident as the 70s moved on and prog lost favour with the media and the buying public; changes in style were dictated by the requirements of the music industry and not by the artists. One of the last great prog albums of the 70s was UK by UK; the second album which contained some good material was already showing signs of a more commercial appeal.

By ProgBlog, Jun 1 2014 07:08PM

Sometime in 1978 or 1979 in a Zoology class at Goldsmiths’, Jo Wallace and Karen Fraser were discussing the use of the violin in rock music, not getting much further than the Fabulous Poodles and the Electric Light Orchestra, who were not remotely prog. I don’t think they even included Slade, where bassist Jim Lea had previously played in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra, or Hawkwind who in their most prog period, and they have never been a prog band, included Simon House on violin. There’s a possibility that their friend Susan Aspinall (a botanist who I later found out was into prog) might have been able to help them out with some suggestions. I remembered this conversation recently, perhaps prompted by seeing RPI band La Coscienza di Zeno at Prog Résiste, who included violin, or by one of the CDs I was bought at Prog Résiste, the excellent Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Höstsonaten, where the violin is used primarily as a melodic lead instrument in the context of a rock interpretation of classical music. I thought the concept deserved revisiting, just sticking to prog acts.

If you consider the origins of progressive rock, a melting pot of influences including European romantic music, the violin has some claim to be a prog instrument, though it hardly features in bands from the golden era. Excluding the mix of rock band and orchestra (The Nice’s Five Bridges Suite, for example) I first heard violin on Birds of Fire. If you’ll allow me a little latitude, I maintain that there’s a very close relationship between jazz rock and prog. The Mahavishnu Orchestra utilised blistering exchanges between guitar, Moog and Jerry Goodman’s violin to stunning effect though years later when I bought a Flock CD I was disappointed with the song writing. I probably heard Geoffrey Richardson on For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night around the time of its release but it wasn’t until I started buying Caravan albums in the 80s that I really appreciated his contribution. I started listening to King Crimson in 1974, so after the Mahavishnu Orchestra, my next true exposure to prog violin was via the ’72-’74 incarnation of Crimson, and from David Cross to Eddie Jobson who did the studio overdubs for USA.

I first came across Darryl Way as a guest musician on the track Opus 1065 from Birds by Trace. Trace supported Curved Air on tour in 1975 and keyboard player Rick van der Linden expressed an appreciation of Way’s mastery of the violin, acknowledging a shared ability to improvise around a classical music theme. The drummer on Birds was prog journeyman Ian Mosley, formerly of Darryl Way’s Wolf. Darryl Way also appeared on Heavy Horses, as a guest on the title track and on Acres Wild and also in 1978, he released his first solo album, Concerto for Electric Violin, with an orchestra synthesized by former Curved Air band mate Francis Monkman, which I remember being premiered on ITV’s highly-regarded culture programme The South Bank Show and I bought it soon after my arrival in London at the end of the 70s. My first Curved Air Album was Air Conditioning, bought second-hand from Record and Tape Exchange for £1 in the early 80s and I’ve since added Second Album, Phantasmagoria and Midnight Wire, plus Canis Lupus on CD.

The supergroup UK formed in 1977 and featured Eddie Jobson on keyboards and violin. They released two studio albums and a live set recorded in Japan and the reduced-size line-up of the second Album, Danger Money, toured supporting Jethro Tull who were very much at the height of their commercial appeal. Subsequently, Ian Anderson asked Jobson to appear on what started out as a solo venture but was released as ‘A’ under the Jethro Tull banner. I’d chart the quality of the music, from the eponymous UK debut to A as a linear decline; UK was a great album, a very strong progressive rock album tinged with jazz. The departure of Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth meant that Danger Money and the live album from that tour, Night After Night were weaker and the live album contains some very middle-of-the-road material. I find A very poor fare. At the time of its release many prog acts had either disappeared (temporarily or permanently) or adopted a more commercial sound. The short songs on A seemed to attempt to match prevailing tastes and watching them live from the gods at the Albert Hall did nothing to change my mind about the quality of the material.

The departure of Hugh Banton and David Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator prompted a rethink by Peter Hammill and he drafted in Graham Smith from Charisma label-mates String Driven Thing on violin. Nick Potter, absent since the recording of H to He returned on bass. The resulting sound on The Quiet Zone The Pleasure Dome is far less full than on any of the preceding albums, coming across as more urgent and direct, almost punk. Peter Hammill’s use of a violinist continued after the demise of Van der Graaf on both solo albums and during the tours of his solo material when he collaborated with Stuart Gordon.

There’s more violin in progressivo Italiano. My first exposure to RPI was PFM’s live album Cook which features the excellent multi-instrumentalist Mauro Pagani on, amongst other things, violin. Violin is quite prominent throughout the album but it is used to best effect on Alta Loma Five Till Nine where the band play an arrangement of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Parent’s note: This song is brilliant for entertaining young children, bouncing them up and down to the rhythm on your knee. Following the departure of Pagani, PFM brought in another violinist for Jet Lag, Gregory Bloch. I understood that there was a strong tradition of Italian prog and that bands like Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator were incredibly successful in Italy, though it wasn’t until the advent of online music retailers that I was able to start buying examples from the Italian sub-genre. Introducing the family to the delights of Venice and Rome (2005, 2006 and 2007) allowed me to seek out record stores and ask the owners about prog bands. By this time it was also possible to read about RPI both in books and on fan sites so I had a good idea of what to look for. Aside from PFM, Quella Vecchia Locanda were possibly the most famous of the violin-featuring bands. I prefer their first, eponymous album with violinist Donald Lax to their second album Il Tempo Della Gioia from 1974, with Claudio Filice taking on violin duties. The first album is full of energy and, though the band took care producing their follow-up, there’s a feeling of melancholy that contradicts the album’s title, A Time of Joy. Celeste used violin on their excellent Principe di Giorno which has something of a cross between early Genesis and Wind and Wuthering Genesis. My copy is a second-hand Japanese import bought for me in Rome by an Italian transplant surgeon who spent 6 months at Guy’s. Jacopo, thanks very much.


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