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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, Dec 18 2016 09:32PM

After the death of Greg Lake and a subsequent marathon session of listening to very early King Crimson and ELP albums I’ve not really had much opportunity to listen to music over the past week, my leisure time being taken up with two home games for Crystal Palace, a variety of reunions and a work Christmas party. Not being someone who rejoices in either the religious or commercial nature of Christmas, I find it a bit of a challenge when it comes to interacting with those that do get into the Christmas spirit. One of my gripes is the radio at work which is either tuned to a station broadcasting non-stop Christmas singles, other than Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas which I wouldn’t actually mind hearing, or tuned into something with more edge playing more contemporary chart rubbish; another is the seasonal TV programming which invariably excludes me from being part of the stereotypical family and which becomes ever more tired each year; and another is the general encouragement to eat and drink too much.

The idea of a reunion is to catch up with old friends but it’s difficult to communicate effectively in a crowded pub where the televised sport competes with the piped music. Having said that, en route to the work Christmas meal, we stopped off at Turner’s Old Star in Wapping where the vanguard were able to drink, talk and play pool for over an hour with only a couple of locals in attendance. This turned out to be the calm before the storm as the meal was held at Tobacco Dock and we were a small group amongst around 1000 other revellers. The live band seemed very professional but they weren’t likely to play anything remotely interesting or challenging, unlike the entertainment at the gala dinner for an American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Dallas in 1995 where the band were unable to perform the King Crimson I requested but did play some Talking Heads as compensation. When I was a student I occasionally used to take a pair of cushioned over-ear headphones to discos (only if they were held at my hall of residence – I wouldn’t have wanted to lug them all over south London) which was done primarily to indicate my disapproval of the music but also to partially reduce the volume; putting in a pair of in-ear headphones at the Tobacco Dock party was rather pointless, such was the overwhelming din coming from the disco.


Turner's Old Star
Turner's Old Star

The little music I have managed to play for my personal pleasure in the past week includes King Crimson’s Red (1974). I’d seen a tweet about the album and made a mental note that it was something I should make a point of listening to again. Red was one of the Crimson LPs I’d sold to a second hand record store when I got a copy of the original issue of the CD, but that has been replaced with the mighty Road to Red box set. It was also one of the first Crimson albums I’d heard, a copy was owned by a friend from across the road in Infield Park in my youth. Along with the heavy prog of the title track and the soaring Starless which has gone on to inspire a host of other works with its killer melody line, Providence is a track which I found particularly inspiring; at the time of the album’s release I didn’t have a clue that this was a live improvisation, despite the rather truncated ending, but the structure formed the basis of a composition by my late school - early university group where, dependent on our rehearsal space, we would utilise found objects like bicycle wheels and door keys. I think Fallen Angel and One More Red Nightmare point the way to John Wetton’s future musical course but both are carried off with distinct aplomb and fit in with the feel of the entire album. The most recent version of Starless I’ve heard was by the David Cross Band at The Lexington earlier this year which rivalled the three drummers King Crimson version (Hackney Empire, September 8th 2015) in terms of excellence.


The Road to Red
The Road to Red

Next on my list was the debut self-titled album by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (1972). Desperate to find some Banco, my first purchase was the sub-standard Donna Plautilla (released 1989) which I didn’t have on my list but it was the only Banco album available from a store in Treviso when I visited in 2005. Donna Plautilla is a compilation of pre-1972 material which doesn’t really fit the progressive Italiano tag, unlike the excellent first album. My current version of the album is a (2012) 40th anniversary 2CD edition where the second disc contains previously unreleased tracks Poilifonia, Tentazione and Padre Nostro and live versions of R.I.P, Metamorfosi and Traccia recorded in 2012.

The original album is one of the classics of the genre and, thanks to the vocals of Francesco Di Giacomo, truly operatic. I’d always associated the Banco sound with ELP because of the predominance of organ and piano, provided by the Nocenzi brothers Vittorio and Gianni respectively, but this time I was struck by the similarity to Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in March 1972. There may not be very much flute on Banco del Mutuo Soccorso but the stop-start nature of the music, plus the organ/piano which also feature heavily in TAAB (one of the main reasons I really like that album) sound as though they could all have come from the same sessions. Tull were undoubtedly a major influence on the early Italian prog acts but it’s hard to imagine Banco having time to rearrange their material to sound more like Jethro Tull in the two months that elapsed between the availability of the two records.


Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition

Though I didn’t get much time to myself I did manage to squeeze in, over two days, the DVD of The Golden Compass (2007), the somewhat unsatisfying cinematic adaptation of Philip Pullman’s brilliant Northern Lights. I can’t work out if it was the characterisation which was off, despite thinking that Nicole Kidman might actually make a suitable Mrs Coulter, or if it was just Disneyfication, stripping away all the darkness and complexity of the novel. As with all fantasy books, the film version relied heavily on CGI, mostly successfully but sometimes less so. I found the stage version of the Pullman trilogy (His Dark Materials, an adaptation by Nicholas Wright) which had a couple of seasons at the National Theatre more in keeping with the original work despite the necessary condensing, with an ingenious depiction of the daemons. The arctic setting made it an appropriate season to watch the film but I hadn’t realised, until I was distracted and left the credits running, that Kate Bush sang her own composition Lyra at the end of the film. I must have been walking out of the cinema as this began playing and missed it but apparently it was a commission which utilises the Magdalen College choir, a nice Oxford-related fact, and it is a genuinely beautiful song.

My inability to enjoy Christmas is becoming hardened with every passing year but I see decorations and other Yule-related paraphernalia go on sale in October and, apart from a couple of recent Decembers when we had a healthy sprinkling of snow even in the south east, the country has been subjected to some record-breaking flooding. Isn’t it supposed to snow at Christmas? We all know about the chances for peace on earth... I may find it hard to find any decent music being broadcast at this time of year but it’s incomprehensible that a large proportion of the human race has an inability to even consider working together for the common good, whether it’s finding a meaningful accord on climate change, cancelling third-world debt, halting the civil war in Syria or ending violence against women.

Merry Christmas?









By ProgBlog, Aug 21 2016 08:07PM

When I arrived at The Lexington for the David Cross Band gig the week before last, I stopped at the merchandise stand and along with the excellent English Sun (2009) by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, I also procured Re-Collage, a live album by Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Donà Quintet, progressivo Italiano being my thing and Le Orme’s Collage (1971) being regarded as the first true progressive rock album to be released in Italy. I put the two CDs in my jacket pocket and went off to the bar before the second performance of the evening, Davids Cross and Jackson with a challenging but fun set, It wasn’t until I got home to view my two purchases that I realised the CD was missing from the Re-Collage sleeve. My email to David C was passed on to David J who apologised, gave a plausible explanation and put a disc in the post for me.



The baroque-prog of the original album has been replaced by a much more jazz-inflected feel, imbued by Pagliuca’s fellow Venetian Donà, a jazz trumpeter (and philosopher) and the other members of the quintet. The sound on this recording is incredibly clear, taken from gigs in the north east of Italy in March 2004 and, without knowing how much rehearsing took place, remarkably tight. Apart from the Collage material, the ensemble tackles Theme One and We Go Now from the VdGG back catalogue and Frank Zappa’s G-Spot Tornado. The result is an enjoyable, different take on some classic Italian prog. It is also further demonstration of the prestige in which Van der Graaf Generator were held in Italy; Peter Hammill provided English lyrics for a Charisma (UK) release of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona and Jackson would go on to play with Osanna, one of the other greats of progressivo Italiano who incorporated Theme One into their live set.

I obviously make an effort to see the bands I follow in a live setting and am willing to go to some lengths to do so. The David Cross Band gig was close to my workplace though a combination of a (justified) strike by rail workers and unannounced engineering work (I have not heard any justification for this, which I suspect may have been a political move by track operator Railtrack to erode sympathy for the rail transport unions) meant that getting home was slightly more problematic than expected. Sometimes getting across London takes more time than (for instance) getting down to a gig in Brighton.

One issue that raises itself at concerts is the use of cameras or camera phones. I’m as guilty as anyone for transgression but I remain conflicted, willing to adhere to any request from the performers not to take pictures, restricting myself to photography of an empty set before the performance and the bow at the end of the show. We should all be there for the music and the experience and should not be concentrating on a small screen held between our faces and the group performing onstage but the importance of social media for promoting a musician’s activity, coupled with an insatiable human desire to share our experience, shifts any ambivalence towards amateur concert photography in the direction of being a necessary evil. Other than at the request of the group (think King Crimson: Keep your phones in your pocket. Have fun. Enjoy the moment. “Please come and *be* with the band and not with your smart phone and other weapons of mass distraction”) I do take photographs, though not incessantly. I’m not sure why my camera was taken away from me at a Yes gig a long, long time ago when equipment for bootlegging would surely have been a more important target. The smart phone is theoretically an easy medium to use for recording a show, along with the uncontrollable volume of crowd sounds but I’d really rather wait for the band, who frequently make their own, high quality, balanced recordings, to officially release the performance. Some venues have a ban on both audio and photographic recording equipment and this is fairly strictly though not necessarily efficiently policed by staff (the Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican, the Fairfield Halls, for instance.) David Cross joked about audience photos before his concert (he welcomed them, in contrast with his erstwhile band mate) and Jon Anderson has also asked people taking photos to share them on social media; for smaller or independent acts it’s free publicity. It’s only polite to listen to the requests of those you’re going to see and hear but with progressive rock, you’re more likely to be required to concentrate on who is doing what. Why would you want to disturb those around you with the glow from your LED screen as you try to focus on the band instead of just watching and listening? Unfortunately, sometimes my memory needs a jog but I do feel pangs of guilt.

I’ve been at a number of concerts from which there’s been an associated official release and, whether I’m one of 1500 or one of 10000 people in the crowd, I feel a stronger bond between myself and the music. What makes a great live album? Of my favourites, there may be only one occasion I’ve attended the show where the release gets in my personal top 10 but this highlights the importance of the relationship between the performers and the audience. I think that recording quality is essential to get across the musical content though the material selected for the release has to be sufficiently representative of the band up to that time; on a few occasions I’ve bought a live album as an introduction to the recorded work of a group and this has encouraged me to become better acquainted with someone’s back catalogue.

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been happy with the sound quality, so when the tapes that made up the source material for that release were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be only slightly stricter than the content of the Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, presented in a sonically true manner.



Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs
Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs

Beating the bootleggers, maintaining an income stream and remaining relevant in a cut-throat industry was achieved by Robert Fripp by releasing archive material through official DGM releases and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Road to Red and Starless box sets and the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 and it became something of a treasured possession even after the appearance of the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition on CD. I used to blast this out of my room at university, posing with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM.

Actually, it’s pointless attempting to list my favourite live recordings in any sort of merit-based order. Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album; Playing the Fool (1977) is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette; Camel’s A Live Record (1978) has the sumptuous RAH Snow Goose performance plus a collection of some of their most memorable back catalogue up to that time, and the 2002 remastered and expanded CD was an even better potted history of the band; Genesis Live (1973) was my introduction to the band and I still think it’s the best collection of their early material in a live setting even though it’s only a single LP, because of the presence of Peter Gabriel.

I could go on but I’ll just mention one last release recorded with me in the audience (and possibly featuring, albeit too small to make out, on the sleeve.) Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... I can tell him: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. Great gig, great live recording of the gig.

Photographs taken at a performance and recordings of live shows allow you, in your own time, to revisit some great moments, frozen (these days, digitally) in time. As real-time memory fades, these aides-memoire can transport us to a time when prog ruled the earth.






By ProgBlog, Aug 15 2016 10:18PM

In the early 70s bands released a studio album roughly every year. Perhaps the first of the prog bands to increase the time between new studio output was Pink Floyd, with an 18 month elapse between Dark Side of the Moon (March 1973) and Wish You Were Here (September 1975) and then a further 16 months before Animals came out in January 1977. The gap between Relayer (November 1974) and Going for the One (July 1977) was tempered by solo albums from the Yes camp in 1975 and 1976 and though the wait for Wish You Were Here, possibly the most anticipated release of the time, seemed interminable, the follow up to Brain Salad Surgery (November 1973) took ELP an incredible 29 months, up to March 1977, for Works Volume 1. These bands had to contend with the rise of punk and have to take some responsibility for the brief but successful assault on the music scene, through absence from the country (including for tax reasons), coming back with material that had to compete in a different environment, one where the counter-culture ideals and ideas which had been so important to the genesis of progressive rock were no longer valid. The fan base seemed to hold firm for the premier acts: Going for the One stayed at no. 1 for two weeks in the UK and climbed to no. 8 in the US charts; Animals peaked at number 2 in the UK and one place lower in America; and though Works Volume 1 was less successful, bearing in mind the format of one side of the original double LP for material by each of the members and only one ‘band’ side, it still managed to get to number 9 in the UK and 12 on Billboard 200.

One effect of punk on prog acts was the redefinition of their sound. In the immediate aftermath of the arrival of the upstarts, Yes first became more direct (think of the title track from Going for the One) but as punk gave way to New Wave which was in turn subsumed by the glamour of MTV, they went with the commercial flow and produced their most successful selling album 90125. The Floyd may have continued to push the boundaries of studio possibilities but the material that made up Wish You Were Here was the last of their symphonic prog output until the sans Waters A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987, having descended into straight forward rock ‘n’ roll with The Wall and The Final Cut; I was ashamed of the flirtation with a disco beat on Another Brick in the Wall (part 2). The less said about ELP’s confused Love Beach (1978) the better... Jethro Tull, another globally successful act were already changing from the diehard prog of Thick as a Brick (1972), A Passion Play (1973) and Minstrel in the Gallery (recorded in Monte Carlo for tax reasons in 1975) to the prog folk trio of Songs From the Wood (1977), Heavy Horses (1978) and Stormwatch (1979) via Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! (1976), a release Ian Anderson described as a reaction to punk. This was a potential rock musical intended to demonstrate the cyclical nature of fashion and fads but, despite being a worthy concept, the songs didn’t come anywhere close to their standards reached between 1972 and 1975. It was probably time to change style after Stormwatch which sounds a little tired but I wasn’t impressed with the clear out that resulted in A (1980), despite the presence of Eddie Jobson. This was pop-rock and the songs never engaged or challenged me.

The resurgence of the genre in the mid 90s conformed to a different paradigm. In an industry that had changed beyond reason in the intervening years, it was never going to a re-run of the early 70s and if the music was to reach the public, it couldn’t involve chasing record labels like in the 80s where artistic control had to be largely ceded to accountants and managers, even though many of the bands had been integral to the success of an album-based market in the first place; it didn’t rely on any single solution but utilised a number of emerging technologies which included the internet and file sharing, crowd sourcing, online fanzines and discussion forums and social media, all of which empowered bands to take back control of their output. One practical facet was that collaborators didn’t even have to be on the same side of the world to produce a record, though with the requirement to maintain a reasonable lifestyle, musicians often took on other time-consuming roles. As a consequence some material took a long time to gestate, from concept to physical release making the wait between Dark Side and Wish You Were Here seem ridiculously short.


I first saw the David Cross Band as ‘special guests’ at a John Wetton concert at the Astoria in London in 1996, performing material from their forthcoming album Exiles which I thought was complex and aggressive but very good. I eventually found a copy of the CD in New York a few years later and I think it’s easily as good as I remember from the gig. The period between Exiles and the subsequent DCB album Closer than Skin puts almost all other delays in the shade, coming eight years later in 2005. The two albums are similar but Closer has less musical variation and more vocals. This is partly because Exiles features guest vocalists Peter Hammill and Cross’ former band mate John Wetton with Wetton singing on a pretty good version of the title track and also on This is Your Life, where the words are penned by Crimson alumnus Peter Sinfield. Another Crimson connection is guitar provided by Robert Fripp on tracks Duo and Troppo. More links to Cross’ Crimson past come on Closer, where all the lyrics are by Richard Palmer-James. If eight years seems an eternity, it has been a further 11 years waiting for Sign of the Crow.

I was one of a fairly intimate audience for the launch gig of the David Cross and Robert Fripp CD Starless Starlight in May 2015 where Cross was joined onstage by Tony Lowe on guitar, Yumi Hara on keyboard and vocals, and saxophonist/flautist/whistles player David Jackson with interpretations of the Fripp guitar loops and Cross violin improvisations around the Starless theme (from Red.) That show was immensely enjoyable, including some unexpected pieces like Stan Tracey’s Starless and Bible Black and a reading from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, so when I saw that the David Cross Band were going to perform a launch gig for Sign of the Crow in London, I signed up immediately; I was also pleased to see that David Jackson would be appearing as a guest.




A couple of days before the event an email came through from the ticket agency warning that the doors would open 30 minutes earlier than originally advertised but unfortunately on the day (Tuesday 9th August) I’d arranged to have dinner out with my family and though I thought I could make the gig in time, the fantastic food and relaxed atmosphere at Rucoletta in Foster Lane near St Paul’s meant that I arrived at the Lexington just as Richard Palmer-James was finishing his set (Palmer-James was once again responsible for the lyrics of the new DCB album.) I bought a couple of CDs from the merchandise stall, English Sun by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, an exquisite release of flute and violin pieces accurately described as ‘electric chamber music’, and a live CD from Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Dona Quintet performing Le Orme’s Collage, an album widely regarded as the first progressivo Italiano release (the CD is called Re-Collage.) When I got home I discovered that there was no CD in the sleeve and had to email Chiemi Cross who put me in touch with a very apologetic David Jackson. I’m expecting the real CD soon.

The second part of the show was a duet between the two Davids, a short but challenging set that included a piece from Starless Starlight with Fripp’s original guitar loop where Jackson was asked to play the Starless riff in reverse but refused to do so, citing the perfection of the original phrase. Another tune borrowed the title of the track Water on the Flame, to be found on the new album, as a spoken lyric. The mutual respect between these two fine musicians was quite evident and they really challenged expectations of violin/sax music. Jackson has suggested that there are studio recordings of the two of them improvising, pushing each other, which sounds like it could be edited into an amazing album.

Though he doesn’t appear on Sign of the Crow, Jackson added sax and keyboard for the David Cross Band, part of a line-up of incredibly gifted musicians: Paul Clark on guitars; Jinian Wilde on vocals; Craig Blundell on drums; Mick Paul on six string bass; and Cross himself. Beginning with a phenomenal drum solo (was it in 9/8 time?) the set featured the new album but also dipped into the past, with Nurse Insane (from The Big Picture), Over Your Shoulder (from Closer than Skin) and Tonk and the DCB version of Exiles (from Exiles). I hadn’t heard the new material because I was waiting for the CD to arrive in the post but it was powerful, complex, and at times verging on prog metal. From where I was standing it was also rather loud but I was still able to discern the sax, the violin and the keyboards. Paul Clark’s rhythm work was at times a heavy chug but his soloing was clear and precise; Mick Paul’s bass work was stunning throughout and Jinian Wilde was a revelation. He was the unknown quantity for me but his vocals suited all the material, including Exiles, a stunning rendition of Crimson’s Starless, and the encore, 21st Century Schizoid Man. He also wore a rather good top hat with a jester-like band and dangling bells, supplemented by a pair of goggles. He may have visited the same milliner as the two Davids!

My two favourite new tracks, since confirmed listening to the studio versions, were The Pool and Rain Rain; the former carefully constructed, melodic and anthemic (think next year’s Prog Awards), while Rain Rain is another slow burner but which still includes sudden changes of feel; it’s these changes that make the music unpredictable, gripping and enjoyable. The band was fantastic and the enthusiastic crowd, assembled in a fairly intimate venue having come from various points around the globe, were treated to a very special performance. A great gig, the best of 2016 so far and (now I have it) a really good album.




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