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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, Jan 11 2016 12:02AM

I’ve had an innate aversion to all things that instruct “Keep Calm and Carry On...”, including the almost acceptable Keep Calm and Mellotron T shirt that I spotted during 2014’s Resonance Festival in Balham, since these things began appearing in 2008 or 2009. I don’t like the juxtaposition of the font and the crown but it’s hard to pin down why it offends me so much. Fortunately, author and journalist Owen Hatherley has just done a piece for The Guardian in which he succinctly explains and justifies my hatred: probably resurrected as a joke this war-time phrase, seemingly innocent nostalgia, quickly took on a dark meaning as governments imposed austerity in response to the global financial crisis. From signifying that we should invoke the ‘blitz spirit’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ as the poor, ill and disabled had their benefits cut and many had to rely on food banks, Hatherley coins the phrase ‘austerity nostalgia’ and suggests that the message is a return of the nostalgia of repression, when there was public spirit in the face of adversity; the real world is of course currently geared towards greed and selfishness.


Keep Calm and Carry On in all its countless forms encourages us to carry on consuming as though capitalism hadn’t just taken a massive shock and I find it somewhat ironic that Past Times, a UK retailer based on the purveyance of nostalgia (and therefore just the sort of place you’d see Keep Calm and Carry On merchandise) went into administration in 2012. Austerity nostalgia transports us back to a time between roughly 1930 and 1970, encompassing a period before the decline of the Empire and the post-war revival and social revolution where health and housing were provided by the state and the call from Harold Wilson for ‘a New Britain to be forged in the white heat of technology.’ Though the Beatles, the swinging sixties and the birth of progressive rock are covered by this time frame, we don’t appear to have been too successful in creating a better Britain through technology – government spending on R&D slumped below 0.5% in 2012. The privatisation of iconic council housing is a major contributory factor to the national housing shortage. My son came close to sharing a flat in Keeling House, a former Tower Hamlets council tower block designed by Denys Lasdun (completed in 1957.) Hatherley name checks this modernist masterpiece, an early example of a public asset being hived off to a private developer, as an illustration of how the romantic notion of design classics form part of this austerity nostalgia. The clean lines of the building (and an array of other iconic modernist edifices) have now been turned into limited edition prints and crockery to adorn the flats of hipsters, sold off by the local council and redeveloped by private equity barons. The reality is that Keeling House was emptied of council tenants in 1993 because of safety fears and was threatened with demolition; it was granted listed status that year but there was no council money to affect repairs and return it to the public housing pool.

Is the resurgence of vinyl part of this wave of nostalgia? It just about fits into the time frame and many diehard prog fans are now able to live their audiophile dreams, including me. I may have not been without a turntable since 1978 but I chose to play CDs when there was sufficient material available on that format, eschewing LPs because of the convenience of their digital cousins. However, the miniaturisation of the artwork and sleeve notes was always a problem, most evident on dual format releases like the eponymous Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album (1989); I bought the CD and struggled with the insert.

My short-lived semi-retirement allowed me to indulge in an upgraded hi-fi to fit in our upgraded dining room but the problem of the through lounge/diner, the inability for different family members to indulge in separate, different leisure pursuits (TV, and for me, music) meant that I needed a new pair of headphones...

I last owned a pair of closed back headphones between (about) 1976 and 1983. I don't remember the make but the sound quality was far better than that from the speakers that came with our Philips stereo deck. Like much of that record player, the speakers were housed in plastic and the slide volume and tone controls matched the slide volume controls on my cans! I can’t remember why I referred to headphones as cans, other than it was an adoption of a term used by professionals. I also assume that Rick Wakeman’s adaptation of Brahms 4th symphony is called Cans and Brahms (from Fragile, 1971) because of the headphone association with recording. My headphones may have originally been used for their designated purpose but in addition I used to take them to student discos to obscure the music and later used them in lieu of a microphone when making primitive recordings with friends. A few years after their demise I requested a pair of headphones for Christmas and my wife very kindly bought me a Sennheiser HD414 Anniversary Edition which are on their third set of foam pads but still going.


Towards the end of last year I noticed that the high frequency response of the 414s was causing a bit of distortion which is why I acquired a pair of wireless Sennheiser RS165s so I could listen to music while other members of my family watched TV; wireless because unlike in my youth where the comfy armchair was in easy reach of the headphone socket on the stereo, my new listening position, a gorgeous Barcelona chair, is on the opposite side of the room to my amplifier. I exercised some brand loyalty in my choice; I also have Sennheiser ear buds for my mp3 player and I'm happy with the quality of them, so the opportunity to buy the RS165s for £159 seemed like a good move. It was. The sound quality is exactly what you'd expect. Within the myriad forms of progressive rock are an amazing range of amplitude, frequencies and tones, all of which are handled with effortless clarity. Another reason for getting a good set of cans was so that I could follow the instructions inside Edgar Froese’s Aqua (1974) which features Gunther Brunschen’s artificial head system to produce binaural recordings, allowing the listener to perceive the direction of the sound source. The experience of listening to Aqua through closed ear cans was reminiscent of listening to Tangerine Dream through headphones in the dark when I was a teenager.




Headphones were helpful to discern song words when the speakers were located in shoulder high alcoves in a Victorian dining room which made putting your ear to the cone on the uncomfortable side of awkward, taking into account having to go back to the deck to lift and replace the tone arm to replay a section of track. Working out the words in the absence of a lyric sheet was something of a hobby, one that I don’t look back on with a warm and fuzzy feeling.







By ProgBlog, Sep 13 2015 10:15PM

I was offered, and accepted, a new job this week. There’s a redundant section at the bottom of CVs that appears on resume templates: Activities or Interests. In an effort to ensure that all candidates are treated equally, this paragraph is rightly ignored during the interview process but mine is still there and three of the items I list are ‘progressive rock’, ‘bass guitar’ and ‘architecture’.

This last listing is relatively recent and was put there because my son Daryl did an Architecture degree and I took an interest in his studies. In a curious twist, he blames his parents for setting him down that path; we must have dragged him around every National Trust and English Heritage property in the South East and many more elsewhere. Now, family holidays invariably include seeking out some example of architectural vernacular, some special building or a World Heritage site.

Architecture is one of the most visible displays of wealth. Corporations inhabit huge edifices, the super-rich live in characterless high-rise Thames view apartments and old money resides in country retreats. This is rather ironic because, according to the Architects’ Journal (AJ), architects tend to vote Labour. I think the publication itself reads like The New Statesman; last week’s edition was singing the praises of Jeremy Corbyn!

I’m particularly fond of modernist architecture which, fairly early in the twentieth century, set out in a radical new direction when Auguste Perret (1874 – 1954) began to build structures out of reinforced concrete without any ornamentation. His idea was for the exterior to reflect the inner structure, rather than hiding it, a concept of design integrity that was initially inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Based on the analysis in Music of Yes and Listening to the Future by Professor Bill Martin, I wrote a letter to Prog magazine which was published in issue 24 (March 2012) pointing out the link between progressive rock and socialism, via William Morris.

Brutalism, one of my favoured schools of architecture, has been described as an uncompromisingly modern form of architecture able to generate extreme emotions and heated debate. Characterised by large forms of often asymmetrical proportions, the use of unadorned concrete added to its misplaced reputation for suggesting a bleak, dystopian future. I think this is far from the truth and there are others who agree with me. An item on BBC Breakfast (September 8th) with architect Harriet Harriss and Joe Watson from the National Trust explored this myth; Harriss pointing out the touchy-feely nature of the buildings because of the imprint left on the concrete surfaces by the timber formers and Watson expounding the opinion that this was utopian architecture and that the NT, as an extension of their role, was going to open up these buildings for special tours. Put in context, this was a heroic architecture, with local authorities addressing the requirement for decent housing in the years following the Second World War. The planners and architects were visionaries though it would be foolish to suggest that there weren’t failures. Harriss pointed out that this was cutting-edge and that it did involve some experimentation, because of the acute need for housing; issues regarding damp are now able to be addressed and examples of the idiom preserved. The most interesting point was made by Watson, who commented that architecture indicates where political power lies in our society and illustrated this notion by naming the Church and the aristocracy, which agrees with my earlier point about architecture as a display of wealth. He believes that during the 50s and 60s there was a shift in power to the people through local councils and they responded with this heroic, sublime architecture; the accommodation provided indoor bathroom suites, defined kitchen areas, fully wired and ready for appliances, and central heating, things that tenants couldn’t previously have imagined. Harriss made the point that the National Theatre (by Denys Lasdun, 1914 – 2001) was successful because it fulfilled one of the main aims of this school of architecture, namely ending the exclusivity of the arts and making it far more accessible, opening it up to a new, wide-ranging audience. The external appearance, with its many decks that can be interpreted as a series of performance platforms, reflects the function of the building. The music that accompanied the archive footage was chosen for its dystopian feel: the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis (1982.)

The connection of this form of architecture to prog is precisely the same as Harriss pointing out why the National Theatre is a success; ending the hegemony of the rich over the arts. The seeds of progressive rock emerged during the ‘Massive’ period of Brutalism (defined by Alexander Clement as running from 1960 – 1975) when society was changing rapidly spurred on by technological innovation; the technology behind construction was changing and, in music, instrument design and recording techniques were rapidly developing. Not only did concert halls such as the Royal Festival Hall, part of the same South Bank Complex as the National Theatre and the Barbican Centre (officially opened in 1982 during the Brutalist ‘Transitional’ period) provide culture to a wider range of the population, institutions like the University of East Anglia, a famous Brutalist structure opened in 1963, were attracting a wider social range of students and it was the new Universities and Polytechnics that provided a circuit for touring nascent rock acts which contributed to the success of the genre. My first forays to see bands outside Barrow were at Lancaster University (Barclay James Harvest, 1975; Focus, 1976.)

Prog attempted to take high culture and make it accessible to the masses through the medium of rock music. European art music was critical to the success of proto-progressive acts such as The Nice, the Moody Blues and Procol Harum and these gave rise to symphonic prog bands. This form was initially praised by critics and the budding genre became accepted by some of the more forward thinking institutions; Pink Floyd played the Royal Festival Hall in April 1969 during their experimental The Man and the Journey tour. This relationship with the critics changed when some of the exponents of prog undertook massive projects that were beyond the comprehension of many and led to charges of pretentiousness and overblown self indulgence. This period of prog, the end of the ‘golden era’ coincides with a rejection of Brutalism by planners and the transition to less monumental forms, an increased use of brick and the uninspiring Neo-vernacular. As prog played out councils were reducing investment in their concrete estates, former beacons of hope for a fairer society, and the misplaced idea of the dystopian landscape took hold. It’s good that there has been a re-evaluation of progressive rock and a re-evaluation of this egalitarian architecture.


Post Script:

My local concert hall, Croydon’s Fairfield Halls (opened 1962 and based on the Royal Festival Hall) features some great acoustics and was another favoured haunt of successful prog acts during the early 70s as commuter towns developed and grew.



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