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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, Apr 10 2019 09:29PM

As the rest of the world watches, the UK plays out a real-time tragicomedy that the actors know is going to cause severe damage to services and the economy but, like the slow-mo approach to the cliff edge, seem incapable of taking appropriate action to avert the impending disaster. I flew to Bologna on the day of the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU (I had tickets to see Ian Anderson on the Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary tour) and fellow passengers laughed at our choice of dates and the confusion we’d have encountered if parliament had approved the Prime Minister’s deal. I was in Genoa the previous weekend where, over dinner with Italian friends, I was asked what on earth we, the UK, were doing. Brexit makes watching televised parliamentary business like watching an episode of The Office; excruciating but compulsive viewing.


Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19
Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19

Exiting the European Union is an act of wanton self-harm regardless of whatever anyone says about ‘respecting the will of the people’ or ‘give us what we voted for’ but unfortunately the genie has been released from the bottle and conflicting desires following the 52:48 split have used up our wishes to poison debate with hatred and accusations of treachery, fuelled by the personal ambitions of a few die-hards and financed by shadowy figures running insidious Facebook advertising campaigns. As it stands, Theresa May has at last extended an invitation to Jeremy Corbyn to work out some compromise on getting the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 passed, having had her preferred deal, what she regards as the only deal, rejected by the House of Commons three times; we’ve also had a series of indicative votes, seeking out a consensus for a resolution, none of which has commanded any majority in the House. Judging from reports of the current state of affairs it seems that she’s asking Labour to compromise and not shifting her own red lines.


I voted to remain in the 2016 referendum but if we are forced out of the EU, any deal must protect workers’ rights; the environment; the Good Friday Agreement; the rights of UK citizens living within the EU and EU citizens in the UK; food and manufacturing standards; and businesses importing and exporting between the UK and the EU; in other words a soft-Brexit with some form of customs union. One potential model has been coined ‘Norway plus’. Norway, along with Liechtenstein and Iceland, are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). Norway plus, which was proposed towards the end of 2018, would consist of membership of EFTA and membership of the EEA, combined with a separate customs union with the EU to create a trade relationship similar to that between the EU and its member states today. The one potential drawback cited by critics is that the UK would have to abide by EU regulations without any political representation in the EU's bodies, though it encompasses an idealised wish list for a soft Brexit.


I’ve always been intrigued by Norway, from Scandinavian mythology to physical geography lessons during my schooldays in the early 70s. Unlike the UK, who did exactly the opposite with money from North Sea Oil extraction, the Norwegian government created two sovereign wealth funds. One of these was for reinvesting surplus revenue back into global stocks, shares and assets and the other, the smaller Government Pension Fund Norway, invested in Norwegian and some Scandinavian businesses, acting like a national insurance scheme. Norway featured heavily in the second of my Interrail travels, where 10 days were spent exploring the country from Oslo up to Narvik, well inside the Arctic Circle and the farthest north I’ve ever travelled, 68o28’ N.

This trip coincided with campaigning for the 1983 Norwegian local elections, so university friend and fellow traveller Nick Hodgetts and I hung around with the Norsk Arbeiderparti (who had a band on stage singing about social democracy) and the Greens on our first afternoon in Oslo. I really enjoyed Norway; the people, the landscape, the towns and cities, picking redcurrants for a free night and breakfast at Åndalsnes Youth Hostel, and though the trains were frequently crowded, the travel was enjoyable, too. The journey up to Narvik was by bus, having unsuccessfully attempted to hitch a ride from Fauske. The road trip was just over 5 hours long, hugging the coastline and crossing two fjords by ferry. I described it as ‘cosmic’ in my diary, driving along quiet, unlit roads, climbing out of valleys and descending towards the head of a fjord with the mountains darker than the night sky. Just after midnight on the walk from Narvik bus station to the railway station, a casual glance towards the firmament revealed a constantly changing green shadow, fading, growing, shifting and finally dissipating; the aurora borealis clearly visible above the glow of the city lights.


Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983
Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983

We managed to see a number of free live music performances and though one of the last concerts I attended in the UK before setting off on my northern Europe trip was Pendragon, Solstice and The Enid at the Ace, Brixton on May 11th, an indication that neo-prog had truly arrived (partially thanks to being embraced by Kerrang!) it was striking that throughout the country the predominant musical style and associated fashion was heavy metal, though it was almost impossible not to hear Mike Oldfield’s Moonlit Shadow or Irene Cara’s Flashdance being played on the radio (or some cassette player.)

Whereas I’d started listening to Sweden’s Bo Hansson in the mid 70s and began buying Finnish prog in the mid 00s, I hadn’t actually paid any attention to music from Norway. A couple of years after my Norwegian trip, a-ha became the country’s top musical export with uplifting pop, though the trio themselves were irked that music critics couldn’t see beneath the shiny surface of their songs where the application of classical theory and a rich harmonic language made them mini-symphonic masterpieces straight out of the book of prog. Also around that time, the Norwegian love-affair with heavy metal evolved into Norwegian black metal, a sub-genre that peaked in popularity in the early 90s and was considered to rival Swedish death metal. I remain unconvinced that Sweden’s Opeth should fall under the prog banner despite prog flourishes amongst what I still hear as death metal and I that have been and am equally dismissive of black metal groups from Norway that have adopted prog stylistic leanings. However, when the third wave of progressive rock surfaced in Sweden and the USA in the early 90s, if it wasn’t quite metal with prog sensibilities it could certainly be classed as material close to the sound of Red-era Crimson; heavy prog but not prog metal.


My first taste of Norwegian prog was a set from Arabs in Aspic at the 2017 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa. Not knowing what to expect, I was nevertheless impressed with their brand of prog which though biased towards the heavy end of the spectrum, contained sufficient melody, variation and surprises to suit someone more accustomed to symphonic prog. They sang and communicated to the almost exclusively Italian crowd in excellent English, reminding us that we were united by progressive rock. They also formed the backing band for the Saturday headliner, space-rock legend Nik Turner.


Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017
Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017

When I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files I used to take it around Europe as a reference when I went into record stores until it became worn and fragile. This was also the source of my first interest in Anekdoten and Änglagård, expanding my knowledge of Swedish prog. The book was eventually replaced with Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook, a more complete and up-to-date volume with a set of different album sleeves presented in full colour. One of those depicted was Wobbler’s debut Hinterland (2005) which, I’m ashamed to say, I paid absolutely no attention to.


Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook
Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook

I’m pretty sure I saw adverts for Rites at Dawn around the time of its release in 2011 but it was From Silence to Somewhere (2017) that finally hooked me. One of the people I follow on Twitter had raved about it when she got her copy but at the time I didn’t follow up the recommendation. Some time early in 2018 I’d been browsing on Bandcamp and somehow ended up on the Karisma Records page which linked to the band, where I ended up listening to it, was blown away by it and bought a copy on vinyl. Hinterland (on vinyl) and Rites at Dawn (CD) followed and since then I’ve bought Hinterland and From Silence to Somewhere as presents for my brothers. I’ve also just ordered a remastered CD of Afterglow (2009) as a present to myself. The music sounds like early 70s symphonic prog, largely thanks to a keyboard set-up that would not have been unfamiliar to Rick Wakeman while recording Fragile, and trebly Rickenbacker bass. It’s a full sound, well structured, expertly played and nicely produced. Wobbler certainly aren’t afraid to stretch themselves with lengthy compositions, all of which could attract the criticism that they’re merely regurgitating music from 45 years ago rather than progressing, but the band started out playing music that they liked without worrying about where they would be pigeonholed. I like it, too. I like it very much.


The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)
The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)

It was while I was selecting a CD of Hinterland for my brother that I came across Jordsjø, another band allied to Karisma Records and after checking the reviews, bought Jord. There are some similarities with Wobbler but in the main they play prog with a large dose of Scandinavian folk. It reminds of the An Invitation EP by Amber Foil, not only in the palette, but the feel of the music which evokes unidentifiable forces dwelling in some dark forest. I’m a big fan of the flute on the album which adds to the folk feeling but the last track is something very different, though equally good – an electronica outing that could easily have been composed by Tangerine Dream in the mid 70s.


Jord by Jordsjø
Jord by Jordsjø

So if the UK is to leave the EU, and the leaders of EU countries are discussing this as I type, I’m going with Norway...




By ProgBlog, Jan 1 2019 05:22PM

2018. A year like no other, with global politics stooping to a new nadir as so-called world leaders lie, cheat and bully their way through life. I’ve always tended towards optimism, which is one of the reasons I have an affinity for progressive rock, but when humanity is fast-approaching the point where man-made climate change is going to have irreversible, accelerated effects on the biosphere and some of the largest economies in the world argue about the wording of a document at the end of the (extended) COP24 Climate Conference in Katowice relating to the implementation of the 2015 Paris agreement, I may have reached my personal tipping point. For the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with tacit encouragement from Australia and Brazil, joining forces to prevent the conference fully embracing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings that any warming of above 1.5oC of pre-industrial levels would be disastrous for many species seems criminal to me. As forest fires rage across California and Australia and Japan once again break their local temperature records, it’s time surely for anyone with children or grandchildren to think globally and, at the earliest opportunity, use the ballot box to facilitate change.


The Guardian headline 15 December 2018
The Guardian headline 15 December 2018

Change appears to be the kryptonite of anyone with a vested interest. Colonial expansion allowed Europeans to profit from indigenous mineral wealth with little or no trickle-down benefit for locals (usually the opposite); the dirty energy that fuelled the industrial revolution made a small number of people very rich; the sell-off of former Soviet state industries made a smaller number of people super-wealthy; now our fondness for technology has created an even smaller group of unimaginably rich who are responsible for the way we get our information. I’m not going to deny that there’s no philanthropic disbursement of funds but however well-founded donations are, there’s always a return for the sponsor through free advertising and access to political power, and even something as outwardly benign as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has come under scrutiny for purportedly cornering the market on global health issues. Thanks to some stunning work by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), it has been revealed that the accumulation of wealth by a limited proportion of the global population, including politicians, is driven by self-interest and that they utilise schemes which although falling within the letter of the law, are actually complex constructs to preserve that wealth and ergo, influence or power. The employment of offshore structures is the equivalent of smoke and mirrors, a device to distract and confuse and ultimately avoid transparency; the influence is exerted to avoid regulation, the same red tape that might have prevented the Bhopal disaster, the Sandoz chemical spill, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the Flint, Michigan water crisis and many others. There’s a salutary lesson here: cutting regulations may save you money, but cutting costs may cost lives.


Climate change appears to be rather low on the UK government’s list of priorities, along with rising homelessness and providing appropriate care for the elderly, those with disabilities and the unwell. Currently paralysed in a mess of her own making, bounded by red lines and surrounded by a party disunited over Europe, the Prime Minister continues to rely on DUP MPs to hold the government together even as she decries almost half of the population who voted to remain in the EU as undemocratic for suggesting a second referendum; her pro-Brexit allies from Northern Ireland don’t actually represent the majority ‘remain’ sentiment to be found in the province but she continues to allow them to hold her to ransom. It’s easy for critics of Jeremy Corbyn to lambast him for not holding Theresa May fully to account for her Brexit bungling but there are some equally pressing issues which, if satisfactorily addressed, might persuade those who voted to leave that their voice is being heard and that there was nothing to gain from leaving the EU. If May had taken more of a consensus approach to work out the best solution for the country and not attempted the impossible, the reconciliation of the pro- and anti-Europe wings of the Conservative party, the UK might not be three months away from the worst possible scenario – no deal.


Extrapolating from what I’ve seen in Prog magazine and in tweets posted by the individuals I follow on Twitter, I imagine that the majority of UK prog musicians are in favour of remaining within the EU. The challenge of restriction to movement throughout Europe effectively putting a kibosh on touring the mainland continent for all but the best resourced bands by erecting barriers to seamless touring not seen since the early 1970s, cutting off a previously accessible market. The reciprocal arrangement will undoubtedly deter artists from some of our former EU partners from gigging in the UK. The following argument could be made by not only anyone who has enjoyed the benefits of cheap intracontinental travel but by NHS senior managers, hoteliers and other owners of hospitality, catering or drinks businesses, even farmers requiring a large seasonal workforce; any restriction or barrier to EU citizens working in the UK is going to have an adverse effect on our daily lives, whether that’s longer waiting times in hospitals, no one to staff care homes for our elderly relatives, food shortages and concomitant rising prices, or just finding it harder to enjoy a night out. Doesn’t that make us look grown-up?

The Brexit-fantasy nostalgia even puts my infatuation with 70’s prog in the shade. I resent the barriers being erected that will inconvenience me on my quest to witness the last few classic progressivo Italiano bands I’ve not yet seen, and flourishing my blue UK passport at the end of a slow-moving immigration queue at Genoa’s Cristoforo Colombo airport isn’t actually something I’m going to feel proud about.


2018 did turn out to be good for one thing; the number of concerts I managed to attend (22) was the most I’ve ever managed in a year; I had thought 2017 was busy with 14 (that’s including two days in Genoa for the Porto Antico Prog Fest and five nights in Rome for the Progressivamente festival.) At times it felt as though I was chasing gigs and was certainly flagging by the end of March. Having recommenced semi-retirement towards the end of 2017, it became easier to take extended weekend breaks so on my return from a midweek skiing trip to Chamonix in early January I discovered that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso had a gig in Brescia the following week which, thanks to its proximity to Milan, made travel arrangements relatively easy.


ProgBlog's list of gigs, 2018
ProgBlog's list of gigs, 2018

The true gig marathon began on the 23rd March with my second venture to the Fabio Zuffanti-organised Z-Fest in Milan and ended with my first attendance at a Tangerine Dream performance at the Union Chapel, Islington, on 23rd April. Between those dates I got to see Yes at the Palladium, the first of Steven Wilson’s three nights’ residency at the Royal Albert Hall, had a week skiing in Austria after which I dropped off my gear and immediately headed out to the ESP 22 Layers of Sunlight launch party at the Half Moon, Putney, and flew off to Brescia again, this time for another classic Italian prog band, Le Orme, who were augmented by David Cross on violin. The complexities of getting back the hotel from some of these Italian venues can be something of a logistical nightmare after public transport has shut down for the night. Walking the streets of Genoa after a show poses no threat when the club or theatre is in the heart of the city but the 11km between L’ Angelo Azzurro and the NH Genova Centro, though only a 90 minute walk at most, might not be the best idea at 2am. I am deeply indebted to Marina Montobbio for arranging my lift back from an excellent gig. BMS at Brescia would have been less problematic if I hadn’t followed my wife’s instructions not to use public transport to get back to our hotel. Circolo Colony, the venue for the show, was hidden away on an industrial estate about 20 minutes walk from the light rail terminus to the east of the city. Though the last train was scheduled for 1am, the walk to the station would have involved a section behind the Armco protection from a dual carriageway, so I was told to get a taxi. I had pre-programmed a mobile phone app to get my return cab but despatch phoned me to tell me nothing was available at the time I requested, 00:45am, and the last taxi was at midnight. Apart from missing a chunk of the BMS set, I had to hang around the car park for almost half an hour and had to phone the company to ask where the driver was. When he appeared, it turned out that he was familiar with progressive rock so the journey back to the hotel wasn’t unpleasant. On my return to the city three months later I’d worked out not to bother trying to pre-book a return taxi journey. I made a note of where the taxi dropped me off on the way to the Brixia Forum, returned to that spot at the conclusion of the performance, and called a taxi; mine was the third to arrive. As a result of making the trip for the BMS gig, I was able to explore more of Italy. I really like Brescia with its three record stores (special mention has to go to Kandinski, Via Tartaglia 49c, 25100 Brescia) but it also hosts a UNESCO World Heritage site and the railway provides easy access to other cities including Cremona, and to Lake Garda.


While the variety of live events I attended spanned the inaugural local electronica festival (part three of Palace Electrics was held at Antenna Studios, Crystal Palace and included an interpretation of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music) to Camel at the Royal Albert Hall and the fabulous Lucca Summer Festival for an outdoor experience of King Crimson, I was also being exposed to a lot more music that I’d describe as being outside my comfort zone. Requests for me to review new music, which came from all parts of the prog spectrum, led to the creation of a new section on the ProgBlog website, DISCovery, which had the aim of exposing new artists to a wider audience. So far it has featured a diverse range of styles including classic Floyd-like soundscape prog, pop-prog, prog with a metal bias, and RIO-inflicted free jazz.

I hope that my contribution to the prog world, however small, inspires someone to go out and explore, whether that’s just the sonic adventure of trying something new or a geographical quest to unearth the inspiration behind the music, where an understanding of physical and cultural artefacts help to piece the world together. 2019 certainly needs everyone to display a little more understanding.


Wishing everyone a peaceful new year.







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