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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, Mar 1 2015 11:32PM

On Friday 27th February I attended the first show in 17 years by analogue synth quartet Node at the Royal College of Music. This prestigious venue seemed rather suitable, affording electronica appropriate recognition as a distinct, legitimate musical form; hardly surprising when you consider the CVs of the band members: production legend Flood; veteran producer and musician Ed Buller; film composer Mel Wesson; and Professor Dave Bessell.

Arriving in the Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, we were greeted with what had been dubbed as the largest collection of vintage analogue synthesiser equipment ever seen outside a recording studio, with an estimated value of £500000; largely made up of modular synthesizers but with a couple of mini Moogs and a VCS3 also quite evident. The group played four pieces over two sets that lasted 90 minutes; all the material was sequencer driven but there were two distinct styles: one, a spacey ‘Berlin school’ sound that was inspired by mid 70s Tangerine Dream and the other was a more industrial sound where the sequences marked out aggressive, percussive beats as though forming the soundtrack to an imaginary film where a derelict factory had been occupied by feral denizens in a bleak vision of a dystopian near-future. Partial, fractured images of the band, interspersed with bubbles and Tron-like graphics were projected onto a circular screen just above and behind the band, the real time images captured by the video cameras trained on each of the musicians. The compositions weren’t all keyboards and sequencers; Dave Bessell performed with a guitar strung around his neck that he strummed lightly on a couple of occasions, so lightly that you couldn’t actually hear it at times. For the first half of the performance I sat at the back of the auditorium, having acquired my ticket in the week before the show, and was mesmerised by the weaving sequences and the otherworld synthesizer washes as they radiated away from the stage via a series of speakers placed along the length of the hall. In the second half of the show I sat in the second row (apparently some people were unable to make the show) which afforded a great view of the four silent, black-clad musos as they subtly manipulated their instrument settings. This was a very enjoyable gig, however different it was from the concerts I normally go to, my first live electronica event where it seemed that all the cream of British electronica had gathered.

In the pub before the show, the excellent Queen’s Arms, Queen’s Gate Mews, I’d been discussing analogue keyboard equipment with friend Neil Jellis, agreeing that the full analogue sound was so much more satisfying than the digital machines that emerged at the end of the 70s. I described some Wakeman Moog from The Six Wives of Henry VIII that Neil later identified as being on Anne Boleyn, which I consider quite sublime, one of the best Moog sounds ever. This conversation turned to White Rock which we both believe is under-rated and so much better than the material that both immediately preceded it and the output that followed Criminal Record. With the exception of the single novelty track The Breathalyser, Six Wives, White Rock and Criminal Record are purely instrumental and whatever you feel about the accuracy of the images they evoke, they utilise the full gamut of analogue technology to create miniature masterpieces of keyboard-based rock. I think that these three albums represent Wakeman’s best work and have previously criticised his forays into lyrics. This got me thinking whether or not the best prog is instrumental or vocal...

There are some groups where the vocals were integral to the ethos of the band, whether they were integral to the song’s narrative (Genesis) or philosophical musing (Yes); some where vocal tracks were balanced with instrumentals, possibly because there was no stand out singer in the band (Camel, King Crimson, Greenslade); and the fully instrumental (early Enid, Mike Oldfield, Gordon Giltrap.) It’s possible that the inclusion of vocals was a hangover from the rock roots that made up prog; the bands that were more influenced by jazz tended to be less inclined to use vocals, certainly Soft Machine, after the departure of first Kevin Ayers and then Robert Wyatt, went on to produce instrumental-only music. My collection includes the full spectrum from fully instrumental to all vocal and one of my personal favourite albums is Tales from Topographic Oceans, where the meaning of the lyrical content is difficult to discern. In Tales, the structure of the music is enhanced by the vocals but there are extended instrumental passages, which means the success of the concept relies on a balance of the relative strengths of the music and the song words. I think Yes get it about right though there are plenty of people who think the album fails on both accounts. Camel’s early output was a mixture of songs and instrumentals, until they released the excellent instrumental Music Inspired by the Snow Goose then subsequently reverted to a combination of the two forms. The recruiting of Richard Sinclair, a more accomplished vocalist than either Andy Latimer or Peter Bardens and someone with a jazz-informed vocabulary, resulted in a shift towards more songs. However, this may have been a result of record label interference, wanting the band to record a hit single (Highways of the Sun may have been radio friendly but it didn’t make the UK Top 50.) During the 70s Focus were predominantly instrumental, the exceptions being the title track from Moving Waves, Round Goes the Gossip from Focus 3, La Cathedrale de Strasbourg from Hamburger Concerto and I Need a Bathroom from Mother Focus. My favourite post-Barrett early Floyd are the space rock and prog instrumentals A Saucerful of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother and One of These Days. Dark Side of the Moon is a fantastic album despite the sixth-former lyrics and the title track from Shine on You Crazy Diamond, like Echoes, is predominantly instrumental. The angelic-voiced Greg Lake was a key component of the first incarnation of King Crimson and though John Wetton was an able vocalist, it’s the musicianship and improvisational talents of the Larks’ Tongues era Crimson that stand out.

Of course this is all subjective; the relative abilities of group members on their respective instruments, their influences and their vision of the best way to get their ideas across all play a part. But if I’m more interested in the instrumentation, how come my favourite album is Close to the Edge?



By ProgBlog, Nov 16 2014 01:32PM

I remember rushing out to buy a just-released album when I was a teenager, the heavily anticipated Wish You Were Here for example, bringing it home and listening to it two or three or four times in quick succession, sleeve in hands, poring over the images, credits and lyrics, assimilating the music. These initial listening sessions may have been using headphones to reduce the inconvenience of abstract sound on my parents or, if they were out in Kendal or Lancaster, inviting friends around to listen to it on our ‘best’ stereo.

I’ve just done this again, for the first time in many years, for an album that has been hyped as ‘the most anticipated album for 20 years.’ I had thought of pre-ordering a mid-range CD and Blu-Ray set of The Endless River from Burning Shed but a release date that coincided with Christmas-present buying and a couple of reviews, one in Prog magazine and one in The Guardian, dampened my initial enthusiasm for the project, despite an encouraging article in the same edition of Prog so I thought I’d add the album to my wish list and wait. It turns out I couldn’t wait and as I type this, I’m on my second listen, headphones on to avoid the inconvenience of abstract sound on my wife. My Sennheiser Anniversary HD414’s don’t appear to be able to cope with some of the frequencies present, creating an intermittent light buzz in the right channel – but they are over 20 years old; I’m using some Bose QC 15s for this second listen.

I’ve not acquired the album on vinyl, because the buying options available in Croydon’s recently reopened HMV were more limited than those available online. However, it is pleasing to go into a shop and pick up a physical product. I’ve pored over the information in the hardback digibook, which is a rather nice presentation for a CD. So what about the music? We’d been pre-warned that this was material from the Division Bell sessions and that it had passed through the hands of a number of producers in order to shape it into something coherent. I had been concerned about the critics’ insistence on pointing out the (short) length of the tracks but I believe you should ignore the individual tracks and seemingly arbitrary divisions into sides 1, 2, 3 and 4 and just take the music as one piece. Some people have called it ‘ambient’ but ‘instrumental’ would be a more apt description, with the exception of the final track Louder than Words; the tracks are seamlessly joined together using segments of early-Floyd sounding space-rock effects including a piece of metal sliding down the guitar strings, something I appreciate because it’s something I’ve borrowed from the Floyd for my own music (I use a tremolo arm) and, despite the self-depreciating track title On Noodle Street, it never comes across as pointless or self-indulgent. Early Floyd is in the ascendant during the first five tracks. After the opener, Things Left Unsaid, featuring the voices of the three members of the last incarnation of Pink Floyd that could have been taken from studio conversations for Live at Pompeii with Adrian Maben, beginning with Rick Wright saying “There’s certainly an unspoken understanding” followed by Gilmour, “There’s a lot of things unsaid”, comes what can only be described as a section inspired by Shine On You Crazy Diamond called It’s What We Do; over the keyboard wash you get the trumpet synthesizer sound and Gilmour adds languid guitar that transports you back to 1975, removing the black shrink wrap from your new purchase, trying not to rip the George Hardie ‘handshake’ graphic. Skins references Nick Mason’s contribution to the studio album of Ummagumma, The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party. Though there’s no Mellotron on Skins, the keyboard part hints at the experimentation of 1969. There aren’t just references to earlier material; a tape of Rick Wright playing the organ at the Royal Albert Hall during a sound check for a performance in 1969 (after which they were banned for using a smoke bomb, a professional hazard for rock acts at the RAH) forms the basis of Autumn ’68 and serves as a very fitting tribute to the keyboard player who died in September 2008. The title of the new track refers to Summer ’68, the Wright-penned track from side two of Atom Heart Mother.

The obvious unused material for The Division Bell, as opposed to warm-up jam sessions, includes the Stephen Hawking computer-voiced Hawkin’ Talkin’ but there is material that hints at Wall-era Floyd, what some fans regard as their best period and some may not have listened to anything before that. I think that these moments work well because they are reminiscent of the best instrumental sections of The Wall, untainted by Waters-penned lyrics. It’s quite neat that the only track with vocals, Louder Than Words, comes right at the end; it forms a conceptual bookend with Things Left Unsaid and Polly Samson’s words neatly summarise the tensions between the personalities in the Floyd but also remind us of some of their classic material, from Dark Side of the Moon to The Division Bell. This track, the longest on the album (if we’re going to count) could easily have been released in 1994.

Overall, the album fits neatly into the style of Pink Floyd from 1968 – 1977 with its long-form, multipart suite format that was integral to side long tracks Atom Heart Mother and Echoes and the 27 minute Shine On You Crazy Diamond, but also includes works such as the title track from A Saucerful of Secrets; the sound is both modern (and the Floyd have always utilised the most up-to-date studio equipment at their disposal, their production values much admired) and old school, with Farfisa and Hammond organs and Fender Rhodes electric piano. Gilmour’s guitar playing is mature but dips into his past innovative use of the instrument to produce sound effects for the transition between tracks; Mason’s drumming is the best he’s performed and there are no supplementary percussionists.

It’s What We Do, the second longest track on the album at 6’17” is probably my favourite subsection because of the overt 1975 musical quotation. The album, taken as a whole (as Dave Gilmour himself has suggested you do) is like a historical journey, not necessarily linear, of the entire Floyd output with a bias towards the earlier material and with the album title providing a nice link to The Division Bell (a lyric on High Hopes.)


This is Pink Floyd. This is classic Pink Floyd. This is probably the last of Pink Floyd.


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