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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, Jun 21 2015 09:35PM

The recent Page family Milan trip involved a trip to Expo 2015 and the tickets, bought on-line with a 48 hour travel pass, included free admission to the Arts and Foods exhibition at the Triennale di Milano. This display of more than 2000 pieces of work featured a wide array of visual idioms, from models, through objects to entire room settings that revolved around the world of food, nutrition, and the way people eat together. The idea was to examine the relationship between art and the many rituals associated with eating, with special reference to how the aesthetic and functional aspects of what we eat have impacted creative expression. Though much of this was in the form of installations and painting, amongst the artefacts and Andy Warhols was a display of album sleeves, each one depicting a food theme.

The closest this piece came to including a cover from a prog artist or band were Frank Zappa’s Overnite Sensation which shows some crumbs in McDonalds packaging, a half-eaten donut and a piece of rotten fruit bearing the legend ‘Roadies Delite’; the Zappa-Captain Beefheart collaboration Bongo Fury; and an Island Records budget-priced compilation album from 1969 called Nice Enough to Eat which includes 21st Century Schizoid Man by King Crimson and We Used to Know from Stand Up by Jethro Tull. I came across this album in a Brighton flea market last week so I had a chance to get a close look at the material that was included but apart from the Crimson and Tull, the remainder wasn’t all that inspiring. Also present on the same market stall was another prog album with a food-themed cover, not present in the Milano Triennale exhibition but a record I used to have in my collection, Exotic Birds and Fruit by Procol Harum.

One obvious prog-food related band is Egg. Not only is the first album called Egg (1970) but the cover photograph by David Wedgbury shows an egg-cracking machine beautifully constructed by Peter Chapman that could have come from my old school physics laboratories. The Civil Surface (1974) also features an egg on its cover, this time strongly reminding me of the British Egg Marketing Board’s TV advertising theme, Go to Work on an Egg which began in 1957 and was certainly still running in some form when I was young. It may be that this association is entirely fabricated, possibly due to the presence of an iconic British Lion mark on the Egg that graces The Civil Surface. This was the first Egg album I possessed, a Caroline Records release that sold for around £1.50. I wasn’t too aware of the Canterbury connection at the time and subsequently sold it to my friend Bill Burford before buying it again, this time on CD, from Cover Music in Berlin in 2005. Now that I have all the Egg releases I think that it’s their best record despite Dave Stewart’s warning about the drums being too high in the mix; the recording seems much cleaner than Egg and The Polite Force (1971) and the interpretation of the compositions more mature. Some commentators have questioned the presence of the two wind quartet pieces, suggesting that they are just filler but though these aren’t being played by Egg the band, I think their inclusion is legitimate because they seem to fit with the mood of the album. Calling a record Hamburger Concerto (1974) is obviously suggestive of food and the neon-style writing used for the title fits in with the image of a US burger joint but the side long title track, based on a piece by Hamburg-born Johannes Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, is evidently a Focus pun. The track was conceived as a sequel to Eruption from Moving Waves (1971) and evidently had nothing to do with hamburgers, beginning life as Vesuvius, a portion of which appears on the odds and ends Focus album Ship of Memories (1976) as Out of Vesuvius; the six subsections Starter, Rare, Medium I, Medium II, Well Done and One for the Road make up the three movements of a concerto if you take the first four parts as the first movement comprising exposition, double exposition, development and recapitulation. Though I’m very fond of Moving Waves I prefer Hamburger because of the greater range of instrumentation and sounds, even though Jan Akkerman’s guitar is much less to the fore on the later album’s concept piece.

Gong’s Camembert Electrique (1971) could have been included in the Milan exhibition though there are only written references to cheese on the cover: the album title; ‘Cheez Pleez’ and ‘Strong and streamin mate!’ thought and speech bubbles respectively; plus the small ‘Cheese Rock’ and much larger ‘Fabriqué en Normandie’ tags. I probably bought this album when I was too young to appreciate it, but at £0.49 it was pretty irresistible. You have to remember that I took my prog very seriously and I liked my prog to be serious; the anarchic humour and Dadaist leanings were fine as long as they didn’t pretend to be progressive rock and this was more psychedelia or space rock than prog, with my favourite track being Fohat Digs Holes in Space. The title and cover of England’s Garden Shed (1977) is a play on Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade but the relative subtlety of the reference and the relative unknown status of the album meant that it would never have got a look-in at Milan. This is a late golden-era classic, easily accessible to Genesis devotees but incorporating influences from other classic prog bands without coming across as an imitation. I updated my 20th Anniversary edition with the 2005 Special Edition Booklet and CD from the England merchandise stand at last year’s Resonance Festival.

The nature of much progressive rock music, with grand themes and concepts and cover images to match, is almost the opposite to the prosaic topic of food though the Milan exhibition showed that the notion of ‘eat to live’ has been overtaken by the concept of ‘live to eat’, certainly in Western cultures; perhaps Pink Floyd should have included a track about (the popular but erroneous meaning of) Epicureanism on Dark Side of the Moon. I can’t think of any prog rock song that highlights famine in the same way that Yes penned a song relating to a global concern when they requested Don’t Kill the Whale and perhaps it’s only Genesis who highlight the arrival of rampant consumerism which they compare with an England of folk lore and conservatism (with a small ‘c’) notably its association with food, in Dancing with the Moonlit Knight and Aisle of Plenty from Selling England by the Pound (1973).



By ProgBlog, Dec 7 2014 05:57PM

The headline for a review of a Procol Harum gig in The Independent last week suggested that Procol Harum should be considered on an equal footing to Pink Floyd http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/reviews/procol-harum-dominion-theatre-gig-review-poised-to-reclaim-their-rightful-place-alongside-pink-floyd-in-the-prog-rock-pantheon-9882262.html?origin=internalSearch but I’d have issues with this even if I held The Independent in any regard. Founded in 1986 by disaffected Daily Telegraph journalists, The Indy (as it liked to be known) maintained the banner "free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence" until 2011 but always retained a pro-market predisposition. Fellow Barrovian Chris Blackhurst became editor in 2011 after circulating around the business pages of a number of Tory rags; Blackhurst was a student in my form at school whose father was a Conservative councillor and, though he says he originally was in favour of the comprehensive school system, wrote an op-ed for his paper in 2012 asking for the resurrection of Grammar schools. Owned by oligarch and former KGB Foreign Intelligence officer Alexander Lebedev since 2010, the standing of The Independent plummeted further in my eyes.

Forget my issues with the newspaper’s ownership and editorial bias. Procol Harum (named after a Burmese Blue cat that had been misspelled, the cat was meant to be called Procul Harun, ‘beyond these things’) do have a potential claim to a place in progressive rock history: In Held Twas In I, from their second album Shine On Brightly released in December 1968, is an almost side-long multi-part suite that some might consider to be the first prog track. Procol are obviously most famous for A Whiter Shade of Pale, the most played song on UK radio, a track that was released before but didn’t appear on their first (eponymous) album. The most striking thing about this single which came out before the album, is Matthew Fisher’s organ figure, a loose approximation of Bach’s Air on a G String and there’s nothing like it on the entire debut LP. Fisher, from South Croydon, had spent two terms at the Guildhall School of Music but had decided musical studies didn’t suit him. However, I think the best tracks on Procol Harum are those which most feature Fisher: the excellent Conquistador; the instrumental Repent Walpurgis (which was written by Fisher but does include some nice guitar); and She Wandered Through the Garden Fence, where the organ is gospel-jazz. Not even the classical motifs can hide the blues that dominate the rest of the album; the lyrics are almost all throwaway despite the strong vocal performance from Brooker but the playing is always solid. With the possible exception of Conquistador, none of this is prog, or even proto-prog territory. The more psychedelic songs sound a little bit like the shorter Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack offerings from The Nice but compared to Piper-era Floyd, there’s no sonic exploration and even Syd Barrett’s lyrical whimsy, set within the context of the dawn of psychedelia, comes across as something new and different. Perhaps this is because the Floyd were less established as musicians; intending to become a song writer, Brooker had originally ended his playing career (with The Paramounts) in 1966 when Pink Floyd were only just settling on a steady line-up and managing to get paid bookings. Both bands played to their strengths: Procol were a very British R&B group and Pink Floyd were plotting their course towards space rock.

Much of Procol’s second could have been written for their first album. The exception is the near 17 minute masterpiece In Held Twas In I which, though it wasn’t the first side-length track (Ars Longa Vita Brevis had been released a couple of months beforehand), it incorporated a broader sonic palette, utilising sitar and harpsichord, absorbing musical and theological influences from the East. It was both thought-provoking and fun and one of my student day party pieces was to recount the opening section Glimpses of Nirvana: “Well, my son. Life is like a beanstalk. Isn’t it?” The piece was a composite; shorter songs very neatly segued together to produce the full track but it is, nevertheless, a pretty successful and fulfilling piece of music. Matthew Fisher was again invited to provide material and he also sings on the section that he penned, In the Autumn of my Madness, which has a very memorable melody.

I first heard this song on Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, owned by one of Tony’s friends; with a much revised line-up and released in 1972, it coincided with my discovery of progressive rock. I bought the live album from Our Price in Lewisham in 1980 because apart from the epic In Held, it also has a really good version of Conquistador. This and a copy of Exotic Birds and Fruit that I picked up very cheap somewhere in the first few years after my arrival in London were my only Procol Harum albums for a very long time. I subsequently gave my copy of Exotic Birds away to a local charity shop having only played it a couple of times in twenty odd years and deciding I didn’t really like it. I had heard Something Magic (1977) on more than one occasion, an album owned by Infield Park Gang associate Mark Baker which, though not brilliant, wasn’t too bad mostly due to the side long track The Worm and the Tree. Those were the dog days of prog and the music on Something Magic reflected a lack of musical adventurousness. Exotic Birds and Fruit had been bought without a prior listen but at the time I figured that an album from 1974, from a band many consider to be a founding member of the progressive rock movement, would be ok. It wasn’t because they’d abandoned orchestrations and returned to more blues-based rock.

Meanwhile, Pink Floyd had gone from strength to strength, embraced long-form composition and recorded (a studio album) with an orchestra and choir (Atom Heart Mother, 1970) and gone on to break records with the chart longevity of Dark Side of the Moon. The Floyd were outward looking, Procol Harum were inward looking.

In 2005, former organist Matthew Fisher launched a legal battle against pianist and vocalist Gary Brooker over the musical copyright of A Whiter Shade of Pale. His initial success recognising that he had written the organ introduction and counter melody and therefore deserved royalties was challenged by Brooker at appeal and it wasn’t until Fisher took the case to the Law Lords, where he argued that a win without royalty money was never going to be recognised as a win at all, that Fisher emerged victorious. Baroness Hale, one of the five Law Lords involved in the hearing said in her contribution to the rulings: "As one of those people who do remember the Sixties, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves."

Just because A Whiter Shade, Conquistador and In Held Twas In I were prime examples of the direction of travel of rock music in the late 60s, it doesn’t make them prog. A quick scan of articles by Pierre Perrone, the author of the Independent’s review, does not include much about progressive rock. More disturbingly, he had previously given the musical Rock of Ages a four star review. I assume his headline was referring to the recent release of The Endless River after a gap of 20 years but Perrone needs to do some better research if he's going to write about prog.


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