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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 29 2017 08:18PM

One of my Christmas presents was Yes is the Answer and other Prog Rock Tales edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell. I’d added it to my wish list within the previous month, seduced by the very fitting looking cover (a watercolour illustration by Nathan Popp in the style of Roger Dean’s crash-landed and colonised mountains from Yessongs) together with some four and five star reviews on Amazon.com, there being no reviews, at that time, posted on the UK site. Though there wasn’t a great deal to be gleaned from the reviewer comments, the publicity quotation sounded promising: Progressive rock is maligned and misunderstood. Critics hate it. Hipsters scoff at it. Yes is the Answer is a pointed rebuke to the prog-haters, the first literary collection devoted to the sub-genre. Featuring acclaimed novelists Rick Moody, Wesley Stace, Seth Greenland, Charles Bock, and Joe Meno, as well as musicians Nathan Larson, and Peter Case, Yes is the Answer is a book that dares to reclaim prog-rock as a subject worthy of serious consideration.


Yes is the Answer
Yes is the Answer

The book is a collection of short essays by respected journalists, writers and musicians, each relating a personal progressive rock story in an almost ProgBlog-like manner, only I’m rather ignorant of US writers. It‘s a slim volume which fits the hand nicely and the quality of the paper used for the dust jacket is very pleasing. However, the standard of writing plummets immediately after a rather brilliant opening disclaimer: Some of the essays in this book are prolix and self-indulgent. These are essays about Prog Rock. This is as it should be.


It’s not that I think it has limited literary merit; I instantly disagreed with the opinion of Weingarten in his introduction that the progressive rock fan fraternity frowned upon the exponents of jazz fusion because of their propensity for ‘noodling’ and that fusion adherents were sad for their obsessive appreciation of the instruments used to make the music. On the contrary, Brand X were a successful jazz fusion act who were fully appreciated by the prog rock crowd and, speaking as someone who came into progressive rock fairly early on, long before peak-prog or the rise of punk, part of the attraction for me was the ability to obsess over the instrumentation, because without the technological advancements the music would never have been created. I'm responsible for reproducing the console of a mini-Moog on my desk at school when I was 13 and later, when I first started work after university, spent a lunchtime in a local music shop playing a Mellotron 400D. I'm sure many would agree with me that the best album sleeves are those which list the make and model of all the equipment used to make the record.

I know that there have been factual inaccuracies in my blogs pointed out by readers, but my pieces are mostly opinions, streams of consciousness posted without any proof-reading. When I come across an unchecked fact in a publication (Jerry Lucky repeatedly calling David Gilmour ‘David Gilmore’ in his 20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock, new copies of which are selling for £68 on Amazon in the UK, or Dave Ling writing in Prog magazine that the opening chords of Watcher of the Skies were played on organ, for example) it offends my sensibility.


20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky
20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky

Imagine my indignation when the first article, Here Comes the Knife by Seth Greenland states that Rondo (by The Nice) is on Ars Longa Vita Brevis. No, it’s on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. Why hasn’t anyone picked this up before it went to the printers? This lack of attention to detail is un-prog but it soon becomes clear that many of the contributors discovered this music at the tail-end of the golden period or later, that the majority of them have not remained fully committed to the genre and that their views have more often than not been forged under the influence of mostly soft but occasionally hard drugs. There’s no doubt that marijuana was the recreational substance of choice for some of the artists but many eschewed drugs either through ascetic lifestyle choice or because of the technical difficulties of playing a piece made ingestion unwise. The book highlights the American experience which is very different from the UK where progressive rock developed; traditionally, rock ‘n’ roll has been romanticised in a very Hollywood way as a rite of passage, a time of teenage rebellion. Progressive rock didn’t really fit into this scheme, because the exponents were attempting to legitimise their form of rock music, with Keith Emerson building bridges between the worlds of classical and rock and all of them were looking at other idioms to expand their musical vocabulary. This is what they exported and a small number of them did well in the US, the music and underlying philosophy chiming with a nascent ecological movement and a general feeling of hope. There were only a few proper progressive rock acts from North America during the golden era (Happy the Man and Fireballet spring to mind, those being bands with albums in my collection, but I think what I’ve heard of Starcastle who received air play on Alan Freeman’s radio show in the UK might also include them in that small club) and it wasn't until the resurgence of prog in the mid-90s that there was any significant American input. Even then, this latest phase had its roots in metal and was sort of retro-fitted to the original. The short biography after each essay reveals a dearth of specialist music magazine contributors; if you like short, personal stories about coming-of-age presented in a sex and drugs and rock and roll context, you may like this book and the high-scoring reviews from Amazon US make perfect sense. However, there's nothing analytical or even enlightening about progressive rock within the pages; it's not actually about the music but about the individual contributors who at some stage in their emotional development have come across prog.

One of the articles is by British author Nick Coleman who was an NME journalist and has written a well regarded autobiography The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss after suffering sudden neurosensory hearing loss – totally devastating when your livelihood revolves around music. Though progressive rock evidently played a major part in his youth, his essay Hung Up on these Silver Strings (a line from the song Axe Victim) concerns Be Bop Deluxe. Be Bop Deluxe isn’t prog but fit in to the closely-associated Art-rock sub-genre. A vehicle for the talents of Bill Nelson, the band was favoured by prog fans and dutifully, though I don’t own any of their studio releases, I bought a copy of Live! In the Air Age in lieu of a ‘best of’ album.


Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe
Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe

Part of the attraction for me was that Nelson was a northerner, forgiven for being from the wrong side of the Pennines, from Wakefield. The follow-up band Red Noise created an interest within my circle, possibly because they played Leeds University where my brother Tony and another of my associates were studying medicine but I wasn’t too impressed by Furniture Music, not really liking the shorter songs or the electronics. However, I did go to see Bill Nelson performing The Invisibility Exhibition at the Dominion Theatre in March 1973, an enjoyable gig where Nelson played guitar, synthesizer and percussion to backing video from 1950s art films. Shortly after that I purchased a copy of his solo album Quit Dreaming and get on the Beam, written as a second Red Noise album but held back by EMI because they didn’t like it. This is an album of clever electro pop but I had been under the impression that it came with a free LP called Sounding the Ritual Echo (Atmospheres for Dreaming), a basic, home recording straying into ambient electronic territory, and that’s what I was really interested in.


Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition
Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition

Nelson may have been the recipient of Prog magazine's Visionary award in 2015 but I still regard him as an exponent of Art-rock. Another Art-rocker, who has had a much heavier involvement with prog, is Brian Eno; these are the only two representatives of this form in my collection. From his Roxy Music beginnings, Eno branched out into progressive pop territory and collaborated with a wide range of prog luminaries on his accessible solo albums. This directly led to involvement with Genesis on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and he also assisted on the Mainstream album Quiet Sun with former band-mate Phil Manzanera. His experimentation with tape loops and twin Revox tape recorders in collaboration with Robert Fripp for the ground-breaking (No Pussyfooting) began before the release of Here Come the Warm Jets and though dismissed at the time, it is now rightly regarded as a seminal piece of music. What makes Eno stand out is his way of thinking; from the bed-stricken origins of Discreet Music to the entire ambient genre where his modus operandi, subscribing to systems that once set into motion require little or no further input from Eno himself and divulged in the sleeve notes of Discreet Music, still hold true to his output today, neatly exemplified by his Bloom iPhone app. Musical collaborations and pathfinding aside, Eno was appointed the youth affairs adviser for the Liberal Democrats in 2007, at the age of 59. He’s also interviewed Yanis Varoufakis for The Guardian and caused something of a stir last week when a Guardian interview with him ran under the headline “We’ve been in decline for 40 years – Trump is a chance to rethink”; he was obliged to clarify that he thinks Donald Trump is a complete disaster.


Prog and Art-rock obviously have a degree of crossover but the latter has always been more respected by mainstream media. Part of this is inherent re-invention along the lines of fashion, whereas prog is deemed to have ossified, like a lumbering dinosaur without an original thought in its head, being wiped out by the brash, brightly burning punks. Prog resurfaced and, since the mid 1990s has been going pretty strong. That books like Yes is the Answer are being published is testament to its longevity.

By ProgBlog, Feb 21 2016 08:11PM

For the past fifteen or so years, my wife has spent February half-term in New York which is fine by me. I can listen to lots of music at home without resorting to headphones and, if I’m lucky, she might find a bit of original US prog to bring back home. I’ve been to NYC three times, most recently in 2003; I ski in Europe later on in the season in lieu of a transatlantic shopping trip. Up until my first visit in 1998, my expectations had been modulated by film, TV and bits and pieces of music. I was quite taken by the steam vents that I’d heard described by Peter Gabriel around the time of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), a system of heating, cooling, cleaning and powering businesses in Manhattan. About half of the steam is cogenerated and using this as an energy source dramatically increases the efficiency of fuels.

The first time I visited the country was for the 16th American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Century City, Los Angeles, in 1990. My original contract with Guy’s Hospital allowed me one international conference per year and I chose this one for its potential to provide an insight into the cutting edge of transplantation science. I may have been swayed by the fact that the Hipgnosis cover for Yes’ Going for the One (1977) features Century City. This was not a good time for progressive rock bands, or prog in general and it pre-dated my seeking out local record stores to explore music by local artists, so I didn’t buy anything by US groups on that trip.


Century City
Century City

In fact, all my trips to the States to cities other than New York have been for symposia or workshops. I was in Dallas in 1995 for another ASHI conference and as prog was beginning to resurface, when the band playing at the gala dinner suggested they’d take requests, I asked them to play some King Crimson but they played some Talking Heads instead. Both LA and Dallas are huge conurbations and some of the things I had bookmarked to see in LA were impossible. I stayed in a Holiday Inn on Wilshire Boulevard and it took about an hour to walk to the conference venue but there were decent views across to the Hollywood Hills; My hotel reservation in Dallas, the venue for the ASHI meeting itself, was thrown into chaos by a mid-flight engine failure on my aircraft, resulting in an unscheduled overnight stop over at the Hilton in Boston. Perhaps I shouldn’t have wished too loudly for an end to the improvised fleadh on the plane as passengers, off to a traditional music festival somewhere, took out fiddles and pipes and began to play. TWA kindly flew me first class from Boston to St Louis early the next morning for a flight on to Dallas. Unfortunately my room had been given away and I had to stay in a different but possibly more glamorous hotel around the corner for one night. The walk between the two buildings would have taken less than two minutes as the crow flies but, being on a busy freeway intersection with no footpath, it took a little longer and I had to cope with drivers abusing me for daring to walk. Apparently it was dangerous, so when I attended the evening entertainment I stuck to the transport provided.


Grassy knoll, Dallas
Grassy knoll, Dallas

Seattle was a different prospect. Verdant, compact and interesting, I was there for the 2002 International Histocompatibility Workshop Conference. The meeting was held in the Washington State Convention Center [sic] and my accommodation was a brief walk away at the Kings Inn motel, where I felt pretty insecure because the room opened out from the ill-fitting steel door, my first experience of this kind of hotel. I didn’t manage to buy any music but I did spend time at the rather good Experience Music Project, a Frank Gehry-designed museum that had opened a couple of years earlier. Seattle has some high profile musician links such as Jimi Hendrix, Queensryche and Kurt Cobain but I was more interested in the Yes drummer Alan White connection; one of his kits was on display.


I’d picked up CDs in New York but these were by UK artists and were either far cheaper than I could have found at home or relatively obscure, for example Exiles (1997) by David Cross. The first US prog that I bought was Day for Night (1999) by Spock’s Beard when I was in Miami in 2003. I was in Miami twice that year, for a training course in April and presenting at the ASHI conference in October. The April trip was memorable because I left a laptop and some CDs in the boot of the taxi that dropped me off at my hotel in Coconut Grove, one of these being my signed copy of King Crimson’s The Nightwatch (1997) that I’d bought at the playback at the Intercontinental Hotel in London. On my return to the UK I emailed ET, the Crimson related forum and asked American contributors to look out for it. No one was sympathetic, some pointing out how stupid it was to carry original CDs around. Correct, but hardly helpful. Day for Night was bought on the autumn trip along with a copy of a cheap limited edition European version of The Ladder (1999) by Yes, in a slip case plus poster. I can’t remember the store but you could scan the barcode and listen to extracts of the music. I quite liked the analogue sounds of that particular Spock’s Beard album, which is why I bought it, rather than any other. I may have also been seduced by the Yes-like structure of the title track with its trebly bass and the Gentle Giant homage Gibberish. Though there’s a range of styles on display I get the feeling that the band has taken 80s Yes as a template with a deliberate attempt at being radio friendly.
I’d picked up CDs in New York but these were by UK artists and were either far cheaper than I could have found at home or relatively obscure, for example Exiles (1997) by David Cross. The first US prog that I bought was Day for Night (1999) by Spock’s Beard when I was in Miami in 2003. I was in Miami twice that year, for a training course in April and presenting at the ASHI conference in October. The April trip was memorable because I left a laptop and some CDs in the boot of the taxi that dropped me off at my hotel in Coconut Grove, one of these being my signed copy of King Crimson’s The Nightwatch (1997) that I’d bought at the playback at the Intercontinental Hotel in London. On my return to the UK I emailed ET, the Crimson related forum and asked American contributors to look out for it. No one was sympathetic, some pointing out how stupid it was to carry original CDs around. Correct, but hardly helpful. Day for Night was bought on the autumn trip along with a copy of a cheap limited edition European version of The Ladder (1999) by Yes, in a slip case plus poster. I can’t remember the store but you could scan the barcode and listen to extracts of the music. I quite liked the analogue sounds of that particular Spock’s Beard album, which is why I bought it, rather than any other. I may have also been seduced by the Yes-like structure of the title track with its trebly bass and the Gentle Giant homage Gibberish. Though there’s a range of styles on display I get the feeling that the band has taken 80s Yes as a template with a deliberate attempt at being radio friendly.

My first tastes of American rock music would have been on Alan Freeman’s radio show and one of Tony’s friends was quite heavily into the Doors. Tony had Mass in F Minor (1967), a concise psychedelic masterpiece by The Electric Prunes and we liked the early prog-era instrumental Zappa; I may have bought Hot Rats (1969) in New York. I was tuned into the United States of America by a chapter in Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001, ed. Kevin Holm-Hudson), The “American Metaphysical Circus.” Influenced by avant garde rather than 19th Century European composers, their 1968 eponymous debut has a distinct West Coast sound but there are plenty of melody lines that could almost be pop, were it not for the underlying electronics and manipulations and hints of radical politics. Susan got me a copy from New York in 2009.

I read a review of The Weirding (2009) by Astra before buying it. Progressive rock had become truly respectable again and bands were happy to reference Pink Floyd and King Crimson. This offering is slightly spacey and there’s a lack of polish in the playing which gives it a kind of authenticity, aided by a decent production. It’s ok, but it doesn’t really challenge.

Last year I requested some recent releases by Glass Hammer, should Susan happen to be passing any suitable record shops. I’d got Journey of the Dunadan (1993) for Christmas 2013 even though I’d read that it wasn’t anywhere close to their best album, which contains some very nice keyboard work but displays a sort of naivety; attempting to cover The Lord of the Rings on a single, debut album was simply over-ambitious. I’m still waiting for more Glass Hammer! A year later I was given Finneus Gauge’s One Inch of the Fall (1999) which is on the progressive side of jazz rock, like an American UK. Laura Martin’s vocals are clear and distinctive and the musicianship can’t be faulted, with uniform high quality writing. I think I can detect some Canterbury influences but it doesn’t really sound like anyone else. There’s more guitar than keyboards, some of which is reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth.

Last year, in anticipation of a new deck, I bought Fireballet’s Night on Bald Mountain (1975) when I came across it by chance at a vinyl fair in Spittalfields Market. The stall holder had bought it new from East Side Music & Video in Toronto but didn’t know much about it. I’d just read about the album in Prog Rock FAQ by Will Romano and thought it looked an interesting proposition and, considering the efforts of other US bands during the golden era of prog, it proved to be way ahead of any of them. It may be derivative but the calibre of musicianship is high and it gets really good treatment from producer (ex-King Crimson) Ian McDonald; second track Centurion could be Trespass-era Genesis but album opener Les Cathèdrales utilises the uncredited Theme One by George Martin. This is the closest an American band would get to original prog.

Postscript: I had the first two Happy the Man CDs on my NY wish list. Didn’t get either!






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