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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 5 2015 06:53PM

Around the time of the double trio King Crimson incarnation, Jim Knipe and I went off to see Robert Fripp performing soundscapes in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. This attendance was fairly hastily arranged because of respective work commitments such as on-call and the Saturday 9th March was deemed to be the most suitable of the potential dates on offer, Fripp being in residence at the QEH for four days from the 7th to the 10th including what was due to be a marathon session on Saturday 9th, as part of a series of events billed as ‘Now You See It’. Strangely enough, Crystal Palace were at home to Jim’s team, West Bromwich Albion that afternoon, with Palace running out winners 1-0 and legend Dougie Freedman scoring the sole goal; this predated our arrangement to attend Eagles v Baggies and Baggies v Eagles reciprocal home fixtures by some years, when West Brom and Palace are playing in the same division.

I’m a fan of Fripp’s soundscapes. I’ve got (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star, which I regard as early, lo-fi examples of guitar and tape loops which marked the beginning of Frippertronics (a term coined by Fripp’s girlfriend at the time, Joanna Walton). Though I don’t own either God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (1980) or Let the Power Fall (1981) I do have the Fripp-produced Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall, recorded in 1977 but not released until 1980 which some believe contains the first examples of proper Frippertronics. I’ve charted their evolution from the original collaborations with Eno, through solo album Exposure (1979) and the 80s incarnation of Crimson to the work with David Sylvian, The First Day and the live album Damage (both 1993), that presaged the double trio King Crimson of the 90s. The calm, dreamy Bringing Down the Light from The First Day was probably the earliest recorded example of Fripp’s modern take on the soundscape; my collection ends with the four track CD EP Pie Jesu (1997) which contains material from A Blessing of Tears and The Gates of Paradise. By this time, technology had become very reliable and instead of twin Revox tape decks and his effect pedal that I’d seen give up the ghost while playing with the League of Gentlemen at the LSE in November 1980, he was now using industry-standard TC2290 dynamic digital delay modules from TC electronics.

The late 70s and early 80s saw Fripp embarking on a number of intimate solo performances in off-beat venues, in the guise of a ‘small, mobile, intelligent unit’. This modus operandi was revisited in the mid-90s with the new technology and resulted in a series of releases that sadly aren’t currently available (though a series of more recent compilations are readily accessible); these shows were sonically and physically disparate from his playing in a group context. In Crimson he migrated out of the front line, remaining in the shadows but he was entirely out of sight when I went to see Peter Gabriel at the Liverpool Empire in April 1977 performing his first solo tour, until his introduction as ‘Dusty Rhodes’ when he appeared to take a bow. As a solo performer, whatever the ambient lighting, he was always in the spotlight and the perceived barriers between Fripp and the audience were rendered insignificant. Fripp was able to trigger loops and delays and leave his ‘stage’ from time-to-time, blurring the lines between the distinction of guitarist and listeners. On http://www.dgmlive.com/rf/index.htm?group=bleeping&bio=true Fripp writes “The Soundscape performances are part of an ongoing series which has the aim of finding ways in which intelligence and music, definition and discovery, courtesy and reciprocation may enter into the act of music for both musician and audience.”

This interaction is one reason why the music shouldn’t be simply classed as ‘ambient’ music. The ambient tag suggests the listener is passive but it is Fripp’s stated aim to seek an interaction which may then shape the course of the event; proactive music making, with Fripp and a guitar able to make a great deal of noise should he decide to do so. These aren’t sampled atmospherics, sounds from nature or even urban background chatter but a controlled, improvised, sonic narrative that may be calming, dramatic, eerie, alarming or even jagged and angular.

The ambient genre had its origins in the 70s and could be described as a musical form with an emphasis on tone, timbral quality and atmosphere rather than a traditional structure or rhythm. To this extent, ambient music ought to have an unobtrusive quality. Early pioneer Brian Eno has said that ambient music should be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; that it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. This suggests to me that ambient music is passive and so, by applying Fripp’s description of soundscapes, soundscapes are not ambient music.

‘Ambient’ somehow seems mixed up with New Age ideas, or rather there is an association between the two through a construct of the marketing industry. Fripp’s critique of the music business is well documented, largely through copious sleeve notes that have accompanied Fripp-related releases through DGM; the corporate music world relies on consumer trends that are controlled via the medium of marketing.

Soundscapes aren’t electronica, either. This is a sub-genre I associate with sequencer pulses and (predominantly) keyboard washes. Whether intended or not, programmed sequences form the basis of rhythm, and they certainly provide a sense of drive and direction which removes them from the accepted definition of ‘ambient’. Thus Tangerine Dream, synthesizer innovators of the early 70s, are allowed to be described as producing ‘atmospheric’ music but their ephemeral melody lines that interweave with snatched, developing pulsating sequences excludes them from ambientism.

It’s the unknown direction of soundscapes that I find appealing. Some of my own improvised music using a Roland synthesizer falls into calming soundscape territory, though I have a tendency to overdub ‘natural’ sounds, rainfall, wind or waves and use reverse waveforms played over the original recording to produce smooth, soothing compositions. This is very unlike Fripp (and obviously nowhere near as good) with only his guitar and effects, conjuring angels and demons in response to his audience in an intimate, live setting. Each performance is unique and if Fripp has full recordings of his recital from March 9th 1996 (the piano-inflected Sometimes God Hides that appears on The Gates of Paradise released in 1997 was taken from that appearance) I’d very much like him to consider releasing it – the memory of standing sipping bottles of Becks watching the craftsman at work is beginning to fade.



By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 01:38PM

I hadn’t intended to stay in a hall of residence for my final year but somehow ended up staying at Loring for the first term, checking out potential accommodation as the term wore on. Eric Whitton, an associate from Barrow, had come down to London to do a full-time Masters Degree course at Chelsea College, studying low temperature physics and anti-bubbles. Jim also wanted to leave Loring (his girlfriend Amanda was in Germany doing her year abroad) so the three of us looked in the two London evening papers for something suitable. After a trek out to Leytonstone, miles from anywhere we knew to see something quite unsuitable, we settled on a flat for four in Streatham, a modern low-rise block called Beechcroft Close. It was on one of our trips to Streatham that I consumed my very last McDonalds (I’d only had a couple before that) because it gave me severe indigestion. If it wasn’t the soggy burger upsetting my gastrointestinal tract it might have been the impending financial burden I was just about to hang around my neck. We had to borrow good friend Mark Franchetti who was going to continue staying at Loring to make up the numbers for the contract signing and officially took up residence just before Christmas 1980. (Mark is rather averse to prog but Gina, his wife, often accompanies me to concerts in and around London.)

The isolation of Loring was quickly forgotten. Streatham was well situated for public transport and Eric owned a battered blue Mini (christened ‘Dob’ because of its registration in Birmingham) that for some inexplicable reason had a three-pin plug socket in the passenger seat foot well.

Eric was quite content to drive us around, so with the West End now open to us at all hours, I became a member of The 100 Club in Oxford Street (in those days you could park free of charge just behind Oxford Street) and a trawl through letters to Tony reveals a fairly impressive list of gigs that I attended including a rare reunion of Back Door (Colin Hodgkinson was rated as one of the world’s the best bassists) and Allan Holdsworth in a quartet called Plough playing some complex and challenging music.

The Beechcroft Close flats could be quite noisy. The living room overlooked a quadrangle and on hot sunny days we’d have the windows open and the noise from the flats below and people playing on the grass quad would filter up into our flat; even the sound of plugging in electrical equipment next door seemed highly amplified. It quickly became apparent that we were involved in a noise war with a group of neighbours who had a different lobby and a different stairwell from ourselves. One of these individuals was learning the trombone, but had not progressed very far beyond a five note scale. Practice occurred at the most inappropriate times and we began to feel seething resentment, turning up our music (to the accompaniment of thuds on the ceiling beneath us) and culminating in our manufacture of an 8 second cassette tape loop of us playing the trombone scale on guitar (Eric), tin plate (Jim) and bass (me), but deliberately out of tune to mimic the awful brass playing. The scale ascended, descended and finished with the vocal chorus “again” and then repeated. One evening, we plugged Eric’s cassette deck into my Columbus 30 Watt combo and left that propped against the wall dividing us from the flat next door, put in the tape loop, pressed play and went to the Pied Bull, the local Young’s pub. We returned a couple of hours later with the loop still running: “Deh deh deh deh deh deh deh deh dur, again...”

It was around this time that I discovered an interesting sound effect, plugging my fuzz wah pedal into one of the intput sockets on my amp, plugging my phaser pedal into that, and plugging the phaser output into the second input of the amp. This generated an electronic hum that created feedback which could be controlled by the wah wah pedal, delivering a fairly authentic chattering monkey sound!

Perhaps the most interesting gig of this period was Discipline at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket. We used to get the London listings magazine City Limits (Time Out’s more radical sibling) and the gig was advertised in there. A glance at the line-up and I immediately thought tickets would be hard to come by: Fripp, reunited with Bill Bruford, Tony Levin (whose bass had graced Peter Gabriel solo material and Fripp’s solo album Exposure and, for me, the unknown quantity of Adrian Belew. I managed to acquire tickets in row D of the stalls – at the time I didn’t have to attend lectures because I was revising for my finals, and though I realised this wasn’t King Crimson, being 50% American, it was genuinely thrilling to see what appeared to be a move in the right direction. It transpired that it was important to have seen the League of Gentlemen, which to Fripp was a band in his classification of undertakings somewhere between the Third Division (research and development, like his Frippertronics) and the Second Division (earning a living and professional respectability through graft.)

As I’ve previously related, Fripp’s pedal board was obviously unable to cope with the rigours of the musical direction he’d now set out on but more than this, technology had come on in leaps and bounds and Discipline subscribed to these new possibilities, both guitarists employing Roland guitar synthesizers, Bruford playing Simmons electronic drums and Levin playing the Chapman Stick. The sonic link to the League of Gentlemen was the rapid circulating guitar lines that were to become a major feature of this incarnation of Crimson.

It was difficult to know what to expect. They had not at the time produced an album; it was hard to imagine them playing pre-74 Crimson material and this was not a line-up that would ever perform League of Gentlemen material. What they did perform was quite unlike anything I’d heard before, a kind of progressive funk mixed in with gamelan. Belew’s Talking Heads influence was obvious but this wasn’t the over-riding style. They played what was to become the first album plus a rendition of Red, the first time I’d ever heard it live, and it really was brilliant – their energy was phenomenal and the music came across as infectiously joyous, with Bellew bouncing around and making unimaginable sounds from his guitar. This was, in effect, a new form of music, so it’s hardly surprising that when Fripp decided the music was suited to music by Crimson, the band changed their name to King Crimson.


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