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By ProgBlog, Mar 7 2016 12:28AM

It would have been impossible not to be influenced in some way by the magnificent remains of Furness Abbey, a 15 minute walk from my childhood home. So, during my teenage years, I often visited the ruins of what was once the second richest Cistercian monastery in the country. Originally under the care of the Ministry of Works, Barrow rate payers could apply for a small yellow card from a back office in the town hall that granted them free access, I’d go with friends from the Infield Park Gang or on my own, finding peace and quiet within the weathered sandstone walls. I’d go in any weather, any time of year, even any time of day, sometimes climbing over the iron railings and wandering around the stairwells and hidden corners late at night, spurred on by the incredible atmosphere of the towering remains in moonlight or starlight, having to lie low when car headlamps scythed through the fog that would fill the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade in autumn and winter, casting dancing shadows as the lights shone through tree branches overhanging the road.


Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey

The site is incredibly picturesque and ought to be a must for anyone visiting the Lake District, a 30 minute drive from the southern lakes. I’ve taken rolls of film and hundreds of digital photos and snatches of video and, since Daryl studied architecture as an undergraduate, I’ve begun to look at detail as well as the big picture and it’s remarkable that some of the fine carving has survived through centuries of battering by rain driven on prevailing south westerly winds.


The Furness peninsula has limited access which even today instils a sense of solitude, so it’s easy to understand why the Savigniac monks who founded the abbey in 1127 chose this location, Bekanesgill in old Norse, with its abundance of building material, an excellent water supply and the seclusion, even though they had to abandon the usual east- west orientation of the church due to the geography of the valley, so that it lies almost north east to south west. The abbey became prosperous, owning territory that included most of the Furness peninsula, with its forests to the north and rich agricultural lands to the south but the Reformation signalled its demise; in 1535, as a prelude to its dissolution, the abbey was valued at £805 0s 5d. On the 9th April 1537, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and its possessions to the King.
The Furness peninsula has limited access which even today instils a sense of solitude, so it’s easy to understand why the Savigniac monks who founded the abbey in 1127 chose this location, Bekanesgill in old Norse, with its abundance of building material, an excellent water supply and the seclusion, even though they had to abandon the usual east- west orientation of the church due to the geography of the valley, so that it lies almost north east to south west. The abbey became prosperous, owning territory that included most of the Furness peninsula, with its forests to the north and rich agricultural lands to the south but the Reformation signalled its demise; in 1535, as a prelude to its dissolution, the abbey was valued at £805 0s 5d. On the 9th April 1537, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and its possessions to the King.

The ruins gave me an appreciation for place and time and once I’d discovered the abbey it became impossible not to scour the area for other historical sites within the district: Bow Bridge, close to the abbey; Dalton Castle, a 14th Century tower erected to assert the authority of the Abbot of Furness; Piel Castle, another 14th Century construction, situated on Piel Island off the southern tip of the Furness peninsula to regulate trade and to protect the riches of the abbey from border raiders operating in the disputed territory between Scotland and England; and the ruined 14th Century Gleaston Castle with its four towers and remnants of curtain walls, constructed from local limestone. The physical landscape and human landscape are equally important and equally inspiring, especially when you can see evidence of older cultures and civilisations: Anglo Saxons in Urswick (the Tunwinni Cross); the Romans at Ravenglass on the north of the Duddon Estuary; and Bronze Age (the stone circle at Birkrigg.) Then there’s the more recent industrial heritage associated with the extraction of iron ore for the steel and shipbuilding industries.


I’m not sure that the abbey played any part in my appreciation of medieval music and the medieval prog sub-genre but, in common with many exponents of prog, I did like music primarily associated with the church and was even selected for the school choir, a post that I declined. I’m interested in both forms of early music: sacred (monophonic chants) and secular music, incorporating variations on lutes, zithers and early wind and reed instruments, and combinations of the two forms. My first exposure to medieval music in a rock context would have been Focus and Gentle Giant. Elspeth of Nottingham from Focus 3 (1972) is a melodic exercise on lute, apparently inspired by a recital by Julian Bream when Akkerman was on holiday in the Cotswolds in 1967; the birdsong and animal sounds that enhance the bucolic feel were suggested by producer Mike Vernon. Hamburger Concerto (1974) contains the concise opener Delitae Musicae, another Akkerman lute outing that I think brilliantly sets the mood of the whole album and van Leer’s expanded keyboard rig is fully utilised to provide a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock that owes a debt to church music. Not only is the title track based on Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Haydn but there are other references to sacred music in La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and Birth.
I’m not sure that the abbey played any part in my appreciation of medieval music and the medieval prog sub-genre but, in common with many exponents of prog, I did like music primarily associated with the church and was even selected for the school choir, a post that I declined. I’m interested in both forms of early music: sacred (monophonic chants) and secular music, incorporating variations on lutes, zithers and early wind and reed instruments, and combinations of the two forms. My first exposure to medieval music in a rock context would have been Focus and Gentle Giant. Elspeth of Nottingham from Focus 3 (1972) is a melodic exercise on lute, apparently inspired by a recital by Julian Bream when Akkerman was on holiday in the Cotswolds in 1967; the birdsong and animal sounds that enhance the bucolic feel were suggested by producer Mike Vernon. Hamburger Concerto (1974) contains the concise opener Delitae Musicae, another Akkerman lute outing that I think brilliantly sets the mood of the whole album and van Leer’s expanded keyboard rig is fully utilised to provide a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock that owes a debt to church music. Not only is the title track based on Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Haydn but there are other references to sacred music in La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and Birth.

In a Glass House (1973) was Gentle Giant’s fifth album but it was the first I heard. Their instrumentation extended beyond the conventional and their use of tuned percussion and recorders, together with a penchant for complex interwoven lines made them stand out from other prog bands, lending a distinct medieval flavour. Their relative lack of financial success was down to unbending musical principles, originally declared in the sleeve notes for Acquiring the Taste (1971):

“It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought - that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste”

As a result in the US, their label Columbia Records would not release Glass House because it was deemed to be uncommercial. Though Glass House has plenty of examples of early music, this form had already been pretty much ever present on their records, from portions of Giant and Why Not (on Gentle Giant, 1970); Pantagruel’s Nativity (Acquiring the Taste) and The Advent of Panurge (Octopus, 1972), both of which were inspired by 16th century French writer François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel pentology in keeping with the ‘giant’ theme; and Raconteur Troubadour (also from Octopus.) Later songs would also incorporate this style though overall, from The Power and the Glory (1974) onwards, the band produced more muscular and generally more accessible material.

Perhaps the most well known of the medieval prog bands is Gryphon. One of the ridiculous criticisms of the genre is a perception that medieval-themed stories pervade prog. I suspect that this misconception is an ill-disguised attack on Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975.) Gryphon were unique, utilising genuine medieval instrumentation and performing period pieces but incorporating rock elements; a musical hybrid that may have inspired the band’s name, a mythical half lion, half eagle creature. Their appeal extended from classical music listeners on BBC Radio Three, possibly because of respect for the academic background of band members Richard Harvey and Brian Gulland, graduates from the Royal College of Music, to rock audiences. Tony saw Gryphon when they were the support act for Yes on the Relayer tour (1974-1975) and they had a small section devoted to them in the tour programme. I can’t remember when I first heard them but they were still largely concerned with performing early music. The first album I bought was Raindance (1975), the high point of which is the lengthy (Ein Klein) Heldenleben, a similar piece to the title track on Midnight Mushrumps (1974.) Though I really like these long-form compositions there’s an occasional feeling that there’s insufficient development of musical ideas. This is most acute on Red Queen to Gryphon Three (1974) where I’m left slightly dissatisfied. On the other hand, the immediacy of the up-tempo jigs shows off their dexterity and also brings a satisfactory resolution; I also have a soft spot for the traditional tunes The Astrologer, Unquiet Grave and Ploughboy’s Dream which are given a prog makeover. The experience with Yes obviously influenced the band and by Treason (1977) they’d turned into a rock band who happened to use some medieval instruments. When I listened to Treason recently I was disappointed with the song format; there’s too much singing and the original identity of the ensemble had been lost. The medieval revival was over.








By ProgBlog, Aug 5 2015 09:10PM

The skies over Croydon last Friday night (31/7/15) were cloud-free and, despite the light pollution from the streets, the ‘blue moon’ was really clear. I’m something of a fan of astronomy and as a youth members of the Infield Park Gang (IPG) would venture off to watch meteor showers from the vantage point of a local school playground, lying down so that the town’s sodium streetlights were obscured by the surrounding trees, or heading off to the ruins of nearby Furness Abbey, nestled in the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade where the night skies were so dark it could be quite hazardous walking up Manor Road in the direction of Yarlside; we used to frequent The New Commercial in Newton (now The Village Inn) at the top end of the derelict iron ore mine workings, a free house where the beer was excellent and the juke box contained a reasonable selection of prog and prog-lite, possibly where I first heard Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush.

The term ‘blue moon’ is a bit of a misnomer and a bit confusing. The moon reflects the sun and appears yellow-white as normal but the name, which had been documented well over 100 years before the popular definition ascribed by amateur astronomer James Hugh Pruett in 1946 was simplified to indicate the second full moon in a calendar month. The lunar cycle of 29.5 days means that Pruett’s blue moons occur seven times every 19 years; the original name derives from the Native American Algonquin, who gave names to all full moons throughout the year and introduced the Blue Moon, the fourth full moon in a single season, as a way of maintaining their lunar-calendar month alignment. So is an event described as ‘once in a blue moon’ rare? With an occurrence of once every 2.7 years they are certainly infrequent...

The moon is highly symbolic with multiple meanings and interpretations, primarily based on observations of its regular cycle; the brightness of the full moon waning to complete darkness at the new moon and waxing again to the full moon. At a very basic level the constant regular appearance, growth and subsequent disappearance can be interpreted as a symbol of life, death and rebirth. The reflectivity of the moon – the albedo (as in Albedo 0.39 by Vangelis, the reflectivity of the earth in 1976 when the album was released) – averages at 0.12 due to the changes of brightness linked to different lunar phases and gives rise to the notion of the moon as a mirror that reflects the mystery and fear within our souls.

The common association of the moon with femininity comes about because lunar cycles were thought to mirror the life of a woman, a representative of the Triple Goddess; her three incarnations of maiden, mother, and crone were matched with the lunar phases of new, full, and old so that the complete triad of goddesses is symbolised in the changing face of the moon. Another reason that the changing moon is particularly associated with women is because the regular lunar cycle closely matches the menstrual cycle. The English word month is derived from the Anglo-Saxon monath, from mona, the moon; menses is from the Latin mensis, meaning month. This once more brings to mind Kate Bush who not only injected literacy into the pop world but featured a song about menstruation, Strange Phenomena, on her debut album The Kick Inside (1978). The space rock of early Gong, most notably Camembert Electrique (1971) which features the so-called space whisper of Gilli Smyth strikes me as feminine, if we’re allowed to attach gender to music, an opinion possibly influenced by the inclusion of the track Selene - the Greek goddess of the moon; also, the influence of Gong on Steve Hillage, even after he’d left the band in December 1975 along with girlfriend Miquette Giraudy, may have been partially responsible for Lunar Musick Suite (from L, 1976.)

With the plethora of possible interpretations, the moon makes a number of appearances in the prog canon, from the straightforward interpretation of the moon landings on Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), a documentary film that was originally shown without narration, simply featuring footage of the Apollo space missions with Eno’s predominantly dark ambient soundtrack, to the moon as a symbol of reflected self in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon where every day pressures can lead to madness. Eno has indicated his album is intended to be an exploration of space travel, not some kind of adventure film soundtrack and I think the moods he successfully creates somehow tap into the idea of expanding the human experience, something that has acted as an inspiration for some of my own ambient music (Lunar Surface Magnetic Anomalies, 2013.)

Camel’s Moonmadness (1976) might not seem to be a conceptual piece of work on first hearing, certainly not in the Dark Side mould, but moon references recur throughout the album. The short first track Aristillus is named after a prominent lunar impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium and features drummer Andy Ward reciting the names ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’, the latter being a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus. The obvious moon reference is the track Lunar Sea (hence Moonmadness) which is one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. The alternating guitar and keyboard leads are understated and beautifully melodic, giving the track a great balance; the Moog tones evoke the ebb and flow of a cosmic ocean and Ward’s drumming is neat and crisp while Doug Ferguson’s bass bounces and bubbles. Even the heavy Another Night gets in a lunar reference: “Dark Clouds before my eyes / Can’t face the morning skies / Day comes a day too soon / I’m waiting for that silver moon” but Camel had set out to avoid a concept album in the style of Snow Goose after pressure from their record companies; if Moonmadness has a loose concept it’s that four of the tracks are said to represent the members of the band: Chord Change is Pete Bardens; Another Night is Doug Ferguson; Air Born is Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is Andy Ward.

Another moon link is on Mad Man Moon from Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail (1976) though I don’t think it’s really about madness or the moon, just an obsession with what others have: envy. I’ve racked my brains trying to find some link between the lyrics and the title of the song, other than in the line of the chorus, but Tony Banks sticks pretty much to drought/flood imagery. I recall Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Act 2 scene 2: “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon” but, despite the allusion to lost love, I suspect I’m way off the mark.

The moon represents mystery but the moon landings, coinciding with the rise of progressive rock, may have resolved some of the unknowns. This has encouraged prog to delve deeper into the cosmos.



By ProgBlog, Oct 12 2014 06:04PM

Sometimes prog themes turn up in unusual places...

Many years ago I didn’t appreciate the Zoology classes drawing animal skeletons and stuffed or pickled specimens and I wasn’t keen on spending a two hour Geology practical lesson drawing rugosa, an extinct order of coral that were abundant in Middle Ordovician to Late Permian seas. I had wanted to do Biophysics at York but disappointing A-level results meant that I ended up doing Botany and Zoology, with Geology as a first year option (that I somehow managed to drag on into my final year) at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.

Though I would probably make a different choice of course and career if I could have my time over again, the landscape around Barrow extending up into the Lake District but also including a decent amount of coastline, instilled a love of the natural world and the natural sciences. Having been told by my headmaster at the age of 11 that I didn’t read enough, I embarked on a fifteen year literary binge that took in classics (Austin, Bronte, Dickens, Hardy); modern classics (Hesse, Kafka, Peake); fantasy (CS Lewis, Tolkien); SF (I distinctly remember the yellow jackets on hardbacks by Ursula Le Guin, published by Gollancz that I would borrow from the town library); and a burgeoning genre aimed at children, from Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners to Alan Garner’s Weirdstone books, a trilogy recently completed by the excellent Boneland (2012). Landscape and literature became important influences; the geology of Low Furness was moderately complex and was responsible for the industrial landscape superimposed over the natural. In my mind, I equated Tolkien’s The Shire to the contours of the former haematite workings around Furness, perpetually verdant by virtue of the prevailing moisture-laden westerly breezes from over the Irish Sea. Local ruins Furness Abbey, Piel Castle and Gleaston Castle imposed their history on the scenery but I was equally interested in landmarks that added to the mythical setting: Birkrigg Stone Circle. My interest in the cosmological was partly inspired by this environment; the artificial light from the town was effectively cut off by the drumlins that surrounded Furness Abbey and clear nights were ideal for stargazing. On more than one occasion a small group of us would access the playground of St Paul’s School at night, itself surrounded by tall trees that eliminated any extraneous sodium glow from the street lights, and lie there, staring up at comet showers. I link this behaviour with my love of progressive rock; the exploration of my environment, the thirst for the written word and the possibilities linked to space travel all fit in with grand prog themes.

That my school years were important in forming who I’ve become has only relatively recently become apparent. It was around the time when my son Daryl was completing his studies that I realised that my youth exploring Furness and the Botany, Zoology and Geology classes all fitted in with my understanding of the universe. I think that my undergraduate courses were badly taught and that’s why I didn’t really appreciate comparative biology.

This knowledge may have lain dormant but there was also a continuing accumulation of information as I attempted to show him things I’d learned, tried to answer his questions and also listened to what interested him.

The unusual place to discover a prog theme, a Rock Progressivo Italiano theme in fact, was on the beach at Lancing in West Sussex. At low tide one weekend, the family were taking some mild exercise on the beach and came across rocks perforated by even-sized holes. It’s hard to believe that this effect was not the result of some human derived mechanical activity, simply because of the regularity of the holes, but I recalled some ancient zoology and knew that the holes were produced by burrowing marine animals. I was reminded of this episode as I travelled home from work last Friday when I was playing Concerto delle Menti (Concerto of the Mind), the only album by Pholas Dactylus, a band from around Bergamo, released in 1973. The group was named after the marine mollusc Pholas dactylus which is found around the north Atlantic and Mediterranean shores and was once a revered source of food. This shellfish has a couple of interesting properties; it is luminescent (a property recorded by Pliny that probably accounts for its esteem) and it is also capable of boring into rock; the chalk of West Sussex can’t have presented too much of a problem because the creature is capable of boring into gneiss, a form of high grade metamorphic rock.

The album was based on an apocalyptic poem by their vocalist Paolo Carelli who narrates the story by spoken word, rather than singing and the lyrics laid out in the inner sleeve are preceded by an enigmatic sentence attributed to Paolo Marcello: “A tall column made of bricks... ...each brick a word... ...the meaning of which you can understand just by looking at the base or on top of it...”

The storyline borrows imagery from a variety of biblical sources, most notably Revelations, something that had previously been attempted by Aphrodite’s Child and Genesis, but this comes across as more frightening and psychotic and includes a very abrupt ending. The spoken passages are punctuated by extended musical interludes that vary between jazz, jazz rock, pastoral breaks and psychedelia, representing the build-up and release of musical tension. Carelli’s words and voice fit really well though some online reviewers find the narration irritating; personally, I like the poetic flow. The opening section sets the scene “You are going to take a tramway. In a while you’ll be on an old, battered tramway carriage, looking like you after a black, empty, paranoiac day...” which hints at possible inspiration through stimulants and certainly suggests that the tram journey is a bad trip. The album is really one piece, split into two parts by the restrictions imposed by the original vinyl format and unlike many RPI releases, which barely include over 30 minutes of music, this is a very lengthy production with part 1 lasting over 29 minutes and part 2 almost 24 minutes. When I first listened to it, I knew that I would need to listen to it again without distractions to really appreciate the startling originality and subtle nuances of the work. Despite a well-received live following the album had poor sales and critics were at best indifferent to the work. I think this unique piece of work ranks as one of the best hidden gems of the original RPI scene. Sadly, the group broke up following the album’s release.


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