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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 27 2016 07:52PM

I’ve just been in conversation with Fleur Elliott, one of the organisers of HRH Prog, who required a bit of feedback on last weekend’s festival, during which I tried to be as helpful as possible. The annual HRH Prog festival is held in the Haven holiday park, Hafan y Mor, Pwllheli, in North Wales. I attended this year’s bash (4) with friends Jim Knipe and Mike Chavez, and met up with my brother Richard who had travelled down from Cumbria with the drummer and keyboard player from his prog band Ravenwing, husband and wife team Paul and Rose East. The northern contingent was arriving on the Friday and staying off-site but Jim, Mike and I were accommodated in a freshly refurbished chalet within 50m of the Prog stage. The fittings were all new and the rooms were clean but never having camped in anything quite as permanent as this before (a succession of family camping holidays around Brittany saw us become relative experts at surviving in static mobile homes after a single year of sleeping in not just a tent but a Supertent, that somehow managed to survive an Atlantic storm that sent most other holidaymakers scurrying for local hotels.) The only drawback with the chalet was the nocturnal temperature which dropped close to freezing so that getting up in the morning was moderately uncomfortable; the walls were pretty thin and the windows were only single-glazed and it took some considerable time for the heater to warm up the living space.


Pwllheli is set in beautiful countryside such that the long drive up from Surrey via Stonehenge, Avebury and Bradford on Avon (to pick up Mike) was still enjoyable as we passed through impressive scenery making our way north through the middle of Wales. We arrived at the campsite a little late to take part in the quiz (I think we’d have made a formidable team) and to see Hammerhead and Oktopus (printed as Octopus in the official line-up) but entered the prog arena for Third Quadrant. Originally active in the golden era of neo-prog, the band reformed in 2012 and added to their 80s releases with a 2012 live recording and a series of three albums in 2013, the covers of which display a certain stylistic cohesiveness, with nice photography and a simple, distinctive font. The only song I remember from their set was from the album Deadstar but their sound was indistinct; it was impossible to work out what Clive Mollart on second keyboards was adding and the guitar was too high up in the mix. David Forster’s double neck bass may have been quite intriguing but the group left no lasting musical impression: a kind of space rock with poor vocals. Hawkwind were a space rock band but I’ve never really classed them as progressive rock.


This was the major fault with the festival, a succession of bands that were not really prog. I understand that the genre is wide-ranging and I’ve penned discourses on what is and is not prog, and why. Next on the bill was Arthur Brown and, aside from spawning some musicians that genuinely played a part in the genre, his theatrics never made him prog. We stayed for three songs before calling it a night, unimpressed by the material played by his band and disappointed with his vocals. Perhaps the dancer he featured was meant to take our minds off the music...

Friday began with a trip out to nearby Portmeirion, the Italianate village designed by Clough Williams-Ellis in 1925, eventually completed in 1975 that also featured in the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner. The freshly repainted plasterwork looked amazing in the spring sunshine and it proved to be a very worthwhile excursion, with a walk out onto the sands of Afon Dwyryd estuary in the footsteps of No. 6 and some impromptu conversations with locals. The return journey was broken with a trip to Cob Records in Porthmadog, an independent store that has been running since 1975. Mike had wondered out loud if the shop was still a viable proposition, having bought records from its mail order business in the 80s, and we happened to see it just off the main road out of the town on our way to Portmeirion. I bought vinyl copies of Seconds Out (1977) and Expresso II (1978) and Jim picked up a copy of McDonald and Giles (1971) on CD.


Generally described as ‘math rock’ or ‘post rock’ I’d wanted to see The Fierce and the Dead partly because of their Fripp-like guitar parts and a reputation that got them nominated in the Prog magazine reader’s poll Limelight category in 2013 but also because their first album was If it Carries on Like This We are Moving to Morecambe (2011); Morecambe lying south of Barrow across Morecambe Bay. We missed them, arriving back from our trip too late and we also skipped September Code and Abel Ganz because shopping and dinner took priority over a band that one reviewer had described as sounding like “late 80s Rush”, though I probably should have given the prog folk of Abel Ganz a listen.

We also declined to watch Edgar Broughton. Despite being on the Harvest label, the Edgar Broughton Band were heavy/psychedelic rockers with blues roots; Broughton’s vocals were gritty and well suited to the blues idiom. Richard, Paul and Rose had arrived in time to see this set and reported that he played a prog-free slot on acoustic guitar. We met up with them for Curved Air but when a woman took to the stage with a Gibson SG strung around her neck, it was Rosalie Cunningham with her psychedelic rock band Purson and not Sonja Kristina. Parachuted in at very short notice (the Purson website doesn’t list the gig and Curved Air remained on the official line-up) they played a competent set that bore no resemblance to progressive rock, despite Cunningham at one point introducing a song as being “more proggy” than their other material.

Caravan’s set was punctuated with too many new songs for my taste but at least they played Nine Feet Underground in its entirety. Though Pye Hastings is the only remaining original member, multi-instrumentalist and long-term stalwart Geoffrey Richardson and keyboard player Jan Schelhaas provide enough Canterbury history to get away with retaining the band’s moniker. Sadly, Hastings’ voice is no longer up to the classic material and they seem unwilling to transpose key to accommodate his new range. They remain crowd-pleasers and Golf Girl, played as an encore, featured Richardson performing an entertaining spoon solo.

The main event was the other founding Canterbury scene outfit, Soft Machine. Without any original members but with John Marshall, Roy Babbington and John Etheridge all having served in the band, augmented by Theo Travis who had been part of Soft Machine Legacy, it was as close as I’d ever get to one of the original progressive rock acts. The set was pretty challenging and covered a wide range of the Softs’ back catalogue, including Hugh Hopper’s Facelift (from Third, 1970), Hazard Profile (from Bundles, 1975) and Song of Aeolus (from Softs, 1976), plus some Soft Machine Legacy tracks.

None of this material was straightforward prog either, registering on the jazz side of jazz rock, but it was immensely enjoyable.


Saturday morning was devoted to a visit to Harlech Castle, built by Edward I in the late 13th century and now a World Heritage site (the third of the trip.) Grey and windy, it was hardly the best weather to visit Harlech though the sun began to break through in the early afternoon as we walked along the dune-flanked beach.

Back in Hafan y Mor, we shopped, cooked and ate and got to the main stage in time for The Enid only to be desperately disappointed. Festivals aren’t really the most appropriate occasions to reveal the entire new album and though the fan base is usually very forgiving, I wanted and was expecting some kind of ‘best of’ which is what I’d experienced when I last saw them at Balham’s Resonance Festival in 2014. When I reviewed that particular show I suggested that I might upset some readers with my opinion of Joe Payne but after last weekend my opinion has hardened. There’s still the hint of romantic classical music in their repertoire but the drama created by the music has been replaced with West End musical theatre, a surprising reversal of attitude for a band that in the late 70s never took itself too seriously as they played the Dam Busters March and God Save the Queen, while still producing grand, sweeping cinematic pieces of symphonic prog. The latest material is vocal heavy and though Payne does have a fine voice, the delivery is like Freddie Mercury appearing in Phantom of the Opera. When I returned home I played In the Region of the Summer Stars (1976) to remind myself how good The Enid used to be. This new phase of Enid music has eschewed fairies and Fand and it’s a crying shame.

Focus, on next, and Ian Anderson both played crowd-pleasing sets and both were very enjoyable. It’s clear that Focus don’t take themselves too seriously but Thijs van Leer is fully aware of the value of his back catalogue, delving into the first four albums and including complementary recent tracks, allowing him to plug Focus X (2012.) Ian Anderson’s set was promoted as ‘plays the best of Jethro Tull’ and only included one new song, Fruits of Frankenfield. Anderson’s voice is also not as strong as it once was but the music, and his flute in particular, were spot on.


Focus and Ian Anderson were undoubtedly the highlights of the evening. I survived one song and about four bars of another from the Von Hertzen Brothers before leaving; I got the impression that they weren’t going to play anything that I might class as prog.

On the way home on Sunday we discussed the weekend. It had been enjoyable with some good music, excellent location, countryside and scenery with some world-class attractions to fill the music-free hours, and pretty good accommodation. The organisation appeared a little haphazard; my arrival pack took a considerable time to track down, the non-show of Curved Air remained unexplained and there was no introduction of the acts. Yet somehow the groups seemed to stick close to their schedules. We didn’t visit and band merchandise stands but the vinyl and CDs on sale covered the gamut of rock and included some hard to find music, so someone was doing a decent job of organising, despite their apparent invisibility. Our major problem was that for an alleged prog festival, we didn’t detect a surfeit of prog! Jim pointed out that there are a handful of individuals in a family of art collectors, dealers and art scholars, the Wildensteins, who pronounce on whether or not a painting is genuine or fake. We’ve resolved to set up such a committee to invigilate on what constitutes progressive rock...










By ProgBlog, Jun 1 2014 07:08PM

Sometime in 1978 or 1979 in a Zoology class at Goldsmiths’, Jo Wallace and Karen Fraser were discussing the use of the violin in rock music, not getting much further than the Fabulous Poodles and the Electric Light Orchestra, who were not remotely prog. I don’t think they even included Slade, where bassist Jim Lea had previously played in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra, or Hawkwind who in their most prog period, and they have never been a prog band, included Simon House on violin. There’s a possibility that their friend Susan Aspinall (a botanist who I later found out was into prog) might have been able to help them out with some suggestions. I remembered this conversation recently, perhaps prompted by seeing RPI band La Coscienza di Zeno at Prog Résiste, who included violin, or by one of the CDs I was bought at Prog Résiste, the excellent Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Höstsonaten, where the violin is used primarily as a melodic lead instrument in the context of a rock interpretation of classical music. I thought the concept deserved revisiting, just sticking to prog acts.

If you consider the origins of progressive rock, a melting pot of influences including European romantic music, the violin has some claim to be a prog instrument, though it hardly features in bands from the golden era. Excluding the mix of rock band and orchestra (The Nice’s Five Bridges Suite, for example) I first heard violin on Birds of Fire. If you’ll allow me a little latitude, I maintain that there’s a very close relationship between jazz rock and prog. The Mahavishnu Orchestra utilised blistering exchanges between guitar, Moog and Jerry Goodman’s violin to stunning effect though years later when I bought a Flock CD I was disappointed with the song writing. I probably heard Geoffrey Richardson on For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night around the time of its release but it wasn’t until I started buying Caravan albums in the 80s that I really appreciated his contribution. I started listening to King Crimson in 1974, so after the Mahavishnu Orchestra, my next true exposure to prog violin was via the ’72-’74 incarnation of Crimson, and from David Cross to Eddie Jobson who did the studio overdubs for USA.

I first came across Darryl Way as a guest musician on the track Opus 1065 from Birds by Trace. Trace supported Curved Air on tour in 1975 and keyboard player Rick van der Linden expressed an appreciation of Way’s mastery of the violin, acknowledging a shared ability to improvise around a classical music theme. The drummer on Birds was prog journeyman Ian Mosley, formerly of Darryl Way’s Wolf. Darryl Way also appeared on Heavy Horses, as a guest on the title track and on Acres Wild and also in 1978, he released his first solo album, Concerto for Electric Violin, with an orchestra synthesized by former Curved Air band mate Francis Monkman, which I remember being premiered on ITV’s highly-regarded culture programme The South Bank Show and I bought it soon after my arrival in London at the end of the 70s. My first Curved Air Album was Air Conditioning, bought second-hand from Record and Tape Exchange for £1 in the early 80s and I’ve since added Second Album, Phantasmagoria and Midnight Wire, plus Canis Lupus on CD.

The supergroup UK formed in 1977 and featured Eddie Jobson on keyboards and violin. They released two studio albums and a live set recorded in Japan and the reduced-size line-up of the second Album, Danger Money, toured supporting Jethro Tull who were very much at the height of their commercial appeal. Subsequently, Ian Anderson asked Jobson to appear on what started out as a solo venture but was released as ‘A’ under the Jethro Tull banner. I’d chart the quality of the music, from the eponymous UK debut to A as a linear decline; UK was a great album, a very strong progressive rock album tinged with jazz. The departure of Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth meant that Danger Money and the live album from that tour, Night After Night were weaker and the live album contains some very middle-of-the-road material. I find A very poor fare. At the time of its release many prog acts had either disappeared (temporarily or permanently) or adopted a more commercial sound. The short songs on A seemed to attempt to match prevailing tastes and watching them live from the gods at the Albert Hall did nothing to change my mind about the quality of the material.

The departure of Hugh Banton and David Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator prompted a rethink by Peter Hammill and he drafted in Graham Smith from Charisma label-mates String Driven Thing on violin. Nick Potter, absent since the recording of H to He returned on bass. The resulting sound on The Quiet Zone The Pleasure Dome is far less full than on any of the preceding albums, coming across as more urgent and direct, almost punk. Peter Hammill’s use of a violinist continued after the demise of Van der Graaf on both solo albums and during the tours of his solo material when he collaborated with Stuart Gordon.

There’s more violin in progressivo Italiano. My first exposure to RPI was PFM’s live album Cook which features the excellent multi-instrumentalist Mauro Pagani on, amongst other things, violin. Violin is quite prominent throughout the album but it is used to best effect on Alta Loma Five Till Nine where the band play an arrangement of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Parent’s note: This song is brilliant for entertaining young children, bouncing them up and down to the rhythm on your knee. Following the departure of Pagani, PFM brought in another violinist for Jet Lag, Gregory Bloch. I understood that there was a strong tradition of Italian prog and that bands like Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator were incredibly successful in Italy, though it wasn’t until the advent of online music retailers that I was able to start buying examples from the Italian sub-genre. Introducing the family to the delights of Venice and Rome (2005, 2006 and 2007) allowed me to seek out record stores and ask the owners about prog bands. By this time it was also possible to read about RPI both in books and on fan sites so I had a good idea of what to look for. Aside from PFM, Quella Vecchia Locanda were possibly the most famous of the violin-featuring bands. I prefer their first, eponymous album with violinist Donald Lax to their second album Il Tempo Della Gioia from 1974, with Claudio Filice taking on violin duties. The first album is full of energy and, though the band took care producing their follow-up, there’s a feeling of melancholy that contradicts the album’s title, A Time of Joy. Celeste used violin on their excellent Principe di Giorno which has something of a cross between early Genesis and Wind and Wuthering Genesis. My copy is a second-hand Japanese import bought for me in Rome by an Italian transplant surgeon who spent 6 months at Guy’s. Jacopo, thanks very much.


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