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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, Jul 13 2019 03:41PM


Prog 100
Prog 100

2019 marks 10 years of Prog magazine and as I write this, the 100th edition has been landing on the doormats of subscribers. A cricketing analogy seems appropriate for progressive rock while we’re waiting for the final of the Cricket World Cup, the long-form strategy of 5-day Test matches coming closest of any sport to embody the ethos of prog; the innings looked to be over as Team Rock, publishers of Prog, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock were plunged into administration in December 2016 only to be declared not out, saved by original owners Future Publishing in early January 2017 who bought the titles for a reputed £800,000 (having sold them for £10.2m to Team Rock in 2013.) The most heart-warming part of this story was that British metal band Orange Goblin raised over £70,000 through a Just Giving page for staff who were made redundant, put out of work without any severance pay just before Christmas; an illustration of the importance of the magazines to the musicians and the fans.


BBC Four - Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements
BBC Four - Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements

Though it had never left my radar, prog as a genre resurfaced in the mainstream media in January 2009 with the BBC Four series Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements following a series of false starts, one of which was the Virgin/EMI 3CD ‘The Best Prog Album in the World... Ever’, somewhat cynically released in time for Fathers’ Day in 2003. Not too long after the initial airing of that BBC Four series the first edition of Classic Rock Presents Prog hit the newsstands, intended at the planning stage as a quarterly publication but quickly becoming bimonthly due to its instant success. I can’t remember from which newsagent I bought my copy of that first issue but I assumed it was a one-off until I came across issue 2 (June 2009) Prog’s Avant Garde Old and New in Real Groovy records in Christchurch, NZ while on holiday in August 2009; my collection is devoid of the third and fourth editions, and also number 16, the issue published immediately before I set up a subscription.

In what could be seen as confirmation that prog was once more acceptable to discuss outside of dungeons or shady pub back-rooms, Alexis Petridis penned an article for The Guardian newspaper in July 2010, the week before the re-formed ELP headlined the High Voltage festival in London’s Victoria Park that reported on, with some surprise, the resurgence of prog https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/jul/22/prog-rock-genesis-rush-mostly-autumn

Petridis interviewed Prog magazine editor Jerry Ewing and revealed a healthy circulation of 22,000 copies per issue which at the time was half the circulation for the long-established NME.


Go back to go forward - Alexis Petridis in The Guardian
Go back to go forward - Alexis Petridis in The Guardian

Serendipitously, Ewing had chosen exactly the right time to launch the magazine; the third wave of prog that began in the mid 90s, itself a testament to the quality of the music, was going from strength to strength and exerting ever greater influence, and a vinyl revival had begun a couple of years before. Progressive rock may not have been truly fashionable but was nevertheless massively successful in the 70s, shipping millions of vinyl albums, where part of the pleasure of the prog experience was absorbing the images, lyrics and technical information on the gatefold sleeve. I believe that more than any other the genre, the vinyl LP is associated with progressive rock. A measure of this success is that some bands were effectively exiled from the UK by the government’s tax regime; when Labour took power in 1974 the top rate of income tax was increased from 75% to 83% and the surcharge on investment tax took the top rate on investment income up to 98%, rates that applied to 750,000 people with incomes over £20,000 per year, including the best-selling prog bands like Yes, ELP and Jethro Tull.

Prog 01
Prog 01

It was obvious that there was no way that a periodical dedicated to progressive rock could last long by only reporting on the music produced between 1969 and 1978, or even by appending on the era of neo-prog. I don’t read every article and I’m sometimes disappointed that what I consider an important event isn’t picked up by the editorial team, prompting me to fire off a disgruntled letter (or two.) I’m still of the opinion that there’s insufficient coverage of classic rock progressivo Italiano, although new material from PFM in 2017 and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso this year addresses this to some extent, but I was sure that 2013’s Le Porte del Domani by La Maschera di Cera, a conceptual follow-up to the acknowledged classic of Progressivo Italiano, Felona e Sorona by Le Orme surely deserved a mention, especially as La Maschera di Cera, like Le Orme before them, issued an English-language version of the album. However, the magazine manages to meet the requirements of unreconstructed 70s prog-philes whilst still managing to preserve a place in the competitive periodicals market by representing a spectrum that takes in progressive-minded metal, electronica, folk, jazz and ambient and though stable mate Classic Rock magazine might contain some content overlap of less-niche prog-associated acts like Pink Floyd, there are so many bands that they miss entirely, because they are neither the next big thing nor filling stadia. I’ve recently witnessed a tendency for general music journalism to reference progressive traits, in Muse for example, as handy epithets to confer a description that a group doesn’t simply follow the ordinary; this creates a space apart from conventional publications for a magazine devoted to prog.



Letter to Prog, May 2013
Letter to Prog, May 2013

With 100 editions in ten years, the frequency of Prog nicely balances new and freshly reappraised copy, with novel material provided by a cohort of younger musicians who can reflect on the music played by their parents and fusing this with other music that has been around for less time. This brings a new perspective to the genre, one of the reasons, I believe, that prog rock found a new respectability in the 90s and the secret of the third wave’s longevity. I’ve previously griped about prog metal but it is unlikely that there would have been a third wave if there had been no assimilation of a progressive ethos into metal. Catalysed by a shared heritage that cherished technical ability, prog metal began to arise in different parts of the world, most notably Scandinavia and the USA. This renewed interest in (or alternatively, a reduction in hostility towards) prog allowed the resurrection of King Crimson, who still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP in 1994. The double trio incarnation of Crimson revisited some of the ideas abruptly curtailed in 1974, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends and even touring with Tool in 2001.


There will always be debates about what constitutes prog rock, which nicely plays into the success of Prog magazine, tapping into any genre that cross-pollinates with prog. The Bloody Well Write letters page may contain missives from unreconstructed 70’s progressive rock fans declaring they will no longer subscribe to the publication but there are far more letters pointing out what a good job the Prog team are doing. That the magazine is now 10 years and 100 editions old is testament to their efforts. I’m happy to subscribe to Prog; Without it I’d have been too reluctant to give Anglo-Finnish Wigwam a chance and I’d never have discovered the excellent Zappa-like Supersister (from the Netherlands) or the amazing Yak who have no guitarist but sound like Steve Hackett.

I’m looking forward to the next 100 editions in the next 10 years.


Postscript

Though electronic media has played a part in the demise of the printed word, the best strategy seems to be balancing both forms of medium. I read Armando Gallo’s early Genesis biography I Know What I Like on a Samsung tablet and found it deeply unsatisfying but I am aware that one of the secrets to commercial success is to mix formats. So hats off to Prog magazine getting the balance right and keeping going, seemingly from strength to strength in a fiercely competitive environment.

I was both amused and surprised to see free copies of the NME available outside Whitechapel station when I started to work in the East End in 2015. Sporting an image of Taylor Swift, with a prominent yellow bubble appearing like a peeling sticker announcing MUSIC FILM STYLE, I realised that like other freebies handed out at transport hubs the print edition of the NME had become nothing more than a listings magazine, finally succumbing to what I always thought was their unspoken ethos that style was more important than the music. The print edition of the NME closed down in 2018.

Paul Stump's words could not have been wiser: the music’s all that matters


Credit: Jordan Hughes/NME
Credit: Jordan Hughes/NME

Post-postscript

For my part, I have learned to accept prog metal as a valid and valued sub-genre



Prog metal - Prog 12 December 2010
Prog metal - Prog 12 December 2010







By ProgBlog, Dec 11 2016 08:03PM

It’s interesting to see how progressive rock faces the future. One of my latest gig attendances was for newcomer act ESP launching their debut CD Invisible Din, though the combined pedigree of the performers both on the new album and those playing live hardly warrants the ‘newcomer’ tag. ESP performed an updated symphonic prog rock which acknowledged some of the most influential movers from the first wave of prog but still managed to sound relevant and contemporary, not unlike some of the newer Italian bands, expressive and almost operatic. The stylistic contrast with Lazuli, who I witnessed at London’s Borderline last week could hardly have been greater. Lazuli have been around since 1998 and are well known and respected in their native France and around mainland Europe but have not had very much exposure in the UK, despite wowing crowds at Summers End in 2011 and 2013. Their music falls within the prog sphere but it is closer to the Peter Gabriel end of the spectrum, more akin to world music, especially their take on North African sounds and scales. Somewhat surprisingly given the heavy edge to much of their material and subject matter which includes a message supporting the cause to end violence against women and an indictment of the rise of the right-wing in France, it has an infectious joyfulness. Lazuli first came to my notice when I saw them at the Prog Résiste festival in Belgium in 2014 and it was quite obvious they were not only unique but that they had a devoted following on the continent so I wrote to Prog magazine to tell readers to make sure they went to see them when they next played in the UK. It’s likely that Lazuli will get a live review in the next edition of the magazine but ESP, who did have a Prog Italia journalist and photographer in attendance, have had neither an album nor live review.


Lazuli at The Borderline 5/12/16
Lazuli at The Borderline 5/12/16

From the recent to the beginning

If we accept that the progressive rock genre started in 1969 it’s hardly surprising that, given there have been 46 intervening years, a number of the main protagonists should no longer be with us. The prog world has once more been rocked by the death of one of the most important members of the prog family, Greg Lake, who succumbed to cancer earlier this week.

Lake’s influence can’t be underestimated. As a member of the first incarnation of King Crimson, it could be argued that he was one of the five young men at the vanguard of the movement, the coalescence of a musical idiom which was served fully formed as the LP In the Court of the Crimson King but also, according to music journalists and critics, a perpetrator of excess and pretentiousness, one of a handful of individuals responsible for the downfall of the genre at the end of the 70s. I first heard him on the self-titled ELP debut which I originally picked up because I was interested in Keith Emerson’s career development following the demise of The Nice. Emerson, Lake & Palmer remains one of my favourite albums, where despite my adoration of Emerson’s previous musical vehicle, there’s a noticeable qualitative improvement and cohesiveness on the first ELP album. This can be partly ascribed to the nature of the Nice albums, where The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) was really psychedelia and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) a mixture of psychedelia and proto-prog; these two albums are entirely studio efforts but suffer from poor production. The subsequent three albums Nice (1969), Five Bridges (1970) and Elegy (1971) all contain a mix of studio and live tracks. Although, in my opinion, Emerson Lake & Palmer is dominated by Emerson, in recognition of the status of the bassist and the drummer, both having come from successful bands, the contribution of Lake and Palmer is essential to the sound and feel of the album. Lake’s crystal clear voice was key to the sound of the first Crimson LP and made ELP far more accessible than The Nice, where Lee Jackson took on main vocal duties. Though all members of the band seemed happy with adaptations of classical pieces I’d always credited Emerson as the main proponent, balanced with the acoustic sensibility of Lake. Take a Pebble ticks all the right boxes for me by virtue of the amazing piano and the ensemble playing and if I’m honest I could live without the solo acoustic sections. Lucky Man is a different kettle of fish, where Emerson’s Moog is simply the icing on a near-perfect song. His experience with King Crimson coupled with reluctance from Emerson and Palmer to get involved meant that record production duties became the responsibility of Lake; the result is a well-balanced sound on the majority of the tracks tough I find The Three Fates a bit muddy. It’s clear that there were personality clashes between Lake and Emerson and initial splits over the direction of Tarkus (1971) seemed quite serious. Fortunately, Lake got on board and the Tarkus suite has become one of my most admired ELP long-form pieces, but there’s a lack of consistency on side two. Trilogy (1972) suffers from a similar fate, where the longer tracks are brilliant but there’s an abundance of shorter, throw-away music.

I suspect the mix of the serious, multi-part compositions and the short, not necessarily progressive rock songs was part of the reason for ELP’s success, where they could attract both the prog crowd and more adventurous rock ‘n’ rollers. I also think that the approach of ELP helped to bridge the gap between popular and classical music, introducing a new generation to the delights of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Bach but also opening our eyes to Copland and Ginastera. Brain Salad Surgery (1973) was a more consistent album but the production was thin and biased towards the treble. The triple live Welcome Back My Friends... (1974) may have been a triumph but the years spent touring, putting on huge shows with equipment unloaded from three articulated lorries, became another stick with which to beat the band as the music industry was changing in their absence; ELP’s excess was in stark contrast to the pared back ideology and sounds of punk. Even I wondered about Lake’s ‘plutonium’ bike mentioned in one of the music papers! All of this meant that the pretentiously-titled Works Vol.1 (1977) was hardly likely to be greeted with open arms by the critics. The band material was good but I thought it was spoiled by Emerson’s predilection for the Yamaha GX-1. I loved his Piano Concerto but much of the writing on the Lake and Palmer sides wasn’t really up to scratch and as a whole, the double LP was a bit like Fragile taken to extreme.

After Works Vol.1 I gave up on ELP, foregoing Works Vol.2 and Love Beach and not realising the three protagonists had toured in 1992 having reformed for Black Moon. The live album recorded at the Royal Albert Hall captures the band back on form and I wish I’d paid more attention to listing magazines at the time. I went to see Greg Lake at the Fairfield Halls in 2005, based on the mooted set list and was very pleasantly surprised. His voice wasn’t as clear as it had been 30 years previously but his band performed admirable versions of ELP and King Crimson numbers.

I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010 on the 40th anniversary of their debut album which featured prominently. Despite a couple of minor problems they were totally amazing and I’m really pleased to have been there because it turned out to be their last ever gig.

I’m not a fan of the 45rpm single but, like many prog fans, I have a soft spot for Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas – Lake and Sinfield at their concise best with a bit of Prokofiev thrown in. Lake is likely to be remembered for this single more than his contribution to progressive rock but he was there at the beginning of prog and shaped those early years with his choirboy voice, deft bass and acoustic songs. His death marks another major loss to the prog world.




Greg Lake b. 10th November 1947 d. 7th December 2016







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