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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, Feb 14 2016 08:04PM

It was Peter Gabriel’s 66th birthday yesterday and the twittersphere was replete with felicitations. Gabriel’s part in the pantheon of progressive rock is firmly cemented: lead vocalist with early Genesis; world music luminary; sonic innovator. I’d like to add that I believe his anti-apartheid stance and his concern for our treatment of the planet are also very prog; promoting environmental issues and equality are key progressive traits, born of late-60s idealism.


There are many more differences between the music on his first solo album Peter Gabriel (1977) and his collaborative previous release, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) than there were between Trespass (1970) and The Lamb. Early Genesis followed a distinct trajectory from compositions that featured 12 string guitar and piano or organ in equal measure overlain by lyrics that were seeped in mythology and allegory, where Gabriel often comes across as vulnerable and tentative. On The Lamb, Gabriel oozes confidence, perhaps aided by the adoption of the Rael persona and the music is heavier, more muscular, involving more riffs than before even though it’s still very melodic. Banks’ use of synthesizer, absent on Foxtrot (1972) and debuting on Selling England by the Pound (1973) is predominantly used for angular runs (such as on In the Cage and Back in NYC.) On reflection, I suggest it’s primarily the synthesizer that’s responsible for the majority of motifs that I’ve detected forming a sonic bridge between Selling England and The Lamb.

The Lamb may be made up of short pieces but it does have an overriding linear narrative that puts it in the long-form category, Supper’s Ready was originally a series of musical ideas that were fitted together to make one piece, similar to Van der Graaf Generator’s A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (from Pawn Hearts, 1971) where sections are discrete but seamlessly segue into each other; as a distinct modern musical trope this idea was adopted by The Beatles for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), an idea that was mimicked by any number of proto-progressive acts and one that could be used to define the genre in its infancy. I believe that the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967), not fully formed prog by any means, is another good example of a well-defined full album-length concept comprised of disparate songs and this, rather than a nebulous concept like Dark Side of the Moon (1973) or the philosophical musings of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), has more parallels with Rael’s journey of self-discovery.

The shorter songs on Peter Gabriel are not conceptually linked but all display thoughtfulness in their composition. This may have been Gabriel’s return to ‘the machinery’ after a hiatus but it was on his terms, informed in part by the years he’d spent in Genesis but reflecting other influences. I don’t think it conforms to the original definition of prog but it is undoubtedly progressive. It’s probably art-rock, with more immediacy and a more contemporary feel. It’s as though Rael showed Gabriel what he was able to become and I think the first solo effort has a New York vibe to it, even though it was recorded in Toronto and London! One similarity between The Lamb and Peter Gabriel is the humour in the rhyme, the use of couplets, half rhymes and rhymes within a single line (the rhyme is planned, dummies) evident, for instance on Moribund the Burgermeister “Bunderschaft, you going daft? Better seal off the castle grounds...” or Humdrum “I ride tandem with a random/Things don’t work out the way I planned them.” However, there’s a less obvious break with prog on Peter Gabriel that hits you the moment you take the album out from wherever you’ve stored it: the cover photo of Gabriel in the passenger seat of Storm Thorgerson’s Lancia Flavia.

It’s probably incidental but the album contains a couple of automobile references, in Excuse Me where Gabriel muses “who needs a Cadillac anyway” and a more technical, almost Ballardian reference to a “red hot magneto” on Modern Love. Despite Nick Mason’s association with motor racing and Rick Wakeman’s collection of cars in the mid 70s, cars don’t often make an appearance in prog rock songs. Is this surprising? Rock ‘n’ roll and the associated ‘live fast, die young’ ethos seem inextricably linked with motor cars and there have been hundreds of songs written about driving and automobiles. This is hardly astonishing as the development of the two aspects of (American) youth culture, music and driving, were contemporaneous; the end of post-war austerity and the invention of the American Dream issuing in a world of leisure and consumerism. Singing about driving could be rebellious but whatever the message, songs about cars pervade much of rock music from Chuck Berry’s No Particular Place to Go (1964) and The Beatles Drive My Car (1965) to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album (1975) and there’s a strong association, at least amongst British TV viewers, of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain (1977) and F1 racing. The movie Grease with its cod 50s rock ‘n’ roll appeared in 1978 and has become the most popular musical film of all time. There even seems to be a morbid glamour that has attached itself to automobile accidents, brilliantly explored in JG Ballard’s collection of related stories The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and full length novel Crash (1973), epitomised by the death of James Dean in his Porsche 550 Spyder in 1955, the crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales in Paris in 1997 and even the assassination of JFK in his open topped limousine in 1963 (partly the subject of Gabriel’s Family Snapshot (on Peter Gabriel III, Melt, 1980.)

The lyrics of Adrian Belew on Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984), the second and third releases by the 1981 – 1984 incarnation of King Crimson are something of an exception when it comes to prog and cars. Beat was inspired by Jack Kerouac so road trip references abound in Neal and Jack and Me: “I’m wheels, I am moving wheels/I am a 1952 Studebaker coupe... ...I am a 1952 Starlite coupe”. Crimson journeyed into experimental industrial music on the second side (aka the Right side) of Three of a Perfect Pair, starting with homage to the scrapped car, Dig Me which calls to mind Christine (1983) the Bill Phillips film adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel and hints at Ballardian prose. I don’t suppose any of us should be shocked that tyre manufacturer Dunlop used a portion of 21st Century Schizoid Man for adverts in 1996...



A cosmic take on the idea of cruising along was released as a single and appeared on Rain Dances (1977) by Camel in the form of Highways of the Sun. It doesn’t matter if they’re in an old sedan that’s lost a wheel or a ship that’s got no sails, this is hardly the same vision as that visualised by heavy rockers Deep Purple, on Highway Star (from Machine Head, 1972) with its imagery of sexualised power. Hard rock seemed to go for this form of association, the video of ‘fast’ women, hot cars and hard guitars, apparently reinventing scenes of bikini-clad women draped over cars at a motor show for the MTV age... and critics called prog musicians dinosaurs! Even Roger Waters got in on the act with the cover artwork for The Pros and cons of Hitch Hiking (1984.)



One oddity is White Car from Drama (1980) by Yes. Lasting only 1’20” this song was allegedly brought to the band by newcomers Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. It’s likely to be seen as throw-away because of its brevity but in that time it opens out to reveal a cinematic scope, with nice keyboard orchestration and poignant percussion. I don’t know what the lyrics allude to but I think of a classic Rolls Royce on a road atop of Yorkshire or perhaps Devonshire moors. It’s dramatic, and maybe that’s where the album title comes from; it’s certainly not car as analogy for sex object!

By ProgBlog, Dec 6 2015 09:34PM

I’ve now set up my new Rega RP3 and have started to put on vinyl in preference to my somewhat larger collection of CDs. My first record deck, bought from Comet within days of finishing work at Barrow’s Steelworks during the annual two-week shutdown in the summer of 1978 (when the UK still had a sizeable steel industry) was a Pioneer PL-514. This solid piece of kit had a heavy aluminium platter and a thick rubber mat and I really liked it. I wasn’t too fussed by the tone arm lifting at the end of an LP but it had a fairly basic design and I thought it sounded pretty good – I paired it with an Ortofon OM20 and though I passed this on to my brother-in-law in the mid 80s, I still have the original Pioneer screwdriver for attaching the cartridge.


The new Rega Planar 3
The new Rega Planar 3

When I was choosing my hi-fi I believed it important to stick to basics; there was a NAD turntable that came out shortly afterwards that could be played vertically but I thought that was rather gimmicky. The speed change on the Pioneer was a choice between 33 rpm and 45 rpm whereas the record player that I had been using, a sprung turntable in a walnut-finished stereogram, include 78 rpm and may even have had a 16 rpm selection. Neither of the two Regas I’ve owned have had speed selector and you have to manually move the drive belt if you want to switch between single and album formats; the default position is 33 rpm.

One of the defining features of progressive rock is that the music expanded beyond the constraints of the sub-3 minute single, allowing for development of ideas and sonic experimentation. It’s no coincidence that the time of progressive rock was also a golden period for album sales where the gatefold sleeve was a gateway to other worlds, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in intricate artwork and song words imbued with meaning.

I don’t believe I ever played a single on my old RP2 and I can’t play any on my RP3 because I don’t own any. I have bought singles in the past, the first of which was probably Solsbury Hill (1977) by Peter Gabriel, bought in lieu of his first album to see if I liked the material enough to warrant going to see him on his first solo tour. I did. My friend Bill Burford also dabbled in singles, though his first, And You and I, with Roundabout on the B side (1973) was played at 33 rpm. I seem to recall he later went on to buy Don’t Kill the Whale (1978) as a single because I was unimpressed with the B side, Abilene; it reached no. 36 in the UK charts. His next was Rock n Roll Star (1977) by Barclay James Harvest, from Octoberon, released the previous year. We’d been to Lancaster to see BJH during their Time Honoured Ghosts tour but Octoberon, like many releases by progressive rock bands at this time, had a more commercial sound than the earlier material. Rock n Roll Star reached no.49 in the UK single charts and earned the band a slot on Top of the Pops; though Wonderous Stories wasn’t really overtly commercial it was single-length and when Yes released that in 1977 it peaked at no.7 in the UK charts and appeared on Top of the Pops on more than one occasion but I had no need to buy the single because I already owned the album. There was also no need to rush out to buy Camel’s Highways of the Sun, the single released from Rain Dances (1977). This radio-friendly number was somewhat at odds with the jazzier and experimental tracks on the album but it still didn’t manage to climb into the Top 50. It was undeniably Camel at their most melodic and was only as concise as the other material yet, though the sleeve notes for the 1991 CD reissue suggest otherwise, it does seem to possess a commercial or accessible quality that’s not present on the other songs. What I did buy was the Genesis Spot the Pigeon EP, left-over material from Wind and Wuthering (1976) that reached no. 14 in the singles charts in 1977. The two tracks on side A are very throwaway, especially Pigeons. Match of the Day is slightly better and it’s these two songs that give rise to the title of the EP, a play on the ‘spot the ball’ football competitions. Side B is a very different kettle of fish, where Inside and Out, the only one of the three songs to feature Steve Hackett in the song writing credits, hints at early Genesis and includes enough changes of mood to warrant its inclusion on Wind and Wuthering in place of the uninspiring, insipid Your Own Special Way, a track that even more than Afterglow signposts the direction that Genesis would take following the departure of Hackett.

I bought Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell (1979) from Elpees in Bexley when I was a first year student on the same day that I bought a Deutsche Grammophon release of Handel’s Water Music. I have claimed that I bought it for the use of the syndrum but I think that I had to get it because I’d threatened to buy it and friends Jim Knipe and Mark Franchetti probably didn’t believe me; I also attended an Ash Wednesday mass because I said I’d go as a joke and Mark didn’t believe me. I didn’t play Ring My Bell very often and it’s long since been despatched to a charity shop, though I can still sing along when I hear it on the radio...

I lived at various addresses in Streatham during my final undergraduate year and for the first couple of years as an employee of the National Blood Transfusion Service and picked up singles by The Enid and Marillion from the bargain bin an independent record store.



Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single
Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single

These were picture sleeve editions of Golden Earrings b/w 665 The Great Bean (from 1980) and Garden Party b/w Margaret (from 1983) respectively. Marillion managed to get to no. 16 but the humorous 665 The Great Bean, containing the lyrics “the discos in heaven all shut at eleven and they only serve pop in the bar, sir. I’ll put you at ease with some good Lebanese, a blue film and two or three jars, sir” and sung to the tune from The Devil (from In the Region of the Summer Stars) failed to trouble the singles chart compilers. Though not over-impressed by the live recording of Margaret I did rather like the attack on elitism in Garden Party, the lyrical content in general and some great musicianship. I could see where the accusations of imitating Genesis came from but that was really only a small part of the music; I loved Pete Trewavas’ trebly, staccato bass lines. It’s therefore somewhat surprising that it took me so long to buy any of their albums. Also in the bargain bin were copies of UK’s Nothing to Lose and I did feel that perhaps I ought to have supported the band by buying a copy, even though I already owned Danger Money (1979) and Night After Night (1979).

Throughout my youth I resisted the urge to by the odd prog single that I didn’t own on album, unable to reconcile their value and cost; I did splash out on two Asia 12” singles, at £0.99 each from the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1984 or 1985 that I gave to two girlfriends. They were the last singles I ever bought and one remains in my household; one went to my wife-to-be Susan. I think she might like Asia’s music more than me...


Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain
Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain




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