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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, Nov 8 2015 09:09PM

The Wellcome Collection on Euston Road bills itself as ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’ and is basically a synthesis of a gallery and a museum that displays an eclectic mixture of medical artefacts and original artworks exploring ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art. I first visited Henry Solomon Wellcome’s former museum in Wigmore Street as a Botany/Zoology student, sometime in the late 70s or early 80s and though the collection has both moved and expanded, the concept of treating art and medical science as equally valid subjects remains true; it’s an institution that appeals to my sense of the value of medicine and medical research which reflects my professional life, but also satisfies my appreciation of the arts, though I subscribe to the belief that the Wellcome Trust should divest its investments in fossil fuels in order to combat climate change. I attended a British Transplantation Society Ethics symposium in its new home last December which concluded with an evening debate, hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby, open to transplant professionals and the general public. The building itself is impressive, with a neo-classical façade and modern interior; high ceilings, clean lines and a spectacular steel and glass spiral staircase that hints at DNA, designed by Wilkinson Eyre and costing over £1m.

I was there yesterday with my family to visit the first instalment of the States of Mind exhibition, an installation by Ann Veronica Janssens, yellowbluepink where the exhibition space is filled with a dense mist coloured by lights, giving the impression that it’s the colour itself that is held in a state of suspension as you make your way around the gallery. Rather like the feeling when you’re caught in a white-out on a mountain, you lose your sense of depth and you can’t detect any detail in the surface you’re walking upon; I’ve been known to fall over in conditions like these when skiing, even standing still. The effect of the artwork is to make you concentrate on the process of perception itself and, as your environment has an apparent embracing fluidity comprised of colour, your normal cognitive processes are deconstructed and you find yourself working out a different way of seeing.

Psychedelia and early progressive rock were very much keyed in to expanding consciousness. Lysergic acid, LSD, was seen as one route and meditative practice was another; I don’t think it can be disputed that LSD and eastern thinking had an influence on the output of the Beatles and it’s very likely that at least one of these had some bearing on Procol Harum (In Held 'Twas in I from Shine On Brightly, 1968) but while acid would become associated with space rock, inner space as much as outer space, an interest in the philosophy of eastern religions was more mainstream, inspiring (amongst others) John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Yes. Bill Bruford jokingly suggests he’s responsible for Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) because it was at Bruford’s wedding that King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir introduced Jon Anderson to the writings of Paramahansa Yogananda.

Transcendental Meditation was fashionable when I was at school and a number of my good friends went off to a lecture hear about the practice; the parents of one of them were concerned that the event was some form of brain-washing exercise. Though I read widely around the subjects of expanding consciousness including a trio of books by Carlos Castaneda and the obligatory The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, I was never tempted to meditate and the only hallucinogens I ever ingested were Psilocybe semilanceata, freshly foraged from Streatham common, and seeds from home-grown Ipomoea violacea (Heavenly Blue Morning Glory.) Both were chosen because they were natural, unadulterated products and, in the case of the magic mushrooms, as a former botany student I was unconcerned that I’d pick something unpalatable. During an InterRail tour of Europe in 1980 with fellow botany student Nick Hodgetts, we were on the lookout for Lophophora williamsii, the peyote. I may have been influenced by the almost lounge-jazz of Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) from In and Out of Focus (1970) but despite some promising signs on barges in Amsterdam, we didn’t find any. Back home, the Ipomoea didn’t work at all and the result from the fungi was mildly disappointing; I succumbed to finding everything very funny and though I thought that my smile was going to spread so wide that my head was going to fall off, there were no chromatic or sonic effects. This contrasts with the coverage of use of magic mushrooms by youths in Barrow’s Evening Mail which described tales of visions of dragons. How prog is that? Perhaps I should have stayed in Barrow...

I have found that live music can lead to transcendental experiences. The dreamy soundscapes of Sylvian and Fripp played havoc with my temporal awareness when I saw them at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993, despite the cramped seating conditions. It felt as though I was transported to another time and another place and, as I’d not previously heard any of the material, it came as something of a shock to find that one of the tracks was called Twentieth Century Dreaming (A Shaman's Song). When I used to listen to Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon (1975) in the dark and through headphones I used to imagine other possible worlds, with the flowing, amorphous sounds conjuring a dynamic spectrum of colours. Though I appreciate stagecraft and thematic stage design, I’d always wanted to see Tangerine Dream in a dimly-lit church. The nearest thing I ever came to them was witnessing Node earlier this year, at the Royal College of Music. The pulsating sequences and sonic washes were mesmerising; the musicians were mostly static but when I closed my eyes the effect was to take me on a trip into inner space, equating the sequences with racing heartbeats or neuro-synaptic transmission.

This effect isn’t only associated with soundscapes or electronica; two years ago watching a reformed Camel performing The Snow Goose in its entirety, I was carried by the music to a dream world where I played out the piece, somehow anticipating and embracing the changes required for the composition when realised without an orchestra. The effect seems to occur when I’m most relaxed, undisturbed by theatrical elements and allowing the musicians to weave their magic. Only prog seems to have that magic.



By ProgBlog, Dec 7 2014 05:57PM

The headline for a review of a Procol Harum gig in The Independent last week suggested that Procol Harum should be considered on an equal footing to Pink Floyd http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/reviews/procol-harum-dominion-theatre-gig-review-poised-to-reclaim-their-rightful-place-alongside-pink-floyd-in-the-prog-rock-pantheon-9882262.html?origin=internalSearch but I’d have issues with this even if I held The Independent in any regard. Founded in 1986 by disaffected Daily Telegraph journalists, The Indy (as it liked to be known) maintained the banner "free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence" until 2011 but always retained a pro-market predisposition. Fellow Barrovian Chris Blackhurst became editor in 2011 after circulating around the business pages of a number of Tory rags; Blackhurst was a student in my form at school whose father was a Conservative councillor and, though he says he originally was in favour of the comprehensive school system, wrote an op-ed for his paper in 2012 asking for the resurrection of Grammar schools. Owned by oligarch and former KGB Foreign Intelligence officer Alexander Lebedev since 2010, the standing of The Independent plummeted further in my eyes.

Forget my issues with the newspaper’s ownership and editorial bias. Procol Harum (named after a Burmese Blue cat that had been misspelled, the cat was meant to be called Procul Harun, ‘beyond these things’) do have a potential claim to a place in progressive rock history: In Held Twas In I, from their second album Shine On Brightly released in December 1968, is an almost side-long multi-part suite that some might consider to be the first prog track. Procol are obviously most famous for A Whiter Shade of Pale, the most played song on UK radio, a track that was released before but didn’t appear on their first (eponymous) album. The most striking thing about this single which came out before the album, is Matthew Fisher’s organ figure, a loose approximation of Bach’s Air on a G String and there’s nothing like it on the entire debut LP. Fisher, from South Croydon, had spent two terms at the Guildhall School of Music but had decided musical studies didn’t suit him. However, I think the best tracks on Procol Harum are those which most feature Fisher: the excellent Conquistador; the instrumental Repent Walpurgis (which was written by Fisher but does include some nice guitar); and She Wandered Through the Garden Fence, where the organ is gospel-jazz. Not even the classical motifs can hide the blues that dominate the rest of the album; the lyrics are almost all throwaway despite the strong vocal performance from Brooker but the playing is always solid. With the possible exception of Conquistador, none of this is prog, or even proto-prog territory. The more psychedelic songs sound a little bit like the shorter Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack offerings from The Nice but compared to Piper-era Floyd, there’s no sonic exploration and even Syd Barrett’s lyrical whimsy, set within the context of the dawn of psychedelia, comes across as something new and different. Perhaps this is because the Floyd were less established as musicians; intending to become a song writer, Brooker had originally ended his playing career (with The Paramounts) in 1966 when Pink Floyd were only just settling on a steady line-up and managing to get paid bookings. Both bands played to their strengths: Procol were a very British R&B group and Pink Floyd were plotting their course towards space rock.

Much of Procol’s second could have been written for their first album. The exception is the near 17 minute masterpiece In Held Twas In I which, though it wasn’t the first side-length track (Ars Longa Vita Brevis had been released a couple of months beforehand), it incorporated a broader sonic palette, utilising sitar and harpsichord, absorbing musical and theological influences from the East. It was both thought-provoking and fun and one of my student day party pieces was to recount the opening section Glimpses of Nirvana: “Well, my son. Life is like a beanstalk. Isn’t it?” The piece was a composite; shorter songs very neatly segued together to produce the full track but it is, nevertheless, a pretty successful and fulfilling piece of music. Matthew Fisher was again invited to provide material and he also sings on the section that he penned, In the Autumn of my Madness, which has a very memorable melody.

I first heard this song on Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, owned by one of Tony’s friends; with a much revised line-up and released in 1972, it coincided with my discovery of progressive rock. I bought the live album from Our Price in Lewisham in 1980 because apart from the epic In Held, it also has a really good version of Conquistador. This and a copy of Exotic Birds and Fruit that I picked up very cheap somewhere in the first few years after my arrival in London were my only Procol Harum albums for a very long time. I subsequently gave my copy of Exotic Birds away to a local charity shop having only played it a couple of times in twenty odd years and deciding I didn’t really like it. I had heard Something Magic (1977) on more than one occasion, an album owned by Infield Park Gang associate Mark Baker which, though not brilliant, wasn’t too bad mostly due to the side long track The Worm and the Tree. Those were the dog days of prog and the music on Something Magic reflected a lack of musical adventurousness. Exotic Birds and Fruit had been bought without a prior listen but at the time I figured that an album from 1974, from a band many consider to be a founding member of the progressive rock movement, would be ok. It wasn’t because they’d abandoned orchestrations and returned to more blues-based rock.

Meanwhile, Pink Floyd had gone from strength to strength, embraced long-form composition and recorded (a studio album) with an orchestra and choir (Atom Heart Mother, 1970) and gone on to break records with the chart longevity of Dark Side of the Moon. The Floyd were outward looking, Procol Harum were inward looking.

In 2005, former organist Matthew Fisher launched a legal battle against pianist and vocalist Gary Brooker over the musical copyright of A Whiter Shade of Pale. His initial success recognising that he had written the organ introduction and counter melody and therefore deserved royalties was challenged by Brooker at appeal and it wasn’t until Fisher took the case to the Law Lords, where he argued that a win without royalty money was never going to be recognised as a win at all, that Fisher emerged victorious. Baroness Hale, one of the five Law Lords involved in the hearing said in her contribution to the rulings: "As one of those people who do remember the Sixties, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves."

Just because A Whiter Shade, Conquistador and In Held Twas In I were prime examples of the direction of travel of rock music in the late 60s, it doesn’t make them prog. A quick scan of articles by Pierre Perrone, the author of the Independent’s review, does not include much about progressive rock. More disturbingly, he had previously given the musical Rock of Ages a four star review. I assume his headline was referring to the recent release of The Endless River after a gap of 20 years but Perrone needs to do some better research if he's going to write about prog.


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