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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, May 29 2016 09:00PM

In the mid-70s I was aware that progressive rock could be found elsewhere in the world other than the UK. I was very much into Focus and Trace (Netherlands); PFM (Italy); Gong (France); and even had an inkling that Wigwam were predominantly Finnish. I’d also come across the work of Swedish multi-instrumentalist Bo Hansson.

Hansson had a track on Charisma Keyboards, the Charisma sampler from 1974 that also included America by The Nice, The Fountain of Salmacis by Genesis and White Hammer by Van der Graaf Generator; Hansson’s Flight to the Ford was the shortest track on the album by some margin but the brevity of the piece didn’t deter Guy Wimble, a friend from across the road, buying Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings Hansson’s most successful assault on the UK album charts, from which the track was taken. The LP had been very successful in Sweden when it was originally released on Silence Records in 1970, partly because of the adoption of The Lord of the Rings by the counter-culture but equally because the music fitted the nascent progressive rock movement. The acquisition of Hansson by Charisma exposed Hansson to a far wider market and though his subsequent albums Magician’s Hat (Silence, 1972, Charisma 1973), Attic Thoughts (1975) and Music Inspired by Watership Down (1977) were not as successful it’s unlikely that many of us would have heard of him had it not been for Tony Stratton-Smith.


Bo Hansson's Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings
Bo Hansson's Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings

The music itself is pleasant and melodic but you could never call it over-adventurous; listening to it recently I found I liked it more than I remember doing so. There’s a space rock vibe pervading the compositions (the original Silence release cover art was quite psychedelic) and Hansson layers the instruments in a way that I think may have influenced Mike Oldfield’s modus operandi; he adds some nice distorted jazzy guitar that strays into Santana territory and, though he may have jammed with Jimi Hendrix, his playing is clearly more informed by jazz than the blues. Flight to the Ford is one of two up-tempo tracks (the other is The Horns of Rohan/The Battle of the Pelennor Fields where the cymbal work suggests clashing swords) but there’s only a relatively narrow dynamic range on the entire album; the swelling organ work conjures images of rolling countryside and though not truly pastoral, it certainly comes across as very reflective. Perhaps I was swayed more by the literary influences and references than the music itself, as Hansson employs titles from books I was reading as a teenager: The Lord of the Rings (obviously); Elidor by Alan Garner and Watership Down by Richard Adams. I suppose that it’s hardly surprising that the Swedes should have taken to modern myths from contemporary authors given their own story-telling legacy and Tolkien’s desire to create a myth to match the Norse sagas.

I travelled around Sweden as part of an InterRail adventure in 1983, making a brief stop in Gothenburg to wait for a train to Oslo,spent two hours in Boden before moving on to Finland, two full days in Stockholm, about half an hour waiting for a hydrofoil in Malmo plus hours of travel on the Swedish rail network, many kilometres of which were spent inside the arctic circle where, even in August, the landscape was stark; the trees denuded as though by acid rainfall, which was just reaching our collective environmental consciousness at the time. I really enjoyed Stockholm and wished I could have spent more time there, staying overnight on a full-rigged three mast iron sailing ship built in Whitehaven, Cumbria in 1888 (SS Dunboyne) which had become permanently moored off Skeppsholmen and converted to a Youth Hostel, the af Chapman. Travelling with college friend Nick Hodgetts, now a renowned bryophytologist, we island-hopped and explored some of the less popular areas of the city, the narrow streets behind the main thoroughfares. I don’t buy ‘tourist’ things but rather I bought a Franz Kafka T-shirt from the Akademibokhandeln bookshop, 1983 being Kafka’s centenary. The legend, in Swedish, read “Kafka hade inte heller så roligt” something along the lines of “Kafka was not so funny”.


The author in 1984 sporting the Kafka T-shirt
The author in 1984 sporting the Kafka T-shirt

The third wave of progressive rock didn’t arise in the UK but in Sweden and the USA. Around the time that King Crimson resurfaced with the double trio conformation in 1994 I started to subscribe to Elephant Talk, the King Crimson internet resource run by Toby Howard and this is when I realised that there was some form of prog revival, frequently sounding like metal with some prog flourishes but also material that was reported to sound like Red-era Crimson; heavy prog but not prog metal. It probably didn’t sink in that there was a strong Swedish connection to the prog revival until I bought my first Jerry Lucky book and with two highly regarded bands mentioned very early on in the listings, Anekdoten and Änglagård, I added Änglagård’s Hybris (1992) to my wish list (copies were selling for in excess of £50 when they were available, which was infrequent) and invested in my first ever download, Anekdoten’s Vemod (1993) because I’d read a description that suggested the music sounded like King Crimson would have done if they hadn’t disbanded in 1974, a remarkably accurate assessment. Vemod is heavy, Mellotron-drenched and although it’s predominantly instrumental, the lyrics are intelligent and call to mind Richard Palmer-James, rather than Peter Sinfield. The melancholy feel of the music is enhanced by the addition of cello; at times the guitar is like the angular playing of Steve Howe on Fragile and the bass style owes a heavy debt to John Wetton. I finally got my hands on a copy of Hybris from a stall at the Prog Résiste festival in 2014, a brilliant, less heavy affair than Vemod or the Anekdoten follow-up Nucleus (1995) but still deeply rooted in the 70s progressive rock sensibility. The darkness and sadness in this trio of albums may be in part due to the Scandinavian physical geography and latitude (nicely parodied by Steven Wilson in live performances of The Raven That Refused to Sing by asking Guthrie Govan to play guitar in the style of a number of stereotypical Swedish situations) but it’s to the benefit of every prog fan that they have such an attitude. I was fortunate to get to see Änglagård play their first UK gig at the Resonance Festival in 2014 and despite a lengthy delay due to the obstinacy of a Mellotron, it was a fantastic routine.



One name that links Änglagård and Anekdoten is Markus Resch who serviced and repaired their Mellotrons and who now owns the rights to the Mellotron name. I think I’m correct in believing that I first came across his name at the Night Watch playback in 1997 where there were two Mellotrons on display.

Another leading light of the third wave is Flower Kings, led by guitarist Roine Stolt who had joined Swedish symphonic prog band Kaipa aged 17 in the mid 70s. I managed to catch them headlining at Prog Résiste but was a little disappointed because they didn’t match expectations. I subsequently read that their later material deliberately moved away from classic analogue keyboard sounds and this fits with my memory of their set, which didn’t come anywhere close to recreating 70s prog but sounded more mainstream and, if you’ll excuse the pun, more transatlantic.



Flower Kings at Soignies 26th April 2014
Flower Kings at Soignies 26th April 2014

Sometime before I managed to acquire any of the 90s Swedish prog I’d been given Seven Days of Falling (2003) by E.S.T, the Esbjorn Svensson Trio as a present and later bought their final album Leucocyte (2008), released posthumously three months after the death of pianist Svensson. This jazz trio deliberately blurred genres and if such a thing existed, they’d be labelled as prog-jazz, incorporating electronics and noise into their recordings. It was after an E.S.T gig in Brighton in 2005 that I was caught accidentally speeding (34 mph in a 30 mph zone) searching for directions how to get out of the city centre and return to Croydon. It was still a good concert.

If you thought that the only musical export from Sweden was the over-produced Abba singing meaningless nonsense, you need to reappraise. Not only was Bo Hansson riding the first wave of progressive rock, it was the Swedes who resurrected the genre, not just as prog but as genuine progressive rock in the 90s. Bring on the Bo Hansson T-shirts!





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.



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