ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

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 19 2017 07:51PM

The reappearance of Prog magazine, putting an end to a period of uncertainty for the staff, is most welcome and its unchanged format is very reassuring. I rarely get the chance to sit down and read it in one go so it normally takes a week or so for me to get through the articles I find interesting – no, I don’t read every word because some of the featured artists are from beyond the spectrum of my listening habits. I also have to balance Prog with other reading material: my physical copy of The Guardian which is mostly but not entirely completed on my commute to-and-from work; the occasional essay written by a colleague (Describe and discuss the categories of solid organ allograft rejection and the means by which they may be limited, and Describe the structure of MHC encoded antigens and their role in the presentation of peptides to T cells); and books received at Christmas or on birthdays. I’m currently struggling with William Morris’ News from Nowhere which, despite its socialist message and relative brevity is heavy going, meaning sessions are interspersed with getting through the prog-related literature that appeared under the Christmas tree.




I’ve already written about Yes is the Answer (and reviewed it on Amazon) but I’ve also completed Time and Some Words: The Anthology of Prog Rock Quotations 1969-1976 by Dave Thompson and just started Yes and Philosophy - The Spiritual and Philosophical Dimensions of Yes Music by Scott O’Reilly. Thompson’s quotations are frequently devoid of context or else have context imposed upon them by virtue of the chapter title; some are from author interviews and come with a degree of perspective. As much as I enjoyed reading the words of wisdom of my musical heroes, some of which I’d probably originally seen in the NME or Melody Maker in the mid 70s, the inclusion of pithy or equally, convoluted remarks from musicians I’ve never heard of and some who really aren’t progressive rock at all, ran contrary to the title. It may be that Thompson, a Brit who has lived in the US for some time who has far broader tastes than me, has simply over-estimated the true size of the genre during its first, golden period but at the risk of setting myself up in a glass house, I’m a firm believer in accuracy. There’s nothing revelatory in the book as we’ve moved on over 45 years since the first of the contributors aired an opinion which means that there’s been plenty of opportunity for their thoughts to be fully analysed in the intervening period; Thompson may have reasoned that the recent rise in prog-related publications was a good opportunity to knock out another book. It’s too early for me to say what I think about O’Reilly’s effort but the posted reviews are ambivalent or worse, the best of them criticising the typographical errors (a complaint I could raise against Thompson’s book where it appears that the grammar check has been deactivated.) I like the idea of a philosophical study of Yes, adding to the work of Bill Martin (a professor of philosophy) whose Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock has a logical, analytical approach which draws in political and sociological strands.



It’s almost as though my reading habits have been totally inverted. As a youth and during my early adulthood I read a fairly wide range of novels, from the classics to fantasy. I’ve previously written about the links between the authors I’d been reading and progressive rock but at the time there were no books about the genre. I’d only buy one of the weekly music papers if it had something about a band or artist I was interested in, so there were less than six years, from September 1972 when I first heard Close to the Edge to summer 1978, when there was any reasonable coverage of the genre; even the last two years of this period were becoming dominated by punk and new wave. I don’t read very many novels any more (the last, apart from my current tribulations with News from Nowhere, was The Vorrh by Brian Catlin) but there seems to be a new wave of literature relating to prog, of variable standard, which I am slowly amassing and authors like O’Reilly and Thompson are currently riding.

If we accept fantasy literature as a prog genre (Alan Garner, Richard Adams, JRR Tolkien), what can be said for science fiction? I have read a fair amount of SF over the years and witnessed a blurring of the boundary between SF and fantasy and though there’s an obvious association between Michael Moorcock and Hawkwind, Hawkwind’s brand of space rock was never really prog; on the other hand, William Burroughs may have had an influence on the thinking of Soft Machine but he was never really a science fiction writer. I read most of the SF classics and some, like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, appeared on my reading list because of my nascent appreciation for progressive rock. Lyrically, the song appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the novel but Heinlein’s pro-military opinions were aired by characters within the book and there’s a possibility that Anderson and Squire were responding to Heinlein’s view with their own positive outlook; Yours is no Disgrace, also from The Yes Album is an anti-war song and it’s not unreasonable to imagine members of Yes reading SF.


Rick Wakeman was an avid Jules Verne fan but was Verne’s output really science fiction. It can’t be disputed that Verne was a strong influence on the genre and he wrote about emerging technologies and incorporated the cutting-edge scientific thinking of the time. I’d accept that Verne was the grandfather of science fiction but I think his novels were basically books about exploration, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth describing an expedition but also taking readers on a journey through geological time. This suggests to me that Wakeman was not necessarily inspired by the strictly scientific aspect of the work but more by the possibilities of musical adaptation of a good story. No Earthly Connection is more new age than SF but Out There, which revisited the quest for the origins of all music after a hiatus of 26 years, does come across more as science fiction. I saw Wakeman touring both No Earthly Connection (1976) and Out There (2003) and the latter struck me as a piece of science fiction theatre, mainly because of the NASA footage and a steampunk graphical representation of the spaceship.



My favourite SF authors are JG Ballard and Ursula Le Guin, who approach the genre from very different angles. Ballard wrote about the ‘deep undercurrents’ of the present, exposing a dystopian psychogeography and his writings influenced post-punk synthesizer bands which was in tune with the feelings circulating around the concrete walkways of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. I first came across Le Guin through her Earthsea fantasy trilogy (at the time) and then got caught up in her interconnected SF worlds of the Hainish Cycle. Her almost academic anthropological writing makes her stands apart from others (her family background) but her portrayal of gender and race put her firmly in the progressive bracket. I personally think of Le Guin’s twin worlds of Anarres and Urras (from The Dispossessed) when I listen to Felona e Sorona by Le Orme but Peter Hammill’s lyrics for the English language recording Felona and Sorona suggest some form of supernatural Being holds responsibility for the two planets, a major detour from Le Guin. In fact, progressivo Italiano has a few science fiction-themed albums including Per... un Mondo di Cristallo by Raccomandata Ricevuta Ritorno (RRR) about the anguish felt by an astronaut when he finds that humankind has disappeared on his return to earth. Van der Graaf Generator acknowledge the influence of science fiction on the sleeve notes of The least we can do is wave to each other with a credit for reading matter: Asimov/Donleavy (JP Donleavy is not an SF writer!) and the epic Childhood Faith in Childhood’s End, the Hammill nod to Arthur C Clarke on Still Life where he ponders the evolutionary course of humankind.




Robots are currently very topical. There’s a great deal of current interest in artificial intelligence from poker playing computers to television series and now London’s Science Museum has opened a major Robots exhibition. One of the classic SF books was a series of short stories, published as I, Robot by Isaac Asimov with its ‘Three laws of robotics’: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Asimov may have been a successful scientist but I always thought his writing was like cowboys in outer space, and that includes his best work, the Foundation trilogy. I, Robot is actually a whodunit played out in a future where our lives are enhanced by the presence of robots. I Robot by the Alan Parsons Project is inspired by the book but the music is far from stimulating. I don’t own any of their albums, I’d not class the Project as prog and whereas I’d normally lump them in with art-rock, this particular release varies from competent AOR to almost disco; it goes without saying that it’s well produced. The instrumental tracks bookending the work are the best, though the rhythm machine drumming (is it Stuart Tosh?) however appropriate for the subject matter, detracts from some decent, keyboard dominated pieces.



ELP may have trodden familiar tropes about the future of mankind in Karn Evil 9 but the AI is a computer, not a robot; Radiohead may have referenced depressed robot Marvin from spoof SF The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on OK Computer with Paranoid Android; but only Pat Metheny has built a robot orchestra for his backing band on his Orchestrion album. Despite the technological innovations associated with progressive rock, I don’t think technology-heavy science fiction has had any particular influence on prog. Rather, it’s strong stories and key philosophical ideas which have inspired artists to push musical boundaries.











By ProgBlog, Jun 12 2016 09:24PM

I remember the UK joining the EEC in 1973 better than I remember the last time the UK took place in a European referendum on the 5th June 1975. During an Art lesson at the time we joined the Common Market, we were given the task of illustrating the event and though my family quite happily discussed issues that laid the foundation for my own political awakening, I don’t recall how they voted in the 1975 plebiscite.

The first half of 1975 was relatively quiet for releases from major progressive rock acts. In April Camel released Music Inspired by the Snow Goose and Hatfield and the North released The Rotter’s Club the previous month but it wasn’t until late summer into autumn that the floodgates opened and Caravan finally managed to get an album in the charts with Cunning Stunts; Gentle Giant released the accessible Free Hand; Quiet Sun put out the phenomenal, off-beat Mainstream; Pink Floyd returned from hiatus with Wish You Were Here; Jethro Tull released the under-rated Minstrel in the Gallery; Steve Hackett embarked on his first solo venture, albeit with help from a number of his band mates, Voyage of the Acolyte; Van der Graaf Generator mark II announced their reformation with Godbluff; Chris Squire became the first of the Yes alumni to release a solo album during their break from band duties with Fish out of Water; and Vangelis, who had sparked our interest because of headlines linking him with Yes after the departure of Rick Wakeman in 1974, put out Heaven and Hell. Focus rounded off the year with Mother Focus, a departure from the symphonic prog of Hamburger Concerto, veering into pop and funk territory, considered by many to be disappointingly sub-standard.


With the exception of Wish You Were Here and Fish out of Water, I didn’t buy any of the albums listed above at the time of their release due to a combination of lack of funds and a lack of willingness to take a punt when I’d only heard excerpts on the radio. I’ve yet to commit to a copy of Cunning Stunts. When I did buy an LP it was catching up with a release from earlier in the progressive rock timeline, including the compilation Yesterdays which really counts as the first Yes retrospective, no doubt issued (in February 1975) to maintain interest in the group as they all took time off to explore solo ventures. I thought it was a decent way of acquiring some of their early material, plus a muscular, prog version of Simon and Garfunkel’s America, for half the price of the first two studio albums. Another two albums that I did buy when they first came out were Rubycon by Tangerine Dream and Rick Wakeman’s Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, from March and April 1975 respectively. I hadn’t bought Journey to the Centre of the Earth, having been put off by the vocals but I thought the singing on Arthur was better and Wakeman’s song writing had improved, though not to the standard of the musical vignettes on the entirely instrumental The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Also, as much as I approved of Jules Verne’s proto-science fiction, I was much more familiar with Arthurian legends. Rubycon continued on from where Phaedra had left off and at the time I was very much in favour of keyboard-drenched sojourns into outer and inner space and the amorphous washes from Tangerine Dream, coupled with the sequencer pulses weaving and morphing in and out of the synthesizer, organ and Mellotron drones chimed with my interest in sonic exploration.


Whereas I’d heard of bands like Amon Düül, Kraftwerk and, thanks to the marketing gurus at Virgin Records selling The Faust Tapes for 49p, Faust, of all the German bands I only really liked Tangerine Dream; that was until late summer when Triumvirat released Spartacus and, after hearing March to the Eternal City on Alan Freeman's radio show, I went out and bought the album. Whereas most of the album is stylistically analogous to Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Karn Evil 9, March to the Eternal City hints of ELP but is obviously Triumvirat. This is the best track on the album thanks to the lyrics which sound as though they could be telling some future tale, “they carry missile and spear”, like a storyline from the comic strip The Trigan Empire; the other words are a bit schoolboy-ish and naive.

It was early in 1975 was when I discovered Premiata Forneria Marcon (PFM) when friend Bill Burford bought Chocolate Kings and live cut Cook, and a Europe-wide take on the progressive rock super-genre began to reveal itself with other musicians and bands joining the movement, one that still seemed very much rooted in the original ideals. This time of progressive rock coincided with the death of Franco in Spain and the beginning of the transition to democracy and Greece only emerged from a military junta the previous year, 1974.


Fast forward to 2016 and Europe seems to be doing its best to tear itself apart. Southern states have been most badly affected by austerity and though it’s been easy for those in power to deflect the blame from the banks that caused the financial crisis in 2008, it has resulted in an abandonment of belief in the political system. Those on the Right blame immigration for their economic outlook while those on the Left decry inflexible centrists for imposing austerity on their countries. So far, the far Right have been kept from power but the frightening prospect of Golden Dawn in Greece, a violent party that took third place in elections in 2015 or France’s Marine Le Pen or, even more recently, of Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party who was narrowly defeated by the socialist Alexander Van der Bellen in this year’s Austrian Presidential election, being elected to run their country is a serious cause for concern because their insular point of view and populist nationalism is a breeding ground for hatred and violence and threatens genuine democracy through clamping down on freedom of speech. Our very own UKIP operates under the guise of respectability but a series of interventions by party officials shows how nasty they really are, trading on fear, lies and the politics of hatred. Wars in Africa and the Middle East have created a massive migrant crisis as refugees risk their lives in the flight from their own countries towards what they believe to be the safety of the West, landing in Italy and Greece, creating perfect conditions for the rise of anti-immigrant sympathies.

It seems to me that the UK referendum on our membership of the EU, a political gamble by David Cameron that was always destined to fail, has been reduced to the level of a playground brawl with each side calling each other names and, despite those who wish to remain talking up doom scenarios and those who wish to leave having no idea of how the country will fare outside of the EU, this has become a referendum on immigration. Those in favour of leaving imagine they are going to take control of our borders. Could they remind themselves how many Syrian refugees the UK has taken in? That was 1,602 at the end of March this year. What an amazing response to a humanitarian crisis! According to Nigel Farage, controlling immigration is restricting the movement of Europeans into the UK complaining of the stress placed upon housing, jobs and the NHS but allowing an undisclosed number of Commonwealth citizens to come to the UK. It’s hard to believe he can get away with such hypocrisy but the 24 hour media cover concentrates on ‘blue on blue’ attacks and making up non-stories about Jeremy Corbyn.

It would be nice if someone broadcast the message that it’s not immigrants who put strain on public services, but ideological austerity and the deliberate dogmatic shrinking of the State. No one has said there’s not enough room in the country. There aren’t enough hospital beds, teachers and affordable houses or public transport because this government, and those before, have pursued policies of enriching the few and penalising those on low and middle incomes, welcoming foreign investment in luxury developments but leaving flats empty, under-occupied and pushing house prices beyond the means of a major proportion of the population, slashing the salaries of healthcare workers and teachers through public-sector pay freezes and pension changes and forcing low paid private sector employees into zero hour contracts. Please don’t think that education, health, housing, jobs and transport would be better if we leave the EU – those advocating leave are equally responsible for the state of the country with their private healthcare directorships and money secreted away in tax havens.

Progressive rock espoused the benefits of external influences and embraced the nascent green movement. I’m not suggesting that there’s nothing wrong with the EU but the UK will not be able to face up to global challenges like climate change on its own. This means the abandonment of austerity and offering more, better targeted training and rejecting xenophobia. Let’s do it with help from our EU partners.





By ProgBlog, Apr 21 2015 07:53PM

It’s indisputable that progressive rock was a genre of grand concepts from the straightforward interpretation of classic novels (Camel’s Music Inspired by The Snow Goose, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month for example, based on Paul Gallico’s novella); the search for enlightenment (that’s my personal take on Tales from Topographic Oceans); the stresses of everyday life (Dark Side of the Moon); or allegory (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.) Though The Gift released Awake and Dreaming in 2006, a project that began in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition and which features a multi-part suite concerning the savagery of war, I find it somewhat surprising that during the golden era of prog there wasn’t an entire concept album about the horrors of warfare. I witnessed The Gift perform at the Resonance Festival in Balham last year and was impressed by Mike Morton’s musical depiction of the madness and futility of global conflict – I resigned as a member of the Labour Party because of Iraq.

Folk music was one of the keystones that enabled prog to form but in the UK, it seemed to be folk associated with tradition that informed prog, and this often tended to be dark; it was US folk that evolved into protest music because of both the inequality suffered by large numbers of the country’s own citizens and the prevailing American foreign policy from the 50s onwards. The Peace movement and the counter-culture were directly opposed to the American Dream, its imperialistic tendencies and its consumerism, and the ideals of these dissidents were imported to England when musicians, who acted as agents for change, crossed back and forth across the Atlantic. In this way John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance became an anthem of the American anti-war movement following the release of the single in 1969 by the Plastic Ono Band.

The Nice used America as a form of protest, getting banned from the Royal Albert Hall in the process, though this wasn’t about combat on foreign soil; they also included the track War and Peace on their first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack but this had started out as a tune called Silver Meter, played when Emerson was a member of the T-Bones. A live show staple, War and Peace was described by one critic as an ‘instrumental which seems to run like a hell-bound train through war inflicted landscapes.’ I sympathise with that view – the song is fairly raw and features some serious Hammond abuse and Davy O’List guitar histrionics.

When Greg Lake joined up with Keith Emerson in ELP, he brought with him some of the hippy ideals of Peter Sinfield. Though In The Court of the Crimson King isn’t an anti-war album, it comes across as anti-totalitarian and in 21st Century Schizoid Man Sinfield’s lyrics clearly point out the evils of contemporary warfare: “Innocents raped with napalm fire”. Though Lake had left Crimson before 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon he did provide the vocals for the three-part Peace, the ultimate part of which follows The Devil’s Triangle, an instrumental track based on Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War; despite a lack of an explicit condemnation of warfare, the final words on the album are “Peace is the end, like death / Of the war.” One of Lake’s defining contributions to the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album was the acoustic ballad Lucky Man that though he claimed was written when he was 12 years old, contains imagery that can only have been forged later in his life, painting a picture not just of the futility of acquiring possessions but also the stupidity of war. There are a number of oblique references to war throughout the early ELP albums; one interpretation of Tarkus is that the animal-machine hybrid represents totalitarianism, crushing culture, spirituality and freedom, and technology that has gone out of control (a subject revisited on Karn Evil 9 from Brain Salad Surgery, where Sinfield had been reunited with Lake to provide lyrical ideas.) According to William Neal, who provided the cover artwork, the name ‘Tarkus’ is an amalgamation of Tartarus (gloomy pits of darkness used for punishing angels that sinned, mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4 from the bible) and carcass, indicated by the album title written in bones on the cover. Consequently, he suggests the title track refers to the "futility of war, a man made mess with symbols of mutated destruction" but I think his explanation has been fitted in retrospect; it may reflect his painting but the music and lyrics can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Jon Anderson reprised John Lennon on I’ve Seen All Good People from The Yes Album (1971.) I’m almost ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until I saw Yes playing live that I picked up the words “All we are saying is give peace a chance” during the Anderson-penned Your Move section, some three years after I’d bought the album. My only excuse is that despite the track being a favourite of most fans, it doesn’t actually move me at all; it’s too simplistic, especially the All Good People part. I even prefer A Venture where the bass line is far from conventional. The Yes Album does in fact contain one of the most explicit anti-war songs in the progressive rock canon: Yours is no Disgrace. Jon Anderson has said that the meaning of the song is recognition that those fighting in the Vietnam war had no choice other than to fight, in effect carrying out the orders of a government with policy based on dogma. As the first track on the album it gains added importance for being the first of the long-form Yes songs.

Yes returned to the theme of war with The Gates of Delirium, the side long track from Relayer (1974). It has been said to have been inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace which both Anderson and Patrick Moraz had been reading but Anderson has simplified the concept to a battle scene with a prelude, a charge, a victory tune and a peaceful resolution leading to hope for the future; he has further suggested that it wasn’t an explanation of war or a denunciation which makes the piece more descriptive than protest. I love the aggressive feel of the composition, the crashing scrap metal and the strident guitar and keyboards which give the piece a jazz rock edge.

Maybe I’d been looking for the war concept album in the wrong place. Given the political state of Italy in the early 70s and the alignment of most progressivo Italiano with left-wing ideology, it can come as no surprise that there are a number of anti-war songs in the sub-genre, music that I’ve only recently discovered. The first Banco del Mutuo Soccorso album contains the track R.I.P Requiescant In Pace where the music and words conjure a battlefield scene, aptly summed up by author and prog reviewer Andrea Parentin as a bitter reflection of the inhumanity and uselessness of war and glory. Another feature of Italian prog is the number of bands who only ever produced one album. Tuscany based Campo di Marte took their name from a suburb of Firenze and, according to band leader, composer and guitarist Enrico Rosa that name, Field of Mars, allowed them to write lyrics about the stupidity of wars. Their only, self-titled album features a cover depicting Turkish mercenaries inflicting wounds on themselves to demonstrate their strength; the sleeve notes of the 2006 AMS remastered version inform us that the entire composition was arranged with specific purpose of pointing out ‘the absurdity of war and people’s complete impotence at the mercy of violence’. Another one-album group (another self-titled album, too!) was Alphataurus, with a release from 1973 that relates a disturbing dream of the threat of nuclear war but is balanced by the hope that we don’t have to follow that path and we can start over again. The incredible cover painting, a triple gatefold, appears to include a small homage to William Neal – a stegosaurus on caterpillar tracks.



fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time