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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, Jan 31 2016 10:18PM

The Steven Wilson gig did not disappoint. It helped that I had a front row seat, pretty much centre stage (courtesy of Neil with his hyper-quick responses when booking opened) and though Craig Blundell was obscured behind his drum kit, this was a view as good as it gets. Being so close to the stage had the slight disadvantage of not getting the best sound balance; the mixing desk was at the back of the stalls so I imagine that was where you’d experience the perfect listening environment. Ian Bond, veteran front-of-house sound man did a pretty good job for the front row, too, because the only difficulties we had with the sound were a rather quiet Adam Holzman Moog and some indistinct bass, though the latter may have been a venue-wide problem because Nick Beggs was making full use of a range of 5 string instruments; needless to say Wilson’s guitar, from his Bad Cat amp and cabinet placed directly in front of us, was crystal clear. It was satisfying that they played the entire Hand.Cannot.Erase, including the short Transience which had been omitted from the UK shows following the album’s release. After the intermission we were treated to a range of other Wilson material from Porcupine Tree to Storm Corrosion (the dark, haunting but brilliant Drag Ropes) plus, as a tribute to the recently departed David Bowie, Space Oddity which was filmed on a series of Go Pro cameras. There was also an outing for half of his new album 41/2, a collection of five songs that didn’t quite make it on to either Raven or H.C.E, not because of a perceived lack of quality, rather that they didn’t quite fit in with the feel of those albums, plus a reworked Don’t Hate Me, originally recorded by Porcupine Tree that appeared on Stupid Dream (1999). Theo Travis supplied flute and saxophone for the original release and his contribution was covered by keyboards and guitar when the piece was played live. The 41/2 version includes Travis plus singer Ninet Tayeb and live, without Travis but with its trippy Floyd-inspired lengthy spaced-out middle section, was one of the highlights of the evening. Tayeb, who was guest vocalist on a number of songs, is such an incredible talent she’s still able to add an extra dimension to the stellar-quality line-up of the Steven Wilson band. It seemed somehow appropriate that she should sing on Don’t Hate Me which utilised eastern scales.



Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016
Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016

During an interview for The Pedal Show before the Bristol gig a couple of days earlier, Wilson described himself as approaching the sound from a producer’s perspective, hinting that his musical ability wasn’t perhaps in the same class as his band. This could be cited as an example of classic English reserve, for Wilson is an undoubted talent, but I’ve heard this statement before, in the same context, from Italian bassist Fabio Zuffanti. There are quite a number of parallels between Wilson and Zuffanti though apart from in his native Italy, Zuffanti has not really been recognised as a major force in modern progressive rock.

I saw Zuffanti and his Z band when Jim Knipe and I attended the Prog Résiste convention in Soignies in April 2014, showcasing his latest solo effort La Quarta Vittima but also playing songs from a back catalogue of 20 years in the music business; extracts from the Soignies performance are available to view on YouTube (Rainsuite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6Dlf3HmzAc is a good example.) It was at the post-performance interview, fortunately carried out in English, that someone suggested a parallel with Steven Wilson and Zuffanti, in a self-depreciating manner, suggested that he wasn’t in the same calibre as his band-mates. What he revealed at this interview were his thoughts on his musical projects. He suggested that if Quarta Vittima was going to be compared to Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (which had been released a few months before, and which Zuffanti obviously felt was the pinnacle of Wilson’s output at that time, Höstsonaten were the equivalent of the Enid, with a very symphonic palette. Though Porcupine Tree was on hiatus at the time, the inference was that PT was the primary vehicle for Wilson’s music, rather like La Maschera di Cera was for Zuffanti.



Though I was aware of other Zuffanti projects, at the beginning of 2014 I only had Maschera di Cera albums and the first Finisterre album (Finisterre, 1995). I’d bought LuxAde (2006) for £6 from Beanos second-hand store in February 2009, without listening to it, based on the instrumentation and the fact it was produced by PFM drummer Franz di Cioccio. I hadn’t appreciated that this was a band revisiting the Orpheus saga (c.f. Focus and Eruption) but it remains one of the best buys I’ve ever made; when I got home and checked my Progressive Rock Files, even before listening to it, it was evident that I had acquired something special. I wasn’t disappointed because the recording is as close as you can get to classic 70s Italian prog; analogue instrumentation including some excellent fuzz bass, symphonic scope and operatic vocals, all executed with consummate skill. I was so impressed I began looking for Maschera di Cera albums on every subsequent trip to Italy but for some reason I couldn’t locate any and finally plumped for a download of their second album Il Grande Labirinto (2003) from Amazon in 2010, describing it in an Amazon review as a Fragile to the Close to the Edge of LuxAde (some of the details turned out to be not quite right!):


“...Il Grande Labirinto is their second album, and with no Italian trip scheduled for a while, I had to indulge in the mp3 download. (When I'm next in Italy I'm going to seek out and buy the CD for myself and two prog-minded brothers.) This release is slightly less musically mature than Lux Ade - kind of like the relationship between Fragile and Close to the Edge - almost perfect but not quite.

The musical territory is classic 70s Italian prog. PFM are an obvious comparison, though La Maschera di Cera are less jazz-influenced. Some of the keyboard trills sound like early Genesis, and there's a Wakeman-sounding synth line or two. My favourite passage is the final section of the 22 minute 37 second long Il Viaggio Nell'oceano Capovolto Parte 2 (Voyager to the Inverted Ocean) that builds up from a haunting gentle woodwind melody that reminds me of Islands-era King Crimson.

Did anyone think prog was dead? Think again, and invest in this great album.”


As soon as I’d heard the band were going to do a companion piece to Felona e Sorona (1973) by Le Orme, entitled Le Porte del Domani (2013) released in both Italian and English versions (The Gates of Tomorrow), I had to buy both mixes; the Italian version was my album of the year.

I hadn’t really formed an opinion about the music of Finisterre other than I liked it and it seemed not quite fully formed. Tracks seemed to be truncated mid-flow which left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. I bought In Limine (1996) when I went to the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014 where Zuffanti, in his home city of Genoa, was wandering around chatting to friends and fans on the first day. The title track of that album was one of the pieces played by the Z band in Soignies. I bought In ogni luogo (1998) and La Meccanica Naturale (2005), both in cardboard gatefold sleeves from Galleria del Disco in Florence later in 2014 and have now come to the conclusion that Finisterre was a band for trying out ideas. Back in Soignies I bought both La Quarta Vittima and Höstsonaten’s live version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2013) from Zuffanti’s merchandise stand and then also from the same shop in Florence, Höstsonaten’s Winterthrough (2005.) It’s true that Höstsonaten are symphonic; the music is layered and melodic and Ancient Mariner, performed with dancers, was a modern opera.

There was no full concert recording of the Z band so late in 2014 Zuffanti and his collaborators recorded the material they’d been playing during their live set, live in the studio, releasing Il Mondo Che Era Mio at the end of the year. My copy was bought early in 2015 and it is a faithful reproduction of the Z band live experience, a mixture of dynamics, strong melodies and classic-sounding instrumentation.

Last year I spent a family long weekend in Milan and came across the excellent Rossetti Records, and amongst my haul I bought Il giorno sottile (2001), by the rather obscure Zuffanti project Quadraphonic. This represents Zuffanti at his most experimental, producing an interesting and challenging album of industrial music and electronica, heavily reliant on loops, which at times is bleak though it does retain the memory of melody.

Zuffanti seems to be at the centre of the vast Genoa prog scene. When Francesca Francesca Zanetta, guitarist with Unreal City, was interviewed after their performance at the Riviera Prog Festival, she thanked Zuffanti for helping the band (he produced their debut album La Crudeltà Di Aprile, 2013) and another band he seems to have helped, who also appeared at the same festival, were Il Tempio delle Clessidre and most recently he’s collaborated with keyboard player Stefano Agnini from La Coscienza di Zeno, a band who played at both Soignies and at the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014. This project, under the title of La Curva di Lesmo, features a cast of the new wave of Italian prog and the music ranges from out and out symphonic prog to some traditional-sounding Italain music, taking in folk and electronica on the way. I bought a heavyweight white vinyl copy to play on my new Rega RP3 and the cover, by legendary artist Guido Crepax, harks back to Nuda (1972) by Garybaldi, in a similar manner to Maschera di Cera using artwork by Lanfranco for Le Porte del Domani, after Le Orme’s cover for Felona e Sorona, an album also released in English with lyrics by Peter Hammill.



Zuffanti shares with Wilson an appreciation for the origins of the genre (including a love of Mellotron) but they also choose to work with a range of other musicians which informs their style, seeking out different avenues for their talents. Wilson is now a global star; I’m just waiting for Zuffanti to get the full recognition he deserves.







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