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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Oct 29 2017 11:16PM

Something strange is going on in my local area. I’ve been around at home most evenings for the past two weeks and the fireworks associated with Diwali or the approaching Guy Fawkes Night have not featured at all. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from my neighbourhood, the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Addiscombe, from celebrating the victory of knowledge over ignorance but I wonder if burning money on brief flashes of coloured light and a banging noise has been abandoned this year, along with a misplaced acceptance of austerity as the Bank of England strongly hints of a rise in the interest rate.


A witch hunt is never a good idea
A witch hunt is never a good idea

Maybe I’m just going around with my eyes closed but it seems there’s also less visible evidence of US-style Halloween advertising. I’d like to think that this is a rejection of commercialisation and whereas encouraging the purchase of pumpkins is quite acceptable, it would be best if they were consumed as a seasonal fruit rather than discarding perfectly edible portions and turning them into Jack-o’-lanterns. Our local Co-op doesn’t appear to be stocking them this year but whether that’s because the harvest has been affected by adverse weather conditions in Suffolk or the store has finally employed someone who understands that there’s an unacceptable level of food wastage at the beginning of November (from either an economic or moral point of view), I’ll never know. The store is selling a limited range of Halloween-themed confectionary but even this involves some self-assembly, with scary monster forming components included with a packet of gingerbread biscuits. Perhaps because it’s expected or easy, my Saturday edition of The Guardian included a couple of Halloween items, the most interesting of which was in the Review section where a handful of writers were invited to put a spin on the traditional ghost story with tales set in English Heritage properties and Mark Haddon set his in the York cold war bunker; cold war bunkers were the theme of my son’s MSc thesis for his Historic Conservation course and as a youth I used to illicitly visit the civil defence bunker at Abbot’s Wood in Barrow-in-Furness.


Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill
Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill

Thinking back to my youth, Halloween wasn’t really an important fixture on the calendar and when you were old enough to look as though you were old enough to buy fireworks you could visit the local newsagent for an array of items which, if used incorrectly, could (and did) result in life-changing injuries; our fireworks were utilised on Halloween for some ridiculous purposes which we deluded ourselves into thinking were scientific investigation, like attaching bangers to rocks and dropping them in drains to produce a plume of water. Bonfire night used to be more of a social fixture, though after university (my hall of residence used to put on a party and firework display with professional pyrotechnics and I was responsible for the advertising posters which hung from the balcony of the refectory at Goldsmiths’) it became clear that subscribing to these things was not only uninteresting but an unnecessary expense.


Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978
Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978

Halloween customs have been influenced by Celtic folklore and beliefs and some are likely to have pagan roots, linked to the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or Parentalia, the festival of the dead. Its origins are most typically associated with the Celtic festivals of Samhain (Old Irish for ‘summer's end’), Calan Gaeaf (‘first day of winter’) in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, celebrated on 31st October and 1st November to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was believed that the boundary between the world of the living and the spirits overlapped at this time, allowing the Aos Sí (spirits or fairies) to enter our world. Respected and feared, the Aos Sí were appeased with offerings of food and drink or part of the crop at Samhain to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, a belief of ancient origins common to many cultures; throughout Ireland and Britain, the household festivities included rituals and fortune-telling games incorporating seasonal fare, apple bobbing and roasting nuts. Bonfires were also part of the rituals where flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have cleansing or protective powers.


In a tradition that goes back at least to the 16th century, the festivities of the Celtic communities of the British Isles included mumming and guising, dressing up as the Aos Sí, going from house-to-house in costume, reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. Also believed to be a protection from the souls of the dead, it’s likely that this behaviour is responsible for dressing up and trick-or-treating, the term ‘trick or treat’ first emerging in 1927. Throughout the centuries the power of the Church has enabled it to subvert and appropriate festivals from other, older customs and though we might sneer at a culture which believes that there are times during the year when the boundary between the spirit world and our world is less fixed, is it much different from the belief that there’s a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church Triumphant) and the living (the Church militant)? The difference is that the Church has used faith and superstition to impose a doctrine designed to preserve its own power.


Halloween fits into this narrative as an illustration of the monsters subsequently subdued by an adherence to the liturgy of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day; a story designed to frighten us should we stray from the path of righteousness. In his Guardian piece, Haddon suggests that much of literary fiction, not only ghost stories, explores a deep anxiety about how we come to terms with our own mortality. So do we like to be scared, and does this translate into other art forms? I used to watch Hammer horror films after returning from an evening in the pub when I was a student (The Devil Rides Out from 1968 was a favourite) but that was because they were ridiculous; Hollywood horror was very big in the early 80s but it became derivative and it wasn’t until The Blair Witch Project (1999) where fear of the unknown was used to generate heightened tension, reinvented the horror genre.

A recent Twitter thread and an older Progressive Archives forum topic concerned ‘frightening’ music and though we might class King Crimson’s The Devil’s Triangle or some early Van der Graaf Generator (White Hammer, Man-Erg, Lemmings) as disturbing, I think the crux of both discussion points was horror. The rise of the Fundamentalist Right in the USA makes heavy metal the genre easiest to associate with horror, because of their insistence that pro-Satanic subliminal messages were revealed when Slayer and Judas Priest records were played backwards. Backmasking, as it is known, was popularised by The Beatles on Revolver and even Pink Floyd didn’t escape accusations of inappropriately brainwashing youths through the technique. More likely, the satanic imagery used by Slayer was simply adopted for commercial reasons, and the Iron Maiden mascot Eddie, depicted as controlling the devil like a marionette on the cover of The Number of the Beast may have caused outrage amongst the Moral Majority but the resultant public burning of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue generated huge publicity.


The first prog-horror link I came across was the use of the Tubular Bells overture in The Exorcist (1974) which I watched at a screening in Leeds long before I was 18, visiting my brother who was studying medicine at the University. What I missed out on for many years, not actively researching Italian prog until 2005, were the cult classic gialli films of Dario Argento, with Profundo Rosso (1975) considered to be the best giallo film ever made. I’ve now seen Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin twice, the first time at the beginning of 2014 where they performed tracks from all their classic soundtracks: Profundo Rosso; Suspiria; Roller; Zombi; Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark; Tenebrae; and Non Ho Sonno. A year later I saw them perform the Profundo Rosso soundtrack live to a screening of the film at the Barbican and though the film itself may be critically acclaimed, it’s too psychedelic to be frightening, however good the music. It was hard to work out whether the audience at either of these performances was predominantly there for the cinematic or the prog- association. I was there for the latter but I think I may have been in a minority.



With roots in folklore, ghost stories and the supernatural should suit progressive rock but I can’t think of too many examples where this has been the case. Psychedelic prog-folk band Comus (named after Milton’s pagan sorcerer-king) channel a pagan vibe on First Utterance (1971) with material covering rape, murder, mental illness and sacrifice, and the music itself which varies from conveying primal malevolence to quiet, pastoral beauty, recalls the spirit of a independent horror film. I suspect that the best ghost-story album is Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing and Other Stories from 2013. You’d think the excellent Gustav Mahler-inspired Halloween by Pulsar (1977) should feature but the title was used because the band liked the beauty of the word and the way it evoked childhood, magic, fairy-tales and the imaginary, themes which are suggested in the music and lyrics.


Halloween by Pulsar
Halloween by Pulsar

According to a 2006 survey, the British hate Halloween and over half of British homeowners turn off their lights and pretend not to be home. 2017 looks like being a great deal worse for advocates of this celebration sponsored by confectioners and I know I won’t be answering the door to anyone on Tuesday evening. However, much more memorable than Halloween or the gunpowder plot is that Saturday 28th October is the anniversary of me seeing Yes for the first time, having been in London for less than a month....









By ProgBlog, Feb 7 2016 11:30PM

Television is not my primary leisure medium. The broadening of choice in a post-analogue world has resulted in an overall decline in televisual standards. I am old enough to remember the early days of three terrestrial channels, when BBC Two was the first channel in Europe to regularly broadcast in colour; it appeared on air in April 1964 and colour transmissions began in July 1967. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s front room on a Saturday afternoon watching Trade Test Transmissions on her black and white rental TV, changing channels using a knob on the wall, intrigued by these short infomercials and being awestruck by the optimistic and futuristic pieces of programming, especially the film of the Evoluon science museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, with its soundtrack of electronica and jazz which somehow fitted with the images of this beautiful UFO-like piece of modernist architecture; I’m pretty sure this introduced me to Take Five by Dave Brubeck but I may be mistaken.

I first became aware of the commercialisation of sporting events when Kerry Packer founded World Series Cricket in 1977, in a move to secure broadcasting rights for Australian cricket. Ripples from this move have since spread far and wide. With parallels to prog, cricket is a long-form sport. As a youth my summer breaks were punctuated by periods in front of the TV to watch Test Matches, played over 5 days and unadulterated by wall-to-wall sponsorship (the 65-over-a-side Gillette Cup which became the Nat West Trophy in 1981 came across as being unsullied by corporate interference; this had changed by the time it had become the C&G Trophy in 2001.) It was the tactical approach to the game with its changing conditions that kept me enthralled. I was watching a lot of cricket at the same time that I was getting into progressive rock and reading Tolkien, Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin; another piece of the cultural landscape that helped form what I’ve become. The Infield Park Gang would play cricket, too, on a local playing field attached to a convent school and, despite being pretty bad at the sport I was drafted in to play 11th man for two Goldsmiths’ College first XI matches which were held in the grounds of Loring Hall, my hall of residence at university.

It seems crazy to me that betting firms should be allowed to sponsor sports and I fully agree with Andy Murray’s recent outburst against sponsorship of tennis by betting companies, just when allegations of match fixing were flying around. I find it outrageous that the deregulation of the gambling industry has created a huge increase in the number of betting shops in poor and deprived areas of the country and that commercial TV is permitted to bombard us with adverts for online gaming. I blame deregulation for both the downturn in quality of programming and the knock on effects of commercialisation of sport; competition in the service industries always ends up as a race to the bottom. The walk out by Liverpool fans at their game against Sunderland yesterday, angry at the £70 price tag on away tickets, was meant to highlight the separation of the beautiful game from the true fans but sadly it’s not going to influence football’s governing body, as corruption appears to run through the veins of world football (and world athletics.) I don’t blame the players for their often ridiculously excessive pay, the responsibility lies with the broadcasters. With ever greater choice of channels it’s become more and more difficult to find anything of quality to watch. If I do sit in front of the TV it’s more likely to be for a film on DVD/Blu-ray or a music DVD than a piece of scheduled programming, mostly because what is aired seems to involve some form of voyeurism or schadenfreude: wannabe celebrity non-entities after their five minutes of fame; former celebrities clinging on to their five minutes of fame; police dogs in helicopters with cameras filming surgery that’s gone wrong... what occupation hasn’t been covered?

My first music videos were Yessongs (from the 1975 film) and Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii (the 1974 version), both on VHS format. Yessongs was disappointing because the sound quality wasn’t very good and the synching of music and video was poor. I’d not managed to see the film when it played in UK cinemas so it’s hard to know if the cinematic experience was any better. I was given the Blu-ray version as a present a couple of Christmases ago but the curse of Yessongs struck again: the disc could not be recognised in my Blu-ray player and was returned to the shop, sans the Roger Dean postcards that featured in the revised packaging. Live at Pompeii, on the other hand, remains a firm favourite. I’d been to see the film when it toured the UK and I’ve also visited Pompeii on a couple of occasions where the silhouette of Vesuvius continues to dominate the atmosphere of the site. I always thought it a shame that Echoes was used to bookend the film but it doesn’t detract from the performance, in effect a swan song to the space rock material (which I really like), issuing in the prog of the Dark Side era. The Directors Cut version that I now own on DVD isn’t really any improvement, the space graphics have not aged as well as the music!


I think I first saw the film version of Emerson Lake and Palmer performing Pictures at an Exhibition on TV, a performance from the Lyceum in London in 1970 released in the cinema in 1973. I wasn’t aware that the soundtrack was different from the album (recorded at Newcastle City Hall) until I bought a double-sided CD/DVD in 2003 as it had been so long since I’d watched the film, but I think it remains an important documentary of early prog, attempting a reworking of a classical piece in a rock context.

White Rock, the film documentary of the Innsbruck 1976 Winter Olympics, was another cinema release, opening in 1977 and touring as a double bill with concert footage of Genesis playing live. I don’t remember too much about the Genesis portion of the programme, partly because I’ve never owned a copy of Seconds Out (1977), being far more interested in Rick Wakeman’s return to form with the soundtrack for White Rock. I bought the album shortly after its release, from Boots in Barrow, impressed by the interpretation of speed and grace over snow and ice. I’ve got a couple of other Wakeman videos: Out There (2004), described as a ‘concept DVD’ and a performance of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2009) at Hampton Court Palace on Blu-ray. Six Wives includes the original album plus three new tracks and, as it’s my favourite Wakeman solo album, I rate it quite highly. I was tempted to get a ticket for the gig but ended up at The Lumiere for Mellofest 2009 instead. The music on Out There isn’t bad and no doubt at the time the graphics were cutting edge, but when viewed ten years after it was released, some of them haven’t really stood the test of time. I saw Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble promote the album live in Croydon in April 2003, where a major technical hitch with the keyboards forced an early intermission.


Not surprisingly I have quite a range of Yes DVDs, from The Gates of QPR (1993, recorded 1975) to Songs from Tsongas (2005, recorded 2004) via Keys to Ascension (2000, recorded 1996), House of Yes (2000), Symphonic Live (2002, recorded 2001), Yesspeak (2003) and Live at Montreux (2008, recorded 2003). My other Floyd DVDs consist of documentaries about the making of Atom Heart Mother (2007), Dark Side of the Moon (2003) and Wish You Were Here (2005), plus The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story (2006), Roger Waters’ post-fall of the Berlin Wall The Wall Live in Berlin (2004, recorded 1990) and the 1982 Alan Parker film of The Wall, despite me not classifying it as prog; I was fortunate enough to see a preview of the film, filling in a questionnaire on the way out. I look upon critical reviews as being worthwhile. BBC4 produces some excellent music programmes but I was pleased to get hold of Inside King Crimson 1972 – 1975 (2005) to go with my Deja Vrooom (2009) and Neal and Jack and Me (2004).
Not surprisingly I have quite a range of Yes DVDs, from The Gates of QPR (1993, recorded 1975) to Songs from Tsongas (2005, recorded 2004) via Keys to Ascension (2000, recorded 1996), House of Yes (2000), Symphonic Live (2002, recorded 2001), Yesspeak (2003) and Live at Montreux (2008, recorded 2003). My other Floyd DVDs consist of documentaries about the making of Atom Heart Mother (2007), Dark Side of the Moon (2003) and Wish You Were Here (2005), plus The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story (2006), Roger Waters’ post-fall of the Berlin Wall The Wall Live in Berlin (2004, recorded 1990) and the 1982 Alan Parker film of The Wall, despite me not classifying it as prog; I was fortunate enough to see a preview of the film, filling in a questionnaire on the way out. I look upon critical reviews as being worthwhile. BBC4 produces some excellent music programmes but I was pleased to get hold of Inside King Crimson 1972 – 1975 (2005) to go with my Deja Vrooom (2009) and Neal and Jack and Me (2004).

We were made aware that the Camel concert at the Barbican in 2013 was being recorded for DVD release, In from the Cold (2014) which is a superb reminder of a brilliant gig; I also have the two live set collection Moondances (2007.) I have more melodic symphonic prog on DVD in the form of Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith (2013) a 3CD+2DVD package of one of the musical highlights of 2013. The second DVD contains behind the scenes footage and interviews with collaborators, a theme that continues on another recent acquisition, the documentary-like Steve Hackett The Man, The Music (2015.)





Another gig that I should have gone to but didn’t, but which I had to buy on DVD is the Classic Rock Legends Van der Graaf Generator live at Metropolis Studios (2011, recorded 2010) which sits alongside Inside Van der Graaf Generator (2005) and Godbluff Live 1975 (2003.) Earlier this weekend I indulged in some PFM (Live in Japan 2002) featuring four members of the classic line-up.

One good thing about television in the 70s were series like Rock Goes to College and Sight and Sound in Concert. The Bruford gig from Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) which I remember watching at the time, has become part of my DVD collection and though the camera direction is poor, it’s great to be able to see this footage again. There’s better camerawork on GG at the GG, (2006, filmed 1978, 1976 and 1974) which captures Gentle Giant at the tail end of their career. The earlier material is fantastic but Missing Piece tracks Two Weeks in Spain and Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It are relatively poor fare. There was a more recent programme which showed Sylvian and Fripp live in Japan in 1993, during the Road to Graceland tour – it would be terrific if that was released on DVD...







By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 12:41PM

I had the best hi-fi system in my hall of residence. I’d worked at the steel mill in Barrow over the summer between school and university and decided that I’d invest in separate components to take to university with me. A trip to the electrical and electronics retailer Comet relieved me of my hard earned cash, and I emerged with a Pioneer turntable, an Amstrad 30 watt amplifier and a pair of Celestion speakers. This equipment was transported down to Kent by (nationalised) road freight in an old trunk. I somehow managed to carry a suitcase with clothes, my albums, my bass and my bass amp on the train. It wasn’t too long before I discovered that Amstrad was a sub-standard brand and at the end of my first year I sold the amp to a friend and bought a Technics receiver from one of the many electronic shops along Tottenham Court Road.

My hall of residence was a grade II listed building, and between 1811 and 1822 it was the country home of the Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh, who committed suicide there by cutting his throat with a penknife. When it was bought by Goldsmiths’ in 1939 they changed the name from Wollet Hall to Loring Hall. In the late 70s and early 80s it was not uncommon to have to share a room, especially in halls that weren’t purpose built for students. My original room-mate turned out to be pretty obnoxious. I had the foresight (and a brother and sister already at uni) to take some essentials with me, including my own mug which bore the imprint of a large bold B, for Baz. Returning from a full day of lectures and practicals (I did a joint Botany/Zoology BSc with Geology as a first year option) my mug was not in the place I’d left it, but was instead in the hand of my room-mate, a History student with time on his hands who also went under the initial ‘B’. An appeal to the head of hall resulted in a bit of a reshuffle: The other B ended up sharing with Neil Beckman and his place was taken by Jim Knipe, who up until that time had been sleeping on the library floor.

Jim was also into prog, having previously seen the penultimate UK performance of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis at the Birmingham Hippodrome on May 1st 1975 and the ‘A Trick of the Tail’ tour at the Bingley Hall in Stafford. He too was doing Botany/Zoology, so though we attended college at the same time and were back at hall at the same time, the issue of playing music that your room-mate didn’t like didn’t arise. My portion of the room was decorated with Dark Side of the Moon posters and the poster from Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water, plus some Tolkien drawings from an old calendar. The kitchen was in the basement so Jim and I invested in our own kettle. Up until then I’d preferred to drink tea, but investing in some decent instant coffee (bought from the sadly now defunct local International supermarket) converted me into a coffee fiend – but only if the coffee was palatable. The prospect of a semi-decent hot beverage and a generic International bourbon biscuit was often sufficient to attract friends, who would then be subjected to a barrage of prog. Neil Beckman would visit frequently and request Wish You Were Here. In the two years I spent at Loring I got through three copies of WYWH. I also taught Beckman how to play the melody leading up to Steve Hackett’s guitar solo from Firth of Fifth on my bass. He would sit with the instrument on his knee and vocalize each note as he hit the strings.

Bexley was the nearest town, a ten minute walk north east along the North Cray Road. This was where the International supermarket was, but other retail outlets of interest were a photography shop, the newsagent (for The Guardian), a small but well-stocked book shop, and Elpees, a small independent record store. There were also branches of Elpees in Welling and Orpington, all of which I believe have now been turned into trendy sandwich bars (or equivalent.) But Elpees in Bexley was a revelation: they stocked current vinyl and even had reduced price albums that had a small hole punched through the cover. My vinyl copy of USA by King Crimson bought there in 1979 has a hole punched just off centre, so that it goes through the cover, the inner sleeve and the Polydor label on the vinyl itself; Feels Good to Me, also bought there in 1979 has two small punch holes just off centre. The holes (sometimes cuts) gave the name ‘cut outs’ to these items. They were slow selling records that had been returned to the record company by a retailer, subsequently bought by a third party at a reduced cost (they weren’t selling well anyway) and put back into record stores where they were sold at a discounted price. During the late 70s it is hardly surprising that albums by prog acts were slow selling and ended up as cut outs.

I still wasn’t a big buyer of records; living on a grant made money really tight and though I’d make a weekly trip up to the West End and flick through the racks of vinyl in Virgin, HMV, Our Price or one of the more obscure retailers, I was still fairly closed-minded and reluctant to try something outside my experience. At that time Virgin Records was undergoing a change. The first Virgin store I’d been to was in Leeds in 1975 or 76 and it had the feel of an independent store; Virgin Megastore opened on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in 1979 and though there were some good deals such as Livestock by Brand X, a cut out bought for £2.49 in August 1981, most of the stock was getting on for full price.

The demise of prog bands meant that I didn’t go to many concerts, though when I heard that Yes were going to play at Wembley Arena I had to seek out a ticket, whatever the cost. Jim agreed to attend and tickets were acquired from one of the many ticket agencies that were dotted around Shaftesbury Avenue. This was my first gig in London and one of the best I’ve ever attended - it was the Tormarto tour and Yes played on their revolving stage in the centre of the Arena. We went to see the matinee show which was broadcast on BBC radio, and the recording of Don’t Kill the Whale that appears on Yesshows was from that particular concert. We somehow ended up with really good seats, just off-centre and close to the front of the upper tier on the south side. When Jon Anderson introduced Starship Trooper, “this is for all you starship troopers out there” I thought he was speaking directly to me.

Most of my forays into culture involved the theatre. The student discount on theatre tickets allowed me to see a fair amount of cut-price Shakespeare, Stoppard and Brecht and in my first year I only managed two proper gigs, the Yes gig at Wembley in October 1978 and UK at Imperial College in March 1979. That South Kensington show is referenced in my review of UK at Under the Bridge.


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