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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, 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, Jul 13 2014 01:00PM

I’ve been lucky enough to play around on a Mellotron but I didn’t have the foresight to buy the beast. I tend to regard the Tron (as aficionados apparently prefer to call it) as one of the two instruments that define prog. Though not strictly true, it did form an integral part of the sound of most symphonic prog bands that were around during the ‘golden era’, whether adding strings, flute or choir. The other instrument that has a very strong association with progressive rock is the mini-Moog.

As a youth I used to scour the music press and album sleeves for information about instruments; I understood that Chris Squire’s use of the Rickenbacker, for instance, was a key part of the sound of Yes but at the time it was something that not many rock bassists were using. My research into the mini-Moog and the Mellotron followed these lines. I remember a competition in (I think) the NME to ‘win a £400 Moog’, illustrated with a picture of Keith Emerson that clearly showed the instrument’s controls. The competition had a simple multiple choice question and the tie-breaker was a ‘describe the music of ELP in 20 words’. I submitted a pithy verse that didn’t win. The inside sleeve of Six Wives was another frequently referenced insight into keyboard instruments and the probable source of my earliest understanding of the Mellotron, with Wakeman’s two 400-Ds used for brass, strings and flute, and vocals, sound effects and vibes respectively. What I found incredibly neat was the way that a mini-Moog would sit on top of a Mellotron, as though the two instruments were made for each other. As multiple keyboard usage became the norm, this was a frequently observed set-up.

The versatility of the mini-Moog and, to a lesser extent, the VCS3 and the ARP Odyssey or ARP 2600, encouraged bands to embrace synthesizers. Whereas a Moog was a lead instrument, putting the keyboard player on the same footing as the guitarist and marking the beginning of the era of the keyboard wizard, the Mellotron was an instrument that allowed a band to enhance their overall musical presence; it was simply too clunky and mechanical to be used as an instrument for solos. This shift of emphasis from vocalist/guitarist dominance, evident in almost all straightforward rock bands, was one of the democratic facets of progressive rock; promoting a greater equality which in turn allowed more influences and subsequently, more musical possibilities.

The ARP synthesizers (after Alan Robert Pearlman) don’t seem to have been as extensively used as Moogs, though they did have notable proponents such as Tony Banks.

It’s not strictly true that the Mellotron was only used for symphonic or choral fills; after all, the nature of the beast was as a sampler, based on recordings of any manner of instrument or sound effect committed to tapes. It’s possible to discern Mellotron sounds from the real thing and I find that part of the attraction. The flute tone is one of the best known sounds and its haunting quality is what sets it apart from the woodwind; there’s an ethereal element to it that defines the mid-70s Tangerine Dream and this sound is also used to great effect by the 72-74 incarnation of King Crimson in their improvisational flights (on Providence, for example) and on Drum Folk by Greenslade. As much as I like Crimson’s doom-laden Mellotron chords I think I prefer it used for melody lines. Having sad that, the Cross-era Crimson were hardly a keyboard band and used their two Mellotrons quite differently from most bands because of the quantity of improvised material they played. Trio, from Starless and Bible Black, is an almost fragile piece, where Robert Fripp plays delicate Mellotron in response to David Cross’ plaintive violin. This track, an improvisation from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw gig of November 23rd 1973, stands out because Bill Bruford didn’t touch his drum kit and he’s credited, quite rightly in my opinion, as a composer; his decision not to add anything to the piece really enhances what must be the most sensitive track Crimson have ever recorded. Cross, in a chapter in Nick Awde’s excellent book Mellotron, describes how Crimson used to abuse their machines by jamming the selector between two settings and Trio may be an example of this, where the sound seems to hover between flute and strings.

It was Fripp who most fully documented the lack of reliability of the Mellotron during tours, especially to destinations with different mains voltages. Reliability issues, coupled with its intrinsic mass meant that many exponents ditched their Mellotrons when more portable and more reliable string synthesizers started to appear in the mid 70s. I think it’s interesting that the decline of the use of Mellotron coincides with the end of the first wave of progressive rock and, conversely, the rise and subsequent critical reacceptance of prog in the early 90s was spearheaded by bands that appreciated the analogue sounds of the bands from the 70s, such as Ånglagard and Finisterre. 1976 seems to have been a turning point; the sleeve notes of Wind and Wuthering reveal Tony Banks played both Mellotron and Roland string synthesizer, and I regard Wind and Wuthering as the last of the progressive Genesis albums.

I feel rather dismissive towards the string synth. The sound was thin and, compared to the Mellotron, lacked warmth and timbre but it also had an unforeseen economic effect. When Mellotronics went bankrupt in 1978, manufacturer Streetly Electronics were no longer allowed to use the trademark name Mellotron and had to rename the M400 model they were producing at the time the ‘Novatron’. Rick Wakeman invested heavily and unsuccessfully into a cassette-based version and his Birotron features on a handful of albums, most notably his 1977 release Criminal Record.

Mellotron restoration was featured at a King Crimson playback event in London in the late 90s and there are Mellotron conventions; I attended MelloFest 2 at the Luminaire in 2009, featuring (amongst others) Robert Webb from England and Martin Orford. The future is looking more rosy for the Mellotron. The resurgence of prog has dragged the instrument back into the sonic requirements of bands that want a fuller sound, which includes old exponents and a younger generation of musicians who appreciate the possibilities of one of the instruments that defined prog.



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