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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 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, Nov 20 2016 08:22PM

I’m currently dipping in and out of Time and a Word – The Yes Story by Martin Popoff and thought that this latest piece of writing about the band, which includes thoughts on Heaven and Earth from 2014 and covers Chris Squire’s death from leukaemia last year, might help me work out where I stand on an issue that’s been raging for some time, spilling over on to the letters and comments pages of Prog magazine, concerning the validity of calling Yes ‘Yes’ and whether or not it is time to call an end to the venerable institution. In keeping with the progressive rock genre, debate on this particular subject has attracted opinion from all parts of the spectrum.

I’m not over-impressed by the book because it seems to me as though it’s been put together with minimum effort. I don’t doubt Popoff’s appreciation of the music and it can’t be denied that he’s a successful music writer but, not being a fan of the particular idiom he’s most closely associated with, I’ve not knowingly read anything else that he’s penned and I’m therefore not really qualified to comment on how much work was involved. What I can say is that you can’t compare Time and a Word to something almost academic like Bill Martin’s Music of Yes – Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock or even Chris Welch’s more mainstream journalist/fan account Close to the Edge – The Story of Yes, both of which I did enjoy. Perhaps the closest work to Time and a Word is The Extraordinary World of Yes by Alan Farley because of the concise coverage of each album, information that could as easily be obtained from the album sleeve notes, rather than any in-depth musicological, sociological or philosophical analysis, though Farley does add a soupçon of personal perspective. Popoff includes some odd little asides to his Yes timeline which is primarily comprised of portions of his interviews with the main protagonists; I’m not at all sure why the release of Rush’s 2112 on April 1st 1976 warrants a mention, other than to indicate it’s a poor joke, though there’s slightly more rationale to announcing the eponymous debut from The Clash on 8th April 1977, three months before the end of the self-imposed studio Yes album hiatus, highlighting a radical shift in the musical landscape over the intervening two and a bit years.




Though the advancement of time since the beginning of the progressive rock era affects all bands that fall under this umbrella, a span lasting on for almost 50 years, there have only been two deaths within the Yes camp and it’s only the loss of Chris Squire, however much Peter Banks originally helped to craft the early Yes style, that has really had an impact on the group. This is largely because Squire was the only original member remaining at the time of his death and the only member to have contributed to every studio album but he was as much integral to the Yes sound as any other musician who hopped on or off the Yes roundabout, for his vocal harmony work as well as the punchy, treble-rich bass work. Yet, when I saw the Yes performance at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the way Billy Sherwood reproduced Squire’s lines and stunned by the way Sherwood had adopted his mentor’s stage mannerisms, from his footwork to the handling of his instrument.




This highlights one of the major issues. There’s no doubt that there are other musicians of an appropriate calibre to play the music, as the whole album performances show. The last two tours, one with Squire and one without, have been about the recreation of recorded music in a fairly true-to-original fashion, down to the detail of the track running order, which coincidentally allows us to measure individual member’s performance against the original release. On the 2016 tour, featuring Fragile and Drama, it was only Steve Howe who had been represented on the earlier studio album. Howe, Alan White and Geoff Downes had all played on Drama; on the 2014 tour of The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One, it was only Howe and Squire representing the line-up of the first two albums, and Howe, Squire and White from the personnel responsible for Going for the One.




So, despite my enjoyment of the gig I went to see in London, the latest tour was carried out without any original members; does that make them some kind of tribute act? Well no, not in my opinion. There are two strands to my thinking: Firstly, that Howe was one of the individuals making up the first of two ‘classic’ line-ups which starred Bill Bruford on drums and Rick Wakeman on keyboards and was responsible for Fragile and Close to the Edge. His appearance on The Yes Album marked a qualitative improvement in group composition and his playing style opened up a more symphonic sound but I think it was possibly his personal outlook and the way he fitted in to (what was going to become) the Yes philosophy added something unquantifiable but positive to the group. Furthermore, the replacement of Bruford by Alan White created the second classic line-up which lasted four incarnations but the revolving door of personnel changes was accepted by fans, at least on record, even including the Drama-Yes of Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn which only revealed a degree of disillusionment amongst those who went to see them play live when the tour hit the UK. This suggests to me that as long as there is the spirit of Yes in a group of players, it can still be called ‘Yes’.

That the cracks in support were appearing as the genre reached the end its golden era is in part down to changes within the music business itself but Yes had showed that they could change guitarists and keyboard players without adversely affecting their appeal; unfortunately when they replaced Jon Anderson, who many even now regard as the voice of Yes, support was less forthcoming. It’s of note is that following his departure from Yes, Anderson embarked upon a successful collaboration with Vangelis and it was, arguably, Anderson’s involvement with the Squire, White and Trevor Rabin Cinema project which guaranteed that band success as the 1980s Yes.

That particular version of the group was hugely successful but they alienated some of the original core support, including me. I blame the industry, manipulating output to maximise commercial gain, curtailing artist creativity and resulting in music which hasn’t aged very well, compared to the timelessness of Close to the Edge and the reappraisal of Tales from Topographic Oceans as a major piece of recorded work by a rock band. This brings me to the second major issue: The quality of the new material.

I’ve previously argued that the substance of the 80s material was more mainstream, hence the greater commercial appeal in a world that was becoming more self-centred with less time and inclination to think expansively. Any attempt to recapture the cosmic nature of early 70s Yes music, by an ever expanding Yes family which had itself become more fractious and cut-throat, was never likely to amount to much, though the keyboard-light Magnification came quite close for me. I’ve never been too happy with the long-form studio pieces on Keys to Ascension and part of this is down to what I feel is the unsuccessful blend of cosmic and worthy social commentary; part is down to the unsatisfactory keyboard sounds. I believe the best modern material is the Fly From Here suite which was actually composed during the Drama years, such that the concept of Yes music has to conform to certain structural and thematic forms, many of which have been abandoned along the way.

This brings me to the conclusion that it is fine for Yes to continue for the time being, playing material which represents the early phase of the group, as long as there’s someone from that era to carry the torch. I’ve outgrown my belief that Anderson has to be in Yes; I don’t doubt White’s contribution to the sound and equally, I can’t question Sherwood’s fit but I think that if Howe had to drop out for some reason, there would be no purpose in carrying on. I don’t mind if there’s no new material, I’ll continue to go and see the band if there are no more line-up changes and they continue to play the classic early 70s material. Roll on Tales! Roll on Relayer!









By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2015 10:05PM

Shortly before I left South Newbarns junior school (former pupil: Liverpool FC and England legend Emlyn ‘Crazy Horse’ Hughes) I was called to see the Head Teacher and was told that I didn’t read enough; I ‘m not sure how he knew because I always did well in reading tests but I took his criticism on board and embarked upon a literary marathon. I think I’d previously been more interested in seeing how things worked, a practical or visual viewpoint backed up by technical descriptions rather than prose. Some of the first examples of children’s literature that I managed to get my hands on were the Narnia books by CS Lewis. This form of fantasy fired my imagination and, though I’m fully aware of the allegorical nature of the books which goes against my atheist principles, I still regard them highly. I was impressed that Steve Hackett should include the track Narnia on his second solo album Please Don’t Touch (1978) which, in keeping with the cover illustration by Kim Poor, lends a nostalgic air. From CS Lewis to JRR Tolkien isn’t too much of a leap, being friends and fellow Oxford dons and though The Hobbit wasn’t really challenging, the cartography and the runes interested me deeply. When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in the form of the three hardback books, borrowed from Barrow library, it rapidly became obvious that there was an incredible depth to the story telling, clues to which could be found in the appendices at the end of The Return of the King. I wasn’t ashamed to attempt to learn Elvish, written and spoken, along with some other school friends. Tolkien was widely read by the counterculture generation who saw the works as anti-war, anti-materialistic and in tune with nascent environmentalism, so it’s hardly surprising that prog bands should jump on the bandwagon: Camel with their pre-Snow Goose mini-epic Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider from Mirage (1974) and Barclay James Harvest with Galadriel from Once Again (1971). Critics of prog often dismiss it as fey music about dragons and elves and the two genres, fantasy writing and progressive rock are now very much seen as being synonymous by authors of popular culture. At the Time of Olias of Sunhillow (1976), Jon Anderson owned an Old English Sheepdog called Bilbo and in 1972 Bo Hansson released a complete album Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings. Hansson’s subsequent work was inspired by other authors I was discovering: Alan Garner and Richard Adams. Following Watership Down (1972) and the rather less enjoyable Shardik (1974) Adams based his third novel, The Plague Dogs (1977), in the Lake District. Alf Wainwright contributed maps and the illustration for the cover but of equal interest was the site of an accident at the beginning of the book, a zebra crossing on Abbey Road, Barrow-in-Furness. Alan Garner is still one of my favourite authors and my adolescence coincided with one of his best known books, Red Shift (1973) where the modern day protagonist Tom listens to music through headphones:

“...When I get

Cross track,

I’ll be real soon.

Sweet is the morning, green is the rush

And all my loving is far away.

The stars are changed, and

When I get

Cross track, I’ll be

Real soon.”

Perhaps it’s because the book coincided with the golden age of progressive rock that I’ve always felt that this piece of imaginary song writing was inspired by prog rather than any other genre though I have absolutely no proof that this is the case. I think the words could be interpreted as ‘green language’ and associate them with the spectrum that incorporates Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972) and Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973); Garner’s Cheshire has parallels with Hardy’s Wessex where customs, folklore and dialect are important to the plot. Is it too much to suggest that Lewis Carroll has influenced prog?


Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label
Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label

The Charisma Records label changed from a pink scroll to the John Tenniel depiction of the Mad Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the Syd Barrett whimsy, psychedelia rather than prog per se, is indebted to Carroll alongside Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Kenneth Grahame. Garner invokes Carroll’s word square to turn communication between Red Shift’s Tom and Jan into code and an example appears at the back of the book. When I was 13 or 14, my brother Tony and I cracked the code and sent our interpretation to Garner via his publisher, possibly the first people to do so. I still have a copy of Alan Garner’s reply, written on a postcard featuring a black and white photograph of the Horsehead Nebula taken at Jodrell Bank, close to Garner’s home, commending us on our efforts. I equate ciphers with prog, seeking to find meaning in words or symbols and can’t believe that there are too many 70s prog fans who weren’t intrigued by Kit Williams’ Masquerade (1979). I’m also informed by my friend and electronica aficionado Neil Jellis that the planetarium at Jodrell Bank used to be a venue for UK electronica gigs. How cosmic is that?


Postcard of the Horsehead nebula
Postcard of the Horsehead nebula

I now read more books relating to music than I do novels. I’m not a fan of lists but I own copies of Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files (4th edition, 1998), his Progressive Rock Handbook (2008), bought as an updated version of Files, and his 20th Century Rock and Roll: Progressive Rock (2000) which is a book of the 50 most influential progressive rock albums of all time. Though largely an A - Z catalogue of bands, including brief descriptions and a strict discography, both Files and Handbook include an introductory discussion about prog but that’s not why I bought them. As early examples of books that promoted the genre, I used them to identify potential additions to my collection and they didn’t just sit on my bookshelves, their slightly dog-eared appearance is down to being carried around to record shops in the UK and elsewhere as reference manuals; the country of origin listing being particularly important.

The resurgence of, or detoxification of progressive rock in the mid 90s allowed authors to once more write about prog without being pilloried. Edward Macan’s Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (1997), Paul Stump’s The Music’s All That Matters (1997) and Bill Martin’s Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (1996) and Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-78 (1997) were all attempts to address the shortage of critical material about the genre, not simple biographies that had been available before (Yes Perpetual Change by David Watkinson, 2001; Close to the Edge, the story of Yes by Chris Welch, 1999), looking at the genre from musicological, sociological and philosophical perspectives, putting it in context of how, when, where and why. A series of essays edited by Kevin Holm-Hudson published as Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001) continued the academic approach and set a new standard of analytical writing. Though not a major fan of biography as a literary genre, I make an exception for some prog musicians such as Bill Bruford. His The Autobiography (2009) was a book that I could hardly put down, setting itself apart by avoiding a straightforward chronological narrative and using a series of ‘frequently asked questions’ to begin each chapter. I also like to read the stories behind my favourite bands. Paul Stump attempted a book on Gentle Giant, Acquiring the Taste (2005) that I enjoyed although three Amazon reviewers derided it for being too verbose, factually incorrect and over-reliant on pre-existing sources; Sid Smith did an incredible job with In the Court of King Crimson (2001) and Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart produced the excellent Van der Graaf Generator - The Book (2005).

I’m not jealous of Will Romano, loving his Mountains Come Out of the Sky (2010) because of the inclusion of a chapter of Italian prog, the first concise history of the sub-genre I’d seen, but his Prog Rock FAQ (2015) covers material that I thought I was the first person to commit to text in this blog! A series of interviews and an interesting theory about the origin of prog reveal his journalist credentials but I don’t always agree with his analysis or opinions. Finally, I need to learn Italian so I can fully appreciate a couple of Progressivo Italiano books...




Prog books
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