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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, Oct 11 2015 09:38PM

The October edition of Prog magazine is obviously the best edition there’s ever been but not because of the feature content, good though it is (Peter Gabriel), it’s because the covermount CD includes Brocken Spectre, my tone poem from Shadows and Reflections (2012.) I submitted the track and it was accepted for the Prog Unsigned CD in 2013 but the finances were a little prohibitive; the cost of a covermount is much lower. The blurb that the Prog team have included next to my photo paraphrases a description by my brother Richard that appears on the Agnen Records website, a possible attempt to avoid plagiarism that comes across as pretty meaningless and not strictly true; Richard’s review covers the entire album, not just the opening track. Also, I hardly think “hauntingly unusual” is great praise but I‘ll take it, anyway! The actual recording isn’t very good, unless that’s just the system I’m using, but there’s some distortion and the volume is rather low. The next track on the CD, Kestrel by Scale the Summit is very professional (and interesting) modern prog but I think I detect some distortion on that, too. It’s somewhat embarrassing to be included on a promo CD that demonstrates the huge gulf between incredibly technically competent groups and my bedroom/keyboard/guitar/PC set-up but it is nice to appear on the same disc as The Enid. I’m going to check out the Scale the Summit album from which their piece has been taken, Von Prosthetic.

I’ve questioned the content of Prog magazine before http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/How-prog-is-Prog-magazine-(originally-posted-24-11-13)/7823668

but decided that it does meet the requirement for catering for unreconstructed 70s prog-philes whilst still managing to preserve a place in the competitive periodicals market. It’s something that I can’t really do without and, like my six days a week subscription to The Guardian, I read at least 80% of it (The Guardian maintains that rubbish like The Great British Bake Off is worthy of news content. No, it’s an awful TV show.) The frequency of Prog ensures that there is sufficient new or freshly reappraised copy and now that we’ve reached a time point where the current wave of musicians can reflect on the music played by their parents, it brings a new perspective to the genre, one of the reasons, I believe, that progressive rock found a new respectability in the 90s. Prog magazine somehow remains sufficiently niche, albeit with a spectrum that takes in progressive-minded metal, electronica, folk, jazz and ambient and though Classic Rock magazine (for instance) might overlap on some content, most likely material on a part-time progressive act like Pink Floyd (for instance) there are so many bands that they miss entirely, just because they’re either not filling stadia or aren’t seen as the next big thing. I used to buy Q or Classic Rock if there was a long enough feature on a band, or individual, that I was interested in; most often these occasions coincided with a lengthy journey, something to take away the boredom of a long flight. Contrast that with buying the second edition of Prog magazine whilst on the holiday of a lifetime in New Zealand: I’ve kept the Prog, the Qs have long gone. Though much music journalism now references progressive tendencies (Muse and Tame Impala come to mind, acts that are likely to be covered by mainstream media) these are handy epithets that confer a description of a group that doesn’t always follow the ordinary; conventional publications concentrate on image and advertising revenue, requiring an understanding of style in its broadest sense.

I’m not into style. When punk was spreading like an infection through the UK and new wave was migrating westwards across the Atlantic from New York clubs, I was growing my hair and wearing flared cords. Original cut-price jeans emporium Dicky Dirts, based in an old cinema in Camberwell, used to have a stall at Goldsmiths’ College every so often. They can’t have believed their luck when they found someone (me) to buy up Levi flares in the very late 70s and very early 80s. You could argue that in my ex-RAF trench coat I was conforming to the style of a hippie and on my first ever trip to central London as an impressionable fresher in search of culture I was accosted in Trafalgar Square and asked if I’d like to buy some dope. However, the hippie movement, and prog, had died out some time before. I was simply wearing clothes that I felt comfortable in.

I was somewhat surprised to see free copies of the NME available outside Whitechapel station on my way to work last Friday. Sporting an image of Taylor Swift, with a prominent yellow bubble appearing like a peeling sticker announcing MUSIC FILM STYLE, I realised that the long descent of the NME had finally come to an end, at rock bottom. Like other magazines handed out at transport hubs, NME has become nothing more than a listings magazine but hangs on to its former USP as a music journal. I’m not sure exactly when style became more important than the music. There had been obvious tribes, with their own form of dress in the past but it may have been glam rock, covered by the serious music papers at the time, where the manufactured rather than just the manipulated, became ascendant. It’s deeply ironic that anti-fashion punk should emerge from a clothes store though it was post-punk synthesizer pop that most benefited from the emerging concept of style magazines. It’s an interesting historical note that NME and The Face journalist Robert Elms used to write a column for one of the early free listings publications, either Ms London or GAT (Girl About Town) that was pushed into my hand at Barons Court Underground station on my way to work at Charing Cross Hospital during the mid 80s; now the newspaper Elms used to work for is given away free in a victory of style over substance. I always preferred Melody Maker over the NME and it’s a shame that the former had to merge with the latter at the end of 2000, at a time when rock music was once more becoming interesting.

Though electronic media has played some part in the demise of the printed word, the best strategy seems to be balancing both forms of medium. I’d rather hold a book or a magazine than hold a phone, looking at tweets or posts to Facebook. I recently read Armando Gallo’s early Genesis biography I Know What I Like on my Samsung tablet and found it deeply unsatisfying; I can only imagine that reading a magazine that way would be equally disappointing but I know that one of the secrets to commercial success is to mix formats.

Hats off to Prog magazine for not only publishing some of my music on a covermount CD but for keeping going, seemingly from strength to strength, in a fiercely competitive environment.



By ProgBlog, Oct 5 2015 10:00PM

I’ve got a cold. I started to feel a little ill on Wednesday and wondered if I should indulge in my usual Wednesday squash evening at the National Sports Centre, Crystal Palace, but as I’d dragged my squash kit into work I thought I’d give it a go and see how I got on. As it turned out I won some games and I lost some but I felt better for doing a bit of exercise. I was very interested to read that members of Pink Floyd used to prefer to play squash rather than going to the studio during the Wish You Were Here sessions in 1974 but putting together a follow-up to Dark Side of the Moon was proving difficult. Strains in personal relationships and professional tensions within the band had surfaced and the direction of the group was unclear and of course none of this was helped by a souring relationship with the media; the NME journalist Nick Kent being particularly unkind. Squash is not only a fantastic cardio workout, it also helps to relieve tension and pent-up frustrations. It’s been suggested that David Gilmour and Nick Mason became rather fond of the squash court and their relationship improved as a consequence – I can personally vouch for the de-stressing effects of regular squash as someone who a couple of years ago played up to six times a week – I was left feeling much more able to cope with whatever life could throw at me, physically and mentally reenergised. However, it’s also addictive (thanks, endorphins); I had to change my working hours to allow for a 45 minute session of squash at lunchtimes and I was unreasonably frustrated when either a planned opponent or I myself couldn’t make a game. Working in a hospital meant that, not infrequently, somebody would have to attend to urgent work (there were a group of around five of us who regularly took over the two courts at Guy’s, helped by me taking on the role of time sheet monitor.)

Squash has been put on the backburner of late despite a flurry of league games in the final days of my semi-retirement. Now back working full time at the Royal London Hospital I’m reduced to Wednesday evenings and the odd league match at weekends. I received an invite to play last Tuesday (September 29th) but had a more pressing engagement, Steven Wilson’s second night at the Royal Albert Hall. Having been quite blown away by the Raven that Refused to Sing show at the Albert Hall in October 2013 and in March this year, at the Hand.Cannot.Erase performance at London’s Troxy, I was only too happy to sign up to one of the gigs on this two-night tour postscript. Leading the party was friend and Wilson aficionado Neil Jellis, who not only organised some great seats, but provided his own bespoke tour T-shirts. Neil had been in the front row on the first night, in front of Wilson’s keyboard and in direct line with Craig Blundell’s kick drum and, as the two dates were billed to have different sets and different guests, had also got tickets for the second show, to which I tagged along. Having heard Neil effuse enthusiastically about the first night, I was anticipating a great performance and I wasn’t disappointed.

We wandered into the auditorium after Matt Berry, the support act, had begun his set with the rather spacey Medicine and I have to admit that not being much of a TV person, I had no idea who Berry was, other than I’d seen something in Prog magazine about him. It must have been rather daunting to open for Steven Wilson but Berry’s band did an admirable job.

When Steven Wilson’s band took to the stage, one by one, it became gradually clear to Neil that the first number was the rather heavy No Twilight within the Courts of the Sun from his first solo album Insurgentes, a track I’m not over-familiar with, likewise with the next Porcupine Tree song, a much more melodic/symphonic-lite Shesmovedon from Lightbulb Sun. I’d not seen Blundell play before (sitting in for previous incumbent Marco Minnemann) and though I’d witnessed the talents of Dave Kilminster on a number of previous occasions, none of them were as Wilson’s guitarist. From our seats, level with the stage and only a few seats away from Nick Beggs who was positioned to the left of the band (from an audience perspective) it was easy to observe the technique of each of the musicians; only Adam Holzman was partially obscured by his keyboards. The first guest of the evening was Ninet Tayeb. She’d also sung the previous night and took on all vocal duties for Routine, putting in a stunning performance. I was once again in unknown territory with the next two songs, Open Car and Don’t Hate Me, the latter coming across as quite proggy and the film to accompany the piece, of light snow falling in London was classic Lasse Hoile; Home Invasion featured Beggs on keyboard and Guthrie Govan as special guest guitarist which segued into Regret #9 with a brilliant Moog solo from Holzman. Theo Travis was then introduced and the band continued with Drive Home, personal favourite Sectarian and the haunting Insurgentes with its watery visuals that remind me of punting on the Isis. The set was completed with more from Grace for Drowning, No Part of Me and a truncated but still epic Raider II.

There were two encores, featuring three songs; Porcupine Tree’s Dark Matter after which the band left the stage but returned, after a bit of adjustment to the drums for Lazarus, with special guest Gavin Harrison, fresh from touring with King Crimson and easily remembering his old part, finally ending with another song I’d not heard before, The Sound of Muzak.

The sound (thanks to Ian Bond) was balanced and clear, even where we were seated on the extreme left and the presentation, as ever, was consummately professional. Wilson has a brilliant rapport with his audience, teasing those that hadn’t attended the first night and explaining how he was extending an introduction to make the correct pedal setting for his guitar. There was no veil on this night, though there had been on the 28th and if I have to make one complaint, it’s that the programme was the same as that sold during the spring leg of the tour, even though the two shows were more varied, more special, and the musicians had changed subtly.

All in all the occasion lived up to its hype: 4 hours of amazing music over the two nights. On reflection, I should have signed up for both shows, but I already have a ticket for January 2016...



By ProgBlog, Jan 11 2015 08:19PM

I’ve just done something that on the face of it may seem to be hypocritical: I’ve filled out the Prog magazine readers’ poll for 2014. My stance on lists is that they’re lazy and how could anything as diverse as progressive rock produce a result that is in any way representative of anything. I occasionally fill out staff surveys at work because the NHS employs bullies and overpaid and under-qualified managers to run a service that really should be run by clinically qualified staff (the clue is in the ‘health’ bit); just because you may have broken your leg as a teenager and subsequently went on to manage a supermarket or a home improvement centre, or sold stocks and shares for rich idiots, it does not mean that you’re fit to run a hospital. I could have predicted what has just happened to Hinchingbrooke Hospital. I use the staff survey process to remind these people that cutting the salaries of nurses by £1700 per year during times of austerity, when housing prices and rent are spiralling out of control and rail fares shoot upwards with annual inflation-busting rises even though the service itself gets worse, is not only nasty but will lead to recruitment and retention problems, staff shortages, a demoralised workforce, a stressed-out workforce and clinical errors. This inevitably falls on deaf ears and the perpetrators of this mismanagement get rewarded in the New Year’s Honours list. Honestly. But I’m saving up each “I told you so” in the hope that it will give me cold satisfaction during my retirement.

As a youth I liked to look at the readers’ polls in (primarily) Melody Maker and (to a lesser extent) in the NME and Sounds. I’m not sure if this was an exercise in wanting to belong to the prog tribe or if it was simply checking to see if the bands I liked had received the recognition that I believed they had earned. It’s quite incredible that from 1973 to 1977, Yes were either top British band or International band or both in the Melody Maker poll and during those five years their lowest position was second. The news of their success was generally acknowledged with a large ‘thank you’ advertisement directed at their fans, accompanied by some Roger Dean artwork; I did particularly look out for members of Yes when I pored over the results though I was interested in prog acts in general. I feel that the recognition of prog bands and their members during this period, a time before the dreadful concept of celebrity, was testament to their musical ability and creative vision. It’s undeniable that the most successful of the 70s progressive rock bands shifted millions of albums and despite their penchant for a more cerebral approach to music-making, fans were evidently happy to indulge in odd time signatures, dissonance, lofty concepts and whatever else could be thrown at them in the name of high art. Whatever the reason for scrutinising the published results, the success of your favourite bands gave you bragging rights in the school playground, an important rite as punk and new wave made inroads on the musical map.

On reflection, I’m not sure why there were ‘British’ and ‘International’ sections and even more perplexed by the votes for miscellaneous instrument. The category seems quite sensible, asking the readership to vote for musicians playing instruments other than bass, drums, guitar and keyboards yet some of the responses were somewhat baffling. Reasonable votes were cast for Ian Anderson who usually ranked highly with ‘flute’ but why would Brian Eno be included in the list because he played a VCS3? I’d always classed the EMS VCS3 along with keyboards, based on my impression of the Synthi A, the VCS3 in a briefcase as used by Pink Floyd (featured in the Abbey Road studios footage of Dark Side sessions on Live at Pompeii.) If the VCS3 is classed as a miscellaneous instrument, then why not include exponents of the Mellotron or a double neck 6-string and 12-string guitar? Another common response was for Mike Oldfield who made appearances during this time for ‘everything’. However, a check of the instrumentation on Tubular Bells reveals just one instrument, the flageolet, which falls outside the remit of the other classes, being a woodwind instrument that was said to have been invented by Frenchman Sieur Juvigny in 1581.

The Prog magazine poll has been going since 2009 and adheres to a similar format to the old Melody Maker example, though there’s been a gradual evolution to the current format: Best album; best band; best male / female vocalist; best guitarist / bassist / drummer / keyboard player; and best unsigned / new act is equivalent to Melody Maker’s ‘brightest hope’. Prog also includes categories for best and worst event, best multimedia best reissue and icon. The reader’s poll allows personal choice, unlike the nominations for the annual Prog Awards where we are only able to vote for a shortlist of Prog magazine-approved candidates, and if you fail to vote for someone in one of the categories your votes don’t count. Perhaps the Prog team need a lesson in democracy!

Anyway, my votes were cast as follows, based on albums released in 2014 and acts that I saw perform live throughout the year, with the exception of Prog Woman of the Year:

Best band: Änglagård

Best album: La Quarta Vittima by Fabio Zuffanti

Best female vocalist: Sonja Kristina

Best male vocalist: Stefano 'Lupo' Galifi

Best guitarist: Steve Howe

Best bassist: Fabio Zuffanti

Best keyboard player: Agostino Macor

Best drummer: Chris Cutler

Best reissue: King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

Best multimedia: Pink Floyd, The Endless River

Best event: Prog Resiste, Soignies

Worst event: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Royal Albert Hall

Best venue: Victor Jara Cultural Centre, Soignies

Tip for 2014: Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band

Prog woman of the year: Kate Bush

Prog man of the year: Fabio Zuffanti


Prog magazine has also hosted other readers' polls, an early edition featured a ‘best albums’ poll which was repeated last year, the fifth anniversary of the magazine’s inception. Close to the Edge was second in 2009, pipped to the top position by Selling England by the Pound, but was promoted to the number one slot in 2014. I should think so! It was quite interesting to see how many albums I owned that made the top 100 (54) and relate this to the editorial remit of the publication. I did have 13 of the top 15 albums, not being at all interested in the two Rush albums that scraped in.

I also subscribed to a best Genesis track plebiscite, the results of which appeared in Prog 13 (January 2011) in the hope that my reasons for selecting my top three would get published because I spent some time thinking about it. My choices made the top three and in the correct order (3, Watcher of the Skies; 2, Firth of Fifth; 1, Supper’s Ready) but they didn’t quote me.

Even though I think publishing lists is lazy journalism, I’ll continue to submit my opinions in the hope that the editorial board takes notice of both my suggestions and my reasons. I'm not so stupid that I think they ever will.



By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 07:18PM

In the early 70s, radio was a vital medium which began to play an increasingly important role in my interest in prog. Though BBC Radio 3 was primarily dedicated to classical music, the Sunday Times journalist Derek Jewell hosted a not to be missed programme called Sounds Interesting that featured jazz and progressive rock bands, but it was Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on Radio 1 which aired from 1973 until 1978 that provided the best introduction to new acts to buy into. We were allowed to use a large Grundig stereogram in ‘The Big Room’ normally reserved for entertaining guests, probably to keep the noise to a minimum. This stereogram was more like a piece of furniture than a radio, but the speakers were of a decent quality and the walnut-finish wooden construction produced a warm tonal response. The sprung turntable was hardly at the cutting edge of hi-fi but it was certainly adequate. We cemented our claim on this piece of equipment by buying a new stylus, being unaware of its previous history, and prided ourselves on our careful handling of any vinyl. If we borrowed a record we would take great care of it, and if we lent one of ours to a friend, we expected that they would take as good care of it as we would ourselves. In reality our hopes were sometimes dashed: one friend left a borrowed copy of Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth above a radiator, reducing it to something like a timepiece in Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory.


The Saturday afternoon radio sessions were often accompanied by a scouring of one of the UK’s weekly music papers, Melody Maker, New Musical Express, or (less commonly) Sounds that we’d bought in town earlier that day. At the time progressive rock was big business and consequently these papers carried many column inches of information about acts we were interested in, and also acts that might potentially interest us. Melody Maker originally concentrated on jazz, and though at first rather dismissive of rock and roll, in the early 70s it became quite sympathetic to prog, particularly the writers Richard Williams and Chris Welch who raised the standard of writing on the subject of popular music. I always preferred the professionalism of MM and felt that NME journalists were rather fickle, likely to follow any trend in the hope of appearing ‘hip.’ The NME was more likely to champion straight forward rock acts and espouse the Dionysian values of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, and in the mid 70s it was quick to latch on to punk and new wave and embark upon some serious dinosaur bashing, advocating the view that exponents of progressive rock were class traitors with an unhealthy obsession for high culture. I have to admit to subscribing to the view that prog did represent high culture, whether it was the symphonic sound of Yes, the politically driven stridency of Henry Cow or the electronic musing of Tangerine Dream, this was all thought-provoking and often challenging music, aimed at the head and not the heart (or genitals.) I wasn’t interested in rock for its rebelliousness (which has since been shown to involve a great deal of hypocrisy as acts like the Rolling Stones are now firmly embedded within the establishment); I was interested in the possibilities of the music. Henry Cow were anti-establishment and unashamedly complex and for me, the prog ethos reflected a philosophy of expanding an understanding of art, literature and science, not simply a ‘get your rocks off’ base instinct.


The inclusion of lengthy instrumental passages meant prog was increasingly able to be used as the soundtrack to documentary pieces on TV. In 1973 Jacob Bronowski included a short section of Echoes in the Generation Upon Generation episode of his seminal series The Ascent of Man on BBC television. The accompanying clip was of two stags fighting for the right to mate with a female and it seemed to me that it was a fitting piece of music for the subject. Pink Floyd were even credited at the end of the programme. My feeling was obviously not without reason. Will Romano suggests that Echoes is as much as song about Darwinism and instinctual knowledge as about human connectedness. In 2010, Bronowski’s daughter Lisa Jardine presented a television programme entitled My Father, The Bomb and Me in which she explored aspects of his life that she knew little of. She had discovered that he worked in operations research during WWII, designing more effective bombs, and wondered how she could reconcile this piece of information with the loving father that she remembered. Whether by accident or design, she used Pink Floyd as incidental music.


In December 1976, imagining that I knew it all, I wrote to the editor of the daily television news programme, Nationwide, suggesting a number of prog instrumentals that could be used as music for their documentary features. I was a little disappointed to get a post card in reply with the stock phrase “Thank you for your recent letter to NATIONWIDE. The Team are always interested to hear from individual viewers in this way and are grateful to you for taking the trouble to write.” I don’t recall ever hearing any of my suggestions being played.


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