ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

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, Dec 18 2016 09:32PM

After the death of Greg Lake and a subsequent marathon session of listening to very early King Crimson and ELP albums I’ve not really had much opportunity to listen to music over the past week, my leisure time being taken up with two home games for Crystal Palace, a variety of reunions and a work Christmas party. Not being someone who rejoices in either the religious or commercial nature of Christmas, I find it a bit of a challenge when it comes to interacting with those that do get into the Christmas spirit. One of my gripes is the radio at work which is either tuned to a station broadcasting non-stop Christmas singles, other than Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas which I wouldn’t actually mind hearing, or tuned into something with more edge playing more contemporary chart rubbish; another is the seasonal TV programming which invariably excludes me from being part of the stereotypical family and which becomes ever more tired each year; and another is the general encouragement to eat and drink too much.

The idea of a reunion is to catch up with old friends but it’s difficult to communicate effectively in a crowded pub where the televised sport competes with the piped music. Having said that, en route to the work Christmas meal, we stopped off at Turner’s Old Star in Wapping where the vanguard were able to drink, talk and play pool for over an hour with only a couple of locals in attendance. This turned out to be the calm before the storm as the meal was held at Tobacco Dock and we were a small group amongst around 1000 other revellers. The live band seemed very professional but they weren’t likely to play anything remotely interesting or challenging, unlike the entertainment at the gala dinner for an American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Dallas in 1995 where the band were unable to perform the King Crimson I requested but did play some Talking Heads as compensation. When I was a student I occasionally used to take a pair of cushioned over-ear headphones to discos (only if they were held at my hall of residence – I wouldn’t have wanted to lug them all over south London) which was done primarily to indicate my disapproval of the music but also to partially reduce the volume; putting in a pair of in-ear headphones at the Tobacco Dock party was rather pointless, such was the overwhelming din coming from the disco.


Turner's Old Star
Turner's Old Star

The little music I have managed to play for my personal pleasure in the past week includes King Crimson’s Red (1974). I’d seen a tweet about the album and made a mental note that it was something I should make a point of listening to again. Red was one of the Crimson LPs I’d sold to a second hand record store when I got a copy of the original issue of the CD, but that has been replaced with the mighty Road to Red box set. It was also one of the first Crimson albums I’d heard, a copy was owned by a friend from across the road in Infield Park in my youth. Along with the heavy prog of the title track and the soaring Starless which has gone on to inspire a host of other works with its killer melody line, Providence is a track which I found particularly inspiring; at the time of the album’s release I didn’t have a clue that this was a live improvisation, despite the rather truncated ending, but the structure formed the basis of a composition by my late school - early university group where, dependent on our rehearsal space, we would utilise found objects like bicycle wheels and door keys. I think Fallen Angel and One More Red Nightmare point the way to John Wetton’s future musical course but both are carried off with distinct aplomb and fit in with the feel of the entire album. The most recent version of Starless I’ve heard was by the David Cross Band at The Lexington earlier this year which rivalled the three drummers King Crimson version (Hackney Empire, September 8th 2015) in terms of excellence.


The Road to Red
The Road to Red

Next on my list was the debut self-titled album by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (1972). Desperate to find some Banco, my first purchase was the sub-standard Donna Plautilla (released 1989) which I didn’t have on my list but it was the only Banco album available from a store in Treviso when I visited in 2005. Donna Plautilla is a compilation of pre-1972 material which doesn’t really fit the progressive Italiano tag, unlike the excellent first album. My current version of the album is a (2012) 40th anniversary 2CD edition where the second disc contains previously unreleased tracks Poilifonia, Tentazione and Padre Nostro and live versions of R.I.P, Metamorfosi and Traccia recorded in 2012.

The original album is one of the classics of the genre and, thanks to the vocals of Francesco Di Giacomo, truly operatic. I’d always associated the Banco sound with ELP because of the predominance of organ and piano, provided by the Nocenzi brothers Vittorio and Gianni respectively, but this time I was struck by the similarity to Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in March 1972. There may not be very much flute on Banco del Mutuo Soccorso but the stop-start nature of the music, plus the organ/piano which also feature heavily in TAAB (one of the main reasons I really like that album) sound as though they could all have come from the same sessions. Tull were undoubtedly a major influence on the early Italian prog acts but it’s hard to imagine Banco having time to rearrange their material to sound more like Jethro Tull in the two months that elapsed between the availability of the two records.


Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition

Though I didn’t get much time to myself I did manage to squeeze in, over two days, the DVD of The Golden Compass (2007), the somewhat unsatisfying cinematic adaptation of Philip Pullman’s brilliant Northern Lights. I can’t work out if it was the characterisation which was off, despite thinking that Nicole Kidman might actually make a suitable Mrs Coulter, or if it was just Disneyfication, stripping away all the darkness and complexity of the novel. As with all fantasy books, the film version relied heavily on CGI, mostly successfully but sometimes less so. I found the stage version of the Pullman trilogy (His Dark Materials, an adaptation by Nicholas Wright) which had a couple of seasons at the National Theatre more in keeping with the original work despite the necessary condensing, with an ingenious depiction of the daemons. The arctic setting made it an appropriate season to watch the film but I hadn’t realised, until I was distracted and left the credits running, that Kate Bush sang her own composition Lyra at the end of the film. I must have been walking out of the cinema as this began playing and missed it but apparently it was a commission which utilises the Magdalen College choir, a nice Oxford-related fact, and it is a genuinely beautiful song.

My inability to enjoy Christmas is becoming hardened with every passing year but I see decorations and other Yule-related paraphernalia go on sale in October and, apart from a couple of recent Decembers when we had a healthy sprinkling of snow even in the south east, the country has been subjected to some record-breaking flooding. Isn’t it supposed to snow at Christmas? We all know about the chances for peace on earth... I may find it hard to find any decent music being broadcast at this time of year but it’s incomprehensible that a large proportion of the human race has an inability to even consider working together for the common good, whether it’s finding a meaningful accord on climate change, cancelling third-world debt, halting the civil war in Syria or ending violence against women.

Merry Christmas?









By ProgBlog, Nov 6 2016 09:12PM

I’ve just visited the You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 - 1970 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and come away very pleased that I made the excursion. Having arrived in London (the suburb of Bexley) in 1978 from what was then the parochial, cultural cul-de-sac of south Cumbria, I proceeded to take in as much art, music, theatre and as many museums as possible, but this was the first time that I’d been to the V&A. It had been a conscious choice to avoid walking through those particular doors but a decision taken because of my bias towards the sciences and ignorance in equal measure. South Kensington boasted the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum and what I understood to comprise the V&A collection or their special exhibits never appealed. It seemed to me that it was all about fashion, past and present, and it would be hard to imagine anyone more unfashionable than me, then or now, as I clung on to progressive rock music and the associated early 70s dress sense. I even branded it as imperialistic... Dressing like a dunce in a trench coat didn’t stop me attempting to broaden my horizons, seeking out things like minimalist sculpture Equivalent VIII, better known as the pile of bricks by Carl Andre at the Tate Gallery, or going to see Warren Mitchell in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre, though my more regular jaunts tended to be student concession seats at the Aldwych Theatre for Royal Shakespeare Company productions or the National Gallery where I could indulge in more mainstream culture without charge, but it was the galleries at the Nat His Mus and Science Museum which most interested me, where I was delighted to discover links to my home town: a large plug of haematite in the former and a Bessemer Converter in the latter.

How times change, because The V&A turned out to be a bit of a revelation. As far as I’m concerned the attractiveness of the venue increased under the directorship of Martin Roth so it’s a shame that he felt he had to return to his native Germany after reflecting on the decision by a tiny majority of the British voting public to leave the European Union. The building itself is quite stunning and whereas I’m not interested in all the decorative arts (things like the jewellery collection, for example) there are rooms devoted to architecture which are jaw-dropping. It would be impossible not to be impressed by the (closed off but still visible) gallery containing the enormous plaster cast of Trajan’s column.





You Say You Want a Revolution? was a sociological snapshot of 1826 days described through music, performance, fashion, film, design and political activism, a truly revolutionary five years representing a seismic shift in attitudes. Some of these revolutions remain unfulfilled but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that this short epoch had profound effects on our present and will affect the way in which we approach our future. It was the music and the politics which most interested me: the advent of psychedelia, forerunner to progressive rock; countercultural values including the birth of ecology and anti-war causes; and the sometimes forceful rise of equality movements; all issues which continue to define my thinking. What the exhibition also highlighted was that the rise of consumerism was responsible for the unfulfilled promises of the times, neatly summed up by the deeply ironic (though not meant so at the time) quotation by Milton Friedman “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.”


A small proportion of the album covers spread around the exhibition reflect releases which make up the proto-prog of my own collection: Days of Future Passed; Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; A Saucerful of Secrets; Ummagumma; Abraxas; Procol Harum; Shine on Brightly; John Barleycorn Must Die; The United States of America; Music in a Doll’s House; Stand Up; Hot Rats; Tommy; Trout Mask Replica; The Madcap Laughs; and Bitches Brew but the only true progressive rock album included in the display was In the Court of the Crimson King. Not having been terribly aware what was going on at the time, it was these items, accrued in the intervening years, which allowed me to relate to the experience. One unexpected article on display was a sales manual for a Mellotron 400-D!

Although it was the Pink Floyd connection which first drew my attention to the exhibition there wasn’t that much Floyd-related material on display – there’s much more in the exhibition book. However, I also went to see the Dr Strange film this weekend and that also has a Pink Floyd association. There’s a depiction of a ‘freak’ in one of the panels on the back cover of the late-1973 budget-price repackaging of the first two Floyd albums A Nice Pair, a man attired in hippy clothing holding a giant spliff and, whereas most of the outer sleeve is a series of visual puns (a different kettle of fish, a fork in the road, laughing all the way to the bank) I have never been able to grasp the significance of this photo, other than to challenge the stereotypical image of someone who listens to early Floyd. Anyway, scattered on the floor is a pile of comics and one, quite clear, is a Dr Strange magazine.




A number of my school friends were into fantasy books and some of the more esoteric comics and I asked one to source a Dr Strange for me. When I was much younger I used to buy DC comics on a Saturday morning from a newsagent on Salthouse Road, near my grandmother’s house, but they were all staid compared to the Dr Strange universe; a neurosurgeon who had lost the use of his hands and had become the master of mystic arts. The imagery of alternative dimensions fitted in with my adolescent world of Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner and Arthur C Clarke, and I was pleased that rather than a simply possessing a super power, Strange’s ‘magic’ seemed to be derived from a more rational source, channelling the natural forces of the different universes. I was also developing an interest in mysticism, partly fuelled by the release of Tales from Topographic Oceans at around the same time as A Nice Pair. The character acquired counterculture acceptance, setting him apart from almost all other Marvel stable mates, as he wasn’t portrayed as patriotic in any way; one of the early gigs by Grateful Dead forerunners The Warlocks was at an event called Tribute to Dr Strange.




I enjoyed the film which contained just about the right level of humour, though the representation of a successful surgeon as arrogant is a rather tired trope; I’ve worked closely with surgeons and yes, some may be a little conceited or disdainful, but it wasn’t surgeons who caused the global financial crash in 2008. There are plenty of politicians, healthcare managers and even some bloggers who demonstrate self-importance... What was good was the deference to the comic book artwork in the depiction of alternate dimensions and in the poses of Dr Strange. There were scenes reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey placing it firmly in the psychedelic genre and best of all, director Scott Derrickson included a section of Interstellar Overdrive to accompany the clip leading up to Strange’s life-changing accident.




Two things worth going to see: Dr Strange is on general release; You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 26 February 2017






By ProgBlog, Sep 13 2015 10:15PM

I was offered, and accepted, a new job this week. There’s a redundant section at the bottom of CVs that appears on resume templates: Activities or Interests. In an effort to ensure that all candidates are treated equally, this paragraph is rightly ignored during the interview process but mine is still there and three of the items I list are ‘progressive rock’, ‘bass guitar’ and ‘architecture’.

This last listing is relatively recent and was put there because my son Daryl did an Architecture degree and I took an interest in his studies. In a curious twist, he blames his parents for setting him down that path; we must have dragged him around every National Trust and English Heritage property in the South East and many more elsewhere. Now, family holidays invariably include seeking out some example of architectural vernacular, some special building or a World Heritage site.

Architecture is one of the most visible displays of wealth. Corporations inhabit huge edifices, the super-rich live in characterless high-rise Thames view apartments and old money resides in country retreats. This is rather ironic because, according to the Architects’ Journal (AJ), architects tend to vote Labour. I think the publication itself reads like The New Statesman; last week’s edition was singing the praises of Jeremy Corbyn!

I’m particularly fond of modernist architecture which, fairly early in the twentieth century, set out in a radical new direction when Auguste Perret (1874 – 1954) began to build structures out of reinforced concrete without any ornamentation. His idea was for the exterior to reflect the inner structure, rather than hiding it, a concept of design integrity that was initially inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Based on the analysis in Music of Yes and Listening to the Future by Professor Bill Martin, I wrote a letter to Prog magazine which was published in issue 24 (March 2012) pointing out the link between progressive rock and socialism, via William Morris.

Brutalism, one of my favoured schools of architecture, has been described as an uncompromisingly modern form of architecture able to generate extreme emotions and heated debate. Characterised by large forms of often asymmetrical proportions, the use of unadorned concrete added to its misplaced reputation for suggesting a bleak, dystopian future. I think this is far from the truth and there are others who agree with me. An item on BBC Breakfast (September 8th) with architect Harriet Harriss and Joe Watson from the National Trust explored this myth; Harriss pointing out the touchy-feely nature of the buildings because of the imprint left on the concrete surfaces by the timber formers and Watson expounding the opinion that this was utopian architecture and that the NT, as an extension of their role, was going to open up these buildings for special tours. Put in context, this was a heroic architecture, with local authorities addressing the requirement for decent housing in the years following the Second World War. The planners and architects were visionaries though it would be foolish to suggest that there weren’t failures. Harriss pointed out that this was cutting-edge and that it did involve some experimentation, because of the acute need for housing; issues regarding damp are now able to be addressed and examples of the idiom preserved. The most interesting point was made by Watson, who commented that architecture indicates where political power lies in our society and illustrated this notion by naming the Church and the aristocracy, which agrees with my earlier point about architecture as a display of wealth. He believes that during the 50s and 60s there was a shift in power to the people through local councils and they responded with this heroic, sublime architecture; the accommodation provided indoor bathroom suites, defined kitchen areas, fully wired and ready for appliances, and central heating, things that tenants couldn’t previously have imagined. Harriss made the point that the National Theatre (by Denys Lasdun, 1914 – 2001) was successful because it fulfilled one of the main aims of this school of architecture, namely ending the exclusivity of the arts and making it far more accessible, opening it up to a new, wide-ranging audience. The external appearance, with its many decks that can be interpreted as a series of performance platforms, reflects the function of the building. The music that accompanied the archive footage was chosen for its dystopian feel: the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis (1982.)

The connection of this form of architecture to prog is precisely the same as Harriss pointing out why the National Theatre is a success; ending the hegemony of the rich over the arts. The seeds of progressive rock emerged during the ‘Massive’ period of Brutalism (defined by Alexander Clement as running from 1960 – 1975) when society was changing rapidly spurred on by technological innovation; the technology behind construction was changing and, in music, instrument design and recording techniques were rapidly developing. Not only did concert halls such as the Royal Festival Hall, part of the same South Bank Complex as the National Theatre and the Barbican Centre (officially opened in 1982 during the Brutalist ‘Transitional’ period) provide culture to a wider range of the population, institutions like the University of East Anglia, a famous Brutalist structure opened in 1963, were attracting a wider social range of students and it was the new Universities and Polytechnics that provided a circuit for touring nascent rock acts which contributed to the success of the genre. My first forays to see bands outside Barrow were at Lancaster University (Barclay James Harvest, 1975; Focus, 1976.)

Prog attempted to take high culture and make it accessible to the masses through the medium of rock music. European art music was critical to the success of proto-progressive acts such as The Nice, the Moody Blues and Procol Harum and these gave rise to symphonic prog bands. This form was initially praised by critics and the budding genre became accepted by some of the more forward thinking institutions; Pink Floyd played the Royal Festival Hall in April 1969 during their experimental The Man and the Journey tour. This relationship with the critics changed when some of the exponents of prog undertook massive projects that were beyond the comprehension of many and led to charges of pretentiousness and overblown self indulgence. This period of prog, the end of the ‘golden era’ coincides with a rejection of Brutalism by planners and the transition to less monumental forms, an increased use of brick and the uninspiring Neo-vernacular. As prog played out councils were reducing investment in their concrete estates, former beacons of hope for a fairer society, and the misplaced idea of the dystopian landscape took hold. It’s good that there has been a re-evaluation of progressive rock and a re-evaluation of this egalitarian architecture.


Post Script:

My local concert hall, Croydon’s Fairfield Halls (opened 1962 and based on the Royal Festival Hall) features some great acoustics and was another favoured haunt of successful prog acts during the early 70s as commuter towns developed and grew.



fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time