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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, Jun 26 2016 10:08PM

This looked a very attractive prospect when it was first advertised so, having no recollection about the capacity of the O2 Arena and no idea about the likelihood of tickets selling out, emails and text messages were dispatched to friends and family in early April and four tickets were purchased (thanks for organising, Jim.) The last time I attended the O2 was to eat at one of the restaurants but I had also visited the Dome (as was) at the start of the millennium and witnessed The Story of Ovo, The Millennium Show with music written by Peter Gabriel.

I’ve written before about my preference for indoor festivals but this, the first Stone Free Festival, was being held in a venue that I’d consider to be a bit out of the way, served only by the Jubilee Line and one that was also getting on with its day-to-day business of being an entertainment and eating hub, so there wasn’t much of a festival feeling. Jim had organised meeting up at the Barclays Premier Lounge where we had complimentary hot/soft drinks and nibbles and though there were a series of other Festival events going on elsewhere around the site, we were only interested in the acts on the main stage, beginning with Wish You Were Here Symphonic, performed by the London Orion Orchestra (who would be appearing with Rick Wakeman later in the evening.)

I don’t know why I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the performance so much. I liked the way that Shine on You Crazy Diamond began with tuned percussion, mimicking Rick Wright’s barely perceptible twinkling, descending arpeggio, but this piece proved to be structurally suited to an orchestrated version and sensibly eschewed vocals, unlike the Orion Orchestra album version which features Alice Cooper (and who had headlined the previous day.) I don’t know if it’s a feature of orchestrated rock music in general or part of the transposition process, but I was reminded of passages on Sgt Pepper’s and Days of Future Passed, with the key changes providing some nice drama. The orchestra was augmented by guitars and featured vocals on Welcome to the Machine, Have a Cigar and the title track, which didn’t convert so well to the orchestral format. The performance was concluded with a triumphant, truncated, vocal-less version of Eclipse. The inclusion of the orchestra in the programme was perfectly apt. This was an alternative way for fans to experience the album, exposing subtle nuances that may have been buried in the layers of the 1975 release. I’m not entirely sure that it would have been appropriate for classical music aficionados and it’s certainly not the first orchestral adaptation of a progressive rock album but it demonstrated that it’s not unreasonable to turn symphonic prog into symphonic orchestra music.


Introduced by a caped Jerry Ewing as one of the best prog guitarists, I thought the running order of the acts was somewhat awry with Steve Hackett appearing next as part of the Acolyte to Wolflight tour. Hackett is an artist that I’ve seen on a number of occasions but this was the first time since February 2012, when I went to see him at Brighton’s Komedia on the Breaking Waves tour that he played anything other than Genesis material. My favourite Hackett solo albums are Voyage of the Acolyte and Spectral Mornings and, after a technical glitch, he opened with Every Day, archetypal melodic Hackett. The acoustic Loving Sea from latest release Wolflight came next, followed by an undiluted prog duo of A Tower Struck Down and Shadow of the Hierophant; dark, brooding and complex. Nad Sylvan then came on stage for three Genesis tracks to finish the rather short but excellent set: Dance on a Volcano; The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Firth of Fifth. Hackett’s band is well versed in this material and it shows; the performance enhanced by Sylvan’s theatrical movements and some dramatic lighting and smoke. Hackett’s initial trouble with no signal, the malfunction of his tuning pedal and Nick Beggs’ signal problems when he switched to a double neck guitar could all have been minor mishaps from a gig in the 70s, overcome by the power of the music. It’s just a shame his set didn’t eat into the slot provided for Marillion, who were on stage next.



Apparently fresh from appearing alongside Queen at a festival in Switzerland, Ewing described Marillion as ‘prog rock royalty’ and I was looking forward to seeing a decent set. The only other time I’ve seen bits of Marillion was at 2010’s High Voltage but that performance was bleeding into the start time for ELP on the main festival stage and I don’t remember any of The Invisible Man or Neverland, two tracks that were played at both events. This show was spoiled by a poor, distorted sound that wasn’t helped by Steve Hogarth shouting, rather than singing. Not being over-familiar with the post-Fish repertoire, I found it surprising that the opening number The Invisible Man and the subsequent track, You’re Gone, both from 2004’s Marbles, sounded as though they featured rhythm machine. It was difficult to class any of the set as prog, other than the unexpected inclusion of neo-prog medley Kayleigh/Lavender/Heart of Lothian, so I was left feeling disappointed.

Headlining the day was Rick Wakeman, performing The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in its entirety for the first time since the 1975 tour. I’ve seen Wakeman on a number of occasions, the first in Leeds in 1976 when he was promoting No Earthly Connection and the most recent performing the entire, reworked Journey to the Centre of the Earth at the Royal Albert Hall in 2014. There were a number of parallels between the Journey show and this one, with Stone Free seemingly created for the Arthurian epic. In both cases Wakeman provided more music and though a couple of years ago I questioned whether or not Journey was progressive rock, concluding that it was more musical theatre, only in a bad, Lloyd-Webber kind of way, I also wondered about the provenance of Myths and Legends. I have recently listened to the original recording a couple of times and, because the album was conceived as a studio piece, the singing is slightly better and I like the music more. The additional music on the updated version is not too bad but these tracks appear to have been written to highlight the vocal talents of Hayley Sanderson... only I don’t think she has a voice suited to prog and the lyrics are as bad as the originals; Merlin the Magician was spoiled by the addition of vocals.

Permanently ensconced behind his keyboard rig until coming down to take a bow at the conclusion of the performance, sporting a green and silver cape, Wakeman played some awesome Moog parts (the original album is also full of them) but left the narrations to Ian Lavender, seated front left on the stage. There was no encore and I think the crowd were a bit bemused, clapping politely but not enthusiastically for a couple of minutes before the house lights went up; a damp squib of an ending.


Overall the gig was enjoyable but I’m left with doubts about Marillion and Wakeman, when it was the idea of seeing the live premiere of the expanded Myths and Legends that originally caught my attention. On the plus side, I know Hackett always gives a great performance and the symphonic Wish You Were Here is worth catching. It also rained but there was no mud...




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