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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, Apr 5 2015 06:53PM

Around the time of the double trio King Crimson incarnation, Jim Knipe and I went off to see Robert Fripp performing soundscapes in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. This attendance was fairly hastily arranged because of respective work commitments such as on-call and the Saturday 9th March was deemed to be the most suitable of the potential dates on offer, Fripp being in residence at the QEH for four days from the 7th to the 10th including what was due to be a marathon session on Saturday 9th, as part of a series of events billed as ‘Now You See It’. Strangely enough, Crystal Palace were at home to Jim’s team, West Bromwich Albion that afternoon, with Palace running out winners 1-0 and legend Dougie Freedman scoring the sole goal; this predated our arrangement to attend Eagles v Baggies and Baggies v Eagles reciprocal home fixtures by some years, when West Brom and Palace are playing in the same division.

I’m a fan of Fripp’s soundscapes. I’ve got (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star, which I regard as early, lo-fi examples of guitar and tape loops which marked the beginning of Frippertronics (a term coined by Fripp’s girlfriend at the time, Joanna Walton). Though I don’t own either God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (1980) or Let the Power Fall (1981) I do have the Fripp-produced Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall, recorded in 1977 but not released until 1980 which some believe contains the first examples of proper Frippertronics. I’ve charted their evolution from the original collaborations with Eno, through solo album Exposure (1979) and the 80s incarnation of Crimson to the work with David Sylvian, The First Day and the live album Damage (both 1993), that presaged the double trio King Crimson of the 90s. The calm, dreamy Bringing Down the Light from The First Day was probably the earliest recorded example of Fripp’s modern take on the soundscape; my collection ends with the four track CD EP Pie Jesu (1997) which contains material from A Blessing of Tears and The Gates of Paradise. By this time, technology had become very reliable and instead of twin Revox tape decks and his effect pedal that I’d seen give up the ghost while playing with the League of Gentlemen at the LSE in November 1980, he was now using industry-standard TC2290 dynamic digital delay modules from TC electronics.

The late 70s and early 80s saw Fripp embarking on a number of intimate solo performances in off-beat venues, in the guise of a ‘small, mobile, intelligent unit’. This modus operandi was revisited in the mid-90s with the new technology and resulted in a series of releases that sadly aren’t currently available (though a series of more recent compilations are readily accessible); these shows were sonically and physically disparate from his playing in a group context. In Crimson he migrated out of the front line, remaining in the shadows but he was entirely out of sight when I went to see Peter Gabriel at the Liverpool Empire in April 1977 performing his first solo tour, until his introduction as ‘Dusty Rhodes’ when he appeared to take a bow. As a solo performer, whatever the ambient lighting, he was always in the spotlight and the perceived barriers between Fripp and the audience were rendered insignificant. Fripp was able to trigger loops and delays and leave his ‘stage’ from time-to-time, blurring the lines between the distinction of guitarist and listeners. On http://www.dgmlive.com/rf/index.htm?group=bleeping&bio=true Fripp writes “The Soundscape performances are part of an ongoing series which has the aim of finding ways in which intelligence and music, definition and discovery, courtesy and reciprocation may enter into the act of music for both musician and audience.”

This interaction is one reason why the music shouldn’t be simply classed as ‘ambient’ music. The ambient tag suggests the listener is passive but it is Fripp’s stated aim to seek an interaction which may then shape the course of the event; proactive music making, with Fripp and a guitar able to make a great deal of noise should he decide to do so. These aren’t sampled atmospherics, sounds from nature or even urban background chatter but a controlled, improvised, sonic narrative that may be calming, dramatic, eerie, alarming or even jagged and angular.

The ambient genre had its origins in the 70s and could be described as a musical form with an emphasis on tone, timbral quality and atmosphere rather than a traditional structure or rhythm. To this extent, ambient music ought to have an unobtrusive quality. Early pioneer Brian Eno has said that ambient music should be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; that it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. This suggests to me that ambient music is passive and so, by applying Fripp’s description of soundscapes, soundscapes are not ambient music.

‘Ambient’ somehow seems mixed up with New Age ideas, or rather there is an association between the two through a construct of the marketing industry. Fripp’s critique of the music business is well documented, largely through copious sleeve notes that have accompanied Fripp-related releases through DGM; the corporate music world relies on consumer trends that are controlled via the medium of marketing.

Soundscapes aren’t electronica, either. This is a sub-genre I associate with sequencer pulses and (predominantly) keyboard washes. Whether intended or not, programmed sequences form the basis of rhythm, and they certainly provide a sense of drive and direction which removes them from the accepted definition of ‘ambient’. Thus Tangerine Dream, synthesizer innovators of the early 70s, are allowed to be described as producing ‘atmospheric’ music but their ephemeral melody lines that interweave with snatched, developing pulsating sequences excludes them from ambientism.

It’s the unknown direction of soundscapes that I find appealing. Some of my own improvised music using a Roland synthesizer falls into calming soundscape territory, though I have a tendency to overdub ‘natural’ sounds, rainfall, wind or waves and use reverse waveforms played over the original recording to produce smooth, soothing compositions. This is very unlike Fripp (and obviously nowhere near as good) with only his guitar and effects, conjuring angels and demons in response to his audience in an intimate, live setting. Each performance is unique and if Fripp has full recordings of his recital from March 9th 1996 (the piano-inflected Sometimes God Hides that appears on The Gates of Paradise released in 1997 was taken from that appearance) I’d very much like him to consider releasing it – the memory of standing sipping bottles of Becks watching the craftsman at work is beginning to fade.



By ProgBlog, Jan 25 2015 11:12PM

Edgar Froese, the founder member of Tangerine Dream died unexpectedly last week from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 70.

Froese was born in 1944 in a region of East Prussia (now the Russian city of Sovetsk) and settled in West Berlin where he went on to study art and sculpture in the mid-60s. He formed a Beat group called The Ones who toured widely playing songs such as soul classic In the Midnight Hour. It was during this time that he visited Salvador Dali at his villa in Cadaqués where he was inspired to reject the Anglo-American confines of popular music. On his return to Berlin, he dropped into the newly founded Zodiak Arts Lab and adopted the moniker Tangerine Dream. The first TD album Electronic Meditation, made with drummer Klaus Schulze, unconventional musician Conrad Schnitzler (who played dried peas, typewriter and manipulated taped sounds), organist Jimmy Jackson and flautist Thomas Keyserling, was not really ‘electronic’ but treated conventional instruments.

Their third release, Zeit, a double album from 1972, is a bleak, minimalist masterpiece from the rather dramatic cello quartet opening through to the very end. Based on the philosophy that time is motionless and only exists in our own minds, the shifting sounds, overlain and treated, make me imagine that I’m lost and alone in deep space. There’s a hint of strummed guitar in part 3 (Origin of Supernatural Probabilities) but, apart from the cellos, that’s the only discernible instrument; Zeit is also notable for being the first TD album that brought together seminal line-up of Froese, Christopher Franke and Peter Baumann.

DJ John Peel and Richard Branson were primarily responsible for the popularity of TD in the UK after Peel named Atem (1973) his album of the year and, following their signing to the fledgling Virgin Records, Phaedra (1974) reached no 15 in the charts despite only selling a couple of thousand copies in their native Germany. Despite Phaedra being my introduction to TD (thanks to school friend Alan Lee) I prefer Rubycon (1975) and, though I haven't heard Ricochet for nearly 40 years, I think I also prefer that to Phaedra.

Some commentators think that the term ‘progressive’ should not be applied to Zeit, partly on philosophical grounds – how can you progress if time doesn’t really exist? – but the output of the Virgin years is a maturing of the Kosmische sound that fully embraces the spirit of prog where the sequencer comes to the fore. Whereas Zeit with its subtle sonic shifts could be called ambient in the same way that Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting and Evening Star are ambient, the subsequent TD releases are something more. I’m struggling to find a suitable term but I guess ‘atmospheric’ will do. Though inherently rhythmical, sequencers weren’t used to provide rhythm; their pulses weave in and out of the sonic washes like snapshots of important moments in time, mayfly fragments in the history of the universe.

The band may not have been virtuoso but that’s why they didn’t emulate British prog; they became virtuosos of technology and Chris Franke applied the influence of the minimalists and modern composer György Ligeti. Their use of haunting Mellotron flute is classic but they also used the instrument to great effect on Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares from Phaedra to emulate staccato violin, something that contradicts the 'ambient' tag. In fact, their use of Mellotron is quite different from that of the symphonic prog bands, something I’d ascribe to the sonic territory that they inhabited. I’m one of those people who believe that the mid-70s TD were a defining sound of prog and rushed out to buy Rubycon when it was released. I loved the cover of Phaedra more than Rubycon, but the inside gatefold of the latter was brilliant, in gorgeous chocolate colours, with the cameo of Monique Froese. TD cover artwork was pretty special and as immersive as the music itself, another reason to define them as classic prog. Rubycon was an album that was fantastic for listening to in the dark, through headphones, a pure escapist experience whether you were exploring outer or inner space.

The next studio release, Stratosfear, makes too many concessions towards mainstream rock for my liking. Why on earth did Froese use a harmonica? Friend and Electronica aficionado Neil Jellis opines that Stratosfear is much more polished than their live material of that year or even 1977’s Encore. I think that the studio material is all very well produced but I’m not particularly au fait with the live material and interpret Neil’s comment not as a criticism as such, rather an indication that TD were becoming more industry-friendly. I imagine it was difficult to find new things to write in the idiom that they’d created. We both agree that Song of the Whale (from Underwater Sunlight) is their last great track and Neil points out that Chris Franke left the band one studio album later and believes there is a direct correlation between the (declining) quality of TD material and Franke's exit. He says there are long-standing rumours that Franke is sitting on a pile of live recordings from the 1970s and 80s. It may be that following the death of Froese there is a chance that these recordings may now see the light of day as the relationship between Froese and Franke was pretty poor following the latter’s departure from the band.

I was somewhat surprised to find that George Wells, one of my brothers-in-law, was a TD fan because much of his record collection was made up of Neil Diamond records! He’d been to see TD play live but as I only met my future wife in 1984 I’m not sure if he was present at the concert at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon (23/10/1975) where much of Ricochet was recorded. I didn’t mind buying him a couple of TD albums as birthday presents in the mid-late 80s before the disappearance of vinyl but I would have been embarrassed if I’d had to hand over money in a record shop for anything else he liked!




Edgar Willmar Froese b. 6 June 1944 d. 20 January 2015



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