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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, Jun 5 2016 09:39PM

It wasn’t until I began to examine the causes of the demise of the first wave of progressive rock, in association with reading the essays written by Robert Fripp and printed in the sleeve notes of DGM releases at the commencement of the third wave of prog, that I really paid any attention to the record label. Part of this was due to the relatively wide range of record companies that oversaw the releases by the relatively narrow range of bands that I listened to and certainly during the early 70s it seemed that record companies, riding the lucrative wave of the 33rpm vinyl album, were content to let their charges do almost whatever they wanted as long as the coffers continued to be filled and furthermore, taking on a new act that wasn’t quite so successful wasn’t so much of a risk when there were some big acts in the stable who were guaranteed to produce hit albums.

At the time I think I was more interested in the graphic used to represent the record label, proudly applied to the centre of the disc that might give some more information about the music; the green, red/orange and white of Atlantic on my Yes albums that gave way to Roger Dean’s cover artwork on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) and Relayer (1974); the green lava-lamp blob, another Roger Dean design, representing the EMI progressive subsidiary Harvest on my copies of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970), Meddle (1971), A Nice Pair (1974) and Triumvirat’s Spartacus (1975), though the Floyd’s association with Hipgnosis and their approach to design resulted in Dark Side of the Moon (1973) boasting the iconic (triangle) prism; Wish You Were Here (1975) has a George Hardie robotic handshake and Animals (1977) has a fish eye lens dog on side one and sheep on side two. Roger Dean was evidently in demand by the progressive record labels because he also designed the replacement for the Vertigo swirl, with the UFO-like spacecraft and illustrated the first Virgin Records label, originally in black and white, and the closely related image, without the lizard, for the budget Virgin stable mate Caroline. My only copies Vertigo albums on vinyl are Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant and the eponymous debut by Trace (1974), both of which feature the spaceships and all my albums on Virgin had a coloured logo which, by the time of Ommadawn (1975) had shed the lizard and was simply a stylised photo of the mirror girl.


I quite quickly recognised that there was one record company that appeared to have a monopoly on jazz-rock fusion, with CBS being home to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever but it wasn’t until I discovered the link back to Miles Davis that I understood why. When I picked up Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (from 1976) on tape in the early 80s I wondered if there was a jazz rock thing going on with Gull Records because Isotope were also on Gull; I had all three of the Isotope studio releases but never realised that it was a label associated with Morgan studios because Isotope (1974), Illusion (1974) and Deep End (1975) were recorded at Advision, Rockfield and Trident respectively.


The only label that came anywhere close to indicating that their bands were all worth listening to was Charisma. After the demise of Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label in 1970, The Nice released Five Bridges (1970) and the posthumous Elegy (1971) on Charisma. My second hand copy of Elegy has the original ‘scroll’ logo and my Five Bridges, bought new, has a bold block Charisma on a blue background surmounted by a small Mad Hatter. Almost everything else I have on the label on vinyl features the John Tenniel Hatter: Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill solo material, Refugee, Bo Hansson, Steve Hackett, Brand X; even my re-released English version of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona, distributed by BTF in Italy, has the famous Mad Hatter image. The exceptions include Peter Gabriel Plays Live (1983) where there’s a small cover photo image of Gabriel in black and white, and sides two and four of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) which feature the shattering glass photos from the Hipgnosis cover without any text. The Charisma roster was hand-picked by founder Tony Stratton-Smith and, without the corporate restrictions of the majors, featured a good range of like-minded artists; not that I was ever tempted to buy anything by Clifford T Ward. Almost all the major labels all had an imprint that championed alternative or progressive rock. EMI had Harvest; Philips/Phonogram had Vertigo; Decca had Deram (with Camel, Caravan and the Moody Blues on their books until the Moodies set up their own label and shops, Threshold); Pye had Dawn, home to Northern Ireland’s only progressive rock band Fruupp. RCA also had a short-lived specialist label, Neon, only ever releasing 11 albums, all in 1971 but which included the only, self-titled album by Tonton Macoute (very much on the jazzier side of prog), the Mellotron-heavy self-titled album by Spring and the proto-prog of Indian Summer with their eponymous album.



One of the first labels I came across was Manticore, set up by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1973 which wasn’t too long after I first started to listen to prog, conceived as a vehicle for not just their own music but also for acts that interested the trio but which were finding it difficult to get music released. Manticore brought Italian prog giants Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and Banco to UK and US consciousness and followed in the footsteps of the Moody Blues and Threshold Records, a sub-division of their old label Decca, formed in 1969 following the release of On the Threshold of a Dream. Manticore, named after the chimeric creature that appears on the sleeve of Tarkus pre-dated Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records by a year.


Gentle Giant switched record companies from Vertigo to the Black Sabbath label World Wide Artists before the release of In a Glass House but WWA folded following financial difficulties some time after the release of The Power and the Glory in 1974 and their next effort, Free Hand (1975) was released on Chrysalis. This deal came about after Gentle Giant toured in the US supporting Jethro Tull, Tull having been the reason for the formation of the label by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis when they couldn’t get a record deal in the late 60s. Another label independent of the majors, apart from overseas distribution deals, Chrysalis may have been a pun based on the founders’ names but the imagery, the stage prior to a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, captured the zeitgeist. Procol Harum were another prog band that released records on Chrysalis.


King Crimson were signed to EG music but their 60s and 70s material was released via distributors (independent) Island Records and Polydor, a UK subsidiary of Germany’s Polyphon-Musikwerke that was founded in 1913. The 80s incarnation of Crimson released three albums on EG and there were a number of other releases, called Editions EG, including albums by Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Brian Eno and Quiet Sun. EG ended up being distributed by Virgin who were then sold to EMI but in the mean time Fripp, who had been in a long-term dispute with EG, formed Discipline Global Mobile to release King Crimson and related material. From the outset DGM set out to provide an alternative business model to the majors which Fripp described as unethical and founded on exploitation. The main principle of DGM was to allow the artists to retain copyright of their material which meant that none of the DGM artists would have to go through the same process that Fripp had done with EG.


It would appear that the industry has changed. There may be only three majors now, after takeovers and mergers and there still might be multi-million dollar contracts, but the progressive rock community has witnessed to some innovative ways to release records, from the crowd-funded financing of Marillion to the founding of a progressive rock-specific label, Kscope, with the stated aim to be artistically focused and sympathetic to adventurous and explorative music. I always thought it was worth reading the label...







By ProgBlog, Mar 7 2016 12:28AM

It would have been impossible not to be influenced in some way by the magnificent remains of Furness Abbey, a 15 minute walk from my childhood home. So, during my teenage years, I often visited the ruins of what was once the second richest Cistercian monastery in the country. Originally under the care of the Ministry of Works, Barrow rate payers could apply for a small yellow card from a back office in the town hall that granted them free access, I’d go with friends from the Infield Park Gang or on my own, finding peace and quiet within the weathered sandstone walls. I’d go in any weather, any time of year, even any time of day, sometimes climbing over the iron railings and wandering around the stairwells and hidden corners late at night, spurred on by the incredible atmosphere of the towering remains in moonlight or starlight, having to lie low when car headlamps scythed through the fog that would fill the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade in autumn and winter, casting dancing shadows as the lights shone through tree branches overhanging the road.


Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey

The site is incredibly picturesque and ought to be a must for anyone visiting the Lake District, a 30 minute drive from the southern lakes. I’ve taken rolls of film and hundreds of digital photos and snatches of video and, since Daryl studied architecture as an undergraduate, I’ve begun to look at detail as well as the big picture and it’s remarkable that some of the fine carving has survived through centuries of battering by rain driven on prevailing south westerly winds.


The Furness peninsula has limited access which even today instils a sense of solitude, so it’s easy to understand why the Savigniac monks who founded the abbey in 1127 chose this location, Bekanesgill in old Norse, with its abundance of building material, an excellent water supply and the seclusion, even though they had to abandon the usual east- west orientation of the church due to the geography of the valley, so that it lies almost north east to south west. The abbey became prosperous, owning territory that included most of the Furness peninsula, with its forests to the north and rich agricultural lands to the south but the Reformation signalled its demise; in 1535, as a prelude to its dissolution, the abbey was valued at £805 0s 5d. On the 9th April 1537, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and its possessions to the King.
The Furness peninsula has limited access which even today instils a sense of solitude, so it’s easy to understand why the Savigniac monks who founded the abbey in 1127 chose this location, Bekanesgill in old Norse, with its abundance of building material, an excellent water supply and the seclusion, even though they had to abandon the usual east- west orientation of the church due to the geography of the valley, so that it lies almost north east to south west. The abbey became prosperous, owning territory that included most of the Furness peninsula, with its forests to the north and rich agricultural lands to the south but the Reformation signalled its demise; in 1535, as a prelude to its dissolution, the abbey was valued at £805 0s 5d. On the 9th April 1537, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and its possessions to the King.

The ruins gave me an appreciation for place and time and once I’d discovered the abbey it became impossible not to scour the area for other historical sites within the district: Bow Bridge, close to the abbey; Dalton Castle, a 14th Century tower erected to assert the authority of the Abbot of Furness; Piel Castle, another 14th Century construction, situated on Piel Island off the southern tip of the Furness peninsula to regulate trade and to protect the riches of the abbey from border raiders operating in the disputed territory between Scotland and England; and the ruined 14th Century Gleaston Castle with its four towers and remnants of curtain walls, constructed from local limestone. The physical landscape and human landscape are equally important and equally inspiring, especially when you can see evidence of older cultures and civilisations: Anglo Saxons in Urswick (the Tunwinni Cross); the Romans at Ravenglass on the north of the Duddon Estuary; and Bronze Age (the stone circle at Birkrigg.) Then there’s the more recent industrial heritage associated with the extraction of iron ore for the steel and shipbuilding industries.


I’m not sure that the abbey played any part in my appreciation of medieval music and the medieval prog sub-genre but, in common with many exponents of prog, I did like music primarily associated with the church and was even selected for the school choir, a post that I declined. I’m interested in both forms of early music: sacred (monophonic chants) and secular music, incorporating variations on lutes, zithers and early wind and reed instruments, and combinations of the two forms. My first exposure to medieval music in a rock context would have been Focus and Gentle Giant. Elspeth of Nottingham from Focus 3 (1972) is a melodic exercise on lute, apparently inspired by a recital by Julian Bream when Akkerman was on holiday in the Cotswolds in 1967; the birdsong and animal sounds that enhance the bucolic feel were suggested by producer Mike Vernon. Hamburger Concerto (1974) contains the concise opener Delitae Musicae, another Akkerman lute outing that I think brilliantly sets the mood of the whole album and van Leer’s expanded keyboard rig is fully utilised to provide a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock that owes a debt to church music. Not only is the title track based on Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Haydn but there are other references to sacred music in La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and Birth.
I’m not sure that the abbey played any part in my appreciation of medieval music and the medieval prog sub-genre but, in common with many exponents of prog, I did like music primarily associated with the church and was even selected for the school choir, a post that I declined. I’m interested in both forms of early music: sacred (monophonic chants) and secular music, incorporating variations on lutes, zithers and early wind and reed instruments, and combinations of the two forms. My first exposure to medieval music in a rock context would have been Focus and Gentle Giant. Elspeth of Nottingham from Focus 3 (1972) is a melodic exercise on lute, apparently inspired by a recital by Julian Bream when Akkerman was on holiday in the Cotswolds in 1967; the birdsong and animal sounds that enhance the bucolic feel were suggested by producer Mike Vernon. Hamburger Concerto (1974) contains the concise opener Delitae Musicae, another Akkerman lute outing that I think brilliantly sets the mood of the whole album and van Leer’s expanded keyboard rig is fully utilised to provide a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock that owes a debt to church music. Not only is the title track based on Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Haydn but there are other references to sacred music in La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and Birth.

In a Glass House (1973) was Gentle Giant’s fifth album but it was the first I heard. Their instrumentation extended beyond the conventional and their use of tuned percussion and recorders, together with a penchant for complex interwoven lines made them stand out from other prog bands, lending a distinct medieval flavour. Their relative lack of financial success was down to unbending musical principles, originally declared in the sleeve notes for Acquiring the Taste (1971):

“It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought - that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste”

As a result in the US, their label Columbia Records would not release Glass House because it was deemed to be uncommercial. Though Glass House has plenty of examples of early music, this form had already been pretty much ever present on their records, from portions of Giant and Why Not (on Gentle Giant, 1970); Pantagruel’s Nativity (Acquiring the Taste) and The Advent of Panurge (Octopus, 1972), both of which were inspired by 16th century French writer François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel pentology in keeping with the ‘giant’ theme; and Raconteur Troubadour (also from Octopus.) Later songs would also incorporate this style though overall, from The Power and the Glory (1974) onwards, the band produced more muscular and generally more accessible material.

Perhaps the most well known of the medieval prog bands is Gryphon. One of the ridiculous criticisms of the genre is a perception that medieval-themed stories pervade prog. I suspect that this misconception is an ill-disguised attack on Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975.) Gryphon were unique, utilising genuine medieval instrumentation and performing period pieces but incorporating rock elements; a musical hybrid that may have inspired the band’s name, a mythical half lion, half eagle creature. Their appeal extended from classical music listeners on BBC Radio Three, possibly because of respect for the academic background of band members Richard Harvey and Brian Gulland, graduates from the Royal College of Music, to rock audiences. Tony saw Gryphon when they were the support act for Yes on the Relayer tour (1974-1975) and they had a small section devoted to them in the tour programme. I can’t remember when I first heard them but they were still largely concerned with performing early music. The first album I bought was Raindance (1975), the high point of which is the lengthy (Ein Klein) Heldenleben, a similar piece to the title track on Midnight Mushrumps (1974.) Though I really like these long-form compositions there’s an occasional feeling that there’s insufficient development of musical ideas. This is most acute on Red Queen to Gryphon Three (1974) where I’m left slightly dissatisfied. On the other hand, the immediacy of the up-tempo jigs shows off their dexterity and also brings a satisfactory resolution; I also have a soft spot for the traditional tunes The Astrologer, Unquiet Grave and Ploughboy’s Dream which are given a prog makeover. The experience with Yes obviously influenced the band and by Treason (1977) they’d turned into a rock band who happened to use some medieval instruments. When I listened to Treason recently I was disappointed with the song format; there’s too much singing and the original identity of the ensemble had been lost. The medieval revival was over.








By ProgBlog, May 19 2015 10:03PM

The presentation of an album used to be one of the factors I took into account when I was attempting to discover new music at a time when the 12 inch LP format offered the best possible option for displaying images; subsequent popular formats (cassette tape, CDs) didn’t provide such a good showcase for album art so the recent trend for releasing new music on vinyl is a positive step in returning artwork to the status it had in the 70s. My father was an Art teacher and would drag us around galleries whenever the chance arose; I seem to recall Abbot Hall in Kendal as being a popular destination. I guess his efforts to interest us in art were successful because I subjected my son Daryl to the same sort of treatment, despite me ending up as a scientist... Anyway, not knowing how the music industry actually worked, thinking that art direction was the responsibility of the group rather than the label, I hypothesised that a band that invested in decent artwork was likely to have taken equal care with their music.

There are a handful of artists and design teams who have a strong association with progressive rock though prog wasn’t necessarily the only genre they worked in. The most obvious examples include Roger Dean and Yes; Hipgnosis and Pink Floyd; William Neal and ELP; Mark Wilkinson and Marillion; Philip Travers and the Moody Blues. The relationship was most rewarding, in a symbiotic kind of way, where bands stuck with a particular designer over the course of a number of releases. This conforms to what Wagner described as ‘gesamtkuntswerk’ where music, lyrics and visual motifs create a coherent artistic vision, fitting the idea of the concept album and consistent constructed mythologies.

When I started to listen to music I took the presence of printed lyrics for granted and consequently I found it irritating when I didn’t have a lyric sheet, having been reduced to replaying sections of albums to work out what Greg Lake was singing on Tarkus (1971), for instance. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the original rock concept album, was the first rock LP to have the song words reproduced on the sleeve and the cover specifically related to the idea that the album had been released by the fictitious Sgt Pepper. Prior to Sgt Pepper most album covers featured a photograph of the band but Peter Blake and Jann Howarth pioneered a new form of album presentation, opening the doors for cover art to reflect the musical and lyrical content within.

Roger Dean’s work with Yes created a narrative that took on a life of its own, incorporating stage design for live performances (with Dean’s brother Martyn) and inspiring Jon Anderson to write and release Olias of Sunhillow (1976). I used to buy postcards of the Yessongs panels from the union shop at Goldsmiths’ College when I was a student, to use as notes to friends detailing in minutiae what I’d been doing over the preceding week or two, lectures attended, field trips, books read and albums bought. I was rather surprised when, following the group hiatus from 1975 to 1977, Yes reconvened with an album that didn’t have a Roger Dean cover. The Hipgnosis effort was similar to material that they’d provided for other musicians but I didn’t really think it was very fitting with Yes music. Perhaps this was to coincide with the Yes reaction to punk; the title track of Going for the One (1977) is more direct than any of their preceding output but the rest of the material on the album ranks as being pretty cosmic, especially the epic Awaken. Hipgnosis shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near Tormato (1978) – one of the worst album covers, ever. It did neither Yes or Hipgnosis any favours, when it could have been so good! I approved of the Drama (1980) sleeve and was indifferent to 90125 (1983) and Big Generator (1987) – they weren’t Yes music.

Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant is one of my favourite Dean covers and it’s interesting to see how Patrick Woodroffe incorporated another of my favourites, Dean’s Greenslade multi-limbed wizard figure for Time and Tide (1975) after Spyglass Guest (1973) which only featured the Dean designed Greenslade typography (the typography itself on Time and Tide is a subtle alteration); though the cover of the first Dave Greenslade solo album Cactus Choir (1976) is also illustrated by Dean, his working relationship with Woodroffe was continued on The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony (1979), an album I’ve picked up a number of times at record fairs, some in very good condition, but never bought because of the reported poor quality of the music and I’m not too sure whether I like the work of Woodroffe, either.

I do like the work of Ashok (Chris Poisson) for the Mahavishnu Orchestra that runs from Birds of Fire (1973) to Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975) incorporating graphics, photography or both. This provides the illusion of continuity, even though the group disbanded in 1973 and reconvened with a different line-up for Apocalypse (1974) and I find the images reflect the spiritual nature of the music.

Sitting with the gatefold sleeve of Rubycon (1975) and listening to the album through a pair of headphones was a favourite pastime during the mid 70s but I like all of Monique Froese’s covers for Tangerine Dream with the silhouette image on Ricochet (1975) influencing my own technique with a camera. The graphics for covers of albums by jazz rock outfit Isotope were certainly part of the hook that got me interested in the band. I’d seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test shortly after they’d formed but my first purchase was their second release, Illusion (1974) with the mercury-like liquid splashing between the two earpieces of a pair of headphones. This form of surreal photography was repeated on Deep End (1975) and the continuity of band image was maintained by the use of the same ‘Isotope’ logo on all of their albums, created by award winning graphic designer John Pasche who, apart from providing covers for releases on the Gull label, created the ‘tongue’ logo for the Rolling Stones. Pasche provided artwork for a number of bands in the mid 70s but I believe that his photographic work for Isotope is his best.

The hypothesis that a good cover is somehow an indicator of the quality of the music within the packaging is totally misplaced. One look at Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste (1971) might be enough to put off the casual browser and there are many examples of awful music wrapped in beautiful images, so the hypothesis needs modification. I visited Impacto Records in Barcelona and bought a second hand copy of Pendragon’s The Masquerade Overture (1996). My wife picked out the CD for me, suggesting that it had a ‘prog’ cover. The artwork, by Simon Williams, has hints of Mark Wilkinson about it but there’s a lot going on from art to architecture to mysticism to Eastern exoticism. If the images reflect the components that make up the music, a cover like this could only be for a work of epic proportions, i.e. prog.

Part of growing up with prog was poring over the album sleeve, whether it was a hand-drawn creation by Nick Mason on Relics (1971) or Fruupp’s Peter Farrelly (Future Legends, 1973 and Seven Secrets, 1974) or the complexity of PJ Crooks’ work for King Crimson, looking for clues linking the images and the music; thinking about the music and actively engaging, not simply playing music to create some background noise. That is what a good record sleeve is for.


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