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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 25 2015 09:45PM

My Walkman is blinking at me, cycling between the home screen and the music I was last listening to on my journey home from work last Thursday, shutting myself off from the noise and the crush on the London Overground (aka the Ginger Line), Tormato by Yes. The Option and Back buttons don’t respond yet I can scroll through the different tracks on the album but when it stays on the home screen for long enough, the left, up, right and down functions don’t work. It won’t even turn off! It’s broken. At 16GB it’s not big enough to hold anywhere near my entire music collection and my life involves constant updating of the material on the player each time I acquire more music and shuffle things around. In the last couple of months I’ve been to Italy and bought more CDs than I probably should have done; bought CDs at gigs; I’ve had a birthday, which inevitably resulted in multiple CDs; and I’ve been picking up new vinyl from the internet (the English version of Felona and Sorona by Le Orme and the yet to be despatched La Curva di Lesmo by Fabio Zuffanti) plus second hand vinyl (Edgar Froese’s Aqua, 1974) from an antique shop in Crystal Palace. My last batch of CD burning was a sequence of Tangerine Dream releases, Encore (1977), the last of the Peter Baumann-era TD, Cyclone (1978) featuring Steve Jolliffe, Force Majeure (1979) which featured Klaus Krieger on drums, Tangram (1980), the first album of the Johannes Schmoelling-era, and Hyperborea (1983); the vinyl won’t be converted to mp3 until I get a new turntable. Oh, I almost forgot. BTF put out a couple of discounted CDs every week and after reading a short review of the only and eponymous LP by Paese dei Balocchi (Land of Toys) from 1972, presented in a mini gatefold sleeve for €5.99, I put in my order and I’m waiting for it to be delivered. I bought a new MP3 player yesterday, just an updated version of my old Sony, because I was happy with the balance of portability (it’s very small) and sound quality, when played through Sennheiser earphones. I find it a little strange that the new device has a time display and as BST switched to GMT in the early hours of this morning; I found it stranger that this was an electronic device that required a manual adjustment to the time.

Time is something of an abstract concept that covers both immense (astronomical) measurement and the quantum level; the second was originally defined as the fraction 1/86400 of the mean solar day but uncertainty over the exact definition of a mean solar day and irregularities in the rotation of the earth resulted in deviations from the required accuracy. In order to define the unit of time more precisely, in 1967 the 13th CGPM (Conférence générale des poids et measures – General Conference on Weights and Measures) decided to replace the definition of the second with the following: The second is the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom at a temperature of 0 Kelvin.

It’s hardly surprising that an examination of the concept of time should feature in prog, from time travel (Beggar Julia’s Time Trip by Ekseption, 1969) to the condition of mankind (Time, from Dark Side of the Moon, 1973.) It may be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that a fascination with time goes back to before the beginning of the genre when psychedelia was in ascendency: the ingestion of LSD may have been used by some to expand consciousness but one of the alleged effects of the drug was to alter the perception of time, such that minutes seemed to stretch into hours. An early psychedelic-progressive crossover was the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed (1967), a song cycle about a day in the life of an everyman.

Roger Waters took an interesting approach to time on The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (1984) where the track titles all incorporate a specific time, from 4.30 am to 5.11 am with the track length corresponding to the times indicated by the titles; a parallel with Dark Side is that Pros and Cons is a reflection on issues contributing to a mid-life crisis. I went to see Waters perform the show live in London in June 1984; I’ve never owned the album because it resembles The Wall too much for my taste and though the concept may be prog, the music (and musicians) belonged to a straightforward rock idiom. I’m not suggesting that writing songs about time are unique to progressive rock or even that time isn’t only referred to by progressive rock bands in a manner other than the prosaic (think of Counting Out Time from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,1974) or even without any context (the very short harpsichord-drenched instrumental Time from Time and Tide (1975) by Greenslade, a collection of short pieces without any over-reaching concept. Within prog, some aspect of time often forms an integral part of a piece: the iconic chiming clocks that precede the Floyd’s Time or Vangelis’ use of the speaking clock at the end of Pulstar from Albedo 0.39 (1976) - a pulsar (an abbreviation for pulsating radio star) emits electromagnetic radiation as it spins so that there is a set period between pulses at a particular observation point. This precise period means that some pulsars are as accurate as an atomic clock.

Tempus Fugit by Yes (Drama, 1980) is more narrative-descriptive than a particular concept; the music was primarily supplied by Howe, Squire and White before Trevor Horn provided the lyrics which seem to suggest, in a somewhat convoluted way, that despite the lack of Anderson and Wakeman, Drama is a Yes album. It’s interesting that Horn reprises one of my favourite pieces from Tormato, the line in RejoiceTime flies, on and on it goes” and Rejoice is in essence the second part of opening track Future Times. Though Tempus Fugit may have influenced Roger Dean’s cover art (or the other way round) there seem to be references in the song words to the inside sleeve of Tormato. Time Table from Foxtrot (1972) is a classic Genesis pun but it’s really a short reflection on the failure of mankind to learn from the mistakes of the past, a slightly less naive take on the subject than Stagnation from Trespass (1970.) I prefer the earlier song. There’s another agonising pun on Zero Time (1971) by T.O.N.T.O’s Expanding Headband where the third track is titled Timewhys. I can’t detect any cohesive theme on this particular release, though in accord with their synthesizer instrumentation, a couple of the song titles hint at futurism: Cybernaut and Jetsex.

There’s more to the relationship between prog and time, including a perceived obsession with length of track and unusual time signatures. King Crimson might be regarded as one of the leading exponents of very odd times but most prog acts have strayed from 4/4; Waters’ bass and cash-register sounds on Money are in 7/8 and flow seamlessly. Critics regard this as being clever for the sake of it, pretentious self indulgence, whereas I think that uncommon meters allow a band to incorporate interesting rhythmical ideas, rather than conforming to the chug-chug-chug-chug of four beats to the bar. Furthermore, the extended length of tracks allows for development, eschewing the somewhat narrow constraints of the three minute single, which may be a challenge of the attention span of some critics.



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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