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, Aug 28 2019 09:11PM



20 years of Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory

It’s entirely coincidental that the cover of the latest Prog magazine (issue 101) should feature the cover artwork from 1999’s Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater when I finally decide to blog about prog metal. The idea for the blog has been floating around for nearly four months, prompted by an influx of requests to review albums that are covered by the prog metal umbrella. Metropolis pt.2 was integral to my thought process, having been suggested to me back in April that it was a prime example of the sub-genre where Dream Theater had reached the apex of their creativity and inspiration, with a great depth in the song writing, some 14 years after they had originally formed and with two different personnel from those in the original line-up, one of whom was Jordan Rudess on keyboards, recording an album with the band for the first time. Evidently, the advice I received was both pertinent and accurate, otherwise why would there still be sufficient interest in the album for Dream Theater tour it in its entirety on its 20th anniversary and why would Prog devote so many pages to it?


Heavy rock, heavy metal or prog?

Going back further in time, along with most other commentators of the period I made a distinction between heavy rock, Deep Purple, for example, and music created by the progressive groups of prog’s golden era, though King Crimson, rightly or wrongly lumped into the prog camp, were hurtling towards their first interregnum with the clever but undeniably heavy material that surfaced on Red (1974), a polished production that should be heard in the context of their live performances over the preceding year, later to surface on USA (1975) and even more fully documented on The Road to Red (2013).

The distinction between the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), a term coined when punk and new wave were fading by Sounds’ Geoff Barton in May 1979 and prog acts subjected to scrutiny in an ever-more commercial musical environment, was even more pronounced. However, NWOBHM inherited some of the do-it-yourself punk ethos that also featured in the make-up of nascent neo-prog bands, marking a convergence in thinking, if not in style.


Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal
Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal

The birth of prog metal

Around the same time as neo-prog was becoming established in the UK, a US prog metal scene was developing where the influences featured metal bands, including examples from NWOBHM, along with the well-established Rush. Fates Warning formed in 1982 and released their first album Night on Bröcken in 1984; Majesty, which became Dream Theater, was formed in 1985; Shadow Gallery (as Sorcerer) formed in 1985; Crimson Glory, following two changes of name, released their eponymously-titled debut album in 1986 and the follow-up, Transcendence (1988) is regarded as a prog metal classic.

Prog underwent resurgence during the mid-90s, catalysed by this assimilation of the progressive ethos into metal. Away from the US, the Scandinavians melded their take on metal with analogue retro-keyboard sounds, creating dark, sometimes stark prog that acted as a soundtrack for the folklore of Norway and Sweden. Anekdoten’s debut Vemod (1993) has been accurately described as sounding like King Crimson had they not disbanded in 1974. Although predominantly instrumental and heavy, with copious doom-laden Mellotron, the lyrics stand out as intelligent and call to mind Richard Palmer-James. The melancholy feel is enhanced by the addition of cello; at times the guitar is like the angular playing of Steve Howe on Fragile and the bass style owes a heavy debt to John Wetton. Did the success of Vemod’s release provide the impetus to reform King Crimson as a double trio conformation in 1994, with its nod to the Red-era? If so, Fripp and co. still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP but as far as the fan-base was concerned, they were ready for any new material. This incarnation of Crimson picked up from where the 70’s Crimson left off, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends, an alignment that continued with the subsequent studio releases The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and The Power to Believe (2003) which get progressively darker (though there always moments of optimism), heavier and technical. On balance, I’d call Thrak (1994) heavy prog but by the time they reached the third Crimson interregnum they were almost certainly prog metal, devoid of symphonic prog flourishes.


ProgBlog and prog metal

I’ve just been reminded that Steven Wilson, in an interview a few years ago, decried a lack of variation in metal and its limited musical vocabulary, suggesting that over-familiarity with the sound of was reducing its power. Wilson’s words appeared before I had ever been asked to review any prog metal but I still had a general feeling, one that might open me up to accusations of musical snobbery, that prog metal had a tendency towards being metal with progressive flourishes bolted on and that it was all a bit same-y. Up to the point two years ago when I was asked to review Radiant Memory (2017) by Process of Illumination, an instrumental band from Texas, the closest I’d got to sitting down and attentively listening to prog metal was either Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) or Sign of the Crow (2016) by the David Cross Band. The former, I’d suggest, contains more of the perceived prog metal tropes whereas there’s a ‘metal edge’ that runs deep in the latter. Cross’ heavy credentials date back to his tenure in King Crimson where he was fighting to be heard over band mates who were increasingly moving into proto-prog metal territory. I also own three studio albums by Peruvians Flor de Loto: Imperio de Cristal (2011); Volver a nacer (2012); and Nuevo Mesias (2014), and the self-titled debut from Il Bacio della Medusa (2004) – all of which can be described as hard-edged prog, which is why I bought them, but which display inspiration from metal. My favourite from this cohort by some distance is Sign of the Crow.

Radiant Memory took me by surprise, but the absence of vocals made it easier to review. I wouldn’t really class the album as straightforward prog metal and, to be fair to the band, they accurately state that their music is ‘an ambitious blend of progressive rock, instrumental music and metal.’ Their playing is of a high standard and there’s a lot of variation on the album thanks to a good guitar/keyboards balance. I was also wrong-footed by The Last Cell, the stage name of Jean-Marc Perc. Perc began playing the guitar at age nine, culminating in a Music degree from university in Vienna. He combines interesting-interval djent and tasteful shredding, all carried out with outstanding technical dexterity. The five-track EP Nautilus (2018) and 2019’s Continental Drift may contain archetypal examples of shredding and djent styles but he also adds delicate picked acoustic guitar – the music is highly melodic and he’s not averse to incorporate jazz-phrasing, demonstrating an innate musicality.

There is an obvious stylistic spectrum even within prog metal, so despite my disdain for Opeth, I have to admit that Heritage (2011) is growing on me. Part of what Wilson, who mixed the album, described as a trilogy (the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album from 2011 Grace for Drowning), Heritage was Opeth’s first full departure from the band’s metal roots and dispensed with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion. Its appeal lies in its variation. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano but the album references all the sounds of classic 70s prog, with Mellotron, rewarding organ and plenty of electric piano. There are tricky time signatures, knotty guitar riffs and sensitive playing amongst the crunchy power chords. Should the album’s category be changed from prog metal to prog? It doesn’t really matter, though Slither, a tribute to Ronnie James Dio who died during the time the record was being made, is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade.



Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'
Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'

Dream Theater define prog metal

So was Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory a ground-breaking moment for prog metal, and do I like it? For someone listening to the record for the first time, 20 years on from its release makes it difficult to ascribe how innovative it was. By 1999 ‘prog’ and ‘progressive rock’ had begun to attract less invective - Radiohead released OK Computer in 1997 and while everyone seemed to accept it was brilliant and pushed boundaries, the band themselves denied it but the public began to use the p-word and Radiohead in the same sentence. Metropolis pt.2 certainly doesn’t conform to my idea of metal and there are a number of aspects that have been borrowed from prog. The opening section with the hypnotherapist is pure Roger Waters and the album is replete with Floyd-like sound effects inter-track segues. If prog had remained a dirty word, it’s unlikely that the storyline, shifting between different events through time and marked out by lyrics denoted in different fonts, would have been so readily accepted. I’m not a great fan of LaBrie’s vocals which I find occasionally shaky and certainly no better than average which is a shame, because they are essential to the story-telling, and I do find the lyrics a little trite. On the other hand, it’s impossible to criticise the musicianship and there’s a sublime section that reminds me of Zappa’s Hot Rats. There’s a delightful ‘throw everything at it’ approach that conforms to prog stereotypes, meaning that if this was to be the gold-standard or the epitome of prog metal, I’d probably go along with it.


I believe it’s predominantly the links to metal that have allowed the prog genre to thrive and though there are obviously other musical forms that continue to impact and shape progressive music, the blurring of distinction between aspects of prog and metal, whether or not originality has been compromised, has facilitated the integration of metal into the prog genre. For my part I recognise the importance of this association, and at the level of listener I can appreciate the technicality involved in the playing.

Even though I think there’s very little that’s inspiring in the prog metal world at the moment, reporting on prog metal is still important and as I’m still not entirely convinced by the genre and still a novice, ProgBlog now has a dedicated specialist, Stefano Amadei, to write about developments in the world of prog metal






By ProgBlog, Nov 5 2017 05:15PM

I’m off to Genova again next week, on a trip originally scheduled to see a progressive night organised by local label and record shop Black Widow at La Claque. This features Brescia’s Phoenix Again who will be highlighting their third album, Unexpected, released in May this year; local band Melting Clock who impressed me when I saw them at the Porto Antico Prog Fest in July and hope to produce their debut next year; and an acoustic set from the widely-respected Genovese group Ancient Veil who remarkably, considering their origin dates back to 1985 when Alessandro Serri and Edmondo Romano founded Eris Pluvia, playing progressive rock created from a blend of folk and Canterbury influences and released a single album Rings of Earthly Light in 1991. The band ceased to exist in 1992 but Serri and Romano, assisted by Fabio Serri, created the Ancient Veil project and put out a self-titled album, stylistically similar to Rings of Earthly Light, in 1995. The group lay dormant until early this year when they returned with a new album I Am Changing and, on May 12th 2017 performed live for the very first time – at Genova’s La Claque. I’ve now extended my annual leave and will be spending three more nights in the city; after three failed attempts to get to see PFM I’ve now got a ticket for their performance at the Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova’s 2000 seat neo-rationalist opera house on November 17th.


Architectural detail, Teatro Carlo Felice
Architectural detail, Teatro Carlo Felice

When I first started going to Italy with the intention of seeing a live band, I felt I had to buy a ticket beforehand. Navigating ticketing websites, even when there’s no version in English (unlike the sites for buying records), is generally straightforward but I’ve learned that reserving a ticket for the sort of band I like to see is neither strictly necessary nor necessarily advantageous, especially when your spoken Italian is as bad as mine and you have to rehearse what you say when you go to pick up the ticket. That’s the easy bit. It’s when staff respond, quite appropriately in their own language, that I have to resort to ‘parli inglese?’ It’s much less embarrassing when you stroll up to the ticket office and say ‘un biglietto per favore.’ Apart from a couple of nights at the recent Progressivamente 2017 festival in Rome which were crowded but entry was free, I’ve never had any worries about not getting in; on the last occasion which I reserved a ticket before travelling, the Event ’16 performance at the Teatro Altrove in Genova last October, a beautiful old theatre which could have seated somewhere between 100 and 200, the audience size was only just into double digits. However, I thought it was probably best to book for the PFM gig and I was right; there were only a few seats remaining with two weeks to go.



Not willing to miss out yet again after procrastinating in Venice in 1980, receiving a email telling me the Manticore birthday show was cancelled in 2011 and heading off to Peru during their UK tour last year, I was happy to pay €51 for a seat in the front stalls which, with the booking fee, worked out at £51 thanks to some safe hands on the economy and David Cameron’s attempt to avoid a major shift to the right as his UKIP-lite MPs threatened to split the Conservative party over Britain’s place in Europe...


The cancellation announcement  for PFM, 2011
The cancellation announcement for PFM, 2011

It’s not inappropriate to equate the Teatro Carlo Felice with the Barbican Hall or the Royal Festival Hall or the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester based on both function and their architectural interest. Though I can’t comment on the Bridgewater Hall, tickets for gigs at both the Barbican and the RFH are mostly very reasonably priced, with Camel at the Barbican in 2013 costing £25 for a balcony seat compared to the price of £37.50 for a first circle seat to see Genesis tribute band Musical Box at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire six months earlier; my Dweezil Zappa ticket for the performance at the Festival Hall last month, admittedly for a seat at the very back of the stalls, only cost £24.50.



Tickets for Genesis tribute band Musical Box
Tickets for Genesis tribute band Musical Box

My first London concert was Yes at the Wembley Arena in October 1978 when the (matinee) ticket cost me £4; a year later my ticket for jazz great Dave Brubeck playing at the Royal Festival Hall was also £4. Taking inflation into account, the £4 Yes ticket should have cost £14.95 in 2004, which was the last time I saw Yes at Wembley; it set me back £35. Southbank prices stuck a bit closer to the official inflation level and my £4 Dave Brubeck ticket would have cost a little over £19 today, though Dave Brubeck played in a quartet and Dweezil Zappa’s band was not only larger but was augmented by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.


Yes ticket prices 1978 - 2016
Yes ticket prices 1978 - 2016

The presence of accompanying musicians obviously has an impact on ticket prices and the one Barbican concert where I was genuinely surprised at the charge for Keith Emerson in July 2015: £65 for what sadly turned out to be his final live appearance performing the Three Fates Project with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Both the Barbican Centre and the Southbank Centre receive grants from Arts Council England (though the arts has been an easy target for the government during their mad austerity drive and their share of the money has been slashed) and their importance as centres of culture attracts other funding streams, so I suspect that some of this money is used to subsidise ticket prices. The Van der Graaf Generator Royal Festival Hall reformation concert ticket from 2005 actually seems rather expensive at £30 though I’d describe this as one of the best gigs, if not the best, I’ve ever attended; the next two VdGG shows I went to see after David Jackson left and they were reduced to a trio, in 2007 and 2013, both at the Barbican, each cost £25 despite the six year interregnum.


The cost of going to see VdGG, 2005 - 2013
The cost of going to see VdGG, 2005 - 2013

It’s fortunate that I’m only interested in niche music, though the Steven Wilson tour following the dates in spring 2018 might present problems with ticket availability following the general success of To the Bone. Fans of acts like Adele and Beyonce will be aware of the difficulty getting hold of tickets at the marked price, but when tickets for Kate Bush’s 22-night run at the Hammersmith Apollo sold out in 15 minutes and a standing ticket for one of Radiohead’s three Roundhouse shows was allegedly on sale for £1200 through the secondary ticketing service Viagogo, perhaps the trouble-free days of access to prog shows will soon be over, too.

The problem appears to be with under-regulation of secondary ticketing sites (thanks, free-marketeers!) and according to a recent report in The Guardian, it’s putting the UK’s £4.5bn music industry, which supports around 142,000 jobs, under threat because fans’ cash is being diverted from their favourite acts into the pockets of touts who use methods of doubtful legality to acquire large numbers of tickets which can then be sold on to Viagogo, GetMeIn! and StubHub at mark-ups which on average nets them around 25% profit. A survey of gig-attendees found that two-thirds of respondents who had paid more than face value for a ticket on a resale site said they would attend fewer concerts in future, while half would spend less on recorded music.


It’s hardly a body blow to touting but my one experience of dealing with a character buying and selling tickets in the pedestrian subway leading out to (what was then) the Hammersmith Odeon did result in a financial loss for the tout. I’d won two tickets to see Genesis in September 1982 but couldn’t persuade anyone to accompany me. I sold the spare ticket, at the back of the stalls and with a face value of £7.50 for £10 and was entirely satisfied that no one claimed the seat.


Though there seem to be fewer examples of physical touting outside concerts (and sporting occasions) there is a massive secondary ticketing industry, said to be worth around £1bn, fuelled by the internet and based on the simple fact that demand for live music and sports events outstrips supply; this is where substantial sums of money are made by armchair touts who target the most popular events. I can’t imagine ever paying twice the face value of a ticket but that’s because I tend to stick to esoteric gigs and pay €15 to see three bands somewhere out in the suburbs of Milano, or perhaps splash out on a two-day festival ticket on the Italian Riviera... €35.










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.











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