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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, Jan 17 2016 07:56PM

I’ve barely touched upon the fourth music playback format, cassette tape (and I’m not going to mention the short-lived 8 track!) but guest blogger Richard Page hinted at this, a time before CDs when the domination of vinyl was slipping. The compact cassette was immensely portable, sparking the invention of the Sony Walkman and hundreds of imitations and allowing drivers to choose their own music rather than being subjected to a limited range of radio stations with their playlists of narrow choice. During the period, the mid 80s, I was attempting to get enough money together to get a mortgage so I did extra work for the Anthony Nolan laboratories, then based at St Mary Abbots Hospital in Kensington, and took my wife’s genuine Sony Walkman to listen to music of my choice while I sat at a microscope and read HLA typing plates.

Driving off to Crystal Palace National Sports Centre to play squash last weekend with a CD I’d burned of the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii soundtrack, I realised my current car has a radio and a USB port but no CD player. Since learning to drive relatively late in life at the age of 26, my wife and I have got through a number of automobiles, buying new or with delivery mileage and simply budgeting to keep each for an average of three years before selling them on. Our first car bought together was a 1986 Ford Fiesta that only had a radio. The husband of a work colleague who worked in a car audio shop fitted a (high end) removable radio cassette player that lasted into the next car, a new shaped Fiesta with a joystick device that allowed you to pan around the speakers embedded in the upholstery. I normally took public transport to get to work but used the car for on call and later, to drive to Brunel University every couple of weeks when I was doing my part time MSc in Applied Immunology. I’d got hold of Mainstream (1975) by Quiet Sun, the eponymous GTR album (1986) and Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), all on vinyl and taped them specifically for the journeys between Croydon and Uxbridge. Mainstream is an incredible album that seems to have missed out on the big time; mainstream it is not and for further discussions see my blog post http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/Mainstream-(originally-posted-3-3-14)/7811326.The sound on GTR has dated but I still like the songs, even though this isn't really prog whereas Momentary Lapse is prog, cinematic, daring and true to the spirit of early-mid 70s Floyd.

The final days of my relationship with cassette tape unravelled on an out of hours car journey to work, just outside Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park football ground when I was playing Trey Gunn’s The Third Star (1996). I’d bought the CD for my brother Tony and he repaid the favour by sending me a tape which decided to fade away to silence in the player even though it had been recorded on what was considered to be a decent quality Maxell C90. At this stage I had sold off my original Technics deck that had served me for the last year at university, through the damp of a sequence of basement flats and the rigours of an on-stage appearance as the sound source for three gigs I played in 1984. It’s strange how cyclical fashion can be. That silver-finished piece of hi-fi, originally chosen for its beautifully damped ejection mechanism and the ability to cope with ‘metal’ tapes, was replaced by a Technics RS B106 cassette deck, finished in black, in the late 80s; my new system is largely silver. I also bought myself a high-end Aiwa walkman-like player and two hefty miniature HD speakers from a mall in Saudi Arabia when I was seconded to Jeddah for six weeks in 1992 so that I didn’t get prog-withdrawal. I bought the double cassette Yes anthology Yes Story (1992) from the same store and picked up some locally compiled tapes from elsewhere in the souk, including a best of early Marillion that was frequently aired in the hire-car (christened ‘the mobile lecture theatre’ for its outrageous size) that had been made available to my colleague, Consultant transplant surgeon Geoff Koffman.



Technics RS B106 cassette deck
Technics RS B106 cassette deck

I never owned many pre-recorded cassettes though the bargain bin of the Tooting branch of Woolworth allowed me to expand my music collection with some more obscure prog and jazz: TONTOs Expanding Headband’s Zero Time (1971) and Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (1976) plus some of the more usual fare (McDonald and Giles, Steve Hackett, Caravan, Colosseum II, Greenslade) for knock down prices. There was even a stage where I owned more Gentle Giant on cassette than I did on any other format. To a greater extent my tape collection comprised albums recorded from vinyl lent to me by friends and family. Preferred manufacturers were TDK, BASF and Maxell and I tried to buy a quality above the basic, like the TDK AD. I was also happy to put together what would later be called ‘mix tapes’ for others, including recordings for a couple of women students at Goldsmiths’, Sue Aspinall who was into classic prog and Jo Dziuba who was more interested in Afterglow type Genesis.

There aren’t many albums that I home-recorded that I haven’t subsequently bought on another format. One that didn’t make it into my collection was Ian Anderson’s Walk into Light (1983) lent to me by my friend Jim – we were big Tull fans at the time – but I thought the material rather sub-standard and my recording was discarded years ago. Other albums took a considerable time for me to own, sometimes through lack of availability: I eventually got Bruford’s One of a Kind (1979) when Winterfold Records started up in 2005, having only had access to a taped copy for 25 years and bought The Third Star from Red Eye Records in Sydney in 2012, the first time I’d seen it in a shop since buying it for Tony. One of the very few albums that I taped but never bought myself is psychedelic masterpiece Mass in F Minor by The Electric Prunes (1968). The original disc belonged to Tony and my cassette recording dated from the late 70s. Like with most of my tapes, in an exercise to preserve the music, I burned this to CD when home-burning software became standard on PCs. I now have the album transferred to my mp3 player.

Warning notices that ‘home taping is killing music’ appeared on the inner sleeves of LPs in the mid 80s to be ignored by everyone. I’ve thought about this and, though I understand that it reduces royalty payments to artists, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a deep irony in record companies putting out a statement like that when it’s unscrupulous managers and the labels themselves that have controlled the income of musicians. What is really killing music is the trend towards conformity, the predictability of manufactured product and insidious influence. This may make merged global entertainment businesses attractive to shareholders but it makes for a less diverse musical scene; the requirement for financial control stifles creativity. In the end the message boils down to ‘home taping is reducing shareholder dividend.’




Home taping is killing music. I don't think so
Home taping is killing music. I don't think so

A more recent example would be the issues over illegal downloads where control over output was ceded to the consumer and the cry from the labels was the same. Then Apple plonks a largely unwanted U2 album onto the devices of everyone with their iTunes software...

Home taping didn’t harm progressive rock and prog itself has prospered in recent years through the adaptation of alternative business models where the artists retain the copyright to their material and funding for new ventures is independent of the majors. The pound, euro and dollar of the fan go to the artists through crowdsourcing and album sales, with multiple platforms available to promote and provide examples of music. Let’s hope that home taping went some way to help kill off the old way of doing music business.




By ProgBlog, Sep 27 2015 09:00PM

I hate cardboard. I dislike cardboard with such a burning intensity it’s taking over my life. Let me put that in context: I hate cardboard packaging as much as I love order; record collections should be organised alphabetically by band and sub-divided by year. It’s pointless trying to organise a collection by genre when progressive rock encompasses such a broad spectrum of types from proto-prog and rock with progressive leanings through psychedelia and symphonic prog to jazz rock and RIO; my classical albums are also included within this single alphabet.

The cardboard in question is packaging for bits of flat pack furniture (which I detest with a greater passion because it means I’ve got to assemble it) and a couple of pieces of solid wood furniture that weigh around 40kg each (imagine the size of the boxes!) Add to that the box that the new TV came in, the Blu Ray player box and even the box for the aerial... The inner glow that I normally get from recycling has been extinguished by repeated treks to the local recycling facility. It’s not far to walk but they were all awkward to carry. If I were to visit a metaphorical psychiatrist’s couch, I think I’d find the built-up resentment directed at a lack of prog. The past five weeks have been chaotic in the Page household with a new front door, new double glazing, the living room and dining room being decorated throughout including a new carpet and a new fireplace; my LPs and CDs have been put into temporary storage in the back bedroom leaving a handful of accessible CDs, The Elements 2015 Tour Box that I picked up from the King Crimson gig on September 7th and birthday presents from the beginning of September – Merlin Atmos (2015) by Van der Graaf Generator; Petali di Fuoco (2010) by La Maschera di Cera; PFM's Chocolate Kings (re-issued, 2010 with a bonus CD); Earth and Fire’s debut album (1970); and Hatfield and the North Access All Areas (2015) but it’s not just the media that has been boxed up, my hi-fi is in bits waiting for some shelves to be fitted in the dining room and my record deck has been sent to a good home, leaving me waiting to visit Billy Vee Sound Systems in Lee to replace it with its bigger brother, a Rega Planar 3. I had been computer-less too, for a couple of weeks during the decorating and though it’s been set up again, I haven’t connected any peripherals. What I have done is connect my Technics VC4 hi-fi amplifier to the line out on the PC so I can sit in my Barcelona chair and listen to CDs or digital files on my headphones; plugging headphones directly into the PC won’t work because part of a 3.5 mm to 6.35 mm jack converter is stuck in the headphones socket. I think that’s an entirely reasonable explanation for my cardboard-phobia.

There is some cardboard that I like. I bought the new Blu Ray player from Richer Sounds and took the opportunity to try out some potential replacement speakers for my KEF C10s; I took along my copy of Fragile and played Roundabout on a Project Debut Carbon Esprit SB turntable fitted with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, trough a Cambridge amp and Monitor Audio Bronze BX6 speakers, then through Monitor Audio MR4 speakers. The BX6s produced a slightly clinical sound; there was good separation in the treble range but Chris Squire’s bass, though clear, lacked warmth. The MR4s were the opposite with less distinct treble and a rounded, more natural bass. It was good to open out the gatefold sleeve and not worry about cranking up the sound in the demonstration room, though the volume control on the Cambridge was a little flabby, with much turning and only gradual increase in volume. I had wondered which album to take with me to demo. It had to be something that was familiar and something that contained a wide dynamic range. I chose Fragile over Close to the Edge because CttE is more full-on than its predecessor; there aren’t many gaps in the music. I also took along Larks’ Tongues in Aspic but I’d parked on a meter and ran out of time to try out any more systems.

Returning to central Croydon and a trip to HMV, ostensibly to look at 3D Blu Ray discs, I noticed a display of Pink Floyd CDs alongside David Gilmour’s new release Rattle That Lock. I used to think HMV’s pricing of Floyd albums was prohibitively high – this was when I was looking to replace my vinyl with CDs, before their financial problems – but the full range of early Floyd CDs, in cardboard mini sleeves, was available for less than £8 each. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have a nicely packaged 20th anniversary Dark Side of the Moon box and the 1994 series of remastered and repackaged Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, Wish You Were Here and Animals I may have been more temped to buy them. I’d seen this range before, on holiday in Italy where they sell for the Euro equivalent of the Sterling price in HMV, a genuine bargain; if I couldn’t be tempted to indulge myself at that price, I wasn’t going to give in and buy them over here, however attractive their retro-look packaging. Nevertheless, if there’s a choice of jewel case or mini-album CD on a piece of music I don’t have in my collection, I’d go for the mini-album every time. My first gatefold CD sleeve was a copy of In the Court of the Crimson King and I attempted to acquire as much remastered Crimson as possible in cardboard. Italian label BTF have reissued a wide range of progressivo Italiano in cardboard sleeves and my only Japanese imports, Robert John Godfrey’s Fall of Hyperion (1973) and Things to Come (1974) by Seventh Wave are in single cardboard sleeves; I noticed a bargain range of jazz and fusion CDs in single cardboard sleeves on the counter at Red Eye Records in Sydney when I was visiting my son Daryl in 2012, and added Mysterious Traveller (1974) by Weather Report to my purchases. When he returned to the UK he brought me some Australian prog, A Tower of Silence (2012) by Anubis, in a cardboard sleeve.

Another reason I wasn’t tempted by this feast of Floyd in HMV was a 180g vinyl special edition Dark Side, crowning the display; if I’m going for cardboard sleeves, I’m going to wait until I get my new turntable and go for full size LP sleeves, reinvesting in vinyl copies. Some cardboard isn’t bad...



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