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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 18 2015 10:09PM

Back in 1972, when I started listening to progressive rock and Focus 3 was circulating between brother Tony’s friends, I didn’t make any distinction between groups of different nationalities. From a starting point of Close to the Edge and spreading out to early ELP via the collected works of The Nice, Focus were one of the first bands that I heard and they simply fitted into the spectrum of music that I liked; jazz, classical, early music, blended in with rock instrumentation. The inclusion of flute also made an impression on me and I’m a strong advocate of the instrument in prog. There was a short period in very early 1973 where I’d turn on my small medium wave radio with its single earpiece and tune in to Radio Luxembourg (208m) and the first song I’d hear would be Sylvia. This short, melodic piece is something of a classic and though prog bands tended not to be interested in chart-topping singles, it ended up being Focus’ biggest international hit. I didn’t buy Focus 3 until 1976 (it seemed to me to be quite expensive, even for a double album) but Tony bought Moving Waves (1971) not long after we’d discovered the band and we bought Hamburger Concerto (1974) at the time it was released. Taken as a whole, I think I prefer Hamburger over Moving Waves, probably because of the more varied instrumentation. The two long-form compositions, Eruption and Hamburger Concerto are both brilliant examples of the genre; on Moving Waves the tracks on side one highlight the band’s influences but on Hamburger the tracks are all much more like full-on prog, including a Hocus Pocus reprise in the equally bonkers Harem Scarem. Focus 3 contained the epic Anonymous II running at over 26 minutes but even at this early stage in my understanding of music, I thought that it sounded like a studio jam that pushed the boundaries of taste with the extended bass and drum solos. However, such was my appreciation for Focus, they were one of the very first groups I went to see play live. Unfortunately, Jan Akkerman had left the band and guitar duties were taken up by Philip Catherine so I found the performance a bit disappointing; added to that was the fact that I wasn’t too familiar with the current material (from Mother Focus, 1975) and what I had heard wasn’t too much like Hamburger or anything prior to that. On reflection, Hamburger was a high point and it wasn’t until Focus 9 (2006) when Thijs van Leer was once more reunited with classic-Focus period drummer Pierre van der Linden that I thought them sufficiently progressive enough to afford them another chance. The first time I saw the reformed Focus was at Chislehurst’s Beaverwood Club in October 2010 and they were brilliant. Van Leer has never taken himself too seriously but still managed to produce some incredible music. This performance mixed the early, classic material with some up-to-date songs such as the humorous Aya-Yuppie-Hippie-Yee which fitted in neatly with the 70s music. Bobby Jacobs (bass) was a constant from the original reformed line-up from 2002 but guitarist Niels van der Steenhoven and Pierre van der Linden were new recruits. Van der Steenhoven handled the original Akkerman guitar parts beautifully. Prog mate Gina Franchetti accompanied me to this gig – she was something of a Beaverwood Club regular – and happily engaged van Leer in conversation after the show, where he revealed a love for Italian food.

My next exposure to prog from the Netherlands was seeing Trace on BBC TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, performing Gaillarde from their first, eponymous album Trace (1974.) Having only previously seen Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson with large, multi-keyboard rigs, I was stunned by Rick van der Linden’s keyboards. I noted, though, that he was an ARP synthesizer man, without a Moog in sight. Based on the third movement of JS Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major (BWV 971) and a traditional Polish dance, Gaillarde is more Emerson than Wakeman, predominantly organ-driven, a classical interpretation performed by a trio. Self-taught bassist Jaap van Eik plays neat contrapuntal lines and ex-Focus drummer (playing his transparent Perspex kit on the Whistle Test) lays down jazz patterns, sometimes at breakneck speed. There’s a drum solo on the album (The Lost Past) which calls to mind the drum solo at the end of Eruption (Endless Road) from Moving Waves, but it somehow seems to fit the Trace album better, sandwiched between two parts of the haunting A Memory, a song based on a traditional Swedish piece of music. My copy of Trace was bought in 1975 and remains one of my favourite albums. The follow-up album, Birds was released in 1975, this time incorporating more van der Linden penned pieces and featuring ex-Darryl Way’s Wolf drummer Ian Mosley, Way was a guest on the album playing violins on Opus 1065, another Trace interpretation of JS Bach. My copy, the cover of which was damaged during storage sometime in the last 20 years, was bought from the Leeds University record store on a trip to see Rick Wakeman playing in the uni refectory in May 1976. Like classic Focus albums, Birds contains a multi-section suite which takes up the entire second side of the LP.

I’ve since supplemented my vinyl with CDs and also picked up a copy of The White Ladies (1976) that I saw in Dublin a couple of years ago. Though ascribed to Trace, The White Ladies is Rick van der Linden and his former Ekseption colleagues. I first heard about Ekseption, a pre- and post-Trace band, in around 2004 when I subscribed to a Rick van der Linden internet newsletter that was run by his wife Inez. During this time he was suffering from some of the major complications of diabetes, requiring eye surgery and, if memory serves correctly, needing a pancreas transplant; he died in January 2006 from complications following a stroke. I bought a second-hand copy of what fans regard as the best Ekseption album, Beggar Julia’s Time Trip (1969) for £8 from Beanos and identified portions that van der Linden would recycle for Trace, most notably Bach’s Italian Concerto. Though somewhat experimental it is a good example of fusing rock and the classics, with a bit of jazz thrown in. Whereas Focus and Trace are indistinguishable from British prog, Julia comes across as being different, Continental European, a facet I attribute to the spoken words by Linda van Dyck. It’s still an enjoyable album so I snapped up a CD of Ekseption 3 (1970) / Trinity (1973) when I saw it in a record store in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2009, neither of which has the same quality of composition as Julia throughout.

I was alerted to Supersister by Prog magazine and now own To the Highest Bidder (1971) and Iskander (1973.) This music is fairly complex, with Highest Bidder hinting at Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (from 1969.) The lyrics may be a bit throwaway but the music and musicianship is outstanding.

My most recent foray into prog from the Netherlands has been another time trip. I bought Earth and Fire’s Song of the Marching Children (1971) at the same time I bought The White Ladies in Dublin and though it’s not musically challenging, it’s in the same league as early Ekseption; I was also given a CD of the remastered first Earth and Fire album (1970), with the Roger Dean cover, as a birthday present this year which is really proto-prog.

I’ve made a distinction between British prog and that of other countries because I think there are stylistic variations based on local cultures and would suggest that most Italian bands have a distinct flavour that allows them to be grouped together in their own sub-genre. It may be because I got to hear Focus and Trace in the early 70s that I don’t think there’s much difference between Dutch prog and UK prog but whether or not there are differences, Focus and Trace have produced some of the best progressive rock, ever.



By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2014 03:33PM

It's mid December and I'm in Bah! Humbug mode. The endless incitement to consume that began gearing up in October is now reaching fever pitch and I’m feeling bad that I feel bad about the whole season. It's not that I don't like giving but I prefer not to be bullied into becoming a slave to this celebration of the unnecessary and shallow. 40 years ago, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock, there was a tug between those promoting commercialisation of Christmas and traditionalists pushing their views on religious significance. In a socio-political context, this was the height of the cold war and the ideological battle was being fought over consumer goods as much as the race to over-stock with nuclear arms; the West was fighting dirty, their propaganda directed at housewives, seducing them with a wide range of appliances and products on supermarket shelves that they were obviously unable to live without. The East failed to deliver promised social equality as money was poured into the military-industrial complex rather than into basics. Despite, or rather because of planned obsolescence, the West won the day; power to the consumer! Power to consume!

I'm not religious but I accept that some people ascribe meaning to this time of year although their belief is being trampled by the out-of-control machine dedicated to profit. My seasonal preference predates the Christian hijacking of Saturnalia, back to the pagan solstice; one where we simply recognise the end of a solar cycle without resorting to over-indulgence in food and alcohol. What do I wish for at this time of year? Peace on earth (yes, really!) and much stronger regulation of the food, drink and advertising industries.

Much of progressive rock owes a debt to church music. In In My Own Time, Kim Dancha’s authorised biography, John Wetton spoke of his use of chordal structures based on the harmony and counterpoint found in church music, citing the influence of his elder brother Robert who became a church organist of some accomplishment; Steve Hackett has acknowledged the influence of church music on Genesis material; and Jan Akkermann has referred to Eruption (from Moving Waves) as “patched-up church-y ideas, sacral stuff” describing that he made “blues out of those neoclassical church-like harmonies.” Chris Squire was a choir boy at St Andrew’s, Kingsbury and has spoken of the influence of church and choral music on his writing; though largely hidden within his co-written Yes-epics, the song-form on Squire’s solo album Fish out of Water is steeped in ecclesiastical influences, where he’s helped out by former school friend and band mate Andrew Pryce Jackman on keyboards and enlists the help of Barry Rose, the sub-organist from St Paul’s cathedral who plays pipe organ.

The cultural significance of the church within progressive rock has been thoroughly covered by academic authors such as Bill Martin and Edward Macan. The genre is peppered with references to liturgy, from the straightforward Credo by Refugee to the psychedelic retelling of Revelations by both Aphrodite’s Child (666) and Genesis (Supper’s Ready.) Perhaps the most overt church music albums are Mass in F minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes and the first album by Italy’s Latte e Miele, Passio Secundum Mattheum (1972). Mass in F minor was not really a full Electric Prunes album and it’s not really prog. The music was written by David Axelrod and he felt he had to draft in other musicians from Canadian group The Collectors to complete the project, a mix of acid rock guitar and Gregorian chants, sung in Latin and Greek. It’s a strange mix but somehow it works really well. Some critics have labelled Latte e Miele as an ELP clone, partly because of their keyboards/guitar/percussionist line up and partly because they include a Bach quotation that appears almost note-for-note and with the same feeling on The Three Fates (Clotho) from ELP’s first album. Such criticism is grossly unfair because 16-year old drummer Alfio Vitanza also adds flute, contributing to a pastoral feel that conjures up suggestions of early Genesis; I’d argue that the inclusion of Mellotron and string synth are the antithesis of ELP. It should be seen as a brave move for a first album and is rightly regarded as being something of a minor RPI classic.

That a band formed in a British public school should display influences from the church is hardly surprising. What is slightly more unexpected is that young musicians, absorbing blues, jazz and rock influences from the US, music born of repression and rebellion, should also exhibit a debt to music that, on reflection, reflects a deeply authoritarian way of life. I suppose it’s only symphonic prog, where the prevalent form is European art music, which truly fits this picture. These musicians grew up in a post-war society where religion played an important role in providing spiritual solace in the years following the massive loss of life and wanton destruction. This thinking was challenged by the pointless wars that occurred in faraway countries throughout the 60s and 70s and by the ideals of the counterculture when prog followed the trail of The Beatles and looked eastwards. These outside influences and experiences were revelatory; this wasn’t a clash of cultures because individuals were actively seeking alternatives to Western consumerism, leading to the dawn of the understanding that other belief systems were equally valid. The end result was that the prevailing church music, largely based on catholic and protestant doctrines, lost its religious baggage and became spiritual. On Aqualung, Jethro Tull play out a rejection of organised religion and on The Only Way from Tarkus (which describes itself as a hymn), ELP appear to take a humanist stance: “People are stirred, moved by the word/Kneel at the shrine, deceived by the wine/How was the earth conceived? Infinite space/Is there such a place? You must believe in the human race” and “Don’t be afraid, man is man made”.

During the 70s the church organ became an instrument of the prog keyboard player. Rick Wakeman played the organ at St Giles’, Cripplegate, part of London’s Barbican complex on The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the organ at St Martin’s, Vevey, Switzerland that was used on Going for the One and the solo album Criminal Record, an album that was something of a return to form; Keith Emerson uses St Mark’s church organ on Tarkus; Rick van der Linden plays the organ in the church of Maasluis (near Rotterdam) on the eponymous first Trace album and the organ of St Bavo’s church in Haarlem on the second album, Birds; on Hamburger Concerto Thijs van Leer plays the organ of St Mary the Virgin, Barnes (the album was recorded at Olympic Sound studios in Barnes.) Hamburger Concerto includes the track La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and when I was presented with the opportunity to visit Strasbourg for a scientific meeting, I took time out to visit the cathedral which is suitably impressive; a gothic masterpiece rising from the cobbles of a fairly densely hemmed-in square.

I like church architecture and the space they contain from a mathematical point of view. I like church music but I disassociate it from worship. Aldo Tagliapietra of Le Orme described how, during La Serenissima, there use to be two choirs in the basilica di San Marco, one on either side of the congregation, singing in stereo. Prog has absorbed bits and pieces of the form and few overt references to a specific god remain. The search for enlightenment, which runs throughout many prog compositions, doesn’t come across as religious; it’s head music which requires conscious engagement without the requirement for religious baggage. That’s something to think about if you receive any progressive rock as a present this Christmas.

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