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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, 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.











By ProgBlog, Nov 6 2016 09:12PM

I’ve just visited the You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 - 1970 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and come away very pleased that I made the excursion. Having arrived in London (the suburb of Bexley) in 1978 from what was then the parochial, cultural cul-de-sac of south Cumbria, I proceeded to take in as much art, music, theatre and as many museums as possible, but this was the first time that I’d been to the V&A. It had been a conscious choice to avoid walking through those particular doors but a decision taken because of my bias towards the sciences and ignorance in equal measure. South Kensington boasted the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum and what I understood to comprise the V&A collection or their special exhibits never appealed. It seemed to me that it was all about fashion, past and present, and it would be hard to imagine anyone more unfashionable than me, then or now, as I clung on to progressive rock music and the associated early 70s dress sense. I even branded it as imperialistic... Dressing like a dunce in a trench coat didn’t stop me attempting to broaden my horizons, seeking out things like minimalist sculpture Equivalent VIII, better known as the pile of bricks by Carl Andre at the Tate Gallery, or going to see Warren Mitchell in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre, though my more regular jaunts tended to be student concession seats at the Aldwych Theatre for Royal Shakespeare Company productions or the National Gallery where I could indulge in more mainstream culture without charge, but it was the galleries at the Nat His Mus and Science Museum which most interested me, where I was delighted to discover links to my home town: a large plug of haematite in the former and a Bessemer Converter in the latter.

How times change, because The V&A turned out to be a bit of a revelation. As far as I’m concerned the attractiveness of the venue increased under the directorship of Martin Roth so it’s a shame that he felt he had to return to his native Germany after reflecting on the decision by a tiny majority of the British voting public to leave the European Union. The building itself is quite stunning and whereas I’m not interested in all the decorative arts (things like the jewellery collection, for example) there are rooms devoted to architecture which are jaw-dropping. It would be impossible not to be impressed by the (closed off but still visible) gallery containing the enormous plaster cast of Trajan’s column.





You Say You Want a Revolution? was a sociological snapshot of 1826 days described through music, performance, fashion, film, design and political activism, a truly revolutionary five years representing a seismic shift in attitudes. Some of these revolutions remain unfulfilled but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that this short epoch had profound effects on our present and will affect the way in which we approach our future. It was the music and the politics which most interested me: the advent of psychedelia, forerunner to progressive rock; countercultural values including the birth of ecology and anti-war causes; and the sometimes forceful rise of equality movements; all issues which continue to define my thinking. What the exhibition also highlighted was that the rise of consumerism was responsible for the unfulfilled promises of the times, neatly summed up by the deeply ironic (though not meant so at the time) quotation by Milton Friedman “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.”


A small proportion of the album covers spread around the exhibition reflect releases which make up the proto-prog of my own collection: Days of Future Passed; Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; A Saucerful of Secrets; Ummagumma; Abraxas; Procol Harum; Shine on Brightly; John Barleycorn Must Die; The United States of America; Music in a Doll’s House; Stand Up; Hot Rats; Tommy; Trout Mask Replica; The Madcap Laughs; and Bitches Brew but the only true progressive rock album included in the display was In the Court of the Crimson King. Not having been terribly aware what was going on at the time, it was these items, accrued in the intervening years, which allowed me to relate to the experience. One unexpected article on display was a sales manual for a Mellotron 400-D!

Although it was the Pink Floyd connection which first drew my attention to the exhibition there wasn’t that much Floyd-related material on display – there’s much more in the exhibition book. However, I also went to see the Dr Strange film this weekend and that also has a Pink Floyd association. There’s a depiction of a ‘freak’ in one of the panels on the back cover of the late-1973 budget-price repackaging of the first two Floyd albums A Nice Pair, a man attired in hippy clothing holding a giant spliff and, whereas most of the outer sleeve is a series of visual puns (a different kettle of fish, a fork in the road, laughing all the way to the bank) I have never been able to grasp the significance of this photo, other than to challenge the stereotypical image of someone who listens to early Floyd. Anyway, scattered on the floor is a pile of comics and one, quite clear, is a Dr Strange magazine.




A number of my school friends were into fantasy books and some of the more esoteric comics and I asked one to source a Dr Strange for me. When I was much younger I used to buy DC comics on a Saturday morning from a newsagent on Salthouse Road, near my grandmother’s house, but they were all staid compared to the Dr Strange universe; a neurosurgeon who had lost the use of his hands and had become the master of mystic arts. The imagery of alternative dimensions fitted in with my adolescent world of Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner and Arthur C Clarke, and I was pleased that rather than a simply possessing a super power, Strange’s ‘magic’ seemed to be derived from a more rational source, channelling the natural forces of the different universes. I was also developing an interest in mysticism, partly fuelled by the release of Tales from Topographic Oceans at around the same time as A Nice Pair. The character acquired counterculture acceptance, setting him apart from almost all other Marvel stable mates, as he wasn’t portrayed as patriotic in any way; one of the early gigs by Grateful Dead forerunners The Warlocks was at an event called Tribute to Dr Strange.




I enjoyed the film which contained just about the right level of humour, though the representation of a successful surgeon as arrogant is a rather tired trope; I’ve worked closely with surgeons and yes, some may be a little conceited or disdainful, but it wasn’t surgeons who caused the global financial crash in 2008. There are plenty of politicians, healthcare managers and even some bloggers who demonstrate self-importance... What was good was the deference to the comic book artwork in the depiction of alternate dimensions and in the poses of Dr Strange. There were scenes reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey placing it firmly in the psychedelic genre and best of all, director Scott Derrickson included a section of Interstellar Overdrive to accompany the clip leading up to Strange’s life-changing accident.




Two things worth going to see: Dr Strange is on general release; You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 26 February 2017






By ProgBlog, Jul 3 2016 09:20PM

I’ve just taken receipt of the Anderson/Stolt LP Invention of Knowledge and, sitting in my Barcelona chair with the gatefold sleeve open in my hands, I’m transported back to the mid 70s.


TV plays a balanced part in my life although the ability to call up 24 hour news or watch catch-up programmes on mobile devices means that breaking news or doing something else the same night that Brian Pern is scheduled means I never miss anything I want to see. In reality, programmes I’m missing in real time are conveniently recorded on a TiVo box and I get pretty sick of 24 hour news streaming where the anchors frequently have to ad-lib as some sort of live action reaches an impasse and the scrolling red ribbon runs on an ever quicker cycle, complete with uncorrected spelling errors. I think there are too many channels, most of which peddle meaningless nonsense, cheap programming and repeats. I may have watched a little too much TV in the 70s but at least broadcasting was restricted to three terrestrial channels where, despite the airing of tired, formulaic situation comedies and crass game shows, it appeared that on the BBC at least there was some thought about what was shown.

I was at the BFI on London’s Southbank on Thursday, attending a very enjoyable presentation called Transport as Architecture: Ballard to Banham that featured three short films: Crash! directed by Harley Cokeliss from 1970 that featured JG Ballard himself along with Gabrielle Drake (who I remember as Lieutenant Gay Ellis from Gerry Anderson’s UFO which ran from 1970-1973); The Thing Is... Motorways, part of a 1992 Channel 4 ‘talk show’ series by Paul Morley which also included short contributions from JG Ballard; and Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles from 1972, in which the writer, critic and Professor of Architectural History drove around LA in search of interesting features to show to tourists. Both Cokeliss and Morley were present to introduce their pieces and, despite his writing for the NME from the mid 70s to the mid 80s, I hold a sneaking admiration for Morley, not because he’s a northerner (he was born in Farnham, Surrey), but because he has some interesting things to say and his taste in music is pretty eclectic; I thought that some of the music that accompanied his documentary, a short piece of electronica, was like a Mancunian take on Kraftwerk’s Autobahn only inspired by the Preston by-pass section of the M6. Before the films I flicked through a somewhat small collection of soundtracks on re-released vinyl in the BFI gift shop and, alongside Mike Oldfield’s soundtrack to the harrowing The Killing Fields, was an LP from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.


The Radiophonic Workshop was a revolutionary sound effects unit created in 1958, originally to provide sound effects for radio programmes which became most famous for recording Ron Grainer’s Dr Who theme in 1963. The creators and contributors included trained musicians with an appreciation of musique concrète and tape manipulation and their rooms at Maida Vale are reported to have looked more like an electronics laboratory than a routine recording studio. The pioneering work was carried out by some memorable names including Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. A synthesizer designed by Oram, where sounds and compositions were produced by drawings, featured in BBC Technology news last week and forms the centrepiece of an exhibition Oram to Electronica at the Science Museum in London. A mini-Oramics machine, based on original plans but never completed during her lifetime, has just been completed by a PhD student from Goldsmiths College and though there are now apps that mimic the principle it predated sequencing software and, if the machine had been available in 1973, it could have changed the way music was taught and performed.

Strange electronic noises are very suited to science fiction and the inception of the Radiophonic Workshop coincided with the rise in popularity of SF, from radio serials Quatermass and the Pit to Douglas Adams’ immensely popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which later translated to television, as well as shows like Dr Who.

One area where the BBC excelled was in its children’s programming. I distinctly remember a drama series, based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson and first broadcast in 1975 called The Changes. This near-apocalyptic vision was notable for its pro-integration message, being one of the first programmes to feature Sikhs, making it genuinely progressive. The excellent theme music was by Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which I seem to recall was available as a 45rpm single, but which wasn’t stocked by any of the record stores in Barrow. The long-running Blue Peter which at one time featured Barrovian Peter Purves (I used to deliver papers for his parent’s newsagents on the corner of Oxford Street and Furness Park Road) included an updated theme tune performed by Mike Oldfield that was available as a single, reaching no. 19 in the charts in 1979 and raising money for the Blue Peter Cambodia appeal. Another BBC children’s programme was Horses Galore, presented by Susan King which had a relatively short run, from 1977 to 1979. I’ve got no idea why I would watch a programme about horses, not being interested in equestrian pursuits and having once been bitten on the shoulder by Nicola Richardson’s horse, but the theme music was Pulstar by Vangelis from Albedo 0.39 (1976).

There was a lot of instrumental progressive rock around at the time and I thought that some of this should be used for items on BBC TV’s regional news and current affairs programme Nationwide that was shown immediately after the early evening so I wrote to them in December 1976, prompted to put pen to paper because I’d detected a snatch of Echoes on Jacob Bronowski’s seminal series The Ascent of Man, providing them with a list of suggestions. I don’t believe they took any notice but I did get a standard postcard in reply.


I was reminded of this when I read Rick Wakeman’s programme notes for his recent appearance at the Stone Free Festival; the Arthur theme was used by the BBC for Election Night specials on a number of occasions, a very fitting use of the music.

Yorkshire TV, one of the Independent Television company franchise holders ran a science-based show called Don’t Ask Me from 1974 to 1978 which used House of the King by Focus as a theme tune and exposed panellists David Bellamy (botany), Miriam Stoppard (medicine) and Magnus Pyke (natural sciences) to a wide audience. Pyke came across as the archetypal mad scientist and it was his unforgettable manner that was largely responsible for the success of the series, such that a large proportion of my generation will think of Don’t Ask Me rather than Focus when they hear the song.

Holiday was a long-running BBC programme that began in 1969, featuring reports from holiday destinations around the world. I think it was broadcast on a Sunday in the early evening and it was therefore something that could be watched while eating an informal Sunday tea. I’d bought Gordon Giltrap’s Visionary shortly after it was released in 1976 and bought the subsequent album, Perilous Journey when that came out in 1977. It was a bit of a surprise to hear Heartsong used as the theme tune for Holiday ’78 and it continued to be used until replaced by an unpopular piece by Simon May in 1985. Interestingly, the ITV holiday reviews show Wish You Were Here? (essentially a rip-off of Holiday) used Giltrap’s The Carnival as a theme tune.

One of the best original theme tunes was by Greenslade for the gritty BBC crime drama Gangsters (appearing on Time and Tide, 1975.) I think I saw the programme before hearing the album, immediately recognising the twin keyboard work of Daves Greenslade and Lawson. Set around Birmingham and originally a one-off Play for Today in 1975, this was the most lifelike screen violence I’d seen and was genuinely gripping.

Like The Changes, it’s a lost gem with excellent title music.







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