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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 15 2017 10:47PM

Right from the start of my interest in progressive rock, I understood there was a strong link between what I was listening to and classical music. The Nice were one of the first bands I discovered and one of the earliest albums to enter the household was Five Bridges by The Nice, an album of predominantly orchestrated pieces. Studying the sleeve notes for Five Bridges revealed that the group credited Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Bach but the primary composition, the suite taking up the entire first side (from which the album got its title), was a mixture of classical and jazz with only a bit of rock music thrown in and was credited to Keith Emerson and Lee Jackson, the latter presumably just for the lyrics. I’d probably already worked out that a piano trio was my preferred form of jazz (in a house where I was exposed to a lot of jazz, from trad and big band to Miles but even after the full-blown symphonic approach of Yes, the pared-down Nice still managed to tick all the right boxes for me and I think at least part of that was the way they worked jazz into their repertoire, the other reason being the incredible organ work. This was most likely the first time I’d heard orchestration presented in this way but it was certainly the first time I’d paid any attention to a modern classical piece, marvelling at the way the five movements represented the bridges that crossed the Tyne and straining to work out Jackson’s words during Chorale (3rd Bridge). The Nice weren’t the first band to apply rock treatment to classical music, which was probably Nut Rocker, the Kim Fowley interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s March of the Toy Soldiers from his ballet The Nutcracker Suite, by Jack B. Nimble and the Quicks. This was released on the Del Rio label in early 1962 but was hastily re-recorded for Rendezvous Records and released under the group name of B. Bumble and the Stingers. At the time, the BBC had set itself up as a cultural gatekeeper and viewed itself as the nation’s arbiter of taste. Through the auspices of the Dance Music Policy Committee, it worked a policy of refusing to give air time to songs "which are slushy in sentiment" or pop versions of classical pieces including The Cougars' Saturday Nite at the Duckpond, a 1963 version of Swan Lake. Nut Rocker was discussed by the committee but was not banned because of its evident ephemeral nature which would not ‘offend reasonable people.’



Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6
Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6

Emerson did have an uncanny knack in identifying themes and phrases which fitted in with both original compositions and cover versions of other people’s tunes and this was one of the major avenues through which I, and many others, first began to appreciate classical music, so that one of the first classical albums I bought was the Camden Classics LP of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6. Though I heard it later than Country Pie from Five Bridges, this being the song that incorporated a portion of Brandenburg Concerto no. 6, the title track from Ars Longa Vita Brevis released two years earlier includes a snippet from Brandenburg Concerto no. 3. Additionally, the album features a band-only recording of the Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite which would resurface, with orchestra, on Five Bridges. One other piece of Bach appears on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, which was, paradoxically the last of their records I heard, a fragment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor inserted into Rondo, which I recognised as being very closely based on Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk, though Brubeck went un-credited.



Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!
Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!

Toccata and Fugue in D minor is instantly recognisable and iconic and one of the reasons I went to see the film Rollerball when it was released in 1975. Set in ‘the not too distant future’ it has turned out to be a shade prescient, where all the functions of the world are run by global corporations. The real purpose of the sport, played between teams owned by the different companies from different world cities, is to subdue individualism so that when the main protagonist Jonathan E. (played by James Caan) becomes successful and a crowd favourite, the corporations first try to get him to retire and then to kill him off during a match. The corporations fail and Jonathan E. prevails; the closing sequence sees him skating around the arena with the crowd chanting his name, softly at first then building in amplitude to a freeze frame and the single-voice flourish of the Toccata signals the credits. Sometime during the 1980s the provenance of the piece was questioned by academics and it appears that the musical form could have been written for violin. What is known is that the earliest manuscript was written out by Johannes Ringk, on a date estimated to have been between 1740 and 1760.

Is there something about Bach’s music that makes it adaptable to progressive rock? Bach appears to have been fascinated by music, numbers and codes and his name spells out a series of notes which were frequently employed in his works, providing a sonic signature to his work. If the letters of the name ‘Bach’ each replaced with its number in the alphabet, we end up with 2+1+3+8=14 and some researchers have hypothesised that he had something of a fixation with the number 14; it has been suggested that when he was asked to join Mizler's society of Musical Sciences he delayed accepting to ensure that he was the 14th member to join. Mozart was another who applied mathematical games to his compositions and there were yet more baroque composers using a cabalistic code to change letters into numbers which could then be used in musical composition to hide words.


Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band
Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band

Proto-prog converts included Procol Harum whose debut release A Whiter Shade of Pale drips with Bach from the repeated descending steps of the ground bass which appear in Air on the G string and Sleepers, Wake!, to a melody line which could be a novel adaptation of the cantata I am Standing One with Foot in the Grave, and Jethro Tull, barely out of their blues period, with Bourée from Stand Up (1969), an adaptation of the lute piece Bourrée in E minor, played on flute in a jazz idiom (latterly incorporated into the live version of Finisterre’s In Liminae by Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band, possibly as a tribute to the legacy of Jethro Tull on Italian progressive rock.) The Nice influenced many subsequent groups, themselves dissolving into Emerson, Lake and Palmer who not only quoted baroque compositions but moved on to pieces from the late 19th and 20th Centuries and were responsible for my appreciation of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Janáček.

I would find it hard to believe if Netherlands keyboard trio Trace weren’t influenced by The Nice where on their eponymous debut they covered Bach, Grieg and mixed in some traditional Polish dance and Swedish folk music. They first came to my attention on the Old Grey Whistle Test and, if anything, I was more impressed by keyboard player Rick van der Linden than I was by Keith Emerson. His interpretation of Bach’s Italian Concerto (presented as Gaillard) remains one of my favourite tracks of all time. It’s a really well structured multi-layered piece played unbelievably fast, demonstrating the virtuoso technical ability of van der Linden whilst simultaneously displaying a brilliant feel for the original composition. The second Trace album, Birds contains more Bach (Bourrée, from the English Suite) and Opus 1065, where they utilises the talents of Darryl Way on violin – a man equally at home playing classical variations including his own violin and synthesized orchestra album Concerto for Electric Violin.



Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace
Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace

We tend to think of Bach influencing prog initially through Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, possibly the ultimate Moog album but that influence spreads via Mahler, Stravinsky, Dave Brubeck and it even affected the thinking of The Beach Boys and The Kinks. The nascent progressive scene embraced Bach where, because of the mathematical structure, the harmony and counterpoint and maybe the association with church music, his compositions seemed such a good fit.

By ProgBlog, Feb 8 2015 06:37PM

There’s a column in Prog magazine called Locus Focus, written by rock gazetteer David Roberts (author of Rock Atlas) which has the by-line “puts prog on the map”. The notion of highlighting a geographical location associated with some musical iconography appeals to me. I appreciate that a rock atlas is able to transcend the artificial boundaries of genre (think of The Smiths and Salford Lads Club or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at 23 Heddon Street, London W1) but the idea seems somehow related to prog for reasons possibly associated with my early academic path and an insatiable appetite for poring over maps.

Yes Tor is an obvious choice for a prog-related geolocation but there are some more obscure sites that equally fit the bill. I’m sure I remember a section in Roger Dean’s Views where he was describing the inspiration for the watery world depicted inside the gatefold of Close to the Edge that included a photo of a small mountain tarn. I seem to recall that he was describing this tarn as being on the top of a mountain ridge and, for whatever reason, I associated this with the picturesque and entirely unexpected tarns on Haystacks in the western Lake District fells; sadly, I’m no longer able to refer to my copy of Views, bought on its publication in 1975, because over the next few years I removed pages to adorn my bedroom walls.

The formation of these tarns, the so-called summit tarn, Innominate Tarn and Blackbeck Tarn is a feature of the Buttermere-Ennerdale watershed as it passes the rocky protuberance of Great Round How and is restricted to a narrow ridge, craggy and precipitous on the Buttermere side. Alfred Wainwright has drawn a picture of the summit tarn, which doesn’t have a name, in his Western Fells (book seven of his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells) that looks very much as I remember it from a long time ago; the problem of having made a career in London is that I don’t get to do very much Lakeland fell walking anymore. It’s rather paradoxical that the second highest of these natural water features goes under the name of Innominate Tarn and of the three, this is the most magical with an indented rocky shore and a line of tiny islets. If Haystacks didn’t inspire Dean’s Close to the Edge cover, it appears as though it may have informed the cover of Steve Howe’s first solo album Beginnings with the rocky ‘islands’ protruding from the water.

The first time I noticed the Locus Focus column one album immediately sprung to mind: Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. Hergest Ridge is an elongated hill running from Kington in Herefordshire to Gladestry in Powys in a roughly NE – SW orientation, traversing the border between England and Wales. The summit of the hill is on the English side and stands 426m above sea level, rising 158m above the surrounding landscape; the Offa’s Dyke long distance footpath runs along the ridge. Following the success of Tubular Bells, Oldfield retreated to The Beacon, his house on Bradnor Hill, near Kington. The area obviously inspired him; not only was his sophomore effort titled Hergest Ridge but his third album Ommadawn, recorded at The Beacon, is appended by the short song On Horseback and contains the lyric “If you feel a little glum / To Hergest Ridge you should come”.

My copy of Hergest Ridge dates from 1975 and was bought for me for some ridiculous price; either 75p or 99p by friend Bill Burford who had seen cheap copies in WH Smith in Blackpool or somewhere like that. By the mid-late 70s I’d kind of grown out of Tubular Bells and sold my copy to the sister of classmate Eamonn Quinn. I wasn’t a great fan of side two and, at the time, didn’t appreciate the value of keeping hold of vinyl or the importance and longevity of the piece. It’s strange that I kept my Hergest Ridge but I’m pleased that I did because when I listened to it recently I thought it was a lush, symphonic piece. I’ve still got my original Ommadawn and I invested in Tubular Bells and Tubular Bells II on CD. Based on a review by my brother Richard, I bought a cheap copy of Crises on CD when I was in Padova at the end of last year but I still think that Oldfield’s best album is Hergest Ridge, specifically the original mix; the 2010 edit is unbalanced to my ears as some of the sounds that contribute to the pastoral sweep are sullied by encroaching instruments brought out higher in the mix.

Whereas Tubular Bells owes a debt to the minimalists and Ommadawn, with its pipes and African drums, seems to have fully embraced world music influences, Hergest Ridge occupies more than just a place in the sonic continuum. In some respects it’s a ‘son of’ Tubular Bells and in some respects it preludes the Celtic vibe that is evident on its successor but the thematic development of Hergest Ridge is much more rewarding and continues over the two sides of the album; Tubular Bells is an album of two distinct parts, with side two coming across as a rather hurried composition and as a consequence is far less satisfying. Whole Earth band mate and composer David Bedford lent Oldfield a copy of Delius’ tone poem Brigg Fair before the recording of his first album and though Tubular Bells doesn’t really conform to the romantic symphonic style, Hergest Ridge comes much closer. Oldfield utilised the talents of Bedford to conduct a string section and choir and though it’s not evident how much Bedford was responsible for the orchestration, I can’t believe he didn’t have some influence and input. The album also features guest oboe players Lindsay Cooper and June Whiting plus trumpet from Ted Hobart. This extra instrumentation adds a distinct symphonic flavour that fits together far more seamlessly than the vertical arrangements of its predecessor and though no piece of romantic music lasts anywhere near 40 minutes, Hergest Ridge mimics the rhapsodic structure with pastoral themes, variation and development that characterise Sibelius and Vaughan Williams.

Perhaps as a result of Oldfield’s retreat from the public eye, some critics have suggested that Hergest Ridge encapsulates the mid 70s middle-class hippie vibe; the macrobiotic lifestyle, real ale and flowery names for the children, something cartoonist Posy Simmons loved to lampoon. I think that he’s crafted an album that demonstrates his care and passion for music; it may not be as groundbreaking as Tubular Bells but it’s been carefully assembled and perfectly reflects the majesty of wild, open countryside. Not bad for 75p!



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