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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, Jun 28 2017 08:50AM

There’s a great deal to be said for being open-minded, the willingness to try different things, because it’s a wide world and being able to see someone else’s point of view helps us to build bridges and overcome divisions in society. Past experience invariably influences present and future choices, for either good or bad, but forming impressions of the widest possible range of stimuli is most likely to be a positive force. Genetics obviously plays a role in how we react to events but the molecular mechanisms are nothing when compared to environmental impact: Jazz was the predominant musical form in the house I grew up in but after hearing Close to the Edge I quickly found friends who liked the same sort of music and whether or not I was still happy to listen to my father’s jazz recordings, being of an age where you could choose to buy whichever records you wanted was a crucial part of adolescence.



Practitioners of progressive rock, appropriating bits and pieces from a multitude of sources, should really be regarded as exemplars of open-mindedness and, in keeping with the lofty ideals of the late 60s and early 70s, they took it upon themselves to end the cultural hegemony of the upper and middle classes through popularising classical music by amalgamating it with rock and jazz and other idioms. Progressive rock wasideally placed to carry out this change as it was by-and-large looked upon as a movement promulgated by the middle class with exponents such as the Charterhouse alumni making up Genesis being an exception at one end of the social scale, and Jon Anderson from Lancashire mill town Accrington at the other end of the ladder. This emancipation of the romantic European musical form was in keeping with the countercultural zeitgeist and could be viewed as reaching out to disparate tribes by embracing differences.

I jumped from not being interested in rock music to being intrigued by Roxy Music to being a dedicated prog-head in just a couple of months. I carried on watching Top of the Pops and remained friends with school mates who liked Slade or T Rex but around the age of 13 or 14 and certainly by 15, most people were forming a distinction between pop and rock and leaving pop behind though there were musicians I had begun to admire who used the pop idiom for one reason or another; Robert Wyatt with I’m a Believer springs to mind... At the height of the golden era of progressive rock bands still eschewed singles but by 1976, following the hiatus in studio recording by a number of the big-league players, the music industry had become more hard-nosed and the labels required their acts to generate money by writing hit singles. Adjusting to produce something specifically for this market may have been tricky enough if you were used to taking ten minutes or more to get your ideas across to the listener but the difficulty was exacerbated by a far more sophisticated competition.



The announcement of the forthcoming Steven Wilson album To the Bone has been greeted with keen anticipation from fans. As much as I like Hand.Cannot.Erase I got into Wilson’s music via the rebooted 70s prog of The Raven that Refused to Sing, rather than the more narrow sound of Porcupine Tree. H.C.E strays from the original progressive rock blueprint and takes in electronica and post-rock and the result is another great record, but it’s not really prog. This is simply an observation and, in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t matter but with videos available for three tracks from To the Bone, it can be seen as part of a trajectory towards what Wilson himself describes as ‘progressive pop’. While this refusal to stand still is in principle a good thing, the (give or take) five minute length of the previewed tracks doesn’t provide enough scope for development, although there is the promise of 9’20 of Detonation. From the examples available to the general public and from comments he’s posted on his website, it seems that the territory he’s now occupying is similar to that of more of the music he liked as a youth; Peter Gabriel’s So, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, and Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love, pop music which had a degree of depth. I’m a recent convert to Hounds of Love for The Ninth Wave suite which makes up the entire second side of the original LP though I’ve followed her career with interest since she first hit the airwaves with Wuthering Heights in 1978. Like Wilson, I also appreciate the Kate Bush – Peter Gabriel partnership probably best known for Don’t Give Up but which started six years earlier on No Self Control from Peter Gabriel III, a far more prog-sounding track; Bush and Gabriel also shared an interest in sonic innovation and were at the vanguard of the Fairlight CMI revolution. It could be argued that Gabriel’s solo output wasn’t really prog but it is undeniable that his method, if not all of his songs, conform to the overall prog scheme.


Wilson’s musical taste is suitably diverse, as indicated by his playlists and the two-song singles that were compiled for his 2014 album Cover Version; six original pieces paired with six cover versions of songs by Alanis Morissette, Abba, The Cure, Momus, Prince and Donovan (though The Unquiet Grave is a 15th Century folk song interpreted by Wilson.) He was even sporting an Abba T-shirt when I saw him on the second of the two Royal Albert Hall gigs in September 2015 though I can’t think of any redeeming features of Sweden’s number one musical export.



The nearest I get to a guilty musical pleasure is sharing record storage space with my wife’s Fleetwood Mac, Marvin Gaye, Meatloaf, Robert Palmer, Chris Rea, Simon and Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen – she has her own CD storage - and though I often have to grit my teeth when I buy her music as a present, it’s somewhat unfair on her that she gets streams of prog-related recommendations. Fortunately, Susan occasionally finds something she likes which might fit into the ‘progressive pop’ category, such as Gotye’s Making Mirrors or S. Carey’s chamber-pop Range of Light.

There was a time when I owned Anita Ward’s 45 rpm single Ring My Bell and although it features early syndrum and I can still sing along with it, this was never intended as a serious purchase; after suggesting I was going to buy it, I had to go along with the joke but it did only cost 50p. I have a pristine copy of Bryan Ferry’s Boys and Girls (Our Price, £5.29) bought along with Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles which were released two days apart in June 1985, neither of which fits in particularly well with the rest of my collection though David Gilmour ad Tony Levin feature alongside Ferry and Sting quotes from Prokofiev on Russians. It’s interesting to note that the drums on both albums are performed by Omar Hakim which fits in very nicely with Sting’s jazz-lite and might have been responsible for some subliminal appreciation of Boys and Girls.



Another pop-rock album which sits between my Endless River and Storia di un Minuto LPs is Every Breath You Take: The Singles, part of my leaving present from my first workplace but which was sanctioned by me. I didn’t like the early Police material but two-thirds of the group had decent prog connections (Stewart Copeland – Curved Air; Andy Summers – Dantalian’s Chariot; Soft Machine; Robert Fripp) and the songs on later albums Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity showed a high degree of sophistication. The first CD I bought was actually Nothing Like the Sun but Richer Sounds wasn’t really a place to buy recorded music – I just needed a CD to play on my newly acquired Yamaha CD player – and Sting was the least offensive artist available. I’ve still got it.



No one should have any guilt about the music in their collection. We buy and listen to the music we like, however broad or narrow our predilections. I applaud the broad-minded, but when it comes to music, my collection hardly encompasses anything other than progressive rock (in its myriad forms), jazz and a bit of classical; my taste is somewhat narrow.










By ProgBlog, Nov 10 2014 09:42PM

There’s something magical about a live performance, unless it’s to see a band that you don’t actually like. My personal nightmares include The Sweet (Barrow, May 1973 which fortunately cost me nothing because I accompanied a friend on his birthday), Slade (Goldsmiths’ College, December 1979) and UFO (Hammersmith Odeon, February 1980) but I’ve also seen performances from artists that I do like that have disappointed (Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth show at the Royal Albert Hall, earlier this year.) I think the disappointment stems from failed expectations. Wakeman had touted the format of the show beforehand but I was too stupid to take in what he’d said and I think that a full concert, rather than the Journey back-story peppered with jokes, some of which could be interpreted as offensive, that took up a good portion of the evening, would have been far less dissatisfying.

I think it’s generally true that musicians, of whatever genre, put a great deal into their live performances. Thematic or conceptual stage shows evolved in the 70s, especially amongst the more successful acts who graduated from small theatres to arenas. This coincided with the golden era of prog where the trilogy of recorded music, album design and stage set were fully thought through to provide what an economist might call ‘value added’. There was a shift from straightforward atmosphere to total immersion in a concept; from a light show to Yes and their fibreglass moulds to fit in with the Topographic Oceans iconography, ELP with their model of Tarkus, Rick Wakeman with inflatable battling dinosaurs or presenting Myths and Legends on ice, and culminating in the architectural designs of Pink Floyd, enhanced with models of crashing aeroplanes, flying pigs and giant puppets. There was no intention to downgrade the importance of the music but the increasing distance of the audience from the stage meant that there was a requirement to offer an alternative view to tiny dots on the stage. This became spectacle and, though many current rock and pop acts continue with the tradition, at the time it was seen as confirmation that progressive rock had become overblown and out of touch.

Though costume changes and make-up were seen as innovative by fans of David Bowie and the wider emerging glam rock scene, Arthur Brown was donning bizarre headgear and sporting makeup in 1968. A couple of years later, Peter Gabriel had also began to experiment with facial makeup, costumes and masks and wore his wife’s red dress and a foxes head for performances of The Musical Box before the release of Foxtrot, where it would be depicted on Paul Whitehead’s sleeve painting. [Have you looked closely at the horse ridden by the green headed huntsman on the cover of Foxtrot? It’s actually in a state of excitement.]

Gabriel’s theatrical touch served two purposes; to help him overcome his lack of confidence as he literally hid behind a mask and to provide a visual focal point as the other four musicians sat, barely moving, concentrating on playing their respective instruments. The costumes evolved from the basic ‘old Henry’ mask used on The Musical Box; through the bat wing head gear of Watcher of the Skies and the flower at the end of How Dare I be so Beautiful? and beginning of the Willow Farm sections of Supper’s Ready; Britannia on Dancing with the Moonlit Knight; culminating with Rael as a Slipperman on The Lamb Lies Down, a suit featuring inflatable genitals. Gabriel continued to wear face paint into his subsequent solo career and when I briefly played in a live band, I attempted to copy the makeup depicted on Plays Live – keyboard player Alistair Penny sported a Bowie-inspired flash and guitarist Eric Whitton wore makeup reminiscent of SAHB guitarist Zal Cleminson. It’s hard to believe that Gabriel was not responsible for inspiring the face painting of Fish, who wore makeup from the live inception of Marillion up to the end of the Real to Reel tour. Part camouflage and part refection of the Jester that appears on the sleeves of singles and albums up to Misplaced Childhood, a study of Fish’s greasepaint seems to show a thematic relationship with the venue. Though Fish denies any conscious adoption of colours relating to his surroundings, such as the black, red and yellow used for Marillion’s first indoor gig in Germany in October 1983, he does admit to putting some thought into occassionally going for specifics, such as a Union Jack and an RAF roundel design used at a gig at a base near Aylesbury in 1981, a design that was resurrected for the Reading Festival headlining gig of 1982. It's also of note that Peter Nicholls, vocalist with classic neo-prog band IQ, was also into face paint and costumes - the cover of The Wake depicts a character with make up very similar to that sported by Nicholls.

It’s difficult to know if Gabriel influenced Progressivo Italiano outfit Osanna. Genesis were certainly a very popular in Italy, where Nursery Cryme was a surprise success, reaching no. 4 in the Italian charts. L’Uomo was also released in 1971 and the cover depicts the band in costumes and theatrical makeup but their sound was rather different to that of Genesis, mixing jazz, psychedelia, folk and blues, indicating that Jethro Tull were a likely influence. They would later work with David Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator, Charisma label-mates of Genesis and another successful UK musical export to Italy. It’s not even coincidence, but VdGG had a track called ’Masks’ on World Record, allowing Peter Hammill to extemporise on the subject of presenting a false persona. The theme of acting a part was also visited in the surrogate band that featured in the live shows of The Wall, wearing masks.

The vast majority of prog was about concentrating on the music. The visual additions to live shows were intended to enhance the musical experience but when theatrics became the dominant force like on the tour of The Wall, or Rick Wakeman performing The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table on ice, it’s as though the entertainment is making up for deficiencies in the music. I certainly don’t regard The Wall as progressive rock and I’ve previously questioned whether Journey to the Centre of the Earth is really prog. A good light show and effects is all you need to add to good music but some costume changes and face paint don’t do any harm; over-reliance on gimmicks, however clever, is slipping on a mask to hide what’s underneath.


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