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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, May 8 2016 06:52PM

The past ten years or so have been taken up to a worrying degree with expanding my collection of progressivo Italiano, such that family holidays to Italy always include time for seeking out record stores to scour for releases that remain on my ever decreasing list.

Aided to a large extent by Andrea Parentin’s excellent Rock Progressivo Italiano: A guide to Italian Progressive Rock (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2011) and the handy-sized Progressive Italiano by Alessandro Gaboli and Giovanni Ottone (Giunti, 2007), the former for the translation of the lyrics and a sense of social setting and the latter for the depiction of album sleeves and a rating system that broadly matches my opinion of the albums by the most recognised acts Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Le Orme, I've explored cities and towns for any signs of record stores. I can even make out some of what is written about the groups in Italian but it’s opportune that Parentin’s book is in English.


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My first full foray into Italian record shops was on a trip to the Veneto in 2005 when there were two stores in Venice and another a short train ride away in Treviso. In those days I was aided by Jerry Lucky’s Progressive Rock Files (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2000) when I’d scour entries for remarks like “if you’re a fan of PFM then you’ll like this” and, following up a reference to Celeste that described them as “...influenced by early King Crimson but their sound is very original. You’ll hear elements of Genesis circa Trespass and even bits of PFM’s Per un Amico. A very beautiful, symphonic pastoral result. Lots of Mellotron. One of the genre’s highly rated bands” I began to seek out their 1976 release Principe di un giorno and looked for references to Celeste in the listings. One of these was Finisterre, described as “Symphonic progressive rock with long tracks containing restrained hints of bands like Celeste or Banco. They’ve chosen to create a moody and atmospheric sound that relies more on the classical style than neo-prog. Long passages of dissonant harmonies and jazzy chord voicings”. It wasn’t until I updated to Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2008), that I heard of Höstsonaten and La Maschera di Cera and was able to fathom out the relationship between them. I began to collect Maschera di Cera CDs in 2009 and Finisterre CDs some time later but it wasn’t until 2014 that I bought my first Höstsonaten release, the CD and DVD of the live performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was experiencing a live version of Rainsuite by the Z Band that really turned me on to Höstsonaten, revealing a very symphonic progressive rock style that Fabio Zuffanti himself equated with The Enid. Zuffanti’s projects are all essential listening for fans of the original progressivo Italiano movement and though I really enjoy Maschera di Cera’s albums for their modern take on the original genre, remaining true to the spirit of the work of bands like PFM and Banco, the instrumental work by Höstsonaten comes closest to symphonic rock and the Enid comparison is well founded

I pre-ordered a copy of Symphony N. 1 – Cupid & Psyche in early April and after negotiating a redelivery to my local post office, having been out at work when the postman attempted to deliver the item, I finally got hold of the LP on Friday and listened to it for the first time yesterday. I was not disappointed.

The music was conceived by Zuffanti but he has stepped away from the limelight and is only responsible for bass pedals ‘treatments and devices’, leaving Luca Scherani from La Coscienza di Zeno and a collaborator on Zuffanti’s 2015 project La Curva di Lesmo, to handle the arrangements and orchestrations in addition to playing keyboards; guitar, bass and drums are provided by long-term Zuffanti collaborators Laura Marano, Daniele Sollo and Paolo Tixi respectively.


There are many precedents of full orchestration in progressive rock and progressivo Italiano has some very notable examples including the New Trolls’ Concerto Grosso (1971, 1976, 2007) and Contaminazione by Il Rovescio della Medaglia (1973) but enhancing the symphonic scope of Höstsonaten seems like a logical step, one that is true to the principles of progressive rock as it attempted to bridge the gap between high and popular culture. The melange of influences that inform their output, their RPI predecessors, jazz and Mediterranean folk are enhanced with inspiration from Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. I’ve thought quite hard about other orchestrated prog albums and there aren’t many that genuinely seamlessly blend the rock and the orchestral moments; the pieces by Keith Emerson with the Nice were predominantly divided into distinct sections, band then orchestra then band. There are times when Yes’ Magnification (2001) works well but this mostly comes across as orchestra instead of keyboards and has hints of Tony Cox’s imperfect arrangements on Time and a Word (1970). There are long passages of orchestral music on Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water (1975) but the most satisfying orchestrated pieces of progressive rock are Camel’s Music Inspired by the Snow Goose (1975) and Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge (1974). In terms of orchestration in progressivo Italiano, Passio Secondum Mattheum by Latte e Miele (1972) impresses, but I think that Höstsonaten have come up with one of the most balanced mixes of rock and orchestra that at times reminds me of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970) and the eponymous 1972 release by Il Paese dei Balocchi, both of which, like Cupid & Psyche, are predominantly instrumental; Laura Marano provides some epic, melodic Gilmour-like guitar lines but it’s the inclusion of classic prog keyboards, Moog, Mellotron, organ and piano which fit in so neatly with the strings and brass that bestow a sense of harmonious union between the classical and the rock instrumentation. Not surprisingly, there are refrains that hint of Höstsonaten’s previous output and it goes without saying that the execution is highly consummate.

Another important link with the foundation of the genre is the appropriation of literary myth in a manner similar to Genesis writing The Fountain of Salmacis, with Zuffanti utilising the Apuleius story Metamorphoses. A translation by author, columnist and philosopher Pee Gee Daniel, providing a synopsis of the chapters that make up the ten tracks, is included in the gatefold sleeve.

Maschera di Cera produced one of my all time favourite albums Lux Ade (2006) based on the Orpheus story but that was an entirely rock affair. With Cupid & Psyche, Zuffanti has realised his dream of creating a symphonic suite with group and orchestra that is also able to serve as the soundtrack for a ballet, in the manner of Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky. Beginning with an array of musical ideas suitable for the project, enlisting Luca Scherani to create a score for string, wind and brass instruments, the album easily succeeds in presenting a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock and the ballet based on the music of the album is expected to debut in theatres later this year under the direction of the Genoese choreographer Paola Grazz. October 22nd is already reserved in my diary.












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