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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, Apr 26 2016 08:52PM

The desire amongst modern prog bands for the authentic sounds of the 70s has led to a mini revolution in digital samples. The unreliability of a Mellotron for live performance, a recent example of which was the lengthy delay that preceded Änglagård performing at the Resonance Festival in 2014, meant that anyone who favours the sound of the Beast is now better off utilising Mellotron patches on digital keyboards which have the bonus of considerably less mass to move around. I don’t know if it was just Rick Wakeman’s choice of programming but when he switched from minimoogs to polymoogs when he rejoined Yes for Going for the One (1977), I thought the sounds he utilised lacked substance and the same goes for the Emerson sound with the Yamaha GX-1 when ELP reconvened for Works Volume 1. Minimoogs disappeared in the 80s but it’s pleasing to hear the original Moog sound, apparently the result of an incorrect calculation that led to the filters being overdriven by around 15dB, has been recreated in the Moog Voyager series, seemingly the synthesizer of choice of bands playing progressive rock today.


Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014
Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014

Wakeman, Emerson, Patrick Moraz and Rick Wright all used grand pianos in a live setting but by the end of the golden era of progressive rock the sheer bulk of the instrument and the advent of polyphonic synthesizers meant that traditional piano parts were played on instruments like the Yamaha CP-70 electric grand, a half-way house between an acoustic instrument and a digital piano but far less unwieldy than the acoustic grand. There is a lot of rock music that features piano but exponents of progressive rock used the instrument as a shade or tone in a broader palette, like the calm interlude on South Side of the Sky (from Fragile, 1971) providing stark contrast with the angular electric mayhem the precedes and follows; there aren’t many prog albums where the only keyboard is piano even though it can be used for both delicacy and thunder.

The less bulky cousin of the grand is the electric piano which features in a wide variety of progressive rock and fusion. When I bought a Korg MIDI keyboard four years ago I was a little surprised to see a voucher for genuine Fender Rhodes patches but since then, on albums like Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) plus the very recent Höstsonaten release Symphony No. 1 Cupid and Psyche (2016), I’ve noticed the classic electric piano sound returning to the genre.

Whereas Wakeman used the RMI (Rocky Mount Instruments) electric piano and harpsichord and Peter Hammill, David Cross and Robert Fripp played Hohner electric pianos (Cross’ in white to match his Mellotron and Fripp’s in black, to match his), it’s the distinct sound of the Rhodes / Fender Rhodes that best exemplify the instrument, an almost bell-like resonance that retains its identity even when overdriven. Moraz may have owned a Fender Rhodes but that particular keyboard tends to be associated with jazz rock, rather than symphonic prog, so it’s not surprising to see a Rhodes listed in the instrumentation for bands like Greenslade, where their roots are in the British take on jazz and blues.


The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.
The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.

The tone of the Rhodes comes from the unique wire tines, tuning fork-like components of varying lengths that are struck by the hammers; the tines connect to tonebars and the amplification is by electromagnetic pickups. The characteristic bell sound is produced when the tine and the pickup are in close proximity and though there is a degree of similarity between the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer, the former has better sustain while the latter produces a range of harmonics when the keys are hit hard, providing more bite. The story behind the Rhodes is quite inspiring because inventor Harold Rhodes became a full-time piano teacher after dropping out of university to support his family through the Great Depression, utilising a technique that combined classical and jazz, then began developing instruments to help the rehabilitation of soldiers during the Second World War, utilising surplus army parts as he was required to stick to a very tight budget. The involvement of Fender came in 1959 with the marketing of the Piano Bass, the bottom 32 keys of the full 88 key design, and the later inclusion of a built-in power amplifier and a combined tremolo and auto-pan feature that bounces the output signal from the piano in stereo across two speakers, a feature mistakenly called ‘vibrato’ on some models which is consistent with the labelling on Fender amps. The first Fender Rhodes was released in 1965 following the acquisition of Fender by CBS; this model had 73 keys and included the built-in amplifier.

It’s mainly Miles Davis’ alumni that popularised the instrument though Ray Manzarek used a Piano Bass with The Doors, providing the bass lines for the bass guitarist-less band. From the In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970) period Miles, keyboard players Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock spread the word and the sound through their respective bands while guitarist John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring Jan Hammer on minimoog and Fender Rhodes and the keyboard was subsequently taken up by British jazz-rock bands influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, including Brand X and Isotope.


Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron
Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron

Return to Forever sailed closest to progressive rock of all the fusion bands with Romantic Warrior (1976) which became their best selling album despite critical drubbing from Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics. I fully believe the success of the album is its appeal to fans of symphonic prog; the majority of prog fans also like jazz rock but Romantic Warrior pushes all the right prog buttons: fantastic musicianship; extended instrumental pieces; a broad palette including an entirely acoustic track; and a loose concept. It comes across like a fusion version of Refugee by Refugee (1974).

The popularity of the Rhodes piano dipped at the end of the 70s as electronic keyboards began to proliferate but also because the quality of the instrument itself suffered as a consequence of cost-cutting and an attempt at mass production. Rhodes was sold to Roland by the company president William Schultz in 1987 and Roland produced digital pianos under the Rhodes name until Harold Rhodes, who hadn’t authorised the use of his name, bought back the rights to the instrument in 1997. It’s good to hear the Rhodes sound on contemporary prog.








By ProgBlog, Feb 21 2016 08:11PM

For the past fifteen or so years, my wife has spent February half-term in New York which is fine by me. I can listen to lots of music at home without resorting to headphones and, if I’m lucky, she might find a bit of original US prog to bring back home. I’ve been to NYC three times, most recently in 2003; I ski in Europe later on in the season in lieu of a transatlantic shopping trip. Up until my first visit in 1998, my expectations had been modulated by film, TV and bits and pieces of music. I was quite taken by the steam vents that I’d heard described by Peter Gabriel around the time of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), a system of heating, cooling, cleaning and powering businesses in Manhattan. About half of the steam is cogenerated and using this as an energy source dramatically increases the efficiency of fuels.

The first time I visited the country was for the 16th American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Century City, Los Angeles, in 1990. My original contract with Guy’s Hospital allowed me one international conference per year and I chose this one for its potential to provide an insight into the cutting edge of transplantation science. I may have been swayed by the fact that the Hipgnosis cover for Yes’ Going for the One (1977) features Century City. This was not a good time for progressive rock bands, or prog in general and it pre-dated my seeking out local record stores to explore music by local artists, so I didn’t buy anything by US groups on that trip.


Century City
Century City

In fact, all my trips to the States to cities other than New York have been for symposia or workshops. I was in Dallas in 1995 for another ASHI conference and as prog was beginning to resurface, when the band playing at the gala dinner suggested they’d take requests, I asked them to play some King Crimson but they played some Talking Heads instead. Both LA and Dallas are huge conurbations and some of the things I had bookmarked to see in LA were impossible. I stayed in a Holiday Inn on Wilshire Boulevard and it took about an hour to walk to the conference venue but there were decent views across to the Hollywood Hills; My hotel reservation in Dallas, the venue for the ASHI meeting itself, was thrown into chaos by a mid-flight engine failure on my aircraft, resulting in an unscheduled overnight stop over at the Hilton in Boston. Perhaps I shouldn’t have wished too loudly for an end to the improvised fleadh on the plane as passengers, off to a traditional music festival somewhere, took out fiddles and pipes and began to play. TWA kindly flew me first class from Boston to St Louis early the next morning for a flight on to Dallas. Unfortunately my room had been given away and I had to stay in a different but possibly more glamorous hotel around the corner for one night. The walk between the two buildings would have taken less than two minutes as the crow flies but, being on a busy freeway intersection with no footpath, it took a little longer and I had to cope with drivers abusing me for daring to walk. Apparently it was dangerous, so when I attended the evening entertainment I stuck to the transport provided.


Grassy knoll, Dallas
Grassy knoll, Dallas

Seattle was a different prospect. Verdant, compact and interesting, I was there for the 2002 International Histocompatibility Workshop Conference. The meeting was held in the Washington State Convention Center [sic] and my accommodation was a brief walk away at the Kings Inn motel, where I felt pretty insecure because the room opened out from the ill-fitting steel door, my first experience of this kind of hotel. I didn’t manage to buy any music but I did spend time at the rather good Experience Music Project, a Frank Gehry-designed museum that had opened a couple of years earlier. Seattle has some high profile musician links such as Jimi Hendrix, Queensryche and Kurt Cobain but I was more interested in the Yes drummer Alan White connection; one of his kits was on display.


I’d picked up CDs in New York but these were by UK artists and were either far cheaper than I could have found at home or relatively obscure, for example Exiles (1997) by David Cross. The first US prog that I bought was Day for Night (1999) by Spock’s Beard when I was in Miami in 2003. I was in Miami twice that year, for a training course in April and presenting at the ASHI conference in October. The April trip was memorable because I left a laptop and some CDs in the boot of the taxi that dropped me off at my hotel in Coconut Grove, one of these being my signed copy of King Crimson’s The Nightwatch (1997) that I’d bought at the playback at the Intercontinental Hotel in London. On my return to the UK I emailed ET, the Crimson related forum and asked American contributors to look out for it. No one was sympathetic, some pointing out how stupid it was to carry original CDs around. Correct, but hardly helpful. Day for Night was bought on the autumn trip along with a copy of a cheap limited edition European version of The Ladder (1999) by Yes, in a slip case plus poster. I can’t remember the store but you could scan the barcode and listen to extracts of the music. I quite liked the analogue sounds of that particular Spock’s Beard album, which is why I bought it, rather than any other. I may have also been seduced by the Yes-like structure of the title track with its trebly bass and the Gentle Giant homage Gibberish. Though there’s a range of styles on display I get the feeling that the band has taken 80s Yes as a template with a deliberate attempt at being radio friendly.
I’d picked up CDs in New York but these were by UK artists and were either far cheaper than I could have found at home or relatively obscure, for example Exiles (1997) by David Cross. The first US prog that I bought was Day for Night (1999) by Spock’s Beard when I was in Miami in 2003. I was in Miami twice that year, for a training course in April and presenting at the ASHI conference in October. The April trip was memorable because I left a laptop and some CDs in the boot of the taxi that dropped me off at my hotel in Coconut Grove, one of these being my signed copy of King Crimson’s The Nightwatch (1997) that I’d bought at the playback at the Intercontinental Hotel in London. On my return to the UK I emailed ET, the Crimson related forum and asked American contributors to look out for it. No one was sympathetic, some pointing out how stupid it was to carry original CDs around. Correct, but hardly helpful. Day for Night was bought on the autumn trip along with a copy of a cheap limited edition European version of The Ladder (1999) by Yes, in a slip case plus poster. I can’t remember the store but you could scan the barcode and listen to extracts of the music. I quite liked the analogue sounds of that particular Spock’s Beard album, which is why I bought it, rather than any other. I may have also been seduced by the Yes-like structure of the title track with its trebly bass and the Gentle Giant homage Gibberish. Though there’s a range of styles on display I get the feeling that the band has taken 80s Yes as a template with a deliberate attempt at being radio friendly.

My first tastes of American rock music would have been on Alan Freeman’s radio show and one of Tony’s friends was quite heavily into the Doors. Tony had Mass in F Minor (1967), a concise psychedelic masterpiece by The Electric Prunes and we liked the early prog-era instrumental Zappa; I may have bought Hot Rats (1969) in New York. I was tuned into the United States of America by a chapter in Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001, ed. Kevin Holm-Hudson), The “American Metaphysical Circus.” Influenced by avant garde rather than 19th Century European composers, their 1968 eponymous debut has a distinct West Coast sound but there are plenty of melody lines that could almost be pop, were it not for the underlying electronics and manipulations and hints of radical politics. Susan got me a copy from New York in 2009.

I read a review of The Weirding (2009) by Astra before buying it. Progressive rock had become truly respectable again and bands were happy to reference Pink Floyd and King Crimson. This offering is slightly spacey and there’s a lack of polish in the playing which gives it a kind of authenticity, aided by a decent production. It’s ok, but it doesn’t really challenge.

Last year I requested some recent releases by Glass Hammer, should Susan happen to be passing any suitable record shops. I’d got Journey of the Dunadan (1993) for Christmas 2013 even though I’d read that it wasn’t anywhere close to their best album, which contains some very nice keyboard work but displays a sort of naivety; attempting to cover The Lord of the Rings on a single, debut album was simply over-ambitious. I’m still waiting for more Glass Hammer! A year later I was given Finneus Gauge’s One Inch of the Fall (1999) which is on the progressive side of jazz rock, like an American UK. Laura Martin’s vocals are clear and distinctive and the musicianship can’t be faulted, with uniform high quality writing. I think I can detect some Canterbury influences but it doesn’t really sound like anyone else. There’s more guitar than keyboards, some of which is reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth.

Last year, in anticipation of a new deck, I bought Fireballet’s Night on Bald Mountain (1975) when I came across it by chance at a vinyl fair in Spittalfields Market. The stall holder had bought it new from East Side Music & Video in Toronto but didn’t know much about it. I’d just read about the album in Prog Rock FAQ by Will Romano and thought it looked an interesting proposition and, considering the efforts of other US bands during the golden era of prog, it proved to be way ahead of any of them. It may be derivative but the calibre of musicianship is high and it gets really good treatment from producer (ex-King Crimson) Ian McDonald; second track Centurion could be Trespass-era Genesis but album opener Les Cathèdrales utilises the uncredited Theme One by George Martin. This is the closest an American band would get to original prog.

Postscript: I had the first two Happy the Man CDs on my NY wish list. Didn’t get either!






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