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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, Dec 7 2014 05:57PM

The headline for a review of a Procol Harum gig in The Independent last week suggested that Procol Harum should be considered on an equal footing to Pink Floyd http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/reviews/procol-harum-dominion-theatre-gig-review-poised-to-reclaim-their-rightful-place-alongside-pink-floyd-in-the-prog-rock-pantheon-9882262.html?origin=internalSearch but I’d have issues with this even if I held The Independent in any regard. Founded in 1986 by disaffected Daily Telegraph journalists, The Indy (as it liked to be known) maintained the banner "free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence" until 2011 but always retained a pro-market predisposition. Fellow Barrovian Chris Blackhurst became editor in 2011 after circulating around the business pages of a number of Tory rags; Blackhurst was a student in my form at school whose father was a Conservative councillor and, though he says he originally was in favour of the comprehensive school system, wrote an op-ed for his paper in 2012 asking for the resurrection of Grammar schools. Owned by oligarch and former KGB Foreign Intelligence officer Alexander Lebedev since 2010, the standing of The Independent plummeted further in my eyes.

Forget my issues with the newspaper’s ownership and editorial bias. Procol Harum (named after a Burmese Blue cat that had been misspelled, the cat was meant to be called Procul Harun, ‘beyond these things’) do have a potential claim to a place in progressive rock history: In Held Twas In I, from their second album Shine On Brightly released in December 1968, is an almost side-long multi-part suite that some might consider to be the first prog track. Procol are obviously most famous for A Whiter Shade of Pale, the most played song on UK radio, a track that was released before but didn’t appear on their first (eponymous) album. The most striking thing about this single which came out before the album, is Matthew Fisher’s organ figure, a loose approximation of Bach’s Air on a G String and there’s nothing like it on the entire debut LP. Fisher, from South Croydon, had spent two terms at the Guildhall School of Music but had decided musical studies didn’t suit him. However, I think the best tracks on Procol Harum are those which most feature Fisher: the excellent Conquistador; the instrumental Repent Walpurgis (which was written by Fisher but does include some nice guitar); and She Wandered Through the Garden Fence, where the organ is gospel-jazz. Not even the classical motifs can hide the blues that dominate the rest of the album; the lyrics are almost all throwaway despite the strong vocal performance from Brooker but the playing is always solid. With the possible exception of Conquistador, none of this is prog, or even proto-prog territory. The more psychedelic songs sound a little bit like the shorter Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack offerings from The Nice but compared to Piper-era Floyd, there’s no sonic exploration and even Syd Barrett’s lyrical whimsy, set within the context of the dawn of psychedelia, comes across as something new and different. Perhaps this is because the Floyd were less established as musicians; intending to become a song writer, Brooker had originally ended his playing career (with The Paramounts) in 1966 when Pink Floyd were only just settling on a steady line-up and managing to get paid bookings. Both bands played to their strengths: Procol were a very British R&B group and Pink Floyd were plotting their course towards space rock.

Much of Procol’s second could have been written for their first album. The exception is the near 17 minute masterpiece In Held Twas In I which, though it wasn’t the first side-length track (Ars Longa Vita Brevis had been released a couple of months beforehand), it incorporated a broader sonic palette, utilising sitar and harpsichord, absorbing musical and theological influences from the East. It was both thought-provoking and fun and one of my student day party pieces was to recount the opening section Glimpses of Nirvana: “Well, my son. Life is like a beanstalk. Isn’t it?” The piece was a composite; shorter songs very neatly segued together to produce the full track but it is, nevertheless, a pretty successful and fulfilling piece of music. Matthew Fisher was again invited to provide material and he also sings on the section that he penned, In the Autumn of my Madness, which has a very memorable melody.

I first heard this song on Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, owned by one of Tony’s friends; with a much revised line-up and released in 1972, it coincided with my discovery of progressive rock. I bought the live album from Our Price in Lewisham in 1980 because apart from the epic In Held, it also has a really good version of Conquistador. This and a copy of Exotic Birds and Fruit that I picked up very cheap somewhere in the first few years after my arrival in London were my only Procol Harum albums for a very long time. I subsequently gave my copy of Exotic Birds away to a local charity shop having only played it a couple of times in twenty odd years and deciding I didn’t really like it. I had heard Something Magic (1977) on more than one occasion, an album owned by Infield Park Gang associate Mark Baker which, though not brilliant, wasn’t too bad mostly due to the side long track The Worm and the Tree. Those were the dog days of prog and the music on Something Magic reflected a lack of musical adventurousness. Exotic Birds and Fruit had been bought without a prior listen but at the time I figured that an album from 1974, from a band many consider to be a founding member of the progressive rock movement, would be ok. It wasn’t because they’d abandoned orchestrations and returned to more blues-based rock.

Meanwhile, Pink Floyd had gone from strength to strength, embraced long-form composition and recorded (a studio album) with an orchestra and choir (Atom Heart Mother, 1970) and gone on to break records with the chart longevity of Dark Side of the Moon. The Floyd were outward looking, Procol Harum were inward looking.

In 2005, former organist Matthew Fisher launched a legal battle against pianist and vocalist Gary Brooker over the musical copyright of A Whiter Shade of Pale. His initial success recognising that he had written the organ introduction and counter melody and therefore deserved royalties was challenged by Brooker at appeal and it wasn’t until Fisher took the case to the Law Lords, where he argued that a win without royalty money was never going to be recognised as a win at all, that Fisher emerged victorious. Baroness Hale, one of the five Law Lords involved in the hearing said in her contribution to the rulings: "As one of those people who do remember the Sixties, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves."

Just because A Whiter Shade, Conquistador and In Held Twas In I were prime examples of the direction of travel of rock music in the late 60s, it doesn’t make them prog. A quick scan of articles by Pierre Perrone, the author of the Independent’s review, does not include much about progressive rock. More disturbingly, he had previously given the musical Rock of Ages a four star review. I assume his headline was referring to the recent release of The Endless River after a gap of 20 years but Perrone needs to do some better research if he's going to write about prog.


By ProgBlog, Nov 16 2014 01:32PM

I remember rushing out to buy a just-released album when I was a teenager, the heavily anticipated Wish You Were Here for example, bringing it home and listening to it two or three or four times in quick succession, sleeve in hands, poring over the images, credits and lyrics, assimilating the music. These initial listening sessions may have been using headphones to reduce the inconvenience of abstract sound on my parents or, if they were out in Kendal or Lancaster, inviting friends around to listen to it on our ‘best’ stereo.

I’ve just done this again, for the first time in many years, for an album that has been hyped as ‘the most anticipated album for 20 years.’ I had thought of pre-ordering a mid-range CD and Blu-Ray set of The Endless River from Burning Shed but a release date that coincided with Christmas-present buying and a couple of reviews, one in Prog magazine and one in The Guardian, dampened my initial enthusiasm for the project, despite an encouraging article in the same edition of Prog so I thought I’d add the album to my wish list and wait. It turns out I couldn’t wait and as I type this, I’m on my second listen, headphones on to avoid the inconvenience of abstract sound on my wife. My Sennheiser Anniversary HD414’s don’t appear to be able to cope with some of the frequencies present, creating an intermittent light buzz in the right channel – but they are over 20 years old; I’m using some Bose QC 15s for this second listen.

I’ve not acquired the album on vinyl, because the buying options available in Croydon’s recently reopened HMV were more limited than those available online. However, it is pleasing to go into a shop and pick up a physical product. I’ve pored over the information in the hardback digibook, which is a rather nice presentation for a CD. So what about the music? We’d been pre-warned that this was material from the Division Bell sessions and that it had passed through the hands of a number of producers in order to shape it into something coherent. I had been concerned about the critics’ insistence on pointing out the (short) length of the tracks but I believe you should ignore the individual tracks and seemingly arbitrary divisions into sides 1, 2, 3 and 4 and just take the music as one piece. Some people have called it ‘ambient’ but ‘instrumental’ would be a more apt description, with the exception of the final track Louder than Words; the tracks are seamlessly joined together using segments of early-Floyd sounding space-rock effects including a piece of metal sliding down the guitar strings, something I appreciate because it’s something I’ve borrowed from the Floyd for my own music (I use a tremolo arm) and, despite the self-depreciating track title On Noodle Street, it never comes across as pointless or self-indulgent. Early Floyd is in the ascendant during the first five tracks. After the opener, Things Left Unsaid, featuring the voices of the three members of the last incarnation of Pink Floyd that could have been taken from studio conversations for Live at Pompeii with Adrian Maben, beginning with Rick Wright saying “There’s certainly an unspoken understanding” followed by Gilmour, “There’s a lot of things unsaid”, comes what can only be described as a section inspired by Shine On You Crazy Diamond called It’s What We Do; over the keyboard wash you get the trumpet synthesizer sound and Gilmour adds languid guitar that transports you back to 1975, removing the black shrink wrap from your new purchase, trying not to rip the George Hardie ‘handshake’ graphic. Skins references Nick Mason’s contribution to the studio album of Ummagumma, The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party. Though there’s no Mellotron on Skins, the keyboard part hints at the experimentation of 1969. There aren’t just references to earlier material; a tape of Rick Wright playing the organ at the Royal Albert Hall during a sound check for a performance in 1969 (after which they were banned for using a smoke bomb, a professional hazard for rock acts at the RAH) forms the basis of Autumn ’68 and serves as a very fitting tribute to the keyboard player who died in September 2008. The title of the new track refers to Summer ’68, the Wright-penned track from side two of Atom Heart Mother.

The obvious unused material for The Division Bell, as opposed to warm-up jam sessions, includes the Stephen Hawking computer-voiced Hawkin’ Talkin’ but there is material that hints at Wall-era Floyd, what some fans regard as their best period and some may not have listened to anything before that. I think that these moments work well because they are reminiscent of the best instrumental sections of The Wall, untainted by Waters-penned lyrics. It’s quite neat that the only track with vocals, Louder Than Words, comes right at the end; it forms a conceptual bookend with Things Left Unsaid and Polly Samson’s words neatly summarise the tensions between the personalities in the Floyd but also remind us of some of their classic material, from Dark Side of the Moon to The Division Bell. This track, the longest on the album (if we’re going to count) could easily have been released in 1994.

Overall, the album fits neatly into the style of Pink Floyd from 1968 – 1977 with its long-form, multipart suite format that was integral to side long tracks Atom Heart Mother and Echoes and the 27 minute Shine On You Crazy Diamond, but also includes works such as the title track from A Saucerful of Secrets; the sound is both modern (and the Floyd have always utilised the most up-to-date studio equipment at their disposal, their production values much admired) and old school, with Farfisa and Hammond organs and Fender Rhodes electric piano. Gilmour’s guitar playing is mature but dips into his past innovative use of the instrument to produce sound effects for the transition between tracks; Mason’s drumming is the best he’s performed and there are no supplementary percussionists.

It’s What We Do, the second longest track on the album at 6’17” is probably my favourite subsection because of the overt 1975 musical quotation. The album, taken as a whole (as Dave Gilmour himself has suggested you do) is like a historical journey, not necessarily linear, of the entire Floyd output with a bias towards the earlier material and with the album title providing a nice link to The Division Bell (a lyric on High Hopes.)


This is Pink Floyd. This is classic Pink Floyd. This is probably the last of Pink Floyd.


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