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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Jan 16 2018 08:52PM

I’m just back from a couple of days skiing in Chamonix, what I hope will turn out to be a warm-up event to a full week somewhere else later in the year. The town itself is very pleasant and though I’ve skied in the area three times before, we’ve always been based a little higher up the valley in Argentière and whereas we’d previously driven down to the resort, this time we flew to Geneva and took a transfer from there. We’d drive through Chamonix at the beginning and end of holidays and to get to some of the ski areas, scattered from just south of the town up to Balme at the head of the valley; we’ve even stopped there to see a screening of the second of the Lord of the Rings films, The Two Towers in English. So for the first time since our inaugural trip in March 2000, I managed to get a feel for the place, somewhere I’d read about in climbing accounts by Don Whillans, Joe Brown and Dougal Haston when I was a youth and somewhere I felt I knew well enough to base one of my O Level English Language exam essays.


Chamonix
Chamonix

I’m pretty sure there has been a lot of change since I read mountaineering books in the mid-70s, a time when young rock climbers used to name routes after prog tracks: The Gates of Delirium grade E4 (6a), described by UK Climbing as ‘magnificent’, Relayer (another E4) and Close to the Edge E3 (5c) are all climbs on Raven Crag, Thirlmere, in the Lake District and there’s also a Gates of Delirium in Yosemite; Genesis are represented by Hairless Heart, a grade E5 (5c) slab climb on Froggatt Edge in Derbyshire first ascended, solo, by John Allen in 1975 but there are others. There’s a thread from 2012, now closed down, on the UK Climbing site which asked why “an unnaturally high proportion of route names reference Pink Floyd, other dubious prog rock, or Tolkien.” The one sensible answer suggested that prog coincided with an explosion of new routes, though I did like the response “What's wrong with Prog rock? Or J.R.R. Tolkien? Many people have been inspired by the writings of Tolkien and the music of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Yes etc. The fact is that both tend to ramble on a bit, but are ultimately rewarding in the end.” The erection of a new sports hall at my school included a short, under-used climbing wall and along with a couple of others I was allowed to climb during PE lessons. Access to Lake District routes in Coniston and Langdale was facilitated by Honda 550, with me sitting pillion and carrying the gear but I wasn’t nearly as good at climbing as I’d hoped. However, progressive rock and rock climbing seemed intrinsically linked as I flicked through Crags and High magazines listening to Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on the radio, ticking off another prog-inspired route name.



I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.
I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.

I didn’t expect to see any record shops in Val d’Isère but I did think there might have been one in Chamonix, with its population of around 9000, a little less than that of Auray where I bought my first Ange CD Le Cimetière des Arlequins (from 1973.) Unfortunately there weren’t any so apart from listening to Semiramis’ Frazz Live (2017) on my mp3 player, the only music I got to hear was piped from restaurants and on one occasion, a truly awful singer-guitarist at the Irish Coffee bar across the road from our hotel. I don’t have much winter- or snow related music in my collection; I own a copy of Rick Wakeman’s White Rock (1977), the soundtrack to the official film of the 1976 Innsbruck winter Olympics and regard it as a return to form after Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. My favourite track is Lax’x and my next favourite is the definitive prog track on the album, Ice Run but there are a number of snippets of music used in the film that form a sonic link between the different Olympic disciplines that don’t appear on album tracks, some of which are very Yes-sounding. The album’s instrumentation of keyboards, percussion and choral backing provides an effective, coherent narrative that works well for both audio and cinematic formats, linked by the melodic ‘searching for gold’ keyboard motif. I really like Wakeman’s full use of a range of keyboards and think it’s that which makes the album stand out from its immediate predecessors; there’s a much broader range of tonality, even though there’s no guitar or bass guitar.


Wakeman was an integral part of the band for Fragile (1971), as Yes came close to perfection. Roundabout, with its imagery of mountains that ‘come out of the sky’ from ‘in and around the lake’ could represent somewhere like the Lake District or the Swiss Alps but this doesn’t necessarily suggest winter, unlike the lyrics to the angular, driving and somewhat overlooked South Side of the Sky with its message that natural forces can be brutal. It’s ironic that White Rock was recorded in Wembley but when Wakeman rejoined Yes in late 1976, the band had decamped to Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland to record Going for the One (1977), where Wakeman subsequently recorded 1977’s Criminal Record.

ELP were another band who combined a tax-break with recording in Montreux for parts of Works Volume 1 (1977) and though Fanfare for the Common Man wouldn’t normally fit into a ‘winter’ category, the video for the truncated version released as a single which reached no.2 in the UK charts was filmed in the futuristic Montreal Olympic Stadium (where they were rehearsing for the Works tour in a basement car park) after Greg Lake emerged from rehearsals for a breath of fresh air and was immediately struck by the vision of the snow-covered arena.


Another apt piece of music that I own is Winterthrough (2005) by Höstsonaten, part of a season-themed set of luscious melodic symphonic Italian prog albums. The standout track is Rainsuite which also featured in Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band set list; it’s made up of a number of linked melodies which I think puts it in the Focus or Camel bracket. Camel had their own winter-related mini-epic Ice from I Can See Your House from Here (1979) which I hummed to myself on the skiing trip as we visited an ice cave carved into the Mer de Glace. Both the ice cave and the track have a stately beauty; witnessing Camel play the track live when they were promoting the album and the experience of being inside a glacier had a similar awe-inspiring effect on me.



The story of Fang in White Mountain, my second favourite Trespass (1970) track after The Knife, is an obvious snow-related story but is One for the Vine from Wind and Wuthering (1976), enough of a winter- or snow and ice themed song to count in my list? One of the songs being played at a restaurant where we stopped for a late morning chocolat chaud certainly doesn’t fit into the list but it did force me to reconsider my opinion of reggae. I’m obviously aware of the significance of Bob Marley who, after the demise of The Wailers in 1974 relocated to England and, with music infused with spirituality, became not only a multi-million selling artist and also came to symbolise Jamaican culture and identity, letting a ray of Caribbean sunshine into the world, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to reggae. What I heard that morning at Les Houches, played at decent volume through Bose speakers seemed like a long single track, divided into subsections rather like prog. A quick Shazam app search revealed that part of the song was Rastafari Leads the Way by Lutan Fyah and I suspect that the music was a Warrior Musick production Think Twice Riddim, featuring a host of different artists with an amazing, positive vibe; a rejection of violence and a call to rethink a way of life which chimed with the ethos of progressive rock. The sun was shining, the snow conditions were perfect and I was skiing some long and some challenging runs with my family, and a little bit of reggae made it even better.



Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches
Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches






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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