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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, Aug 28 2019 09:11PM



20 years of Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory

It’s entirely coincidental that the cover of the latest Prog magazine (issue 101) should feature the cover artwork from 1999’s Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater when I finally decide to blog about prog metal. The idea for the blog has been floating around for nearly four months, prompted by an influx of requests to review albums that are covered by the prog metal umbrella. Metropolis pt.2 was integral to my thought process, having been suggested to me back in April that it was a prime example of the sub-genre where Dream Theater had reached the apex of their creativity and inspiration, with a great depth in the song writing, some 14 years after they had originally formed and with two different personnel from those in the original line-up, one of whom was Jordan Rudess on keyboards, recording an album with the band for the first time. Evidently, the advice I received was both pertinent and accurate, otherwise why would there still be sufficient interest in the album for Dream Theater tour it in its entirety on its 20th anniversary and why would Prog devote so many pages to it?


Heavy rock, heavy metal or prog?

Going back further in time, along with most other commentators of the period I made a distinction between heavy rock, Deep Purple, for example, and music created by the progressive groups of prog’s golden era, though King Crimson, rightly or wrongly lumped into the prog camp, were hurtling towards their first interregnum with the clever but undeniably heavy material that surfaced on Red (1974), a polished production that should be heard in the context of their live performances over the preceding year, later to surface on USA (1975) and even more fully documented on The Road to Red (2013).

The distinction between the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), a term coined when punk and new wave were fading by Sounds’ Geoff Barton in May 1979 and prog acts subjected to scrutiny in an ever-more commercial musical environment, was even more pronounced. However, NWOBHM inherited some of the do-it-yourself punk ethos that also featured in the make-up of nascent neo-prog bands, marking a convergence in thinking, if not in style.


Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal
Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal

The birth of prog metal

Around the same time as neo-prog was becoming established in the UK, a US prog metal scene was developing where the influences featured metal bands, including examples from NWOBHM, along with the well-established Rush. Fates Warning formed in 1982 and released their first album Night on Bröcken in 1984; Majesty, which became Dream Theater, was formed in 1985; Shadow Gallery (as Sorcerer) formed in 1985; Crimson Glory, following two changes of name, released their eponymously-titled debut album in 1986 and the follow-up, Transcendence (1988) is regarded as a prog metal classic.

Prog underwent resurgence during the mid-90s, catalysed by this assimilation of the progressive ethos into metal. Away from the US, the Scandinavians melded their take on metal with analogue retro-keyboard sounds, creating dark, sometimes stark prog that acted as a soundtrack for the folklore of Norway and Sweden. Anekdoten’s debut Vemod (1993) has been accurately described as sounding like King Crimson had they not disbanded in 1974. Although predominantly instrumental and heavy, with copious doom-laden Mellotron, the lyrics stand out as intelligent and call to mind Richard Palmer-James. The melancholy feel is enhanced by the addition of cello; at times the guitar is like the angular playing of Steve Howe on Fragile and the bass style owes a heavy debt to John Wetton. Did the success of Vemod’s release provide the impetus to reform King Crimson as a double trio conformation in 1994, with its nod to the Red-era? If so, Fripp and co. still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP but as far as the fan-base was concerned, they were ready for any new material. This incarnation of Crimson picked up from where the 70’s Crimson left off, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends, an alignment that continued with the subsequent studio releases The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and The Power to Believe (2003) which get progressively darker (though there always moments of optimism), heavier and technical. On balance, I’d call Thrak (1994) heavy prog but by the time they reached the third Crimson interregnum they were almost certainly prog metal, devoid of symphonic prog flourishes.


ProgBlog and prog metal

I’ve just been reminded that Steven Wilson, in an interview a few years ago, decried a lack of variation in metal and its limited musical vocabulary, suggesting that over-familiarity with the sound of was reducing its power. Wilson’s words appeared before I had ever been asked to review any prog metal but I still had a general feeling, one that might open me up to accusations of musical snobbery, that prog metal had a tendency towards being metal with progressive flourishes bolted on and that it was all a bit same-y. Up to the point two years ago when I was asked to review Radiant Memory (2017) by Process of Illumination, an instrumental band from Texas, the closest I’d got to sitting down and attentively listening to prog metal was either Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) or Sign of the Crow (2016) by the David Cross Band. The former, I’d suggest, contains more of the perceived prog metal tropes whereas there’s a ‘metal edge’ that runs deep in the latter. Cross’ heavy credentials date back to his tenure in King Crimson where he was fighting to be heard over band mates who were increasingly moving into proto-prog metal territory. I also own three studio albums by Peruvians Flor de Loto: Imperio de Cristal (2011); Volver a nacer (2012); and Nuevo Mesias (2014), and the self-titled debut from Il Bacio della Medusa (2004) – all of which can be described as hard-edged prog, which is why I bought them, but which display inspiration from metal. My favourite from this cohort by some distance is Sign of the Crow.

Radiant Memory took me by surprise, but the absence of vocals made it easier to review. I wouldn’t really class the album as straightforward prog metal and, to be fair to the band, they accurately state that their music is ‘an ambitious blend of progressive rock, instrumental music and metal.’ Their playing is of a high standard and there’s a lot of variation on the album thanks to a good guitar/keyboards balance. I was also wrong-footed by The Last Cell, the stage name of Jean-Marc Perc. Perc began playing the guitar at age nine, culminating in a Music degree from university in Vienna. He combines interesting-interval djent and tasteful shredding, all carried out with outstanding technical dexterity. The five-track EP Nautilus (2018) and 2019’s Continental Drift may contain archetypal examples of shredding and djent styles but he also adds delicate picked acoustic guitar – the music is highly melodic and he’s not averse to incorporate jazz-phrasing, demonstrating an innate musicality.

There is an obvious stylistic spectrum even within prog metal, so despite my disdain for Opeth, I have to admit that Heritage (2011) is growing on me. Part of what Wilson, who mixed the album, described as a trilogy (the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album from 2011 Grace for Drowning), Heritage was Opeth’s first full departure from the band’s metal roots and dispensed with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion. Its appeal lies in its variation. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano but the album references all the sounds of classic 70s prog, with Mellotron, rewarding organ and plenty of electric piano. There are tricky time signatures, knotty guitar riffs and sensitive playing amongst the crunchy power chords. Should the album’s category be changed from prog metal to prog? It doesn’t really matter, though Slither, a tribute to Ronnie James Dio who died during the time the record was being made, is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade.



Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'
Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'

Dream Theater define prog metal

So was Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory a ground-breaking moment for prog metal, and do I like it? For someone listening to the record for the first time, 20 years on from its release makes it difficult to ascribe how innovative it was. By 1999 ‘prog’ and ‘progressive rock’ had begun to attract less invective - Radiohead released OK Computer in 1997 and while everyone seemed to accept it was brilliant and pushed boundaries, the band themselves denied it but the public began to use the p-word and Radiohead in the same sentence. Metropolis pt.2 certainly doesn’t conform to my idea of metal and there are a number of aspects that have been borrowed from prog. The opening section with the hypnotherapist is pure Roger Waters and the album is replete with Floyd-like sound effects inter-track segues. If prog had remained a dirty word, it’s unlikely that the storyline, shifting between different events through time and marked out by lyrics denoted in different fonts, would have been so readily accepted. I’m not a great fan of LaBrie’s vocals which I find occasionally shaky and certainly no better than average which is a shame, because they are essential to the story-telling, and I do find the lyrics a little trite. On the other hand, it’s impossible to criticise the musicianship and there’s a sublime section that reminds me of Zappa’s Hot Rats. There’s a delightful ‘throw everything at it’ approach that conforms to prog stereotypes, meaning that if this was to be the gold-standard or the epitome of prog metal, I’d probably go along with it.


I believe it’s predominantly the links to metal that have allowed the prog genre to thrive and though there are obviously other musical forms that continue to impact and shape progressive music, the blurring of distinction between aspects of prog and metal, whether or not originality has been compromised, has facilitated the integration of metal into the prog genre. For my part I recognise the importance of this association, and at the level of listener I can appreciate the technicality involved in the playing.

Even though I think there’s very little that’s inspiring in the prog metal world at the moment, reporting on prog metal is still important and as I’m still not entirely convinced by the genre and still a novice, ProgBlog now has a dedicated specialist, Stefano Amadei, to write about developments in the world of prog metal






By ProgBlog, Aug 21 2016 08:07PM

When I arrived at The Lexington for the David Cross Band gig the week before last, I stopped at the merchandise stand and along with the excellent English Sun (2009) by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, I also procured Re-Collage, a live album by Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Donà Quintet, progressivo Italiano being my thing and Le Orme’s Collage (1971) being regarded as the first true progressive rock album to be released in Italy. I put the two CDs in my jacket pocket and went off to the bar before the second performance of the evening, Davids Cross and Jackson with a challenging but fun set, It wasn’t until I got home to view my two purchases that I realised the CD was missing from the Re-Collage sleeve. My email to David C was passed on to David J who apologised, gave a plausible explanation and put a disc in the post for me.



The baroque-prog of the original album has been replaced by a much more jazz-inflected feel, imbued by Pagliuca’s fellow Venetian Donà, a jazz trumpeter (and philosopher) and the other members of the quintet. The sound on this recording is incredibly clear, taken from gigs in the north east of Italy in March 2004 and, without knowing how much rehearsing took place, remarkably tight. Apart from the Collage material, the ensemble tackles Theme One and We Go Now from the VdGG back catalogue and Frank Zappa’s G-Spot Tornado. The result is an enjoyable, different take on some classic Italian prog. It is also further demonstration of the prestige in which Van der Graaf Generator were held in Italy; Peter Hammill provided English lyrics for a Charisma (UK) release of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona and Jackson would go on to play with Osanna, one of the other greats of progressivo Italiano who incorporated Theme One into their live set.

I obviously make an effort to see the bands I follow in a live setting and am willing to go to some lengths to do so. The David Cross Band gig was close to my workplace though a combination of a (justified) strike by rail workers and unannounced engineering work (I have not heard any justification for this, which I suspect may have been a political move by track operator Railtrack to erode sympathy for the rail transport unions) meant that getting home was slightly more problematic than expected. Sometimes getting across London takes more time than (for instance) getting down to a gig in Brighton.

One issue that raises itself at concerts is the use of cameras or camera phones. I’m as guilty as anyone for transgression but I remain conflicted, willing to adhere to any request from the performers not to take pictures, restricting myself to photography of an empty set before the performance and the bow at the end of the show. We should all be there for the music and the experience and should not be concentrating on a small screen held between our faces and the group performing onstage but the importance of social media for promoting a musician’s activity, coupled with an insatiable human desire to share our experience, shifts any ambivalence towards amateur concert photography in the direction of being a necessary evil. Other than at the request of the group (think King Crimson: Keep your phones in your pocket. Have fun. Enjoy the moment. “Please come and *be* with the band and not with your smart phone and other weapons of mass distraction”) I do take photographs, though not incessantly. I’m not sure why my camera was taken away from me at a Yes gig a long, long time ago when equipment for bootlegging would surely have been a more important target. The smart phone is theoretically an easy medium to use for recording a show, along with the uncontrollable volume of crowd sounds but I’d really rather wait for the band, who frequently make their own, high quality, balanced recordings, to officially release the performance. Some venues have a ban on both audio and photographic recording equipment and this is fairly strictly though not necessarily efficiently policed by staff (the Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican, the Fairfield Halls, for instance.) David Cross joked about audience photos before his concert (he welcomed them, in contrast with his erstwhile band mate) and Jon Anderson has also asked people taking photos to share them on social media; for smaller or independent acts it’s free publicity. It’s only polite to listen to the requests of those you’re going to see and hear but with progressive rock, you’re more likely to be required to concentrate on who is doing what. Why would you want to disturb those around you with the glow from your LED screen as you try to focus on the band instead of just watching and listening? Unfortunately, sometimes my memory needs a jog but I do feel pangs of guilt.

I’ve been at a number of concerts from which there’s been an associated official release and, whether I’m one of 1500 or one of 10000 people in the crowd, I feel a stronger bond between myself and the music. What makes a great live album? Of my favourites, there may be only one occasion I’ve attended the show where the release gets in my personal top 10 but this highlights the importance of the relationship between the performers and the audience. I think that recording quality is essential to get across the musical content though the material selected for the release has to be sufficiently representative of the band up to that time; on a few occasions I’ve bought a live album as an introduction to the recorded work of a group and this has encouraged me to become better acquainted with someone’s back catalogue.

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been happy with the sound quality, so when the tapes that made up the source material for that release were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be only slightly stricter than the content of the Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, presented in a sonically true manner.



Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs
Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs

Beating the bootleggers, maintaining an income stream and remaining relevant in a cut-throat industry was achieved by Robert Fripp by releasing archive material through official DGM releases and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Road to Red and Starless box sets and the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 and it became something of a treasured possession even after the appearance of the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition on CD. I used to blast this out of my room at university, posing with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM.

Actually, it’s pointless attempting to list my favourite live recordings in any sort of merit-based order. Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album; Playing the Fool (1977) is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette; Camel’s A Live Record (1978) has the sumptuous RAH Snow Goose performance plus a collection of some of their most memorable back catalogue up to that time, and the 2002 remastered and expanded CD was an even better potted history of the band; Genesis Live (1973) was my introduction to the band and I still think it’s the best collection of their early material in a live setting even though it’s only a single LP, because of the presence of Peter Gabriel.

I could go on but I’ll just mention one last release recorded with me in the audience (and possibly featuring, albeit too small to make out, on the sleeve.) Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... I can tell him: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. Great gig, great live recording of the gig.

Photographs taken at a performance and recordings of live shows allow you, in your own time, to revisit some great moments, frozen (these days, digitally) in time. As real-time memory fades, these aides-memoire can transport us to a time when prog ruled the earth.






By ProgBlog, Sep 25 2014 07:12PM

I’ve just had a birthday and was fortunate to receive a remarkable number of prog-related presents in the form of CDs, DVD and Books.

Andy Latimer announced at Camel’s Barbican show last year that it was being filmed for release and I’m now the proud owner of that DVD, In from the Cold. The ‘big’ present was The Road to Red, which is a really well-packaged box set – I haven’t had time to listen to any of it yet. Also new to my collection were Product by Brand X, an album I’d only possessed as a home-recorded tape before, which as some really good material but also has two weak, very Phil Collins solo album-like tracks that detract from some amazing playing; a 40th anniversary Darwin! by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso that contains a CD of the album performed live in 2012; the Oliver Wakeman solo album The Three Ages of Magick featuring Steve Howe which shows the virtuoso keyboard playing has been inherited from his father to such a degree that the synth solos are indistinguishable from those performed by Wakeman senior. This has a sonic connection to his father’s New Age output and another genetic trait seems to be an inability to fully realise some of the very good musical ideas, such that some tracks come across as a little aimless. This is a criticism that has been levelled at dad Rick, too, but I think it’s partly to do with band dynamics, the what you bring to a song to make the whole better than the individual parts; Three Ages is a solo effort, not music by committee. I also got Alt, Van der Graaf Generator’s experimental offering from 2012, a vocal-less set of edits and out takes that sort of calls to mind the somewhat maligned disc 2 of Present, but I can quite imagine this being classed as jazz. I also got some classic progressivo Italiano, Searching for a Land by the New Trolls, nicely repackaged by BTF, and a more recent offering from La Torre dell’ Alchimista, their second album Neo (2007) that is true to the spirit of RPI and 70s prog in general, with lengthy multi-part songs and plenty of classic analogue instrumentation. I also got the eponymous Let Spin CD, a showcase for the both the writing and playing of the four members. This is quality modern jazz played at a high tempo with a hefty dose of improvisation. This comes in a three panel cardboard gatefold sleeve with artwork by bassist Ruth Goller. If I have a choice, I like to buy CDs with mini album sleeves rather than the universal jewel case. I also like CD books, whether they conform to similar dimensions to a jewel case (Focus X; Journey to the Centre of the Earth) or if they are more book-like (my two new BMS acquisitions; Mainstream by Quiet Sun). Whatever the format, they don’t fit in my CD storage! In the week following my birthday I received the latest CD from Bill Burford’s band, the east Cumbrian-based Water’s Edge, entitled Silent Applause. This isn’t prog but Bill, the drummer in the first band I was in, has carved a niche as an intelligent adult rock musician and Water’s Edge feature a fair proportion of poignant social commentary.

I also got some prog-related books including a signed copy of Michael Rutherford’s The Living Years. I’ve always felt that Rutherford, despite his post-Hackett Genesis lead guitar playing when Genesis had become a soft-rock band, was very much a background figure. I’ve deliberately set out to listen out for his bass parts and concluded that there’s nothing flashy about his playing; it does what it has to do and it fits in well with what the other band members are doing, whether it’s short runs or his staccato style. He’s solid but not inspiring. His writing style is rather similar and the book comes across as a kind of print version of a family tree TV programme such as BBC TV’s Who Do You Think You Are?. He did once get a speeding ticket in Texas... Actually, his 12-string work with both Genesis and with original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips forms a very fitting part of the structure, in the context of the early, pastoral songs.

I didn’t own any books specifically about ELP until I received Emerson, Lake & Palmer: The Show That Never Ends by George Forrester, Martyn Hanson and Frank Askew for my birthday. I read Keith Emerson’s Pictures of an Exhibitionist and then I gave it away; I’ve got Martyn Hanson’s Hang on to a Dream: The Story of the Nice, so I’m not expecting any great revelations but I am looking forward to getting into that... I think that I’ve got a copy of the forthcoming biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time by Marcus O’Dair, when it comes out at the end of October. I’m fascinated by Wyatt’s music and politics and, though he now appears to have attained the status of ‘national treasure’, I think that his opinions on the industry, life and music in general are totally relevant and valid.

One more new book that has just been added to my collection is Jerry Lucky’s 20th Century Rock and Roll: Progressive Rock. Apparently, and I’m sure my wife won’t mind me revealing this, the book has been spotted for £275 on Amazon but she got it, off the shelf, for £10. The seller suggested that the cover might be marked with some indentations but it really is in very good condition. I’ve used two of Lucky’s guides to progressive rock and, for the most part, they’ve been reliable indications of the quality of the music; they’ve certainly been helpful when I’ve gone off to Spain, France, Australia and even Italy to help me seek out indigenous prog.

This offering is an alphabetical list of the top 50 most influential prog bands. It expands on his history of each band in the Files and Handbook and provides his reasons why the bands are influential. Everyone is going to have their own personal preference so I’m not too worried that his choice doesn’t exactly coincide with mine – that’s one of the great things about fans of progressive rock. But I’m not sure that the text can have been proof-read because the grammar is very poor and, more worryingly, is the absence of checking of facts. Who let him publish a history of the Floyd with repeated reference to Dave Gilmore?

Pink Floyd obviously have a place in the top 50 most influential prog bands because their early material and studio mastery inspired many other bands. Gilmour’s guitar is very distinctive and they’ve made history with album chart longevity, so why the schoolboy error? That’s a hard question to answer, especially as Lucky began hosting a prog radio show, Exposure, over 35 years ago and is a renowned collector of progressive and psychedelic music. There’s a passing reference to Marc Bolen and his history of PFM, Van der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant are spoiled by what I’d regard as terrible mistakes. Apparently, John Weathers took up drumming duties for Gentle Giant in 1976 for the Interview album... What does that say about the mini-biographies of the bands I don’t know very well?

I frequently flick through his Progressive Rock Handbook (which is more up-to-date than his Files) and I’ve noticed that he sometimes refers to other people’s impression of bands. There’s no shame in that as it would be almost impossible to have examples of music from all the bands he lists; it’s just good research and I’m thankful for him suggesting that RPI band Celeste would appeal to people who like Finisterre. This has opened up a whole world of Fabio Zuffanti projects for me to seek out and enjoy.


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