ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

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, Nov 29 2015 08:41PM

The scene: a dimly lit village hall around 7pm in a small rural town in Wiltshire. A group of middle aged men sit on chairs placed in a circle. After a period of silence I start to speak, stuttering, “Erm...my name’s, er 'John' and I like progressive rock music.” In a reassuring voice the bearded man with more than a slight paunch speaks reassuringly “Welcome 'John', it’s OK you are among friends. It is safe here.” That’s how it used to feel when you bared your soul and spoke the bitter truth about your musical interests. Records in gatefold sleeves with science fantasy artwork, intricate fiddly solos, weird time signatures, keyboard players with ten keyboards, drum kits so big they need their own articulated lorry, yep that’s what we prog fans like, but it wasn’t always that way for me.


So, my thanks to Baz for allowing me this guest slot on ProgBlog, and there’s another belated thanks due too. In 1979 we moved to Infield Park in Barrow, I was just 12 with two older brothers, and IP residents Baz and Bill Burford were away at Uni when we arrived, but in a couple of months they arrived back for summer. Now finding great music all by yourself can be pretty difficult and time consuming, so it’s very helpful when big brothers and their friends show you some of what’s out there and help fast track some of your learning.


That learning for me over those first 2 or 3 years included the delights of PFM, Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Nice, “Crimso”, Camel, Yes and Jethro Tull. In fact Baz and Bill bought me a Tull compilation album for my fourteenth birthday, and thus started a life long interest in the band. It probably came back to haunt them because by the time I was 16 or 17 I was a full on Tull bore, following the band on several dates on the same tour, having Tull pen friends and gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of the band which I just had to share with everyone. I can still be a bit of a Tull bore now but I’m more socially adept these days.


Postcard from Dave Pegg. Photo (c) Mike Chavez
Postcard from Dave Pegg. Photo (c) Mike Chavez

So I was given a great grounding, but as brothers and older friends completed studies and moved away exposure to new and undiscovered prog become less and less, and my interest in other music started to grow. Flirtations with The Stranglers, Ramones, The Smiths, Elvis Costello and R.E.M. took place, and they sat alongside my prog faves and jostled for attention.


In 1988 I left Barrow for the bright lights of Newcastle. I stayed there for the next eleven years and never again called Barrow my home. What Barrow lacked Newcastle had in spades – great music venues, record shops, pubs without gits, culture (!), a variety of wide minded people to meet, learn from and share things with. During my years in the Toon I bought an average of three albums a week, saw 80 – 100 gigs a year as a student, and expanded my musical horizons to places I never thought I’d go. I went on a proper musical journey and it was bloody brilliant.



Tull ticket September 1984. Photo (c) Mike Chavez
Tull ticket September 1984. Photo (c) Mike Chavez

Prog was forgotten, the old records mostly allowed to gather dust (although Floyd and Tull still got a regular airing). I found punk and blues, I then found Funk, Blue Note, Latin and Brazilian as my tastes veered towards black American music and great rhythms. James Brown, The Meters, Horace Silver, Art Blakey; Howlin’ Wolf; Gil Scott-Heron...they collectively elbowed out the polite English prog rockers. As my record collection grew and grew it was regularly taking twenty minutes to dig out the next album I wanted to play, so I decided to sort them out alphabetically - in two categories:- “black music” and “white music”. There’s only two sorts of music right?


Then one I day in the mid to late ‘90s I randomly pulled out Close to the Edge by Yes and put it on. I was propelled back ten years to the last time I’d played it, and it was like finding this thoroughly gripping music for the first time, but I knew every word! Perhaps this prog stuff was worthy of a re-look after all. Slowly prog reclaimed its place next to the rest of them, and that’s where it’s remained to this day – a treasured friend amongst other treasured friends.


So what to make of the musical journey? It’s been great, and it continues of course. The added joy of the musical journey compared with a ‘travelling’ journey, and I’ve done lots of those too, is that you don’t have to leave anything behind, you really can take it all with you. In fact I’ve got a 160GB iPod so I can actually take the majority of it with me wherever I go.


Now let it not be said that I have any musical ability whatsoever, I don’t. I can’t even clap in time for more than about four seconds, but as my musical experience has grown I’ve been able to better see the depth of all this music, to pick out the great bits, the subtle bits, the really clever bits, the bits where the simplicity is the key, and also the dross that should never be heard again. I’m proud to be a widely travelled musical snob, it’s taken a lot of time, effort and money to get there and I won’t be giving it up that easily I can tell you.


Nature always looks for the simplest and most efficient ways to do things, and it’s wonderful to hear something stunning in its brilliance, yet simplicity. John Lennon was the master of it lyrically, and I’d throw The Buzzcocks, Muddy Waters and Buddy Holly in there too (musically). But sometimes...sometimes you just need something a bit more than that, where the sheer intricacy and complexity of the music, and the level of skill needed for a group of people to work together in perfect understanding to navigate their way through it is what impresses and challenges us. That’s where yer Blue Note Jazz, yer String Quartets and yer Prog comes in!


So the journey has taken me full circle, to a degree, and I’m out of the prog closet. It’s a dear old friend again and not a dirty little secret, and now and again I even get to see some of it live - in recent years I’ve caught up with the likes of Tull, Yes, Focus and Roger Waters, as well as some non-prog too of course. And at this point in the musical journey, and with all that experience gathered, I can say there’s still only two sorts of music – but it’s good and bad, and it’s not always black and white.



In Nick Mason's garden, 2013. Photo (c) Mike Chavez
In Nick Mason's garden, 2013. Photo (c) Mike Chavez



By ProgBlog, Feb 8 2015 06:37PM

There’s a column in Prog magazine called Locus Focus, written by rock gazetteer David Roberts (author of Rock Atlas) which has the by-line “puts prog on the map”. The notion of highlighting a geographical location associated with some musical iconography appeals to me. I appreciate that a rock atlas is able to transcend the artificial boundaries of genre (think of The Smiths and Salford Lads Club or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at 23 Heddon Street, London W1) but the idea seems somehow related to prog for reasons possibly associated with my early academic path and an insatiable appetite for poring over maps.

Yes Tor is an obvious choice for a prog-related geolocation but there are some more obscure sites that equally fit the bill. I’m sure I remember a section in Roger Dean’s Views where he was describing the inspiration for the watery world depicted inside the gatefold of Close to the Edge that included a photo of a small mountain tarn. I seem to recall that he was describing this tarn as being on the top of a mountain ridge and, for whatever reason, I associated this with the picturesque and entirely unexpected tarns on Haystacks in the western Lake District fells; sadly, I’m no longer able to refer to my copy of Views, bought on its publication in 1975, because over the next few years I removed pages to adorn my bedroom walls.

The formation of these tarns, the so-called summit tarn, Innominate Tarn and Blackbeck Tarn is a feature of the Buttermere-Ennerdale watershed as it passes the rocky protuberance of Great Round How and is restricted to a narrow ridge, craggy and precipitous on the Buttermere side. Alfred Wainwright has drawn a picture of the summit tarn, which doesn’t have a name, in his Western Fells (book seven of his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells) that looks very much as I remember it from a long time ago; the problem of having made a career in London is that I don’t get to do very much Lakeland fell walking anymore. It’s rather paradoxical that the second highest of these natural water features goes under the name of Innominate Tarn and of the three, this is the most magical with an indented rocky shore and a line of tiny islets. If Haystacks didn’t inspire Dean’s Close to the Edge cover, it appears as though it may have informed the cover of Steve Howe’s first solo album Beginnings with the rocky ‘islands’ protruding from the water.

The first time I noticed the Locus Focus column one album immediately sprung to mind: Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. Hergest Ridge is an elongated hill running from Kington in Herefordshire to Gladestry in Powys in a roughly NE – SW orientation, traversing the border between England and Wales. The summit of the hill is on the English side and stands 426m above sea level, rising 158m above the surrounding landscape; the Offa’s Dyke long distance footpath runs along the ridge. Following the success of Tubular Bells, Oldfield retreated to The Beacon, his house on Bradnor Hill, near Kington. The area obviously inspired him; not only was his sophomore effort titled Hergest Ridge but his third album Ommadawn, recorded at The Beacon, is appended by the short song On Horseback and contains the lyric “If you feel a little glum / To Hergest Ridge you should come”.

My copy of Hergest Ridge dates from 1975 and was bought for me for some ridiculous price; either 75p or 99p by friend Bill Burford who had seen cheap copies in WH Smith in Blackpool or somewhere like that. By the mid-late 70s I’d kind of grown out of Tubular Bells and sold my copy to the sister of classmate Eamonn Quinn. I wasn’t a great fan of side two and, at the time, didn’t appreciate the value of keeping hold of vinyl or the importance and longevity of the piece. It’s strange that I kept my Hergest Ridge but I’m pleased that I did because when I listened to it recently I thought it was a lush, symphonic piece. I’ve still got my original Ommadawn and I invested in Tubular Bells and Tubular Bells II on CD. Based on a review by my brother Richard, I bought a cheap copy of Crises on CD when I was in Padova at the end of last year but I still think that Oldfield’s best album is Hergest Ridge, specifically the original mix; the 2010 edit is unbalanced to my ears as some of the sounds that contribute to the pastoral sweep are sullied by encroaching instruments brought out higher in the mix.

Whereas Tubular Bells owes a debt to the minimalists and Ommadawn, with its pipes and African drums, seems to have fully embraced world music influences, Hergest Ridge occupies more than just a place in the sonic continuum. In some respects it’s a ‘son of’ Tubular Bells and in some respects it preludes the Celtic vibe that is evident on its successor but the thematic development of Hergest Ridge is much more rewarding and continues over the two sides of the album; Tubular Bells is an album of two distinct parts, with side two coming across as a rather hurried composition and as a consequence is far less satisfying. Whole Earth band mate and composer David Bedford lent Oldfield a copy of Delius’ tone poem Brigg Fair before the recording of his first album and though Tubular Bells doesn’t really conform to the romantic symphonic style, Hergest Ridge comes much closer. Oldfield utilised the talents of Bedford to conduct a string section and choir and though it’s not evident how much Bedford was responsible for the orchestration, I can’t believe he didn’t have some influence and input. The album also features guest oboe players Lindsay Cooper and June Whiting plus trumpet from Ted Hobart. This extra instrumentation adds a distinct symphonic flavour that fits together far more seamlessly than the vertical arrangements of its predecessor and though no piece of romantic music lasts anywhere near 40 minutes, Hergest Ridge mimics the rhapsodic structure with pastoral themes, variation and development that characterise Sibelius and Vaughan Williams.

Perhaps as a result of Oldfield’s retreat from the public eye, some critics have suggested that Hergest Ridge encapsulates the mid 70s middle-class hippie vibe; the macrobiotic lifestyle, real ale and flowery names for the children, something cartoonist Posy Simmons loved to lampoon. I think that he’s crafted an album that demonstrates his care and passion for music; it may not be as groundbreaking as Tubular Bells but it’s been carefully assembled and perfectly reflects the majesty of wild, open countryside. Not bad for 75p!



fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time