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, Apr 17 2016 11:22PM

Yesterday was Record Store Day, the ninth year that it’s been running, an event to advertise your local record store, wherever you live in the world. Some of the comments I’ve seen on social media suggest that there are a lot of vinyl fans who don't subscribe and though I’m very much in favour of Jo(e) Public getting off their backside and going out into the high street to support the local record store, the concept smacks of the promotion of non-events like Halloween, mother’s day and father’s day and in any case, you should be patronising all the local shops in your area and make at least weekly visits to the local vinyl emporium. Croydon used to have a good selection of stores selling vinyl but now there are only two in the town centre that I can think of: HMV with its limited range of popular albums; and 101 Records which has a wide, varied but chaotic selection of second hand LPs and singles. Addiscombe, the bit of Croydon where I live, used to have two or three stores with Woolworth and Addiscombe Music Centre selling new records and The Vinyl Resting Place selling second hand records, books and memorabilia. The global economic crash saw the end of Woolworth (it became a Sainsbury’s Local); the tiny Addiscombe Music Centre was pulled down when trams returned to Croydon just before the current millennium; and the Vinyl Resting Place closed down after a series of unforeseen climatological events and the knock-on effects of global terrorism coupled with the inexorable rise of eBay. The owner Barbara Day told the Croydon Guardian: "I think record stores can still come back, maybe not in our lifetime, but we are hoping that people will get bored of the internet and go back to these shops.” She might be please to hear that a new record store has opened up in Addiscombe, DnR Vinyl, that I’ve yet to step inside – it specialises in UK garage classics, grime, dubstep and bassline – so there’s little chance of me picking up the new Höstsonaten album Symphony #1 Cupid and Psyche from there but I still hope that they are successful and that their appearance indicates an upturn in the fortunes of the local economy. It’s good to see new stores opening up in Addiscombe; it makes a change from charity shops and bookmakers. Though I walked right past Fopp in Shaftesbury Avenue yesterday, I didn’t go in. I was thinking about the economy, or more specifically an alternative economy as I was taking part in The People’s Assembly March for Heath, Houses, Jobs and Education from University College Hospital in Gower Street to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell gave a short speech during which he outlined what an incoming Labour government would do regarding the NHS (no privatisation), housing (building council homes for fair rent, not for private sale), ensuring the survival of the UK steel industry by nationalisation, if necessary, and supporting overworked teachers. Quite rousing stuff! I also like the way he’s been listening to Yanis Varoufakis who has convinced McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn that remaining in the EU, bringing about the necessary changes from within, is better than Brexit. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of McDonnell but more so after he made some complimentary comments about a speech I gave at a rally in support of the NHS in 2012.


Back in Addiscombe, DnR is next to musical instrument shop Tuga Sounds, another recent addition to the local retail landscape. I popped into Tuga last year to enquire about a Washburn Taurus T14 bass because I’d seen they had a Washburn six string for sale and at the time I believed that I’d have more time to dedicate to music during my semi-retirement. I own a Hohner B2A, a headless, almost bodiless bass bought in 1987 when they were quite trendy but I saw reviews of the fantastic looking T14, T24 and T25 models and thought that adding to my guitar collection, rather than replacing the Hohner, was not an unreasonable thing to do. A lengthy discussion with the store owner made me doubt the wisdom of acquiring a 5 string bass, an instrument that is quite prevalent in progressive rock, because he said he always reached for his four string bass. I was thinking of going for the lighter (and cheaper T14) but I’m tempted to go for the T24...

Dedicating more time to playing, writing and recording music would have been justification to buy another bass and I have followed music long enough to have seen some of my guitar heroes collect and utilise a range of different guitars. The first player of multiple guitars I came across was Steve Howe with his collection displayed in the Fragile (1971) booklet. There are 14 guitars visible, plus a violin/viola, a banjo and something I can’t identify.


According to the man himself in an interview that appears in the current edition of Prog magazine, the collection is now of the order of 100 guitars. His use of different guitar styles, one of the defining features of Yes music, is reason enough to have this variety where he is able to choose the instrument most appropriate for the sound required in a particular piece. Brother Tony used to have a post-Bruford Yes poster that was displayed on our bedroom wall and Howe features with the guitar I most associate with his work, the Gibson ES 175 D, a feeling reinforced by the picture on the inner gatefold of The Yes Album (1971) where the instrument can also be seen and on the cover of his first solo album Beginnings (1975). It goes without saying that this doesn’t tell the whole story. On side two of Close to the Edge (1972) he also uses 12 string acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitar, bringing a full symphonic range to the guitar parts. I don’t know but it sounds to me as though his use of instruments on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) closely matches those used on Close to the Edge; Gates of Delirium from Relayer (1974) has a harsher sound and this is partly down to his use of a 1955 Fender Telecaster. I think that there are strong hints of jazz rock on that album so I’d also expect his ES 175 to feature, being more of a jazz instrument. We expect progressive rock keyboard players to use multiple instruments on one track but it’s more unusual to see a guitarist swap instruments. Howe’s live performances with Yes feature frequent changes within one song and he’s come up with some innovative ways to carry this off without dropping a note, most notably the guitar fixed to a stand that gets wheeled out for And You And I.


Using different effects pedals and studio multitracking allow different guitar parts to come through on record and listing all the equipment used by a band in the sleeve notes was integral to my appreciation for progressive rock. Howe doesn’t list the guitars used on Beginnings but does, by track, on The Steve Howe Album (1979.) Though some of the albums I own hint at a number of different guitars used, it seems that it’s only Howe who lists instruments by track, though Mike Oldfield does kind of list his guitars (and other instruments) though not by manufacturer or model, on Tubular Bells (1973) and Ommadawn (1975). This is in contrast to keyboard players who list their instruments in minutiae. Other players may have collections of instruments but I believe it’s Howe who best demonstrates the value of owning a number of guitars, for both studio work and live performance.








By ProgBlog, Jun 28 2015 10:12PM

A forty-year anniversary passed last month that I hadn’t realised until I watched my The Gates of QPR, Yes at Queens Park Rangers Stadium (volume 2) a couple of days ago – a concert recorded on the 10th May 1975 and featuring Patrick Moraz on keyboards even though there’s a picture of Rick Wakeman on the back sleeve. The set list for this DVD is really good and the sound quality is mostly good, too. It’s quite interesting to see Steve Howe using a double-neck 6 and 12 string Gibson for the opener, And You and I, whereas in the studio he used a 12 string acoustic guitar and I’m sure I’ve seen him play an acoustic instrument when I’ve seen Yes play live. There are a number of entirely reasonable practical reasons for using an electric guitar in this context which doesn’t really detract from the feel of the performance but I believe the original studio instrumentation is an important part of the make-up of symphonic progressive rock.

One of the core features of symphonic prog is the broad sonic palette utilised to produce sweeping musical visions incorporating a range of different moods. The listener’s interest is maintained by a number of devices including changes of tempo, changes of time signature, chord changes and changes in amplitude. This compositional complexity is what appeals to me because it makes the music less formulaic and more likely to capture my imagination, transcending the verse-chorus-verse-chorus of the boy-meets-girl pop song and allowing the musicians to relate long stories or explore philosophical issues. Different instruments or electronic patches, often outside the remit of mainstream popular music, don’t only add an exotic flavour but may represent a particular narrative thread; Camel’s Snow Goose uses this formula but Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, written for a children's theatre is the best example. Prokofiev invented the story and wrote the narration, constructing the music as a child's introduction to the orchestra, with each character represented by a different instrument or group of instruments: Peter by the strings, the bird by the flute, the duck by the oboe, the cat by the clarinet, the wolf by the horn section, and so on. It’s therefore hardly surprising that a number of prog luminaries, including Bill Bruford, Brian Eno and Robin Lumley, should collaborate on a rock version of the Prokofiev classic.

The main exponents of acoustic guitar passages include Yes, Genesis, Focus and PFM. I’ve not included Jethro Tull in this list because Ian Anderson’s guitar is primarily used as strummed or picked chordal blocks, intended as backing for electric guitar, keyboards, flute or a vocal melody line. I’m also not including the brilliant John McLaughlin because his playing falls within the jazz and jazz-rock contexts but, from the progressive world, Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, Jan Akkerman and Franco Mussida are all masters of their craft, allowed to display their virtuosity within a group context though their solo work often shows how different genres have influenced them. Steve Howe’s Beginnings (1975) and The Steve Howe Album (1979) feature a range of examples of the different styles that have been key to his development as a guitarist. Early Genesis featured up to three members strumming guitars and the arrival of Steve Hackett didn’t change this too drastically, though his playing over the top of 12 string guitar, like on The Return of the Giant Hogweed, (from Nursery Cryme, 1971) is far more confident than that of the undeniably talented Anthony Phillips. The first real clue to what inspired Hackett comes in the form of Horizons (from Foxtrot, 1972) and I had the good fortune to see him on his acoustic trio tour at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon in 2005 which featured most of the same set and was played by the same musicians, Hackett, his brother John (flute) and Roger King (keyboards) appearing on the box set Hungarian Horizons Live in Budapest (2002) and formed a sort of prelude to the classical covers of Tribute (2008). Jan Akkerman’s study of the lute made an important contribution to both Focus 3 (1972) and Hamburger Concerto (1974).

The rise of prog coincided with an interest in classical guitar pieces, notably concertos written by Joaquín Rodrigo and Heitor Villa-Lobos – I recall buying my sister Linda an LP of Rodrigo’s guitar concertos sometime in the mid-70s – and this fascination was cemented by the Stanley Myers piece Cavatina, played by John Williams, which defined the soundtrack of The Deer Hunter. John Williams had been involved in crossover projects in the past but along with long-term collaborators Herbie Flowers on bass and tuba and drummer Tristan Fry he formed Sky after recruiting fellow Australian guitarist Kevin Peek and former Curved Air man Francis Monkman on keyboards. I was never a fan of Sky who I considered to be prog-lite, appended to the genre by journalists and critics even as it faded. It may have been the insipid rendition of Toccata that featured on Top of the Pops in 1980 that confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for the project.

A good place to look for acoustic guitar-rich prog is Spain. As part of my preparations for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2010, I researched Spanish prog bands and record shops and, on arrival, set out to find music by Triana (regarded as the best of Spanish prog), Iceberg and Gotic. In the end I had to buy a download album by Gotic, the upbeat, instrumental Escenes (1978) which sounds like Greenslade with flute but I did manage to find two releases by Iceberg, the symphonic prog Tutankhamon (1975) and the jazz-rock Coses Nostres (1976) and the first three Triana albums El Patio (1975), Hijos del Agobio (1977) and Sombra y Luz (1979). El Patio (The Backyard) is quite accessible, setting out the Triana stall of traditional flamenco mixed with progressive rock and referencing an LSD trip. I find it interesting that almost the entire album was written by keyboard player Jesús de la Rosa rather than guitarist Eduardo Rodríguez Rodway; electric guitar and bass were provided by guest musicians. Spain was just emerging from the fascist dictatorship of General Franco when Triana were becoming established and Hijos del Agobio (Children of the Burden) is darker and more political than its forerunner but this style of music, blending flamenco and keyboard driven symphonic prog and initiated by Triana, has its own sub genre, Andalusian rock.

The trio of albums by Gordon Giltrap beginning with Visionary (1976) moved the artist away from his folk roots and, with the aid of an electric guitar and a good backing band, create some excellent prog that features a good mix of electric and acoustic-based songs. Perhaps Giltrap thought that the folk sphere limited his outlook, rather like the strictly classical guitar field when you compare it with the potential audience that listens to rock. There’s a rich vein of early, classical and romantic music that can be used as a basis for prog compositions which can challenge the player and listener alike. Symphonic prog successfully taps this repertoire providing variations in tone and volume and, possibly most importantly, a link to pastoralism.



By ProgBlog, Jun 14 2015 09:43PM

Two recent family trips, on the face of it quite different, to Milan and Brighton featured common ground: the search for record stores. Regular readers will know this is something of a ProgBlog obsession but planned breaks, of whatever length, require a balanced approach to cater for all the requirements of the members of the party. This means that apart from some shared interests such as architecture and exploring historic and cultural influences, I have to drag family around record shops and, on the flip side, have to suffer antique shops and flea markets and boutiques selling trinkets though flea markets do in fact offer the possibility of finding suitable recorded music, either CDs or, more frequently original vinyl.

From arriving in London with a single Boots vinyl-coated record box in October 1978 I began to accumulate what I considered to be a worthy collection of essential progressive rock.

Though I’ve never lost interest in my records, the ubiquitous nature of the CD format and its less demanding storage requirements meant that I undertook a massive format conversion beginning in the early 90s when prog bands began to resurface with new releases and record companies worked out that they could make easy money from new format re-issues. The last new releases I ever bought as LPs included Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, 90125 by Yes, Three of a Perfect Pair by King Crimson and probably last of all, A Momentary Lapse of Reason or Big Generator, none of which I would regard as classic prog apart from A Momentary Lapse; the 1981-84 incarnation of Crimson certainly wasn’t straightforward progressive rock. Peter Gabriel’s So was a leaving present from the NBTC in 1986. I did of course continue to buy second-hand vinyl during the genre’s lean years, when Croydon’s 101 Records was actually located at 101 George Street and picking up a somewhat battered Yessongs from a boot fair in Thornton Heath and a copy, even more battered, of Tempest’s eponymous first album from the Crystal Palace Antiques Market which is a warren-like flea market, just off Westow Hill. Much more recently I picked up a pristine copy of Anthony Phillip’s The Geese and the Ghost in a flea market in Lewes.

Stupidly, I also ditched some prized records as I replaced them with seductive bright, shiny compact discs. Out went Bedside Manners are Extra, In the Court of the Crimson King, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here plus some not-so-loved material like England by Amazing Blondel, itself picked up second hand from somewhere. The value wasn’t really in the music itself because I’d invested in other versions, ‘definitive’ or 20th or 30th anniversary editions with extensive additional sleeve notes but without surface noise, it was the (mostly) gatefold sleeve packaging that facilitated a comprehensive sonic and visual experience. The main beneficiary of this clear-out was Beanos of Croydon who I believed would give me a fair price for my well cared for offerings. I find it funny discovering dog-eared copies of In the Court selling for £40 in some of the shops I now frequent.

On reflection, the whole listening experience of CDs was far poorer than listening to a 12 inch piece of vinyl on a record deck: the care taken when removing the LP from the inner jacket; lowering the stylus onto the run-in grooves; sitting in an armchair with legs draped over one of the arms... This behaviour made up the soundtrack of my youth and I afforded it time and effort. When the CD format came along I was in a relationship and had full-time employment so I didn’t have the same amount of time to dedicate to the process of listening to music; on a sociological-political level those two times were also very different and I think the compact disc stands as a symbol of burgeoning consumerism, when time was wasted if it wasn’t being used to generate money.

Finding record stores in other countries, and Milan and Bergamo were no exception, is not always straightforward. Google will provide a list with addresses but the information is not always up-to-date and the restrictive internet provision of some UK mobile service providers means you can’t always use your phone to get you to the door. Last year in Pisa, one of the shops listed had changed its name and was primarily an urban stylist, with records found in a back room behind the main retail space with its shoes, shirts and trousers; in Bergamo a couple of weeks ago, the record store had moved within the previous month and, as it was almost closing time when I turned up at the old address, I had no time to locate the new premises. However, Rossetti records and books wasn’t too difficult to find and I managed to get hold of some obscure progressivo Italiano including the self-titled release by Dedalus (which strays into jazz-rock territory); the experimental Il Giorno Sottile by Fabio Zuffanti project Quadraphonic; and symphonic prog Il Bianco Regno Di Dooah by Consorzio Acqua Potabile. This last example was me sticking to the idea of buying releases by local musicians.

The Lanes in Brighton may be inhabited by local hipsters and tourists but that’s hardly surprising when you find out what’s on offer. In Shoreditch-by-sea the cafés and boutiques are right-on and trendy and full of very nice things to eat or to kit out your Kemptown renovation (Brighton Architectural Reclamation.) There’s an incredible incidence of musical instrument shops; I bought a second-hand vintage style Flange pedal from Brighton Guitars (44 Sydney Street) after trying it out with the help of singer-songwriter (and very helpful sales person) Jack Pout. We chatted a bit about prog (he quite admired Long Distance Runaround) and suggested I listen to the band If.

There are a number of flea markets (I picked up The Steve Howe Album and Imaginary Voyage by Jean-Luc Ponty for £5 each in the North Laine Antique and Flea Market, 5 Upper Gardner Street) and some epic second-hand record stores where I really could have spent more time. Across the Tracks (110 Gloucester Road) has a dedicated prog section and some records I’ve not seen for a long, long time but I just came away with Spyglass Guest by Greenslade. The labyrinthine Wax Factor (24 Trafalgar Street) also sells books and there’s even a diner-style café in a back room. The selection here is immense but its arrangement, though logical, means you have to surf through the mundane to find the gems. I picked up Steve Hillage’s L on CD and Six Pieces by The Enid on vinyl.

The Brighton trip was a semi-retirement day off. Though our house needs a lot of decorating and some renovation, retirement should provide the impetus and finances to get it sorted, to be followed by an upgrade of the hi-fi and, with a bit of luck, more time to listen to vinyl.



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