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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, Feb 7 2016 11:30PM

Television is not my primary leisure medium. The broadening of choice in a post-analogue world has resulted in an overall decline in televisual standards. I am old enough to remember the early days of three terrestrial channels, when BBC Two was the first channel in Europe to regularly broadcast in colour; it appeared on air in April 1964 and colour transmissions began in July 1967. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s front room on a Saturday afternoon watching Trade Test Transmissions on her black and white rental TV, changing channels using a knob on the wall, intrigued by these short infomercials and being awestruck by the optimistic and futuristic pieces of programming, especially the film of the Evoluon science museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, with its soundtrack of electronica and jazz which somehow fitted with the images of this beautiful UFO-like piece of modernist architecture; I’m pretty sure this introduced me to Take Five by Dave Brubeck but I may be mistaken.

I first became aware of the commercialisation of sporting events when Kerry Packer founded World Series Cricket in 1977, in a move to secure broadcasting rights for Australian cricket. Ripples from this move have since spread far and wide. With parallels to prog, cricket is a long-form sport. As a youth my summer breaks were punctuated by periods in front of the TV to watch Test Matches, played over 5 days and unadulterated by wall-to-wall sponsorship (the 65-over-a-side Gillette Cup which became the Nat West Trophy in 1981 came across as being unsullied by corporate interference; this had changed by the time it had become the C&G Trophy in 2001.) It was the tactical approach to the game with its changing conditions that kept me enthralled. I was watching a lot of cricket at the same time that I was getting into progressive rock and reading Tolkien, Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin; another piece of the cultural landscape that helped form what I’ve become. The Infield Park Gang would play cricket, too, on a local playing field attached to a convent school and, despite being pretty bad at the sport I was drafted in to play 11th man for two Goldsmiths’ College first XI matches which were held in the grounds of Loring Hall, my hall of residence at university.

It seems crazy to me that betting firms should be allowed to sponsor sports and I fully agree with Andy Murray’s recent outburst against sponsorship of tennis by betting companies, just when allegations of match fixing were flying around. I find it outrageous that the deregulation of the gambling industry has created a huge increase in the number of betting shops in poor and deprived areas of the country and that commercial TV is permitted to bombard us with adverts for online gaming. I blame deregulation for both the downturn in quality of programming and the knock on effects of commercialisation of sport; competition in the service industries always ends up as a race to the bottom. The walk out by Liverpool fans at their game against Sunderland yesterday, angry at the £70 price tag on away tickets, was meant to highlight the separation of the beautiful game from the true fans but sadly it’s not going to influence football’s governing body, as corruption appears to run through the veins of world football (and world athletics.) I don’t blame the players for their often ridiculously excessive pay, the responsibility lies with the broadcasters. With ever greater choice of channels it’s become more and more difficult to find anything of quality to watch. If I do sit in front of the TV it’s more likely to be for a film on DVD/Blu-ray or a music DVD than a piece of scheduled programming, mostly because what is aired seems to involve some form of voyeurism or schadenfreude: wannabe celebrity non-entities after their five minutes of fame; former celebrities clinging on to their five minutes of fame; police dogs in helicopters with cameras filming surgery that’s gone wrong... what occupation hasn’t been covered?

My first music videos were Yessongs (from the 1975 film) and Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii (the 1974 version), both on VHS format. Yessongs was disappointing because the sound quality wasn’t very good and the synching of music and video was poor. I’d not managed to see the film when it played in UK cinemas so it’s hard to know if the cinematic experience was any better. I was given the Blu-ray version as a present a couple of Christmases ago but the curse of Yessongs struck again: the disc could not be recognised in my Blu-ray player and was returned to the shop, sans the Roger Dean postcards that featured in the revised packaging. Live at Pompeii, on the other hand, remains a firm favourite. I’d been to see the film when it toured the UK and I’ve also visited Pompeii on a couple of occasions where the silhouette of Vesuvius continues to dominate the atmosphere of the site. I always thought it a shame that Echoes was used to bookend the film but it doesn’t detract from the performance, in effect a swan song to the space rock material (which I really like), issuing in the prog of the Dark Side era. The Directors Cut version that I now own on DVD isn’t really any improvement, the space graphics have not aged as well as the music!


I think I first saw the film version of Emerson Lake and Palmer performing Pictures at an Exhibition on TV, a performance from the Lyceum in London in 1970 released in the cinema in 1973. I wasn’t aware that the soundtrack was different from the album (recorded at Newcastle City Hall) until I bought a double-sided CD/DVD in 2003 as it had been so long since I’d watched the film, but I think it remains an important documentary of early prog, attempting a reworking of a classical piece in a rock context.

White Rock, the film documentary of the Innsbruck 1976 Winter Olympics, was another cinema release, opening in 1977 and touring as a double bill with concert footage of Genesis playing live. I don’t remember too much about the Genesis portion of the programme, partly because I’ve never owned a copy of Seconds Out (1977), being far more interested in Rick Wakeman’s return to form with the soundtrack for White Rock. I bought the album shortly after its release, from Boots in Barrow, impressed by the interpretation of speed and grace over snow and ice. I’ve got a couple of other Wakeman videos: Out There (2004), described as a ‘concept DVD’ and a performance of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2009) at Hampton Court Palace on Blu-ray. Six Wives includes the original album plus three new tracks and, as it’s my favourite Wakeman solo album, I rate it quite highly. I was tempted to get a ticket for the gig but ended up at The Lumiere for Mellofest 2009 instead. The music on Out There isn’t bad and no doubt at the time the graphics were cutting edge, but when viewed ten years after it was released, some of them haven’t really stood the test of time. I saw Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble promote the album live in Croydon in April 2003, where a major technical hitch with the keyboards forced an early intermission.


Not surprisingly I have quite a range of Yes DVDs, from The Gates of QPR (1993, recorded 1975) to Songs from Tsongas (2005, recorded 2004) via Keys to Ascension (2000, recorded 1996), House of Yes (2000), Symphonic Live (2002, recorded 2001), Yesspeak (2003) and Live at Montreux (2008, recorded 2003). My other Floyd DVDs consist of documentaries about the making of Atom Heart Mother (2007), Dark Side of the Moon (2003) and Wish You Were Here (2005), plus The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story (2006), Roger Waters’ post-fall of the Berlin Wall The Wall Live in Berlin (2004, recorded 1990) and the 1982 Alan Parker film of The Wall, despite me not classifying it as prog; I was fortunate enough to see a preview of the film, filling in a questionnaire on the way out. I look upon critical reviews as being worthwhile. BBC4 produces some excellent music programmes but I was pleased to get hold of Inside King Crimson 1972 – 1975 (2005) to go with my Deja Vrooom (2009) and Neal and Jack and Me (2004).
Not surprisingly I have quite a range of Yes DVDs, from The Gates of QPR (1993, recorded 1975) to Songs from Tsongas (2005, recorded 2004) via Keys to Ascension (2000, recorded 1996), House of Yes (2000), Symphonic Live (2002, recorded 2001), Yesspeak (2003) and Live at Montreux (2008, recorded 2003). My other Floyd DVDs consist of documentaries about the making of Atom Heart Mother (2007), Dark Side of the Moon (2003) and Wish You Were Here (2005), plus The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story (2006), Roger Waters’ post-fall of the Berlin Wall The Wall Live in Berlin (2004, recorded 1990) and the 1982 Alan Parker film of The Wall, despite me not classifying it as prog; I was fortunate enough to see a preview of the film, filling in a questionnaire on the way out. I look upon critical reviews as being worthwhile. BBC4 produces some excellent music programmes but I was pleased to get hold of Inside King Crimson 1972 – 1975 (2005) to go with my Deja Vrooom (2009) and Neal and Jack and Me (2004).

We were made aware that the Camel concert at the Barbican in 2013 was being recorded for DVD release, In from the Cold (2014) which is a superb reminder of a brilliant gig; I also have the two live set collection Moondances (2007.) I have more melodic symphonic prog on DVD in the form of Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith (2013) a 3CD+2DVD package of one of the musical highlights of 2013. The second DVD contains behind the scenes footage and interviews with collaborators, a theme that continues on another recent acquisition, the documentary-like Steve Hackett The Man, The Music (2015.)





Another gig that I should have gone to but didn’t, but which I had to buy on DVD is the Classic Rock Legends Van der Graaf Generator live at Metropolis Studios (2011, recorded 2010) which sits alongside Inside Van der Graaf Generator (2005) and Godbluff Live 1975 (2003.) Earlier this weekend I indulged in some PFM (Live in Japan 2002) featuring four members of the classic line-up.

One good thing about television in the 70s were series like Rock Goes to College and Sight and Sound in Concert. The Bruford gig from Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) which I remember watching at the time, has become part of my DVD collection and though the camera direction is poor, it’s great to be able to see this footage again. There’s better camerawork on GG at the GG, (2006, filmed 1978, 1976 and 1974) which captures Gentle Giant at the tail end of their career. The earlier material is fantastic but Missing Piece tracks Two Weeks in Spain and Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It are relatively poor fare. There was a more recent programme which showed Sylvian and Fripp live in Japan in 1993, during the Road to Graceland tour – it would be terrific if that was released on DVD...







By ProgBlog, Oct 12 2014 06:04PM

Sometimes prog themes turn up in unusual places...

Many years ago I didn’t appreciate the Zoology classes drawing animal skeletons and stuffed or pickled specimens and I wasn’t keen on spending a two hour Geology practical lesson drawing rugosa, an extinct order of coral that were abundant in Middle Ordovician to Late Permian seas. I had wanted to do Biophysics at York but disappointing A-level results meant that I ended up doing Botany and Zoology, with Geology as a first year option (that I somehow managed to drag on into my final year) at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.

Though I would probably make a different choice of course and career if I could have my time over again, the landscape around Barrow extending up into the Lake District but also including a decent amount of coastline, instilled a love of the natural world and the natural sciences. Having been told by my headmaster at the age of 11 that I didn’t read enough, I embarked on a fifteen year literary binge that took in classics (Austin, Bronte, Dickens, Hardy); modern classics (Hesse, Kafka, Peake); fantasy (CS Lewis, Tolkien); SF (I distinctly remember the yellow jackets on hardbacks by Ursula Le Guin, published by Gollancz that I would borrow from the town library); and a burgeoning genre aimed at children, from Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners to Alan Garner’s Weirdstone books, a trilogy recently completed by the excellent Boneland (2012). Landscape and literature became important influences; the geology of Low Furness was moderately complex and was responsible for the industrial landscape superimposed over the natural. In my mind, I equated Tolkien’s The Shire to the contours of the former haematite workings around Furness, perpetually verdant by virtue of the prevailing moisture-laden westerly breezes from over the Irish Sea. Local ruins Furness Abbey, Piel Castle and Gleaston Castle imposed their history on the scenery but I was equally interested in landmarks that added to the mythical setting: Birkrigg Stone Circle. My interest in the cosmological was partly inspired by this environment; the artificial light from the town was effectively cut off by the drumlins that surrounded Furness Abbey and clear nights were ideal for stargazing. On more than one occasion a small group of us would access the playground of St Paul’s School at night, itself surrounded by tall trees that eliminated any extraneous sodium glow from the street lights, and lie there, staring up at comet showers. I link this behaviour with my love of progressive rock; the exploration of my environment, the thirst for the written word and the possibilities linked to space travel all fit in with grand prog themes.

That my school years were important in forming who I’ve become has only relatively recently become apparent. It was around the time when my son Daryl was completing his studies that I realised that my youth exploring Furness and the Botany, Zoology and Geology classes all fitted in with my understanding of the universe. I think that my undergraduate courses were badly taught and that’s why I didn’t really appreciate comparative biology.

This knowledge may have lain dormant but there was also a continuing accumulation of information as I attempted to show him things I’d learned, tried to answer his questions and also listened to what interested him.

The unusual place to discover a prog theme, a Rock Progressivo Italiano theme in fact, was on the beach at Lancing in West Sussex. At low tide one weekend, the family were taking some mild exercise on the beach and came across rocks perforated by even-sized holes. It’s hard to believe that this effect was not the result of some human derived mechanical activity, simply because of the regularity of the holes, but I recalled some ancient zoology and knew that the holes were produced by burrowing marine animals. I was reminded of this episode as I travelled home from work last Friday when I was playing Concerto delle Menti (Concerto of the Mind), the only album by Pholas Dactylus, a band from around Bergamo, released in 1973. The group was named after the marine mollusc Pholas dactylus which is found around the north Atlantic and Mediterranean shores and was once a revered source of food. This shellfish has a couple of interesting properties; it is luminescent (a property recorded by Pliny that probably accounts for its esteem) and it is also capable of boring into rock; the chalk of West Sussex can’t have presented too much of a problem because the creature is capable of boring into gneiss, a form of high grade metamorphic rock.

The album was based on an apocalyptic poem by their vocalist Paolo Carelli who narrates the story by spoken word, rather than singing and the lyrics laid out in the inner sleeve are preceded by an enigmatic sentence attributed to Paolo Marcello: “A tall column made of bricks... ...each brick a word... ...the meaning of which you can understand just by looking at the base or on top of it...”

The storyline borrows imagery from a variety of biblical sources, most notably Revelations, something that had previously been attempted by Aphrodite’s Child and Genesis, but this comes across as more frightening and psychotic and includes a very abrupt ending. The spoken passages are punctuated by extended musical interludes that vary between jazz, jazz rock, pastoral breaks and psychedelia, representing the build-up and release of musical tension. Carelli’s words and voice fit really well though some online reviewers find the narration irritating; personally, I like the poetic flow. The opening section sets the scene “You are going to take a tramway. In a while you’ll be on an old, battered tramway carriage, looking like you after a black, empty, paranoiac day...” which hints at possible inspiration through stimulants and certainly suggests that the tram journey is a bad trip. The album is really one piece, split into two parts by the restrictions imposed by the original vinyl format and unlike many RPI releases, which barely include over 30 minutes of music, this is a very lengthy production with part 1 lasting over 29 minutes and part 2 almost 24 minutes. When I first listened to it, I knew that I would need to listen to it again without distractions to really appreciate the startling originality and subtle nuances of the work. Despite a well-received live following the album had poor sales and critics were at best indifferent to the work. I think this unique piece of work ranks as one of the best hidden gems of the original RPI scene. Sadly, the group broke up following the album’s release.


By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 07:33PM

Towards the end of the golden era of prog, dinosaur bashing took a number of different forms. One of these was that progressive rock was rubbish because it was all about elves and wizards. The jibes were specific; mistakenly attributing the genre to a fantastic world inhabited by elves, goblins and associated fabulous beings. I’ll not deny that there are examples of songs that directly reference fantasy writing, but this was more a reflection of what was rapidly becoming mainstream popular culture at the time. The critics may have been highlighting what they perceived to be another example of the difference between the high culture of progressive rock, with its references to European classical music and ‘seriousness’, and the everyday grind of rock ‘n’ roll. Was this simple inverted snobbery, and when was any form of misogyny, an emerging ‘benefit’ of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, ever appropriate? Did critics conveniently forget Led Zeppelin’s much-praised Battle of Evermore and its Tolkien interpretation?

I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1972, coincidentally the year I got into prog, borrowing the classic three volume hardback set from Barrow library. Tolkien’s masterwork was more than simple story, it was a self-contained mythology and the appendices at the back of volume three were as important as the novel itself; the first (and, in my opinion, best) of a new literary genre. The bucolic idyll of Hobbiton and the Shire may have appealed to the Hippie movement as an example of being more in-tune with nature, so the popularity of the trilogy increased during the late 60s and early 70s. I bought my own copy, the single edition paperback with truncated appendix and cover artwork by in-vogue illustrator Pauline Baynes in 1973 or ’74 and read it once a year for the next 10 years or so. My copy even went on a school skiing expedition with friend Geoff Hinchley. I’d once been told by a headmaster that I didn’t read enough but I set about rectifying that in my early teens. Much of what I read was allied to fantasy, or science fiction, another so-called staple of the prog scene but I also started to read the classics. Barrow had a stationer/toy shop called Heaths that had an interesting book selection. Post-decimalisation, they retained a treasure trove of pre-decimalisation priced books, mainly Penguin modern classics in distinctive grey covers. There was at least one other independent bookseller, The Book Corner, that moved into the premises of the former local school uniform outfitters in Cavendish Street and this became a regular haunt.

I’ve gone through my collection of albums and there are very few Tolkien references. Does the band name Gentle Giant make them synonymous with Tolkien or even songs about ‘fairy-tale’ creatures? The answer is far more complex than simply quoting songs The Advent of Panurge and The Nativity of Pantagreul, creations of early 16th Century satirist François Rabelais, not Tolkien. The most obvious reference to Tolkien comes from Bo Hansson; his 1972 UK release of Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings brought him to the attention of a large number of prog fans. This had originally been a hit in Hansson’s native Sweden following its release on Silence Records in 1970 and it somehow came to the attention of Tony Stratton-Smith who released it in the UK on his Charisma label. This recording is quite far removed from the bombast associated with early 70s prog; it comes across as a rather reflective piece with few changes of tempo or volume and only at rare times does it suggest to me the grandeur of Middle Earth and the epic nature of the quest to destroy the One Ring. I first heard a track on a friend’s copy of Charisma Keyboards, what struck me as a rather short piece compared to other material on that compilation album, Flight to the Ford. Guy Wimble subsequently bought the album and though impressed with Hansson’s ability and the album cover artwork, I wasn’t too enamoured with the music because of the loose fit with the concept and paucity of dynamics. I only got my own copy (on vinyl) around 10 years ago; one of Susan’s friends and former work colleagues was performing surgery on her partner’s music collection. Thanks, Christine!

The second full homage to Tolkien’s work in my collection is Glass Hammer’s Journey of the Dunadan. This is criticised because it’s perceived as biting off more than Fred Schendel and Steve Babb could chew but, while to a large extent true, I don’t believe that should detract from some excellent musicianship and some strong ideas. The organ work throughout is quite Emerson- or Jobson-like and there is more than a hint of the grandeur of the story. I think it lets itself down when it comes to some of the interpretation. I don’t like the unnecessary The Way to her Heart, though I do like (the equally unnecessary) The Ballad of Balin Longbeard with hints of Gryphon or Gentle Giant. The narrative is aided by incidental background sounds, though there are many who don’t like this and find it irritating; its main fault is there is insufficient time to get the storyline across.

Galadriel, from Once Again by Barclay James Harvest, is one of the tracks that got me listening to BJH. I first heard this on Live, shortly before going to see them during the Time Honoured Ghosts tour in 1975, preparing me for what I was about to hear. It’s quite simple yet deceptively beautiful and I feel it sums up the character of Galadriel perfectly.

Andy Latimer’s mini-epic Procession/Nimrodel/The White Rider from Mirage is a very satisfying piece of music with what I consider to be an appropriate atmosphere, possibly due to the sonic palette employed and which depicts Gandalf pretty much as how I visualised him before the stunning Peter Jackson film trilogy, where all the main actors portray characters that are fully believable.

Bo Hansson has himself suggested that his 1972 release Magicians Hat (Ur Trollkarlens Hatt), is a kind of ‘what happened after the Grey Havens’ though here he references some other favourites of mine, Alan Garner’s Elidor and Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Steve Hackett has the song Narnia on his second solo album, but that was written by Tolkien’s friend CS Lewis. That’s about it for Lord of the Rings references in my record collection and there genuinely aren’t very many.

Of course there are fantasy themes that run through other albums. Who can forget the imagery of Peter Sinfield as he writes about fire witches? This is most definitely not Tolkien but it may help form the critical view that linked prog to fantasy. I suspect the critics were conveniently forgetting the whimsy of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd; Syd was praised by critics and the Barrett-less Floyd tended to be derided. Piper at the Gates of Dawn may have suggested Tolkien to some with its depiction of gnomes and suggestions of fairy stories but this seems to have been allowed if it was filed under the label ‘psychedelia’.


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