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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 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!



By ProgBlog, Jan 18 2015 09:57PM

During my school-age years, as a student in London and in the first couple of years at work following graduation, it wasn’t often that I’d buy more than one album in a day, or even a month. This was just as much to do with the availability of suitable material to buy as it was a shortage of money. There was a small amount of back catalogue that I could pick up, things I’d listened to at friends’ houses that I knew I liked that weren’t necessarily considered essential and, particularly in the late 70s and early 80s, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of new material coming through. From a personal point of view, my inability to commit to a purchase after hearing only track from a candidate album on the radio, what I would consider to be speculation, was out of the question. I’d already been scarred by gambling; when Alan Freeman played March to the Eternal City from Spartacus by Triumvirat on his Saturday radio show and based on one listening of that one track, I went out and bought the album. Musically, the whole record is pretty good, which is hardly surprising from a band frequently referred to as a ‘German ELP’, but lyrically, and there weren’t many words on March to the Eternal City, it’s rather poor. I felt a little let down.

The time between buying albums allowed us to give a newly acquired disc multiple listenings, absorbing the music and lyrical content in what could be considered a ritualised manner: the playback session with friends followed by our amateur attempts at critique; or the solo listening with headphones, frequently with all the lights turned out.

My music-buying habits have changed and I now bulk buy if there’s an opportunity to do so, such as visiting a record store when I’m on holiday. My listening habits have also changed as my domestic duties eat into personal time and an accident, many years ago, rendered the bi-folding doors that separate our living room from our dining room (where the hi-fi is situated) inoperative and useless.

A couple of CDs arrived from BTF in Italy last week: Per... un mondo di cristallo (For... a crystal world), the only album by Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno (from 1972) and Il mondo che era mio (The world that was mine) Live in Studio 2014 by Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band. Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno (Registered Return Receipt), or RRR as they became known, have a jazzy-blues feel and are predominantly acoustic; their influences include early Jethro Tull and Trespass-era Genesis and the vocals, by guitarist Luciano Regoli, are reminiscent of Il Balletto di Bronzo’s Gianni Leone. The album is based on a story by Marina Comin (who provided the lyrics) about the feelings of an astronaut who returns to Earth find a ruined planet, depicted on the inner gatefold. It’s not fully-formed RPI but it is quite enjoyable and the BTF reissue, in a cardboard gatefold CD sleeve, is a nice, faithful recreation of the original LP packaging.

For various reasons, the Z Band were unable to record themselves live and to capture the essence of the group performing, before the departure of guitarist Matteo Nahum, the band recorded a set in the studio, live but without an audience. I thoroughly enjoyed the Z Band set at Soignies last year despite not being familiar with any of the material and I thought that getting the album would be a great reminder of that day. During the question and answer session following their slot, Fabio Zuffanti was asked about the projects he was involved in, describing Höstsonaten as producing music along the lines of The Enid. They played one Höstsonaten track, Rainsuite from Winterthrough which I managed to find in Firenze last summer and, after listening to both Höstsonaten studio album and the Z Band live in the studio, I can see what he means; there’s a broad symphonic feel to Höstsonaten, long-form compositions that may be sub-divided into separate songs or ‘movements’. The Enid, despite producing albums that appeared late in the timeline for classic symphonic prog, and afterwards, when they were able to ride the shockwaves of punk with their ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude that resonated with the punks, produced symphonic suites using rock instrumentation plus the odd non-rock instrument such as trumpet and tuba, heavily influenced by romantic composers Chopin, Rachmaninov, Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

Bands that fall into the category of ‘symphonic prog’ are readily recognisable by followers of the genre; the majority of the original prog bands could be classed as ‘symphonic’ though there was considerable stylistic difference between, for example, Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, or Camel and Barclay James Harvest and though In the Court of the Crimson King is an example of the sub-genre, Crimson deviated from the idiom early in their career. This being prog, it goes without saying that the sub-genre is in fact a continuous spectrum of styles; Camel released Snow Goose and then took steps in the direction of jazz rock with Moonmadness and Rain Dances before going Canterbury with Breathless. Even Yes went from what might be considered the ultimate symphonic album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, to the jazz rock of Relayer. I think that the input of Patrick Moraz is very evident on Relayer, though he’d just come from Refugee, another band firmly rooted in the symphonic tradition. Refugee’s only studio album is a classic of the genre and, in my opinion, can be used as an example of material that conforms to more strict definition of symphonic prog. I don’t believe there are many who would disagree with the classification of the Moody Blues as symphonic prog but I’m not so certain. Days of Future Passed evidently contains some elements of prog but the song writing lacks complexity and remains predominantly blues-based and, though they’re competent musicians, there’s no indication of the band stretching out or any sign of individual virtuosity. I’d class this as proto-prog and their subsequent material, which continues in a similar vein with the Mellotron taking on the role of the orchestra, closer to straightforward rock.

Perhaps the use of a Mellotron contributes to the ‘symphonic’ tag but, thinking about King Crimson and their continued use of Mellotrons as they moved into heavy, improvised music, it may be more the way a band deployed the instrument rather than just its presence. According to Planet Mellotron, the Enid hired a Mellotron for In the Region of the Summer Stars, which appears on the final two tracks, The Last Judgment and the title track In the Region of the Summer Stars, its use restricted to supplying choir backing. I’ve always thought of the Enid as using a string synthesizer approach.

To qualify as being ‘symphonic’ a band has really to demonstrate an influence from European classical music and, perhaps more than that, produce long-form compositions with strong melodic themes and linked variations and reprise utilising a broad sonic palette, even venturing outside of the common rock instrumentation; that’s the link I detect between Höstsonaten and the Enid, a classification that might exclude some other long-standing exponents.

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