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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, May 11 2015 05:35PM

I’ve just returned from a long bank holiday weekend in my native Cumbria, staying with my brother Tony near Ulverston, a short drive away from the Lake District National Park. The Lakes scenery is stunning, produced over millions of years by a range of natural processes and more lately tinkered with by man.

Part of the itinerary was to be a trip to RAF Spadeadam near Brampton in the north east of the county. The idea was to visit the former Blue Streak missile test site and, as we’d be travelling through the appropriate area, include a rendezvous with old friend Bill Burford, drummer for Water’s Edge who resides in Melmerby, near Penrith.

Blue Streak was intended to be the UK’s intermediate range ballistic missile but the programme was shelved in 1960 and the base was used for development of a Europe-based satellite launcher, itself abandoned in 1972. At least one of the Pages has a professional interest in cold war architecture; Daryl’s Historic Conservation master’s degree thesis was on the preservation and use of cold war bunkers - I simply wanted to take photos of the site for my next musical project, tentatively titled Cold War. Unfortunately, the organisers didn’t confirm our proposed visit and with insufficient time to plan any serious fell walking we just visited parts of the Lake District I’d not been to in the past, examples of human influence on the landscape: Allan Bank, above Grasmere, a former home of William Wordsworth and National Trust founder Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley; the Langdale Boulders at Copt Howe with their Neolithic markings, the most intricate and impressive examples of rock art in Cumbria; and Cathedral Quarry in Great Langdale, an enormous void where the roof is held up by a single pillar in a disused slate quarry.

Roger Dean has written about his trip to the Lakes where he describes seeing a mountain-top tarn that served as inspiration for the inside sleeve of Close to the Edge. It’s not difficult to imagine Dean walking from Honister via Haystacks, where his mountain tarn can be found, over to Langdale, the centre of the Lake District, and visiting the spectacular Cathedral Quarry where a huge hole has been excavated for the attractive green slate (more correctly Borrowdale Tuff, a volcanic ash around 450 million years old, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a rock that forms one of the distinctive building materials of the region. I think that this edifice could have influenced the cover of Relayer or the cover of his book Views.


This landscape has inspired painters, novelists and Lakeland poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and De Quincy; landscape in general seems to have inspired nineteenth century Romantic composers too, who used long-form symphonic pieces to depict visual images of landmarks and landscapes such as concert overture The Hebrides (better known as Fingal’s Cave) and Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in A minor) by Felix Mendelssohn and, as Romantic music was one of the major influences on progressive rock, it seems rather odd that despite frequent allusion to geographical or topographical forms there are only a few examples of prog compositions about a named physical landscape.

Not that I’m a fan but Haken’s The Mountain seemed like a good place to start looking however It turns out that the title is merely metaphorical. The most obvious classic prog track inspired by an imaginary landscape is Firth of Fifth, the perennial Genesis favourite, which is fitting because of the Tony Banks piano work and the notion of prog as an updated form of Romantic music; even Steve Hackett’s soloing conforms to the idea of nineteenth-century symphonic poems, stretching the song with sublime guitar lines that appear to describe the contours of the river valley, rounded and flowing, not aggressive or jarring.

Another obvious reference to a geographical location, real this time, is Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. I’ve previously described how I think this is the best Oldfield album and how the compositional style has been influenced by Romantic composers; the execution aided by supplementary musicians playing instruments associated with classical orchestras. This links rather nicely to The Song of the White Horse by David Bedford, a piece originally commissioned for BBC TV’s Omnibus and aired in 1978. The idea of the programme was to show Bedford in the process of writing, rehearsing and recording the score as well as performing it and it showed him riding his motorcycle along the route of the Ridgeway to the White Horse at Uffington, his inspiration for the commission.

The White Horse dates from around the Bronze Age, created by carving trenches into the hillside which are filled with crushed chalk. Part of a wider ancient landscape which includes the Blowing Stone, a perforated sarsen stone used in Bedford’s composition, the horse can be seen from miles away, as though leaping across the head of a dramatic, dry valley. I find it interesting that the White Horse is mentioned in the medieval Welsh book, Llyfr Coch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest): "Near to the town of Abinton there is a mountain with a figure of a stallion upon it and it is white. Nothing grows upon it.” Oldfield released Hergest Ridge in 1974 and David Bedford began his commission in 1977.

Though trained as a classical composer, Bedford’s other works have included odd things like 100 kazoos and his charts have used pictures, rather than staves and notes. His rock credentials come via his work with Kevin Ayers, which is how he was introduced to Oldfield. On White Horse he was helped by Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge on a variety of keyboards, a small ensemble with brass and strings and the Queen’s College choir, a hand-picked female choir from Bedford’s place of work where helium was used to increase the pitch of Diana Coulson’s singing by around two octaves (speed of sound in air = 331 m/s; speed of sound in helium = 972 m/s). The roughly 25 minute composition incorporates GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse which celebrates King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Englefield in the 9th century. Overall I think it’s a very satisfying piece of music incorporating basic sequencing, novel chorale work, Romanticism and some disharmony. It surprised me to find out that college friend Charlie Donkin, who liked The Who, The Rolling Stones, Harry Chapin and Dire Straits, was also a fan of The Song of the White Horse, ending up with a copy of Star’s End or Instructions for Angels when we went to see if we could find a copy in one of London’s many record shops; Charlie also liked Bedside Manner are Extra.



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!



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