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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, Nov 22 2015 09:33PM

My daily commute now involves taking the London Overground (aka the Ginger Line) from Norwood Junction to Whitechapel. Whereas the journey to London Bridge for Guy’s Hospital involved a 19 minute walk, a five minute wait in a carefully worked-out spot so that I’d get a seat on the 08.05 on a journey that took a minimum of 18 minutes, I now have an 18 minute walk through more pleasant surroundings (Brickfields Meadow in Woodside) and a theoretical 4 minute wait for the train, standing as close as fellow travellers allow to the position of the last doors of coach four when the carriage pulls to a halt. This is important. The East London Line service, which opened in 2010, was designed for four coach trains, i.e. the platform length of the new, dedicated Overground stations was equivalent to the length of a four coach train. This wonderful piece of prescience must have been an attempt to save money but such were the demands on the service that they added an extra car to each train and the doors of the last coach don’t open at the stations between New Cross Gate and Dalston Junction; the exit steps at Whitechapel are at the end of the train. I think I’ve managed to bag a seat only twice on outward journeys in the two months that I’ve been working at the Royal London, such is the inadequate provision of seats on these trains; I embark at the second station on the route. The boast ‘5 car train’ at the front of each service is a twisted joke - I’ve seen toy trains that have been longer.

I read my Guardian until capacity is reached, normally by Sydenham, when I’m no longer able to turn the pages; this depends on how the entire service is running and though I check BBC travel before I set off to the station, the situation is liable to change drastically by the time I step into Norwood Junction for reasons that the service operator seem unable to divulge. The result is that the train can be overcrowded before it has left and in these situations the mp3 player is essential.

The journey is timetabled to take 33 minutes but rarely achieves this so theoretically I could listen to a full, short album but choose to stow the Walkman before I pull into Whitechapel to facilitate a rapid exit; I seriously think I have some form of claustrophobia. On Friday I was listening to Birds of Fire (1973) by the Mahavishnu Orchestra and it struck me that though this is hailed as one of the fusion greats it stylistically leans much more towards the side of rock. That incarnation of the band seems to possess a remarkable musical understanding though the recording demonstrates urgency and, surprisingly, a fairly raw sound that I’d not really noticed before. With compositions primarily riff-based, the sheer power and attack of McLaughlin’s electric guitar reminds me of Cream but it’s when at least two of the lead instruments are playing the same lines where this aggressiveness is most evident. From a jazz perspective, there are solo spots for guitar, Jerry Goodman’s violin and Jan Hammer’s keyboards, however I find the band most thrilling when the musicians play call and response lines at breakneck speed. McLaughlin may be credited as composer on all tracks on Birds of Fire (and The Inner Mounting Flame, 1971) but I’ve noticed that when played on my PC there are other credits, to young keyboard player Jean-Philippe Rykiel, who had shared the stage with Miles Davis, for the track Hope; and to trombonist/pianist Bob Brookmeyer for Open Country Joy, two tracks where the writing is sympathetic to Goodman. I’ve just looked at my LP, bought in 1975 and there’s no indication that anyone else had a hand in writing the tunes; my remastered CD is currently out of reach, boxed away waiting for the new CD racks to appear.


I don’t remember quite why I got into the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s possible that Tony heard either The Inner Mounting Flame or Birds of Fire on Derek Jewell’s radio show, but when I saw the Ashok Chris Poisson cover on the latter I was intrigued; the Miles Davis connection was a bonus because I quite liked our father’s Miles records. Bill Burford bought The Inner Mounting Flame and I got Birds of Fire which, until recently, I’d always preferred out of the two; the earlier album occasionally veered too much towards Country music for my taste. My favourite album is Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) which I also bought in 1975, because the three coherent long-form tracks make it the closest the band came to prog; I love the dynamics and the playing is of such a remarkable standard you’d never guess that internal tensions were about to bring a close to that particular chapter. Jan Hammer, possibly most famous in non-musical circles for Crockett’s Theme (from Miami Vice) or the recent Mars Bar advert where a dog plays the tune on pan pipes, gets a full song writing credit for Sister Andrea but it’s undeniably Mahavishnu material. The studio version of these pieces, released as The Lost Trident Sessions (1999) also includes tracks by Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird. It would be remiss of me not to mention the rhythm section; Laird was very solid and unflash and Billy Cobham was stunning throughout, an undeniably super-talented musician who inspired a generation of jazz rock drummers. The live performance was remarkably true to the tracks laid down on The Lost Trident Sessions.

By ProgBlog, May 19 2015 10:03PM

The presentation of an album used to be one of the factors I took into account when I was attempting to discover new music at a time when the 12 inch LP format offered the best possible option for displaying images; subsequent popular formats (cassette tape, CDs) didn’t provide such a good showcase for album art so the recent trend for releasing new music on vinyl is a positive step in returning artwork to the status it had in the 70s. My father was an Art teacher and would drag us around galleries whenever the chance arose; I seem to recall Abbot Hall in Kendal as being a popular destination. I guess his efforts to interest us in art were successful because I subjected my son Daryl to the same sort of treatment, despite me ending up as a scientist... Anyway, not knowing how the music industry actually worked, thinking that art direction was the responsibility of the group rather than the label, I hypothesised that a band that invested in decent artwork was likely to have taken equal care with their music.

There are a handful of artists and design teams who have a strong association with progressive rock though prog wasn’t necessarily the only genre they worked in. The most obvious examples include Roger Dean and Yes; Hipgnosis and Pink Floyd; William Neal and ELP; Mark Wilkinson and Marillion; Philip Travers and the Moody Blues. The relationship was most rewarding, in a symbiotic kind of way, where bands stuck with a particular designer over the course of a number of releases. This conforms to what Wagner described as ‘gesamtkuntswerk’ where music, lyrics and visual motifs create a coherent artistic vision, fitting the idea of the concept album and consistent constructed mythologies.

When I started to listen to music I took the presence of printed lyrics for granted and consequently I found it irritating when I didn’t have a lyric sheet, having been reduced to replaying sections of albums to work out what Greg Lake was singing on Tarkus (1971), for instance. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the original rock concept album, was the first rock LP to have the song words reproduced on the sleeve and the cover specifically related to the idea that the album had been released by the fictitious Sgt Pepper. Prior to Sgt Pepper most album covers featured a photograph of the band but Peter Blake and Jann Howarth pioneered a new form of album presentation, opening the doors for cover art to reflect the musical and lyrical content within.

Roger Dean’s work with Yes created a narrative that took on a life of its own, incorporating stage design for live performances (with Dean’s brother Martyn) and inspiring Jon Anderson to write and release Olias of Sunhillow (1976). I used to buy postcards of the Yessongs panels from the union shop at Goldsmiths’ College when I was a student, to use as notes to friends detailing in minutiae what I’d been doing over the preceding week or two, lectures attended, field trips, books read and albums bought. I was rather surprised when, following the group hiatus from 1975 to 1977, Yes reconvened with an album that didn’t have a Roger Dean cover. The Hipgnosis effort was similar to material that they’d provided for other musicians but I didn’t really think it was very fitting with Yes music. Perhaps this was to coincide with the Yes reaction to punk; the title track of Going for the One (1977) is more direct than any of their preceding output but the rest of the material on the album ranks as being pretty cosmic, especially the epic Awaken. Hipgnosis shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near Tormato (1978) – one of the worst album covers, ever. It did neither Yes or Hipgnosis any favours, when it could have been so good! I approved of the Drama (1980) sleeve and was indifferent to 90125 (1983) and Big Generator (1987) – they weren’t Yes music.

Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant is one of my favourite Dean covers and it’s interesting to see how Patrick Woodroffe incorporated another of my favourites, Dean’s Greenslade multi-limbed wizard figure for Time and Tide (1975) after Spyglass Guest (1973) which only featured the Dean designed Greenslade typography (the typography itself on Time and Tide is a subtle alteration); though the cover of the first Dave Greenslade solo album Cactus Choir (1976) is also illustrated by Dean, his working relationship with Woodroffe was continued on The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony (1979), an album I’ve picked up a number of times at record fairs, some in very good condition, but never bought because of the reported poor quality of the music and I’m not too sure whether I like the work of Woodroffe, either.

I do like the work of Ashok (Chris Poisson) for the Mahavishnu Orchestra that runs from Birds of Fire (1973) to Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975) incorporating graphics, photography or both. This provides the illusion of continuity, even though the group disbanded in 1973 and reconvened with a different line-up for Apocalypse (1974) and I find the images reflect the spiritual nature of the music.

Sitting with the gatefold sleeve of Rubycon (1975) and listening to the album through a pair of headphones was a favourite pastime during the mid 70s but I like all of Monique Froese’s covers for Tangerine Dream with the silhouette image on Ricochet (1975) influencing my own technique with a camera. The graphics for covers of albums by jazz rock outfit Isotope were certainly part of the hook that got me interested in the band. I’d seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test shortly after they’d formed but my first purchase was their second release, Illusion (1974) with the mercury-like liquid splashing between the two earpieces of a pair of headphones. This form of surreal photography was repeated on Deep End (1975) and the continuity of band image was maintained by the use of the same ‘Isotope’ logo on all of their albums, created by award winning graphic designer John Pasche who, apart from providing covers for releases on the Gull label, created the ‘tongue’ logo for the Rolling Stones. Pasche provided artwork for a number of bands in the mid 70s but I believe that his photographic work for Isotope is his best.

The hypothesis that a good cover is somehow an indicator of the quality of the music within the packaging is totally misplaced. One look at Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste (1971) might be enough to put off the casual browser and there are many examples of awful music wrapped in beautiful images, so the hypothesis needs modification. I visited Impacto Records in Barcelona and bought a second hand copy of Pendragon’s The Masquerade Overture (1996). My wife picked out the CD for me, suggesting that it had a ‘prog’ cover. The artwork, by Simon Williams, has hints of Mark Wilkinson about it but there’s a lot going on from art to architecture to mysticism to Eastern exoticism. If the images reflect the components that make up the music, a cover like this could only be for a work of epic proportions, i.e. prog.

Part of growing up with prog was poring over the album sleeve, whether it was a hand-drawn creation by Nick Mason on Relics (1971) or Fruupp’s Peter Farrelly (Future Legends, 1973 and Seven Secrets, 1974) or the complexity of PJ Crooks’ work for King Crimson, looking for clues linking the images and the music; thinking about the music and actively engaging, not simply playing music to create some background noise. That is what a good record sleeve is for.


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