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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, Sep 25 2014 07:12PM

I’ve just had a birthday and was fortunate to receive a remarkable number of prog-related presents in the form of CDs, DVD and Books.

Andy Latimer announced at Camel’s Barbican show last year that it was being filmed for release and I’m now the proud owner of that DVD, In from the Cold. The ‘big’ present was The Road to Red, which is a really well-packaged box set – I haven’t had time to listen to any of it yet. Also new to my collection were Product by Brand X, an album I’d only possessed as a home-recorded tape before, which as some really good material but also has two weak, very Phil Collins solo album-like tracks that detract from some amazing playing; a 40th anniversary Darwin! by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso that contains a CD of the album performed live in 2012; the Oliver Wakeman solo album The Three Ages of Magick featuring Steve Howe which shows the virtuoso keyboard playing has been inherited from his father to such a degree that the synth solos are indistinguishable from those performed by Wakeman senior. This has a sonic connection to his father’s New Age output and another genetic trait seems to be an inability to fully realise some of the very good musical ideas, such that some tracks come across as a little aimless. This is a criticism that has been levelled at dad Rick, too, but I think it’s partly to do with band dynamics, the what you bring to a song to make the whole better than the individual parts; Three Ages is a solo effort, not music by committee. I also got Alt, Van der Graaf Generator’s experimental offering from 2012, a vocal-less set of edits and out takes that sort of calls to mind the somewhat maligned disc 2 of Present, but I can quite imagine this being classed as jazz. I also got some classic progressivo Italiano, Searching for a Land by the New Trolls, nicely repackaged by BTF, and a more recent offering from La Torre dell’ Alchimista, their second album Neo (2007) that is true to the spirit of RPI and 70s prog in general, with lengthy multi-part songs and plenty of classic analogue instrumentation. I also got the eponymous Let Spin CD, a showcase for the both the writing and playing of the four members. This is quality modern jazz played at a high tempo with a hefty dose of improvisation. This comes in a three panel cardboard gatefold sleeve with artwork by bassist Ruth Goller. If I have a choice, I like to buy CDs with mini album sleeves rather than the universal jewel case. I also like CD books, whether they conform to similar dimensions to a jewel case (Focus X; Journey to the Centre of the Earth) or if they are more book-like (my two new BMS acquisitions; Mainstream by Quiet Sun). Whatever the format, they don’t fit in my CD storage! In the week following my birthday I received the latest CD from Bill Burford’s band, the east Cumbrian-based Water’s Edge, entitled Silent Applause. This isn’t prog but Bill, the drummer in the first band I was in, has carved a niche as an intelligent adult rock musician and Water’s Edge feature a fair proportion of poignant social commentary.

I also got some prog-related books including a signed copy of Michael Rutherford’s The Living Years. I’ve always felt that Rutherford, despite his post-Hackett Genesis lead guitar playing when Genesis had become a soft-rock band, was very much a background figure. I’ve deliberately set out to listen out for his bass parts and concluded that there’s nothing flashy about his playing; it does what it has to do and it fits in well with what the other band members are doing, whether it’s short runs or his staccato style. He’s solid but not inspiring. His writing style is rather similar and the book comes across as a kind of print version of a family tree TV programme such as BBC TV’s Who Do You Think You Are?. He did once get a speeding ticket in Texas... Actually, his 12-string work with both Genesis and with original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips forms a very fitting part of the structure, in the context of the early, pastoral songs.

I didn’t own any books specifically about ELP until I received Emerson, Lake & Palmer: The Show That Never Ends by George Forrester, Martyn Hanson and Frank Askew for my birthday. I read Keith Emerson’s Pictures of an Exhibitionist and then I gave it away; I’ve got Martyn Hanson’s Hang on to a Dream: The Story of the Nice, so I’m not expecting any great revelations but I am looking forward to getting into that... I think that I’ve got a copy of the forthcoming biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time by Marcus O’Dair, when it comes out at the end of October. I’m fascinated by Wyatt’s music and politics and, though he now appears to have attained the status of ‘national treasure’, I think that his opinions on the industry, life and music in general are totally relevant and valid.

One more new book that has just been added to my collection is Jerry Lucky’s 20th Century Rock and Roll: Progressive Rock. Apparently, and I’m sure my wife won’t mind me revealing this, the book has been spotted for £275 on Amazon but she got it, off the shelf, for £10. The seller suggested that the cover might be marked with some indentations but it really is in very good condition. I’ve used two of Lucky’s guides to progressive rock and, for the most part, they’ve been reliable indications of the quality of the music; they’ve certainly been helpful when I’ve gone off to Spain, France, Australia and even Italy to help me seek out indigenous prog.

This offering is an alphabetical list of the top 50 most influential prog bands. It expands on his history of each band in the Files and Handbook and provides his reasons why the bands are influential. Everyone is going to have their own personal preference so I’m not too worried that his choice doesn’t exactly coincide with mine – that’s one of the great things about fans of progressive rock. But I’m not sure that the text can have been proof-read because the grammar is very poor and, more worryingly, is the absence of checking of facts. Who let him publish a history of the Floyd with repeated reference to Dave Gilmore?

Pink Floyd obviously have a place in the top 50 most influential prog bands because their early material and studio mastery inspired many other bands. Gilmour’s guitar is very distinctive and they’ve made history with album chart longevity, so why the schoolboy error? That’s a hard question to answer, especially as Lucky began hosting a prog radio show, Exposure, over 35 years ago and is a renowned collector of progressive and psychedelic music. There’s a passing reference to Marc Bolen and his history of PFM, Van der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant are spoiled by what I’d regard as terrible mistakes. Apparently, John Weathers took up drumming duties for Gentle Giant in 1976 for the Interview album... What does that say about the mini-biographies of the bands I don’t know very well?

I frequently flick through his Progressive Rock Handbook (which is more up-to-date than his Files) and I’ve noticed that he sometimes refers to other people’s impression of bands. There’s no shame in that as it would be almost impossible to have examples of music from all the bands he lists; it’s just good research and I’m thankful for him suggesting that RPI band Celeste would appeal to people who like Finisterre. This has opened up a whole world of Fabio Zuffanti projects for me to seek out and enjoy.


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