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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, Sep 13 2015 10:15PM

I was offered, and accepted, a new job this week. There’s a redundant section at the bottom of CVs that appears on resume templates: Activities or Interests. In an effort to ensure that all candidates are treated equally, this paragraph is rightly ignored during the interview process but mine is still there and three of the items I list are ‘progressive rock’, ‘bass guitar’ and ‘architecture’.

This last listing is relatively recent and was put there because my son Daryl did an Architecture degree and I took an interest in his studies. In a curious twist, he blames his parents for setting him down that path; we must have dragged him around every National Trust and English Heritage property in the South East and many more elsewhere. Now, family holidays invariably include seeking out some example of architectural vernacular, some special building or a World Heritage site.

Architecture is one of the most visible displays of wealth. Corporations inhabit huge edifices, the super-rich live in characterless high-rise Thames view apartments and old money resides in country retreats. This is rather ironic because, according to the Architects’ Journal (AJ), architects tend to vote Labour. I think the publication itself reads like The New Statesman; last week’s edition was singing the praises of Jeremy Corbyn!

I’m particularly fond of modernist architecture which, fairly early in the twentieth century, set out in a radical new direction when Auguste Perret (1874 – 1954) began to build structures out of reinforced concrete without any ornamentation. His idea was for the exterior to reflect the inner structure, rather than hiding it, a concept of design integrity that was initially inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Based on the analysis in Music of Yes and Listening to the Future by Professor Bill Martin, I wrote a letter to Prog magazine which was published in issue 24 (March 2012) pointing out the link between progressive rock and socialism, via William Morris.

Brutalism, one of my favoured schools of architecture, has been described as an uncompromisingly modern form of architecture able to generate extreme emotions and heated debate. Characterised by large forms of often asymmetrical proportions, the use of unadorned concrete added to its misplaced reputation for suggesting a bleak, dystopian future. I think this is far from the truth and there are others who agree with me. An item on BBC Breakfast (September 8th) with architect Harriet Harriss and Joe Watson from the National Trust explored this myth; Harriss pointing out the touchy-feely nature of the buildings because of the imprint left on the concrete surfaces by the timber formers and Watson expounding the opinion that this was utopian architecture and that the NT, as an extension of their role, was going to open up these buildings for special tours. Put in context, this was a heroic architecture, with local authorities addressing the requirement for decent housing in the years following the Second World War. The planners and architects were visionaries though it would be foolish to suggest that there weren’t failures. Harriss pointed out that this was cutting-edge and that it did involve some experimentation, because of the acute need for housing; issues regarding damp are now able to be addressed and examples of the idiom preserved. The most interesting point was made by Watson, who commented that architecture indicates where political power lies in our society and illustrated this notion by naming the Church and the aristocracy, which agrees with my earlier point about architecture as a display of wealth. He believes that during the 50s and 60s there was a shift in power to the people through local councils and they responded with this heroic, sublime architecture; the accommodation provided indoor bathroom suites, defined kitchen areas, fully wired and ready for appliances, and central heating, things that tenants couldn’t previously have imagined. Harriss made the point that the National Theatre (by Denys Lasdun, 1914 – 2001) was successful because it fulfilled one of the main aims of this school of architecture, namely ending the exclusivity of the arts and making it far more accessible, opening it up to a new, wide-ranging audience. The external appearance, with its many decks that can be interpreted as a series of performance platforms, reflects the function of the building. The music that accompanied the archive footage was chosen for its dystopian feel: the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis (1982.)

The connection of this form of architecture to prog is precisely the same as Harriss pointing out why the National Theatre is a success; ending the hegemony of the rich over the arts. The seeds of progressive rock emerged during the ‘Massive’ period of Brutalism (defined by Alexander Clement as running from 1960 – 1975) when society was changing rapidly spurred on by technological innovation; the technology behind construction was changing and, in music, instrument design and recording techniques were rapidly developing. Not only did concert halls such as the Royal Festival Hall, part of the same South Bank Complex as the National Theatre and the Barbican Centre (officially opened in 1982 during the Brutalist ‘Transitional’ period) provide culture to a wider range of the population, institutions like the University of East Anglia, a famous Brutalist structure opened in 1963, were attracting a wider social range of students and it was the new Universities and Polytechnics that provided a circuit for touring nascent rock acts which contributed to the success of the genre. My first forays to see bands outside Barrow were at Lancaster University (Barclay James Harvest, 1975; Focus, 1976.)

Prog attempted to take high culture and make it accessible to the masses through the medium of rock music. European art music was critical to the success of proto-progressive acts such as The Nice, the Moody Blues and Procol Harum and these gave rise to symphonic prog bands. This form was initially praised by critics and the budding genre became accepted by some of the more forward thinking institutions; Pink Floyd played the Royal Festival Hall in April 1969 during their experimental The Man and the Journey tour. This relationship with the critics changed when some of the exponents of prog undertook massive projects that were beyond the comprehension of many and led to charges of pretentiousness and overblown self indulgence. This period of prog, the end of the ‘golden era’ coincides with a rejection of Brutalism by planners and the transition to less monumental forms, an increased use of brick and the uninspiring Neo-vernacular. As prog played out councils were reducing investment in their concrete estates, former beacons of hope for a fairer society, and the misplaced idea of the dystopian landscape took hold. It’s good that there has been a re-evaluation of progressive rock and a re-evaluation of this egalitarian architecture.


Post Script:

My local concert hall, Croydon’s Fairfield Halls (opened 1962 and based on the Royal Festival Hall) features some great acoustics and was another favoured haunt of successful prog acts during the early 70s as commuter towns developed and grew.



By ProgBlog, Sep 7 2014 06:40PM

I read an article in The Guardian at the beginning of last month about the ‘death of the album’ http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jul/29/album-music-format-streaming-playlists-extinction due to the rise of digitised music and the rise of the playlist. The article was titled “Album spins closer towards its final track as a viable format” with the subtitle “Sales continue to fall and streamed playlists dominate. But like vinyl, talk of LP's extinction may be premature.” Musicians and industry insiders cited by the author, Hannah Ellis-Petersen, seemed to regard an ‘album’ as a collection of songs released at one particular time. There are classic progressive rock albums that contain collections of unrelated songs (Rain Dances by Camel, Going for the One by Yes, for example) though the 1981 incarnation of King Crimson released their first album of songs that were thematically disparate but stylistically linked by new technologies and interwoven guitar technique; prog was, and to a great extent, still is the genre of the concept album. Ellis-Petersen is also making a distinction between vinyl and LPs, two things I class as synonymous (though I prefer to call an LP an album.) I was never into singles and I was certainly not into bands that produced an album that contained tracks that were released as a series of singles, with the possible exception of Kate Bush – I’ve been listening to Hounds of Love as I write this article. I’m interested in concepts and serious art, not something that’s throwaway; something that provokes thought or reflection, not something that is desirable because it is in vogue. By this admission, I may be opening myself up to the charge of elitism, a criticism that was thrown at prog in the mid 70s, eschewing the simplicity of pop for something that the musicians created with care and imbued with value. Before you think I’ve gone all reactionary, the idea of craftsmanship was embraced by William Morris and the early socialists and the compression of music into digital information, firstly onto CD and then as purely digital files, is the product (and I use that word aware of all its meanings) of an industry that doesn’t care about music as an art form but as something that can be packaged and sold, a commodity to make money. This cynical approach promotes the mass marketing of artists who want to be famous, rather than those who have any creative ability. That’s not to say there are no current artists without credibility, it’s just that fashion wins out in the short-term. The old 7” single has been transformed into the download and the download is as ephemeral as prevailing trends. Streaming services do give the buyer the choice of what to download, so if I didn’t want all of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe because I don’t like Teakbois (I really don’t like Teakbois!) I wouldn’t have to download that particular track. This impression of consumer choice is still managed by large corporations; it’s handy for them to get their artists to produce a series of one-off songs because there’s no musician-controlled creative pause as they gather enough new material to fill an album, during which time prevailing trends may have changed and therefore profitability might suffer. Think of the gap between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, which for a 15 year old seemed interminable! Another charge thrown at prog was the length of time some of the bands spent in the recording studio but why should that be a valid criticism? I accept that from Bill Bruford’s point of view, decision by (group) committee during the production of Close to the Edge was very frustrating but, from a listener’s perspective, the results were worth the aggravation of the recording process. I think the decision of iTunes to diversify into the headphones market was fairly astute because of increasing competition within the streaming business, though if you take any journey using public transport you still hear streamed music played through the pathetic speakers of mobile phones and the high frequency-rich beats escaping from the ears of individuals who have the volume of their portable device turned up way too high. It’s laughable to think that any of these people should dare to consider themselves music lovers. Maybe I should get a life and accept this is the current established way to experience music but I still find it galling that a large proportion of the population don’t understand the term ‘personal’ as in ‘personal stereo’.

My recent experience in record shops in Tuscany, where they also sell component hi-fi equipment, shows that the vinyl album is doing very well, thank you. The Genova-based record label BTF has a Vinyl Magic division and Burning Shed, the online label and store established in 2001 by artists Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers and Pete Morgan for singer-songwriter, progressive, ambient and art rock music artists, does sterling work releasing heavyweight and 200g super heavyweight vinyl editions of albums. In Lucca’s Sky Stone and Songs there was a very impressive range of vinyl releases from metal bands, something that would have put Barrow’s Kelly’s to shame, even in the mid-70s. The march trip to Prog Résiste also revealed a thriving LP market, where for a few Euros more I could have bought the vinyl version of Elysian Pleasures by Carpet instead of the CD.

It’s not that I don’t buy vinyl. Last month I picked up a copy of The Kick Inside, in very good condition for £2, from a stall in Lewes flea market. I should get my Rega RP2 serviced – it’s a couple of years shy of 30 years old but it’s been well looked after, so that when I last did get it serviced by Billy Vee of Lewisham, they thought it was only a couple of years old. Perhaps age is the key. Middle aged and relatively comfortable with decidedly settled musical tastes, I can afford to side with the audiophiles and their turntables. I can also appreciate that some of the finest musical moments of the last 45 years have come as an album, a well-presented conceptual whole, requiring attention and making you think. The pop download is the antithesis of prog, classic or modern, and though there is a whole swathe of the world that either thinks the album format is dead or didn’t even know it existed in the first place, the album, the LP, is not going away because it’s not simply about how a song tells you of passing feelings, it’s an immersive experience.


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